TR describes the army's inedible food, bad underwear, fever, and transportation problems in Cuba.
Colonel Roosevelt's Report to the Secretary of War
September 10th, 1898
In answer to the circular issued by command of Major-General Shafter under date of September 8, 1898, containing a request for information by the Adjutant-General of September 7th, I have the honor to report as follows:
I am a little in doubt whether the fact that on certain occasions my regiment suffered for food, etc., should be put down to an actual shortage of supplies or to general defects in the system of administration. Thus, when the regiment arrived in Tampa after a four days' journey by cars from its camp at San Antonio, it received no food whatever for twenty-four hours, and as the travel rations had been completely exhausted, food for several of the troops was purchased by their officers, who, of course, have not been reimbursed by the Government. In the same way we were short one or two meals at the time of embarking at Port Tampa on the transport; but this I think was due, not to a failure in the quantity of supplies, but to the lack of system in embarkation.
As with the other regiments, no information was given in advance what transports we should take, or how we should proceed to get aboard, nor did anyone exercise any supervision over the embarkation. Each regimental commander, so far as I know, was left to find out as best he could, after he was down at the dock, what transport had not been taken, and then to get his regiment aboard it, if he was able, before some other regiment got it. Our regiment was told to go to a certain switch, and take a train for Port Tampa at twelve o'clock, midnight. The train never came. After three hours of waiting we were sent to another switch, and finally at six o'clock in the morning got possession of some coal-cars and came down in them. When we reached the quay where the embarkation was proceeding, everything was in utter confusion. The quay was piled with stores and swarming with thousands of men of different regiments, besides onlookers, etc. The commanding General, when we at last found him, told Colonel Wood and myself that he did not know what ship we were to embark on, and that we must find Colonel Humphrey, the Quartermaster-General. Colonel Humphrey was not in his office, and nobody knew where he was. The commanders of the different regiments were busy trying to find him, while their troops waited in the trains, so as to discover the ships to which they were allotted -- some of these ships being at the dock and some in mid-stream. After a couple of hours' search, Colonel Wood found Colonel Humphrey and was allotted a ship. Immediately afterward I found that it had already been allotted to two other regiments. It was then coming to the dock. Colonel Wood boarded it in mid-stream to keep possession, while I double-quicked the men down from the cars and got there just ahead of the other two regiments. One of these regiments, I was afterward informed, spent the next thirty-six hours in cars in consequence. We suffered nothing beyond the loss of a couple of meals, which, it seems to me, can hardly be put down to any failure in the quantity of supplies furnished to the troops.
We were two weeks on the troop-ship Yucatan, and as we were given twelve days' travel rations, we of course fell short toward the end of the trip, but eked things out with some of our field rations and troop stuff. The quality of the travel rations given to us was good, except in the important item of meat. The canned roast beef is worse than a failure as part of the rations, for in effect it amounts to reducing the rations by just so much, as a great majority of the men find it uneatable. It was coarse, stringy, tasteless, and very disagreeable in appearance, and so unpalatable that the effort to eat it made some of the men sick. Most of the men preferred to be hungry rather than eat it. If cooked in a stew with plenty of onions and potatoes -- i.e., if only one ingredient in a dish with other more savory ingredients -- it could be eaten, especially if well salted and peppered; but, as usual (what I regard as a great mistake), no salt was issued with the travel rations, and of course no potatoes and onions. There were no cooking facilities on the transport. When the men obtained any, it was by bribing the cook. Toward the last, when they began to draw on the field rations, they had to eat the bacon raw. On the return trip the same difficulty in rations obtained. -- i.e., the rations were short because the men could not eat the canned roast beef, and had no salt. We purchased of the ship's supplies some flour and pork and a little rice for the men, so as to relieve the shortage as much as possible, and individual sick men were helped from private sources by officers, who themselves ate what they had purchased in Santiago. As nine-tenths of the men were more or less sick, the unattractiveness of the travel rations was doubly unfortunate. It would have been an excellent thing for their health if we could have had onions and potatoes, and means for cooking them. Moreover, the water was very bad, and sometimes a cask was struck that was positively undrinkable. The lack of ice for the weak and sickly men was very much felt. Fortunately there was no epidemic, for there was not a place on the ship where patients could have been isolated.
During the month following the landing of the army in Cuba the food-supplies were generally short in quantity, and in quality were never such as were best suited to men undergoing severe hardships and great exposure in an unhealthy tropical climate. The rations were, I understand, the same as those used in the Klondike. In this connection, I call especial attention to the report of Captain Brown, made by my orders when I was Brigade-Commander, and herewith appended. I also call attention to the report of my own Quartermaster. Usually we received full rations of bacon and hardtack. The hardtack, however, was often mouldy, so that parts of cases, and even whole cases, could not be used. The bacon was usually good. But bacon and hardtack make poor food for men toiling and fighting in trenches under the midsummer sun of the tropics. The ration of coffee was often short, and that of sugar generally so; we rarely got any vegetables. Under these circumstances the men lost strength steadily, and as the fever speedily attacked them, they suffered from being reduced to a bacon and hardtack diet. So much did the shortage of proper food tell upon their health that again and again officers were compelled to draw upon their private purses, or upon the Red Cross Society, to make good the deficiency of the Government supply. Again and again we sent down improvised pack-trains composed of officers' horses, of captured Spanish cavalry ponies, or of mules which had been shot or abandoned but were cured by our men. These expeditions -- sometimes under the Chaplain, sometimes under the Quartermaster, sometimes under myself, and occasionally under a trooper -- would go to the sea-coast or to the Red Cross head-quarters, or, after the surrender, into the city of Santiago, to get food both for the well and the sick. The Red Cross Society rendered invaluable aid. For example, on one of these expeditions I personally brought up 600 pounds of beans; on another occasion I personally brought up 500 pounds of rice, 800 pounds of cornmeal, 200 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of tea, 100 pounds of oatmeal, 5 barrels of potatoes, and two of onions, with cases of canned soup and condensed milk for the sick in hospitals. Every scrap of the food thus brought up was eaten with avidity by the soldiers, and put new heart and strength into them. It was only our constant care of the men in this way that enabled us to keep them in any trim at all. As for the sick in the hospital, unless we were able from outside sources to get them such simple delicacies as rice and condensed milk, they usually had the alternative of eating salt pork and hardtack or going without. After each fight we got a good deal of food from the Spanish camps in the way of beans, peas, and rice, together with green coffee, all of which the men used and relished greatly. In some respects the Spanish rations were preferable to ours, notably in the use of rice. After we had been ashore a month the supplies began to come in in abundance, and we then fared very well. Up to that time the men were under-fed, during the very weeks when the heaviest drain was being made upon their vitality, and the deficiency was only partially supplied through the aid of the Red Cross, and out of the officers' pockets and the pockets of various New York friends who sent us money. Before, during, and immediately after the fights of June 24th and July 1st, we were very short of even the bacon and hardtack. About July 14th, when the heavy rains interrupted communication, we were threatened with famine, as we were informed that there was not a day's supply of provisions in advance nearer than the sea-coast; and another twenty-four hours' rain would have resulted in a complete break-down of communications, so that for several days we should have been reduced to a diet of mule-meat and mangos. At this time, in anticipation of such a contingency, by foraging and hoarding we got a little ahead, so that when our supplies were cut down for a day or two we did not suffer much, and were even able to furnish a little aid to the less fortunate First Illinois Regiment, which was camped next to us. Members of the Illinois Regiment were offering our men $1 apiece for hardtacks.
I wish to bear testimony to the energy and capacity of Colonel Weston, the Commissary-General with the expedition. If it had not been for his active aid, we should have fared worse than we did. All that he could do for us, he most cheerfully did.
As regards the clothing, I have to say: As to the first issue, the blue shirts were excellent of their kind, but altogether too hot for Cuba. They are just what I used to wear in Montana. The leggings were good; the shoes were very good; the undershirts not very good, and the drawers bad -- being of heavy, thick canton flannel, difficult to wash, and entirely unfit for a tropical climate. The trousers were poor, wearing badly. We did not get any other clothing until we were just about to leave Cuba, by which time most of the men were in tatters; some being actually barefooted, while others were in rags, or dressed partly in clothes captured from the Spaniards, who were much more suitably clothed for the climate and place than we were. The ponchos were poor, being inferior to the Spanish rain-coats which we captured.
As to the medical matters, I invite your attention, not only to the report of Dr. Church accompanying this letter, but to the letters of Captain Llewellen, Captain Day, and Lieutenant McIlhenny. I could readily produce a hundred letters on the lines of the last three. In actual medical supplies, we had plenty of quinine and cathartics. We were apt to be short on other medicines, and we had nothing whatever in the way of proper nourishing food for our sick and wounded men during most of the time, except what we were able to get from the Red Cross or purchase with our own money. We had no hospital tent at all until I was able to get a couple of tarpaulins. During much of the time my own fly was used for the purpose. We had no cots until by individual effort we obtained a few, only three or four days before we left Cuba. During most of the time the sick men lay on the muddy ground in blankets, if they had any; if not, they lay without them until some of the well men cut their own blankets in half. Our regimental surgeon very soon left us, and Dr. Church, who was repeatedly taken down with the fever, was left alone -- save as he was helped by men detailed from among the troopers. Both he and the men thus detailed, together with the regular hospital attendants, did work of incalculable service. We had no ambulance with the regiment. On the battle-field our wounded were generally sent to the rear in mule-wagons, or on litters which were improvised. At other times we would hire the little springless Cuban carts. But of course the wounded suffered greatly in such conveyances, and moreover, often we could not get a wheeled vehicle of any kind to transport even the most serious cases. On the day of the big fight, July 1st, as far as we could find out, there were but two ambulances with the army in condition to work -- neither of which did we ever see. Later there were, as we were informed, thirteen all told; and occasionally after the surrender, by vigorous representations and requests, we would get one assigned to take some peculiarly bad cases to the hospital. Ordinarily, however, we had to do with one of the makeshifts enumerated above. On several occasions I visited the big hospitals in the rear. Their condition was frightful beyond description from lack of supplies, lack of medicine, lack of doctors, nurses, and attendants, and especially from lack of transportation. The wounded and sick who were sent back suffered so much that, whenever possible, they returned to the front. Finally my brigade commander, General Wood, ordered, with my hearty acquiescence, that only in the direst need should any men be sent to the rear -- no matter what our hospital accommodations at the front might be. The men themselves preferred to suffer almost anything lying alone in their little shelter-tents, rather than go back to the hospitals in the rear. I invite attention to the accompanying letter of Captain Llewellen in relation to the dreadful condition of the wounded on some of the transports taking them North.
The greatest trouble we had was with the lack of transportation. Under the order issued by direction of General Miles through the Adjutant-General on or about May 8th, a regiment serving as infantry in the field was entitled to twenty-five wagons. We often had one, often none, sometimes two, and never as many as three. We had a regimental pack-train, but it was left behind at Tampa. During most of the time our means of transportation were chiefly the improvised pack-trains spoken of above; but as the mules got well they were taken away from us, and so were the captured Spanish cavalry horses. Whenever we shifted camp, we had to leave most of our things behind, so that the night before each fight was marked by our sleeping without tentage and with very little food, so far as officers were concerned, as everything had to be sacrificed to getting up what ammunition and medical supplies we had. Colonel Wood seized some mules, and in this manner got up the medical supplies before the fight of June 24th, when for three days the officers had nothing but what they wore. There was a repetition of this, only in worse form, before and after the fight of July 1st. Of course much of this was simply a natural incident of war, but a great deal could readily have been avoided if we had had enough transportation; and I was sorry not to let my men be as comfortable as possible and rest as much as possible just before going into a fight when, as on July 1st and 2d, they might have to be forty-eight hours with the minimum quantity of food and sleep. The fever began to make heavy ravages among our men just before the surrender, and from that time on it became a most serious matter to shift camp, with sick and ailing soldiers, hardly able to walk -- not to speak of carrying heavy burdens -- when we had no transportation. Not more than half of the men could carry their rolls, and yet these, with the officers' baggage and provisions, the entire hospital and its appurtenances, etc., had to be transported somehow. It was usually about three days after we reached a new camp before the necessaries which had been left behind could be brought up, and during these three days we had to get along as best we could. The entire lack of transportation at first resulted in leaving most of the troop mess-kits on the beach, and we were never able to get them. The men cooked in the few utensils they could themselves carry. This rendered it impossible to boil the drinking-water. Closely allied to the lack of transportation was the lack of means to land supplies from the transports.
In my opinion, the deficiency in transportation was the worst evil with which we had to contend, serious though some of the others were. I have never served before, so have no means of comparing this with previous campaigns. I was often told by officers who had seen service against the Indians that, relatively to the size of the army, and the character of the country, we had only a small fraction of the transportation always used in the Indian campaigns. As far as my regiment was concerned, we certainly did not have one-third of the amount absolutely necessary, if it was to be kept in fair condition, and we had to partially make good the deficiency by the most energetic resort to all kinds of makeshifts and expedients.
Theodore Roosevelt Colonel First United States Cavalry
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