Contributed by Patrick McSherry
The following letter appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on July 29, 1898. In the letter, Private Alexander H. Wallace of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry ("Rough Riders") describes his experiences at San Juan heights.
Alexander Wallace who had been living in Prescott, Arizona, joined the Rough Riders on May 28, 1898 in San Antonio, Texas. He was a member of Troop A, commanded by a fellow resident of Prescott, Bucky O'Neill. After surviving the actions at Las Guasimas and the San Juan Heights, Wallace contracted typhoid. By the time the regiment arrived at Montauk, Long Island's Camp Wikoff, Wallace had lost 52 pounds in weight and was described as "being almost a skeleton.' After spending five days at Camp Wikoff, he received a furlough and went to the house of his brother, George Wallace, who was, in a lucky coincidence, close by, being an assemblyman from Freeport, Long Island. Unfortunately, his condition continued to worsen, and Wallace was taken to St. Peter's Hospital, where he died on August 31, 1898, just over a month after writing the letter below. His funeral was held in the Methodist Episcopal Church and his interment was to be in the Greenfield Cemetery.
George Wallace's son Archer B. ("Archie")
Wallace also served in Cuba. He was also ill and in the hospital at
Siboney. He was expected to be transported to Fort Monroe, Virginia,
aboard the OLIVETTE.
A Rough Rider’s Story
Alexander H. Wallace’s Interesting
Letters to His Sister, Mrs.
S. F. Johnson
Following is a letter from Alexander H. Wallace of the Rough Riders at Santiago, addressed to his sister, Mrs. S. F. Johnson of Pasadena, Cal., visiting on long Island. The references in description of the battlefield are to the places in the vicinity of Pasadena, in Los Angeles county, and will be well understood by all who have visited that part of Southern California, and to them it affords a vivid description:
“On Battlefield of San Juan, July 8, 1898.
Dear Sister – I wish I could tell you in this letter much of what I know of the war, but cannot. If in company with a number of friends who would frequently ask questions with twenty-four hours’ time at command, I might render a glimpse of what happened during the first twenty-four hours of the battle of San Juan. I am all right. Archie [Archer Wallace, Alexander’s nephew] told me the third day after the battle that he had written that we both escaped injury.
E. B. Champlain and myself were left on guard of troop equipments, and the troop moved off on a scouting trip. Unexpectedly the enemy turned in a fusillade from two batteries on our camp ground. Champlain, lying about eight feet from me, was struck by an exploded shell, which cut off his right arm, right leg, and left foot. I was just in the act of moving, seeking better shelter at about fifteen feet distant. A part of the same shell struck me on the cartridge belt. It must have been a glancing blow; knocked me down with a shock. Another part tore a hole through the rim of my hat about half inch from the center of my forehead. They amputated Champlain’s arm, leg and foot, but he died thirty-two hours later. There were five men killed and a good many wounded – I don’t know how many – before the shelling stopped, but the enemy were too late, our men had moved out sooner than they expected. Champlain was the only man in our regiment injured at the place.
About an hour later in the first actual engagement, we lost our captain, O’Neil [O’Neill] with troopers Boyle, Reynolds and Prosy, and a goodly number wounded, and from that time on all that day and the next our boys kept dropping one and two at a time until we had lost seventy-one wounded and sixteen killed. We entered the battle that morning 482 strong. Our boys with reference to both battles [Las Guasimas and San Juan Heights] have covered themselves with glory.
There is an admitted strife among other regiments of the center column of the Army to be located near the Rough Riders, either on our left or right flank. But there is not a Rough Riders in the regiment who will not take off his hat to the Tenth Cavalry – a colored regiment – as fighters. They do not know fear. Excellent shots, gritty and ambitious in the extreme. More particulars I may be able t give you orally some time.
This is the fifth day of truce. Our position or relative situation is most easily described by the simile of a horse’s foot, shod. The American Army occupies the position of the shoe, and the enemy that of the frog in the center of the horse’s foot. The position of the Rough Riderss, shared by the Tenth Cavalry on our left and the First Cavalry on our right, it that of the toe cork in the shoe.
Our nearest breastworks are within 310 yards of the enemy’s lines. Our sentries on picket lines can hear them converse and can also hear their dog and cock fights and general revelry. They appear to be wholly un-concerned, though with Sampson on their rear they are encircled with a line of death. Their flags of truce are the only evidence we have to the contrary. But that truce to the American soldier is detestable. The strain accompanying it is undescribable.
To-morrow at noon the truce is off and the ball will open. Our fortifications are now excellent. The siege will open with heavy and light artillery, mortars, Gatling guns, rapid firing guns, etc.
The morning of the 9th
What this day may bring forth we know not. All are on a strain of expectancy. Every boy has been over his gun oiling and cleaning. Our ammunition belts refilled, ready for scrap. Was in the trenches last night from 10 o’clock until 4 this morning. Am not as fresh as I would like to be. Too hot to sleep in the day time. An instance of wakefulness; Morning of July 1 (had to sleep on our arms, blankets rolled,) we were awakened at 4 o’clock. My next sleep was from 3 to 6 on morning of the 3rd. Didn’t take our boots or clothes off for five days.
Our sharpest and most thrilling conflict was from the enemy’s night attack, 9:30 to 11 P.M. of the 2d. The enemy’s loss must have been great, estimated from 500 to 1,000; could see them hauling away the dead and wounded all the next day. Our loss was three killed, about sixteen wounded. Their firing was the hottest we have experienced, but they couldn’t get our range. We poured our volleys down hill into their ranks.
Our estimated loss or our accounted loss is 260 dead, 1,180 wounded. Of this number probably 35 per cent were from sharpshooters in the trees.
Our battlefield cannot be more easily described to you than by reference to your home surroundings. Starting from Highland Park and Garavanga, and driving the enemy before us across the Arroyo and the foot hills east of the Arroyo, over all the little hills and valleys, rousing them from their fortifications and block houses on Stanton and Raymond Hills, and driving into their barracks and forts at Oak Knoll, while our right and left wings gradually surrounded them via San Gabriel and Samanda Park on the right, South Orange Grove avenue and devil’s Gate on the left, with Sampson in the harbor ranging from Monk Hill to Colorada street and Wilson avenue, and we have now got them sure.
In allowing your mind to pass over that strip of country remember this is tropical and the most fertile soil I have ever seen. Vegetation rank. Grass, vines, shrubbery, trees, etc., as vigorous n growth on top of the hills as in the valleys, and this interspersed every here and there with wire fences that had to be scaled.
Must very soon report at troop quarters. The Spaniards are game and cowardly. Their fear of death is nothing; their tactics in war are cowardly. No nation on earth fighting on the offensive could have driven the American Army from these strongholds. Their name as a nation will go down to posterity in infamy, as having repeatedly fired on our wounded being carried to the hospitals. One man was shot eight times on a litter, and three of his attendants wounded. They fired repeatedly on the hospital, planted the Red Cross flag over their batteries, using explosive rifle bullets, etc., but this does not refer to those who use the Mauser rifle.
This is my last sheet of paper. Next to tobacco and matches, paper and envelopes are the scarcest things in our ranks. The camp is going wild with cheering; must hasten over to see the cause.
Archie and Carman called on me last evening. They are well. Love to all. Affectionately,
P.S. This letter is of necessity disconnected, but conveys some idea
of affairs, and is a message of love. Have had no letters from home
since your announcement of arrival on Long island. Mail facilities very
"A Rough Rider's Story," Brooklyn Eagle. July 29, 1898, p. 10 [Apparently ran previously in the South Side Observer]
"Another Rough Rider Dead, " Brooklyn Eagle. August 31, 1898, p. 4
"Hempstead's Soldier Boys," Brooklyn Eagle. August 19, 1898, p. 3
Jones, Virgil Carrington, Roosevelt's Rough Riders. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1971) 335.
"Long Island Obituary Record," Brooklyn Eagle. September 1, 1898, p. 10