Accounts of War

Ezra Lloyd Eckis

“Ezra L. E. in 1898 served nearly seven months in the Spanish-American war as a private of Co. M, 8th Reg’t of Ohio V. I. He wisely kept a daily journal, a thing too often neglected by men at arms in Uncle Sam’s service, and from his carefully kept record we make up the following account of his army life-regretting that limited space obliges us to take no notice of many jottings of interest. Though he escaped the test of death-dealing battle with the enemy, he nevertheless experienced nearly all the trying ordeals incident to active army life. For a brief period he at first seemed to think he was having a ‘picnic.’ While at Camp Alger, near Washington, D. C., Company M was part of the detail to do guard duty at Dunn Loring, the supply station of the camp. His turn here for duty only came every eighth day, and all the rest of the time he enjoyed making pedestrian excursions throughout the neighborhood, and to the city, visiting all the government institutions, and acquiring all the knowledge available. Among the many notes of interest in his diary we may cite the following as an example: ‘June 4th. Visited the Capitol building. While passing through one of the lobbies several of us met the Hon. Thomas B. Reed. He immediately straightened up like a regular, came to attention, saluted us and said, “How are you boys? Where are you from?” When we said Ohio he remarked, “That is a good state, and only good boys come from that state.” Perhaps he thought different when he learned that some Ohio boys scratched their names and regiment on the bronze doors of the Capitol. I am glad that no boys of the 8th did this mean thing. The guilty ones were arrested, but President McKinley interceded for them, and they escaped being severely punished. It is safe to say that they will never be caught at such a vandalic act again.’

“But this agreeable way of soldiering soon ceased, and the service became more serious and exacting. July 5th his command left for New York, and on the 6th the boys marched with their kits aboard the great flying cruiser St. Paul and at once started for the island of Cuba. The voyage, he says, was uneventful, but the few days spent on the ocean gave him and his comrades a fresh and pleasing experience. On the 10th they arrived near Santiago and saw Samson’s fleet of iron-clads, the discomfited Vizcaya, and other stranded vessels of the for several months much dreaded but now vanquished Spanish armada, and they thought that things began to seem warlike. The troops a few hours later landed at Siboney, a few miles east of Santiago, and went into camp in a little valley a short distance to the right of the landing. The next day Ezra had an opportunity to visit Panaderia, a village on the slope of a mountain about three miles from the landing, where he saw hundreds of the destitute and unhappy reconcentradoes crowded into narrow, filthy, and uncomfortable quarters, woman and children and feeble old men, whose homes, and the homes of tens of thousands of their compatriots—in fact tens of thousands of the wretched inhabitants had already been starved to death-had been burned, their live stock driven away or killed, and their crops destroyed, by order of the infamous Gen. Weyler of the Spanish army, and the boys began more fully to realize the meaning of war, and the Spanish tyranny that had so strongly appealed to the moral sense and courage of Americans, to come to the relief of the oppressed Cubans in their brave but unequal struggle for freedom and independence.

“On the 12th the order came to break camp and march to the front near Santiago, and take position on the right of the firing line. The boys now felt that they must soon face the stern reality of cruel war. Fierce fighting had been going on at the front for days, heavy losses had been sustained, and now their turn had come to try the fortune of arms, and, as they understood, in the most exposed position on the line. It was a long and wearisome march through rain and mud, in the heat, over mountain, and without water to quench racking thirst, but they had come from a far-off land to serve in the cause of outraged humanity, and they were resolved to do their duty. All along the route from Siboney to San Juan Hill the famous Rough Riders under Gen. Young and Col. Theodore Roosevelt, the regulars and other troops had fought the Spanish back step by step to their Santiago stronghold, and now the lion was to be faced in his den. The boys of the Eighth Ohio were ready, only they did not overmuch fancy having the old Springfield rifles and common black powder, when the other fellows hadd smokeless powder and Muaser and Krag-Jorgenson rifles. But before they reached the front, however, an aid came in haste with orders for them to go into camp, and to do so they were, if possible, even more willing—as they were tired, and the heat was almost unbearable. And with the welcome order there came also a rumor that they hoped would prove to be true.

“The American General had at noon on the 11th instant sent a flag of truce into the town to see if the Spanish General would agree to surrender, and on the 12th the truce was continued, the Americans kindly offering to convey his troops back to Spain with their arms if he would peaceably capitulate. Seeing that more troops had been landed, with additional batteries of artillery, and reflecting that his own soldiers were already feeling the want of proper nourishment, and that his supply of ammunition was also getting low, General Toral wisely and humanely concluded that resistance was useless, and to save life and prevent needless suffering agreed to give up and accept the proffered terms.

“Ezra’s journal contains many notes of interest, of which the following are taken at random as mere examples. Under date of the 13th he wrote: ‘Scores of starving Cubans passed our camp to-day. I saw men, women and children pick scraps of meat and crumbs of hard tack out of the mud and greedily devour them.’ On the 16th, after having again changed camp, he said: ‘In camp on Seville Hill, overlooking Santiago. It is much healthier here than down in the valley. While in the valley we had a tropical thunder storm; it was sublimely terrible; one continual flash of lightning and one incessant peal of thunder, and the rain fell in “tubfuls,” as the boys put it.’ On the 17th this note: ‘The Spaniards laid down their arms and marched out of Santiago at 12 o’clock to-day.’ On the 18th: ‘Fine morning. Saw a native have a pig in a large sack. Its head protruded from a hole, and it was doing its level best at squealing.’ On the 19th: ‘It has rained some every day since we landed in Cuba. It has been so regular that I have not made notes of it.’

“But here, in the valley below and in the camp on Seville Hill, an insidious enemy more dreaded than Spanish bullets had appeared, and had to be combatted. That stealthy, stalking mysterious foe was believed to be none other than the universally dreaded Yellow Jack. Whether yellow fever, or in the great majority of cases, the more common malarial fever, it was a fearful scourge, and caused a panic even among our army doctors. They so alarmed the authorities at Washington that the latter were afraid to bring the army back North for fear of spreading the disease here; but the alarm was groundless, as not one case followed the return of the troops. But the foe was nevertheless real and menacing, and there was cause for the fright. Numbers succumbed to the scourge, and the whole army was seriously threatened. At one time there were not enough well men in Company M to furnish a detail to stand guard. Ezra contracted the fever on the 20th, and from that time on he never again reported for duty. For want of enough wagons to transport food the men at times had to lay down to sleep hungry. The tropical fruits, as coconuts, limes, mangoes, grape fruit, could be had, but eating freely of these alone made many of the soldiers sick. But worse yet, the climate was very trying to the unacclimated troops. It was the rainy season, and every day the men were drenched to the skin—and as a rule were sweltering by day and shivering through the night. The wonder is that more did not die. If the acclimated Spaniards could have held out a few months longer, the fever-yellow or malarial—as their effective auxiliary, might have made their defeat a very difficult if not impossible task.

“On the 2d of August Ezra made this record: ‘There are so many of the boys sick that the field hospital was soon filled, so each company takes care of its own sick. The boys built a shack, such as the natives live in, of poles, covered with grass, with bunks of the same material, which, when we put our blankets on them, made very good beds. Private Simpson, who died last night, lay next to me, and when they carried him away I wondered if I would be the next. I told some of the boys I would not die in this country if I could help it.’

“On the 11th of August the Eighth Ohio broke camp and marched to the heights of San Juan, the strong position of the Spaniards that was so gallantly charged on the 1st of July by the dismounted cavalry under Sumner and by the Rough Riders under Wood, and where our now invalid relative could at his leisure look over the battlefield and learn of the disposition and movements of the contending forces. A few days later they once more and for the last time broke camp. A minute in the journal says: ‘Our days in Cuba are now numbered, thank God.’ On the 18th the regiment boarded the Mohawk—a cattle transport that had just come from Porto Rico, where it had delivered a cargo of mules—and left Santiago harbor homeward bound, passing the sunken hull of the Merrimac with only a few feet of her smoke stack visible, and when streaming by the frowning Morro Castle, wondered how in the world Hobson ever got past its many great guns. The condition of the cattle-ship contrasted unfavorably with that of the magnificent and cleanly cruiser Saint Paul of the International Navigation Company, chartered and fitted up by the government, on which the boys had been taken to Cuba. And besides, the rations were ill-suited for sick men. Neither will they ever forget the sad service of burial at sea. Under date of August 30 the journal says: ‘Arrived home at noon. Harry Sotzen took me out home—and the old place never looked so good to me as it did that day’ ” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 124-129).

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