The First Massachusetts was one of the few volunteer heavy artillery regiments in the United States at the time of the Spanish American War. The unit served the war defending the coast in the Massachusetts area.
As the tensions rose after the sinking of the battleship MAINE in Havana harbor, the many state militias and national guards readied themselves for action. Among those units was the First Regiment of Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.
The United States had abut 4,000 miles of coastline to defend. To do this, the country possessed 93 heavy artillery batteries (heavy artillery being artillery that was too large to be mobile for use in the field. It was generally placed in the coastal fortifications defended principle harbors). Of the 93 batteries, 70 were regular army batteries, and the remaining twenty-three batteries were volunteer units. Twelve of the volunteer batteries, the majority of these units, made up the First Massachusetts Heavy artillery. The unit had existed since 1844 and had seen service in the American Civil War. The men were the only heavy artillery militia unit the U.S. that had been training in heavy artillery drill since 1888.
On April 24, 1898, before the U.S. declared war, the First Massachusetts was ordered to hold itself in readiness for immediate service in the defenses of Boston harbor. With the issuing of the Declaration of War, the unit was ordered into service on the afternoon of April 25. Incredibly, by the morning of April 26, 95 per cent of the men had gathered and were ready for action. The following day, the unit marched in a drizzling rain to the docks to be shipped out to Fort Warren.
The men were equipped with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, mess kits, great coats and leggings. A supply of rubber blankets had been made available. They carried the latest model Springfield "trapdoor rifles which they were issued the previous winter. They marched in the "long swinging step for which the command always had been noted." The unit was under the command of Col. Charles Pfaff, and Lt. Col. Charles B. Woodman.
The unit commanders expected to find temporary shelters erected on the fort's parade ground. The shelters were to be fifty temporary buildings of the type erected in Boston as polling places. On their arrival, they found but three in place. The remainder were still in ships waiting to be unloaded and erected. The men were put into action, unloading and constructing the buildings. Still, by evening, the village was not complete, and many of the men had to make due in the fort's other facilities, as it was still raining. It took four days to complete the building project. Each building was provided with a coal stove and oil lamps and quartered fifteen men. Food for the men was handled in an interestingly modern way...it was outsourced. Mess duties were simply contracted out!
The health of the men was of great importance, and measures in that regard seem to have been successful. Only one man died in the six months that the unit was to serve, and he died of scarlet fever while home on furlough.
The first indication of things to come occurred early. The state was notified that only three of the unit's batteries would be accepted into the Federal service. Governor Wolcott got the powers in Washington to reverse its decision and accept the entire regiment at one time. The order had seemed very odd, since there was a lack of heavy artillery for coastal defense nationwide, and at some locations, untrained infantry was being pressed into service on the huge guns. Though the entire unit would be accepted, it was not allowed to recruit itself to its wartime complement. The unit fielded 757 men. The unit re-enlisted into the Federal service, and was the first Massachusetts regiment unit to complete this task, on May 9. The unit boasted having twenty-five per cent of its officers being college men, 34 of which had attended Harvard.
Drilling began in earnest on April 27th, with four hours per day being spent on the large guns. A regimental signal corps was formed with twelve non-commissioned officers and 36 enlisted men. Batteries C and M were given Fort Warren's Bastion B and Ravelin Batteries which had 10 inch disappearing guns. Batteries A, C, I and L served as their relief. The 8" converted rifles on the eastern face (overlooking the main channel) were given to batteries B, F, K and M. The 15" Rodmen guns of Bastion A were given to Batteries G, H, and E. Battery D was called the "machine gun battery," and was given the Hotchkiss and Gatling guns.
The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery with their 15" Rodman guns.
Though it is not commonly understood now, during the Spanish American War, the men of the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery were on the front lines. Fear had gripped the eastern coast of the United States since it was known that Spanish Admiral Cervera had a fleet that had set out for action against the U.S. It was not known where he would strike. Major cities up and down the coast tried to prepare for action. Rumors and reports continually came in locating the Spanish squadron just off the coast. For instance, at Eastport, reports came in that "three long, low rakish craft" were sighted, "sailing in column formation, and signalling by masthead lights..." Was it the Spanish...or a line of coal barges? On May 13, the engineer's harbor-mining vessel, came into the harbor annoucnin that the Spanish fleet had been sighted off Nantucket. The battery prepared for action against a foe that never materialized.
Boston was luckier than most cities in that it did have trained men, even if their weapons were outdated. The fear continued for four weeks until Cervera's squadron was blockaded in Santiago Harbor. During the interval, the men of the battery studied Brassey's Navy Annual to determine the best places to hit the Spanish vessels to maximize damage.
The entire regiment was not destined to stay at Fort Warren. On May 10, orders were received to redeploy the batteries of the regiment. Batteries E, F, G and I would remain at Fort Warren. Batteries G and L were sent to Fort Adams at New Bedford. Batteries C and D were sent to Salem. Battery K went to Gloucester. Battery B to Newburyport, Battery H to Marblehead, and Battery A to Nahant.
Most of the fortifications into which the troops were sent to were in poor condition, many abandoned since the Civil War. None had modern heavy artillery, though the units were given Digges-Schroeder rapid-fire guns, a small, rapid-fire artillery weapon. The batteries of the regiment realized that they could not defend against a major attack of a Spanish squadron, but they could defend against raids by individual vessels, and stave off landing parties. To this end, the men were drilled in infantry maneuvers, infantry service being an expected duty of heavy artillerists in times of need.
Field, Staff and Line Officers of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery
Batteries G and L had were the brunt of jokes by the other batteries for some time. At their post at Fort Adams, they found some of the guns had priming wires rusted in the vents. Though they removed these and made the guns servicable, a reporter write that the Spanish had "spiked the guns," implying that the battery was not on the watch for the enemy, and that the enemy had penetrated their lines! The story was pure fabrication, but the other batteries appreciated the story and humorous.
The war ended without the regiment's guns being fired in anger. Now came the celebrations. On September 2, the battleship MASSACHUSETTS, along with the MACHIAS, DETROIT, CASTINE, WILMINGTON, HELENA, MARIETTA, TOPEKA and BANCROFT visited Boston. The batteries that had remained at Fort Warren paraded as an escort to Capt. Higgenson of the MASSACHUSETTS. On September 15, the GLOUCESTER visited the town of its namesake. Battery K paraded with its commander, Wainwright (veteran of the naval battle of Santiago, and former executive officer of the ill-fated MAINE).
Though there were attempts to move the Battery to Camp Cubre Libre in Florida, the time for action had passed. Some concern remained that the U.S. would go to war with Germany, but that soon passed also. On September 19, the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery concentrated at Framingham. On October 5, the unit was reviewed by Governor Wolcott, and given 30 days furlough. The unit was mustered out on November 14, 1898. At the time of muster out, the unit consisted of forty-eight officers and 709 enlisted men. During its period of service, the unit had one man die from disease and seven men discharged on disability. Notably, unlike most of the military units in the war, the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery did not have any men desert.
In a final act, Col. Pfaff had to draw on personal sources to obtain to $10,000 to give each man some cash on which to live. Many had lost their jobs while serving with the unit and had families to support. Their final pay was entangled in bureacratic red tape and was not paid until November 18.
Frye, Col. James A., The First Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. (Boston: The Colonial Company, 1899).