CHEYENNE – It was 120 years ago that the United States declared war on Spain, and the Wyoming National Guard mustered for its first overseas deployment, in support of the Spanish-American War.
America’s support for the ongoing struggle by Cubans and Filipinos against Spanish rule, and the mysterious explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor Feb. 15, 1898, killing 266 American sailors, were the top two reasons for taking up arms against Spain.
While an investigation was ongoing into the ship’s explosion, the War Department set its machine in motion in the eventuality of a war declaration. And thus, the country and the Wyoming National Guard set out for unchartered waters, mobilizing for an overseas conflict.
President William McKinley called for 125,000 volunteers. Wyoming’s quota was initially set at 208 Guardsmen, but the Cowboy State eventually provided about 1,000 volunteers.
The April 19 Cheyenne Tribune reported “According to conclusions arrived at in Washington on Saturday, The National Guard will be first called into service in case of war. Wyoming has one regiment of Infantry, and one battery of artillery. Anyone who, in case of hostilities, would prefer to enlist in the artillery arm of the service will please write or wire at once to Capt G.R. Palmer, commanding Alger Light Artillery.”
Wyoming’s most significant contribution to the war came from that battalion of infantry, consisting of four companies, augmented by an artillery battery. The 1st Wyoming Infantry Battalion’s four companies were: Company C, from Buffalo; Company F, from Douglas; Company G, from Sheridan; and Company H, from Evanston.
Harry Smith, of Buffalo, was in Montana helping drive a trail herd from one ranch to another when he heard “something about a war with Spain.” He eventually became a part of Company C.
“When we got to Buffalo, they were getting up a company to go somewhere. About half the company were recruited from the coal mines in Cambria, and proved to be a dandy bunch of boys,” Smith wrote in his journal, which is now a part of the Wyoming State Archives. “They were recruited from every country on the globe, even one boy from Kansas.”
From Cheyenne, the troops moved by train to the Presidio of San Francisco military base to continue training and to stage for the long sea voyage to the Philippines.
“We went on board the transport Ohio, which had been used as a cattle boat. We were all worried about getting seasick,” Smith journaled. “My buddy and I asked an old sailor what to do. He told us not to eat much and when we began to feel sick to take a drink of whiskey. We filled our canteens and took his advice, so got along fine.”
Eleven days after the war began McKinley ordered troops to mount a campaign against the Philippines’ capital, Manila.
The Wyoming infantrymen were leading the charge to take Manila, and were the first to enter the city after heavy fighting. On Aug. 13, 1898, the Wyoming battalion flag was the first United States flag to be raised in the city.
Smith recalled the day in his journal, “As we started out the rain began to fall in torrents. We were assigned to the first brigade and placed on the entrance left of the line near the bay. At this place we were to await orders. About this time we heard our first cannons, both from the shore and (Commodore George) Dewey’s boats. Every time one of those guns roared I had to grab my hat. I have often heard of people who did not know what fear was. I do not belong to that class.
“We were supposed to be in reserve, but as soon as other troops moved forward, we went along, and because we were worst scared, we got to Manilla among the first. A little further on, we saw the walls of Manilla with the white flag flying. From then on we began to feel better. We were stopped in front of the 73rd Spanish barracks, which was to be our home for several months. There we raised the first American flag, the flag we had taken all the way from Buffalo. The old ragged flag that is now in the Buffalo library.”
In July 1899, both Wyoming units received orders to prepare to return to the United States, setting sail on July 30. They arrived at San Francisco a month later.
After a few weeks rest and the settling of accounts, they were mustered out of service on Sept. 23, 1899.