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At the Dawn of the American Century

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 1999 – Henry Luce, founder and owner of Time magazine, called the 20th Century "the American Century."

Given the tumultuous history of this century and America's role in that history, Luce's term is probably appropriate.

But in 1899, no one could really forecast the emergence of the United States as the world's superpower. The power of the day was Great Britain. The sun literally never set on the British Empire, and the sea lanes were safe thanks to the Royal Navy.

True, America had announced its presence on the world stage by winning a war against Spain, but defeating a fifth-rate European power just hinted at U.S. potential.

The U.S. military that won the Spanish-American War in 1898 was not even state-of-the-art for the time.

There was no Army Staff, as we know it. The Germans -- a country only since 1871 -- had one. The smooth-running Prussian army staff had helped the Kaiser defeat the French in 1870. But the U.S. Army did not follow that example.

The Army commanding general was Gen. Nelson Miles. He held that position because he was the senior officer in the service. He had served as a Union officer during the Civil War. He commanded the combat power of the Army, but could not "command" the bureaus that were responsible for training and equipping the Army. The bureau commanders reported to the secretary of war.

The Navy had it a bit better. The 1890s had seen a revolution in shipbuilding. Coal-fired, all-steel battleships were the capital ships of the day. While the United States still had Monitor- class ships from the Civil War, most naval ships were modern and packed a powerful punch. U.S. battleships boasted batteries of 13.5-inch, 8-inch and 5-inch guns.

In 1899, the Navy had 16,354 sailors. Seamen earned $19 a month. Ensigns took home $1,400 a year if they were on sea duty, but only $1,190 if they were ashore.

Like the Army, the Navy had no staff system in 1899. Navy Secretary John Long was his own chief of naval operations. At the beginning of the Spanish-American War, he appointed a Navy War Board. The board included one of the most influential naval theorists of the day, Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, who advised Long on the conduct of the war. After the war Long discontinued the board.

The commanders in Cuba made their reputations as generals during the American Civil War -- on opposite sides. Maj. Gen. William Shafter commanded the V Corps, which invaded Cuba. He had been a Union brigadier general.

Maj. Gen. "Fighting Joe" Wheeler led a division of V Corps. During the Civil War he commanded the cavalry of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. During the charge up San Juan Hill, Wheeler forgot where he was and, as the Spanish ran from their positions, he yelled, "Come on! We've got the damn Yankees on the run!"

Between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army was a frontier force. Army regulars and Indian scouts fought American Indians from Little Big Horn to Wounded Knee. The Indian Wars were over, but soldiers still manned frontier forts and guarded Indian reservations.

In 1898, the entire Army had but 28,000 soldiers stationed at over 80 posts, mostly in the West. By 1899, Congress increased the regular Army to 60,000. Just as today, the National Guard provided soldiers and expertise when needed and the total force numbered 300,000. But the experiences of the Spanish-American War pointed to the need for some sort of national reserve. The seeds for the Army Reserve were planted in the aftermath of the war.

The Army was not trained to fight in "regular" combat. Since the Civil War it had conducted a number of operations -- reconstruction of the South, campaigns against Indians and strikebreaking in the North -- but none prepared it for battle against a "European-style" army.

The Spanish had better weapons than the U.S. Army. The Spanish used Argentine 8 mm Mausers with new smokeless powder. U.S. forces used Krag-Jorgenson .30-caliber rifles. While the United States had some smokeless powder, most infantrymen fired old powder that spewed smoke and gave away their positions. The Spanish wore white cotton fatigues that, after a few days in the field, blended with the foliage. U.S. soldiers wore woolen blue uniforms their grandfathers wore in 1865. Officers still wore swords into combat.

Mules pulled supply wagons and the cavalry rode horses. Shipping the animals and all their fodder was a logistical nightmare. When the Army arrived in Cuba, the crews just pushed the animals over the side of the ship and hoped they would swim to shore. In one instance, confused animals started swimming out to sea until an alert bugler sounded "Right Wheel" and the horses turned and swam to shore.

During the training period the average trooper accumulated a kit consisting of a blanket, shelter half, poncho, extra clothes, food and utensils, cartridge belt and 125 rounds, canteen, weapon and haversack. His uniform consisted of flannel shirts, canvas over blouse, khaki pants, high leather boots with gaiters and a campaign hat.

At the start of the war, the Medical Bureau knew it had a problem. It didn't have enough doctors, equipment or medicine available to support the army. The medical field was often the last section to receive supplies, so many units did not have the proper medical necessities when they deployed. It showed.

During the Spanish-American War 369 soldiers died in battle while 2,061 died from disease. In 1899, the Army established the Nurse Corps. Nurses received $40 per month for service in the United States and $50 overseas.

There was no draft, and prominent individuals -- often with no military experience to draw on -- raised regiments to supplement the Army. William Jennings Bryant, the man who ran against President William McKinley, raised the 3rd Nebraska Regiment for the war. Only D Company of the unit saw combat, but Bryant went by "colonel" for the rest of his life.

Theodore Roosevelt was a bit more successful. The assistant secretary of the Navy when the war broke out, he ordered ships to Manila, resigned his office and became the lieutenant colonel of the "Rough Riders" -- the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. He managed to get the unit to Cuba and, when the commander, Col. Leonard Wood, was promoted, Roosevelt led the unit during the battle for Santiago. The charge up San Juan Hill made Roosevelt a hero and the governor of New York. In 1899, there was already talk of him being president some day.

The entire Marine Corps had 3,142 members in 1899. The commandant was Col. Charles Heywood. The Marines fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, taking Guantanamo Bay from the Spanish. There was no permanent Marine Corps organization at the time. To field his force for Cuba, the commandant grabbed Marines from naval bases in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington to form a battalion. In addition, the Marines provided security aboard Navy ships and help man the guns during battle.

In 1899, the Marines first adopted linen field khakis, but most Marines still wore Army blue flannel uniforms. The Marines started switching from the 1895 model Winchester-Lee 6 mm rifle to the Krag-Jorgenson. Marines also carried a small knapsack into battle.

The Marines used Army-style campaign hats with the Marine Corps emblem pinned to it. The Marine dress uniform was the last hurrah of the frock coat. Marine enlisted personnel wore the frock coat with red mohair braided shoulder knots. They also wore German-style spiked helmets. Officers had a red plume coming out of their helmets.

The late 1890s saw some of the first interest in machine-powered aviation as a military weapon. On March 25, 1898, Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt recommended appointing two naval officers to work with War Department representatives to examine Professor Samuel P. Langley's flying machine. They were to report on its practicability and its potential for use in war. A month later the first joint Army-Navy board on aeronautics submitted the report on the machine.

Since the machine was a model with a 12-foot wingspan, its value for military purposes was largely theoretical, but the report expressed a general sentiment in favor of supporting Langley in further experimentation.

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Related Sites:
1899 to 1999 -- Documenting the American Century
U.S. Army Center for Military History
U.S. Navy Historical Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageHospital personnel, including Army nurses, assemble at the Hospital Field in Camp Columbia, Havana, Cuba in 1899. The Army established the Army Nurse Corps that year. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Center for Military History.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNebraska Volunteers board ship following service in the Philippines in 1899. U.S. Army Photo by J.D. Saulsbury, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCrewmen of the U.S. Navy battleship USS Indiana, circa 1897, pose beside the forward 13-inch gun turret and forward port 8-inch gun turret. During the Spanish-American War, the Indiana participated in the naval battle off Santiago, Cuba, on July 3, 1898, and continued in service through World War I. In 1920, the ship was used as a target and sunk during exercises to determine the effectiveness of aerial bombardment. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center.   
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