Tennesseans participated in virtually every aspect of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Commander Washburn Maynard (a Knoxville native) of the gunboat Nashville is credited with firing the first shot of the war on April 22. The same vessel was assigned the leading role in cutting the Atlantic telegraph cables between Cuba and Spain.
Four Tennessee volunteer infantry regiments were mustered into federal service for the Spanish-American War. Only the First, originally commanded by Colonel William Crawford Smith, saw combat. Neither the Second, under the command of Colonel Kellar Anderson, nor the Third, led by Colonel J. Perry Fyffe, were sent overseas; both regiments were mustered out of service in early 1899. The Fourth, commanded by Colonel George Leroy Brown, served on occupation duty in Cuba for five months after the war. The four Tennessee volunteer regiments comprised 187 officers and 4,148 enlisted men.
The federal government, mistakenly assuming that black soldiers would be immune to tropical diseases, also authorized a number of all-black “Immune” regiments led by white officers. The Sixth U.S. Volunteer “Immune” Regiment was commanded by Colonel Lawrence D. Tyson, later World War I general and U.S. senator from Tennessee. Captain Ben W. Hooper of Company C later served two terms as governor. The regiment spent four months on occupation duty in Puerto Rico.
Individual Tennesseans also took part in the main land campaign in Cuba. With the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, the famous Rough Riders, were 17 men who claimed Tennessee as their native state. Others served with regular United States Army regiments that fought against the Spanish. Jonesborough native Alfred M. Ray served with the black Tenth United States Cavalry, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. At the battle of San Juan Hill on July 1, when many of the Tenth Cavalry’s white officers were either killed or wounded in the assault on Spanish positions, Sergeant Ray and other black noncommissioned officers continued the attack. Amid a hail of Spanish bullets, Ray planted the first American flag on San Juan Hill. For his gallantry in action, he received a battlefield promotion. He later served in the Philippines.
The Fourth Tennessee Regiment was mustered into federal service at Camp Poland, Knoxville, on July 13, 1898; more accurately, they were dumped in the woods and told to be a regiment. When someone proposed that the regiment should be called “Taylor’s Tennessee Tigers,” after Governor Robert Love Taylor, others suggested that a better name might be “Brown’s Bloody Butchers,” after its regimental commander, or perhaps “Hannah’s Heroic Hornets,” after Harvey H. Hannah, its second in command. Twenty-six-year-old lawyer Cordell Hull, later famous as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state, raised Company H of the Fourth Regiment from men in his own Upper Cumberland section of the state. As in the Civil War, an individual or individuals recruited a company of men from their own locality. The Fourth Tennessee arrived in Cuba after the war in December 1898 and stayed until May 1, 1899. Homesickness, malaria, boredom, and hot woolen uniforms were among their discomforts. Poker playing was a popular pastime.
The First Tennessee Regiment was mustered into federal service at Nashville’s Cherokee Park on May 26. Patriotism and a desire for adventure figured prominently as motives among the Middle and East Tennesseans who volunteered for service. Selected by the War Department for service in the Philippines, the regiment went first to San Francisco, where the men trained at Camp Merritt for four months. The excitement of military life turned to boredom as the war drew to a close with little prospect of the Tennesseans seeing combat. They were saved from garrison duty in California when, late in 1898, they were sent as reinforcements to hold the Philippine Islands that the United States had newly acquired from Spain. Fighting between American forces and those of Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo broke out in Manila in February 1899, and the First Tennessee participated in the fighting. Colonel Smith, the oldest member of the First Tennessee, became its first combat casualty when he died from heat exhaustion. Lieutenant Colonel Gracey Childers assumed command and served with distinction during the remainder of the First’s time in the Philippines. The regiment took an important part in the capture of Iloilo, the Philippines’ second largest city. With the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in the Philippines, Tennessee troops, like other American soldiers, became frustrated with the hit and run tactics of the Filipino insurgents. The First Tennessee suffered its only man killed in action during one such skirmish.
When the War Department authorized the formation of regular United States regiments to replace the state volunteer units then on duty in the Philippines, over 300 Tennesseans, almost a third of the First Tennessee, reenlisted with the new Thirty-seventh U.S. Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The Thirty-seventh served continuously in the field until January 1901. The First Tennessee, missing the “Tennessee Battalion” of the newly organized Thirty-seventh, prepared to return to the United States. Before doing so, however, they volunteered to help suppress a renewed outbreak of fighting on Cebu Island. Once again the Tennesseans emerged unscathed and sailed for the United States in October. The First Tennessee was mustered out of federal service in San Francisco on November 22 as one of the most honored of the Spanish-American War state volunteer regiments and the last to leave United States service.
Gregory Dean Chapman, “Taking up the White Mans Burden: Tennesseans in the Philippine Insurrection, 1899,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 47 (1988): 27-40; Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull (1948)