Prologue Magazine

Spring 1998, Vol. 30, No. 1

Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines of the Spanish-American War:
The Legacy of USS Maine

By Rebecca Livingston

 John Matza was a seaman on the USS Maine and one of the 260 servicemen who died in the explosion on February 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor. (NARA, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, RG 24)

This year marks the centennial of the Spanish-American War, which was fought between May and August 1898. For many reasons, this short war was a turning point in the history of the United States. The four-month conflagration marked the transformation of the United States from a developing nation into a global power. At its conclusion, the United States had acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The war was also the first successful test of the new armored navy.

Interest in the Spanish-American War is therefore increasing, and along with it, a desire on the part of many people to learn more about the 280,564 sailors, marines, and soldiers who served, of whom 2,061 died from various causes. The number of participants was not large compared to the approximately three million men who served in the Civil War or the sixteen million men and women who served in World War II. The smaller numbers are in part due to the short length of the Spanish-American War--it ended before many soldiers had even been transported to the war zone. There was also no draft during this war, as there was for the Civil War and the two subsequent world wars. But for the many Americans whose families came to the United States during the mass immigrations of the 1880s and 1890s, the Spanish-American War records are the first military records they can research.

Anyone who has done family or genealogical research in Civil War records will be pleasantly surprised at the fullness and accuracy of the Spanish-American War records. The records tend to be more descriptive and complete, with more consistency in name spelling, than the records for previous wars. By the turn of the century, enlistees were more likely to know their birth dates and how to spell their names. Record keepers were also more likely to list them correctly. These developments increase the likelihood that modern-day researchers will be able to locate birth dates, addresses of next of kin, medical information, and other information about people who served in the war.

With a few significant exceptions, the process of locating records of Spanish-American War veterans is similar to that for Civil War veterans. The best place to start is with National Archives Microfilm Publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. Pension records were carefully compiled when a veteran applied for benefits on grounds of injury, illness, or disability (later, veterans could also receive benefits based on age) or when the mothers, fathers, widows, and minor children of veterans similarly applied for benefits. Pension records typically include the application forms, proof of marriage, proof of children's births, a summary of military service, and usually death certificates. If you want to check if your great-grandfather served in the Spanish-American War and the only information you have is his name, you may be able to use the pension index to learn his branch of service, rank, and military organization. The pension index includes veterans who served in the regular army, state volunteers who were called into federal service, U.S. volunteers (e.g., Rough Riders), regular U.S. Navy, temporary naval personnel, naval militia, U.S. Coast Signal Service, and U.S. Marine Corps.

Researchers should note that the index to pension files intermingles the names of Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans. It is usually easy to distinguish those who served in the Spanish-American War, however, by the "date of service" (at the top right of the index card) or by the date on which they applied for a pension (at the bottom left of the index card.) When researchers know the branch of service and rank of their veteran, they can search the appropriate army, navy, or Marine Corps records described in this article.

Minorities and Women in the Spanish-American War

At this time, African Americans served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army but not in the U.S. Marine Corps. Women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, but there are no known records at this time of any women in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps. Native Americans fought in the Spanish-American War in the U.S. Volunteers, especially in the First Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) and First Territorial Volunteer Infantry.

On board U.S. Navy ships, African Americans were integrated with sailors of all nationalities. (Many aliens, including Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos, served on U.S. Navy ships during that era. Some of them enlisted while the ships were in foreign ports.) According to a list of "colored men on board USS Maine, February 15, 1898," 30 African Americans were among the 350 personnel on board at the time of the explosion. Of the 260 men who died, 22 were African American. They typically worked in the engine rooms; as firemen, oilers, and coal passers; or as mess attendants and landsmen. However, there were also five African American petty officers, three seamen (experienced sailors), and one ordinary seaman. Over the ensuing years, a resurgence of racism led the navy to relegate blacks to ratings of mess attendants, including some men who had held much higher ratings during the Spanish-American War.

The names of the African American sailors who served on USS Maine during the Spanish-American War, and the addresses of their next of kin, can be found in the records of the Naval Records Collection, U.S. Navy Subject File, 1775-1910 (hereinafter called the Navy Subject File). Two African American sailors received the Medal of Honor, one for actions at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, another for actions just prior to the official start of the war. Another African American sailor, Fireman William Lambert, was the pitcher for the USS Maine's baseball team. A sketch of him appears in a newspaper clipping from 1898.

A newspaper illustration of the Maine's baseball team identified several crewmembers, including an African American, Fireman William Lambert. (NARA, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, RG 24) USS Maine Baseball Team

African American soldiers served in the U.S. Army's Seventh to Tenth U.S. Volunteer (Colored) Infantries and in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry (whose soldiers were commonly referred to as the "Buffalo Soldiers"). Five soldiers from these regiments were awarded the Medal of Honor. The U.S. Marine Corps did not accept African Americans until World War II.

While there were no known women soldiers, sailors, or marines, the U.S. Army used female nurses both as civilian contract nurses and in the Army Nurse Corps. The Navy Nurse Corps was not established until 1909.

Special Records Relating to the USS Maine Victims and Survivors

For the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, the casualties that resulted from the explosion of the USS Maine (which actually occurred nearly three months before the declaration of war) were far greater than those sustained during the war itself. Only 90 of the 350 men on board the USS Maine at the time of the explosion survived. During the war, there were eighty-five U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps casualties, of which sixteen were men killed in action. A list of the "men lost" and "men saved" for the USS Maine is available in the Navy Subject File. This list of casualties was reprinted in the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy for 1898. Due to the widespread newspaper coverage of the incident and the significance of the event to the outbreak of the war, there are special records that provide information about both the victims and survivors. These special records provide a wealth of family and personal information that one rarely finds among government records of that era.

The National Archives has a collection of the letters and checks sent by two relief societies as well as replies from the family members. One of the relief organizations, known as the "Captain Sigsbee Relief Fund," was funded by Congress. The other, the "Ladies Committee Relief Fund," was privately funded. Both made substantial efforts to locate the widows, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and even cousins of the lost men. The relief societies helped place offspring of the dead servicemen in orphanages and contributed to the children's care. They also wrote hundreds of letters to post offices and embassies searching for addresses of family members. This correspondence represents a real treasure trove for genealogists. The records show that sailors and marines on the USS Maine had families in all parts of the world: the United States, Canada, Ireland, England, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Australia, and Japan.

Many of these letters describe the intense grieving of the families and their desolate poverty, which was aggravated by the loss of pay to their sailor sons and husbands. One mother of twelve children pleads for help because she was too sick to work at anything other than "taking in laundry." Other mothers sent the relief organizations newspaper clippings, prayers, and in one instance, a photograph in tribute to their sons. In some cases, the letters reveal family discord. A sister of one of the USS Maine's victims asked that her father be denied benefits because he would use it only to get drunk. With her letter, she enclosed a newspaper article describing her father's record of arrests. In another case, a widow resentful of money given to her mother-in-law commented, "She was always mean to her son and kicked him out on his own." Another case involved a unmarried woman, Mary Anderson, who had a baby by a victim of the USS Maine. She applied for relief so she could obtain medicine for the baby, who had fallen ill. Because the sailor already had a wife, Miss Anderson was ineligible for his back pay or pension benefits that she might have been entitled to as a common-law wife. Although the relief fund eventually sent her some money, it came too late to save her sick baby.

The correspondence between the relief organizations and victims' families also hints at the sorry state of race relations at the time. Some of the letters suggest that the relief societies investigated the "worthiness" of some of the African American families before providing benefits.

Filed with this correspondence are also letters from the Navy Department to families of the victims. Usually these letters answer questions about the identities of the victims in response to queries. Most mothers or widows received a letter saying, "We regret to inform you that your son was on the list of persons who were lost." One particularly sad case is revealed in a letter from the Navy Department to the brother-in-law of a marine who wrote, "Please send us information about Private John Brown. His wife is expecting a baby any day now, and is very anxious to know if her husband is alive or dead." Mrs. Brown received a letter of condolence from the Navy Department. She delivered a baby girl on March 3, 1898, sixteen days after the explosion that killed her husband.

There were a few happy letters, though, including one that began, "Your son is recovering at the Navy Hospital, Key West." Another stated, "Although your son had been ordered to USS Maine, he was still on board USS Texas at the time of the explosion."

Correspondence of the relief groups, the letters of condolences from the Navy Department, and the resulting "thank you" letters from the families are among the "correspondence relating to Naval personnel lost in the sinking of the Maine," which is arranged alphabetically by name of sailor or marine.

Regarding the survivors of the USS Maine, there are medical records of treatment at naval hospitals and their requests for compensation for personal possessions that went down with the ship. Their claims for lost possessions are located in the Navy Subject File. The records also include a list of addresses for all the survivors as of 1926. Another undated list of survivors indicates that seven men later deserted the U.S. Navy, and another two ended up at the Government Hospital of the Insane in Washington, D.C. Many no doubt experienced great trauma witnessing the drowning, burning, and mutilation of their comrades. Many who survived had serious burns and injuries. Some spent long periods convalescing in naval hospitals, and the relief groups offered money to these hospitalized sailors.

The survivors' claims for lost possessions reveal much about shipboard life at the turn of the century. A Japanese cook claimed to have lost "a Japanese-English dictionary, grammar books, a geography book, a translation of Parry's [sic] history, a sealskin vest, and a gold scarf pin with opal, a gift from his parents when he left Japan and are therefore without price." Other items claimed to have been lost by survivors included a camera, banjo, and dress sword. More routinely, survivors reported losing clothing, bedding, shaving kits, pipes, watches, knives, and Havana cigars. All of the survivors claimed a whisk broom and ditty box. Incidentally, although a large number of the survivors claimed to have lost Cuban cigars, the navy made allowances for only five hundred cigars per claimant. The USS Maine's chaplain, who claimed he had lost nine hundred Havana cigars when the ship sank, was out of luck.

Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines of the Spanish-American War, Part 2

See also these related records:

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.
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