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March 9, 2014

Rob’s battalion remained in Savannah until January 17, 1899, when it boarded the transport Obdam, bound for Havana, Cuba. Arriving on January 20, the Maine Volunteer Heavy Artillery was encamped at Camp Columbia, located on a high hill, about nine miles from Havana. Men from the battalion were detailed to do police duty in the city. The health of the unit was a concern from the moment they arrived. More men died of disease due to sanitation problems in the camps than in actual combat during the war. Soldiers were vaccinated for smallpox, placed in large tents with each man provided with a cot. Because the war was short, most of the volunteers never saw combat.

“When you got to Cuba what state was the war?  What happened - what did you fellas do?"

“Well, the war was practically over but the Spanish soldiers were all there - they were everywhere. They were in charge and they were all around there.

When we got to Cuba we went on the steamer over there, and we didn't get much to eat - I'll tell you, they had some pretty tough feed. They issued in the morning, a loaf of bread, and you could have a quart dipper. And you could have it half full or full of coffee if you wanted it - and thats all you got. Noontime; a loaf of bread, and you had this dipper - you could get it full or half full of soup. And the boys called it 'shadow soup' because mostly it was made with bacon. Bacon and potatoes, and well, some pieces of hard tack in it - one thing or another - and didn't stay down too good. And at night, why you had a cup of coffee and what was left of your bread - if there was any.

And so anyway, they had a big cookhouse...a great big outdoor oven, and they baked bread for the company. And the fellas that run it were out of Battery A, they were from Lewiston, and they were a bunch of Frenchmen. And what they done, they had sugar that we was supposed to have put in our coffee... but anyway, they got to make'n donuts and cookies and selling 'em to the soldiers. Well, what they was make'n, selling to soldiers, was our rations that we were supposed to have.

We was getting pretty sore about it; so one night there come a thunder shower and we were all ready for it. We were waiting for that thundershower, and they had four foot wood that they fed into the furnace when they run the baker with what was a great big tin affair. Oh my god, it was 12 feet high and the fellas had step-ladders to go up to work the thing - put the things into it. But anyway, when this thunderstorm come, by god, we went out there - there were about twenty of us out of our company - and every time they come a clap of thunder, we pounded the hell out of it - pounded the doors off of it.

And old Major Newcomb, the next morning, well he got down - he said, 'you god damned son's of bitches, I hope you starve to death!' But anyway, we had bread after that - great big round loaves of bread and we got what we were supposed to have. Afterward - there wasn't anymore 'cookie' business." (both men laugh)

"Well, ah, you got sick at some time didn't you in the service?"

“I was sick more or less. I had a Bilious Fever in Savannah, and when we got to Cuba, why I got sick again and went to the doctor and he looked me over and he says, ‘god damned if here ain’t a man sick with a kid’s disease.’ He says, 'you’ve got the measles.' So they sent me out to a ‘pest ward’ they had way outside the camp - out in the field. And there was, oh, typhoid fever fellas out there, and they had one tent down the field with a fella had smallpox."

“Holy Moses!”

"They had a fella taking care of him that had smallpox, and they shut the dishes down with the grub in it for the two of 'em out there in the field and the fella'd come out and get it. Then they'd bring the dishes out and the other fella'd go down and get them. Except one day the smallpox patient, he got in pretty good shape and he got out and got away and went down and almost took town (laughing) and everybody kept clear of him - they had to send a guard down to bring him back."

"Yeah, well in that isolation ward that you were in - did any of 'em die?"

"Why I don't think so there, but there was one fellow, there was, oh he was out of his head all the time and he used to cuss the doctor, and the doctor used to say to him there, 'your head's full of prunes - your head's full of prunes!' "

Click here for Part 1Part 2, & Part 4

Thanks to the University of Maine Folklife Center

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