The Boys of 1898 Revisited

The Battleship Maine, Havana Harbor 1898

February 15, 1898 The battleship Maine destroyed by mysterious explosion

The Spanish American War of 1898 began in the spring of 1898 a few months after the sinking of battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Local historian Ned Lamb was then 23 and an 1893 graduate of Milltown High School. Although he went on to become a newspaperman, accomplished photographer and historian, Lamb worked in the Milltown sawmills and as a weaver in the cotton mill in the 1890’s. Always interested in politics and history and knowing most of the men who eventually went off to the Spanish-American war, he has provided us a contemporary local view of the war. The “Teddy” mentioned below is Theodore Roosevelt.

The Spanish-American War which started officially April 19, 1898, was a mess. Teddy seems to have been about the only one of the upper layer who came out of it with increased prestige, and some of this was due to the good work of the navy which he insisted should be made ready when he was Secretary of the Navy.

There had always been more or less trouble between the Spanish government and the people of Cuba. Ten years before there had been a rebellion that had been suppressed, Spanish fashion. Another rebellion came about in 1895 and created a great deal of interest in the U. S.

Perhaps one reason was that people in the States had upward of 50 million dollars invested there. The U. S. sent the battleship Maine down to Havana. The Maine was blown up and sunk. Did the Spaniards do the dirty work or did the Cubans to get us mad at the Spanish. No one ever really fixed the blame.

Then there came a great burst of patriotism. Many people wanted to grab the old flintlock from over the mantle and go down there and lick everybody or somebody. Almost every newspaper and most men wanted to run the war, especially if they could get something out of it.

Commodore George Dewey was in command of the U. S. Fleet then in Hong Kong. He got orders to find the Spanish fleet and he found it to Manila Bay. He attacked and squashed the Spanish fleet without the loss of a man. A German Commander put his ship near to the Spanish flagship. Dewey sent word to him that if he wanted war, it would start right there.

“You can fire when you are ready, Gridley” was the word passed and in an incredibly short time that Spanish fleet was no more, and without the loss of a man on the American fleet while 10 of the Spanish vessels were sunk. On Dewey’s flagship the story was that two coal heavers when they had filled the furnace would drop their shovels and grab some banjos and play “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town tonight.” 

In the meantime, the blunders went merrily on over here. Our army was sent south and camped in or near swamps where the men got typhoid and malaria, and many died. To help out they fed them on what was called “Embalmed Beef” well preserved in chemicals. (Someone made money out of that). Then they sent them heavy woolen clothing to fight in a hot climate. (Somebody made money out of that). Then they sent them to Tampa before transports were ready, and then packed them on the transports and held them crowded there. But when they did get to Cuba, they proved to be good fighters and defeated the Spanish in the only land battle. The U. S. army fought one battle or perhaps you could say a battle in two parts. There was a Calais man in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders when they charged up San Juan Hill and there were Milltown and Calais men at El Caney, so this made everything all right.

 The sinking of the Maine had only exacerbated an already tense relationship between the United States and Spain. Cuba was then a Spanish colony and Spain’s brutal suppression of Cuba’s independence movement was a “cause celebre” for many American newspapers. U.S. business interests in Cuba were substantial and   more profitable business opportunities were envisioned in an independent Cuba. The war faction was supported by the yellow press of the day which inflamed U.S. public opinion over the Spanish mistreatment of the local populace which was real but often exaggerated. There was little question however the majority of Cubans wanted to see the backs of the Spaniards.

Even before the sinking of the Maine local sentiment was anti-Spanish and pro Cuban independence. Local schools and civic organizations embraced the Cuban cause.

An early February 1898 the Eastport Sentinel reported:

T h e High School Lyceum will give a public entertainment in Dennysville Hall on Tuesday evening the 22d inst.- The exercises will be a discussion of the resolution” The United States Should Help Cuba” There will be declamations, recitations and readings in the society paper.  A cordial invitation is extended to the citizens of both villages to attend.

In March 1898, when many U.S. newspapers were beating the drums of war and supporting the Cuban revolutionaries fighting the Spanish, the Eastport Sentinel opined:

Many thousands of noncombatants, men women and children, have died of starvation and want in Cuba, and the distress and deaths from the same cause is at the present time greater than ever. These people have been forced into idleness by orders of the Spanish authorities driven from their little holdings of land and usual habitations and collected into districts where no employment or means of existence is obtainable. Spain calmly and heartlessly permits this condition to continue without relief, while the people of the United States are taking active measures to furnish supplies and necessary care to alleviate suffering among those who are in no way responsible for the war now in progress upon the island. Secretary Long has decided to send a naval vessel to Cuba at once with many provisions tons of provisions contributed for the relief of the suffering reconcentrados.

President McKinley resisted the pressure to go to war with Spain for several weeks but on April 21st, 1898, he succumbed, the casus belli being the sinking of the Maine by, it was claimed, a Spanish mine. Even though there remained serious questions as to the cause of the explosion, the American public had been primed by the press and many politicians to accept no other explanation. Decades later the U.S. Navy conducted an official investigation which concluded the explosion on the Maine which sank the ship was internal and not caused by a Spanish mine:

“We found no technical evidence . . . that an external explosion initiated the destruction of the Maine. The available evidence is consistent with an internal explosion alone. We therefore conclude that an internal source was the cause of the explosion. The most likely source was heat from a fire in a coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine.

Calais Company K marches off to war. To the right is the corner of Whitney Street.

Very soon after war was declared the Calais militia (Company K) was called up and dutifully marched down Main Street cheered on by a crowd numbering in the thousands. Their destination was the upper wharf just downriver from the Ferry Point Bridge. The wharf was behind what is now Hardwick’s Store.

A crowd of thousand saw off the Company K. To the right is the Ferry Point Bridge

The Rose begins her journey downriver to Eastport with Company K

They boarded the Rose Standish and went downriver to Eastport to join with other local militia companies ordered to report for duty in Augusta. 

From the Eastport Sentinel May 4, 1898:

Tuesday dawned clear and cool, an ideal day for the departure of the troops, who from early in the morning were hurrying about the city getting ready to meet Co. K from Calais, who were to accompany them from this city, and making personal arrangement for starting on a trip which may terminate at Augusta or Cuba, the men fully realizing the conditions under which they are leaving home, knowing that they will be asked to volunteer for either defensive or offensive service as exigencies of the case may demand. The matter has been well considered, and the men are ready. The examination that they will undergo may disqualify some, perhaps all, but those who are accepted, although belonging to a younger generation will carry with them the same spirit of loyalty and devotion to the flag that characterized the troops of Eastport and Maine in ’61, and the motto will be the same that is now nailed to every banner that will float in this nation, “Remember the Maine.”

The Calais boys (Company K) disembarked from the Rose Standish in Eastport accompanied by the Ferry Point Band and a full delegation of friends and were met at the wharf by Capt. Hume and members of Co. I. Nearly all the Calais boys went to the Armory, afterward taking a walk about town till 2 o’clock when a procession was formed on Green Street.

Most of the troops were not to stay away long. The majority soon returned. As the Eastport Sentinel reported on May 25th, they lacked the training or experience to go into battle. The Eastport Sentinel explained:

A portion of the infantry force might possibly be used in connection and cooperating with the regular army, and which would probably be utilized largely as a reserve; but to depend upon troops whose only drill and discipline had been in the short annual encampments and in the armory, would be a folly which those in command would not be likely to attempt. The risk would be too great in forcing undisciplined troops into active service. One Bull Run in a lifetime is sufficient for this country. Encampment and armory drill teaches the National guardsman but little concerning actual field manoeuvers, such as would be used in attack, retreat or defence. A serious defect in the National Guard organization in nearly all of the states, is an almost total lack of transportation service, sanitary or engineer, ambulance and hospital or signal corps, and an effective staff, composed of soldiers who understand their business.

However, local men did go off to war in 1898. Some deployed to Cuba when much of the fighting was over although Cuba was still a dangerous place. Other locals were engaged in the only land battle of the war and mopping up operations after the battle.

Teddy Roosevelt leads his troops in the Battle for San Juan Hill Cuba

As Ned Lamb noted, one of the few participants in the war who came home with an enhanced reputation was Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt led the charge of his famous Roughriders up Kettle Hill in support of the main force assaulting San Juan Hill. His courage and leadership were not in doubt nor was the bravado and courage of the Roughriders. Roosevelt did not, as depicted in several paintings, including one by Frederick Remington, lead the charge on horseback. The Roughriders fought as dismounted infantry in the battle.

Guy Murchie of Calais

One of the Calais men we know fought with the Roughriders was Calais’ Guy Murchie, a student at Harvard College. Roosevelt in comments after the war described the composition of the roughriders which included many woodsmen and cowboys but also:

Of a higher social standing but taking not less kindly to the hardships of camp life, were the Volunteers who came from New York and other cities. Provided a recruit could ride and shoot, he was not disqualified if he happened to be a gentleman; and the Volunteers from Harvard or the Knickerbocker Club turned out just as good soldiers as the cowboys. With hardly an exception, their Colonel declares, they bore themselves admirably. No work was too hard, or too disagreeable, or too dangerous for them; nor were they disappointed at having to take their chance in the ranks without prospect of promotion or special distinction. Few of the names mentioned will convey any meaning, perhaps, to English readers, but the facts given speak for themselves. The Harvard contingent was practically raised by Guy Murchie, of Maine. He saw all the fighting and did his duty with the utmost gallantry, and then left the service as he had entered it, a trooper, entirely satisfied to have done his duty and no man did it better.

Murchie and Roosevelt continued to be close friends after the war and continued so through Roosevelt’s presidency. An article about Murchie can be found here.

Local men in Cuba during Spanish American War

A fair number of locals did reach Cuba including the group above. Many arrived after the serious fighting was over although Cuba was still a dangerous place. Rob Golding of Perry was one as were Ernest Hill and Charles Bowden of Calais. After hostilities ended they served mainly on garrison duty and according to a letter Hill wrote home spent a good deal of time wandering aimlessly throughout the countryside buying local produce and in one instance trying unsuccessfully to harvest coconuts from a tree which defeated all efforts to either reach its top or give up its fruit to barrages of rocks.

The candlestick over my left shoulder is said to have been saved from the U.S.S. Maine

I have a personal connection to the USS Maine. On the mantlepiece of my office in the firm of Brown, Tibbetts, Churchill and Lacasse, your writer, being the Churchill of this distinguished group, there was a candlestick which can be seen just over my left shoulder. On a note taped to the bottom of the candlestick, aged and yellow, was written “From the U.S.S. Maine.” From my research it appears the office was possibly once the home of Charles Bowden, one of the fellows in the photo above. How he came to have the candlestick remains a mystery as does the answer to the question of why anyone abandoning a burning ship would choose a candlestick to save from the inferno. Perhaps it was retrieved from Havana harbor and sold as a souvenir to Bowden or, more likely, some local entrepreneur bought dozens of these and sold them as authentic souvenirs from the Maine to the American soldiers who were on garrison duty after the war. As a soldier in Vietnam, I could purchase an “authentic” Rolex watch for $10 or for $5 the very sandals worn by Ho Chi Minh while under sentence of death in a Hong Kong prison. Still, we take the position that the candlestick is authentic and will someday be assessed by the folks on the Antiques Roadshow as worth a fortune. Then again we could be one of the folks at the end of the show who say they had a great time even though their treasured antique was actually a fake and worth nothing. 

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