The Spanish-American War and the U.S. involvement in it was something I rarely remember hearing about in school, and most of the action took place far from Michigan, so I didn't really know much about this particular chapter of U.S. history. But there are a couple of historical markers and monuments in this area that serve to occasionally remind us about this largely forgotten war, including one that I recently spotted during a visit to the Island Lake State Recreation Area in Michigan's southeastern corner.
The war was a conflict between the United States and Spain, and the question of Cuban Independence from Spain at the very end of the 1800s.
The sinking of an American ship in the Havana Harbor during the spring of 1898 led to the active involvement of the U.S. with President William McKinley calling for 125,000 volunteers in April of 1898. He called for another 75,000 men to fight the war in May.
Michigan's governor, Hazen Pingree, ordered the National Guard in the state to try to field several units of volunteers to fight, but found that Federal law at the time required volunteers to enlist as individuals instead of part of a unit.
Nearly all of Michigan's National Guard members volunteered, though, and enough men to form several regiments that spring. The men mobilized at Island Lake, forming four regiments worth of men for the volunteer infantry.
The men organized and trained at the lake, which is now the centerpiece of the Island Lake State Recreation a bit west of metro Detroit and near the city of Brighton where we've hiked and canoed in the past.
A total of 6,893 men served in the Michigan regiments.
The men optimistically trained and prepared to go face battle in Cuba and other points south, but the bigger battle turned out to be the one against disease that claimed far more victims than anything else.
The 31st regiment left for Georgia by mid-May of 1898. The 32nd and 33rd regiments left for Florida and the 34th left for the District of Columbia area shortly after the initial group's departure in May. The men of the 35th regiment finally headed out towards Pennsylvania by September.
Some of the men bound for Cuba didn't make it there as a transport ship collided with another ship headed for Cuba. Those men spent time in Florida before returning to Michigan by late 1898, but not before losing at least 20 men from disease they picked up in the warm and humid climate.
A few of the men finally arrived in Cuba by January of 1899 to mostly perform guard duties before returning home as early as late April 1899 with all of the units returning home and disbanding by spring of 1899.
When the some of the regiments did make it to Cuba, a few saw battle, but many more died of disease like yellow fever than of wounds sustained in battle.
For example, three men from the 34th regiment died of wounds suffered in battle, while 88 men reportedly died of yellow fever they mostly contracted in camp near Santiago. Another report says that the 34th had 1,153 enlisted men and 45 officers at the time they mustered out of the army, losing 80 men to disease and one by drowning. The men's inexperience and the tropical weather probably contributed to their problems with improper placement of latrines and the close proximity of the latrines to the regimental kitchens.
The 35th never actually saw foreign service, but the regiment still lost 23 men to disease by the time the group returned to Georgia and disbanded at the end of March 1899.
This whole episode in U.S. history seems largely forgotten, but there is also a memorial with a group of Spanish-American War veteran graves closer to Detroit placed at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley in 1931 that we discovered while geocaching nearly ten years ago (the cache here tells a little about Michigan's involvement with the war and the history of the involvement of Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers) in the Spanish-American War).
Want to learn more about Michigan's involvement in the Spanish-American War? There are a couple of scans of historic books at Amazon like Letters from Michigan soldiers in the Spanish-American War: giving their opinions of the manner in which Michigan troops were cared for at Camp Eaton, equipped, and sent to the front or Michigan volunteers of '98: a complete photographic record of Michigan's park in the Spanish-American war of 1898.
© Dominique King 2016 All rights reserved