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How to Read a Spanish American War Gravestone

By Patrick McSherry

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How to read a gravestone? Really? How tough can it be? There are only a few lines of basic information, right? Well, actually, many people misunderstand the data given on a Spanish American War gravestone, and make assumptions that are not correct. This article will help you to read the gravestone and actually understand its data by clearing up some of the most common issues.

Spanish American War Grave

The gravestone reads "SP AM WAR" but is the veteran
truly a Spanish American  War Veteran? The only way to
know if to do some additional research!

1.    “It says ‘SP AM WAR’ right on it…whatdya mean he didn’t serve in that war?? (This statement is usually followed by an implied “you jerk”).

This is a big misunderstanding concerning gravestone of the Spanish American War period. Yes, veterans who served in the Spanish American War could receive a government-supplied stone (such as that above), and it would indicate “SP AM WAR” for Spanish American War. Here’s the kicker – veterans who served in other conflicts, namely the Philippine American War and the Chinese Relief Expedition (“Boxer Rebellion”) could also apply for government gravestones, and their stones will also indicate “SP AM WAR” even though they may not have served in that conflict.

Some background is needed to understand this blatant bit of misinformation that can literally be carved in stone. The Spanish American War lasted from April 25 until December 10, 1898. It began with the declaration of war, and ended with the Treaty of Paris. After December 10, 1898, we were at peace with Spain. A few months later, on February 4, 1899, war broke out between former allies - the American and Filipino forces. The U.S. initially thought this was just a small mop-up affair, but it grew into a much more bloody war than the Spanish American War. This conflict went on for years. It officially ended on July 4, 1902, but fighting actually continued well into 1906. Initially, the Philippine American conflict was fought by the troops already present, who had just also fought in the Spanish American War. It is important to realize that this war was a separate conflict from the Spanish American War. Why? Spain was not involved! We were fighting against a former defacto ally, the Filipinos. The war was local to the Philippines and was not a worldwide conflict as was the Spanish American War.

The Chinese Relief Expedition lasted from 1900 to 1901 and occurred in China. In short, it had no relation to the Spanish American War.

That all said, why do the government-supplied gravestones for the veterans of the Philippine American War and the Chinese Relief Expedition lie and list “SP AM WAR?” It has to do with pensions. Congress set up a fund out of which veterans of the Spanish American War could receive a pension. When the Philippine American War started, those men initially fighting in it had served in the Spanish American War. These men, of course, received pensions from the same fund. As new troops arrived in the Philippines who had enlisted after December 10, 1898, they certainly were also entitled to pensions. The government continued paying pensions to these men out of the same fund and classed them as Spanish American War veterans though they technically were not 
since they joined after the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the Spanish American War. The Chinese Relief Expedition veterans, some of which had also served in the Spanish American War, were just thrown into this same category. No separate pension funds were set up for either the Philippine American War vets or the Chinese Relief Expedition vets. Bureaucracy being what it was, if a man received a Spanish American War pension, then all of their documentation had to list “Spanish American War” for their service even if they did not exactly serve in that conflict, since that is the fund out of which their pension was paid. So, yes, your Philippine American War veteran relative’s pension papers will also list him as a Spanish American War veteran incorrectly. The government-issued gravestone is a government document. It follows the same line of reasoning and will list the veteran as a Spanish American War veteran because that is the fund out of which his pension and gravestone expenses were paid and what all of his paperwork stated while he was alive, not because he served in that conflict.

How can you find out if the person served in the Spanish American War. Often it can be simple. Here are the solutions:

A.    Check what military unit is listed on th e gravestone. If it was a unit that only existed during the war – like the state units or certain U.S. Volunteer regiments - the problem is solved. If the unit is part of the standing army, navy or marines, then you will have more work.

B.    You can check our online rosters. If your relative shows up, he was a Spanish American War Veteran.

C.    Check other sources to find the date of enlistment. If the period of enlistment spans any part of the Spanish American War, he is a Spanish American War veteran. And no, it does not matter that he never left the U.S.!

2.    Unit Designations – Let there be order!

Understanding the military unit designation on a gravestone can be very, very confusing! The order of the data on the stone, and some other clues can solve the problem.

First, if a gravestone reads “David Wastusi, Ohio, 6th Infantry,” that does not mean the same as “David Watusi, 6th Ohio Infantry.” The first case, with the state name preceding the unit, means that this gent listed Ohio as his home state when he enlisted in the 6th U.S. Infantry (the U.S. is implied since a state is not listed in the unit designation). The second, with the state name in the unit designation, means that the gent enlisted in the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Veterans grave withstate name before the regiment  Veteran's gravestone with the State in unit name
The gravestone at left has the state name before the unit designation.
The gravestone at right has the state name in the unit designation.

The 6th U.S. Infantry and the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry were entirely separate military units that briefly co-existed. The U.S. regiments (units with just U.S., a number and a branch – artillery, infantry or cavalry) were part of the “regulars” or the standing army. These regiments existed before the war, and continued to exist after the war. They were usually the best trained, and were professional soldiers. They did not like to be confused with the state or national volunteers, whom they considered to be untrained rabble for the most part.

Keep in mind that “volunteer” has nothing to do with actually volunteering versus being drafted. There was no conscription in the Spanish American War era (and even when there was, during the Civil War, the regiments were still listed as “volunteer” even if not all of the men actually intended to be there). The word “volunteer”- often abbreviated “Vol.” -  is used to differentiate between the regular standing army units and the temporary regiments, usually raised by a state and turned over for use by the federal government for the period of the war, such as the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

So…word order is important. If the state precedes the number, the regiment is a U.S. regular army regiment. If the state name comes after the number, it is a volunteer regiment from a state. If you do not understand particular abbreviations, we explain them here

There is a confusing set of regiments that cause particular problems. These are the U.S. Volunteer regiments, such as the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry or the 9th U.S. Volunteer Infantry. Note that the word “volunteer” appears prominently in these unit designations. The 1st U.S. Cavalry and the
1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry are not the same unit. The first – with no “volunteer” in the designation - was, again, a regiment of the regular, standing army that existed before the war, and would continue to exist afterwards. The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry was a very temporary regiment that existed for only a few months (in fact, this regiment was also known as “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” and is legendary). The two co-existed, but were not the same unit, and had entirely different histories and were made up of different groups of men.

The U.S. Volunteer regiments had this odd designation because they were temporary “volunteer” regiments like the state regiments, but they did not come from one particular state. They were recruited from various locations across the nation, hence the “U.S.” designation rather than a state designation. There were only sixteen of these regiments in the Spanish American War, as follows:

The 1st through 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry regiments
The 1st through 3rd U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiments
The 1st through 3rd U.S Volunteer Engineers

So, in short, if the inscription reads both “U.S.” and “volunteer,” it was one of these regiments. Also keep in mind that “volunteer” can be abbreviated “Vol.” In some cases the U.S. Volunteer regiment designation is abbreviated as “U.S.V.” Therefore the
9th U.S. Volunteer Infantry can be listed as the “9th U.S.V. Inf.” for example.

3.    Companies, Batteries and Troops, Oh my!

After the main unit designation, there is often a listing of the military branch – infantry, artillery or cavalry.

Just to clarify a question we receive, infantry were the gents who individually fire longarms, like a rifle. An infantry regiment – abbreviated “inf,” consisted of nine to twelve companies of men. Company is designated by a letter, so you may find the “4th PA Vol. Inf. Co. L” which is the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Company L.

 The artillery fired cannons and is abbreviated “art.” At times you may see “L.A.” or “H.A.” which refers to “light artillery” and “heavy artillery”. Light artillery is the type of artillery that the army would take with it in the field. Heavy artillery was generally too big for being pulled around, and was stationary in fortifications. A light artillery regiment is divided into nine to twelve “batteries” also designated by a letter, so we may have the “7th U.S. Art., Batt A” for the 7th U.S. Artillery, Battery A. HOWEVER, the space is tight on a gravestone, so usually, even though it is incorrect, often “Co.” is substituted for “Batt.” So, you will more typically see something like “7th U.S. Art., Co. A” even though a light artillery regiment does not have companies! Co. A refers to Battery A. Heavy artillery is similar, though heavy artillery often also received infantry training as well as artillery training. In some cases heavy artillery regiments were officially made of companies, while at other times, of batteries. Heavy artillery was rare during the Spanish American War, so don’t fret about it.

Then we have the cavalry – and please note that the letter “v” occurs before the letter “l” in the word “cavalry.” These were the men who generally fought on horseback, or theoretically used their horses to rapidly deploy onto a battlefield. Most of the cavalry regiments who made it to the front during the war went into battle without horses. Terrain, tight trails and high amount of fodder needed for horses made horses somewhat impractical on a large scale. However, these units were “cavalry” not “calvary.” Calvary is where Jesus was crucified. Cavalry are men on horses.

Whereas infantry regiments have companies and artillery regiments have batteries, cavalry regiments consisted of nine to twelve “troops.” Troops are also designated by letter, such as “Troop F,” Those of you familiar with old television shows will remember the comedy about an old west cavalry unit which was called “F Troop,” which is how a cavalry troop was usually referred to...letter first.

Grave with Spanish American War Cross
This grave has the Spanish American War Cross
flagholder...but that does not mean it is definitely a Spanish
American War grave. To find out, uncover the unit

4.   The Migratory Practices of flag holders.

Another thing that leads people astray is not on the stone itself... it is the flagholder often put at a veteran’s grave. In the case of the Spanish American War, the flagholder is in the shape of the symbol of the United Spanish War Veterans (U.S.W.V.), which was an equal-armed cross, like that of the Red Cross. Theoretically, these flag holders are placed beside the veteran’s grave so that a flag can be placed there.

The problem is that flag holders are not reliable. The flagholder was placed at the grave years ago. When the gent with the lawn mower comes through, does he mow around it? No, he removes it, mows and replaces it. For a typical flagholder, this may have occurred hundreds of times. Often, when the flagholder is put back, it moves a bit. Soon it is unclear what grave it is associated with, especially if the original gravestone was a family stone (as opposed to a government-supplied stone), and does not list the unit, but only a name. The flagholders, especially in the pre-weedwacker age, have migrated like Monarch butterflies. The author has seen World War Two flagholders on the graves of females who died in the mid-1800’s and a Revolutionary War flagholder on a World War Two veteran’s grave. Also, at times those installing the flagholders used whatever flagholder they had in stock...and it may represent the correct conflict.

A Spanish American War flagholder is an indication that a Spanish American War veteran may be nearby, but just because it is beside a specific stone does not guarantee that the stone was that of a Spanish American War veteran. More evidence is needed. Check around, check rosters, and check records!

Once you verify that you have found the grave of a Spanish American War veteran, submit that information to have it listed on the National Spanish American War Veterans' Gravesite Recording Project.

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