While there were many reasons for the Spanish-American War, its brevity—just a few months—earned it the nickname 'The War That Almost Wasn’t.'
In Newark, the troops that massed on Broad Street 100 years ago never went into battle, even though they went off to war. Yet there was every good reason to think that they would go because of the enormous ill will between the United States and Spain. In 1821, Spain lost its last foothold on the North American continent with the annexation of Florida by the United States. Before the Civil War, Southern slave states wanted to acquire other Spanish territory as slave-owning states of the Union to maintain balance among free and slave states. Years before, the United States also sought to acquire Cuba, partly because of considerable American investments in Cuban railroads, mining operations and sugar plantations. Several European powers, however, had their own imperial appetites and desire for additional territories in the New World. Add to this the fact that the leaders of an aging Spanish empire probably knew they could not sustain a prolonged war with a younger, richer and more powerful United States.
Only a madman would have dared to sabotage the Maine in Havana Harbor. But the Spanish were accused of doing so February 15, 1898, and the race was on! Immediately, the newspaper czars, Hearst and Pulitzer, called for blood, pressuring President William McKinley to act. At the same time, Spanish minister Pratecedes Mateo Sagata was offering generous concessions to avert the loss of Cuba. But the Maine’s explosion was too big a deal to ignore. War was declared in April. In May, the New Jersey troops, including those from Newark, marched. As the troops went to war, one local newspaper reported that 'the scene along Broad Street was impossible of adequate description. Perhaps never, in the city’s history, were so many people gathered in that thoroughfare. It seemed as if not only all the inhabitants of the city, and the surrounding towns and county, but indeed, all the state had flocked to the long, wide avenue to see Newark’s boys start off to meet the foe. Every window of every building was densely packed with humanity, the roofs were fringed with people, the balconies and the cornice tops of the stores were swarmed with human beings as thickly massed as bees around a hive. The front steps, and every vantage spot, were seized upon long before the troops left the armory. And the awning posts and treetops were alive with boys.'
The parade left the armory about 8 a.m., accompanied by martial music as the soldiers marched along Broad Street. Another newsman recounted: 'The approach of the troops obliged the trolley cars to come to a halt. Stretching from beyond Military Park there were soon two parallel and stationary strings of them as far south as Walnut Street. They formed in places an impenetrable wall to the spectators in the roadway on the curbstone and in lower stories of the buildings on the eastern side of the street.' In fact, they cut off the view of the troops. ‘‘Despite the protests of the (trolley) conductors, 'the account continued, 'enthusiastic citizens forced their way onto the platforms and climbed thence to their roofs. In a short time every car along the entire line was covered inside and out with demonstrative multitudes.’’ At Market Street and thence as far as City Hall, the crowd was thickest. The cars along Market Street, blocked in double files on both sides of the street was massed with men and boys on roofs. Vehicles of every description were drawn up along the side of the roadway on both streets, and every vehicle was covered with people.'
The rail station at the Jersey Central Terminal was the key point for most of the excitement and activity. The press reported that 'about half the city’s population was scrambling, fainting, restless and a surging mass,' and that 'crowds stretched from Mechanic Street to Green Street. The other end of the crowd was at Mulberry Street, where the train cars were waiting for the troops.' Two tracks of the railroad shed were reserved for the National Guard troops.' Into the waiting cars the admirers filed regardless of the protests of railroad employees,' a reporter noted. 'From every car window looked countless heads, and the platforms were deep with women and young boys who lined the car tops. Under the trains small boys were packed in legions, and if the locomotive had been attached suddenly and started down the tracks, Newark would be minus at least 2,000 young citizens today.'
But the main event was still to follow. First, down Broad Street from the Armory, came the Mounted Police, followed by members of the Grand Army of the Republic. But the people were waiting for the National Guard. The Guardsmen, in their gray hats and service uniforms, looked every inch like soldiers. The crowd pressed them to make a display of a drill. The entire event was marked by the waving of flags, cheers and the firing of impromptu salutes. With the biggest sendoff imaginable, the First Regiment was off to Sea Girt, to make its mark for Newark and New Jersey in the Spanish-American War.
Off to the Service
After leaving Newark, the first command was mustered into service at Sea Girt on May 6. The remainder of the troops entered service by the close of May. By May 20, the First Regiment left the New Jersey camp for camp at Falls Church, Va., under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph W. Plume, a descendant of the 18th century family for whom Newark’s second-oldest house is named. On September 2, after four months of service and after being highly confident of being sent to the front several times, the First Regiment broke camp at Falls Church. The next day, the troops were sent back to Sea Girt instead of into service. Generous furloughs were granted, but the command did not obtain full release from duty until Sept. 26, when it returned to Newark. The plans to take the troops to Tampa, Fla., for Caribbean service never materialized. The war was over. Some Newark men did see service in the naval reserve. A few never returned. Troops in the Second Division of the New Jersey Naval Reserves, the Battalion of the East Jersey, were largely made up of Newarkers. On May 17, the battalion was ordered to report to a training ship, the Portsmouth, at Hoboken. The terms of their muster indicated they would serve up to one year. The men took to sea on the auxiliary cruiser Badger, which was helpful in the Cuban coastal blockade. The Badger took the Spanish steamer Humberto Rodriquez off Neuvitas, Cuba, and towed in two sailing vessels with 500 Spanish soldiers prisoners of war. The prisoners were delivered to Gen. Blanco in Havana and the three captured vessels were sent back to New York. The only American casualty was Coxswain William Nellinger of Hoboken, who died in a fall from the masthead.
Some Newarkers served in the regular Army and Navy, including duty in the Philippines. A plaque at Barringer High School was placed in memory of Ralph Wilson Simonds, killed in the Philippine Insurrection in 1898. The Barringer High School Memorial reads, 'Ralph Wilson Simonds, graduate of Barringer High School and Princeton student. Killed in battle. A graduate of this School. Member First Washington Volunteers Who Lost His Life in the First Battle with the Philippine Insurgents at Manila Feb. 5, 1898 Age 21. Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori.' (It Is Sweet and Becoming to Die for One’s Country).
In addition to the National Guard and the naval and Army contingents, the Eight Colored Immunes served in battle under Capt. Harry Henkinson, and a company of Signal Corps served under Carl F .R. Hartman. When the Battleship Maine exploded and almost 200 lives were lost, several Newarkers were among them. They were Frederick Bowers, formerly of Cottage Street, an assistant engineer; Hugo Knopf, listed only as a resident of the 'eastern end of this city;' a young sailor named Shielfs from the 12th Ward, and Thomas Clark of South Market Street.
Coming Home and Going On
On September 3, 1898, Newark troops returned to Sea Girt from Camp Alger in Virginia. The first of several trains of servicemen arrived at 5:30 at Sea Girt, carrying the First Battalion. Gov. Foster Voorhees welcomed the troops, saying that he had heard only good things about their attentiveness to duty, including how proud he, their officers, and the people of New Jersey were of them. Within a month the boys were welcomed back to Newark during a special celebration. To answer critics’ charges that 'the boys had done nothing' in the war, Mayor Seymour responded. 'What of it? They were ready, and it was as much credit as those who fought in battle.' In other words, heroes do not always have die or be wounded or maimed in battle.
Looking at the greater picture, the aftermath of the Spanish-American War was very important for America. As a result of the conflict, this nation no longer remained an isolated country. Like it or not, we were becoming a world power. Our involvement with the Far East and Caribbean had increased. The war had united former enemies of the North and South into a modern fighting machine for the first time in almost a century. And our relations with the United Kingdom were becoming increasingly cordial. With the start of a new century, the world stage was set for a greater military challenge: the outbreak of 'The War to End All Wars,' World War I, in 1914.