With a typical admixture of patriotic fervor and apprehension, residents of Connecticut joined their fellow Americans in the conflict with Spain in 1898. Sympathy for the Cuban cause and the quest for adventure spurred Connecticut men to enlist in all branches of the United States’ armed forces. Though none saw combat in 1898 (Massachusetts was the only New England state to furnish troops that saw action), many contributed to the defensive barrier hastily constructed on the northeastern coast of the United States. In subsequent years, Connecticut servicemen remained in uniform, advancing the new imperial endeavor.
Many leading Connecticut residents hailed the commencement of hostilities in the spring of 1898 as a noble effort to liberate Cuba. Former Hartford denizen Mark Twain, then living in Europe, exulted in a letter to his friend Joseph H. Twichell, “I have never enjoyed a war -- even in written history -- as I am enjoying this one.. For this is the worthiest one that was ever fought, so far as my knowledge goes.” Others harbored misgivings. Reverend John McCook, a professor at Hartford’s Trinity College and a veteran of the Civil War, blanched at the thought of another generation of America’s youth taking up arms. On 29 March 1898, he had written to President William McKinley’s secretary John Addison Porter to say “I will not say that I regard the avoidance of war as the greatest thing, but it is pretty nearly the greatest thing; and if (McKinley) can accomplish that, and still reconcile the legitimate claims of the Cuban revolution as well as those of a friendly nation which probably fancies dismemberment no more than we did in 1861, he will deserve well of the Republic.” Although they initially deferred to their father’s counsel, McCook’s three sons, Philip, John, and Shed, soon joined the rush to participate.
Connecticut’s Adjutant-General’s Office noted that, in slightly more than sixty days after the beginning of hostilities on 22 April 1898, the state mobilized over three thousand, four hundred men, 1,148 of whom “were in excess of quotas called for.” Averaging an age of twenty-four years, the men who constituted the ranks and files of Connecticut’s infantry and artillery regiments came from many walks of life, though most were “artisans and mechanics.” Officers likewise hailed from a variety of occupations.. Several non-commissioned officers were career soldiers for whom military service was a family tradition dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Others had previously pursued civilian careers. Commanding Company K of the First Volunteer Regiment were erstwhile employees of Pratt and Whitney, the Connecticut Trust and Safe Deposit Banking Company, and the Hartford insurance companies of Aetna and Connecticut General Life Insurance. Electricians, architects, lawyers, clergymen, and photographers completed the Company’s roster of officers. Though most had been born in Connecticut or elsewhere in the United States, a significant number were naturalized citizens. Most of these were of German and Irish origin, and others had come from Canada, Russia, England, Sweden, Newfoundland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Shared motives united these men from such disparate backgrounds. Private George B. Thayer, chronicler of Company K, later recorded that among the chief reasons his comrades stated for enlisting were a sense of patriotic duty, a sense of loyalty to Company K, a thirst for adventure, and a desire to face the supreme test of battle.
The brevity of the war dampened the hopes of those who sought military glory. Uncertainty of Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s intentions during his fleet’s transatlantic voyage in May 1898 provided the climax for Connecticut’s servicemen. Fears that the Spanish fleet would attack the northeastern coast of the United States led to a rapid re-fortification of Groton, Connecticut’s Fort Griswold (which had last been an enemy target in 1781) by Heavy Battery B of the First Connecticut Volunteer Artillery Regiment. Likewise, Companies K and F of the First Volunteer Infantry Regiment were quickly posted to Fort Preble, in Portland, Maine. Cervera’s arrival in Cuba’s Santiago Harbor in late May ended the state of urgency.. The Connecticut troops remained stationed here while the Cuban campaign concluded in June and July. A simulated battle staged for local spectators on the Fourth of July proved to be the only “combat” which the members of Company K experienced.
In mid-July, these Connecticut soldiers were sent southward, to Camp Alger in Virginia. Although the final campaigns in Puerto Rico and the Philippine capital of Manila still lay ahead, Thayer wrote home to his wife Florine on 13 July that “the orders to Camp Alger strike the officers here, as they do me, as the beginning of the end. Instead of our going to the ‘front,’ we feel that in a few weeks there will be no front to go to.” On 4 August, the First Connecticut Volunteer Artillery Regiment was briefly detailed to support General James Franklin Wade’s expedition to Puerto Rico, but this offensive was soon scotched, proven unnecessary by the ease of the island’s conquest.
Finally, in late August, Hartford newspapers ran articles on the First Connecticut Regiment’s alleged anxiousness to return home. Voting on whether or not to demobilize on 23 August, eighty-three members of Company K favored being mustered out (five did not). Ultimately, they returned to Connecticut in early September, and were formally discharged on 21 October. Sadly, typhoid fever contracted in Camp Alger and during the trip home claimed the lives of four privates in Company K.
Denied their chance of becoming war heroes, these soldiers nevertheless looked upon their service with pride. Thayer bristled at Theodore Roosevelt’s claim that one of his Rough Riders was worth any three of the other volunteers. The Rockville native retorted that the famed cavalry regiment was merely “lucky, that’s all.” He accused Roosevelt of “using the strokes of good luck to disparage the others, who, through no fault of their own, have missed the opportunity of their lives.” One of Thayer’s comrades in Company K, Corporal Edward F. Sanderson, wryly recollected his unit’s service in a poem titled “The Rippin’ Roarin’ Rookies of Comp’ny K”:
We was planted in Niantic for to learn the blasted drill,
And the slashin’ sweatin’ sergeants gave each “rooky pup” his fill.
Then they shipped us off to Portland, ‘cause they raised a beastly scare
‘Bout Cervera bein’ sneakin’ up to -- only God knows where.
Our orders was to comfort in a sympathetic way
The weepin’ Portland maidens while their lovers was away.
And we rippin’ roarin’ rookies never flinched.
We was sent to old Virginny for to guard a bloody field,
Till the hospitals was filled and half the rookies keeled.
Our bloomin’ anger roused, till our tempers like to burst,
And ev’ry beggar sat around, and swore and sweat and curst.
And we vowed we’d shoot the colonel if we ever saw a scrap,
And we’d plunk the captain, too, if he didn’t close his trap.
We rippin’ roarin’ rookies -- sizzlin’ there.
But they shipped us off for home, and we’ve lost our troubles now.
And we greet the “Cap” and Colonel with a most pretentious bow..
We swore we’d smash the sergeant and noses we would pull,
But ev’ry man forgot his grudge -- when gov’ment “paid in full.”
It would take a team of horses and a windlass and a rope
To get us in again, but we bear no grudge, I hope.
We rippin’ roarin’ veterans, Comp’ny K.
Two sibling officers in the United States Navy of this era hailed from Farmington, Connecticut. In 1898, William Sheffield Cowles (1846-1923), brother-in-law of Theodore Roosevelt, held the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. On the night of 15 February 1898, William Cowles was the ranking officer at the United States Naval Station in Key West, Florida. After receiving an initial shocking cable from the Havana telegraph operator Domingo Villaverde, Cowles and Lieutenant Albert Gleaves hurried to the Key West cable office, where they soon received confirmation of the grim news of the battleship Maine’s destruction. Five months later, Cowles was in command of the cruiser USS TOPEKA (converted to a gunboat for the purpose). To secure an advance base for the coming campaign in Puerto Rico, the TOPEKA, along with the gunboat ANNAPOLIS and the armed yacht WASP, assaulted Nipe Bay on the northern coast of Cuba’s Oriente Province on 21 July. There, they sank the Spanish gunboat JORGE JUAN. The next day, Spanish troops occupying the nearby town retreated inland, and the mines planted in the bay’s entrance floated to the surface, where the American vessels destroyed them with gunfire. (Ultimately, however, this bay was not used as a base.)
William Cowles’ younger brother, Walter Cleveland Cowles (1853-1917), had served as Inspector of Steel at the Washington Navy Yard during the construction of several new cruisers in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In 1898, he oversaw the Navy’s Bureau of Equipment. After the war, he assumed the duty of Ordnance Officer at Cavite near Manila Bay.
Akin to their counterparts in the ground forces, however, the vast majority of Connecticut men who enlisted in the Navy remained far removed from combat in 1898. On 6 June, volunteers for a Connecticut Naval Battalion assembled in Niantic to undergo physical and professional examinations. A majority of this group, numbering 128 men, passed the tests and were sworn into service on 15 June. With very few exceptions, they then were posted to the USS MINNESOTA, anchored in Boston Harbor. There they stayed for the duration. As Lieutenant-Commander Arthur H. Day later reported, “The enlisted men were, unfortunately, mustered in at so late a date that many of them were compelled…to spend their entire service aboard that vessel.” A brush with excitement came on 2 July, when a fire destroyed a warehouse on the wharf where the ship was moored, and soon threatened the ship itself. In combating the fire, according to the incident report written by Lieutenant John W. Weeks, the Connecticut sailors “quickly showed their fighting qualities and what could be expected of them at the front.” In the end, on 25 August, all but fifteen of these men were discharged; those who stayed on did so to ensure that the vessel was sufficiently manned.
Proud as they were of their service to their country, many Connecticut servicemen nevertheless grew disenchanted with the evolving war aims of the United States. Writing to his wife Florine on 13 July 1898, George B. Thayer remarked, “Have you noticed how little there is in (the newspapers) about that ‘war for humanity’s sake’? The women and children who have left Santiago (15,000, it is said) are being left to shift for themselves, just as in case of any ordinary war. The reconcentrados are not mentioned, scarcely thought of. On the other hand, notice the expeditions being fitted out and sent to Manila, Porto Rico, the Canaries, etc. To me, these indicate a war of conquest, what I claimed at the outset to be the case.” An informal postwar survey among the men of Company K revealed that, out of 71 respondents, only 47 supported retention of the Philippines, or at least a coaling station there. Opponents believed that keeping the islands would be a “great mistake,” and that the United States should be willing to sell them for $200 million to “Japan or any other civilized nation.” Across the Atlantic, author Mark Twain also soured on the direction of his nation’s foreign policy. In time, he would become a vocal, influential member of the Anti-Imperialist League.
These qualms notwithstanding, Connecticut servicemen and elected officials advanced American overseas expansion in the years immediately following the war with Spain. Colonel Lucien F. Burpee, a native of Waterbury, served as a judge advocate on General Nelson Miles’ staff in postwar Puerto Rico. In October 1898, he prosecuted American soldiers charged with burning the village of Coto, near Ponce. After obtaining five convictions, he was credited with positively influencing “the peace and quiet of the island, and the future relations of the people to the United States..”
On the other side of the world, Lieutenant Ward Cheney, member of a prominent Manchester family (which included his grandfather, Reverend Horace Bushnell), graduate of Yale University, and an editor for the Hartford Courant, was among the Americans fighting Filipino guerrillas resisting United States rule. On 7 January 1900, while leading a column of the Fourth United States Infantry Regiment in a charge against Filipino entrenchments near Puente Julian, Cheney was fatally wounded. He was twenty-four years of age.
The following year, in Washington, D.C., Connecticut Republican Senator Orville Hitchcock Platt (1827-1905) appended an infamous amendment to the Army Appropriations Bill of 1901.. An ardent expansionist who had supported annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, he now proposed an amendment proclaiming the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs. Dismayed Cuban nationalists protested this reduction of Cuba to the status of an American protectorate. However, the “Platt Amendment” was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution of 1902, and would not be repealed until 1934.
Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Units (supplemental information):
The following units were formed in Connecticut for service in the Spanish American War;
1st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry
The First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service between may 17 and July 14, 1898, at Niantic, Connecticut. Initially, the unit consisted of 42 officers and 798 men. By its muster out at Hartford, Connecticut on October 31, 1898, the unit had grown to include 45 officers and 1,230 men. During its term of service, the unit lost 18 men to disease, and had six men discharged on disability.
The companies of the regiment originated as follows:
Company A –
Company B – Hartford
Company C – Rockville
Company D – New Britain
Company E – New Britain
Company F – Hartford
Company G – Manchester
Company H – Hartford
Company I – New Britain
Company K– Hartford
Company L – Meriden
Company M – Danbury (company was previously Co. G of the 4th Regiment, Connecticut National Guard)
3rd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry
The Third Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service between July 2 and 6, 1898 at Niantic, Connecticut. At muster in, the unit consisted of 45 officers and 1,232 men. The unit was eventually send south, ending its service at Savannah, Georgia, where it was mustered out. At the time of muster out, the unit consisted in 45 officers and 1,105 men. During its term of service, the unit had 15 men die from disease, and 9 men discharged for disability. The unit also had 11 men court-martialed and 51 men desert!
The companies of the regiment originated as follows:
Company A –
Company B – Pawcatuck
Company C – Norwich
Company D– New London
Company E – Willimantic
Company F – Danielson
Company G – Putnam
Company H – Stonington
Company I – New London
Company K – Stamford(company was previously Co. C of the 4th Regiment, Connecticut National Guard)
Company L – Norwalk(company was previously Co. F of the 4th Regiment, Connecticut National Guard)
Company M – Winsted (company was previously Co. I of the 4th Regiment, Connecticut National Guard)
Light Battery A, Connecticut Volunteer Artillery
Light Battery A, formed in Branford, was mustered into service on May 17, 1898 at Niantic. At this time, the unit included 5 officers and 120 men. By the time that the unit was mustered out at New Haven on October 25, 1898, the unit consisted of 5 officers and 157 men. During its term of service, the unit lost one man to disease and had fivemen discharged for disability.
Heavy Battery B, Connecticut Volunteer Artillery
Heavy Battery B, formed at Bridgeport, was mustered into service at Niantic on May 19, 1898. At this time, it consisted of 4 officers at 146 men. When the unit was mustered out at Bridgeport on December 20, 1898, the unit consisted of 4 officers and 174 men. During its term of service, the unit had one man desert and two men discharged on disability.
Heavy Battery C, Connecticut Volunteer Artillery
Heavy Battery C, formed at New Haven, was mustered into service at Niantic on May 19, 1898. At this time, it consisted of 4 officers at 140 men. When the unit was mustered out at New Haven on October 29, 1898, the unit consisted of 4 officers and 184 men. During its term of service, the unit had one officer and four men die from disease, three men desert and two men discharged on disability.
Connecticut Naval Militia
This unit served aboard the USS MINNESOTA in Boston harbor during the war. The force consisted of 15 officers and 188 men.
Engineer Division of New Haven
This unit consisted of two officers and 25 men under the command of Lt. Amasa Trowbridge. The group consisted of men with an expertise as boiler firemen and coal passers.
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Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. Vol. 2, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899) 999.
Connecticut. Adjutant General. Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps of the United States in the Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and China Relief Expedition, from April 21, 1898 to July 4, 1904. Compiled by the Authority of the (Connecticut) General Assembly, January Session, 1915. Hartford: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard Company, 1919.
Connecticut. Adjutant General. Roster of Connecticut Volunteers Who Served in the War Between the united States and Spain, 1898-1899. Hartford: The Case Lockwood and Brainard Company, 1899..
Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI: January - December 1900. Hartford: Connecticut Magazine Company, 1900.
Cowles, Colonel Calvin Duvall (Compiler). Genealogy of the Cowles Families in America, Volume I. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse, and Taylor Co., 1929.
Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default : The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
O’Toole, G. J. A. (George J. A.). The Spanish War : An American Epic--1898. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984.
Paterson, Thomas, J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth Hagan. American Foreign Policy, a History, Volume I: To 1914. Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1988.
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.
Thayer, George B. (Private) (Compiler). History of Company K, First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, During the Spanish-American War. Hartford: R. S. Peck and Company, 1899.
Twain, Mark. Collected Letters of Mark Twain. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1917. Letter to Joseph Twichell reprinted in the Hartford Courant, 11 November 2001.
United States. Navy Dept. Bureau of Navigation. Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to the Secretary of the Navy. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1898.
Reverend John McCook’s letter to John Addison Porter is held in the Archives of the Butler McCook House in Hartford, Connecticut. It was reprinted in the Hartford Courant, 11 November 2001.