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The Ramblings of Historian

The Spanish American War Centennial Website Blog

By Patrick McSherry

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I generally will not have a lot to say, but, from time to time I will add something to this blog as the mood or conditions warrant!

November 18, 2022

I was asked is the collective memory of the Civil War more harmful than helpful?

Now there is a good question with sooo many aspects.

First we need to look at what was the collective memory is, how it has changed over time, and its impacts over time.

The initial collective memory was that perpetuated and institutionalized by the veterans of the Civil War themselves. The veterans – who were obviously the survivors of the war – were lucky enough to come home. In many cases they had developed a deep comradery with those with whom they had served. Most military units were local – formed in one location rather than recruited over a large area – so many of the men had a strong shared experience having served in the same locations and under the same circumstances. They formed organizations such as the G.A.R. (Grand Armies of the Republic) in the north and the UCV (United Confederate Veterans) in the south. These organizations kept the comradery alive through monthly meetings, events, and reunions. They honored their heroes. The organizations also aided those who were sick with small monetary stipends.

So what did this comradery create as a collective memory? The veterans knew the reasons for which they had enlisted, which had some individual variation, of course. However, for the most part, in the north the reason for enlistment was the preservation of the Union. In the south, the reason was states’ rights and to repel what was considered to be an invasion. This is quite different from what is commonly said today. Today it is often erroneously said that the war was over slavery. During the war and in its immediate aftermath the major point for both sides was the right of individual states to secede from the United States. This - secession - was the states’ rights issue that resulted in the war. The veterans knew this. They disagreed on whether the right of secession existed but the collective memory was that this was the reason for the war. Slavery was one of several ongoing states’ right issues that had been argued about for years, but neither side was going to war over slavery itself. In the north, the Emancipation Proclamation (which did not actually free any slaves in areas controlled by the north at the time) would not be issued until the war had been ongoing for nearly two years. It was issued not simply because it was the right thing to do. It was issued to keep European nations – namely Great Britain – from entering the war on the side of the south. At the time there were concerns expressed by many in the north that the Emancipation Proclamation would impact recruiting as it could be construed as beginning to change the focus of the war away from the preservation of the Union. Many northern men made it clear that they were fighting to preserve the union, not over slavery, as sad as that may be to admit today. In the south, the men were now fighting to protect their homeland which had been invaded. There are recorded interviews out there with aging Confederate veterans during which they were asked if they were fighting for slavery. They indicated that they really had not thought of that. They were fighting to protect their homes. Remember, the common southerner was not a slave owner. They could not afford it regardless of their belief for or against slavery.

It is notable the that veterans’ organizations which were the strongest advocates of the collective memory were made up of the survivors. Obviously, those who died in the war were not part of the organizations, nor were the families of the dead. Therefore, the glorious actions and their memories experienced by the survivors were perpetuated over the feelings of utter loss of the families of the dead. Over time, thankfully, it is also notable that an individual’s memory often begins to drop some of the horrors and remember the better parts (though many men dealt with PTSD then, but no one knew what it actually was). It was these memories – those of comradery, friendships formed in battle and glory, not those of death – that became the new collective memory over time.

This collective memory was handed down to the veterans’ children. They grew up knowing their fathers' comrades, attending the reunions with their fathers, etc. In fact, as the veterans began to pass into history themselves, the children formed organizations – Such as SUV (Sons of Union Veterans) and the SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans) to continue their fathers’ memories. Of course, they had no memories of the actual tragedies of the deaths of comrades in the field, only the memories of the comradeship their fathers experienced and childhood memories of stories told by old men, polished with years of re-telling.

These collective memories of the second generation had a strong impact on the next conflict in which the U.S. was involved – the Spanish American War. When war was declared, there was a mad rush to join the volunteer regiments. In fact so many regiments were being formed by the states that federal government stated that it would accept no more. The states responded by enlarging the accepted regiments by one-quarter – from nine companies to twelve companies. Still, there was great competition to get into one of these regiments. Very few underage men made it into the army (contrary to common opinion) since those who were not legally eligible were recognized and removed and legally eligible men took their place. One of the reasons for this outpouring was the collective memory of the lifelong comradeship experienced by these mens’ fathers in the Civil War. They sought the glory and comradery that their fathers had extolled as their collective memory of the war. Removed by a generation, the collective memory of the horrors of losses in the field was forgotten and was not in the collective memory of the second generation.

Sadly, the rush to join the military during the war led to many deaths. The majority of the regiments formed were simply not needed and never left the U.S. Instead, they were brought together into training camps unprepared for the vast numbers. Disease spread quite literally like wild fire. The majority of the men lost in the war by a factor of ten were to disease, and the majority of those in camps in the United States. In short, men died partly because of an inaccurate collective memory

So what is the collective memory today? What is its impact? Today the collective memory of the war is quite different today. Children today are taught that the Civil War was fought to end slavery. This is a noble thought, but simply untrue. Still, as this is what is taught to the recent generations, it has become their collective memory viewed through the lens of more recent battles for equality and civil rights. This collective memory makes the Civil War a racial war with the forces arrayed against each other being that of anti-slavery versus white supremacy. General Grant is looked upon as good. General Lee is looked upon as bad...but Grant owned a slave. Technically, Lee did not (his wife did). This collective memory is harmful as it casts the history in an untruthful light with people citing the new collective memory as a reason for their views today and as a justification to take a militant stance. Taking a militant stance on an inaccurate view of history is always dangerous.  One only need to look at the grossly erroneous collective memory created by the Nazis concerning the role of Jewish people in history to see the dangers of false history and falsely-created collective memories. The Civil War is looked at as being glorious. War is never glorious. People die. They are forgotten. Their motives and beliefs are forgotten and construed by later generations for their own desires.

The collective memory that is missing is that the war was a sad and bloody mess. More Americans died in the Civil War than all other wars the U.S. has been involved in taken together. The Civil War - or any war - is not something to emulate, or mindlessly advocate. It is deadly business. The men who saw their friends lose their lives to sucking chest wounds, bleed to death from lost limbs, or die from dysentery understood this. The Civil War was not a war over slavery. It was not glorious. Saying it was plays into those promoting false and dangerous ideas today. The Civil War was and is horrible to contemplate. Anything based on false history can only damage and mislead.

March 11, 2021

What’s new on the website?

We have been adding new pages! In fact, we added a while new section on “feeding the troop” providing accounts, recipes and data related to providing for the soldiers and sailors of 1898. We hope to add more data to this section as we move forward.

The National Spanish American War Gravesite Recording Project has been going well, and we are approaching nearly 19,000 listings! Contributions of listings to this portion of the website have slowed recently, which allows us to work on other topics. If you would attempt to print out the grave listings, you better have a lot of paper and printer ink! The document would be about 900 parges long!

One major item which our probably have not seen is our efforts to modernize the site for mobile phones. This website started back in 1996. The same year when CSS programming first came out. Of course, CSS just came out…that doesn’t mean that anyone was using it yet, including this site. I wish we had, as it would make updating the site much easier. As it is, to update the site, we have to enter and modify every page of the 1290 page website individually. That takes time. In the past year we have actually done that twice, and are now starting on the third round, making images and text responsive and adding a language declaration at the same time. The hope is that folks can make better use of the site on mobile devices. It has been an interesting challenge since all sources seem t expect that you have CSS programming as a basis of the site. Since we don’t we have had to delve into some trial and error work, and finally came up with solutions. Implementing those solutions will take three to six months of tedious work. In addition, to install the code, we have had to switch our web editing software, for which there is also a learning curve. All of this means that there is a lot more going on than what it may seem. These updates are not included in our “What’s New on the Website” Page since now one really wants to know this work is being done.

We still intend to add an “Educator’s Corner” to provide some materials that educators may find useful when teaching about the war. We have seen some of the items being used and they have been a bit lacking. Maybe we can help improve on the resources available.

June 17, 2020: Iconoclasm

There have been waves of iconoclasm throughout history. Each time, later generations mourn the history that was lost. We are experiencing one of those waves now, in 2020.

In the 16th Century, the Reformation hit and reformers attacked religious imagery as being idolatrous, though the purpose of the imagery was actually for religious instruction of the illiterate masses. The iconoclasts of that period shattered statues, destroyed paintings and took a particular dislike to the stained glass windows. Only a few examples of early stained glass survived, and a great cultural heritage was destroyed by a people believing that they were doing the right thing. Society has mourned the loss ever since.

During the French Revolution, there was another round of attacks by iconoclasts – those who considered themselves rationalists - who again attacked religious items, as well as anything related to the deposed autocratic regime. There was a tremendous loss of religious art again with statues being torn down and defaced. Many irreplaceable religious relics were also lost and destroyed. Again there was a great loss in cultural heritage decried to the present day, even by those who recognize the failures of the religions involved and who certainly would not support the autocratic regime.

More recently, we have seen the Taliban and Isis destroying icons such as the tomb of Noah, and the Buddha statues of Bamiyan dating from the 4th to 5th century. The world deplored these actions.

What about today? It is occurring again. The cause is noble and important – equality. However the action is to remove statues and monuments. At times, the decision is warranted. Other times it does not seem warranted. Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, which is a bonified terrorist group that exists to the current time. Honoring him never seemed logical, and always has been odd. It would always make me cringe. But the removal of monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are far more problematic.

Historical figures have to be viewed in context of their times. No one in history – except Jesus – was without sin. Everyone has baggage and actions in their history that could not be held up as an example of what we would consider a hero today. Washington was a slave owner. No doubt about that. He was also one of the reasons why the United States exists and, quite frankly, why people have the right to protest and speak their minds today. Today we can condemn him for owning slaves, but also realize it was not a situation he created, but one that he could have acted to end with the founding of the new country. However, had he tried to do so, the country probably would not exist. He must be viewed in the context of his time. If we condemn him for not acting radically against what we know today was injustice, we have to also condemn everyone in his time period for the same thing. We must look at people who took the incremental steps toward freedom that were unusual in their day and recognize them as being courageous steps. Washington can still be seen as an example as his actions did allow us to get to the point of being able to have the current discussion on race through gaining freedom of speech. Instead of tearing down his statues, perhaps community leaders on all sides should decide to place educational plaques at his statues to explain his good points and bad points. We need to recognize that he was an imperfect person, as are all of us to this day.

Abraham Lincoln’s statues have been targeted, which is rather interesting. He was the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and had a career built on opposition to slavery. Did he believe in equality for people of color? At the very end of his life, he advocated for suffrage for men of color, riling John Wilkes Booth and basically making himself a martyr to this cause (see “Lincoln’s Evolving Racial Views” by Edna Medford, Ph.D, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, February 14, 2010). He guided the nation through its worst period in history. It is true that the Emancipation Proclamation was, in part, a political instrument in that it would deter nations like England from openly allying with the Confederacy and did not free slaves in the Union itself. Issuing the Proclamation was also a risk as it would change the thrust of the war from a war against secession and over states’ rights to a war also against slavery (yes...the war began as a war over states rights, primarily the right to secede from the Union...not as a war over slavery. Those who argue that the war started over slavery have to explain that, if that was the case, why did we not have the Emancipation Proclamation of April of 1861). Lincoln knew that there were many in the North - yes, there were many racists in the north too - who would fight against secession, but would not fight to end slavery. He knew issuing the Proclamation would impact recruiting for the northern armies and spur on recruitment for the Southern armies, although most of those in the wouth who were of age to enlist and able to do so had already done so.

Was Lincoln perfect? Certainly not. He was human and a man to be viewed in the context of his time. His views on race evolved, and he was very progressive on race for his time. In view of Lincoln’s views, his efforts to end slavery, and his very progressive actions, it is very hard to understand why statues of Lincoln are being subject to attack at the present time.

Lincoln and Roosevelt, 1906
Lincoln and Roosevelt in 1906

That brings us to Theodore Roosevelt, a dynamic and complex figure if there ever was one. He was an unhealthy child who became the most robust of men through his own efforts. He was an early conservationist who traveled to kill large game in the name of conservation. He was a kind-hearted and peace-loving man who eagerly wanted to go to war and see action, ordering men to their deaths. People know that he helped lead the charge up San Juan Hill ridge line. Most people don’t realize that it was only one of three charges he led that day. Most people also do not realize that the main charge was actually against orders, and was led by Roosevelt and several others along the battle line in an effort to save their pinned-down men. He was no stranger to taking action when he saw it necessary. He had fought against police corruption successfully in New York as Police Commissioner. He helped to prepare the U.S. Navy for the Spanish American War as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. During his presidency, the U.S. truly became a world power for the first time. He is the only U.S. president to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize, and he actually deserved them. He was a bonified explorer, helping to map an uncharted river in the Amazon basin, an action which he nearly did not survive. He was the first president to go up in an airplane, and to dive in a submarine. He was the first president to go abroad during his time in office, traveling to Panama to view the canal he championed. He was no shrinking violet.

So, how was Roosevelt on the subject of race relations, which is the issue today? He was a man of the 19th century, and even of southern heritage (James Dunwoody Bulloch, his uncle, was the primary naval agent of the Confederacy in Europe), but he was actually quite progressive on race relations. Roosevelt was the first president to invite a man of color – Booker T. Washington, a friend – to the White House for dinner. This had never been done before. Both Roosevelt and Washington knew the move was dramatic and would draw ire – and did it ever! The backlash, especially in the south was horrific. However, he still had the courage to do it (as did Booker T. Washington). Roosevelt reached out for advice to men of color, such as George Washington Carver. He publicly warned that “the debasement of the blacks will, in the end, carry with it debasement of whites.” He favored slow changes in government policy to bring about gradual changes in attitudes on the subject of race, knowing that more rapid efforts were likely to fail. He was very progressive on race in the context of his day. Was he “fully there” yet? Most certainly not! In some of his writings he makes statements that reflect stereotypes of his day. He made many public statements on race that we would consider wrong – with a hundred years of hindsight and hard-fought racial gains. Again, he was not perfect, but he carried the banner forward, not backward as did Woodrow Wilson. He must be judged based on the context of his time, not ours, and on the actions he took.

We must realize that no historic figure – other than Jesus – was perfect.  None of us are perfect today. Our most progressive leaders of today will, in the future, be decried for their failings. For instance, someone may have made great strides in race relations but failed to act to end abortion. In the future, should we tear down their statues?

Let us consider for a moment Oskar Schindler. We honor him today as a great humanitarian who gave up his fortune to save over a thousand Jewish men, women and children from certain death. This is truly something to be honored. If a statue is erected to honor and remember him, should we then tear it down because, in fact, he was also a member of the Nazi party, a member of the Abwehr (a Nazi secret intelligence group), a spy against the Czechs, the man who supplied the fake Polish uniforms and documents used to in the fake attack used a pretext to attack Poland and begin World War Two? No, he was far from perfect, but had taken some actions at a critical moment saving humans from death at the possible loss of his own life, and that IS worthy of honor. His previous actions actually made him able to perform the actions for which he is remembered.

There is a lot to be discussed about these figures. It is an educational moment for all sides. Perhaps if we would talk to one another rather than yell and scream, maybe we would actually get somewhere. Tearing down all of the past will not solve anything, really. Taking the time to understand each other’s view, true grievances, etc., will allow us to chart a path forward for the common good of all people, and allow us to live together, in peace, as equals.

June 17, 2020:

Work is still ongoing on a article on how the U.S. funded the Spanish American War. I had next planned to write on the military intelligence and diplomatic negotiation aspect of the war, specifically on how the U.S. worked to keep the Spanish government from threatening Dewey's toehold in the Philippines. This portion of the war centered on Egypt and the Suez Canal. That said, in view of the state of affairs in the country, I think I may put that on hold briefly to write on the men of color who received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the war. If memory serves, six men of color received the Medal of Honor for service during the war, four of them in one action.

Another topic that will follow on the heels of the above articles will be an article on the efforts of the Pope to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the rising tension between U.S. and Spain. Needless to say, history shows that this effort was not successful.

I am also glad to report that we were able to add General Weyler's first Reconcentration order. In the future we have a number of Spanish eye witness accounts of the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the MAINE which we hope to add.

In the meantime, with the help of John Sims of the Sons of Spanish American War Veterans, the National Spanish American War Veterans Gravesite Recording Project has been moving ahead at an even faster pace, and will continue to do so.  This month we have passed the 15,500 mark in number of grave recorded.

May 23, 2020:

In the past month, we have updated almost every page of the website (about 1231 pages,...whew!), looking for broken links, and updating titles and descriptions. We found that that when Yahoo migrated all of its websites to a third party, that migration wiped out the page titles and description. This is one of the reasons why the website dropped a bit in visibility. We also updated meta words to help the search engines locate articles. During the updates we added some google analytics coding so we can see what pages get more hits, which will help us to plan a bit. Lastly, we added the coding to allow ads to show. Since ad placement is handled through artificial intelliegnce through Google, We cannot control the size or the number too well. We did set a control that only allows the ads to be at 50% of the volume the ad company would prefer. We may cut that back.

As far as ads go, we are not allowing political ads. Also, we are not allowing any risque ads either, nor alcohol-related ads.  Again, I am sorry for the ads, but the website needs to be self-supporting. We have supported it for nearly a quarter of a needs to stand on its own. Yes...we do go waaaay back as a website.

We are looking down the road to adding some more research articles. We added a basic article on the causes of the war, and a new article on theories on the sinking of the MAINE. We realized that we do not have a basic article giving a general summary the war, which we are now presently working on. That will be followed by an article on the financing of the war (no...not a big bake sale. It took more than that). That will be followed by an article on the Admiral Camara's Relief Expedition, which we have not yet covered. After that we may add some lesson plans for teachers. In the mean time, we have continued to add veterans' graves to the National Spanish American War Gravesite Recording Project at a rate of about 100 a month. We usually get a large influ around Memorial Day, but with many people on Covid-19 lockdown, people may not be out honoring their ancestors and stumbling across more Spanish American War vets as much as usual.

April 24, 2020:

Just to let you know, ads are on the way. I am not thrilled about that, but it has to be. Ad placement will be determined using smart technology from Google. I will not be choosing the hopefully they will be OK. I did block vignette ads, which are the full page ads.

On an unrelated note, I recently did and article on the mass burial of Spanish American War vets in 1899. Interetingly I have been comparing the list with Arlington National Cemetery records, and not all show in the records. In fact many do not. Of those that do, the gravestone are in bad shape. Darn marble and acid rain combnation! Those that do appear I have been adding the to Virginia Graves Page of the National Spanish American War Veterans Gravesite Recording Project.

April 20, 2020:

I made a command decision. This website costs money to operate between URl registration, hosting fees, software, etc. Also it takes a lot of time. Sooo...if I am going to continue to do this, I have to break down and add some ads. I alwys resisted ads, but, after 24 years, it is time. I will will to make them no too annoying. The ads will be from Google Adsense, and the ads shown will be based on your searh history elsewhere. That means that the ads will be for something you had some sort of interest in. Sorry about this!

April 16, 2020:

The news has had a bit of Spanish American War irony to it about which I felt the need to commemorate!

The coronavirus, covid-19, has been raging around the world. It is not at all surprising to read that the virus has struck the military. The most notable case is that of the crew of the aircraft carrier, THEODORE ROOSEVELT. The ship’s crew members began to show symptoms of the virus. In the crowded decks of this five thousand man floating city, there is no real way to stem the spread. Widespread quarantine and isolation is not practical, and the crew is still needed to allow the ship to function to fulfill its defensive role.

Apparently, the rapid pace of the situation outpaced the ability of the command structure to respond to the ship’s needs. The commanding officer, Brett E. Crozier sent a letter via email to other naval personnel in the Pacific fleet, as well as the entities such as the acting secretary of the navy, trying to enlist their aid in combatting the situation. Reportedly Crozier knew that the unclassified letter, passing outside of the naval command structure, could end his career. The letter, and the growing plight of the crew was shared beyond the original addressees, eventually made it into the San Francisco Chronicle. The navy brass and the administration were embarrassed by the situation and how it was exposed.

The letter had the desired impact. The shipped was docked, and the crew was partially removed and quarantined. By this time, hundreds of the crew had the virus. Though the crew is generally young and quite physically fit, some of the crewmen were hit hard, and so far, with the situation ongoing, one has died. Crozier himself now has the virus. As Crozier expected he was relieved of command, but cheered heavily by his devoted crewmen. The acting secretary of the navy travelled to the ship and in a speech castigated Crozier for being “stupid” and “naďve” for not believing that the text of his letter would not get out. In an ironic twist, the acting secretary was apparently too stupid and naďve to realize that his own comments would get out…and when it did, he was forced to resign!

The whole situation took me back to an important event during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, after the naval Battle of Santiago and the battle of the San Juan ridge (“San Juan Hill”…but it was actually a series of ridges), the fighting basically came to an end. The troops in Cuba now faced a new enemy – disease! Yellow fever had been a great fear, and it began to infect the troops. As time went on, many companies were reduced to a handful of men able to stand for duty, and the number of men impacted rose into the thousands. Major General Shafter’s efforts only brought suggestions from the administration in Washington that the troops be moved into the mountains in an effort to allay the illness, a pointless suggestion given the actual terrain and the positions that the troops needed to occupy. The administration was loathe to bring the men home for fear of spreading the disease in the U.S. and exposing the true condition of the troops themselves.

The officers of various regiments knew something had to be done, but they knew that trying anything different than making requests through the chain of command would bring repercussions. The officers requested a meeting with Shafter, but knew that the situation had to be addressed in writing and would likely have to move outside of the normal chain of command. The officers knew that whoever would write such a letter likely see their career ended.

With generals unwilling to risk their careers, a colonel of volunteers (not a career soldier) took up the task. He explained the situation, made suggestions about where the troops could be placed in the U.S. The colonel signed the letter. The other officers signed off on the letter, basically attesting to it, but not taking responsibility. The  letter became known as the "round robin" letter. When the colonel handed the letter to Major General Shafter, Shafter did not accept it, but instead directed it to a reporter, something that was rather expected, if not planned. The letter soon appeared in newspapers across the country, and the deplorable condition of the troops could not be denied. The administration was forced to bring the troops back to the U.S., and replace them with new troops, mistakenly thought to be immune to yellow fever. The troops came home to a camp on Long Island, New York, which was named “Camp Wickoff.”

The move possibly saved thousands of lives, but the colonel had embarrassed the administration in Washington, especially Secretary of War Alger. Since the colonel was not a career officer and was soon being mustered out, there was not much retribution that could be exacted – except one thing. The colonel had deservedly been nominated for the Medal of Honor. The secretary of war refused to authorize the medal.

That colonel, by the way, was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, future president and the namesake of the aircraft carrier under Crozier’s command. The two men are joined not only by the ship’s name, but by their actions to save their men.

Incidentally, Roosevelt eventually received his Medal of Honor but not until 2001, about eighty-five years after the old colonel’s death.

February, 2020:

This website started back in 1996, two years before the centennial of the Spanish American War. That was twenty-four years ago. We're now actually looking toward the 125th anniverary of the war. It is still a generally overlooked and forgotten event in the United States, but we will continue to try to educate the public about the war's importance

Anyhow, from 1996 until about 2010 - 2011 I managed to keep up fairly well with all of the data submitted. People geneerally do not realize the amount of time it takes to add things to the website and maintain is organization. The National Spanish American War Veterans' Gravesite Recording Project is particularly time consuming, but of imporantance in that the data has not ben brought together anywhere else. Because of the amount of unique information that people pull out of their basements and attics and send in, the Library of Congress chose this site as one of the first to be backed up as part of its "Minerva Project."

Of course, in about 2008 the Great Recession started. By 2011, the Recession was wreaking havoc with my business, and also Yahoo made a series of changes internally, and I suddenly found myself with no time to work on the website, let alone overcome the obstacles presented by Yahoo's changes. I continued to collect the data that came in.

Recently I was forced to delve back into the website when a reader reported that a website that this website had linked to had been hacked and was quite foul. I had to overcome various technical issues and regain site access to correct that situation. With this accomplished I was able to begin making other various updates. Now, with the coronavirus shutdown, and a reduction in my work hours to a normal 40 hour week, I have had some additional time to begin adding data collected over the past few years.

Though I will not be able to do as much as I used to do, I will continue working to add and update the site.

Thanks for your patience!

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