The Difficulties in the Formation of V Corps

for the

Spanish-American War

by Brian D. Blodgett, Warrent Officer, U.S. Army

For a link to more information on the outbreaks of yellow fever, click here!
For first hand accounts of the war in Cuba, click here!


The Vth Corps, under the command of Major-General William Shafter, constituted the U.S. Army forces that served in Cuba.


On 8 September 1898, Secretary of War Russell Alger requested a commission to investigate the Army's administration of the War of 1898 and discover the truth about its conduct.  President McKinley stated that the American people were entitled to know whether or not the citizens who answered the call of duty had been neglected or maltreated by the Government to which they so willingly gave their services.  It is the purpose of this paper to discuss why Alger asked for a commission to conduct a postwar investigation of the military.

The Pre-Hostilities Army:

In 1898, approximately 28,000 troops were in the army. These soldiers were stationed at over eighty posts mostly located mainly in the West.  While this force was small compared to European armies, the fear of a large standing army that dominated the early colonial mindset still existed.  The popular concept for the defense of the country remained a small regular army backed by the expandable militia.

The army of 1898 was not trained to fight in regular combat.  Since the Civil War it had conducted a multitude of operations; reconstruction of the South, campaigns against Indians, and strikebreaking in the North.  None of these operations prepared it for battle against a "European styled" army.

Training of the army was generally nonexistent.  The posting of army units across the frontier forced each unit to conduct its own training.  In some cases, the posts were so distant that the battalion commander did not know the capabilities of his units. During the years leading up to the war, there were no formations larger than abrigade and the training of any units higher than a battalion was impossible.

The militia in the late 19th century often conducted strikebreaking missions and did not train to conduct "European styled" warfare either.  Many states, reexamining their need for a militia during this period rewrote their military code in order to provide for an  organized militia. Unfortunately, most states only revised the militia administratively and did not provide adequate funding for the units.  This resulted in state militias appearing  ready to provide support to the regular army, but in reality, they needed material support and training before becoming combat ready.

Military Policy:

McKinley's policy toward the military before the war favored the navy. No one foresaw the need for an expandable army at this time.  The common belief was that the navy would win wars by its supremacy.  With no hope for reinforcements and dwindling supplies, the enemy would surrender.  The army would protect the shores of the United States and possibly conduct limited assaults.  If the army had to conduct a large invasion, the navy would provide the time needed for the army to mobilize to its full strength.

Cuba's independence movement started much earlier than 1898.  By 1897, Americans opposed the Spanish occupation of the island and demanded its liberation.  McKinley conducted diplomatic actions designed to convince the Spanish to relinquish its colonial grasp on Cuba and avoid war. However, Spain was unwilling to lose what it considered theirs.  The sinking of the USS Maine allowed American journalists to increase their pressure on the McKinley administration to declare war.

Throughout this turbulent time, the War and Navy Departments continued to view the situation as more of a naval-oriented war than a land conflict. When McKinley authorized the expenditure of fifty million dollars for the preparation of American defense against Spain, the majority of the money went to the navy.  The army interpreting  this expenditure as being for defensive preparations only, increased thefortifications of U.S. harbors.  The navy spent its money on upgrading its fleet.

On 11 April 1898, McKinley asked Congress for authority to use force to end  Spanish oppression in Cuba.  On 19 April, Congress declared Cuba independent,  demanded that Spain leave the island, and asked McKinley to act if Spain failed to heed its edict.  On 25 April, Congress formally declared war on Spain.  McKinley, yielding to congressional pressure, formally declared that a state of war had existed since 21 April.

Organization of the Army:

In 1898, the army was not a unified structure.  It was composed of three distinct sections: combat arms, support, and command.  Unfortunately, these three sections did not work well together and no clear line of command nor communication existed between them.  The leaders of the combat arms units generally looked down on the support officers and distrusted them.  The support section was not one section, but rather ten separate bureaus under ten different chiefs.  Each one had its own unique system of  operation and "red-tape" and generally did not coordinate with one another.  The supply  sections often failed to support the combat arms units by providing the supplies that they  thought units in the field needed, not what the units requested.

General MilesThe most senior general held the office of commanding general and he had authority over combat arms units, but no authority over the bureaus.  The bureau chiefs answered directly to the secretary of war.  Thus, while the commanding general could order units to conduct operations, without the support of the secretary of war and the bureau chiefs, he was actually powerless.  Both the commanding general and the secretary of war answered to the President.  In 1898, Alger served as the secretary of war and Major General Nelson A. Miles served as the commanding general.  These two men had opposing views on many things and hostilities often existed between them.

Preparing for War:

While McKinley conducted diplomatic maneuverings, planning for the use of the military also occurred.  Initial planning called for 60,000 men to supplement the army. The plan was to ask volunteers to compliment the regular army.  The authorized end-strengths of the regular army would be raised and volunteers would "fill out" the units.Miles and the bureau chiefs thus planned for 60,000 new men.  Due to the restrictions on  the use of the fifty million dollars, it could not be used to order additional equipment. The reserves, now known as the National Guard, insisted that they be involved in any military action.  The cancellation of several of the plans on the size and composition of the army occurred because the pro-National Guard political bloc opposed.  This bloc thought the plans did not represent the National Guard as fully as they should have. The National Guard also pressured McKinley on the composition of the army. Many guard officers saw the war as chance to propel themselves into politics and many enlisted  guardsmen wanted the same glory their ancestors earned during the Civil War.  National Guardsmen did not want to serve in the regular army and subject themselves to its harsh life and rigid discipline.

On April 23, McKinley yielded to their pressure and called for 125,000 volunteers. The president officially had two goals.  First, he wanted enough volunteers at the beginning so he would not have difficulty obtaining additional volunteers if the war dragged on and deaths mounted.  Secondly, since there was no declaration of war, hebelieved a show of force might impress Spain and break Madrid's will to fight.  His call for 125,000 men resembled the enlisted strength of the National Guard.  The call-up allowed the volunteers to enroll en-mass and keep their unit integrity.  McKinley also allowed for the formation of several new volunteer units  - among these were the Rough Riders.

This plan suited many of the officers who would be in the volunteer units. However, when the states called up their units, less than half of the enlisted men were  willing to join.  Instead, units filled their ranks with untrained recruits in order to fulfill  the authorized strength required for an en-mass enrollment.  These units were still far beneath their wartime end-strengths and 75,000 additional men were called for in May. Miles and other regular officers were appalled.  They saw no need for such a large force and knew the War Department could not equip it.  Miles initially planned to keep the volunteers in their home states long enough to organize and train them properly. Then Miles planned on concentrating them for incorporation into larger units.

Organizing the Invasion Forces in Camps:

When the first volunteers arrived at the state collection points, a problem was immediately identified; the volunteer units were not deployable.  States, having received little money from the government in the past, were unwilling to equip the men with their own limited supplies and instead planned on the War Department to equip the men.  Many men arrived at the sites with no weapons, equipment, or uniforms.  There was also a lack of experienced officers and many of the officers could have been considered to have only amateur experience and many did not even qualify
as to have that much.

Miles quickly realized the status of the volunteers and decided that they should be concentrated in a few large camps.  This would allow them to be easily supplied and rapidly deployed when ready.  Miles planned on the camps being an aggregate of organizations to prepare troops administratively for assignment to separate field commands.  Many of the officers leading these organizations developed an entirelydifferent viewpoint.  They thought they were training men for service under their own command in the field and Miles never clarified their mission.  The commanders hurriedly  pushed their corps toward readiness, ignoring proper formation of camps and with the various bureau chiefs.

The Initial Plan:

The army created seven corps, six on the east coast and one in California.  The eastern corps would defend the coastline and spend the summer months preparing themselves for deployment to Cuba after the rainy season was over if necessary.  The western corps would prepare itself for deployment to the Philippines.  Miles planned that V Corps would receive training at Tampa.  Once trained, it would conduct raids of 6,000 to 7,000 men against the Spanish in Cuba.  On 15 April  1898, Brigadier General Wade was ordered to have his quartermaster proceed  immediately to Tampa, Florida for the purpose of selecting a suitable ground as a camp for the troops ordered to met there.

Tampa was a poor debarkation site.  Two railroads each had a single track connecting Tampa with the rest of the United States.  Only a single track connected Tampa to Port Tampa, ten miles to the southeast.  This rail line did notrun directly next to the wharf, but ran parallel with it with fifty yards of loosely packed dirt between them.  When units arrived near Tampa, infantry regiments encamped in the pines and the cavalry in the sand dunes closer to the water.  On 29 April 1898, a telegram to Brig. Gen. William Shafter ordered him to assume command of the troops at Tampa.

The Plan Becomes Fluid:

Alger had initially promised a major fighting force in ten days. However, before the declaration of war, he told the president that the army could not mount a major expedition to Cuba for some time to come.  This revelation led the army to only conduct modest preliminary planning.

V Corps changed its mission of V Corps several times during the month of May. Initial plans had the corps conducting a landing on the southern coast of Cuba and supplying the Cuban resistance.  On 2 May, plans had V Corps conducting an expeditionary landing at Mariel.  On 8 May, plans instructed the army to proceed immediately to Havana with seventy thousand troops and capture the city.  On 9 May, orders directed Shafter to seize Mariel or some other area along the northern coast of Cuba to establish a bridgehead from which the army could launch an attack against Havana.  Long, complaining that he did not have enough notice to provide the navalsupport, forced the delaying of this plan until 16 May.  The subsequent sighting of the Spanish fleet off Martinique cancelled the mission since as long as a Spanish fleet roamed the seas, no invasion could occur.

On 26 May, McKinley, Miles, Alger, and Long decided to give up the idea of attacking Havana and instead sent expeditions to Santiago de Cuba and Puerto Rico.  The navy believed the Spanish fleet was in Santiago de Cuba's harbor.  Once the fleet was positively located, troops would depart from Tampa and assist the navy with destroying it  and capturing the city.  Miles quickly sent his views to Alger on the newly proposed invasion.  The commanding general believed that the troops should proceed immediately  to Santiago de Cuba.  If, during the meantime, the Spanish squadron had been captured or had escaped, then Miles wanted to move the expedition quickly to Puerto Rico, bypassing operations in Cuba altogether for the time being.  Miles believed that Puerto Rico would provide a future base for operations against the Spanish in Cuba. With the discovery of the Spanish fleet in Santiago de Cuba's harbor, the navy quickly blockaded the harbor.  The navy could not enter the harbor due to Spanish defenses and Long called on the army for assistance.  On 31 May 1898, Shafter received a telegram referring to the deployment of his forces to land in vicinity of Juragua, Cuba.  The primary object of the expedition was the capture and the destruction of the Spanish  fleet in the port, which would be almost as decisive as war on land itself.  Orders thus directed that Tampa serve as the debarkation point for an invasion force of 25,000 men.  This force was to sail as quickly as possible.


Supplies for V Corps were inadequate.  The regular army suffered shortages in equipment due to budget constraints and they lacked many necessary items.  The volunteer units faced even a greater difficulty since many of the men reported to the camps without adequate equipment.  The "red-tape" that accompanied the supply system  quickly overwhelmed the system itself and the various bureaus had problems supplying  them.  Initially the bureaus had to order the necessary equipment since it did not have  enough in stock to support the massive influx of volunteers. Distribution of the supplies to the various state encampments proved to be a logistical nightmare.

When Miles decided to consolidate the units into several large national camps, he thought many of the transportation problems would disappear.  However, the camp commanders did not always order the necessary equipment, so units continued to suffer. There were five major items that the army had serious problems obtaining: weapons, clothing, ammunition, medical supplies, and food.  The regular army was  mostly equipped with Krag-Jorgensen rifles with five-round magazines that fired smokeless powder.  Unfortunately, there were not enough Krag rifles for the volunteers, who instead had to be content with the obsolete Springfield rifles, a 45-caliber, single-shot weapon that still fired black-powder.

The regular army still wore the woolen uniforms of the western plains, a uniform unsuitable for a tropic campaign.  The initial khaki uniforms were made of canvas, which  was also not suitable for the tropics.  The volunteer forces received substandard blue  woolen uniforms that quickly faded and wore out because the War Departmentdid not have enough regulation material on-hand to equip the volunteers.

Two problems existed in the supply of ammunition to the army.  First, there was not enough ammunition on hand or enough factories to produce the required munitions. Secondly, the production of smokeless powder was new to the United States and there was only enough of this type of powder to equip units with the Krag rifles.  Cannons and  volunteer units would have to fire the black powder that left telltale signatures. At the start of the war, the Medical Bureau knew that it had a problem.  There were not enough doctors, equipment, or medicine available to support the army.  The medical field was often the last section to receive supplies and therefore many units still did not have the proper medical necessities when they deployed.  Colonel Woodhull, a  deputy surgeon general, commenting on the conditions at Camp Thomas stated that the  refuse from the thousands of animals and people, and other debris, added to the unsanitary condition of the camps themselves and to the camps watersupply.  The result  of the poor sanitation in the camps led to an outbreak of typhoid fever and many cases of  diarrhea.  Furthermore, the President ignored advice warning of the potential diseases that would occur if the army invaded Cuba during the rainy season.

One of the most common complaints during the war was the quality of the food. The army, used to living on fresh beef, had to rely on canned or frozen meat.  The soldiers often stated that the canned meat was tasteless and Miles filed an official complaint that the frozen meat contained dangerous chemicals.

Chaos for V Corps:

The change in plans directed by McKinley, Alger, and Miles caused a multitude of problems for Shafter.  The intelligence preparation of the battlefield for an invasion ofCuba was moving along quite well.  Reliable intelligence on the enemy existed from a variety of sources, both Cuban and American.  Maps of various areas of Cuba existed and  were ready for Shafter's use.  However, with the changing missions, Shafter was unable to adequately use this information and plan for the invasion.

The experience of some of the volunteer forces sent to Tampa was extremely low. On 22 May 1898, Shafter had reported that 300 men of the Seventy-first New York Regiment had never fired a gun and that he would issue them ammunition for familiarization and target practice.  In general, many officers and NCOs were not ready for the mission they were to receive.

The supply situation in Tampa was appalling.  The various bureaus were sending everything that they thought V Corps would need.  However, the existing railroad system  was unable to handle the increased flow and hundreds of cars soon sat along the rail lines, waiting for the port area to clear so they could enter and be unloaded.  Making the problem worse was that bills of lading did not accompany the cars andeach car had to be open to find out what was inside.  Food rotted and needed supplies sat in the cars. Pandemonium broke out in Tampa when V Corps was ordered to debark for Cuba.  The  men were eager to board the transports to Cuba, but the navy had previously acquired the  majority of the quality transports and the army had to search for any ship that could float. Due to a lack of authority at the port, soldiers hurriedly packed the transports without any  order given to the placement of the equipment. Since there were 25,000 men in Tampa,  but the transports could only hold 12,000 - 13,000, when the order to board the ships arrived, a "mad race" occurred.  Men soon found themselves aboard ships with the  equipment that belonged to other units.  The flotilla set sail for Cuba in chaos.

Loading supplis at Tampa

Loading supplies in Tampa
Reports from the Front:

While the American forces were defeating the Spanish in Cuba, journalists were destroying the army in the American papers.  The journalist quickly highlighted the problems at the camps; mass confusion, high levels of diseases, and lack of adequate supplies.  Reports out of Tampa centered on the supply problems, the confusion with the railroads, and the bedlam at the port.  Reporters followed V Corps into Cuba and wrote about on the mismanagement of the forces and the multitude of men falling ill due to the tropical diseases.

When the war was over the army faced a variety of questions concerning its handling ofthe entire conflict.  Many of these questions centered on the health and well being of the troops.  The fact that 2,910 men were killed or died of wounds or disease from 1 May to 1 October was extremely important, especially when the percentage of those who died of disease was ten times greater than that of  those who died in battle. The fall of Santiago probably saved the army from a major disaster.  After the Spanishsurrender, hundreds of men were sickened, a few with yellow fever, most with malaria, typhoid, and dysentery. Reports indicate that only 20 percent of the troops avoided infection.  Routine militarytasks were suspended because there were not enough men fit to pull duty.

General Shafter reported on 27 July that over 4,000 of his troops were in hospitals. Four days later he reported that the death rate had reached 15 per day.  Not all of these men died in Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Philippines.  Many of them died in the various camps in the United States.  On 15 August 1898, Camp Thomas had over 4,400 men sick, many of them suffering from typhoid.  When V Corps redeployed to the UnitedStates a special camp was set up in New York to handle the massive number of sick soldiers.  The final death toll showed that out of 5,462 deaths in the armed services in 1898, only 379 resulted from combat.


The United States was finally emerging as a world power in the late 1890s.  It was becoming aware of its potential strength, but unsure of how to use it effectively.  V Corps suffered more from McKinley's changing strategy and war aims and the fluctuating demands that they imposed than it did from mismanagement.  At the same time, theArmy itself was undergoing changes as a new generation of officers, this timeprofessional,  tried to adapt the army to the needs of a modern industrial nation and the state militia sought a new role and reason for being.

The War Department responded to the conflict with improvisation, trial, and error, which eventually led to a grow mastery of the circumstances that confronted it.  To many citizens, the disorder of V Corps and the high rate of illness in themilitary due to disease convicted the entire army of incompetence.  Yet, the deployment of VIIICorps to the Philippines was well organized and occurred without mishap.  The men who fought in the War of 1898 found themselves in the center of these clashing forces.  The army oftenhad to meet conflicting missions, yet it conducted itself admirably. When the DodgeCommission examined the conduct of the war; it found that there were multiple problems within the War Department, the majority of them mentioned in this paper.  These findings eventually led to a positive change in the structure of the army in the 1900s.


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