“Remember the Maine!” Researching Spanish American War Soldiers

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

During the four hundred years between the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, Spain was a major world power. At the height of its influence, Spain’s possessions in the Western Hemisphere extended from Virginia south to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America (with the exception of Portuguese-held Brazil). Its hegemony also included Cuba, Puerto Rico, California, the Philippine Islands, and the Carolina, Marshall and Mariana Islands in the Pacific. By 1825, this empire had been reduced significantly with only Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and the Micronesian Islands remaining. These remaining possessions were rife with revolutionary fervor, witnessed by insurrections in Cuba in February 1895 and in the Philippines in 1896.

At that time in the United States, barely thirty years had passed since the end of the Civil War, a period in which the country sought to recover from the ravages of that fratricide. The stabilization of its economy was essential to this recovery and one of the major commodities enabling that recovery was sugar. In order to support its sugar-growing industry, the county looked to Cuba, located only ninety miles away. Following ten years of warfare (1868-1878) during which Cuban guerilla fighters fought unsuccessfully for autonomy from Spain, American sugar interests bought large tracts of land on the island. By 1895, the United States had invested more than $50 million in Cuba and annual trade was worth twice that figure.

President Grover Cleveland, in an attempt to keep the United States out of any armed conflict in the renewed Cuban struggle for independence, issued a proclamation of neutrality on December 7, 1896. Unfortunately, where economic interests lead, war often follows, and sentiment for war increased within the United States. When William McKinley was sworn in as president in early 1897, official government policy began to shift toward war. As violence in Cuba increased, particularly with attacks on American sugar plantations, Consul-General Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of Robert E. Lee, requested that the U.S.S. Maine, commissioned in 1895, be sent to Key West in case further violence erupted. The Maine was dispatched, but Lee made no further requests for its support. Instead, President McKinley and Secretary of the Navy John Long ordered its departure from Key West and the Maine arrived in Havana Harbor on January 24, 1898, much to Lee’s initial dismay. All remained calm, however, until February 15th, when the battleship exploded, killing 266 crewmen. Within a month, Congress had authorized $50 million for a war fund, and on April 1, an additional $22.6 million for naval vessels–despite the Naval Court of Inquiry’s finding in late March that the loss of the Maine was due to an internal accident. “Remember the Maine became the call to arms and on April 11, 1898, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war with Spain. Two weeks later he called for 125,000 volunteers and ordered a blockade of the island on April 21. Spain declared war on the United States on April 23. What became known as the Spanish-American War was short in duration, merely 109 days, ending with the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10, 1898. Its effect on the world map, however, was far-reaching: Cuba became independent of Spain, the United States took formal possession of Guam and Puerto Rico, and Spain agreed to sell the Philippine Islands to the United States for $20 million. By the conclusion of hostilities, the war would have cost the United States $250 million and 3,000 lives.

If you are hunting for a Spanish-American War veteran, the 1930 federal census enumerations will provide you with an indication of an individual’s Spanish American War service. The column entitled “Veterans” will display an “SA” entry. Be aware, however, that this designation can mean service in the Spanish American War, the Philippine American War, or the Boxer Rebellion. A search in compiled service records and unit field reports, therefore, is essential.

An index to the service records of soldiers who volunteered to serve in the Spanish American War is available on National Archives microfilm publication M871, General Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War With Spain. Pension records for these individuals are indexed by National Archives microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. The records to which the indices refer are only available as textual records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., with the exception of records of Compiled Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served in the Florida Infantry During the War With Spain (M1087). Service information for soldiers in the regular army, navy and marine corps can be accessed through resources such as Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army 1789-1903 (Clearfield, 1994).

I selected two Barclay/Barkley individuals in the General Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War With Spain to illustrate what YOU might turn up!

Robert U. Barkley Jr. enlisted as a private in Co. D, 1 Texas Infantry, on 2 May 1898 in Luling, Texas. The company’s muster-in roll described him as single, 21 years of age, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and brown hair, standing 5’ 8” tall. Born in LaGrange, Texas, he was employed as a clerk at the time of his enlistment. He lived in Gonzales, Texas, 157 miles away from his enlistment point, and he listed his mother, Mrs. J. M. Barkley of Harwood, Texas, as next of kin. His company muster-out roll, signed at Galveston on April 18, 1899, noted that he had been sick on numerous dates throughout July, August and September, suffering from dermatitis, poison ivy and acute diarrhea. He was discharged in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 13, 1898. Other research has documented Robert’s death date as 20 November 1945 in San Antonio, Texas. I was unable to obtain a copy his pension record (certificate dated 1928) as it is listed as “still in the custody of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.” Further information on Robert U. Barkley Jr. and his family can be found in Kathryn Barkley Fischer’s The Barkley Brigade: The Story of John Barkley of Smith County, Tennessee, and His Descendants, 1753-1994 (Covington, La., Barkley-Symons Enterprises, 1994).

Harold Barclay enlisted as a private in Co. A, New York Cavalry Squadron on June 8, 1898 in New York City. On 8 July, he was transferred to the U. S. Army Hospital Corps as a hospital steward and sent to Camp Alger in Virginia. His descriptive roll, dated in Falls Church, Virginia, on 9 June 1898, described him as single, 25 years of age, with dark complexion, brown eyes, brown hair, standing 5’ 10” tall. Born in New York City, he listed his occupation as medicine. He lived at 37 W 46th Street in New York City, and listed S. M. Barclay, of Cazenovia, Madison County, New York, as his next of kin. In September, he was transferred to a hospital relief ship from the General Hospital at Ponce, Puerto Rico, suffering from simple continued fever, having been hospitalized the month before for tropical diarrhea or entero-colitis. He was discharged on August 14, 1900. He married Helen F. Potter in New York City on April 5, 1906. Their marriage license listed his parents as Jackson Morse and Cornelia Barclay. On November 1, 1923, Helen, then of 133 East 55th Street, New York City, applied for a widow’s pension based on Harold’s service in Troop A of the New York Cavalry and the Hospital Corps, U.S.A. In addition to his service in the Spanish American War, Helen indicated that he also had World War I service, beginning as a Captain at the Roosevelt Hospital Unit (New York City) in June 1917. In July he left for foreign service with the 42nd Division. He was discharged with the rank of Lt. Colonel on 11 February 1919. He died in Biarritz, France, on July 25, 1922, at age forty-three, and was a “practicing physician” at the time of his death. Harold and Helen had no children. Her pension application was abandoned on June 28, 1927.

Once you have determined the unit in which an individual served, you will also want to search for field reports of the unit’s service in order to place an individual’s service record within the context of the war. This information can be found in the four-volume Abridgement of the Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress (GPO, 1899).

Online sources will also provide very helpful in your ongoing research. The best site I found is The Spanish American War Centennial Website. This site provides a chronology, action reports and firsthand accounts, weapons profiles, and personal profiles (including such people as William Jennings Bryan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen Crane, Admiral George Dewey, Frederic Remington, John Philip Sousa, and Theodore Roosevelt). There are also numerous online rosters for volunteer troops from a variety of states and such units as the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders,” and the crew roster for the U.S.S Maine. Finally, the site sponsors the National Spanish American War Gravesite Recording Project which offers opportunities to establish a grave recording project in your area, or to add to pages that have been compiled previously. A Google search for Spanish American War sites identified one providing a series of images concerning the war, as does the Naval Historical Center’s site. Ancestry.com provides a few state-specific lists of volunteers (Minnesota, Indiana, North Carolina, Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Michigan).

For related reading consider The Spanish-American War by Russell Alexander Alger (Harper, 1901); The Spanish-American War by Kenneth E. Hendrickson (Greenwood, 2003); and The Spanish-American War: the Story and Photographs by Donald M. Goldstein, et al (Brassey’s, 2000).

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