War Dead

The remains of American soldiers awaiting internment at Arlington National Cemetery (Photograph by E.B. Thompson, courtesy DC Public Library via Flickr Commons)

On April 6, 1899, Washington DC photographer E. B. Thompson rode out to the cemetery at Arlington, where the remains of several hundred officers and soldiers were about to be buried.  The men had died in the late war with Spain, a brief affair that both began and ended the previous year, bringing the US control of Spain’s former island possessions—Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—and the independence of Cuba.

The coffins represented a fraction of the 3,000 Americans who died, felled not so much by their adversaries as by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Now, belatedly, they were to be buried.  The coffins lay suspended over long trenches dug in a new section of the cemetery.  Many of the remains were unidentified, so coffins of the known dead were carefully positioned at the ends of the rows that would be most visible during the ceremony.  Thompson positioned himself near the presidential viewing stand and took this picture.  It is an image as raw as the landscape itself, the kind of grim tribute to the fallen that we hardly ever see.  It was colorized later.

A crowd of some 15,000 people, along with President McKinley and other dignitaries, gathered for the funeral rites.  A newspaper in New Brunswick, Canada, carried a full account of the proceedings.   The work of burying the coffins began after the crowd dissipated, a tough, tedious job that took several days.

Image: E.B. Thompson photograph, “Interment at Arlington National Cemetery,” 1899.
Courtesy DC Public Library Commons, from this source.

16 responses

  1. The Spanish American War was where the U.S. went off the rails in terms of foreign policy….It was the first time in our history that we acquired control over territory that was not part of North America….Hawaii was an exception to that.
    We basically took over the Philippines, and the other territories you mention…it was the beginning of America’s misguided adventures in imperialism…….We took up “the white man’s burden” and did not know what to do with it. One can make a good case for Hawaii as a Pacific possession and state. Beyond that? A dubious enterprise indeed. This led eventually to American “mediation” of the Russo-Japanese War, which earned us the animosity of Japan……the adventures of Woodrow Wilson in WWI, and ultimately WW2. At the end of that war, the U.S. entered into its first permanent military alliance (NATO) in our history….Ultimately we have become an Empire, when the Founders clearly wanted us to remain a Republic….Untangling our involvements (some 700 bases around the world) is a job for the next generation….We simply cannot afford it….

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    • Joe–I agree that the US has lost sight of its intended identity, and that our hyper-activism around the globe is contrary to the Founders’ vision–Washington’s in particular. Isn’t it interesting, though, that we just don’t hear the strong historical arguments for non-intervention anymore, not even from peaceniks? Retrenchment and a national focus will be central to the country’s security in the long run.

      Many dynamics drove the late nineteenth-century war with Spain: a historically active tendency toward expansionism, and a global land-grab on the part of many old and new powers. Industrializing countries were already concerned about finding markets for the products they were producing. The entire history of the US up until that time had been centered on taking and acquiring more land from others–we would otherwise never have anything like the landmass we do.

      Have you read Edmund Morris’s bio of TR? Theodore Rex? There is a lot in it about Cuba, which I think the US did assist in its quest to gain independence, whereas our behavior in the Philippines was unconscionable.

      Being a superpower isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, especially the way most leading politicians conceive of that role.

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  2. A grim photo. Why that “little ” war was fought many still do not understand. It reminds me of the madness of the Afghan war and all the brave young men who have died in that—and for what…..

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    • Yes, what about our warring today, and the young warriors involved? They are part of a machinery detached from the rest of society, one that carries on no matter what we do. What do you think of Thomas Rick’s recent proposal Let’s Draft Our Kids? Would re-instating the draft make us less warlike?

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    • The War in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have happened with a draft…….we have a mercenary army……simple as that……

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  3. I have not read the book you mention……most “leading politicians” are clueless and interested only in getting elected. Eisenhower was correct in his warnings about the military-industrial complex……today much of our Defense Department is used as a money making machine and jobs program……

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    • I saw the movie “Reds” with Warren Beatty playing Jack Reed, a socialist-American. There was a scene where someone asked him, Well, Jack, what is this war (WWI) about. He stood up and said: “Profits.” Nothing has changed…..

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    • JG–Thanks for your comment. I believe I read that 30 percent of the remains were unidentified. It’s a sad and gruesome topic, which is still with us today. Wasn’t it just last week that witnessed the burial of the remains of 8 US soldiers who had been unaccounted for from the Vietnam War? Their fate had been unknown for all these decades. Their identity was finally established through DNA testing, and their poor remains at last interred in a single casket and grave. Thanks again for writing in. I look forward to reading your blog. SB

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    • Many do care, including the miscellaneous bunch who chose to read this post and write something. . . Like every other sentiment, it has no political force unless organized, which it has been only fitfully throughout our history. There are many countervailing emotions and interests (see Joe’s comment on “Reds”) that push us the other way.

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    • People “care” in an abstract way…….they say “how sad” etc., and go about their business…….the military is basically a mercenary force unattached to the country……this is dangerous. See Rachel Maddow’s book “Drift” Such foolish adventures as Iraq and Afghanistan would not have happened if the kids of the rich were drafted into them…….

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    • Joe-basically I agree with you, far more than I disagree. The question is, are all trends irreversible? This is the crucial question–which we (I mean every thinking being) answers differently depending on temperament, philosophy, and maybe how we interpret history. I can think of elements of our history that have been changed for the better but never without decades of struggle and a lot of determination, thought, and organization. Citizens too often act as though their political powers are meaningless and insignificant. I don’t believe that. If enough people were to decide we need compulsory national service of the kind Ricks was proposing, it would happen. But that is little consolation when we have a bi-partisanly backed war-machine that’s constantly running. How does Maddow think change could be achieved?

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    • How does Maddow think change can be achieved? With great difficulty. There is, as you say, a bipartisan party of war. The DOD is really the world’s largest employer in the country from contractors to workers, etc…….Congress will never allow significant changes in the DOD budget because of jobs……I mean do we really need to spend more money on “defense” than the rest of the world combined? Where is the threat to justify this? Remember the “peace dividend”? Well it disappeared quickly……We build weapons to fight opponents that don’t exist…….The Cold War ended 20 years ago, so we invented a war on terror……In effect, we are at war everywhere all the time.
      Someone once referred to Germany under Otto von Bismarck as an army that has a country….most counties have an army…..the army does not own the state…..that is what we are becoming……

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