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Spanish-American War

Kansas officers in the Spanish American WarU. S. Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American War "a splendid little war." In a letter to Theodore Roosevelt dated July 27, 1898, Hay wrote that the conflict was "begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune which loves the brave." By the time it was over, the Spanish-American War, which had armed conflict in Cuba and the Philippines, had many doubters as well, and, of course, it was not so "splendid" for those 5,462 Americans who died from disease and battle wounds or for their more numerous counterparts among their Cuban allies or Spanish adversaries. Neither so for Filipinos who resisted American domination as they had Spanish or for those Americans who opposed U.S. imperialism.

During the spring and summer of 1898, however, Americans eagerly took up arms to free Cubans from Spanish oppression. The U.S. not only accomplished this objective in short order, but also emerged from the war with an empire that included Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands.  If there had been any doubt, the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, confirmed America's position as a world power with widely scattered territorial possessions.

Kansans were probably not as eager for war as was the so-called "yellow press" in the East, but they certainly sympathized with the plight of the Cuban people. And once President William McKinley asked for and received a declaration of war from the U.S. Congress on April 25, 1898, most Kansans wholeheartedly supported the cause.

Soon, four regiments of Kansas volunteers would be in uniform and folks at home would be supporting the war effort in a variety of other ways. The best-known then and now was the 20th Kansas Volunteer Infantry, the so-called "Fighting 20th," commanded by Colonel Frederick Funston, an adventuresome young man who had grown up on a farm near Iola, Allen County. The 20th trained in California and set sail for the Philippines in November 1898. Within weeks of their arrival, Kansas soldiers, who had enlisted to fight the Spaniards in Cuba found themselves in the vanguard of the American force attempting to put down a Filipino insurrection. The islanders, who had fought in consort with the "Yanks" to rid their homeland of Spanish domination during the summer of 1898, desired independence, not a new American master. 

Major Wilder Metcalf of Lawrence was second in command of the 20th Kansas. Wounded in action at Caloocan and Bocane, Metcalf was promoted to colonel before mustering out with the regiment on October 28, 1898.

After several months of combat duty, the Fighting 20th returned to San Francisco where the men were greeted by a Kansas delegation headed by Governor Stanley. Upon their return to Kansas, the boys of the 20th were welcomed as heroes in Topeka and their various hometowns across the state.

The conflict in which they had been involved, however, lasted until mid-1902.  The insurgency was dealt a major blow when its leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was captured on March 23, 1901, in a daring mission orchestrated and led by then General Frederick Funston.

Like the 20th, the other Kansas regiments were composed of volunteers who hailed from every corner of the state. The 21st Kansas Volunteer Infantry regiment was organized in Topeka, May 12-14, 1898, under the command of Colonel Thomas G. Fitch of Wichita and Lieutenant Colonel Charles McCrum of Garnett. It left the capital city within days to spend the summer and early fall at Camp Thomas, Georgia, and Camp Hamilton, Kentucky. Likewise, the 22nd Kansas Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel Henry C. Lindsey of Topeka and Lieutenant Colonel James Graham of St. Mary's, played out its military history in the humid, disease-ridden Camp Alger near Falls Church, Virginia, and later Camp Meade, near Middletown, Pennsylvania.

Of the four Kansas regiments raised for service, only the 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry saw duty in Cuba. An all African American regiment of eight companies that included recruits from Nicodemus to Pittsburg and Dodge City to Atchison, the 23rd was organized in July 1898 and left its Topeka camp on August 22, arriving at Santiago, Cuba, on August 31. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Beck of Manhattan, these soldiers performed efficient garrison duty near San Luis, from September 1, 1898, until February 28, 1899.

The service record of the 23rd and that of the other three regiments filled most Kansans with pride. Likewise the men who served in them were proud of their service. When the war against Spaniards in Cuba became a war against insurgents in the Philippines, some Kansans spoke against U.S. imperialism, but the majority gloried in the exploits of the 20th Kansas and hailed its troops as conquering heroes upon their return in the fall of 1899. They and especially their leader, "Fighting Fred" Funston, won much fame and glory for a campaign that most would now consider a rather inglorious chapter in American history. To his own generation, however, Funston and all the other soldiers of the Spanish-American War had "broken down the doors of medieval superstition, and permitted millions of serfs to breathe the free air of modern civilization. Their heroic achievements," wrote one prominent Kansan, "are the crowning glory of the closing century."

Most of this content is from Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Winter 1998-1999.

Entry: Spanish-American War

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: December 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.