Monday, November 18, 2013

Sneak Peek! A Civilian in Lawton's 1899 Philippine Campaign edited by Michael E. Shay

In the midst of the Philippine-American War, twenty-two-year-old Robert Dexter Carter served in Manila as a civilian quartermaster clerk. Through his letters to his family, he provided a vivid picture of army life in Manila—the sights, the smells, and his responses to the native culture. In addition to his letters, his diary, and several related articles present a firsthand account of the historic voyage of the United States Army Transport Grant through the Suez Canal to Manila in early 1899. Carter’s writings not only tell of his sometimes harrowing experiences but also reveal the aspirations and fears of a young man not quite sure of his next steps on life’s journey.  Enhanced by photographs from collections at the Library of Congress and the Military History Institute, as well as many of Carter’s own whimsical drawings, the book will appeal to armchair historians and scholars alike.


Editor’s Note

Micheal E. Shay
In the process of reading and transcribing the letters of Robert Dexter Carter, I found that, although his spelling was generally good, his punctuation was almost nonexistent. Moreover, his sentence structure was poor, as he used run-on sentences. Capitalization was “hit and miss,” and in his haste to get his letters posted, he often left many articles and prepositions out altogether. In addition, some pages were missing or torn, while in other places some words and phrases were indecipherable. In order to make the text more readable, I have inserted a word or two, some obvious, where it fit the context, while some were my best guess. In any case, I kept such insertions to a minimum. Hopefully, I have remedied these deficiencies without altering the text or disturbing the flow of the young man’s thoughts. 

His principal correspondents were his mother and father, as well as his older sister, Mell. Sadly, none of their letters survive. He tended to write in batches, as he received his mail in batches, so some of his letters to all three are repetitive regarding certain topics. Accordingly, I have compressed some of the correspondence by eliminating much of this duplication where it would not harm the thread of the story. For instance, the reader does not need to know over and over again that Carter was paid $83.33 per month (a fact that galled him, knowing that the other clerks were paid $100). I have chosen not to use ellipses, since I believe that they are a distraction and would disrupt the flow. 

Finally, it is quite apparent that white Americans, even middle-class northerners like Carter, viewed African-Americans and the native peoples of the Philippines in a much different light than we do today. Epithets ranging from the obviously racist (“coon,” when referring to a black cook; “nigger,” with reference to the native Filipinos; “dago”; “gu-gu”) to the paternalistic (“little brown brothers,” used by governor (later president) William Howard Taft) appear throughout.1 As offensive as this speech is to me, as well as the modern reader, to “sanitize” this work would, I believe, deprive the reader of an authentic nineteenth-century voice. For that reason, I have chosen to leave the terms in the text.


“No body ever heard of a quarter Master in history as such or in relating any brilliant action.” —Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene (Letter to Gen. Washington, April 24, 1779)


The Quartermaster Department

If, in accepting General Washington’s orders to assume his new duties as quartermaster general of the Continental Army, Nathanael Greene viewed the assignment as the supreme vote of confidence in his abilities by the commander-in-chief, which it most certainly was, it would be difficult to glean that fact from his initial response. “Whoever heard of the exploits of a quartermaster,” an obviously disappointed Greene groused to a friend. A Rhode Island Quaker turned soldier, he was ambitious and had thirsted for a significant combat command. Although somewhat sensitive to slights, he was also devoted to Washington, and if only for that reason, with great reservations, and with the understanding that he could keep his line commission, he accepted the job.1 Admittedly, the supply situation was a mess, and some viewed the position of quartermaster as a means to profit first and a chance to advance Washington’s “Glorious Cause”2 a distant second. Although the ethics have changed (then making a profit was acceptable), Washington needed a man whom he could trust; one who would suppress his own ambition; and one who would strive to provide for the common soldier, who was always in his thoughts and prayers. After all, it was the soldier who bore the heavy burden. “Sunshine patriots”3 need not apply!

Greene hewed to that task for more than a year, and when he resigned (following the stunning failure of General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, in the Carolinas) and was returned to the command of soldiers, there were those in the Continental Congress who sought to sanction him. Washington’s defense of his subordinate was swift.4 Greene went on to re-form the army in the South and to lead a dogged drive against a skilled General Cornwallis, inexorably wearing him down and forcing him north to meet his fate at Yorktown. 

The function of the quartermaster, while often unglamorous, as Greene lamented, was, nevertheless, no less vital to the ultimate success of the Continental Army, or for that matter, any army in any age. In another era, General George C. Marshall observed: “The army with the higher breaking point wins the decision.”5 If the combat arm wins the battle, the support arm provides the critical staying power. The job of quartermaster encompassed the transportation of baggage and supplies, procurement of horses and mules, as well as forage for their maintenance. In addition to powder and ball, the quartermaster transported food and necessities to the army, whether stationary or on the move. Today we would call it logistics. By the time of the War with Spain, and the Philippine War that followed on its heels, the Quartermaster was one of several departments that made up the United States Army, each department head a virtual law unto himself, reporting, in effect, only to Congress.6 It was an inefficient system, as was clearly evident with what happened with the support of General Shafter’s forces in Cuba, and it would change, but not until after President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war over in the Philippines in 1902, and then only grudgingly.7

In the course of our foreign wars, beginning with Mexico in 1846, and later the War with Spain, the distances that the Quartermaster had to transport troops and supplies were relatively short, being wholly within our own hemisphere. The Philippine War was something very different, and, in a very real sense, the precursor to the massive missions the Army would undertake throughout the twentieth century, in the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. With each succeeding conflict, the military built a more powerful and efficient Quartermaster arm, capable of “delivering the goods” literally to every inch of the globe. Given the scope of the First Gulf War, the relative speed with which the combined military acted was superb; the scale of the effort in landlocked Afghanistan is truly astounding. Again, the expanded mission really began on a global scale in the Philippines, and in so doing, the role of the Army Quartermaster Department had certainly come a long way since the days of Nathanael Greene.

It was to this department that young Robert Dexter Carter was assigned as a “temporary” civilian clerk at a division headquarters. He had, therefore, an excellent vantage point from which to observe, firsthand, the operations of a quartermaster, the Army’s unsung hero, both from an administrative standpoint, as well as service in the field. In addition, he witnessed firsthand army politics, as well as the opportunities for graft by a few venal characters. Carter was also, to his extreme frustration, the victim of the inertia inherent in any bureaucracy, especially one so well entrenched in old attitudes and methods. He was an acute, articulate observer, if somewhat biased toward his father’s friend, Major General Henry Ware Lawton. His letters offer valuable insights from the standpoint of the lower ranks, particularly by those serving in less-heralded branches, which are more often than not the best sources—history from the bottom up.

Taken by themselves, Carter’s writings are important, since they help fill out the picture of service in the Philippines during the war with the nationalists. However, it is also within the larger context that they achieve importance, since they were written during this very important moment in time, which marked the transition of the United States from an inward-looking republic to, as some would characterize it, an outward-looking empire. For it was at this time that the United States solidified its interest in the Pacific and began the process of expanding its power both militarily and economically around the globe.8 Could an Isthmian canal be very far behind?9

The Carters

Robert Dexter Carter was born August 10, 1876, the son of Robert Goldthwaite Carter and Mary Maria Dexter. His father, a Civil War veteran whose gallantry as an enlisted man earned him an appointment to West Point, had hopes of a long military career. However, a disability contracted while in service in the southwest ended those plans, and he turned to other endeavors, including writing. Carter taught school and was the Washington bureau chief of the Public Service Publishing Company of New York.10 Twice brevetted for gallantry, he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900 for his actions while serving with the 4th Cavalry at the Brazos River in Texas in October 1871. Despite retirement, Captain Carter maintained close contact with influential former colleagues, including Maj. Gen. Henry Ware Lawton, with whom he had served in the 4th Cavalry.11 Undoubtedly, it was through Lawton’s influence that his son, Robert Dexter Carter, received an appointment to the Quartermaster Department as a civilian clerk, specifically in Lawton’s headquarters in Manila. Robert viewed this as a “stepping stone” toward reaching his ambition to be an Army officer like his father.

Young Robert was the third of four children of Robert and Mary, and their only son. Carter graduated from the Business High School in Washington, D.C., in 1894,12 and he went to work at a stock brokerage up until the time that he went to Manila. On January 16, 1899, the day before his departure, he married Helen F. Wright,13 the daughter of Charles and Mary Wright. Her father was a patent attorney in Washington, D.C.14 Carter was particularly close to his oldest sister, Mellie (“Mell”), and she, along with his father and mother, were his most frequent correspondents during his tour of duty in the Philippines. Although he signed a few letters to Mell with his family nickname, “Tod,” perhaps with an eye toward posterity, the majority are signed with a strained formality, “Robert Dexter Carter.”

The young man could at times be somewhat stuffy, and he definitely had a chip on his shoulder regarding officers his own age, obviously delighted when they were brought up short. Clearly, he wanted to be respected for the obvious skills and pride that he brought to his job, but he often failed to fully appreciate the fact that his colleagues might well have looked at him as Lawton’s pet. His standoffishness (he did not drink with them) and frequent visits to the Lawton’s home only served to solidify this impression.

Carter’s letters are liberally sprinkled with references and anecdotes about his patron, Major General Lawton and his wife, Mary (“Mamie”) Craig, as well as other important military figures. The glimpse into the Lawton’s family life, in particular, the sympathetic portrait he paints of this loyal army wife is both a reflection upon her fine character and a demonstration of her genuine concern for the men under her husband’s command.

Henry Ware Lawton

Physical courage was never in short supply with Henry Ware Lawton. A large, mustachioed man, he built a reputation as a profane, hard-driving, hard-drinking man of action. Much of his reputation was undoubtedly reinforced by the man himself, simply by living up to it. And if his troops complained at all about the hard marching, he was always there to set an example. He led from the front—where else would the commander be? He had no use for desk-bound generals, like his immediate superior, Major General Elwell Casa del Ayuntamiento (City Hall), U.S. Army Headquarters, Manila, P. I. Otis. Lawton was also a family man, the father of three girls and a boy, Manley, who was clearly the apple of his eye. From a young age, the boy accompanied his father, often dressed in a miniature army uniform. Lawton’s wife, “Mamie,” came from a prominent Kentucky family. She willingly followed her soldier-husband once again to his latest assignment in the Philippines, despite her own ailments.15

Lawton was born in Manhattan, Ohio, now a part of Toledo, on March 17, 1843. At an early age, he moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he spent his formative years. A large boy, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry and became one of three sergeants. He later joined the 30th Indiana Volunteer Infantry where he became 1st lieutenant. Lawton eventually saw service in what is now West Virginia, and later at, among other battles, Shiloh, Stone’s River, and  Chickamauga. He emerged from that war a lieutenant colonel, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Atlanta near its close. His luck was incredible, never having suffered a wound, despite all the derring-do. He briefly tried the law as a career, but he quickly returned to the Army, where he remained for the balance of his life.

As with most postwar soldiers, Lawton’s service took him to the southwest. He, along with Carter’s father, served in the 4th Cavalry under the legendary Col. Ranald Mackenzie. Carter became disabled, and Mackenzie suffered a mental breakdown, but Lawton’s star rose higher in the  firmament. In 1886, he had the good fortune to lead the force that captured the Apache leader Geronimo.16 When war with Spain erupted, Lawton played a prominent role in the fighting in Cuba, capturing El Caney and protecting the flank of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.17 He was a logical choice to play a major role in the Philippines.18

William McKinley, Cautious Imperialist

William McKinley was a cautious, savvy politician, much more adept at gauging the public mood, as we are now coming to find out. When faced with an important decision, his philosophy was to, in his words, “make haste slowly.”19 Much of his political support came from the business community, which was understandably nervous about a war with Spain, as the nation was just coming out of a deep, prolonged depression. With McKinley, though, it wasn’t just about politics. He himself was reluctant to rush to war, having lived through arduous service during the Civil War. As a quartermaster sergeant at Antietam, he braved withering fire to rush much-needed food and ammunition to the front line. For this he was commended and promoted, ultimately to the rank of major, a title he bore proudly the balance of his life. “I have been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another,” he would often say.20

Although he did not rush to war with Spain following the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, he was canny enough to rush through Congress a $50,000,000 appropriations bill to fund one, just in case.21 In addition, he placed a call for volunteers. The response was overwhelming. Young men, and even some older ones like Theodore Roosevelt,
raised on the Civil War exploits of their fathers and grandfathers, flocked to the colors. During the debate on the defense appropriations bill, the warp and the weft of the American political fabric was on full display, and the Teller Amendment was added, specifying that the United States would have no colony in Cuba.22 War with Spain did come, and it was over in the blink of an eye. However, although we eschewed a colonial interest in Cuba, the Platt Amendment was added to another appropriations bill in 1901 that authorized the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs in the event of political instability, among other reasons.23 Moreover, as it was important to our hemispheric ambitions, Puerto Rico was seized and retained without too much fuss or fanfare. The real dilemma came with Dewey’s equally swift victory at Manila Bay.

The year 1898 turned out to be one of the most pivotal ones in United States history. Victory in Cuba was followed by an even swifter one in Puerto Rico. Like falling dominoes, Hawaii was annexed, Guam was seized,24 and finally, the fate of the Philippines moved right to the forefront of the national debate. An already deep divide continued to widen between those who wished to expand America’s role in the world by projecting its strength, primarily by means of a modern navy, and those who did not. A vociferous debate took place in the halls of Congress and on the front page of the nation’s newspapers. The first group, the so-called expansionists, or “imperialists,” like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, pushed for the seizure of the entire archipelago. In opposition were the “anti-imperialists,” just as vocal, just as committed, like Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers, and William James, who argued that an empire was antithetical to the notion of a democratic republic.25 Allied to the former were many in the country who hewed to the hubristic notion that it was the mission of the United States to Christianize the native Filipinos, most of whom were, at least nominally, Catholic.26

True to character, while the treaty with Spain was being negotiated in Paris, McKinley stumped the country testing the mood of the electorate. To the shock of some, particularly the Spanish, the president, who had earlier told a colleague that he doubted that he could even find them on a map,27 decided to keep the entire Philippines. He was, he rationalized, compelled by “duty and destiny.”28 By the time the treaty was signed, thousands of troops had been sent there, enough perhaps to hold Manila, but more, many more, would be needed to pacify the populace.

At the time of the War with Spain, the American Army was extremely small. Approximately 28,000 officers and enlisted men were scattered all over the country, mainly in the west, many in small, two-company posts. Each state had its own militia, poorly equipped and indifferently trained.29 Although the militia was potentially a ready-made pool of troops, for the most part, the officers were more than likely men who were popular in their local communities or had political connections. The problem for the president and the Regular Army was that by law, these troops could not serve outside of the United States. As a result, resort to a stratagem was taken. Each member of a militia unit would resign with one breath and, en masse, join as a volunteer with another. Thus was born the U.S. Volunteers. Not only did it more than solve the immediate manpower problem, it also provided an opportunity for some ambitious Regular officers who would be assigned to Volunteer units to advance in rank in what was normally a glacially slow promotion process. Hundreds of officers and their political godfathers bombarded the adjutant general’s office seeking one of the limited number of appointments.30 Volunteer units were among the first to see service in both Cuba and the Philippines. Technically, however, their tours of duty were supposed to end within sixty days from the end of hostilities with Spain, and soon after Carter arrived in Manila, there were calls to bring the boys home. The McKinley Administration played for time, ultimately interpreting this period of service to end upon the ratification and signing of the treaty in June 1899.31 Meanwhile, the Regular Army scrambled to fill its ranks, sometimes with less than ideal recruits, as Carter was quick to point out.32

United States Army Transport Grant

During the evening of January 17, 1899, as the big ship began to ease away from the dock at Pacific Street, Brooklyn, a steel mooring cable became fouled in the starboard propeller, very nearly ending the historic voyage of the vessel then known as the USAT Grant.33 Earlier in the day, Major General Lawton, his staff, and many of their families, along with nearly two thousand men, composed of the 4th Infantry Regiment and a battalion of the 17th Infantry,34 had boarded the troopship in anticipation of sailing to the Philippines the following morning. The route would take the ship across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean, and finally to Manila. She would be the first American troopship to do so. Given the length of the trip, prudence dictated that the ship be inspected. Accordingly, she was towed to Liberty Island, where, the following morning, two divers pronounced the ship sound.

Visiting dignitaries, including the adjutant general of the Army, Maj. Gen. Henry C. Corbin, and Secretary of War Russell Alger, who had been taken from the Adam’s Express Company pier in Jersey City to the Grant aboard a quartermaster craft, took part in an inspection and the ceremonial send-off. The vessel then steamed up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb, witnessed more fanfare, and returned downriver to moor, once again, at Liberty Island. The ceremonies done, the voyage would finally get under way the next morning.35

What better way to introduce the young man than through the brief diary of his historic voyage halfway around the globe?  



Unknown said...

I am the author of Lawton's biography-he is a family 1st cousin. Good to see his story spreading.

Unknown said...

"he built a reputation as a profane, hard-driving, hard-drinking man of action"
from; Robert Utley's 'Frontier Regulars'. Most Cav officers drank because there was little else to do on the frontier. Some of the men who envied Lawton pushed the drinking stories but it was later learned that many, if not most of the stories were fabrications. Like the one about his 'drunken attack on a police officer in Cuba'. But to learn the facts, one has to read 'General of the Night'. A reference from Aguinaldo of the Philippines who, when asked why he referred to Lawton that way replied, 'because he had been attacked by Lawton at night so often he never knew when the next attack was coming'. Lawton was one of the first U.S. Army generals to develop counter insurgency tactics that actually worked.

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