"We All Felt Like We Could Whip the World"
Secretary of State John Hay called it "a pleasant little war," and its outcome was never in doubt. U.S. forces would ultimately crush the Spanish, ending an empire that had begun with the discovery of America four centuries earlier. Complete victory over Spain signaled the emergence of the United States as a major player in international affairs.
The fighting in Cuba lasted about four months during the spring and summer of 1898. The conflict in the Philippines, however, would prove more troublesome — and cause more soul-searching.
The fighting took place simultaneously in two theaters, Cuba and the Philippines. As the war broke out, Spain was attempting to suppress popular rebellions in both colonies. Stories of Spanish cruelty toward the Cubans were widely published, and newspapers did not hesitate to use propaganda to incite their readers. The term "concentration camps" originated during this period, arising from the reconcentrados (prison camps) the Spanish military had been using in Cuba.
The case for war was advanced in part by the sinking of the USS Maine, an armored cruiser sent to Havana Harbor to protect American interests during the Cuban uprising. On February 15 an enormous explosion ripped apart the hull of the Maine, killing 266 sailors. The New York press, in a fit of jingoism, attributed the blast to Spanish sabotage and whipped up a ferocious war fever among readers.
"Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!" became the rallying cry of those eager for war. Such sensationalism sold millions of newspapers. Some historians believe this "yellow journalism" helped precipitate war with Spain.
Americans were already incensed by a harshly critical letter written by Spanish diplomat Enrique Dupuy de Lóme about President McKinley, who was actually against the idea of the war. When the note was published by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal on February 9, 1898, public outrage against Spain was predictable.
Congress declared war against Spain in April 1898 for the purpose of liberating Cuba. The president called for 125,000 volunteers, and the first jubilant soldiers departed in June, singing "There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
On April 22, 1898, the gunboat USS Nashville fired the opening volley of the war in the Caribbean and assisted in cutting the undersea telegraph cable between Spain and Cuba. Commander Washburn Maynard of Knoxville is credited with firing the first shell.
No Tennessee regiment saw combat in Cuba, though individual Tennesseans distinguished themselves during the fighting. Seventeen of them served in the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, popularly known as the "Rough Riders," commanded by Theodore Roosevelt. The Third Tennessee was sent to Cuba as part of the occupation forces.
In the ranks of the regular Army in Cuba was a former Tennessee slave named Alfred Martin Ray who, under heavy fire, planted the first American flag on San Juan Hill. Ray, from Jonesborough, served in the celebrated Tenth U.S. Cavalry, nicknamed the "Buffalo Soldiers," with whom he was later sent to fight in the Philippines.
Hospital detail of the 2nd Tennessee Infantry
THS Photograph Collection
In all, Tennessee contributed four regiments (more than 4,200 men) to the Spanish-American War. Just one, the First Tennessee Infantry, saw combat, and that was in the Philippine Insurrection. The First Tennessee was disbanded in November 1899, but almost a third of its men joined the 37th U.S. Infantry, which became popularly known as the "Tennessee Brigade." The Second Tennessee, raised mostly from men in West Tennessee, trained for war but never saw combat. They were discharged in February 1899.
Lt. John L. Jordan of the First Tennessee wanted to finish out his service in China. He believed the American soldiers had hardened in the Philippine campaigns and were already accustomed to the guerilla warfare they would find in China. He thought his Tennesseans could "outclass" any European power there.
An armistice in August 1898 stopped the shooting in both theaters. In December the Treaty of Paris ended the hostilities with Spain, forcing Spain to cede Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. The Philippines were ceded to the U.S. in exchange for $20 million, and Spain relinquished all claim to Cuba. America, once a colony itself, was becoming an imperialist power.
The USS Nashville
Launched in 1895, the Nashville was the only gunboat of its class. Along with firing the first shot in the war, it also captured four Spanish vessels and assisted in cutting the Atlantic telegraph cable between Cuba and Spain.
The Nashville arrived in the Philippines in December 1899 and provided firepower against the insurgents. The ship patrolled there until June 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion in China broke out. She carried a detachment of Marines assigned to an international force putting down the rebellion.
Initial Gun Resolution
Nashville’s mayor and city council requested that the U.S. Congress return to its namesake city the gun from the USS Nashville that fired the opening shot of the Spanish-American War.
Playful Soldiers Relieving the Boredom of Camp Life
Soldiers from an unidentified regiment take a few minutes to ham it up for the camera. Constant drilling and routine added to the monotony of training camp. The men did their best to entertain themselves with football, baseball, poker, and other games. Competition between companies and other state regiments lifted morale and fostered camaraderie.
Standing, from left to right, are: Ed Vick, Ed Walsh, and Bob Ray.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean....
Half a world away, as U.S. troops were fighting in Cuba, American naval power was scorching the Spanish fleet in the Philippine Islands.
"Fire when ready, Gridley." Commodore George Dewey’s order to the Olympia’s captain opened the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, beginning the Philippine portion of the Spanish-American War. That first major encounter was decisive and lasted only seven hours. The Americans lost just one man — from heatstroke. The United States became a major naval power overnight.
The U.S. was emerging from the 19th century recognized as an international player, a role powered by its great industrial revolution. Her modernized Navy and growing commercial fleets would need refueling stations throughout the world. Acquiring the Philippines would therefore be a strategic asset — but it would also present a moral dilemma.
Later in the summer of 1898, public attention shifted from Cuba to the Pacific and Spain’s outposts there. President McKinley sent 10,000 troops to hold the Philippines.
Whether they were motivated by patriotism or a sense of adventure, Tennesseans were eager for combat there. The First Tennessee Infantry, U.S. Volunteers [USV], mustered in at Nashville, trained in San Francisco, and left the Presidio in October 1898 bound for the Philippine Islands. The boredom of camp life quickly turned into enthusiasm when the troops were called up for service. Because of the cease-fire called in August, the Tennesseans arrived too late to fight the Spanish, but a bloodier, less clear-cut conflict was brewing: native insurrection.
Corporal Will Henry Grimsley
Archives Photograph Collection
An uprising had been smoldering in the Islands since the final years of Spanish rule, when Filipino insurgents fought the Spanish in a savage guerrilla war for independence. Despite the presence of occupation troops, fighting broke out between Americans and revolutionaries in February 1899 after it became clear that the United States would not be granting independence to the Philippines. Uncle Sam annexed the islands against the wishes of the Filipino people, who had already established a makeshift government. President McKinley contended he had prayed hard over the decision before coming down on the side of "Americanizing" the natives. The U.S. was in the Philippines to stay.
Not all Americans were enthusiastic about the new war with the Filipinos. The Anti-Imperialist League, founded in reaction to the idea of annexing the Islands, believed such an action would violate the "consent of the governed" principle of the American Declaration of Independence. The League made credible arguments for legal, moral, and racial reasons against seizure of the Philippines. Members included Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, who thought the war was unjust.
The First Tennessee Infantry, however, felt up to the challenge they faced. "We all felt like we could whip the world," wrote one soldier in Company A. Another said with obvious pride that the state’s volunteers were known as the "Fighting Tennesseans." When the First arrived in Hawaii for refueling, another regimental band struck up "Dixie" as soon as they recognized the Tennesseans.
Also known as the Philippine War of Independence or the Philippine-American War, the Insurrection was a military quagmire that foreshadowed Vietnam. The Americans did not foresee the guerrilla tactics used by Filipino rebels and were totally unprepared for prolonged fighting in the tropics. Jungles, disease, mountainous terrain, and monsoons contributed to the difficulties. Traditional wool uniforms were unsuitable for the unforgiving heat. One Tennessean wrote that the mosquitoes were as "big as bull bats." Another complained that he had not had a change of clothes in six weeks.
Despite the harsh conditions, American forces eventually prevailed and the war officially ended in 1902 with the surrender of the rebel leader, Emilio Aguinaldo. Ignoring the treaty, however, some Filipino groups carried on the fight for the next decade. More than 4,200 Americans died during the Insurrection. Finally, on July 4, 1946, the Philippines were granted independence.
The First Tennessee Infantry was the state’s only contingent to serve in combat during the war, and it was one of the most decorated regiments of its time. Four Tennesseans won the Medal of Honor for service during the Philippine Insurrection and subsequent actions: Lt. Josephus S. Cecil from New River in the 19th US Infantry, Lt. Allen J. Greer from Memphis in the 4th US Infantry, Pvt. Charles P. Cantrell from Smithville in the 10th US Infantry, and Navy Seaman Bolden R. Harrison of Savannah won the Medal of Honor in 1911 during the continuation of the Philippine Insurrection known as the Moro Wars (1899-1913).
Lieutenant John Leland Jordan
Lt. Jordan, of Nashville, proudly wrote to his mother from the Philippines, telling her that his home state comrades were known as the "Fighting Tennesseans." Jordan served in the First Tennessee Infantry, USV, and later joined the 37th Infantry of the U.S. Amy. Almost a third of the Tennesseans volunteered for the regular Army as the regiment prepared to disband in 1899.
In a June 1900 letter to his mother, Jordan wrote with amusement that he had brought back three monkeys from another island, "one a big old fellow with gray side whiskers that is a fine pet. By treating him nicely I soon got him thoroughly tamed. He can whip any of the dogs around here and knows every man in my company who has ever pulled his tail…."
Lieutenant John F. Bright
Lt. Bright wrote from Panay Island to his mother in Nashville about the horrors of war:
Feb. 18th 1899
My Dear Mother,
War with all its horrors has at last burst forth upon us... The bullets were coming down like hail inside the prison walls…. Then there was one continuous round of fireing all night—It was a grand sight one that I shall never forget. Dewey’s fleet was sending shell after shell over our heads to the Insugents intrenchments which made the earth fairly tremble... [W]e were soon in the hottest part of the fight...
Just as we reached the outskirts of the city the fireing became very heavy on all sides, and Mauser & Remington bullets were playing a tune among the bamboo bushes over our head... To have them singing within two inches of your ear is far from pleasant…. With an old time Rebel Yell we made the charge [and] we got across without loosing a man... The grass and bushes were thick with dead and wounded, We could hardly walk for them...
There was a constant roar of cannon and rifle shots all night—With the sky red for miles from the burning bamboo huts, as far as the eye could see, which served to remind us that they were somebodies homes...
We had not realized what war was until marching back over the battle field and viewing the ruins and desolation on all sides. When we reached the city we were cheered on all sides by our own troops and citizens... At last the Tennessee boys had covered themselves with glory.
The Nashville Banner welcomes home the 1st Tennessee Infantry, commanded by Col. Francis Gracey Childers of Clarksville
The men’s bravery in the opening clash of the Philippine Insurrection was cited, and the First was one of the most decorated regiments of its day. It was the last of the state volunteer regiments to leave the Islands, though many of the men stayed on, fighting in the Regular Army.
Troops, probably of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, on the steps of the Capitol in Nashville
Because the US flag carries campaign streamers, it is thought that this company has returned from fighting in the Philippines. The First was the only Tennessee regiment to see combat during either the Spanish-American War or Philippine Insurrection, and it served with gallantry. The regiment was made up of men from Nashville, Columbia, Lawrenceburg, Waverly, Clarksville, Big Sandy, and Springfield.
Section researched and written by Susan L. Gordon, Archivist.