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Sunday, March 16, 2003

Suisun men helped oust Spanish troops

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Volunteers’ letters tell of battles

One of the tenets of American politics during the 18th and 19th centuries was the belief that the country should remain unconcerned with European affairs.

The idea was that the nation should focus on its inner strength and development, serving as an example of democracy and freedom to the rest of the world.

By the 1880s and 1890s, this view began to change slowly, in part fueled by a strong economy. Industrial and agricultural products needed new outlets. International trade opportunities became important. At the same time, immigration numbers increased. The call for a stronger Navy, with bases all over the world, could be heard, to ensure future national security. Thoughts about the nation’s role in the world, its mission and its destiny were discussed everywhere.

This is the background for the Spanish-American War of 1898. Though in itself a short episode, this conflict firmly set the United States on the path to becoming a world power.

It all began in 1895, when Cuban rebels staged a revolution against the Spanish rule of the island. The American press widely reported alleged Spanish atrocities, and public demand rose for the United States to intervene.

The defining event that propelled the United States into war was the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana on Feb. 15, 1898, killing two officers and 258 crew members. The ship was hit by a submarine mine, according to a U.S. naval court of inquiry, though the true cause of explosion and especially who was responsible for it were never truly determined. Public outrage culminated in the oft-repeated battle cry “Remember the Maine.”

Spain refused to withdraw from Cuba, despite heavy pressure from the Untied States. On April 19, Congress authorized President McKinley to use armed forces. American troops had the Spanish troops surrendering quickly in Cuba and in Puerto Rico.

The Philippines quickly became another center of activity. Here, the struggle for independence from Spanish rule had begun in 1892.

On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey fought a decisive battle in Manila Bay, destroying the Spanish war fleet. This naval victory led to the occupation of Manila by the United States.

Back home, the call for troops went out. By late May, volunteer regiments and regular infantry troops, among them the 1st and the 7th California Volunteers and the 23rd Infantry, gathered in San Francisco, to undergo training at Camp Merritt outside the San Francisco Presidio, and Camp Merriam inside the Presidio.

Among those enlisting with the 23rd Infantry were several young men from Suisun: Fred W. Rush, whose letters home over the following year have been miraculously preserved (these letters have recently been donated to the Vacaville Museum by his grandson). Enlisting with Rush were Jackson W. Oliver, George Cooper, Howard Bronson, and Seranus Hastings. Rush also mentions a Vacaville friend, but only by his nickname “Mize.”

From the beginning there was a distinct rivalry evident between the regular 23rd Infantry troops and the “gallant” 1st California Volunteers (as they were later idolized). Living spaces were crowded, and it may not have helped that the 1st California had the better lodgings in Camp Merriam, whereas the regular troops had to make do with sandy, damp Camp Merritt.

On June 29, 1898, units of the 23rd and other regiments embarked on their journey to the Philippines on the ships Ohio and Indiana. Fred Rush and his comrades sailed on the Indiana.

In a letter of July 20 to Mary Rush, Fred’s aunt, Jackson Oliver described some of the hardships they had to endure, his letters written without hardly any punctuation at all: “... Fred (Rush) was the most seasick one of the gang. He just sits around waiting for the mess call and then he makes a run for his bean and hogs ... I will give you the bill of fare. We had roast beef, potatoes, bread, coffee for dessert, we had some kind of mixture they called plumb (sic) duff but I would call it chow? That is flour and water when you bit into it you could hardly get your teeth out again we had some kind of sauce for it ... this is what they call a good dinner.”

On the same day, Fred Rush described similar events in a letter to his grandmother. Of Jack, he just said: “We are enjoying the trip but you ought to see Jack. You wouldn’t recognize him. He is a living skeleton and is so homesick he never smiles.”

He continued: “The most disagreeable thing is the sleeping; we are supposed to sleep in the hold packed like sardines. Neither Jack nor I sleep there, however. We sleep up on deck usually perched up in some out of the way place with our feet sticking over the edge, but we are getting so we can sleep anywhere.”

“Every day there is some delay. Either the Ohio breaks down or a fireman jumps overboard and we are delayed by 15 or 20 miles. Most of the boys are pretty homesick but our crowd of four is, I think, less troubled than nearly every one else.”

Despite the many delays, the young men from Suisun and their fellow soldiers finally reached Manila to participate in the land fight against the Spanish troops. Fred Rush described some of the action in a letter of August 15, 1898, which was published in the Solano Republican a few weeks later.

“We first landed at Cavite, stayed there two nights camping in the old Spanish prison and were then brought across the bay to Camp Dewey about five miles outside Manila ...”

“We have had trenches we were holding about two miles from Manila and extending it in the woods on the land side. The Spanish were holding trenches about 600 yards back from ours and were consistently shelling and firing on our men. We have lost 15 men. Every other night it would come our turn to go out to the trenches, for 24 hours to lie in the filthiest kind of mud and take turns watching and working at the entrenchment ...”

“Early Saturday morning our battalion was marched three miles to an old stone building where we waited while the Utah and the Astor batteries bombarded the Spanish trenches. Dewey also took a hand firing from the ships.”

The battle continued along a road with thick bamboo on both sides. At one time, the troops had to dig a trench across the road to safeguard themselves, leading Fred to comment: “The Mauser bullet sounds nice when it fails to hit you.” Eventually, after a fierce battle, Manila surrendered to their surprise and delight.

The fight ended on August 12. Spain and the United States signed a preliminary peace treaty. The fight for Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam was over, with Cuba winning its independence, while Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States. The occupation of the Philippines on the other hand continued.