Contributed by Daniel L. Burch
The following account of life aboard the transport MORGAN CITY was written by George Steunenberg. Steunenberg was an ex-Navy man, who was on his way to the east to re-enlist with the Navy in April of 1898 when he stopped at Boise, Idaho to visit his older brother. His older brother just happened to be Frank Steunenberg, the governor of Idaho. George left this brotherly visit with a first lieutenant’s commission in Caldwell, Idaho’s Company A of the First Idaho Volunteer Infantry. Steunenberg was apparently eventually charged with insubordination for an incident in which he referred to Maj. Daniel Figgins, also of the First Idaho Volunteer Infantry a coward. He was given a furlough and sent home, arriving in San Francisco in February of 1899 George Steunenberg returned to the Philippines with a commission as captain of Company E. He arrived back in Manila just before the First Idaho Volunteer Infantry boarded the transports for the U.S. Steunenberg remained in the U.S. Army.
This account of the arrival of the 1st Idaho Volunteer Infantry in
the Philippines aboard the MORGAN
CITY was published by the Idaho Daily Statesman, of Boise, Idaho
on Thursday, September 8, 1898.
First Land in Thirteen Days and it’s on Fire
Some of the Dramatic and Many Amusing Experiences of Volunteers
On Board “Morgan City.”
At sea – July 28, 1898 – The Third Expedition is three weeks out of Honolulu and have not sighted a sail. On our second day in Honolulu we were enjoying a banquet ashore when we were suddenly ordered to embark for Manila immediately. Five transports put to sea the next morning with fine weather and smooth sea. There was no sea-sickness but in a few days we discovered that our ships were poorly fitted out for transporting troops in the tropics. As the weather grew warmer the men longed for a bath, but the little shower baths proved inadequate. Then there was no salt water soap to be had for washing clothes, and as a result the men became infected with myriads of “soldiers’ friends”[lice] from which there was no relief. However, they accepted the situation philosophically, even cheerfully, and one man in particular created an immense amount of amusement. He would select two big graybacks designated as “Miles” and “Blanco,” put an army at the back of each, and then enjoy a bird’s eye view of the battle, for they would actually attack each other with all the hatred of Yankees and Spaniards.
We know little of the state of affairs on the other ships, as we travel a mile apart, but one day a straw mattress that had been thrown overboard from the INDIANA came floating by, and our men declared that it was covered with graybacks that were standing up singing, “Life on the Ocean Wave.” On another occasion we came within hailing distance of the OHIO, and a chorus of voices from her decks shouted, “Come over and help us scratch.”
One morning when about a week out, the message was “wig-wagged” from the OHIO that one of the men had committed suicide by jumping overboard. Our men sitting around the decks playing cards remarked, “D___n fool: look at all the fun he’ll miss at Manila,” and resumed their games. However, this was not the only death, for day after day would see different flags at half mast, until now four soldiers have been consigned to old Neptune.
As we came further south the heat became unbearable below, and at night the decks were covered with half naked men. Every evening they would line up in crowds of 50 or more while of the number played the hose on them, amid shouts of delight. Some, however, with true Idaho love for gambling, would gather about the tables on the lower deck, stripped to the waist and continued their games in spite of the sweltering heat.
On July 14th we crossed the one hundred and eightieth meridian, and underwent a novel experience. We went to bed Thursday night and woke up Saturday morning. We had no Friday: the 15th was scratched off the calendar. The men claimed two days rations; the sergeants had to leave a blank in the report books, and all kinds of confusion arose.
One moonlit night, scarcely a week afterwards, we beheld a splendid sight. An active volcano was seen rising abruptly from the sea, and was blazing away scarcely a mile away from us. All hands crowded the decks admiring the scene, but one man with no poetry in his soul was heard to remark, “It beats the devil; this is the first land in 13 days, and it’s on fire.”
Our troubles began about this time. First the ice gave out and our meat spoiled. The potatoes rotted and had to be thrown overboard. The water became brackish, and as a result we had no good coffee. But the men endured it all with Spartan fortitude, and when we came near another ship would sing out, “Come over and eat pie with us.” One day when the rations were slimmer than usual, they were saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, he shall have water with it.” Our drinking water was sickening, and one cannot help but admire the grim humor of a soldier taking a cup of water and blowing on it to cool it.
It is remarkable that in our 30 days on the water we have sighted no craft, and had no news of the outside world. Our latest paper is just one month old today, and that is a long time when war is going on. Has peace been declared, or is the whole world involved in war? We will arrive in Manila August 1st, but will Dewey welcome us, or will we be imprisoned by Carzara? No one knows anything and morning papers would find ready sale at $1 each.
July24—Have encountered the southeast monsoon, and the weather cool and rainy. Sighted the island of Luzon this morning, and have been coasting along it a few hours. Whatever ideas we had of peace being declared were dispelled this afternoon. We sighted an old ware house ashore and with the aid of glasses, discerned uniformed men on top of it waving the Spanish flag at us. Our captain immediately ran up the Stars and Stripes to the masthead, and our men sent up a fierce cheer. They implored him to turn to shore, but of course it could not be done without the general’s consent.
July 30 – Been in a heavy ground swell all day and all of fun going on. At the mess table this evening the men had to drop everything and hold to the table, which gave way and capsized on them. One man had just opened a can of tomatoes, which a sudden lurch sent down the back of his neighbor’s neck. Another grabbed an open cabin door and went back and forth over the deck four times before he could stop himself. The most laughable thing was a barrel of pork breaking loose and chasing a man all over the deck. He tripped and fell, and the pork went completely over him. He climbed aloft to escape but the barrel waited for him with such a ferocity that it had to be seized and lashed to a rail. There were a few sprains and bruises, but each swell brought a howl of laughter.
July 31 – Dropped anchor in Manila Bay today, amid the cheers from Dewey’s fleet. We have just received news of the fall of Santiago, the destruction of Cervera’s fleet, and the annexation of Hawaii, and we are correspondingly jubilant. We learn that Manila is well fortified and garrisoned by 10,000 Spanish soldiers, while there are now about 11,000 of our troops.
The weather is very rainy, but not very hot. Tonight we can hear the distant firing between the Spanish and insurgents and we realize it will be our turn soon. We will possibly land at Cavite tomorrow, and prepare to take the city. In my next I will tell you how we did it
Lieutenant, Co. A, First Idaho
Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899) Vol. 3, 120.
Spicer, Reese, Photos and data concerning Frank Fenn.
Statistical Exhibit of Strength of Volunteer Forces Called into Service During the War with Spain; with Losses from All Causes. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899).