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.(1)
|El Morro in 2016|
By gillfoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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 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 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.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.
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)
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".
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 (spanamwar.com, 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 Newspapers.com (accessed 2 Nov 2016).
(3) Quote from The Topeka State Journal, 31 Jan 1899, p. 1; Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, accessed 2 Nov 2016).
(4) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 21 Feb 1899, p. 2, c. 8; Newspapers.com (accessed 17 Nov 2016).
(5) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 22 Feb 1899, p. 1; Newspapers.com (accessed 2 Nov 2016).
(6) Quote from The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal, 21 Feb 1899, p. 2, c. 8; Newspapers.com (accessed 17 Nov 2016).