The Spanish-American War didn't end in time. By the July 17th capitulation of the Spanish at Santiago, General Shafter's force was already well on its way to defeat from within. In the last two weeks of July the hospital at Siboney continued to fill. It signaled the brewing of a new war, a war of words between the commanders in the field and the commanders on the home front.
It is reasonable to assume that military planners were well aware of the potential for a military disaster at the hands of the tropical climate and mosquitoes well in advance of the Cuba operation. Indeed history reflected that more than one military force had suffered disastrous results in previous incursions in the Caribbean. This concern was addressed by the timing of the invasion, planning it for the months of July and August, when yellow fever was least prevalent. It wasn't enough.
Shafter's force had begun landing in Cuba on June 22nd, already suffering from too many days cramped in the hold of transport ships, and ill-dressed and ill-supplied for tropical warfare. Ten days later when these same soldiers attacked the heights over Santiago, many were already suffering from the early stages of disease, and in the days of trench warfare that followed, the malady spread rapidly. Shafter could see the toll disease was taking on his Army, which is why he requested permission to attack the city immediately. President McKinley and Secretary of War Alger denied his request, citing the heavy casualties to American soldiers such a battle would create. Shafter realized that if he maintained his soldiers in their trench positions around the city for any length of time, the casualty rate would rise as quickly from disease as it would from battle, requesting permission on July 3rd to move his soldiers five miles further inland where he felt the threat of disease would not be as strong. Again the general's request was denied.
By the end of July the situation in Cuba was critical. American soldiers were jaundiced and running high fevers (the term Yellow Fever stems from the combination of jaundice and fever). In its advanced stages, victims often vomited dark blood, giving the deadly malady another nickname..."the black vomit". Secretary Alger ordered General Shafter to separate his forces into two camps: the sick camps, and the well camps. The largest of the sick camps was the makeshift tent hospital at Siboney. Those who were well, did their best to keep a distance from those who were sick.
Colonel Charles Greenleaf was the surgeon in charge of the hospital at Siboney. He had very little to work with. Even his tents were borrowed...from the state of Michigan. Shafter's V Corps had been sent to war poorly supplied for combat, the medical corps was even more poorly supplied to treat the casualties of that combat. Greenleaf requested help from the combat forces returning from Santiago. General Shafter was hesitant to order any unit to Siboney, realizing he would be ordering men to expose themselves to great potential for infection. Instead, he offered a call for volunteers. Eight different regimental commanders ignored the call for volunteers. On July 16th the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Regular Infantry arrived at Siboney. Again the call for volunteers went forth, and this time, to a man, the soldiers of the 24th Infantry stepped forward to render their services. Said the surgeon of that valiant act:
"There is more real heroism in marching into a fever-stricken tent and staying there day and night...than there is in making a single charge up any hill. Yet, I made the demand, asking the colonel of the regiment to appeal to his men so that, say, a dozen of them would come as volunteers to work in the hospital. 'Tell them that when they go in they will have to stay in, and that I want no man who is not willing to face danger.'
He made the call not twelve men, not a hundred men, but every single man in the regiment. There was not one Negro who stayed behind. (It was) as fine a bit of heroism as was developed in the whole war." (Leslie's Weekly, 3 November 1898)
The great compassion and courage of the men of the 24th Infantry did not come without great price. For six weeks they performed the job no other soldiers would volunteer to do. Only 24 among their ranks escaped sickness during their tenure at the hospital, and 31 men of the regiment died.
The Army Nurse Corps
The United States Military had always accepted any idea of including women among its ranks with great reluctance. Despite the fact that women had bravely served their nation since the American Revolution, such served was only accepted as a CIVILIAN service. Indeed for many years, American law prohibited women from military service. During the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker served through numerous battles as a contract surgeon, a civilian hired to treat the wounded from the fields of battle. Throughout her years of service, which included time as a prisoner of war, Dr. Walker served with courage and distinction. Following the end of the Civil War, Dr. Walker petitioned Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for a commission as an Army major. Stanton denied her request, but did recommend that President Johnson award her the Medal of Honor. She became the first, and only woman in history, to receive that award.
In the early days of the Spanish-American War, Congress authorized the Army to hire civilian nurses and contract surgeons to care for the anticipated casualties of that war. These were soldiers in their own right, though they were denied that title by the Army. They remained civilians, hired for their skills of medical mercy, and paid thirty dollars a month for their service. In Cuba, when eight regiments refused to serve as guards for the hospital at Siboney that housed so many sick and dying veterans, these nurses did their best to ignore the dangers and perform their duties. Among the nurses in Cuba was Annie Wheeler (pictured above), daughter of General Fighting Joe Wheeler, who became known as The Angel of Santiago.
Over the following two years more than 1,500 women served from Cuba to Puerto Rico, in the Philippine Islands, and on a Naval Hospital ship. Fifteen nurses died of Typhoid Fever contracted from their patients during the Spanish-American War.
(Photo at Left - Nurses with troops at a field Hospital in Havana)
Two years after the end of the Spanish-American War, the valor of these civilian volunteers to the U.S. Army provided a turning point in American military history. General George M. Sternberg was Surgeon General of the United States during the period of the Spanish-American War. Initially dubious of even the contract use of civilian women volunteers, in his 1899 Annual Report he wrote:
"American women may well feel proud of the record made by these nurses in 1898-99, for every medical officer with whom they served has testified to their intelligence, and skill, their earnestness, devotion and self-sacrifice."
The following year Sternberg requested a bill to establish the ARMY NURSE CORPS. That bill was enacted as part of the Army Reorganization Act of 1901, and a contract nurse from the war with Spain, Miss Dita H. McKinney was appointed as the first Army Nurses Corps Superintendent. For the first time in American history, women finally had an official role in the United States military.
"A man who is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward."
President Theodore Roosevelt, June 4, 1903
Even as General Miles was departing for his Puerto Rico campaign, the soldiers from the Santiago campaign were looking forward to the return home. Young American men who had eagerly swamped recruiting stations only months earlier to volunteer their services to their country, now looked forward to returning home with equal and greater emotion. In those brief months these young men had traveled to foreign shores, witnessed unspeakable death and horror, suffered ravaging wounds and diseases, and matured far beyond their years.
In our Nation's Capitol, Secretary of War Alger issued orders for the manner of their return. General Shafter and his men would come home throughout the month of August, with one qualification. ONLY those veterans in the well camps would be allowed to touch the shores of their homeland. The Secretary would not risk importing Yellow Fever and Malaria by allowing the sick soldiers to return. It was a final indignity to men who had suffered much, and given all.
In Cuba the brigade and division commanders called a meeting to address this new issue. All of the field officers were angered at the Secretary's decision, and feared that unless they got their sick soldiers home quickly, they would be condemning all of them to death. Even so, most of these high-level officers were career men with little desire to defy their civilian boss and jeopardize that career.
Attending that meeting was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, now a brigade commander himself. Roosevelt was also a victim of Malaria, a disease he carried in his body for the rest of his life. With no career to protect, but feeling the responsibility for the care of the men he loved, Roosevelt volunteered to report back to Secretary Alger. Following the meeting the intrepid Colonel prepared a telegram urging the Secretary to reconsider his position, urging "If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die." In his unflinching tendency to speak bluntly and to the point, his report was emphatic.
To increase public pressure on the Secretary in this regard, General Shafter intentionally leaked the contents of Colonel Roosevelt's communications to the Associated Press. The President and Secretary of War first read the words of Colonel Roosevelt in the newspaper. Needless to say, both the President and Secretary Alger were none too happy with the upstart hero of San Juan Hill.
On July 28th General Shafter was ordered to begin the immediate return of his troops "to prevent an outbreak of yellow fever". On August 7th, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders boarded the transport USS Miami for the return home. Over the ensuing weeks, the remaining veterans of the war in Cuba and Puerto Rico followed them--both the sick and the well.
On August 13, 1898 all hostilities ended with the signing of the peace protocol establishing an armistice until the terms of peace could be negotiated and signed by both the United States and Spain. The Splendid Little War had reached its conclusion.
For all too many young American men,
It's ending was NOT so SPLENDID!
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