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George Harris, Age 16, Tries to Join the Army

 Contributed by Teri Rose Harris

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The following account of George Harris is interesting in that it shows the challenges that an underage individual would encounter in trying to join a military unit during the Spanish American War. Contrary to the usual expectation, it was highly unusual to find underage individuals serving during the Spanish American War, though it did rarely happen. The reason why it was rare was that there was such a wave of patriotism that there were not enough openings in military units for all who wanted to join. As a result, anyone found to be ineligible - by age, health, etc. - were either not accepted, or quickly removed, with the space being filled by an eligible recruit. Still, mor men were clamoring to join. As a result, the efforts to remove ineligible individuals were sometimes quite active. The ability to eliminate underage individuals was made easier in that the majority of the regiments raised were state units - units in which companies were formed in local cities and towns. In these units, many recruits knew each other...and often knew if someone was underage.

This account is very unqiue in that it is a transcript of a sound recording by one young man who attempted to join - George William Harris. Several years ago, Terri Harris, in researching her family, came across George Harris, and the account. George was unofficially adopted by William and Elizabeth Harris, who were married in 1874 in Greenup County, Kentucky. George's original surname is not known. By 1880, the Harris family were living in Coalton, Kentucky, near the Carter and Greenup County line. In  1898, it appears that George was working on his uncle's farm at Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Eventually, well after the events described below, George moved to Kansas City, where he lived most of his life, and had a large family. George is buried in Kansas City alongside his wife, Anice Joseph Harris, and several of their children.

Luckily, in 1965, Harris was encouraged to record his life stories on a tape recorder, which were then transcribed by his children.  His account of trying to become a soldier was one of the stories. The transcript of this story is below.

The Articles:

It was 1898, because the Spanish-American war was going on in ’98 and I began to think of myself as a pretty good man by that time, and I was a good man physically and all like that. But, in age I wasn’t a man yet. So by gosh, you know a feller name of Bill Sifford, worked on this farm there, for Uncle Charlie Kouns.

He said, “George, let’s go up to Charleston!” That’s where we had to go to enlist in the army. They was calling for volunteers, Spanish –American war in 1898 and they was the Rough Riders, is what they were. We was going to join the Rough Riders there in Charleston, West Virginia. Had to go to Charleston, 52 miles from Huntington exactly. I knew it because I walked it! We walked from Uncle Charlie’s and then we took a streetcar into Huntington [West Virginia]. We walked from Huntington to Charleston and I told Uncle Charlie, that if I could get in the Army, then I was going to get in the Army!

He said, “Well George, I hate to see you leave but if you are going to go into the Army then it is alright with me.”

So Billy Sifford, he didn’t have no trouble getting in at all, but when it came to me for examination; when I went up there and put in an application, you know, make my X and put down my age as… I never thought about it. I didn’t know how to put my age down. I put my true age down as 16. Billy never thought of telling me to put down 18 or 20. He said if I had put down 20 I probably would have made it, but I put down 16.

The recruiter said, “Why, boy, you’re too young to go in this man’s army. I wouldn’t have me no more job than a jack-rabbit if I was to take you in this Army and they found out that you told me you were 16 and going in there.” So doggone, you know that knocked me out! Poor ole Billy, he sure was disappointed, cause he wanted me to go in with him.

He said, “George, I thought you’d know better than that!”

No, I didn’t know better than that! I didn’t know a bit better than that! So anyhow, they took Billy; but they didn’t take me. So, by gosh, you know I seen him off. They took him off. They had 3 or 4 other fellows that went out. I don’t know where they sent him from there. I really don’t know where they do. Some kind of camp somewhere. And then before they send them to Cuba they’d take them and give them a lot of training and so forth.

So Billy says, “I guess I’ll have to leave then. You might as well stay and rest a while, 3 or 4 days.”

And man, say, I had a good hotel room, eating good, good eats, good room. That drill sergeant there; in other words the guy that was the head of it said, “Yes, you stay right here settler, we like you. The officer in command would like to have a messenger boy around here for a while. Every once in a while they have to send you out of town”. He said, “You walk around here and see where some of these business places is at and if he sends you out to a certain place, don’t ever say you don’t know where it is, but if you don’t know where it is at, then as you go out you ask somebody right quick. Let on to that feller, to that officer, that you know the town, see.”

So all right I says, I’ll do that, so I did and I got along good, and by gosh, I stayed there, well I stayed exactly a week. Stayed a week! Then I decided that I had better go back home.

So I says, Well, I guess I’ll have to walk! I’ll have to walk down to Huntington and catch a bus or streetcar into Catlettsburg and then take old man Uncle Charlie Kouns back out home. So, I said I didn’t have no money to pay the fare down there. The fare was 2 cents a mile. Back in them days there, it wasn’t very much. It was only $1.04. I did have the $1.04; but I didn’t want to spend it!

So by gosh, they made up a collection for me. Made up Ten dollars, and give me. Gave me a Ten-dollar bill! Boy, it was the first one I’d ever had, to say that it was my own. I figured I had earned it cause I had worked for this fellow.

So, I got ready and caught the train, went up to Huntington and took a streetcar to Catlettsburg. I was home then, cause I knew the town well. So I went around to the Livery stable, where I knew Uncle Charlie kept his horse, to see if he was there.

He (Meaning Uncle Charlie.) Said, “Hello George, by Gosh, are you back?” Yes, I said, I’m back. I didn’t get in the army. They wouldn’t take me. He said, “I didn’t think they would take you. Are you ready to go home?” The livery stable man already had the team hooked up so I jumped in and took ahold of the lines and poor old Uncle Charlie stepped up and got in the rig and away we went. I never left those parts again for two years! I really left that part of the country for good in 1900.

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