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By Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Heft
May 2023 marks 125 years since the Pennsylvania National Guard mustered in for federal service for the Spanish-American War.
An often-overlooked conflict in the organization’s history, the conflict demonstrated the value of the post-Civil War reforms enacted by Maj. Gen. John Hartranft and provided valuable combat experience to young leaders, which would shape the 28th Division in the First World War.
On April 21, 1898, the United States declared war against Spain and President William McKinley called for 125,000 volunteers, triggering the largest call to arms in the United States since 1861. Four days later Pennsylvania Gov. Daniel Hastings ordered the National Guard of Pennsylvania, or NGP, to muster at Mount Gretna in Lebanon County for state service.
Pennsylvania had called upon its National Guard several times since the massive reorganization of 1879, but all of these mobilizations were for civil disturbance or domestic operations. What set apart the 1898 call-up apart from all previous mobilizations of the National Guard was that this call was for volunteer federal service outside of the continental United States, and as such, guardsmen were not required to leave Mount Gretna. Once assembled, the members of the NGP were asked to “volunteer” to serve as part of a larger volunteer expeditionary force.
With no legal requirement to serve beyond the coastal boundaries of the country 97% of those enrolled in the NGP volunteered for federal service. Pennsylvania was given a quota to assemble 10,800 men for war service, and between May 6 and July 22, 12,000 officers and men were mustered into federal service.
NGP units assumed a slight adjustment to their naming convention to denote their volunteer status. For example, Philadelphia’s “Dandy First” or 1st Infantry, NGP became the “1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.”
Though 12,000 men of the commonwealth volunteered for combat service, only a small percentage would see actual fighting.
In 1898, the Army had to conduct a similar transition to what it is experiencing today, as it shifted its force away from domestic and counterinsurgency operations to prepare for large scale combat operations against a near-peer threat. The great majority of the Pennsylvania Volunteers would spend months mobilizing and training as part of larger corps sized elements in southern camps like Camp Alger, Virginia, or Camp Thomas, Georgia.
Others, like the 14th Pennsylvania of Pittsburgh, would serve closer to home, garrisoning coastal defenses at Fort Mott, New Jersey, and Fort Delaware, Delaware.
After some stateside preparation, several Pennsylvania organizations did see some action in the war outside of the United States. Though no Pennsylvania National Guard units would serve in the fighting in Cuba itself, Pennsylvania soldiers of the 4th and 16th Infantry, along with its three artillery batteries, and the mounted cavalrymen of Governor’s Troop, Sheridan Troop and First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry would see action in Puerto Rico.
While the 16th Infantry would see combat in the capture of Coamo, the men of the 4th would be disappointed to find that a ceasefire was called just as they were about to launch their first attack.
“We were filled with mixed feelings of disappointment and joy: disappointment because we did not get into a fight and pleased to hear of the prospects of peace,” recalled Pvt. Fred H. Reichard, who served with Allentown’s Company B, according to “The American Volunteer: A History of the Fourth PVI.”
For Pennsylvanians in Puerto Rico, their battles were mostly with mosquitos, the weather, and the monotony of army life. Across the oceans in the Philippines, Soldiers of the 10th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry experienced an entirely different war.
Raised in Beaver, Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmorland counties, there is much debate as to how an east coast regiment was chosen to travel across country to California, then across the oceans to Hawaii, and finally land for war service in the Philippines. What is for sure, is that the journey to Manila and beyond was the most unique and lengthy war service of any Pennsylvania regiment.
Landing in the Philippines in July 1898, the “Fighting Tenth” initially saw work of mostly fatigue duty, digging entrenchments, but on July 31, the unit faced an assault on their positions by enemy infantry. The men of the 10th Pennsylvania stood firm, and the after-action report recalled that “all stood like veterans, never yielding an inch from their positions.”
After hostilities with the Spanish ceased in August 1898, the 10th assumed garrison and occupation duties around Manila. Unlike their brethren in Puerto Rico however, the 10th was soon put back into action against an insurgency brewing against American occupation. From February to June of 1899 the regiment would participate in counterinsurgency operations from Cavite, to Malolos, to Corregidor.
The unit would receive orders to return home on June 25th, 1899, but would travel a circuitous route through Japan and Hawaii before arriving back in California in July. During their voyage, the regiment would lose one final casualty: Col. Alexander Hawkins died from disease while crossing the ocean.
In addition to Hawkins, the 10th Pennsylvania suffered 15 killed and five dead from disease in the Philippines. Another 70 were wounded in action.
The 10th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry mustered out of federal service on Aug. 22, 1899, after 16 months of service.
The mobilization of the National Guard for war service in 1898 was by no means a perfect affair. Though the NGP performed admirably, the call to arms showed that some units within Pennsylvania were more prepared than others, and outside the commonwealth other National Guards performed far worse.
The failures of 1898 triggered the 1903 “Dick Act” and later 1916 Defense Act which modernized the National Guard as an operational reserve to the Regular Army. While these reforms would shape the equipping and mobilization of the National Guard a few years later in World War I, the individual experiences of Pennsylvanians in 1898 would shape the 28th Division’s leadership in France, as many of the veterans of these actions would bring their valuable combat experience to the ranks.
From the 10th Regiment of western Pennsylvania alone, 50 veterans of the Philippines would see service in World War I, among them Col. Edward Martin of the 110th Infantry (a sergeant in 1898) and Lt. Col. Henry Coulter (a private in 1898), who commanded the 109th Infantry. While the NGP would not be deployed as an entire division to test its capabilities during the Spanish American War, its junior leaders gained valuable field and administrative experience operating in an expeditionary force.
Today the war service of the Spanish-American War volunteers is carried as battle streamers on the unit colors of the 1/110 Infantry (Manila, Malolos), 1/112 Infantry (Puerto Rico), 2/112 Infantry (Puerto Rico), C 1/111 Infantry (Puerto Rico), A 1/104 Cavalry (Puerto Rico), B 1/107 Field Artillery (Puerto Rico), A 1/108 Field Artillery (Puerto Rico), and HHD, 213th RSG (Puerto Rico).
(Editor’s note: Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Heft is a former platoon sergeant with 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He is currently the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Army National Guard Leader Development Program in Arlington, Va.)