How to Read a Spanish American Gravestone
By Patrick McSherry
Dewey's Flagship, OLYMPIA
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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.
gravestone reads "SP AM WAR" but is the veteran
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”).
truly a Spanish American War Veteran? The only way to
know if to do some additional research!
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
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
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
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
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,
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:
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
The gravestone at left has the state name before the unit
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 abbreivations, 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
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
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
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:
1st through 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry regiments
The 1st through 3rd U.S. Volunteer
The 1st through 3rd U.S Volunteer
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
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
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.”
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.
4. The Migratory Practices
of flag holders.
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
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
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
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
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