A Brief History of the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry

By Joe Petritsch
1st Illinois, Co. D, 1898

A partial photo of the 1st Illinois, Company D. This photo belonged to Joseph Petritsch (second row from top, at far right , with moustache).  Petritsch  was born in Kärnten, Austria in 1870, and immigrated to America in 1890.  He was living in Chicago, single, and 28 years old at the time he volunteered for the Spanish American War in April 1898.  Like most of the enlisted men who served in Cuba, he was not wounded by enemy fire, but became ill with tropical diseases.  He  did not recover before returning to Chicago, where he was hospitalized for several weeks in October and November 1898.  These illnesses resulted in the disease of his liver and spleen, and he suffered from the after-affects of these diseases for the rest of his life.  However, they did not prevent him from leading a productive life.  He married in 1904, fathered 10 children, and was a factory foreman for many years.  He was very proud of his service in the war, and named his first-born son Joseph Theodore Petritsch in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.  He died in 1943.

The man in the center of the first row is assumed to be Captain Edward J. Dimmick. He is flanked presumably by 1st Lieutenant William J. Birge, and 2nd Lieutenant Joseph C. Pollock. Two men to the left of the captain is apparently 1st Sergeant Cary T. Ray
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During its tour of duty relating to the Spanish American War, the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry was stationed at Camp Tanner, Camp Thomas, Port Tampa, and traveled to Cuba where it participated in the siege of Santiago.  After hostilities ended, the unit was shipped to Montauk Point on Long Island, New York to be quarantined at Camp Wikoff before returning to Chicago

The History:

As tensions rose following the sinking of the Battleship MAINE, the governor of Illinois could see the coming tide of war.  On April 4th, the governor of Illinois said that in his opinion, “the entire Illinois National Guard may be on its way to the Atlantic coast or to Cuba within a week.  All commands have been ordered to recruit to their maximum strength, but to accept no recruits who cannot pass a strict physical examination." This was well in advance of the U.S.’ official declaration of war, which followed several weeks later. On April 26, 1898, the governor activated eight Illinois National Guard regiments to serve in the Spanish American War for “two years or during the war.”

The Illinois National Guard units were quickly mobilized and traveled to Springfield, Illinois.  Because the National Guard Headquarters at Camp Lincoln was too small for wartime maneuvers, the state fairgrounds, temporarily named Camp Tanner after the wartime governor, became the mobilization point.  Seven infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment reported for service. One witness described the scene as follows:

"At eleven fifteen we entered Springfield.  The State Fairgrounds being some distance from where we entered the city, we were picked up by a switch engine and run down to Camp Tanner, as the rendezvous at the Fairgrounds had been officially designated by Brigadier General Barkley, Post Commander.  A draw bar was pulled out of one of the coaches which caused a delay of nearly two hours.  We marched into the campgrounds at one thirty p.m.  Nearly all of the State troops had arrived in advance of our delayed train.  The Third and Sixth regiments were assigned quarters in the Exhibition Building; the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth were located in the various buildings scattered about the grounds.  The Seventh was under tents in the center of the race course.  Governor Tanner, Commander-in-Chief of the State troops, established headquarters in the Dome Building.  The Commissary Department was located in the Poultry Building, separated from our quarters by a long high bridge that spanned a wide, dry ravine which coursed through the grounds."

The volunteers received physical examinations and on May 13, 1898, the First Illinois Volunteer Infantry was mustered into federal service. What followed was training in the Manual of Arms and company drill. At the time of muster in, the regiment consisted of fifty officers and 979 enlisted men.

On May 20th the 1st Illinois Infantry arrived at Camp Thomas in Georgia, which was located on the former Civil War battlefield of Chickamauga, Georgia, becoming part became part of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 5th Corps.  Here the soldiers received further training and became acclimated to the warmer, tropical climate that they would encounter in Cuba. The camp was one of the major U.S. training camps, and health problems began to occur fairly quickly.  Conditions grew progressively unhealthier as the population at the camp rose to tens of thousands of men by late summer 1898.  There were also problems with the uniforms and equipment issued to the soldiers. Instead of the modern bolt-action Springfield Krag-Jorgensen rifle, Illinois troops, outfitted at state expense, were issued the outdated Springfield "Trapdoor" rifle. Similarly, while the pattern 1898 khaki uniform was issued to regular troops, Illinois soldiers continued to wear a woolen uniform, inappropriate for the tropical environment of Cuba. Many of the troops arriving at the camp in June and July were never deployed overseas, and these troops eventually were sent home after enduring the deplorable conditions at Camp Thomas.

The 1st Illinois left Camp Thomas before the terrible health conditions and the typhoid began to rise to epidemic proportions, and on June 5th the regiment arrived at Picnic Island in Tampa, Florida to wait for its deployment to Cuba. The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (“Rough Riders”), led by Colonel Leonard Wood and his second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, had arrived in Tampa five days previously. Tampa and the Tampa Bay area served as the primary staging ground and embarkation point for the American military forces invading Cuba. Troops had been pouring into Tampa throughout May, filling the first encampment at Tampa Heights, spilling over into camps at De Soto Park, Palmetto Beach, Fort Brooke, Port Tampa, Ybor City, and a park that stood to the west of the Tampa Bay Hotel.  By June, when the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry arrived, 25,000 troops were garrisoned at the various encampments in and around Tampa.

The Cuban land war began on June 10, when the Marines captured Guantánamo Bay. The Army’s invasion force left Florida a few days later. On June 22, U.S. troops landed at Daiquiri where they were joined by Calixto García and about 5,000 revolutionaries.

After the initial waive of troop mobilizations in Illinois, men continued to volunteer for the war.  As late as June 18, numerous new volunteers were mustered into service in Chicago and shipped directly to Tampa to join the 1st Illinois Regiment.  These men received little or no military training, and most of them had no clothing issued to them by the state.

On June 27th the 1st Illinois officers received orders to prepare the men to board transports for Cuba.  One account indicated that the troops were “excited” by this news and “wild with delight.”   The transport ships were loaded with supplies and ammunition on the 28th and the 29th, and at shortly after noon on the 30th the regiment began boarding the GATE CITY and CITY OF MACON.  At 4:30 pm, the transports left port accompanied by the gunboats LEYDEN, MACHIAS, and WILMINGTON.  On July 2nd, the regiment anchored at Key West with a large group of war ships, and was held there until the morning of July 5th.  At 8:30 am, the transports, accompanied by several gunboats and the cruiser COLUMBIA, steamed toward Cuba.  The 1st Illinois arrived about two miles off shore from Siboney, Cuba on July 8th.  Most of the next day was spent transporting the men to shore in heavy seas with the small boats of the warships.  The horses were pushed in the water and made to swim to shore behind the boats.

The 1st Illinois reinforced their 5th Army Corps comrades  joining the First District of Columbia Regiments under General Randolph.  While they were in transit, other U.S. troops attacked the San Juan heights on July 1, 1898.  Dismounted troopers, including the “Rough Riders” commanded by Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt went up against Kettle Hill and the side of San Juan Hill, while the forces led by Brigadier General Jacob Kent charged up San Juan Hill in a frontal assault gaining control of the heights.

After the 1st Illinois arrived in Siboney on July 9th, missing the San Juan Heights battle by a week, they received their orders the next day.  General Shafter is reported to have said, “We have a place for the 1st Illinois Regiment in the firing line in the morning.  Your regiment will march out of here tonight, go to bivouac, and proceed to the firing line at daybreak.”  Later, the regiment was ordered to begin marching to Santiago immediately.  However, before they left, two companies of men were ordered to be attached to the Division Hospital at Siboney.  Two provisional companies were formed from recent recruits for this purpose.

On the evening of July 10th the remaining men marched along the military trail toward Santiago, now a city under siege. .  Rain began to fall, and the men slipped and stumbled along the muddy trail in nearly total darkness.  Later in the night, they bivouacked, and then continued their march the next day.  Eventually they reached their destination, and took up a position on the ridge overlooking Santiago in General Lawton’s Division.  Here, they were involved in skirmishes related to the siege of Santiago between July 11 and July16. A soldier of the 1st Illinois Infantry recorded the following account of life in the trenches before Santiago:

"Toward dawn, they quietly and calmly opened fire upon the Spanish trenches opposite, just to let the Spaniards know that they were wide awake and vigilant. . . The Illinois people stoutly asserted that in the gray of the morning they had seen the Spaniards creeping out of their trenches, and sneaking up the hill toward them, with the evident intention of rushing their position . . . The Illinois regiment always grew feverish for the fray during the dark hour just before dawn, and a staff officer was generally detailed to sit with them, and keeping his fingers upon the regimental pulse, try also to have them keep the peace and respect the truce."

On July 17, the Spaniards agreed to the unconditional surrender of the 23,500 troops in the city, and surprisingly, in the surrounding countryside. After the hostilities ended, the 1st Illinois was transferred to General Bates’ Division and moved to Kettle Hill, which was formerly occupied by the “Rough Riders.”  On July 18th, Major Sanborn’s Battalion was ordered to take charge to the stores and commissary work for the 5th Army Corps, and on August 1st it was assigned the duty of operating the Spanish prisoners’ camp.

When it became obvious that the 1st Illinois would not be leaving Cuba soon, the camp was spread out in an attempt to preserve the health of the men.  However because of the poor conditions, and the limited understanding of some of the tropical diseases, disease began to take a huge toll on the troops.  One witness described the First Illinois Volunteer Infantry’s situation as follows:

"The 1st Illinois attempted to keep dry.  It was soon found to be nearly impossible, because they were drenched to the skin most of the months of July and August.  While on the march, they were forced to travel light, and clothes only dried through being worn.  As for sleeping off of the ground, the men were “grateful for any piece of ground to rest on.”

So many men contracted tropical diseases while in Cuba, one of the army surgeons assigned to the 1st Illinois stated in a later affidavit, “I can easily bear witness to one fact, that no enlisted man in our command escaped sickness while in Cuba.”

In mid-August Spain and the United States agreed to an armistice, ending the fighting. Now it was the goal of many to extract the troops suffering the ravages of disease and replace them with new regiments for the occupation.

TheFirst Illinois received orders to leave Cuba just before noon on August 24th, and they almost immediately began to march to Santiago Harbor, where the transport shipBERLIN was waiting for them.  An account of the ship indicates that, “The hold of the transportBERLIN had been fitted out with canvas hammocks in long rows, leaving only a narrow passage way between, extending from the floor to the ceiling, and into these bunks the men threw their equipment many of them climbing in after it.  Due to rough seas outside, the transport remained in the harbor until 2:00 pm, August 26th, at which hour it moved out.”

The BERLIN traveled to Camp Wikoff at Montauk Point, on New York’s Long Island, arriving on August 30th.  Due to the extremely high rate of sickness among the returning troops, the men were being quarantined before their release into the general population.  In many cases, this quarantine was spent on board the transport ships, but the quarantine officers allowed the 1st Illinois to spend its five days of quarantine on land.  The men disembarked on August 31st, and marched into Camp Wikoff at 4:30 pm.

A magazine article mentioning this voyage and Camp Wikoff at Montauk Pont described the deplorable conditions at the camp at length (click here to read this account)

On September 3rd, President McKinley visited the thousands of returning soldiers at Camp Wikoff, and one of his conversations with a very ill sergeant from Company D of the 1st Illinois, was reported in the press.  It went as follows:

The President was deeply moved by the sight of the fever-stricken soldiers in both the General and Detention Hospitals. He spoke to Sgt. John A. Alexander of the First Illinois Volunteers.

"'Won't you tell me how you feel and whether there's anything I can do for you?'

'The President of the United States is talking to you,' said Gen. Wheeler to the soldier.

It was like an electric shock to the man. He straightened up and by a superhuman effort raised his head up on his left hand and saluted with his right. Immediately he fell in a heap on his cot and, with tears in his eyes, said: 'I didn't know you, sir; I am very weak.'

'Yes, poor fellow. This is not the time for you to salute me. I'm here to see how you are and what I can do for you.'

'Thank you, but I only want my strength back so that I can go home again. I suppose I'll have to wait for that.'

'I hope you won't have to wait long. I want you to tell the President whether you have wanted for anything since you have been here,' [said Gen. Wheeler.]

'I have had every care and attention.'"

On September 13, the 1st Illinois was given a 60-day furlough, and they returned to Chicago.  However, many of the men were not recovered from their tropical illnesses, and received further treatment after they returned home.  The members of the 1st Illinois were released from service on November 17, 1898.

At the time of muster out, the regiment consisted of forty-nine officers and 1,185 enlisted men. During its term of service, the regiment had eighty-four enlisted men die from disease, with nine more enlisted men being discharged on disability.

Representatives of Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, ending the war.  As a result, Spain lost its control over the remains of its overseas empire.  It established the independence of Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and allowed the victorious power to purchase the Philippines Islands from Spain for $20 million.


Affidavit located in Veterans’ Administration files prepared in connection with the pension application of Joseph Petritsch.

Bully, New York Sun. 241 (conversation between McKinley and Sgt. John A. Alexander)

 Bunzey, Whiteside Boys in Porto Rico, 1898. 1901.

Callahan, Martin L.,  "From Shiloh to Santiago," Fort Sam Houston Texas Museum, Military Images Magazine., March-April 1998. http://www.cs.amedd.army.mil/dptmsec/walker_article.htm  3/3/04

Chicago Record’s War Stories, The. (Chicago:  The Chicago Record, 1898) 101-103. from the Illinois National Guard website http://www.il.ngb.army.mil/museum/citizen_soldier/Spanish_American/Span-Am#Jason.doc  3/3/04

Greguras, Fred M., Spanish American War Camps, 1898-99 http://www.livgenmi.com/2000SpanishAmericanWarCamps~campsP-Z.htm 3/3/04

Illinois National Guard website http://www.il.ngb.army.mil/museum/citizen_soldier/spanish.htm 3/3/04

Library of Congress, The World of 1898:  The Spanish-American War http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/intro.html 3/4/04

Sanborn. Gen. Joseph B., SOCIETY OF THE ARMY OF SANTIAGO de CUBA. The Santiago Campaign: Reminiscences of the Operations for the Capture of Santiago de Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The First Illinois Infantry at Santiago., Richmond, VA: Williams Printing Co., 1927.

Statistical Exhibit of Strength of Volunteer Forces Called into Service During the War with Spain; with Losses from All Causes. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899).

US Army Center of Military History, The,  Historical Resources Branch, Spanish-American War: Volunteer Forces

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