Historic City Memories: The Fraternal Orders

St. Augustine and The Fraternal Orders

Part two of a series

Veterans of Foreign Wars and the United Veterans of the Spanish War

By Geoff Dobson

In 1898, with the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, demand for war against Spain swept the country.

In New York, Col. Wm. F. Cody’s Wild West Show featured a troop of Cuban rebels who unfurled the Cuban flag while the cowboy band played a Cuban anthem and the audience yelled “Cuba Libre.” Col. Cody, himself, offered to raise an army of 30,000 American Indians. Thus, John Hay’s “splendid little war” broke out with Spain.

Almost immediately, former Dakota Territory ranchman Theodore Roosevelt ordered a Brooks Brothers custom made uniform and organized a volunteer cavalry troop, the Rough Riders, of which he was to be second in command. Leonard Wood was to be in command.

Wood, although a physician, had participated in the war to pacify the Apache in Arizona. Many of the Apache including some of the scouts who loyally served the United States were imprisoned at Fort Marion (now Castillo de San Marco). Geronimo, contrary to popular belief, was not imprisoned in St. Augustine but elsewhere. The Rough Riders were composed mostly of cowboys but also included a few Indians and wealthy polo-playing easterners.

In St. Augustine, the St. Augustine Rifles became part of the Florida contribution to the war effort. Names on its rolls included names which even today are familiar: Calhoun, Capo, Caraba, Colee, Crichlow, Dismukes, Genovar, Howatt, Masters, Mickler, Monson, Oliveros, Pacetti, Pomar, Rahner, Rogero, and Usina.

Although the Rifles made it to Tampa, the chief port of embarkation for those serving in the Cuban Campaign, most members did not make it to Cuba… The war was short, four months Only one officer of the Rifles actually saw duty in Cuba, its captain John Warren Sackett who later became a general.

Indeed, just as the Battle of New Orleans was fought after War of 1812 was officially over, it was the same as to the Spanish-American War. American troops from Wyoming entered the city of Manila on August 13th. Both the Americans and the Spanish defenders were unaware that the war had official ended the day before. The actual peace treaty however was not signed until February 6, 1899.

Following the war, many of its veterans applied to join the America’s foremost veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. The Grand Army, however, decided that its membership would continue to be limited to those who fought to preserve the Union. Thus, many small local organizations of veterans from the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection were organized, including the Spanish War Veterans, The Spanish-American War Veterans, and the Army of the Philippines.

By 1908, most of the organizations had merged to become the United Spanish War Veterans (the “USWV”). It became the largest of the various Spanish-American War fraternal organizations. However, a few smaller Spanish-American war veteran organizations continued. In structure, USWV was similar to the Grand Army of the Republic. In Florida, General Sackett became its state commander.

In Florida, the USWV established camps throughout the state. Several National Encampments were held in Florida. Nevertheless, the USWV and the war in which they fought remained the forgotten war. The St. Petersburg Independent, June 12, 1933, reported that the veterans at the National Encampment held in St. Petersburg complained that they were the “worst treated army in the history of America.” Indeed, in 1972, thirty-nine years later as the USWV was approaching its waning years, the Florida Legislature in SCR 190 urged recognition of Spanish-War vets. The Florida Senate noted that they consisted of the only one hundred percent volunteer army as of that time the world had ever known. Two million men answered their nation’s call. “The men came from all parts of our country, the North, the South, the East, and the West. These soldiers wiped out sectionalism, and healed the wounds of civil strife, marking the rebirth of a Nation”.

The Legislature urged that a commemorative stamp be issued as a “fitting acknowledgement that the country has not forgotten those men.”

The USWV, maintained the same policy that the GAR had kept before it, membership was limited to those who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion, One by one, camps merged and finally, like General MacArthur’s old soldier, faded away. To preclude, the war being forgotten, the Sons of the United Spanish War Veterans were formed. Most of the sons, however, participated in their own wars, either World War I or World War II and the Sons never achieved the size of successor organizations of the Grand Army or of the Confederate veterans. The national encampments were held in conjunction with the Sons of the USWV. In 1992, the last member of the USWV, Nathan E. Cook, answered the roll call eternal. He had been a veteran of the Philippine Insurrection and had lied about his age in order to enlist in the Navy. For several years, the National Encampments continued to be held, but no members answered the roll call. The Veterans Administration took over the national headquarters, kicked the Sons of the USWV out, and sent the records and memorabilia off to the National Archives, presumably to be stored like the records in the final scene of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Thus, even in death, the USWV remained the “worst treated army in the history of America.”

But in a sense, one veterans’ organization from the Spanish-American War lives. One of the smaller organizations not included within the mergers that formed the USWV was the American Veterans of Foreign Service. The American Veterans of Foreign Service was formed in Columbus, Franklin County, Ohio, on September 29, 1899. That organization was formed by 13 veterans of the 17th Infantry regiment who saw duty in Cuba. Prior to the beginning of World War I, the American Veterans of Foreign Service merged with several other veterans organizations. Yet, its growth was modest. By the beginning of the Great War, that organization had chapters only in a few states and a total membership of only 5,000. Following the end of World War I, it opened its membership to veterans of the “Great War.” Its membership soared with new members. Today on US 1 South stands a modest building housing the local chapter of the successor of that Spanish-American War organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. From its small beginnings in a tailor shop in Columbus Ohio, the VFW now has grown to over 2,000,000 members.

Next Article: the American Legion.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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