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The Mass Burial of the Dead

From Cuba and Puerto Rico at Arlington National Cemetery

By Patrick McSherry
Arlington graves being prepared for the Spamish American War
The graves in preparation for burial at Arlington National Cemetery

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The  following article is about the burial of the members of the American military forces who had been temporarily interred in Cuba and Puerto Rico and then returned to the United States. 

The Article:  

The bow of the former Allan Lines liner ROUMANIAN, now a U.S. Army Transport and recently renamed USAT CROOK, plied the waves of the Caribbean bound for the United States. In the past, it carried excited passengers, untried regiments of soldier bound for Cuba, and regiments of disease-ridden men, sick but happy to be heading home. This trip was different. The four hundred foot long vessel had only a few passengers, among them Brigadier General Ezra Ewers and his family, a Captain Carnahan and his wife, a Lieutenant Frazer and his wife, and a contingent of undertakers. The ship’s flag was at half mast. The remainder of the “passengers” did not notice of the roll of the sea. They, 667 in number, were dead.

The ship was charged with bringing home the bodies of those soldiers who had died in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War. Of the 667 bodies (though this number does vary in different accounts), 438 were from Cuba, and 119 were from Puerto Rico. Of the bodies, 110 were not identified, though often their regiment was known. The men were disinterred and brought aboard, being attended to by the large group of undertakers. The bodies were placed in metal coffins and then inside of crates.

The vessel arrived in New York, her bow and rigging draped in black, reminiscent of a hearse. The Secretary of War, Russel Alger, had ordered Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt to meet the ship. The orders read:

“By direction of the President, you will, upon the arrival of ROUMANIAN with the remains of the soldiers who were killed or died at Santiago and Porto Rico, fire a fitting salute, order all flags half-staff and detail a sufficient guard of honor to see the caskets taken off the ship and expressed to their former homes…”

Families were given the option of claiming the bodies of loved ones, so long as they paid for the shipping of the body to their place of interment. Many bodies were reclaimed and found their way home to their loved ones. The bodies that were not claimed by their family, or not identified, were to be taken to Arlington National Cemetery for interment.

From New York, those bodies to be interred at Arlington were placed aboard a funeral train, suitably draped in black. The bodies were offloaded at Rosslyn, Virginia and transported to the place of the their burial. The number of bodies were so great that the train had to make two runs to deliver all of the bodies.

The men were not buried in a mass burial, but in a coordinated burial of over three hundred soldiers in adjacent graves on a two acre plot overlooking the Potomac River.  On Thursday, April 6, 1899 all was in place and an interment ceremony was to be held.  The coffins were still sealed within wooden boxes and would remain so. Each box bore a statement that read:

“For sanitary reasons the within casket, which is hermetically sealed, should not be opened or removed from the wooden box.”

The 336 boxes were placed under tents in groups of about twenty. Row of graves were previously dug and cross beams placed across their openings. When all was ready, the boxes were carried out of each tent and individually placed on a set of cross beams. Soon the tents disappeared and a sea of boxed coffins filled the field. The boxes were flanked by mounds of earth. Each box was covered with an American flag.

The boxes were not placed in any specific order, however, the boxes containing the remains of the few officers were placed at the front, closest to where the president would be. These officers included Capt. Edgar Hubert (8th U.S. Infantry), Lt. William Wood (12th U.S. Infantry), Lt. R. S. Turman (6th U.S. Infantry). Lt. Francis Creighton (Volunteer Signal Corps)

The dignitaries and the populous of the nation’s capital city came out for the event, as many federal offices were closed to allow the employees to take part.. The official delegation included President McKinley, members of the cabinet, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles and various members of the military. Also present were the British and German ambassadors. The dignitaries arrived accompanied by the tune of the funeral march from “Saul.” A military contingent was present from the District of Columbia National Guard, the Naval Militia and Fourth and Fifth Artillery. Joining them were about 15,000 members of the public. The crush to get into the cemetery was so great that the president and his entourage were caught in a traffic jam, and the police had to be called to clear the way.

As the president’s party approached, the parents of John O'Dowd of the 7th U.S. Infantry broke through the crowd to place flowers on the box containing their son’s body, followed by the family of Lt. William Wood doing the same for their son.

 The field was surrounded the by ranks of soldiers on three sides. The band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” The post chaplain of Fort Monroe, Rev. C. W. Freeland, performed the military committal service, and when he got to the portion that included the words “…dust to dust, earth to earth,” a soldier placed at each grave crumbled a handful of earth onto each box. The entire assemblage said the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards, Father McGee of St. Patrick’s Church stepped forth to consecrate the ground for the Catholic soldiers included. During the entire event, a cannon was fired every half hour from nearby Fort Myer. As the service reached its conclusion, the Fourth and Fifth Artillery fired three salutes and “Taps” was played.

The service over, the dignitaries withdrew. The ground was left to those charged with the actual burials, expected to take two or three days. The soldiers were now interred in their native land.


“Bodies from Cuba,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 28, 1899, 5.

“Burial of the Dead Soldier,” The New York Times (New York, New York), April 2, 1899, 12.

“Earth to Earth,” Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), April 6, 1899, 1.

“Ordered to Fire a Salute,” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts). March 13, 1899, 12.

“Roumanian Due Today,” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts). March 26, 1899, 5.

“The Sailing of the Funeral Ship Roumanian,” Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia). March 24, 1899, 1.

“They Sleep in Honor,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York). April 7, 1899, 2.

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