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General William Murray Black

(1855 - 1933)
By Jack L. McSherry, Jr.
William Murray Black in 1916
William Murray Black in 1916 (Library of Congress)

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General William Murray Black of the U.S. Corps of Engineers served in Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War and was instrumental in the later raising of the wreckage of battleship MAINE.


On December 8, 1855, William Murray Black was born at 323 North Duke Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of James and Eliza Black.  He graduated from Lancaster High School at the age of 14, then while attending Franklin & Marshall College, he applied for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This appointment was granted, and he graduated at the top of his class in 1877.

In 1877, Black married Daisy Peyton Derby, the daughter of Captain George Derby, a topographical engineer.  Daisy died in March of 1889.  Two years later, Black married Gertrude Totten Gamble, the daughter of Commander William M. Gamble of the United States Navy.  Black was the father of three sons, Roger Derby Black, Percy Gamble Black, and William Murray Black

Upon graduation from the Military Academy, he remained at West Point and served as an assistant instructor of Practical Military Engineering.  Shortly thereafter, while serving with the Engineer Battalion, he went to the Engineering School of Application at Willits Point, New York, from which he graduated with the rank of first lieutenant.  Following this, he began his practical work as an engineer, and gained engineering experience while working on the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers building locks and dams.  Once again, he went back to West Point where he was an instructor for four years in Practical Military Engineering.

In 1886, Black became the District Engineer of the Florida District.  Through his influence and efforts, Jacksonville became a thriving seaport.  While in this position, he is credited with initiating the practice of using reinforced concrete in fortification construction.

From 1891 to 1895, he served as instructor of Civil Engineering at the Army Engineers School at Willets Point, New York while commanding Company C of the Battalion of Engineers.  During this time period, his influence began to spread through his teachings and his writings.  In 1895, he was placed in charge of the Personnel and Fortification Bureaus in the Office of the Chief of Engineers.  Following this, he was appointed as the Engineering Commissioner of the District of Columbia.

When the Spanish American War broke out, Captain Black was made a Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers.  After serving as Chief Engineer of the 5th Army Corps, he joined the field army at Tampa.  Placed under his command was a provisional engineering unit made up of infantry volunteers.  These infantry units consisted of Company H, First District of Columbia Volunteers under the command of Captain Looker, and Company A, First Illinois Volunteers under the command of Captain Brown.  This new unit was placed under Major J. W. Sackett of First Florida Volunteers.  Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Black, this new unit was trained in military engineering procedures to supply an urgent need caused by the impossibility of securing any regularly trained engineer soldiers for the Puerto Rico expedition. The unit displayed the greatest intelligence and enthusiasm in learning, from textbooks and with practice, until they became an engineering unit capable of performing their duties with great success.  Under the capable leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Black, they engaged in drills with pontoon train, building bridge piers, building rafts of boats, and of casks, and of loading and unloading field artillery onto rafts and boats.  They received material for the Puerto Rico expedition and shipped engineering material to General Ludlow.

On July 11, 1898, they boarded the transportLAMPASAS, along with their pontoon train, and embarked for Key West.  At Key West, they engaged in target practice.  Then they went to Guantanamo where they built and dismantled piers, and loaded materials.  They arrived in Guanica Harbor, Puerto Rico on July 25, and at the request of Commander Wainwright of the U.S. S. GLOUCESTER, disembarked into the town, with a detachment of artillery, to clear the town of Spanish troops.  This was the first landing of the Army in Puerto Rico.  During the passage to the shore from the ship, the battalion was warned to be prepared to receive the enemy’s fire.  On landing they were informed, by the officer in command of the detachment of sailors and marines from the Gloucester, that the town of Guanica was occupied by about 300 Spaniards.  Despite these statements, which were naturally of an exciting character for green troops, a skirmish line was formed and advanced, through meadowland covered by clumps of brushwood, with the utmost coolness and precision.  With this entry of the American troops, the Spaniards evacuated the city.  The volunteer engineer unit established outposts on the range of hills overlooking the bay.

On July 29, Company A, under the command of Captain Brown, was transferred to Port Ponce where it was joined by Major Sackett on the 30th.  Company H, under command of Captain Looker, remained at Guanica.  At Port Ponce, as well as in Guanica, the engineers constructed piers and roads, and landed the engineering stores of the expedition.   For the remainder of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Black was the Chief Engineer of the forces in Puerto Rico under General Miles.  There, being in the tropics during the rainy season, he nearly lost his life from typhoid fever.

During the occupation of Cuba, on January 2, 1899, Black was made the Chief Engineer of the Department of Havana on General Ludlow’s staff.  In this position, he organized a new Department of Public Works and established sanitary conditions in the city.  Upon the arrival of General Leonard Wood, Black became Chief Engineer of the Island of Cuba.  He wrote a code of regulations for the conduct of Public Works, which remained in force until they were incorporated into the laws of the new Cuban Republic.  His establishment of public mapping, construction of sewers, paving of streets, construction of wharves, and the protection of the ocean-front established Havana as a viable seaport.

He was then returned to the United States where he was involved in many projects.  During this period of time, he also went to Panama to observe the canal work being performed by a French company, and to represent the United States in Panama during the revolt and separation of Panama from the Republic of Colombia.

Five years after leaving Cuba, he returned again to the Island as an Advisor to the Department of Public Works of the Provisional Government. For three years, from 1906 to 1909, he continued in this position and accomplished the completion of many projects, including the beautification of the City of Havana, and the construction of arterial highways throughout the Island of Cuba.

In 1909, leaving Cuba, he was ordered to New York City where he occupied several positions simultaneously, including District Engineer, Division Engineer, Chief Engineer of the Departments of the Coast and Gulf, Chairman of the New York Harbor Line Board, Chairman of the Intra-Coastal Waterway Board, Senior Member of the Board to raise the Maine, and member of the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors of the United States.  His accomplished in this location included the improvements to the East River and the Harlem River, improvements to the upper reaches of the Hudson River which led to Albany becoming a seaport, and to many other waterfront improvements.

On May 10, 1910, legislation was enacted by the United States Senate and House of Representatives, which authorized the Secretary of War and the Chief of Engineers to raise the wreck of the United States Battleship MAINE from the harbor of Havana.  The MAINE sunk after an explosion on February 15, 1898 and rested on the harbor bottom with the upper superstructure extending above the water line.  The Cuban Government wanted the wreck removed because it was an eyesore and caused navigational problems in the harbor.  The American people wanted the wreck raised because it contained the bodies of many American sailors that were aboard at the time of the explosion.  They further wanted the Maine to be taken out to sea and afforded a proper burial at sea for the revered ship.  Colonel Black was assigned to take charge of the engineering for this project, to build a cofferdam around the Maine, pump out the water, repair the ship as necessary, recover the bodies of the Americans on board, refloat the ship and tow her out to sea for resinking in international waters.  Colonel Black was to be assisted in this endeavor by Lieutenant Colonel M. M. Patrick, and Major Harley B. Ferguson.  These three engineers accomplished this difficult and precedent-setting project in a commendable manner.  They designed the system in a very workable manner, and met every unexpected problem with instant alternate procedures.  A full account of this project is listed elsewhere on this website.

In March, 1916, General Black became the Chief of Engineers of the Army.  His immediate attention at that time concerned problems at the Mexican Border.  Anticipating the need for more engineers than were available in the Corps of Engineers, he established an Engineer Officers’ Reserve Corps, which would be available if needed.   He also incorporated large bodies of practical railroad men into the army.  These accomplishments paid off when the United States became involved in World War I.  Prior to General Black’s retirement on October 31, 1919, under his guidance the Corps of Engineers was expanded from 254 officers and 2162 enlisted men to 10761 officers and 297557 enlisted men.

After his retirement from the Army, he engaged in an engineering consulting practice, in Washington, D. C., with the engineering firm, Black, McKenny, and Stewart.  His firm designed projects throughout the world.  He retired from his engineering practice in 1929, but still consulted with governmental agencies, was a public speaker, and wrote engineering publications.

General Black was an accomplished public speaker, and had a talent for working with people.  His amiable personality and great abilities as an engineer readily won him the confidence of people.  He was known to be straight-forward, honest and sincere.  In addition to these great qualities, as an author he was logical, lucid, forceful, and precise.  Black was a thinker, and often used untried innovations to accomplish his work.  These ideas were always so well thought out that they were almost always successful.  This is the mark of a superior engineer.

General William Black died on September 24, 1933 in Washington, D.C. and was buried at West Point on September 26, 1933.


Nissley, Gen. Richard B., provided biographical data from the Office of History of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
General Nissley, is a former Director of Public Works of the City of Lancaster, PA, and a former General in the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Mr. Nissley is a collateral descendent of General Black.

Message from the President of the United States to the two Houses of Congress,  Reports of the Heads of Departments, Volume III, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1899.

United States House of Representatives, House Documents Vol. 157;  Nos. 298-758, with exceptions, Documents of a Public Nature I;  63d congress 2d session 1913-1914; (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914)

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