Dakota Datebook

Spanish-American War

Thursday, May 13, 2004

We’d like to dedicate this show to Everett Albers, who died April 24th of cancer. He was the Executive Director of the ND Humanities Council since its inception in 1973 until his death. He co-authored, with Jerome Tweton, the Humanities Council publication, “TR, Cowboys, Rough Riders and Our Boys in the Philippines,” which provided the information for this two-part story.

Most of us know little about the Spanish-American War, except that the Rough Riders took part. Nor do we know much about the Philippine-American War, which started a few months later. In a nutshell, Cuba rebelled against Spain during the late 1800s because of economic depression and heavy taxation. Spain crushed the Cuban revolts, and in 1898 installed a new get-tough governor, Valeriano Weyler. Weyler promptly turned Cuba’s cities into concentration camps where all Cubans “loyal to Spain” were told to go. Those who didn’t comply were labeled unpatriotic and shot to death. The Spanish then destroyed the Cubans’ villages, farms and livestock. Cuban rebels responded by destroying plantations, sugar mills and cane fields – everything Spain valued.

Americans were concerned about conditions within the concentration camps, but President McKinley had experienced the horrors of the Civil War and wanted to steer clear of a war with Spain. When John Pulitzer’s NY World and William Randolph Hearst’s NY Journal started printing graphic details of Spanish atrocities, Americans pressed harder for intervention. McKinley offered to help negotiate a peaceful resolution, and in late 1897, Weyler was replaced and Spain promised to disband the concentration camps – but they wouldn’t give Cuba its freedom.

A surprise explosion turned everything in a new direction; on February 15th, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine was blown up while in the Havana Harbor. Two hundred and sixty American sailors died, and a new cry arose: “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”

Unfortunately, America was far ready for war. Spain had 80,000 soldiers and officers in Cuba; America had only 28,000 who were ready for action. So McKinley turned to volunteers and state-militias – or the National Guard. In particular, the Secretary of War wanted three cavalry regiments formed “exclusively of frontiersmen possessing special qualifications as horsemen and marksmen.” Teddy Roosevelt was offered his dream job – to lead the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. As he began signing volunteers, Brooks Brothers tailored a new uniform for him.

The Rough Riders included 3 North Dakotans. Seventeen year-old Jesse Langdon of Fargo “hobo’d” to Washington and found Roosevelt at the Navy Department. Langdon asked to be a Rough Rider and talked about the time that he went with his veterinarian father to Roosevelt’s North Dakota ranch to inspect some cattle. TR remembered and gave Langdon a train ticket to Camp Wood, San Antonio, for training.

TR said, “…I only hope that peace will not be declared without giving the army a chance at both Cuba and Puerto Rick, as well as the Philippines.” On May 30th, 1,060 men and officers, their weaponry, as well as 1,258 horses and mules were crammed onto a train bound for Tampa, Florida. Four days later, they arrived to mass confusion and bad news. Only 8 of the 12 troops of Rough Riders would set sail for Cuba. And the horses had to remain behind. Young Langdon said that the volunteer cavalry suddenly became “Wood’s Weary Walkers.”

On June 24th, the Rough Riders were on the island and moving. Author Stephen Crane was traveling with them and described the men as “making more noise than a train going through a tunnel.” Within hours, however, the realities of war silenced them. Tune in tomorrow for more…

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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