Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans’ Day: Remembering a Relative

The Spanish-American War, like all our country’s wars up till World War II, saw more U.S. servicemen die of disease than of wounds sustained in combat. One of those servicemen was my great-granduncle, George Warren Hodgins. This is some of his story. (Below, a photo of George published in the history cited here.)

George Warren Hodgins

George Warren Hodgins was born in Calais, Maine, on July 17, 1864, the eighth of 12 children born to William Hodgins and his wife Eliza Nason, and the fourth to be born an American citizen after the family’s move across the river from St. Stephen, New Brunswick. My guess is that he was named for a family friend, as no earlier Georges or Warrens are to be found in either family. Four years later, my mother’s grandfather, Allen Drew Hodgins, was born, and it seems safe to assume that Allen looked up to his older brother, since he named a son Warren after him. (There are several indications that G. W. Hodgins went by Warren both inside and outside the family.)

Warren’s father was a ship carpenter and also had a small farm. Thus, according to Warren’s biography in Worcester in the Spanish War (1905), his boyhood “was given to farm work and the public schools.” The 1880 census found Warren, age 16, “at home;” he is also said to have worked for a time in a shop in Calais. William Hodgins was evidently prosperous enough to send several of his children to some post-secondary education, and Warren was one of these. At 19, in the winter of 1883-84, he attended Eastman Commercial College in Rochester, NY; but it appears that his aptitudes and interests lay elsewhere, for in 1885 he began learning the machinist’s trade at a shop in Worcester, MA. He remained there until 1896; his older brother, John Nason Hodgins, also lived in Worcester with his family, and both brothers were connected with the local Fire Department. In 1896 Warren returned to the farm in Calais for about 18 months, perhaps to help his aging father; he returned to work in Worcester March 1, 1898, and on April 29 joined Company H, Wellington Rifles, 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.

The book Worcester in the Spanish War, in which I found much of my information, twice mentions this poignant anecdote: as he was in the process of enlistment, Warren was asked for the name of a friend or next-of-kin who should be notified in case of his illness or death. He replied, “That is a good idea, for I have no expectations of coming home alive.”

The regiment, now styled as part of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, U. S. Volunteers, traveled first to Framingham for some training and then South by train, spending some of their training time in Lakeland, FL, and later in Ybor City. As June wore on, they at last embarked on the vessel for Cuba; they landed June 23rd.

It was only a short time after their arrival that the company was called to assist at the Battle of Las Guasimas, June 24th. This battle is generally characterized as a cavalry action (including Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders) so it’s not clear what part the Rifles played in it. The event did give rise to this amusing anecdote: “When the alarm for Las Guasimas fight called them from their bivouac, they marched away carrying their provisions in all sorts of ways. Private Hodgins had the most of his hardtack strung on a string and the streamer of tack was suspended from his bayonet as he threaded the Cuban mazes.” (Worcester in the Spanish War, p. 183)

Speaking of hardtack, bad food and water probably killed at least as many soldiers as mosquitoes did. The rations included pork and beef that the troops called “embalmed;” hardtack; and canned tomatoes. However, at least the troops in Cuba could take advantage of some of the local fruits, with mangoes, limes, and other delicacies available for the picking according to contemporary accounts. By the way, the month’s pay for a private like Warren Hodgins was $15.00.

Sp-Am War Memorial Worcester Mass

The city of Worcester has a memorial plaque for the members of the Wellington Rifles, shown above (click on the photo to enlarge it and you will see Warren Hodgins’ name in the first column). It lists the battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill and the Siege of Santiago as actions in which the Rifles took part. Having arrived in Cuba in late June, much of the regiment would be on its way home by August (the eastern half of Cuba had surrendered in mid-July but the troops were kept on the island because those at home feared the spread of yellow fever.) But Warren Hodgins’ premonition had been correct. He was too ill to travel home with his regiment and had to be left behind at the field hospital in Siboney. Soon, the hospital ship Missouri arrived to carry the sick soldiers to a hospital that had been set up at Montauk, Long Island. (Again, fear of yellow fever was probably the rationale for locating the hospital in a fairly remote location for that time.) Warren was taken on board, but died soon after, probably on September 3, 1898. (I’ve seen several dates, but this seems to be the most likely.) He was buried at sea.

Hospital Ship Missouri painted by Jacobsen

(The Missouri, painted by Jacobsen. ) The Missouri docked at Montauk and unloaded its passengers on September 10, 1898, as described in the New York Times, which listed the names of those who had died on the voyage, including Warren Hodgins. Camp Wikoff, the site of the hospital at Montauk, was a hellhole, understaffed and poorly supplied. Warren may have escaped even further suffering by dying on board the Missouri.

There were four principal diseases that killed soldiers in the Spanish-American War: dysentery, typhoid, malaria and yellow fever. I do not know which of these accounted for Warren’s death; I hope to obtain records from the National Archives someday to learn a bit more.

Politically speaking, the Spanish-American War was not our finest hour. It was precipitated by the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, an event about the causes of which there is still controversy. Americans were urged into war by William Randolph Hearst’s jingoistic Yellow Journalism. Why did Warren and his comrades in arms enlist? Was it patriotism, a wish for adventure, a desire to be one of the gang? Perhaps, at least for some, it was the idea that Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos, though in some ways very different from machinists and store clerks in Worcester, should have the same rights of self-government that Americans enjoyed. Over a hundred years later, there has been some, though not enough, progress toward that ideal, and Warren played his part.

1 comment:

Vicki Lane said...

Someone called it a splendid little war because so few were killed on the battlefield. But all those other casualties, like your uncle, were victims too. Can any war be splendid?