The Rocking Chair Period of the War

Richard Harding Davis

Scribner’s/August, 1898

AFTER Dewey’s victory on May 1st, and while Sampson was chasing the will-of-the-wisp squadron of Spain, the army lay waiting at Tampa and marked time. The army had no wish to mark time, but it had no choice.

It could not risk going down to the sea in ships as long as there was the grim chance that the Spanish fleet would suddenly appear above the horizon line and send the transports to the bottom of the Florida straits. The army longed to be “up and at them;” it was impatient, hot, and exasperated, but there was true common sense in waiting and a possible failure in an advance without a convoy, and so it continued through the month of May to chafe and fret and perspire at Tampa. Tampa was the port selected by the government as the one best suited for the embarkation to Cuba. There is a Port of Tampa, and a city nine miles inland, of the same name. The army was distributed at the port and in the pine woods back of the city, and the commanding generals of the invading army, with their several staffs, made their headquarters at the Tampa Bay Hotel.

And so for a month the life of the army was the life of a hotel, and all those persons who were directly or indirectly associated with the army, and who were coming from or going to Key West, came to this hotel and added to its interest. It was fortunate that the hotel was out of all proportion in every way to the size and wealth of Tampa, and to the number of transient visitors that reasonably might be expected to visit that city. One of the cavalry generals said: “Only God knows why Plant built a hotel here; but thank God he did.”

The hotel stands on grounds reclaimed from the heavy sand of the city. It is the real oasis in the real desert—a giant affair of ornamental brick and silver minarets in a city chiefly composed of derelict wooden houses drifting in an ocean of sand; a dreary city, where the sand has swept the paint from the houses, and where sand swamps the sidewalks and creeps into the doors and windows. It is a city where one walks ankle-deep in sand, and where the names of avenues are given to barren spaces of scrubby undergrowth and palmettos and pines hung with funereal moss.

In the midst of this desolation is the hotel. It is larger than the palaces which Ismail Pasha built overnight at Cairo and outwardly not unlike them in appearance, and so enormous that the walk from the rotunda to the dining-room helps one to an appetite.

It has great porches as wide and as long as a village street, shut in behind screens of climbing vines and clusters of mammoth red and yellow flowers. In the made-grounds about it are made-gardens of flowers of brilliant colors, and palms and palmettos of every shape and of every shade of green.

Birds sing over the flower-beds, and peacocks strut and chatter. It is like an Eastern garden, and the hotel itself struggles against the brick and plaster lines to be Oriental too. It has the curved tops of a mosque over the doors and windows; great crescents are cut in the woodwork and stamped in the plaster, and are flung out against the sky, and minarets that glow at night like a dozen lighthouses are distributed along the great lines of its roof. Arches of colored electric lights spread out over the doorway, and Turkish rugs and palms in pots fill miles of hallway.

It is something between Shepheard’s Hotel, at Cairo, and the Casino Roof Garden.

Someone said it was like a Turkish harem with the occupants left out. For at first there were no women at the hotel. It was an Eveless Eden, and during the’ early part of May the myriads of rocking chairs on the long porches were filled with men. This was the rocking-chair period of the war. It was an army of occupation, but it occupied the piazza of a big hotel.

Everyone believed that the army was going to move in two days. “Well, certainly by Monday,” they would say. So at first everyone lived on a war basis. All impedimenta were shipped North, white linen was superseded by flannel shirts, collars were abandoned for polka-dot kerchiefs. Men, fearing the mails would prove too slow, telegraphed for supplies, not knowing that they could walk North and back again before the army would move.

Those were the best days of the time of waiting. Officers who had not met in years, men who had been classmates at West Point, men who had fought together and against each other in the last war, who had parted at army posts all over the West, who had been with Miles after Geronimo, with Forsythe at Wounded Knee, with Hardie and Hunter in the Garcia campaign along the Rio Grande, were gathered together apparently for an instant onslaught on a common enemy, and were left to dangle and dawdle under electric lights and silver minarets. Their talk was only of an immediate advance. It was to be “as soon as Sampson smashes the Cape Verde fleet.” “It will be all over in two weeks,” they said. “We’re not going to have a look in at all,” they growled. “Do you know what we are? We’re an army of occupation, that’s all we are. Spain will surrender when her fleet is smashed, and we’ll only march in and occupy Havana.” So they talked and argued and rocked and drank gallons of iced tea, and the hot days wore into weeks. Life then centered around the bulletin-board; men stood eight deep, peering over each other’s shoulders as each new telegram followed fast and was pasted up below the last. Outside, in the sun, horse dealers from every part of the state led their ponies up and down before the more or less knowing eyes of dough-boy officers and war correspondents, and this daily sale of horses was the chief sign of our activity—this and the frequent reappointment of commanding generals.

One day General Wade was the man of the hour, the next it was General Shafter, and every day came promises of the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief himself. “Miles is coming in a special car,” everybody told everybody else. “Now we shall certainly start,” everybody said, and each man began to mobilize his laundry, and recklessly paid his hotel bill and went over his campaign kit for the thirtieth time. But the Commander-in-Chief did not come until after many false alarms, and gloom fell upon the hotel, and many decided it would be cheaper to buy it outright than to live there any longer, so they slept under canvas with the soldiers, and others shaved again and discarded piece by piece the panoply of war. Leggings and canvas shooting-coats gave way to white duck, fierce sombreros to innocent straw hats, and at last wives and daughters arrived on the scene of our inactivity, and men unstrapped their trunks and appeared in evening dress.

It was the beginning of the end. We knew then that whether Sampson smashed the ubiquitous fleet or not, we were condemned to the life of a sea-side summer resort and to the excitement of the piazzas. The men who gathered on those piazzas were drawn from every part of the country and from every part of the world, and we listened to many strange stories of strange lands from the men best fitted to tell them. Lieutenant Rowan, just back from six weeks with Garcia, and bronzed and hidden in an old panama hat, told us of the insurgent camp; Major Grover Flint, who had been “marching with Gomez,” told us of him; William Astor Chanler, in the uniform of a Cuban colonel, from which rank he was later promoted to that of captain in our own volunteer army, talked of Africa with Count von Goetzen, the German military attache, who was also an African explorer; Stephen Bonsai and Caspar Whitney, both but just back from Siam, discoursed on sacred elephants and white ants; and E. F. Knight, the London Times correspondent, lingered with the army of the rocking chairs for a day before swimming into Matanzas harbor and going to Cabanas prison. Captain Dorst tried to explain why the Gussie expedition failed, as though its name were not reason enough; and young Archibald, who accompanied it, and who was the first correspondent to get shot, brought wounds into contempt by refusing to wear his wound in a bloody bandage, and instead hid his honors under his coat.

There were also General O. O. Howard, and Ira Sankey, who bustled about in the heat, preaching and singing to the soldiers; Miss Clara Barton, of her own unofficial Red Cross Army; Mr. George Kennan, and Mr. Poultney Bigelow, who had views to exchange on Russia and why they left it, and General Fitzhugh Lee, looking like a genial Santa Claus, with a glad smile and glad greeting for everyone, even at the risk of his becoming Vice-President in consequence; and there was also General “Joe” Wheeler, the best type of the courteous Southern gentleman, the sort of whom Page tells us of in his novels, on whom politics had left no mark, who was courteous because he could not help being so, who stood up when a second lieutenant was introduced to him, and who ran as lightly as a boy to help a woman move a chair, or to assist her to step from a carriage. There was also, at the last, Lieutenant-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, with energy and brains and enthusiasm enough to inspire a whole regiment, and there were military attaches in strange, grand uniforms, which kept the volunteer army gaping.

But the two men of greatest interest to the army of the rocking-chairs were probably America’s representative, Frederic Remington, and Great Britain’s representative with our army. Captain Arthur H. Lee. These two held impromptu receptions at every hour of the day, and every man in the army either knew them or wanted to know them. Remington was, of course, an old story, but Lee, the new friend and the actual sign of the new alliance, ran him close in popularity. There was no one, from the generals to the enlisted men, who did not like Lee. I know many Englishmen, but I know very few who could have won the peaceful victory this young captain of artillery won; who would have known so well just what to see and to praise—and when to keep his eyes and mouth shut. No other Englishman certainly could have told American stories as well as he did and not have missed the point.

Many strange experiences and many adventures had fallen to the lot of some of these men, and had the war been delayed a little longer, the stories they told under the colored lights of the broad verandas would have served for a second “Thousand and One Nights,” and would have held as great an interest. They were as familiar with the Kremlin as with the mosque of St. Sophia, with Kettner’s Restaurant as with the Walls of Silence. They knew the love-story of every consul along the Malaysian Peninsula and the east coast of Africa, and why he had left home; they disagreed as to whether laced leggings or heavy boots are better in a Borneo jungle; they talked variously in marks, taels, annas, and shillings; they had been chased by elephants and had shot rhinoceri; and they had themselves been fired over, with the Marquis Yamagata in Corea, with Kitchener in Egypt, with Maceo in Cuba, and with Edam Pasha in Thessaly. One of them had taken six hundred men straight across Africa, from coast to coast; another had explored it for a year and a half without meeting a white man. This man had explored China disguised as a Chinaman and Russia as a Russian; that had travelled more hundreds of miles on snow-shoes than any other American, Indian, or Canadian; there was one who had been to school with an emperor, and another who had seen an empress beheaded, and another who had shot thirteen lions, and then, feeling some doubt as to his nerve, dropped four thousand feet out of a balloon to test it.

On the whole, it was an interesting collection of men—these generals with new shoulder-straps on old tunics, these war correspondents and military attaches, who had last met in the Soudan and Greece, and these self-important and gloomy Cuban generals, credulous and mysterious ; these wealthy young men from the Knickerbocker Club, disguised in canvas uniforms and Cuban flags, who are not to be confused with the same club’s proud contribution to the Rough Riders. There were also women of the Red Cross Army, women of the Salvation Army, and pretty Cuban refugees from Havana, who had taken a vow not to dance until Havana fell. Each night all of these people gathered in the big rotunda while a band from one of the regiments played inside, or else they danced in the big ball-room. One imaginative young officer compared it to the ball at Brussels on the night before Waterloo; another, less imaginative, with a long iced drink at his elbow and a cigar between his teeth, gazed at the colored electric lights, the palm-trees, the whirling figures in the ball-room, and remarked sententiously: “Gentlemen, as General Sherman truly said, ‘war is hell.'”

Four miles outside of this hotel, sleeping under the pines and in three inches of dirty sand, there were at first ten thousand and then twenty-five thousand men. They were the Regulars and Volunteers, and of the two, the Volunteers were probably the more interesting. They were an unknown proposition; they held the enthusiasm of amateurs; they were making unusual sacrifices, and they were breaking home-ties which the Regulars had broken so long before the war came that the ties had had time to reknit. The wife or mother of the Regular had grown accustomed to his absence, and had arranged her living expenses on a basis of his monthly pay; the family of the Volunteer, on the contrary, were used to see him come home every evening and hang his hat in the hall, and had been living on the salary he received as a book-keeper, salesman, or mill-hand. So the Volunteers had cares which the Regulars did not feel for those at home, as well as the discomforts of the present moment. Neither of them showed much anxiety as to the future.

The first two regiments of Volunteers to arrive at Lakeland, which lies an hour’s ride farther back than Tampa, were the Seventy-first New York and the Second Massachusetts. They made an interesting contrast. The New York men were city-bred; they had the cockney’s puzzled contempt for the country. Palm-trees, moss hanging from trees, and alligators were as interesting to them as the first sight of a Pathan prisoner to a British Tommy. Their nerves had been edged by the incessant jangle of cable-cars and the rush and strain of elevated trains. Their palates had been fed on Sunday papers and Wall Street tickers; their joys were those of the roof-gardens, and Muschenheim’s, of Coney Island, and the polo grounds. The Massachusetts men, on the other hand, were from the small towns in the western half of Massachusetts; they were farmers’ sons, and salesmen in village stores; some of them were country lawyers, and many of them worked in the mills. They took to the trees and lakes contentedly; their nerves did not jerk and twitch at the enforced waiting; they had not been so highly fed with excitement as the New York boys; they did not miss the rush and hurry of Broadway. Their wants were curiously in character. One of them “wanted to see a stone fence once more before he was shot,” and another “wanted to drink water from a well again out of a bucket.” He shut his eyes and sucked in his lips at the recollection. The others all nodded gravely; they all knew they had drunk out of wooden buckets. The New York men knew nothing of stone walls. They made jokes of their discomforts, and added others from Weber & Fields, and their similes showed that they had worked when at home in the law courts, the city hospitals, and in the department stores. “The food was not exactly Shanley’s,” they said, and the distance across the lake was about that of the home stretch at Morris’ Park. They were more restless, nervous, and argumentative than the New England men, and they held the Spaniard in fine contempt. They “wouldn’t do a thing to him,” they said. The Massachusetts men were more modest. I told them that the New York men were getting up athletic sports, and running races between the athletes of the different companies.

“Oh, well,” said one of the New England men, “when they find out who is their fastest runner, I’ll challenge him to run away from the first Spaniard we see. I’ll bet I beat him by a mile.” It is a good sign when a regiment makes jokes at the expense of its courage. It is likely to be most unpleasant when the fighting begins.

It seemed a fact almost too good to be true, that the great complaint of the New York men was the superabundance of beans served out to them, and that the first complaint of the sons of Massachusetts was that they had not received beans enough. “Beans for breakfast, beans for lunch, beans for dinner—what t’ell!” growled the New Yorkers.

“And as for beans,” shrieked a Massachusetts warrior, “they don’t give you enough to fill a tablespoon.”

The Regular soldier was professionally indifferent. He was used to camp-life, and regarded soldiering as a business. Indeed some of them regarded it so entirely as a business, and as nothing more, that those whose time had expired in camp did not reenlist for the war, but went off into private life in the face of it. That is where they differed from the Volunteer, who left private life the moment war came. A great many of these time-expired Regulars did not re-enlist because they preferred to join the Volunteers, where advancement is more rapid, and where their superior experience would soon obtain for them the rank of sergeant, or possibly a commission.

Those who did remain were as fine a looking body of soldiers as can be seen in any of the Continental regiments. Indeed, there are so few of them that the recruiting officer has only himself to blame if he fails to pick out the best, and the result of his selection is that the men of our Regular army correspond to the corps d’elite of European armies. Whether it was General Randolph’s artillerymen firing imaginary shrapnel at imaginary foes, or the dough-boys in skirmish line among the roots of the palmettoes, or at guardmounting, or the cavalrymen swimming their horses, with both horse and man entirely stripped for action, the discipline was so good that it obtruded itself; and the manner in which each man handled his horse or musket, and especially himself, made you proud that they were American soldiers, and desperately sorry there were so few of them.

An American citizen thinks the American soldier is the best, for the easy reason that he is an American; but there were three Englishmen whose profession had qualified them to know soldiers of every land, and who were quite as enthusiastic over the cavalry as any American could be—as is Frederic Remington, for instance. For one thing, all of our men are physically as large as Life Guardsmen, and what they lose in contrast by lack of gold and pipeclay, and through the inferiority of their equipment and uniform, is made up to them in the way they ride a horse. A German or English trooper sits his horse like a clothespin stuck on a line—the line may rise or sag, or swing in the wind, but the clothes-pin maintains its equilibrium at any cost, and is straight, unbending, and a thing to itself. The American trooper, with his deep saddle and long stirrup, swings with the horse, as a ship rides at anchor on the waves; he makes a line of grace and strength and suppleness from the rake of his sombrero to the toe of his hooded stirrup. When his horse walks, he sits it erect and motionless ; when it trots, he rises with it, but never leaves the saddle; and when it gallops he swings in unison with it, like a cowboy, or a cockswain in a racing-shell.

It was a wonderful sight to see two thousand of these men advancing through the palmettoes, the red and white guidons fluttering at the fore, and the horses sweeping onward in a succession of waves, as though they were being driven forward by the wind. It will always puzzle me to know what the American people found to occupy them of such importance as to keep them from coming to see their own army, no matter how small it was, while it was rehearsing and drilling among the pines and palms of Florida. There will be few such chances again to see a brigade of cavalry advancing through a forest of palms in a line two miles long, and breaking up into skirmishers and Cossack outposts, with one troop at a trot and another at a walk, and others tearing, cheering through the undergrowth, their steel swords flashing over their heads and the steel horse-shoes flashing underfoot. It was a fine spectacle, and it was due to such occasional spectacles in and around the camps that the rocking-chair life was rendered bearable.

But at last it came to an end, for the Commander-in-Chief finally arrived, and with him his staff in the new uniform, looking very smart and very soldierly; and all the other officers who had been suffering at Tampa, in heavy blue tunics without pockets, gazed but once upon the staff, and with envy, and then telegraphed frantically for the khaki outfit that would not come. We were all desperately hurried then; we had no idea where we were going, nor for how long. No secret, be it said to the credit of the censor and the staff officers, was ever better kept; but we knew, at least, that we were going, and that was joy, and the tears and rage of those who were to be left behind was a fine thing to see.

One hour we thought Santiago was the place, and the next Porto Rico, and the next we swung back to Santiago. We thought this because A, of such a staff, had told B, of another staff, who had told C, that we would take only ten days’ rations. On the other hand, the Japanese military attache had been told to take his tent with him; so that must mean a landing at Mariel. Still, the censor had objected to the word “spurs,” so it must be Matanzas. It was all quite as absurd as that, and, as a matter of fact, no one knew up to the hour when we were ordered on board. By the time this is printed we all shall know perhaps that it was none of these places. But wherever it may be, the deck of a transport going somewhere is better than a rocking chair locked to the piazza of an hotel.