By H. Irving Hancock
|Bringing in the wounded|
"I'm brain-fagged and body-tired," declared the doctor, halting in front of the porch and resting both elbows on the bench that ran along the whole length of the outer edge of the porch.
He had come down through Newspaper Row, as we had dubbed that part of the main street of Siboney. Here were three buildings which had been seized and occupied by war correspondents. It was the principal gathering place of the little Cuban town. Here the correspondents came when they returned from the front; here they wrote their dispatches and the longer stories that went by mail; here obliging officers came who had some new item of news. Foreign attaches dropped in, too, to hear what news had escaped them, and in return they were sometimes lured into expressing more or less trenchant opinions of how the campaign was being conducted. Here, too, the home-coming mail had been received and cared for. Hence Newspaper Row became an exchange—a sort of forum. Everyone who wanted to hear or tell something came our way.
It was Sunday morning, July 3rd, a beautiful, clear day, an ideal American day, one of the passing officers explained, with no notion of how prophetic his words were. While the heat was all that is conveyed by the word "tropical," yet it was tempered by the breeze blowing in from the sea that was but a few yards from our porch, and he who could sit back in the shade found nothing to grumble at in the weather.
"They're still coming—poor fellows," sighed the doctor, taking a few tired whiffs at the cigarette which had been offered him. "They're coming a good deal faster than we can attend to them, though we are going without sleep in the effort to catch up with our work. Few of us have had forty winks since Friday, though several naval surgeons have come ashore and are helping us splendidly."
Out at the front the fighting was still going on. Friday's was the big battle, but Saturday had seen some sad work. in a lesser degree, and a correspondent who had just got in from the front informed us that at daylight on this Sunday morning our forces had again gone at the work of hammering Santiago. Having pretty completely invested the city, all that was now left for the Americans to do was to take it by assault.
"I am told that means from three to five thousand more men will be killed and wounded on our side," mused the doctor aloud. We had heard the same estimate and believed it. And, once our army got into the city, Cervera was there in the harbor, to pound the victors with his great guns. A city which could be captured only by the grandest heroism and at frightful loss would probably prove untenable to the victors, who would have no artillery capable of effectively replying to Cervera's fire. Victory and destruction looked like twin terms.
|A Red Cross Nurse|
Even now our hospital at Siboney was overcrowded, the whole force of doctors, stewards and nurses overworked to the point of collapse. The assault and capture of the city itself, and then in turn the bombardment of the victors—no wonder the surgeons were in a condition of wondering dread! The sacrifices to victory seemed destined to become one of the most harrowing pages in the annals of war.
Every few minutes some of the wounded arrived from the front. No man who could use his feet was allowed to ride. All of the transportation by vehicle was reserved for the wounded who could not possibly walk. How many ambulances does the reader imagine there were with us in Cuba? Three! And they were there by the merest luck. Bates' Brigade had sailed from Mobile with the three ambulances belonging to that organization. The eighty odd sent to Tampa by rail did not come to Cuba with us. Lack of transportation facilities was one of the excuses urged. Yet in time of war the United States Government has authority to seize any vessel needed for transport purposes—making proper payment later on, of course.
Now, even refusing carriage to any man barely able to use his legs in getting back to Siboney, it is quite apparent that three ambulances could not bring in all the wounded men who could not walk. The round trip out to the front and back was twenty-eight or thirty miles, and over a road or path which made even one round trip per day a remarkable performance. So mule wagons were called into service. These tough, durable vehicles are intentionally constructed in a way that makes it possible to haul them over fallen trees, small boulders, through mud two feet deep, and in general over and through any kind of a road that is wide enough for the wheels to pass. These wagons are spring-less. A healthy man, troubled only with aching feet, would sooner tramp fifteen miles than try to ride the distance in an army mule wagon. And these were the vehicles which, in the absence of a proper number of ambulances, were made to serve in their place. In the cases of very seriously wounded soldiers it was necessary to get them to the hospital somehow; it would be interesting to know how many men died from the jolting they got.
The foregoing can give but a faint idea of the horror of the situation on Sunday morning, when it was believed that it would be necessary to take Santiago by assault; when it was thought that the main battle of the campaign was still before us, with all the frightful losses it must entail. It made the heart sick and the brain dizzy to contemplate the prospect when already the facilities of the surgical department were so woefully overtaxed. Yet the heads of the medical department of the army in. Washington have since asserted that every contingency conceivable to human foresight had been amply provided for! Go tell that to the men who were in Siboney at that time! Go tell that, too, to the foreign military and naval attaches who' saw the situation and contrasted it with the system in the medical departments of the armies which they represented! The sad truth is that in a campaign where men must die in droves, both by bullet and by tropical disease, the medical and surgical provisions were not ample, nor even tolerably ample.
The mule wagons that passed our shack that morning, each carrying eight or ten gallant fellows shattered in the service of their flag, were surely not a part of that "ample provision." It would have been an act of inhumanity to make the enemy's wounded who fell into our hands ride in such conveyances. As far as might be, comrades of the wounded men who rode in these mule wagons had tried to make them comfortable for the trip. Clothing, leaves, grass—anything soft—had been placed in the bottom of some of these substitute ambulances, to relieve some of the fearful wear and tear and rack of the journey. There were no covers over them. Helpless—sometimes unconscious—they were obliged to ride fifteen miles with the tropical sun blazing on their faces. Some of the comrades out at the front had tried to keep the sun rays out of the sufferers' faces by rigging up palm and other leaves over them.
In the meantime our troops out at the front were suffering pangs of hunger: The quartermaster's department has been blamed for the failure to get food to them. There could have been wagon-loads more of it sent there, had it not been that so many of the quartermaster's vehicles were diverted to the more imperative work of bringing in the wounded. In this way the lack of adequate provision of ambulances by the medical department greatly hindered the quartermasters in the transportation of food to the fighting part of the army. Logically, the surgical department not only caused the wounded unnecessary and untold agony, but caused other thousands, still passably well, to weaken and sicken through the lack of sufficient food.
|Raising the flag|
Along towards ten o'clock I went up to the hospital again with paper, pencil and envelope, for there were always scores of men who wanted letters sent home. The wounded were lying on the ground, generally on a single blanket spread over the hard-caked earth. Some men had no blankets at all. Cots? Well, there were a few. So close were the men lying to each other that I had to exercise the greatest of care in getting through. Here and there, when I wrote a letter for a soldier, it was possible to kneel on the ground between two men; but in rather more cases it was necessary to stand up—and to stand in the smallest possible space. The Red Cross nurses, being more experienced and less clumsy, managed the problem better. The amount of work those five heroic women could do in an hour was a marvel.
"How do you like the Red Cross sisters?" I asked one of the men.
"They're the only good thing here," was the gulping answer.
Another, for whom I was writing a letter home, paused after dictating a few short sentences, then added:
"Tell mother the Red Cross nurses are little below the angels!"
The hunger which had begun on Saturday was intensified by now. On every hand there was complaint of lack of food. Soldiers who said they were hungry held up hard-tack nibbled around the edges, or showed me cans of baked beans.
"Fine stuff for men in pain and with blood afire, isn't it?" asked one of these food exhibitors.
"If I could have a little gruel—" said one, wistfully.
"Or a glass of milk," suggested another.
"I'd like an orange—it would be a square meal and a good drink afterwards for me, today."
"I kain't eat dem beans. Done tried to, but dey tu'ns mah stummack," complained a negro trooper. "Ef I could hab one good slice ob watermelon.
This raised a laugh. It took but little to amuse the poor fellows.
One regular in that tent had been shot in more than one place. He was pretty well covered with bandages. Between him and the hard ground was a single fold of blanket. If he could have had a cot to lie upon, it would have been comparative comfort, but he was in great pain and the little ridges of ground under him made a bed of torture. He had tried repeatedly to shift himself into a somewhat more comfortable position; he had had the assistance of one of the hospital stewards. It was out of the question, though. There was no soft side to that ground, and no one position that was more comfortable than another. He gave it up, finally, and began to cry—not from bodily pain, but from sheer misery. As I came toward him he looked up and said, brokenly:
"Pardner, will you tell me something?"
"What is it?"
"For God's sake, what kind of a country have I been fighting for?"
I didn't answer that question; it was too much of a poser. Instead, I tried to tell him that things would soon be in better shape. He listened to me with marked incredulity. On a later day when I looked for him, he was not there. He had died, wondering what kind of a country had received the sacrifice.
Just before noon we paid a visit to the camp of some hundred and sixty Spanish prisoners who had been brought in from El Caney. They were encamped in the open, up at the southwest end of the village—a dirty, sullen, but picturesque looking lot of undersized men. They were still wondering at what hour they were to be shot to death, for their officers had told them that this was their certain fate should they fall into the hands of the American barbarians. Around this camp of the prisoners was posted a strong guard of Michigan Volunteers, intended not so much to hinder the escape of the Spanish as to prevent the Cubans from making an attempt to get at them with machetes. We found them well provided with rations, issued by our commissary at the rate of three good square meals a day for each prisoner. When asked if they had any complaint to make about their treatment, several of the soldiers replied at once that they had not once fared as well since leaving Spain. The two officers who belonged to, this outfit had been given quarters in the blockhouse a few yard s away.
|Wounded soldiers dictating letters home|
Walking down the street again to "Newspaper Row," we were just in time to see a couple of mule wagons coming up the street, escorted by mounted cavalrymen, carrying rifles rampant from the right knee. That escort meant more prisoners, and we hurried forward to get a glimpse of them. There were about a dozen in the two wagons, and one of the troopers obligingly informed us that he had heard they were some of the enemy's sharpshooters who had been rounded up. Nearly everyone in the lot was wounded. There was one who was not, and he was not a Spaniard, but a foreign correspondent who had come down with us on the Olivette. Out at the front he had been acting queerly, as if he were trying to break through to the enemy's lines. Twice he was arrested and released; the third time he stayed arrested, on suspicion of being a spy. He pooh-poohed and claimed it was all a personal dispute with some of our officers. Had he been convicted he would have been shot. In the absence of positive evidence to warrant this fate, he was subsequently shipped out of the island.
Dinner over, news came that electrified us. It was that Cervera's fleet had made what seemed a foolhardy dash from Santiago harbor, and that all the vessels except the Cristobal Colon had been promptly destroyed. The Oregon was reported to be in chase of the Colon and gaining on her. As soon as we were in possession of the first scant details, several of us hurried up to the hospital to carry the great news to the wounded. There was no cheering, because of hospital regulations, but the happiness of the men lying there shone in their faces. Outside was the wildest excitement. The first crowd of men to hear the news let out a cheer that shook the air. So did the second. After that the cheers traveled faster than the news. Everyone in Siboney knew that some great cause for jubilation was afloat, so those most remote from Newspaper Row cheered first and came down afterwards to find out what it was all about. Next the big transports out in the bay took it up, trying to drown the cheers with loud steam-whistle notes, and up on a hill to the eastward flew an American flag. One soldier, unable to show his great joy in any other way, raced to the flag-pole, seized the halliards, and fairly made beautiful Old Glory dance a jig. The noise continued full twenty minutes. Then every man settled down to talk about it with someone else, and there was thirst and hunger for more details.
It was not long before these came, impersonated by Captain Paget, of the British Royal Navy. His was a figure that every American who was in Siboney will long remember. A tall, spare, well-built man of probably sixty, who invariably wore a linen uniform, visored cap and monocle, and who appeared inseparable from his "stick" and long telescope. He would out-tramp any youngster of twenty, had a seeming faculty of being always in the right place at the right time to see what was going on, and an obliging habit, that endeared him to us all, of promptly coming to tell us whatever he saw that was newsy. At San Juan, when he saw our flag floating from the heights after the famous charge, he jumped up and down in his delight, shouting, "The victory is ours!" When at Caney he saw our brigades charge up and take positions which his fighting experience had led him to declare impossible a few hours before, he actually cried to think that he had lived to see such a day and men of such bravery as Uncle Sam's soldiers. He was at all times a sincere admirer of American fighting prowess, and now, as he came in fresh from the naval battle which, with his persistent good luck, he had been on hand to see, he trembled and beamed at the same time with satisfaction.
"Er—er—by Jove—the greatest thinger-er—that I ever—er-saw. Cervera's ships came out shooting and—er—er—our ships began to shoot back, and—er—erer—er—er—er--"
"Go on, captain," we begged breathlessly.
"Er—er—er—and it was all over, by Jove!"
But presently he added that the Colon was off and away, but with the Oregon in full chase, and ready to follow to Cape Horn or Spain, if necessary. When we inquired if the Oregon had a good show to catch up with the Colon, Captain Paget looked injured.
Then he enthusiastically declared that if the Americans always fought on land and sea the way he had seen them do during the last few days, it wouldn't take an Anglo-American alliance six months to whip the allied rest of the world.
Captain Paget and one other naval attaché happened to be on one of the transports that was pretty far out at the moment when the naval fight began. The captain of that transport had persistently refused much to the discomfiture of the two attaches, to go nearer to the fight than seven or eight miles, but even at that distance, with the aid of their powerful glasses, they had been able to follow the course of the combat in detail. When it was evident that several of the Spanish craft were sinking, Captain Paget begged the master of the transport to steam nearer in order to extend humane assistance to Spaniards floundering in the water. The master of the transport, however, refused, thinking he was already quite near enough to the fight. This cowardly refusal the Briton, it was plain to see, regarded as the only blot on the grand American performance, and he gave the master of the transport a pretty bluff hint of his opinion.
Later on we heard another detail of the fight, or rather a side scene of it that was calculated to make magnanimous blood boil. Some of the wrecked Spanish sailors, swimming to the shore, fell into the hands of Cuban men and women, who at once proceeded to machete them. This Captain Evans saw through his marine glasses, and the Iowa promptly threw a few shells into the inhuman Cubans—another act by which "Fighting Bob" has endeared himself to fair-play-loving Americans.
|Taking wounded prisoners for a bath|
With the Spanish fleet out of the way it now seemed certain to us that the American assault upon Santiago would begin at once. It might be taking place. There was great bustling in Newspaper Row; but while we were in the midst of it, word came in that a truce had been declared and was likely to continue two or three days. Then correspondents began coming in rapidly from the front to write their dispatches.
In the meantime the insufficient number of attendants at the hospital had been working almost ceaselessly for three days.
If one will consider the awful strain of day and night work on trained nurses in a hospital at home, one may gather a dim notion of the stern courage that was necessary to a nurse in the hospital service at Siboney. At home every appliance, every convenience, every aid is prompt at hand. In the camp hospital, men were sick, suffering and famished or wrongly fed, and every trifling requisite to the nurse's science was troublesome or difficult to secure.
It occurred to some of us that, though we were untrained, we might be of some use up there under the rows of white tents. I went up to inquire of Major Lagarde whether he could use a few willing amateurs. "I can make use of all who come," was the quick answer.
"Some of us will be here this evening, then."
A squad of volunteers was organized. Major Lagarde's orders were simple and easily comprehensible.
"Sit on that bench outside," he directed. "When you hear a shout for 'hospital man,' go where the shout comes from. Go in turn, so as to divide the work. Do whatever the surgeons or stewards tell you to."
That looked easy. But before there was any call for our services, Major Lagarde himself came toward us, told us that two of the Red Cross nurses had found twenty minutes in which to make gruel for some of the sick men, and directed us to go and bring it down in cups. We hurried off up to the house where two pails of gruel were ready. The nurses had been summoned back to the operating tables and could cook no more. They were even unable to go with us to show us the patients who needed the food most. We must go through and find out for ourselves. We went. The appearance of the steaming, delicious stuff created a sensation. But there was not enough to go around. Promising the still hungry ones that we would get more somehow, we went back to the Red Cross hospital. There, in the back yard, we found a kindly old gentles man named Bangs, a sanitary engineer connected with the Red Cross. He gave his life to his country, as it afterwards proved, at Siboney.
Ritchie and I offered to do the cooking if he would show us how.
"How much time can you give to this?" asked Dr. Bangs.
"Until daylight, or noon to-morrow, if necessary."
He thereupon instructed us. It was not difficult, but it was certainly slow work. There were only two small charcoal braziers. Such fires were slow, and had to be frequently and vigorously fanned. Water had to be heated to boiling, but we got it under way and kept it going. In each batch of gruel a bottle of malted milk and a can of condensed milk were emptied. There was no lack of materials. The Red Cross ship, "State of Texas," out in the bay, had seven tons of oatmeal on board which had been brought for this purpose. All through the night we went on making the hot, savory stuff, and Bennett and Donohue, provided with buckets, cups and lanterns, went through the rows of tents offering gruel to all who wanted it.
"To make the boys feel better," laughed Bennett, "we have told them that the nurses are making this gruel. One soldier swallowed his with a good deal of relish, lay back on his blanket contented, and said that it beat all Hades how these Red Cross girls could make old-fashioned gruel."
The wounded men who had been unfed for three days could not realize that there was now promise of an unlimited supply. In consequence, many a hungry fellow would look up wistfully when the food was offered him—then indicate someone else in the tent who needed it more. On one of the rounds, when I went through, a young officer replied that he'd certainly be mighty glad of a cupful. Then, as I got nearer he raised himself on one arm, peered into the bucket and added:
"You haven't, much there. I guess you can skip me, but there's one of my men over there whom I wish you'd give a cupful to."
Both men got all they could swallow. Thus the "gruel-squad" came into being. It went on duty every evening as long as the need continued, other correspondents and some of the soldiers taking turns. Every pound of material for this work came from the Red Cross people.
The Fourth of July was the strangest one which most of us who were there ever saw, or are likely to see. There was no fighting going on at the front. The truce was likely to last indefinitely. Siboney was a place evenly divided between work and sorrow and suffering. There was no time for jubilation. It was on this day, if I remember rightly, that we found Captain Stevens of the Signal Corps. His face was flushed with fever. He had eaten nothing for four days.
"I came here," he explained, "because I thought my men might be able to find time enough to attend to me. It was a mistake. They didn't have a moment to spare, they are driven so by work that must be done."
Then he told us about the four days without food. Two of us started off to get it. Where? At the Red Cross hospital, of course, where such things were kept. Soon the captain had swallowed a cup of hot malted milk. By his couch were left some soda crackers and a jar of jelly—little things, but all he wanted.
Up at the camp of Spanish prisoners a different kind of hardship existed, or at least was alleged to exist. The two Spanish officers who lived, as already stated, in the block-house, were visited by an American correspondent. They complained, indignantly, that they were not allowed any opportunity to bathe. The correspondent repeated this to the officer of the guard, a Michigan officer.
"They can't get baths, eh?" repeated the lieutenant, his eyes twinkling. "I'll have that remedied at once."
Two minutes later there was a knock on the door of the blockhouse. When one of the Spanish officers opened the door, he found himself confronted by an American officer and a squad of men.
"We have come to take you to your bath," said the American, politely.
|Stopping Cubans from attacking Spanish prisoners|
This announcement, in connection with a squad of armed men, looked rather peculiar. The Don made some reply about not caring for a bath, just then. He might as well have saved his breath. The American officer was courteous, but firm. His orders were that the prisoners were to bathe. Before the Spaniards got through objecting, they found themselves marching in the center of a squad of men headed for the beach. They reached the edge of the bay at a point where there were no other bathers.
"There is your bath ready for you," said the American officer, pointing to the ocean. Again the prisoners demurred, but were informed that a bath had been ordered, and could not therefore be avoided: Being officers themselves, they must know the inviolability of orders. Surely, as gentlemen, they would not force the American officer to the highly regrettable necessity of—of —"
Slowly, but surely, it dawned upon the nettled Dons that this bath was an affair that could neither be dodged nor postponed. They objected to being asked to disrobe before these soldiers, but the American officer pointed to a distant part of the beach where American officers and men were bathing together. Unfortunately their status as prisoners precluded the courtesy of sending the guard back. So with some anxiety they stripped, then they looked at the water, next back at the line of guards, and then, acting upon a gentle hint, went into the water. There they stood, half up to their knees, until it was made plain to them that the guards were there to see to it that they had as thorough a bath as the facilities permitted. When the American officer left them at the door of their block-house quarters later, he added:
"I am permitted to promise you that you shall have a bath once a day hereafter. Should you desire two per day, I think it can be easily arranged."
No fault can be found with our treatment of the Spaniards. Even the refugees who came out of Santiago subsisted on army rations, provided with a free hand. A captain who went out to El Caney with a provision train intended for the use of the Spaniards, was confronted by Cubans with arms in their hands, loudly declaring that they had much more claim upon the rations than any Spaniard could have. When the American officer curtly declined to be held up in this fashion, the Cubans started to make a rush on the train. In a twinkling the officer sprang from his horse and drew a pistol. The captain snatched it from his hands, and then shouted firmly:
"If you fellows try any more nonsense, I'll order my men to fire into you!"
Slowly and sullenly, with a good deal of declamation, our so-called allies withdrew. They could have had plenty of provisions by sending a number of packers back to Siboney. But this they were too lazy, or too lordly to do. Much as our soldiers detested the Spaniards, they rather preferred them to the Cubans.
One evening, just at dark, Lieutenant Hobson, of "Merrimac" fame, rode in, accompanied by Colonel Astor. Mr. Hobson got a rousing reception in an instant. Army officers crowded forward to clasp the naval hero's hand, saying, "I am Lieutenant So-and-So," or "Captain This and That." The hand-shaking was terrific. A dense crowd of soldiers stood around, looking on wistfully. Finally one of the privates stepped forward with, "I'm Private Dash, of the Thirty-third Michigan, but I'd like to shake hands with you, Mr. Hobson." He did, and after that scores more of enlisted men had their chance. Then the Lieutenant sat patiently in saddle, answering all of our questions, for the next half hour, as to how he had been treated in Santiago. He left us under fire of volley after volley of cheers, and as the boat bearing him sped over the water, every warship and transport in the bay joined in the din of steam whistles.
A half an hour later we had another hero, in the person of Able Seaman Murphy of Hobson's famous dare-devil crew. His reception was no less intense than his officer's had been.
We needed things to make us cheer in those terrible days. The procession of wounded was now replaced by a longer procession of sick men, who straggled in constantly for treatment. Malaria, dysentery, mountain fever and typhoid were rife. There were suppressed whispers that yellow fever had broken out, though as yet no confirmation could be secured. Yet even those who scoffed at the actual presence of it knew that it could not be long before Yellow Jack would be stalking through the camps.
From Ainslee’s Magazine – 1899.