The following is a diary kept by Private William "Will" Challen Kniffen of the 9th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Co. K. The diary provides a candid first-hand account of life in the regiment, addressing issues such a racial problems, army food, camp life, etc.
The diary has been transcribed as originally written.
Kniffen, of Belle Rive, Illinois, was born on February 7, 1879 in
Jefferson Co. His parents had both died when he was young and Will was
by his uncle who owned the "Kniffen Hotel and Livery" in Belle Rive.
Will Kniffen was mustered into Co. K on June 28, 1898, and served until being mustered out on June 28, 1899. When he mustered in, he listed himself as being 21 years and 5 months old, altering his age by two years for an unknown reason. He was five feet, seven inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. He listed his occupation as "laborer."
About 1900 another resident of Belle Rive, James Henry Womelduff, decided to move his family to Kansas City, Missouri, following some of his family members who had moved to that area earlier and reported good things back to him. Will, who was the sweetheart of one of James Henry Womelduff's daughters, followed in 1901. In Kansas City he married Cora Lillian Womelduff on March 31 of that same year. James Henry Womelsduff was a carpenter and Will learned the carpentry trade from him. Will and Cora's first home was reportedly built by James and Will.
In Kansas City Will and Cora had two children, Louise (1903) and Helen (1906), before his untimely death on January 31, 1909. His final illness came on rapidly, and his death was not expected, devastating his family. He was believed to be an influenza victim. He was buried on February 2, 1909 at Mount Washington Cemetery, Independence, Jackson, Missouri.
"Co K 9th Regiment Illinois Volunteers assembled at Mt Vernon, Ills, Jefferson County on the 27th June 1898 and left that place on the 29 of same month for Springfield, Ills to be mustered in the United States service for two years or during the war with Spain to serve in Cuba. We layed around there until the 10th of July and was examined and mustered into the service on that day which was Friday. Then we commenced to drill in earnest and I guess we was the most awkward set of fellows ever brought together. In about one week after we was mustered in the service we received our new uniforms and then we felt as big as kings. We was at Springfield about 40 days. And most every Sunday there was ___________ from all parts of the state and the boy folks would come to see us which would make most of us home sick for a few days afterwards.
On the 2nd of July about 3 o’clock in the afternoon the 9th was on dress parade and the 8th boys started a row. And there was a large crowd out and there was some trouble in getting it stopped. The 8th and 9th never could get along together. The reason was the 8th was all negroes. Us fellows and them was always in a scrap and laying each other out. One of the coons got his light put out up town one night by one of the 9th boys. So then we had to look out for the coons. We had to drill two hours each day and it was awful hot too.
On the 15th of July we was all vaccinated and in a few days there was a lot of sore arms in the Regiment. We had to take long practice marches and carry a big heavy load. We had to take these marches every other day. And we generally had to march from 10 to 15 miles. We thought it tough too. So this was the way our time at Springfield, Ills was spent. We never got payed at Camp _______ at all. So on the 6th of August we broke camp and that night about midnight we were aboard a Wabash train on our way to Jacksonville, Florida to join the 7th Army Corps under Gen. Lee. We was 4 days on the way to Camp Cuba Libre. Arrived there on the 10th of August 98 it was awful hot. And the sand was ____ deep. When we left the train we had to march about 5 miles to where our camp was located. And carried pretty heavy loads too. We reached our camp about noon. And then had to pitch tents in the hotest son and heat I ever experienced. Some of the boys got to hot and had to be taken to the hospital. After camp was put in order then we begain to look around for something to eat. We was all or nearly all broke. Not having received a pay day yet. So we could not buy anything and had to eat what they gave us or do without anything to eat. And what they give us was terrible rocky. We had to drill in Jacksonville like troopers in the deep sand and hot sun. So the result was that lots of the boys got sick. And a few I believe died about 20 in the regiment.
For the first two weeks after we got to Camp Cuba Libre we got nothing to eat at all hardly. Only hardtack, bacon and potatoes. We almost starved to death. There was all kind of drilling and reviews all the time. We was at Jacksonville Secretary of War Alger reviewed us two different times while there. About a month before we left Jacksonville there was three days of awful bad rain and windy weather (and I was on guard during the spell and got we and chilled and taken sick immediately after) so I do not know what happen the last part of the encampment there I got a sick furlogh and was sent home for 30 days. Soon after the regiment to Savannah GA. I was at home for 24 days and I seen the best time of my life I think. When on my arrival at camp near the City of Savannah, GA I found a real nice camp. And the people of Georgia was very hospitable and treated us so much nicer than the people of Fla. We did not have to drill so much as we did at Camp Cuba Libre and have a lots better time here than we have any where yet.
Well this is Nov and the weather is getting cool. And camp life is just the same here as any where else. Thanksgiving is here and we are going to have a good dinner today the ladies of Savannah is going to come out and give us a fine dinner. This is one Thanksgiving day I will never forget. I was on guard at brigade headquarters and when I go to our mess hall at noon the Co cook had cooked some turkeys with the _____ in them and the boys were all cursing him for ruining their dinner. But I see the turkeys was eat just the same. This is fine eating. Just think old baked turkey like we get at home, hardtack and beans are tough since our fine dinner. Weather is still cool and very uncomfortable sleeping in tents. Thanks to the kind ladies of Savannah for our bountiful repast. They will always have a warm place in the hearts of the soldiers of the 7th Army Corps.
The same old thing is camp drill and guard duty reviews. To March before Big ___ to show ourselves. We was on review the other day for President McKinley. He is a fine looking man. Soon will be Christmas this is the 15th of December and pay day. The boys will all be drunk for a few days or until their money is all gone. And all kind of gambling this night and there is a hot time in the old camp. 16th boys still drunk and gambling to a finish. Boys are all feeling bad for their gay time as long as their money lasted. The is only a bugle call the soldier like to hear and the are recall and mess call. Christmas is here and the boys are all broke and trying to borrow money and give 50 cents on the dollar until next pay day. But there is none in camp so we will not have a very high time today.
Well the prospects are that we will start for Cuba in a few days. Well this is the last of December. There was a little ice here last night. It was colder than usual (last day of 1898). New Years day and I am on guard again. Pretty cold day.
First day of 1899 bright and clear. This is a holliday and we have got nothing to do only __ a time. Well this is night and there is big fires everywhere in camp. For about 2 oclock this afternoon we received orders to get ready to start for Cuba tomorrow and all of the old rubbish is being burned. 2nd day of January 1899 we broke camp today at about 10 am and about 2 pm we started for the transport in Savannah Harbor. Loaded on about 11 ___ and will remain in the harbor all night waiting for the 4th Ills to load which will be completed along in the early morning sometime. The transport is an extra large vessel and there is going to be 2 regiments put on board for Havana City, Cuba.
3rd Jan 10 A.M. Bands playing and the wharf are lined with people waving farewell to soldier friends. Larg crowd
[two pages missing]
Rise and it was sight I ever beheld in all my life. The sun came up like a big ball of fire over in the east. Out of a blue waste of water and to meet a clear blue sky. We cant see no sign of land today this being the third day of out (1/5/99). We will get to Havana sometime tomorrow. And I will sure be glad of it for I am still sea sick. So is lots of the other boys sick yet.
We are still having fine weather for the voyage over the pond to Cuba. The sun is hot today and we cant see anything but blue water and sky. We are now passing the Florida Keys. About 3 oclock P.M. and now and then we can see a glimpse of a lighthouse and island.
This is the 6th and about 2 pm. We will sight Havana the sailor says this pm. This is also a beautiful day. And the sea sickness has left us and all the boys are feeling fine. We can now see the north shore of Cuba.
12 oclock noon and in 2 more hours we will pass Moro Castle and get into Havana Harbor. This is now the sight of my life. Passing Moro and the bands are playing the old march song of Dixie and the boys are seeing who can see the most I think.
We are now in Havana Harbor and can see the wreck of the Maine. From where we lay it is all rusty and eaten by the salt water. And when we first came into the harbor there was ______ flying around and one was sitting on the mast of the wreck.
Havana bay is a dirty vast old __ hole of a place and the water smell terribly of ____. Al the refuse of the city is brought here and dumped into the harbor. To see the big vessles lying about __ of nights is quite a site for us had never seen anything of the kind in our lives. Well this is night and we see the search lights on the big war vessles from the deck of the transport.
Nine oclock and we have to turn in for tapps is just sounding. And that means go to bed. (so good night)
7th of January /99 Morning have just got out of my bunk and cant find any water to drink but what is salty. We will get off the transport some time today. Brother Edd has got the measles and was taken to the hospital this morning. Lots of the men are having the measles it seems. As though the sea voyage brought them on them. We don’t get much to eat while on the transport. This is about noon and we are expecting to get ashore some time today.
2:30 PM and we are lining up to leave the boat some of the men
already off and the Cos are" [Diary ends]
Lee, Scott - copy of the diary is in contributor's personal collection