One Man’s War

Shifting to a more somber Caribbean story in commemoration of the beginning of the Spanish-American War, on this day in 1898. I thought I had the perfect source to draw upon for a puffy piece on Salem’s experience of this ten-week war: Harry Webber’s Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War (1901). After all, the author was a journalist for the Salem Evening News who traveled with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry to Cuba. But Webber was only interested in presenting the barest of outlines from a patriotic perspective: he did not dig deep and he also got a lot of thing wrong, including the name of Salem’s first and most celebrated casualty of the war, William Huntingdon Sanders. When I saw Sanders’ photograph captioned with the name Wellman H. Sanders, I promptly put Webber away and looked for some real primary sources.

Spanish American collage

William H. Sanders grew up on Chestnut Street, at #43. He loved sports and science, and attended both MIT and Harvard, from which he graduated in 1897. I’m not quite sure what he was up to in the year between his graduation and the outbreak of war, but he enlisted a few days after the declaration along with several like-minded friends, forsaking the Massachusetts 8th for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which attracted a curious mix of southwestern cowboys and Ivy Leaguers like Sanders. Off they went to Texas for training, and then to Cuba, where Sanders saw action with Troop B, and served as Roosevelt’s orderly during the battle of San Juan Hill.  He is referenced by Roosevelt in his various regimental memoirs for his service, but also for his death, which came six weeks after San Juan on a hospital boat in Santiago Harbor.

Spanish American War Map

Spanish American War Stereo

Spanish-American War 3

The Boston Sunday Herald’s special section on the war on April 28, 1898 included this “Map of the Seat of War”, Boston Public Library; the Rough Riders departing for Cuba on the Yucatan and Roosevelt’s serialized war memoirs in Scribner’s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Roosevelt, along with all the short notices, reports that Sanders died of a “fever” but I wanted to know more, and it took some work to uncover the precise circumstances of his death. This is why I’m so angry with Webber, the “reporter”: he neglects to report one of the key aspects of the Spanish-American War and all of the wars before it: the fact that more casualties came from disease than from combat. Military historians, at least those that focus on the totality of war rather than just the reconstruction of battles, always stress the roles of environment and infection, generally dividing modern warfare into Eras of Disease (18th century–1918), during which infectious diseases were the major killer of armed forces, and Trauma (1941 to the present), in which combat-related fatalities prevailed. Sanders and his fellow soldiers were sent into combat armed for war, but defenseless against disease. The American casualties in both the Caribbean and Pacific theaters of the Spanish-American War numbered 3,289, of which nearly 3000 died from disease, including malaria, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever. This was realized at the time: Major-General William Shafter famously referred to his “army of convalescents”, and the newspaper articles published daily in July and August of 1898 reported on both the high incidence of fever among the troops–as well as its mismanagement– with great conviction and regularity. My favorite headline, from the Boston Daily Globe, August 12, 1898: Neglect of Brave. Busiest Officer in Santiago is General Incompetence. That very same day, which happens to be the same day that William Sanders died, Harper’s Weekly published an equally scathing visual indictment on its cover.

Spanish-American War Headline

Spanish-American War Harpers

While the general story was well-reported, I could only get at Sanders’ personal story through Harvard, or the Harvard Crimson in particular, which told the stories of all the Harvard men who fought and died in the war in a slim volume issued in 1899. Each Harvard volunteer’s story is derived from first-hand accounts, and Sanders’ is particularly poignant (and infuriating!):  Sanders was in all the battles of his regiment. He had many narrow escapes but was never wounded. He was always exposed, especially in the assault of San Juan Hill, when he was Colonel Roosevelt’s orderly. On July 6, Sanders had a slight attack of malaria, and a second more severe one on July 23. He was ordered to the General Hospital at Santiago on July 30. But no ambulance was sent for him, and accordingly his tent-mate Dean mounted him on a horse and took him to Santiago. But they could not find the hospital. Dean therefore left Sanders in charge of the steward at the Marine Hospital with the latter’s promise to have him taken to a hospital boat in the Bay before sundown. But the promise was not kept. Sanders lay on the piazza of the Marine Hospital for two days, feeble, without remedies or care. He was then removed to the ship Los Angeles. But it was too late. He died August 12, and was buried in Salem with full military honors. Indeed he was, on September 15.

Sanders Collage

The story doesn’t end there, however, as William’s father, Mr. Charles Sanders, would not let it end: he obviously asked questions: what happened at the marine hospital? what happened on the hospital ship? I know this, because he received at least one answer, from an anonymous nurse on the Los Angeles, which was published in all the Boston- area newspapers under the title Rough Rider’s Life Sacrificed on October 29, 1898. In said nurse’s opinion, I feel sure that his death was due to the lack of proper stimulants to bring him over the chasm between the time of his fever’s leaving and the return of his natural vitality. I am not a trained nurse, and did not know at the time what he should have had, and because of the inefficiency or drunkenness (or both) of the attending physician, proper restoratives were not administered in time. Inefficiency or drunkenness, or both! Since I’ve tried to be a bit journalistic in this post, I searched for an official rejoinder, but came up short. There’s no way William Sander’s service and death can represent the totality of the American experience in the Spanish-American War, but they do open up one window, and provide a necessary corrective to contemporary reports like Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War.

12 responses to “One Man’s War

  • Matt

    Alcoholism was rampant in navies, ours and others, for centuries (wine mess was not banned from US Navy until 1914, I believe). And the training afforded ships “doctors” was practically non-existent. Patrick O’Brien’s Master & Commander series gets into this often, describing most ships doctors as drunken butchers. Throw in the tendency for the military to close ranks around their own, it is rare that the truth comes out officially. Welcome home, prof!

    • daseger

      Hi Matt, I’m sure you’re right–from my perspective, though, 1898 just seems so modern and I was shocked to read all these newspaper articles about men left to die, unattended, from a variety of tropical fevers with whom everyone was familiar.

  • Brian Bixby

    The Spanish-American War is also noted for the U.S. military being supplied with aged and rotten food by the civilian suppliers.I don’t know the details, so I cheated and consulted Wikipedia:

    • daseger

      Really? Unbelievable. Before this post, all I had in my mind (from my high school history classes–no US history after that) was Rough Riders + Imperialism. Obviously there’s a lot more to the Spanish-American War!

      • bradaustin

        When I talk about the Pure Food and Drug Act (Signed by TR in 1906, I believe), I mention that the poor provisions for the US military during the Spanish-American War helped motivate TR, and others, to reform the industry. Such a shame.

      • daseger

        Thanks, Brad.

  • helenbreen01

    Donna, what a sad and compelling story. I never cease to admire your ability to dig up appropriate sources for your timely pieces.

    Keep it up!

  • Kelly North

    Excellent article. Great research too!

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    An excellent post. Focusing on this single individual tells the story of many of the men who went to Cuba, along with the Philippines and Guam between 1898 and 1902.

    Reading the woefully undetailed account given by the Salem Evening News reporter one has to wonder if he wasn’t hitting the sauce, as well.

  • Martha Sanders

    Thank you so much Donna for your research and compassionate interest. Bill Sanders was my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. He was a remarkable person – courageous, confident, and trustworthy. He was much loved by all, and when he joined the Rough Riders without telling his parents for fear (correctly) that they would refuse to let him go, he began a series of letters to them intended to reassure them that he would be ok. I have these letters, and reading them made me admire him but also feel an immense sadness, as I knew he would not be ok, and would come to lose his life so needlessly. Teddy Roosevelt was very fond of Bill, and after his death corresponded with my great grandparents several times. They were heartbroken, and needed to know what had happened. In order to comfort them, Roosevelt got on a train and met them in Connecticut to talk about Bill. His loss had a lasting impact on the family.

    • daseger

      Martha, thank you so much for commenting–I hoped you would! This adds so much to the piece. I’m so glad to know that TR followed up with your family.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: