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The 71st New York Volunteer Infantry

By Patrick McSherry
The 71st New York going in action,  Battle of San Juan Hill, 1898

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The following is a brief history of the 71st New York Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish American War. The regiment served in the Santiago Campaign and fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.

Unit History:

The 71st New York Volunteer Infantry was mustered into the federal service between May 10 and 12, 1898 at Hempstead, Long Island, New York. At the time of muster in, the unit consisted of 45 officers and 977 enlisted men under the command of Colonel Francis Vinton Greene. After the mustering in ceremony, the regiment was reviewed by Governor Black of New York. As soon as the regiment was mustered in, the it was ordered to Tampa, Florida. To get there, the regiment took the train to Long Island City, and the ferry to New York City. At New York, the regiment boarded the transport SENECA for the brief trip to Hoboken, where the regiment boarded the trains for the trip for Lakeland, Florida.

On May 25, the regiment was assigned to the First Brigade, First Division of Major General Rufus Shafter's Fifth Army Corps. While at Lakeland, two major events occurred. First, the regiment's commander, Colonel Greene was promoted to brigadier general, and was succeeded by Col. William Downs. Second, the regiment was issued its .45-.70 "trapdoor" rifles. The weapon fired black powder rather than the smokeless powder used by the more modern weapons such as the Krag rifle and the Spanish Mauser. This would prove to a limiting factor in battle as the smoke gave away the mens' position, drawing the enemy's fire. Also, unfortunately, the men would only fire about five shots each from their new guns, the only target practice the men had before going into battle at Santiago and having to rely on the weapons for their lives.

June 7 found the regiment ordered to Port Tampa by way of Ybor City to join the remainder of the Fifth Corps in boarding the transports carrying the invasion force to Cuba. The 71st was assigned to the transport VIGILANCIA. After a prolonged wait in port because of a false report that a suspected Spanish raider in the vicinity, the invasion force departed Port Tampa on June 14. The VIGILANCIA arrived off Cuba on June 22, with the regiment going ashore a Siboney two days later. Shortly after landing, the 71st was ordered to advance towards Las Guasimas where advancing American forces were met by Spanish forces. The fighting was ending by the time that the 71st arrived, though the men realized as the Spanish rounds tore through the trees over their heads, that they had found themselves under enemy fire for the first time.

On July 1, as the troops of the Fifth Corps were advancing towards the San Juan ridge line, the 71st was detached from Hawkin's Brigade by General Kent, the division commander. Unfortunately, Hawkins was not made aware of this change, and was unable to determine the whereabouts of the regiment. Kent sent the 71st New York down a trail off of the main route, and which ran through the jungle parallel to the ridge line. The trail was found by an observer using the Fifth Corps' observation balloon, but the trail was not given an actual reconnaissance. As the regiment advanced down the trail, they found that the trail narrowed to the point that the men had to advance in single file, and their progress slowed. General Kent, frustrated at the slow advance, ordered other troops - 2nd and 10th U.S. Infantry regiments - down the same trail. The men of the 71st now became the victim of conflicting orders. Some received orders to push the advance. Others were ordered to move off of the trail and into the brush, so the regiment became fragmented. As leading elements of the regiment reached what became known as "Bloody Ford" across the San Juan River, the firing and cheers of the general advance up the San Juan heights was heard by the men on the crowded trail, who joined in the cheers. The men moved ahead and broke free from the undergrowth. As the main force advanced up the side of the San Juan ridge line - San Juan Hill - the 71st formed up under fire from the retreating Spanish troops. The 71st advanced, and those members of the regiment who could not find the regiment because of the fragmentation on the narrow trail advanced with whatever regiment was closest to them.

The 71st New York advanced up to the ridge top and began firing on the Spanish forces who were returning fire from the new positions in the next line of trenches beyond the ridge line. The regiment occupied a space to the left of the Rough Riders on the ridge top. The men quickly realized the issue with having a rifle firing black powder as their fire dangerously gave away their positions. The men picked up Krags that were left on the field - enough to outfit several companies - but they were ordered to turn them in and go back to their .45-.70 "trapdoor" rifles.

On July 2, the regiment was pulled from the battle line for a period of rest, but returned to the battle line that night. Firing between the Spanish and American lines occurred sporadically. On July 3, the men heard what they thought was distant thunder. Later they learned that the rumbling was actually coming from the naval Battle of Santiago, where the U.S. Navy engaged the Spanish squadron under Admiral Cervera as they attempted the break out of the Santiago harbor, destroying the entire squadron. Within a few days, the 71st New York was ordered to a new position on what became known as "Misery Hill. Here the regiment fought disease and poor and inadequate food. While they were on Misery Hill, Clara Barton of the American Red Cross visited the regiment and witnessed the men suffering from dysentery and malnutrition. Eventually fully 450 of the regiment's 900 men were on the sick list and unable to report for duty. Many of those men not officially not on the sick list were were not well, but were still able to perform the minimum duties.

As the regiment was preparing to leave Cuba, the men were issued new khaki uniforms, replacing their blue wool uniforms. Around August 8 the regiment departed Santiago, Cuba. Two battalions were sent aboard the transport GRAND DUCHESSE and one battalion was aboard the transport ST. PAUL, both bound for Camp Wikoff, at Montauk, Long Island, arriving around August 18. On August 29, the regiment was given a sixty day furlough. On November 15, the regiment was mustered out at New York City

At the time of mustering out, the 71st New York Volunteer Infantry consisted of fifty officers and 1,114 enlisted men. During its term of service, the regiment had two officers and 77 enlisted men die of disease. Twelve enlisted men were killed in action, and 67 enlisted men wounded, three mortally, and also one officer wounded. In addition, three enlisted men were killed in an accident, one enlisted man committed suicide and five enlisted men deserted. 


Correspondence relating to the War with Spain And Conditions Growing Out of the Same Including the Insurrection in the Philippine Island and the China Relief Expedition. Vol. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902) 607.

Post, Charles Johnson, The Little War of Private Post : The Spanish-American War Seen Up Close. (Univ of Nebraska Press, 1999), 9, 25-28, 66-67, 76, 83,87, 119, 146, 170, 172-173, 179, 188,-189, 226, 231.

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