Thursday, September 07, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 9 Part 2
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
The Myth of the "Message to Garcia" (part 2)link to previous installment link to next installment
Disappointment pursued me throughout the war with Spain. The failure of my attempt to carry a message to Garcia was only the beginning of a series of frustrations. Hope of winning a commission in a competitive examination was destroyed on May 12th. That day Governor Johnston announced his appointments of field and staff officers. He had broken his promise. Chagrin turned my thoughts to Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. They were assembling at San Antonio. There, in my home town, I might find better auspices for enlistment. A conversation with Colonel Craighead dismissed this notion. He pointed out that Roosevelt’s men came largely from the West and Northwest. That fact made it unlikely that they would reach Cuba ahead of troops claiming immunity to yellow fever. Perhaps more important was my job as correspondent. That would be impossible for a member of Roosevelt’s regiment.
On May 21st, the Gulf City Guards were mustered in at Alba’s pasture near Frascati, outside Mobile, as Company E of the Second Alabama Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Eight days later, a trainload of laughing, cheering troops rolled through our camp, waving the campaign sombreros that were destined to symbolize for a number of years the elan of the American soldier. They were Roosevelt’s Rough Riders en route to Tampa. It was a tantalizing spectacle. Apparently, I had foozled my calculations. These boys from the West were beating me to the front.
Two more weeks of dejected waiting brought suddenly revived hopes. On June 15th the quartermaster began the issuance of ordnance and clothing. We were given rifles of the same pattern used by the state militia. Nearly all the equipment was secondhand, but that only spelled the shortening of delay. Indications that we were on our way to real action increased hourly. We were assigned to General Coppinger’s command. On June 17th we broke camp at Frascati and marched eleven miles to Spring Hill. We were part of the second brigade of the First Division of the Fourth Army Corps. At reveille on June 19th the camp was in a hubbub. Orders had come to board transports in Mobile Bay. But the tents were not struck that day. Somebody in authority had discovered at the last moment that General Coppinger’s corps was not quite ready for front-line duty. The second brigade was armed with single-shot Springfield rifles with black-powder cartridges. It might be at some disadvantage facing smokeless Mausers, each capable of a spurt of five bullets.
Other deficiencies magnified the absurdity of the embarkation order. A supply of Krag-Jorgensen automatics identical with the regular army rifle would have been of scant help to the volunteers. Without a course of instruction in its use, they would have found this gun more of an embarrassment than a weapon. Not a third of the brigade was fit to approach, much less enter, a combat area.
Flagler was an intimate of Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War. Of course, patriotic motives guided their discussions of Miami as a proper place for the training of volunteer regiments. The wildness of the terrain was a point in its favor. However, $10,000 of Flagler’s personal funds would be spent in making the tract more usable. It is not recorded that General Wade’s report was mentioned in the conversations between Flagler and Alger. Surely, there were no predictions that any fault in the General’s findings would be cured by the War Department’s approval of Miami. Assumably, hygienic conditions entered into Uncle Sam’s selection of a cantonment location. Such a choice was interpretable as government indorsement of the region’s salubrity. That would make ideal advertising. So, there could have been no talk about the tremendous promotion values that might accrue.
Twenty-three months after Miami’s incorporation as a township with 260 population, its name was regularly appearing in newspaper datelines throughout the country. Daily dispatches reported the military schooling of the First and Second Alabama, the First and Second Louisiana, and the First and Second Texas regiments. On arrival in Florida these units had been transferred to Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Seventh Army Corps as its First Division. For several days, press accounts of what happened to the troops at Miami were tinged with humor. My own stories paralleled those of the other correspondents. By a strange unanimity, the unexpected job of clearing a jungle for an encampment was treated as a joke on 6,000 rookies. It turned out a miserable jest. Its ineptitude was emphasized by the damningly excessive rolls of dead, disabled and invalid members of the First Division.
My first experience with censorship came in mid-July. Dr. Vilas, the surgeon in charge, had denied me admission to the division hospital. A soldier able to walk should apply at his regimental headquarters for medical treatment. The Second Alabama’s camp was nearly three miles away. It was a scorching afternoon. Dr. W. H. Oates, a contract physician working under Vilas, noticed my condition. He motioned me inside his own marquee. An examination showed a temperature of 104°. Dr. Oates quickly settled me on a cot in the nearest ward and then sheared off enough red tape to assure me of its occupancy until pronounced fit for return to my company.
News drifted around me of such a nature as would have been unobtainable by direct inquiry. Fretful surgeons, in the presence of harmless invalids apparently too apathetic to listen, flouted the inhibitions that ordinarily would have checked their tongues. They spilled story after story. The urge toward a telegraph wire became an obsession. The steward on duty was a conciliatory fellow especially responsive to pecuniary favors. By the end of the third day he had agreed to help me file dispatches. When tattoo sounded at nine o’clock, he would draw aside the canvas flap behind my cot, permitting me to slip out unnoticed to the Western Union office in the Royal Palm Hotel 1,500 yards east. It was his own idea to fix an ice pack inside my campaign hat.
That night a drunken nurse set the tent afire. He had overturned a kerosene lamp. Flaming oil spattered over the delirious typhoid-fever patient who lay next to me. In the consequent racket my get-away was unobserved even by my confederate. But an exasperating hindrance awaited me. The telegraph operator refused to transmit my copy without the censor’s O.K. That seemed unbelievable. The only ban on news transmission, of which notice had reached me, related to troop movements. Now any need for even that prohibition was gone. The power of Spain had already crumbled at Santiago. So there was no longer a dangerous enemy to justify a tightening of censorship. Surely there could be no official restriction of intelligence concerning American soldiers encamped on American soil and addressed by an American correspondent to an American newspaper. The censor promptly vetoed this conclusion.
“My instructions,” he said, “are to cut out anything calculated to discourage recruits from enlisting.” An American censorship to deceive Americans! A formula to suppress that character of information to which the public was more fully entitled than any other disclosures the war might produce! A barrier to prevent or impede corrective measures on which the survival of our armies might depend! It aroused in me an indignation that never fully subsided. It prompted the formulation of a protest the issuance of which was to bring one of the most stressful of my experiences. Its publication was necessarily deferred until my release from army discipline.
The usual course of censorship followed. It generated rumors more alarming than the truth would have been. The real conditions were bad enough. An over-arduous drill-master was piling unbearable ordeals on a plethora of tropical malignities. Prevalent incompetence was deepening and widening this nasty slough. Regular routine was repeatedly suspended by regiments too debilitated to assemble for inspection. Letters to the folks at home sowed widespread fears. Most of these messages of misery harped on a common subject—a persistent feeling that the published obituary lists, despite their staggering length, covered only a part of the actual death-roll. Reports spread through the South that epidemics of smallpox and typhoid fever were wiping out the First Division. An outcry arose to “rescue the troops from the Miami ‘Camp of Horrors.’ ”
Plain abandonment of this military site at that juncture would be an awkward confession of an ugly error. Why had it been chosen in the first place? While army diplomats wrestled with this embarrassment, popular pressure intensified. A newspaper statement by Governor Culberson marked the climax. “If the War Department is unable to move our two regiments to a safe distance from their present quarters,” he was quoted, “the State of Texas will presently undertake to do so.” The Governor was never required to explain this challenge. That afternoon, July 29th, the War Department found a way out of its strait. Orders were issued to mobilize the Seventh Army Corps at Jacksonville. This obviated the need for any mention of the mistake of Miami. It provided a sufficient reason, together with the instructions, to transport the First Division 400 miles north.
Unbridled joy over the news of their deliverance swept through the six regiments. Bonfires were lighted. At the head of each regimental street, hundreds of soldiers danced around the flames yelling and singing. The rhythm of a Civil War chant rolled through the camp to the refrain, “We’ll Hang Old Flagler to a Sour Apple Tree.” The celebration grew into a deafening charivari. It wound up in song services of praise at the half-dozen Y.M.C.A. tents.
We were installed in Camp Cuba Libre at Jacksonville—Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s headquarters—during the first two weeks of August. The succeeding month witnessed more bickering than soldiering. A consensus that the war was practically over divided the volunteers into two factions. One, comprising most of the enlisted men, looked eagerly forward to muster out. The other, including nearly all the commissioned officers, preferred to continue under arms. The difference frequently flared into bitterness.
Results of informal polls, allegedly taken to ascertain the wishes of the rank and file, were always hotly disputed. Each day added to the virulence of the controversy. The epauletted group sent delegations to Washington. They sought every amenable agency to urge retention of their units for service overseas. The plain soldiers were forbidden any joint movement in opposition. Orders were posted threatening punishment under The Articles of War for any concerted action intended to shorten the army’s term of duty. More than forty years later, another American army—the draftees of 1940-41—found itself in a similar plight.
The pother about the muster out of the volunteers of 1898 increased the power of the mills grinding the wrath of a journalist in soldier’s khaki. My contemplated remonstrance against military censorship in particular had broadened into an attack on military outrages in general. It would be best presented in book form. Its vehicle would be a first-hand history of the First Division of the Seventh Army Corps. The harrowing scenes enacted in Miami suggested the title—Southern Martyrs.
The Brown Printing Company, of Montgomery, agreed to publish my book if assured of the cost of printing. This guaranty was promptly forthcoming. It was furnished by Maj. W. W. Brandon, my battalion commander, afterward Governor of Alabama and a picturesque figure at Democratic national conventions. Brandon was a lawyer. His advice steered me through the shoals of a unique crisis. Subscription blanks for Southern Martyrs were distributed. They set publication for October 20th. That was the day on which the Alabama regiments would be mustered out. Some of the slips for subscribers fell into unfriendly hands—officers uncomfortably certain of censure in any critical review of the volunteers’ sufferings. A committee visited the Brown Printing Company.
The spokesman warned the publishers that the book they proposed to issue from the pen of a sergeant in the United States Army might be indefinitely delayed. The callers brought some confidential information. Evidence was claimed that the manuscript constituted insubordination, contumacy and disloyalty of such grossness as warranted the arrest of the writer for trial by court-martial. Under such circumstances publishing plans might be most unprofitably disarranged. The committee was glad to offer this intelligence in time to prevent a loss. Moreover, there were important friends who would be pleased to know that the Brown Company had withdrawn from a venture that threatened so much unpleasantness.
This warning produced effects wholly opposite to its purpose. It infused the printers with an odd optimism. “If they put you into prison, your book will sell like hotcakes,” the head of the firm jubilantly assured me. The prospect was not nearly so beguiling to me as it was to my publisher. The solicitude of a partner who would welcome an increase of profits through my confinement behind jail bars did not impress me. In fact it pinned a queer suspicion to Mr. Brown’s sinuous aura. Besides, my paramount obligation in this transaction ran to Major Brandon. There was pressing need for his counsel.
Southern Martyrs were stacked in racks on top of which a cot for my use was fastened with ropes.
Brown’s resentment did not ease the strain of that stretch. On the other hand, we beat our schedule. The 212-page cloth-bound volume was ready for distribution on October 18th. A somewhat pretentious sales show was arranged to coincide with the muster-out proceedings of the Second Alabama regiment in Montgomery two days later. As each soldier stepped from his last function in the army—the collection of moneys due him—he would turn to face a tally-ho fifty paces in front of the paymaster’s booth. The vehicle was filled with copies of Southern Martyrs. Beside it several attendants in scarlet surtouts were blowing hunters’ horns to attract attention.
The performance wasn’t well received by the disbanded soldiers of the First Alabama regiment in Birmingham. An angry throng, surrounding the coach, ordered it driven to the edge of East Lake. There, while the horses were being unharnessed, the driver and his companions sought safety in flight. The tally-ho, with 1,000 copies of my book aboard, was tossed into the lake.
It relieved me afterward to learn that this was not just an uncouth form of literary criticism. It was an explosion of mistaken partizanship. The mob had been actuated by a baseless rumor that my book presented Colonel Higdon in an unfavorable light. Perhaps it was fortunate that the task of getting my certificate of discharge from the army detained me in Montgomery that day.
Dispersing members of the Second Alabama were more favorably disposed. They bought 700 copies of Southern Martyrs in three hours. At $1.25 each, the proceeds not only canceled Major Brandon’s obligation but also left a margin of gain.
Release from the restrictions of military discipline redoubled my eagerness to press the crusade which it had been my intention to initiate with Southern Martyrs. My exhortations fell on unresponsive ears. Those accessible to my urgings had other views. They would defer action until the outcome of the inquiry ordered by the President. “There’ll Be a Hot Time in The Old Town Tonight,” became the song tag of the Spanish-American War. More appropriate might have been the childhood chant—’“Here we go ’round the mulberry bush.” The fanciful shrub of that juvenile game would have been a fitting emblem for the volunteer army regime. And its make-believe foliage would have furnished a suitable canopy for the commission appointed by President McKinley “to investigate the conduct of the War Department in the war with Spain.”
The pussy-footing report of that board of inquiry discouraged me less than the general indifference with which it was received. There was no public disposition to appraise the military establishment. The common attitude of the average American—then, as always, except for two intermissions—reflected a species of bottomlands reasoning reported by the long-forgotten Arkansaw Traveler. The native was explaining to the wayfarer why he didn’t repair the gaping rent in the roof of his shack. “When the sun shines,” said the local sage, “there’s no need for fussing with that hole; and when it rains it’s too slippery to get at the darned thing.” The age of this parable never lessened its pertinence. It always served as an apt commentary on the American way of handling the national preparedness problem—adherence to a statesmanship in complete harmony with the breadth and contours of its cornfield origin.
While Southern Martyrs fell short of its aim as an agency for reform, it led to the breaking of an employment record. Maj. W. W. Screws, editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, thought the book entitled me to residence in Alabama with membership on the staff of his newspaper. Colonel Craighead, learning of this arrangement, invited me to report the proceedings of the state legislature for the Mobile Register. Then—without solicitation of any kind on my part—five more jobs were handed to me.
Salaries came to me as assistant reading clerk of the House of Representatives, as assistant secretary of the Senate Committee on Rules, and as correspondent watching certain types of proposed enactments for three interstate business organizations—the American Proprietory Association, consisting of owners of patent medicine brands, a society of bankers and a group of manufacturers. They were perquisites regularly given to the correspondents for the two leading papers of the state during the legislative session. My earnings reached $135 a week.
Chapter 9 Part 3 Next Week
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