Monday, October 26, 2015

The Forgotten War

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
            During our Ghost Walk trivia contest I asked the contestants which war the Hiker Monument in Wisner Park was dedicated to.   The answer is the Spanish-American War of 1898, but none of the contestants were able to guess that without first cycling through every American war.  Some folks like to claim that the Korean War is America’s forgotten war, but after 10 seasons of MASH, I think we can all agree that the Spanish-American War is the one that no one can actually remember. 

Postcard of the Hiker Monument in Wisner Park
            So just what was the Spanish-American War and how did it start?  The Spanish colony of Cuba had been rebelling against Spain on-and-off since the 1860s.  In 1895, the third war for Cuban independence began.  America, by and large, supported the rebels.  Cuba was a major American trading partner and there was a strong desire among hawks to obtain a Caribbean military base.  The Cuba Libre movement, centered around Florida and New York City, helped to provide money and smuggled weapons to the independence movement and while working hard to lobby the cause to the American public.  President McKinley was reluctant to get involved militarily and instead tried to force a peaceful solution to the conflict.  On November 15, 1897, Spain ratified autonomy decrees for Cuba and Puerto Rico, but it did little to quell unrest.   
Elmira Telegram, April 4, 1898
          And then came the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.  A series of riots had broken out in the city in early January and the ship had been sent to protect American shipping interests.  The ship went down in an explosion which caused the deaths of 266 of the 355 crewmen, the causes of which are still unknown.  Newspapers like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Hearst’s New York Journal claimed the explosion was Spanish plot and helped push the country towards war.  When Congress officially declared war on April 25, 1898, “Remember the Maine” was the rallying cry.
Front page of the Elmira Telegram, May 1, 1898
            On May 1, 1898, the City of Elmira gave a rounding sendoff to the men of the local 30th Separate Company of the New York National Guard as they marched from the Armory to the trains that would take them to Long Island.  The streets were packed with well wishers including a delegation and marching band from Corning.  The policemen assigned to crowd control were forced to use their billy-clubs to clear the soldiers’ path to the train.   The company of 112 men from Elmira and Horseheads were eager to go but they never actually made it to the conflict.       

            Their first stop was Camp Black, Long Island where they were assigned to the First Battalion and re-designated as Company L.  From there they went for training at Camp Alger in Virginia.  The sanitary conditions at Camp Alger were so appalling that an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out among the men, killing several.  Those not afflicted practiced marching, earning themselves the nickname of “The Hikers.”  Meanwhile, the war in Cuba was doing so well the army decided to send the entire First Battalion home on September 12th.  The men of Company L were officially mustered out December 10, 1898.

Company L men at Camp Alger, July 4, 1898
            Hostilities in the Spanish-American War were officially halted on August 12, 1898, although the Battle of Manila ended up taking place the following day.  After months of negotiations, the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898 and ratified by Congress on February 6, 1899.  As a result, Cuba became an independent nation and the United States gained the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  Thanks to the Camp Alger disaster, they also learned a valuable lesson about sanitation.  Following the war, the Army Medical Corps issued new regulations about sanitation standards which greatly reduced the loss of life due to disease in later wars.   

Company L on the steps of City Hall,  December 10, 1898


  1. very loose your soldier to war is horrible but to think you lost them to disease on your home ground is even harder to understand....hopefully their families could find some peace knowing the knowledge the Army Medical Corp learned from their deaths helped to help set up new regulations about sanitation to help prevent this from happening in future

  2. Down in Florida, my grandfather was a Chaplain with a Regiment set to ship out for Cuba, but they too were mustered out before sailing too. Except for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, it is a largely forgotten war...