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Clay Butler

Writes about

Life Aboard the U.S.S. HARVARD

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This letter was written by Clay Butler, a crewman serving aboard the USS HARVARD. The provides a good chronology of his time aboard the ship, and includes remarkable details about his experiences at the Battle of Santiago, and sheds some light on the "HARVARD Incident" in which Spanish prisoners of war were killed, apparently as the results of a language barrier and a tragic misunderstanding. Butler did not witness the incident himself, but came in immediately afterward to aid the wounded.

The letter does have some errors. Butler indicates three Spanish torpedo boat destroyers were destroyed. In fact, only two were - the FUROR and PLUTON. The TERROR was not present. He mentions the MERCEDES. The REINA MERCEDES was sunk previously by the Spanish in an attempt to block the channel and stop any assault into Santiago harbor, but the effort was a failure. This happened prior to the Battle of Santiago.

Butler's observvations on the effect of the wounds caused by the 45-70 "Trapdoor" rifles is accurate and terrible.

The letter:


June 28, 1898

 There is a rumor that a dispatch boat will meet us today, so will write you a few lines. I have been sea sick and a fellow feels rather tough I tell you. Some of the boys were a great deal sicker than I was, but as I was sick to start with, it didn’t make much difference to me anyway.

 So far we have done nothing but roustabout work – no gun drill or anything of that sort at all. They say that in a few days they are going to put us on watch but so far ‘is nothing  but abor. We are not likely  to see much service , and unless things change, we will come home as green about naval tactics as when we started.

 The journey out of the bay [Tampa Bay] was very interesting. As we passed the warship MINNEAPOLIS, the boys cheered and clapped their hands for a long time. Newport News is a beautiful city from the river, and viewed by night, the wharf presents a most beautiful scene.

 I worked all day Sunday and you would never know it was Sunday. We left at 1 o’clock and didn’t get our dinner until about 2, and the boys were nearly starved. One thing, we get better food than the boys on the battleships. Now, that doesn’t mean anywhere near what we get at home but still it is much better than lots of men get. One of the stewards told me this morning that the ship’s company feed us on contract with the government, and in that way we get different stuff. The troops have to eat beans , ham , sardines, a little canned tomatoes, and hardtack and coffee. It is all canned stuff, but good. They get very tired of it, three times a day though. The troops are a jolly lot, and you never hear any disputes or anything like that. They sing in the evening, and last night someone  was singing “The Palms,” and he had an elegant voice. An old fiddle was going too, so the effect was fine. There are plenty of good voices among the boys, and in the evening they do enjoy themselves.

Off coast of Cuba, June 30. - We expect to reach Santiago some time tonight. I am feeling much better and getting along first rate. The climate is very pleasant, and not so hot but that we can be comfortable when in deck. We had our first gun drill today, and I am No. 4 on the gun. My duty is to take the shells out of the gun. We are provided with gloves for that purpose, and the boys are all anxious for a fight. This afternoon as we were approaching the island a collier was coming creeping along the shore, and the bugle blew “general quarters.” That means “every one to his place as soon as he can possibly get there.” All guns were loaded and we were ready for a fight, when we found out the vessel was a “U.S.”

Our first sight of land after leaving Newport News was Salvador. It is a beautiful island with its white beach and hills and mountains in the background. A very tall monument stood on one end, which we were told was the place where Columbus landed. The coast of Cuba is very fine, as the mountains are covered with a heavy foliage, and in all conceivable shapes. We are running not more than half a mile from shore, and have plenty chance to see it. I can very easily see how a few determined men could hold the country against heavy odds. I hope we get in a fight and capture a prize or two, so that we can have some money when we get home. We have the nicest man to serve under, and when we are in drill it is all right, but when we are under some of them we are nothing.

The troops are so sick of beans, etc., that they gang about the doors to get anything they can get their hands on , or beg. I always take out more bread when I can, but lately they have been cutting us down. This morning we had hardtack, and it is as hard as hard can be. The only way to eat it is to grind away like a cow, and then try it again.

Off Santiago, July 8 - Tonight is the first opportunity I have had to write for the last week. We are all well and kicking like mules. But I am not as unhappy as you might imagine, and make the best of things. All of the old men have been very kind to me, and when they see a lad trying to do his best, they help him all they can.

Sunday and Monday were very interesting, and I shall try and tell you all I saw. To begin with, Sunday we started to unload stuff at a landing place about eight miles below the entrance to the bay. About 9 o’clock we saw the warships firing away and about 10 we were all sent on board in a great hurry [Battle of Santiago was occurring]. We went up above and by that time our ships had sunk the INFANTA MARIA TERESA, OQUENDO and VIZCAYA, the torpedo boats TERROR, PLUTON and MERCEDES. They came out of the harbor and our vessels went right at them and none of them got more than five miles away. All the Spanish vessels were beached but one, and we saw them all. We steamed up as far as the VIZCAYA and when we were within half a mile of her the magazine exploded. The sides of the vessel hung together but all the upper decks were blown out. After running around the shore a half an hour or so we received orders to go to the OQUENDO and MARIA TERESA and take on the prisoners. I was in a boat that took on some, and they were a great looking lot. The two ships were lying close together and both afire and the men were huddled on the shore, as the Cubans were firing from the woods, and we had no trouble taking them aboard. We would stand off the shore a little way, throw them a line, and they would plunge into the water and into the boas. The Captain of the OQUENDO shot himself and locked some of men down in the hold and of course they were all burned to death. Our boat was lying within a hundred feet of the OQUENDO when a shell exploded and fire and smoke rolled up. It is a shame not to be able to save such fine boats. They had good guns and were fine-looking vessels.

The worst thing was the fight on board. Monday night about 12 o’clock we were aroused by the noise of guns and the orders were “every man to his place.” The prisoners had made a rush, I suppose to escape. The guards fired into them, and about 50 soldiers left here to guard the stores, rushed back and opened fire. Six men were killed and about a dozen or so badly hurt. I was one of the boys detailed to go back among them after the fight and carry the dead and wounded down to the sick bay. I was barefooted,  and just think of wading into a deck all covered with blood, and men lying around shot in all sorts of places. But a fellow gets used to it, and we hustked them down as if they were so many sacks of flour. Those Springfield rifles  tear awful holes in a man’s body, about the size of half a dollar. They were a hard lot of fellows and they looked at us as if they would like to kill me.

Oh I tell you was is an awful thing, and I can’t tell you all I have seen and see every day. The boys got all the Spanish things they could lay hands on, and I have quite a few. I have been pretty bad , but am now all over my seasickness now and can be out all day in a little boat jumping around like a cork and not be the least bit sick. Some of the boys can’t stand it all.

Camp McCalla, Cuba, July 10 – I am working in the sick bay, taking care of the sick and wounded. We wear the red cross on our arms. The way some of the Spaniards are is a caution. They suffer mostly from fever caused by the heat, lack of proper food and water. They cry “I, I, I, I” all the time. In English it means a swear word. If one sees water they all want it and cry “agua, agua.” We have about 40 in the bay.

The condition of the Spanish soldier in Cuba is beyond description. They have no food, no water, and are forced to fight by their officers. We have taken sixty more marines aboard here to guard the prisoners. The rifles we use are awful weapons and if they hit leave a trail of torn flesh behind. The Spanish have no facilities for taking care of the wounded. One of the prisoners we took on (we took 300 Thursday) had wounds filled with maggots. Our doctor is such a nice man and does all he can to help them get well.

Now I am in here I do not have to do anything else, and I get better food than before. We are supposed to eat at regular mess, but we eat the same as they serve out for the sick men. That, of course, is much better than what the boys get. I had some oranges today and they tasted so good. There are four o five of us here  and when scrubbling time comes we go and get a couple of well Spaniards and make them do the work while we stand over them and see that it is properly done.

We leave this place at 4 o’clock and go to Portsmouth, N.H. I hope this is our last trip. Rumors are floating around that Spain has sued for peace and I hope it is true.

 Clay Butler

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"Letters from Alton's Sailor Boys," Alton Evening Telegraph. (Alton, Illinois), July 20, 1898, 2. 

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