Monday, January 16, 2017

John David Webb and the Spanish-American War: Puerto Rico

(Continuation of story about John David Webb's experiences during the Spanish-American War. Click on the link to read the first part of the story: John David Webb and the Spanish-American War: Camp Thomas.)

     John David Webb and the Sixth Immunes (6th U.S. Voluntary Infantry) were only in New York City for a short time before they left for Puerto Rico at 4 p.m. on October 9, 1898 aboard the steamship Mississippi. The accommodations aboard the Mississippi were not very comfortable.  The steamship "was an old cattle ship of the Atlantic steamship line....It has not been fitted out for a transport and is in no way equipped for such travel".(1) There were not enough bunks for the 38 officers on board, let alone the 770 enlisted men. Also crowded onto the ship were 19 train car loads of provisions for the regiment to use in Puerto Rico--"clothing provisions, ordinance supplies and medical stores".(1) Quarters were tight, to say the least. Seasickness added to the unpleasantness of the journey. The vast majority of the men, about 750 of them, were sick at some point during the five day voyage. Camp Thomas, unpleasant as it had been, was probably looking good in comparison to a lot of the men.
     The Mississippi first sighted Puerto Rico at about 11 p.m. on October 14, 1898. The Sixth's unpleasant voyage was almost over. Early the next morning the ship entered San Juan harbor and the soldiers found themselves "in a paradise".(1)
     Every body was on deck at daybreak and as soon as pilots were signaled for the ship commenced feeling its way into the harbor. It was indeed an imposing sight, one that will never be forgotten by those who saw it. As we approached El Moro (sic), the sun came out, lending splendor to the dream loveliness. No American troops had yet entered this harbor and the attention of the entire city were soon attracted to the transport.
      Passing Moro castle we soon came in sight of the historic city of San Juan, situated on a small peninsula on the east side of the bay. It is on a high prominence, protected on all sides by stone forts, with heavy artillery very prominent at every angle. As soon as the stars and stripes became discernible the natives set up a shout which lasted until the ship was anchored a quarter of a mile opposite the center of the city.
El Morro in 2016
By gillfoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
     Immediately after the Mississippi set anchor, the Spanish quarantined it because two of the soldiers aboard were recovering from typhoid fever. The quarantine was lifted a few hours later once the Spanish determined that the convalescing soldiers were not contagious.
     While on board the Mississippi, the men of the Sixth witnessed the departure of the first group of Spanish troops departing San Juan.
      [They] left with colors flying and a genuine Spanish shout. It was a historic sight-the beginning of the end of Spanish rule on the island. The natives made no demonstration, but a salute was fired from the guns of Moro as the transports pulled out of the harbor. When within hailing distance of the Mississippi the officers and men of the Sixth gave them three cheers, which were answered by the same from the Dons. (1)
     Puerto Rico was generally peaceful except for the gangs of native-born Puerto Rican insurgents who went about the island burning and pillaging the Spanish-owned plantations, and injuring or killing the Spanish plantation owners and their families. It was to be the Sixth's duty to protect the plantation owners and their property from these gangs. To achieve this objective, the companies of the Sixth were assigned to various locations across the country.
     On Monday, October 17, the companies of the Sixth were sent by train to their assigned locations. John David Webb and the rest of Company K were were sent to Barceloneta, which was located between San Juan and Arecibo near the central north coast of Puerto Rico. After the company arrived in Barceloneta, most the soldiers were sent in pairs to Spanish-owned plantations in the area. The 12-15 men remained in Barcelona "and their sole duty consists in accompanying the native police upon raids after thieves and stolen cattle".(2)
Map of Puerto Rico in 1899 found at the Library of Congress's website.
The black arrow points to Arecibo, the red arrow points to Barceloneta, and the blue arrow points to San Juan.
     The Spanish owners of the plantations greeted the American soldiers with great enthusiasm and showered them with food, drink and attention while they were stationed at their homes. On a typical day, the soldiers would have some bread and coffee early in the morning. They ate the main meal between 11 a. m and noon. This consisted of a large assortment of foods such as chicken, beef steak, beef stew, rice, yams, baked plantains, wine and coffee. Cigars and cigarettes were also offered. They partook of a smaller meal around 6 p. m., and then at 9 p. m. they drank chocolate, wine and/or beer and smoked cigars. It was a challenge for the American soldiers to converse with their Spanish hosts, but both sides used Spanish-English/English-Spanish dictionaries to aid in this.
     The soldiers' nights were perhaps not so pleasant as their days.
     The country here is on of the finest in the world for a malaria expert, the night air being so heavily charged with it as to be almost unbearable. And as one rides through the night it is frequently necessary to look up at the cloudless sky to tell whether it is raining, or merely the dew dropping from the trees. When the patrol starts out at night, each man puts on his poncho and throws an extra one across his knees, though there may not be a cloud in the sky, for the dew is sure to cover his gun with rust and soak through his poncho before morning.(2)
     The Sixth's efforts paid off, and the attacks in the region stopped. The Sixth lost just one soldier to attack while in Puerto Rico. That unfortunate man was sitting and eating his dinner when a native came in and decapitated him from behind with a machete. The regiment's other five deaths in Puerto Rico occurred from typhoid fever.
     Generally, though, the soldiers found their time in Puerto Rico to be very pleasant. The frequent breezes helped to temper the 80 and 90 degree daytime temperatures, and the night brought comfortable temperatures in the 60s. For those stationed in towns, delicious oranges, bananas and other tropical fruits were plentiful and cheap, as were sugar and coffee. After their experience at Camp Thomas, the soldiers must have particularly appreciated the fact that rain water, rather than ground water, was used for drinking. Most of the Puerto Ricans were happy to have the American soldiers there and treated them well.
     On December 10, 1898, Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, thus officially relinquishing all claims to Cuba and ceding control of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and various other islands to the United States. Talk among the members of the Sixth turned to speculation as to when they would be sent home.
     John David Webb's exact activities during his time in Puerto Rico, as in Camp Thomas, are unknown. My father never heard his grandfather or anyone else speak of John's experiences during the Spanish-American War. John must have performed his duties well, though, as he was promoted to  corporal on January 30, 1899 in Arecibo.
John D. Webb's Certificate of Promotion
      On the same day John received his promotion, it was announced that the Sixth Immunes were to leave Puerto Rico and be sent back to the United States. The Chester arrived in San Juan in early February for the purpose of transporting the Sixth to Savannah, Georgia. To prevent some of the hardships that the troops experienced on their way to Puerto Rico, "the officers charged with this movement are specially instructed to see that the transports are thoroughly inspected, renovated and completely prepared for the comfort, substance and shelter of the troops before they are allowed to start on the voyage home."(3)
     On February 6, 1899, the United States Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris and President McKinley signed it. Six days later, on February 12th, the Sixth Immunes received the order to return to the U. S. and they promptly left Puerto Rico on the Chester. They arrived at Tybee Island just south of Savannah on the evening of February 16th. The next day the Chester made its way to Savannah, and the troops disembarked and went into camp to await being mustered out.
    The soldiers frequented Savannah while they waited. While in town they apparently kept their drinking and shenanigans to a minimum and thereby impressed the local authorities. The police stated that the Sixth "holds the record here for steering clear of the guard-house, when the men are generally supplied with money the large number who receive permits daily to visit the city return almost to man, which was not the case with the other regiments."(4)
    The Sixth also received praises from Brigadier General Fred D. Grant.
     As you (Col. Tyson) and your regiment have left my command and to be mustered out of United States service, I feel that it is due as commander of your regiment and your officers and soldiers to acknowledge your most excellent service while in Porto Rico (sic), which services I have valued and appreciated from the day you came under my command. No regiment could have done better work, and no regulars could have done as well as the Sixth volunteer infantry.
     I fully realized in assuming command of the district of San Juan the turbulent and reckless character of the people in the western part of it, where from one to three cases of arson and murder were occurring daily. Your regiment was sent into a disturbed region to relieve the troops who had been there under the former direct commander. I gratefully acknowledge the promptness and effectiveness of the work performed by your regiment, which has resulted in the quelling of all disturbances and bringing about a gratifying and peaceful state of affairs. In accomplishing this the regiment has won the respect and admiration of law-abiding and good citizens among whom you have resided, and also from every point where the troops were stationed while here. The citizens here sent me repeated petitions to us (sic) my influence to prevent an exchange of troops.(5)
     The mustering out process for the Sixth began on February  22. All the soldiers were to receive a medical examination by a medical officer from a different regiment. Those soldiers found to have sustained some injury or debilitation during their service would be eligible for a pension. John David Webb was documented to have sustained an injury to his left ankle. One of the soldiers was found to have small pox which he had contracted in Puerto Rico. This discovery understandably caused some consternation among the populace, but the man was quickly quarantined and apparently the disease did not spread.
     Initially, many of the Sixth's soldiers expressed an interest in serving in the regular army. Those who worked on farms in particular were not looking forward to losing their military pay. "On a farm we only get $10 a month room and board, but Uncle Sam gives us $15.60 and board and clothes."(6) Colonel Tyson attempted to have his regiment kept intact and transferred into the regular army, but his request was denied. After that, the number of men who wanted to join the regular army dwindled to just a handful.
     The men of the Sixth were finally mustered out on March 15, 1899. Each enlisted man was paid about $125. It took about $110,000 to pay off the whole regiment. Below is John's discharge paper. On the back side was written in this complimentary comment: "Services Honest and Faithful  Character Excellent".

      By that night, most of the men had left on trains for their homes. In Knoxville, Tennessee a big reception was thrown for the returning soldiers. John might have attended, as Knoxville was a short train ride from his home in Sullivan County.
      John did apply for a pension based on the injury to his left ankle that he received while in service. He applied for the pension on July 14, 1904. He was granted a pension of $6 a month, retroactive to May 18, 1899--just two months after his discharge. His pension was increased to $12 a month on July 3, 1920. It was increased to $50 a month on June 22, 1929, when John was 52 years old and just before the beginning of the Great Depression. One year later his pension was increased to $60 a month. That is the last record concerning his pension that I found in the family papers.

     I wish I knew what John's thoughts were regarding his time in the Sixth Immunes. What did he think of the conditions he encountered at Camp Thomas? Did he enjoy the time in Puerto Rico? What did he think of the people and culture he encountered there? The ankle injury he received put an end to any hopes for a baseball career. In the end, did he regret getting off that train in Pineville, Kentucky?

 (1) Quote from letter written by Lt. J. Baird French of the 6th U. S. Volunteer Infantry and published in The (Knoxville) Journal and Tribune on 30 Oct 1898 under the headline "Boys of the Sixth". Transcription of letter viewed at The Spanish American War Centennial Website (, accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(2) Quote from article written by Tom B. Meglemry, sergeant in Company K (same company as John David Webb), 6th U. S. Volunteer Infantry that was published in The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal on 26 Dec 1898, p. 2, c. 2-3; viewed at (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(3) Quote from The Topeka State Journal, 31 Jan 1899, p. 1; Chronicling America (, accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(4) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 21 Feb 1899, p. 2, c. 8; (accessed 17 Nov 2016).

(5) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 22 Feb 1899, p. 1; (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(6) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 21 Feb 1899, p. 2, c. 8; (accessed 17 Nov 2016).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

John David Webb and the Spanish-American War: Camp Thomas

     Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. My great-grandfather John David Webb was the recipient of one of those curve balls in July of 1898. At 21 years of age, John was an up-and-coming baseball catcher. He worked on the family farm in Sullivan County, Tennessee and played semi-pro baseball in Virginia. He had performed well enough as a catcher to receive an invitation to sign a contract with the pros. One day in early July 1898 he boarded a train bound for Cincinnati and said contract. A few hours later he disembarked, not in Cincinnati, but in Pineville, Kentucky, and enlisted in the U. S. Army. What happened?! On the train John met some friends of his who were answering the call from Uncle Sam for volunteers to fight against the Spanish in the Spanish-American war.
     War had been declared between the United States and Spain in April 1898. The U.S. went into the war with the goal of winning independence for Cuba from Spain. In order to prosecute the war, the United States Army was in need of more troops to fight Spain in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The U.S. had let the number of its forces dwindle after the Civil War, so additional volunteer recruits were quickly raised.
     Cuba, with its subtropical climate, was the home of malaria and yellow fever, two very serious and sometimes deadly diseases. The Spanish fighting forces in Cuba had been severely diminished by these diseases. The United States was hoping to lessen their own losses to these two diseases as well as others endemic to a subtropical climate. Congress therefore passed a measure authorizing the Secretary of War "to organize an additional volunteer force of not exceeding 10,000 enlisted men possessing immunity from diseases incident to tropical climates".(1) This led to the establishment of ten "immune" regiments, each composed of about 1000 men who, at the time of their enlistment, signed an affidavit stating that they believed they were immune to tropical diseases. John David Webb's friends were answering the recruitment call for "immunes", and he decided to get off the train in Pineville, Kentucky and answer it with them.
     On July 8, 1898, John enlisted as a private in Company K of the 6th Regiment, U. S. Voluntary Infantry, otherwise know as the Sixth Immunes. He was 5' 6" tall, with blue eyes, brown hair and a brown complexion. He was mustered into his unit at Camp Wilder in Knoxville, Tennessee. The mustering in period lasted until July 15, after which time the Sixth's troops were organized there at Camp Wilder.

     During John's time at Camp Wilder, the war spread from Cuba to Spanish-controlled Puerto Rico, where American troops landed on July 25. The island surrendered three days later, on July 28. On July 30, John and the rest of the Sixth Immunes were sent via the Southern Railroad to Camp George H. Thomas in northwestern Georgia where their training was to continue.
     Camp Thomas was hastily set up at the beginning of the war and served largely as a training ground for the new volunteer troops. The camp was located on the grounds of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the first national military park established in the United States. The park contained the large open spaces needed for multiple encampments and military drills, and it was thought that the southern climate there in northwestern Georgia would help the new soldiers acclimate to the subtropical weather they would experience in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The Chipley Banner, 6 Aug 1898, page 1; (accessed  2 Nov 2016).
     By the time John and the Sixth Immunes arrived at Camp Thomas, thousands of troops had been in residence there for several weeks. Unfortunately, Camp Thomas's facilities were inadequate to the needs of the number of men stationed there. The regiments encampments were small and close together. About 45,000 men were living in tents on rocky, clay soil that was hard to dig in and drained poorly. Toilet facilities for the men were insufficient. Sanitation was poor. Thousands of horses and mules and their resultant by-products were also in the camp. It was hot. Much of the water was contaminated with waste. Food was not of the best quality. Flies were everywhere. In other words, Camp Thomas was a ideal breeding ground for disease. It was, as one newspaper reported, "a perfect Hell on Earth".(2)
     As July marched into August, an increasing number of soldiers succumbed to illness. The soldiers most commonly suffered from some form of intestinal ailment--gastritis, dysentery and diarrhea. These did not help improve the sanitation issues at the camp. Many soldiers also contracted malaria. The most deadly disease at the camp, though, was typhoid fever. Typhoid, a bacterial disease transmitted by contaminated food and water or by direct contact, thrived in the overcrowded conditions and poor sanitation at Camp Thomas. Inadequate medical personnel, facilities and supplies at the camp compounded the situation.
This map of Camp Thomas was made before the 6th U. S. Voluntary Infantry (the Sixth Immunes) arrived.
The map shows how closely crowded together most of the units were.
    When John and the Sixth Immunes arrived at Camp Thomas at 6 pm on July 30, one has to wonder what they were thinking as they marched three miles across the park to their regiment's allocated spot. They had no doubt heard of all the sickness in at Camp Thomas, as it had been widely publicized in the newspapers. In addition, the park was a wet and muddy mess due to five straight days of rain which were topped off by heavy rains that afternoon before their arrival. They probably did feel like they had been sent to Hell on Earth.
     Rain and disease notwithstanding, military training and camp life went on. On August 2, General Joseph Breckenridge became the new post commander at Camp Thomas. The next day all the regiments in camp were marched company by company past the General "in the most perfect order, keeping time to the martial strains of a score of regimental bands and field music organizations". It took about four hours for all the companies to march past the General in review. "Not Since Sherman's Veterans Paraded Washington's Streets Has the Like Been Seen", trumpeted a headline in The Tennessean newspaper. (2)

Drilling at Camp Thomas
    The soldier's normal daily routine began at 4:30 a.m. with Reveille. The men drilled and marched for three hours during the day and participated in mock battles. The evening meal was at 5 pm. They were responsible for cooking their own meals over open fires. After dinner the soldiers went on parade at 6 pm. At night the men slept on the ground. Their tents had no floors, and many of them had only one blanket or sheet for bed linens. Wednesdays were payday, and local farmers and peddlers flocked to Camp Thomas afterwards hawking a variety of foods and other items at inflated prices, "their anxiety to get hold of the boys' money...only equalled by some of the men to let it go". (3) For recreation they told stories, sang, and played cards, baseball, and other games.
Soldiers making meals in their encampment at Camp Thomas
Photo of a company encampment at Camp Thomas. Photo found at
    On August 12, the United States and Spain signed a cease-fire agreement. The war was essentially over. The men at Camp Thomas received the news of the ceasefire with mixed reactions. Some of the men cheered the news, and some were disappointed that they were not going to be seeing combat after all the training and trouble they had gone through. Most of the men, though, no doubt tired of living at Camp Thomas, were hoping to be quickly mustered out and sent home.
     This wish was soon granted. An order was issued to begin removing the troops from Camp Thomas. Time was of the essence due to the steady increase of illness at the camp. By August 18, over 6,100 of the soldiers at Camp Thomas were sick, many with typhoid fever. In the end, more than 2 1/2 times as many soldiers died from disease at Camp Thomas than were killed in battle during the short war. An investigation into the conditions at Camp Thomas was ordered.
The (San Francisco) Call, 28 Aug 1898, p. 1, c. 1-2; (accessed 2 Nov 2016).
    By the end of August, the number of soldiers still at Camp Thomas had decreased to about 13,000. Over the next week and a half, most of these were discharged from the camp. By September 14th, only the Sixth Immunes remained in Camp Thomas. They were left there to guard the military supplies and equipment stored there. They also helped clean up the camp. Each regiment was ordered to clean up their own encampment area before they left. Apparently this order was imperfectly followed, as the regiments left behind 3,175 open latrine trenches. The Sixth Immunes had the unenviable task of helping to disinfect and fill these trenches.

      At the end of September the Sixth Immunes received word that they would be shipped out to Puerto Rico, to help keep order there after the Spanish soldiers vacated the island. They left Camp Thomas by rail on October 6th at 10 am, on their way to New York City, and the ship that would take them to Puerto Rico. I imagine they were quite happy to go.
Kansas City Journal, 7 Oct 1898, p. 2; (accessed 1 Nov 2016)


(1)  The (New Orleans) Times-Democrat, 10 May 1898, p. 8, c. 6; (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(2) Chapman, Gregory Dean, "Army Life at Camp Thomas", The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), pp. 633-656. Online images at (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(3)  The Tennessean, 10 Aug 1898, p. 1, c. 6; (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

(4)  Mower County (Lansing, MI) Transcript, 17 Aug 1898, p. 1, c. 1-2; (accessed 25 Nov 2016).


"Camp George H. Thomas", Historic Markers Across Georgia--Camp George H. ThomasLatitude 34 North,  accessed 27 Nov 2016.

Chapman, Gregory Dean, "Army Life at Camp Thomas", The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), pp. 633-656. Online images at (accessed 2 Nov 2016).

Pierce, Gerald Joseph, "Public and Private Voices: The Typhoid Experience at Camp Thomas, 1898." Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2007;

"Sickness at Camp Thomas", Historic Markers Across Georgia--Camp George H. ThomasLatitude 34 North,  accessed 27 Nov 2016.

The Spanish American War Centennial Website,

Numerous newspaper articles accessed at and Chronicling America.