During the Spanish-American War (1898), North Carolina provided three infantry regiments named simply the First, Second, and Third Volunteer Infantry Regiment(s). All of these were state militia regiments. The First was the only one to see action in Cuba; the Second disbanded after a short-lived yet infamous term of service in the States, and the Third, an African American regiment, experienced continuous discrimination whether it was stationed in eastern North Carolina or Knoxville, Tennessee. Only two North Carolinians, Worth Bagley and William E. Shipp, died in action.
As in many wars, North Carolina lacked the jingoism so pervasive elsewhere. President McKinley asked the Tar Heel state to provide two regiments of infantry and an artillery battery. The state provided three infantry regiments instead.
Most of the white dissenters called Eastern North Carolina home; by and large the blacks there, however, displayed a more vigorous patriotism and volunteered in greater numbers. As a result, Piedmont and Western North Carolina boys comprised the majority of the First and Second Regiments; in the First Regiment, for example, only one company came from the eastern region.
The camp life of the First Regiment was dull at times yet eventful at others. Within a week of the President’s call for troops, the First Regiment, under the command of Colonel Joseph F. Armfield, assembled at the ill-prepared facilities of Camp Bryan Grimes on what was then the outskirts of Raleigh (look for the marker east of the fairgrounds on Hillsborough St.). While at camp, the men never received paychecks or supplies in a timely manner. Two weeks later, once properly equipped with uniforms and guns, the regiment traveled by rail to encamp in Jacksonville, Florida. Unfortunately, the men’s train collided with another, resulting in the death of one soldier and the injuries of seven others.
Once the regiment arrived safely at Camp Libre in Jacksonville, the regiment experienced many of the food and supply problems. During the particularly rainy season of 1898, in an overcrowded camp that flooded regularly, many men contracted diseases. Meanwhile, the delay of paychecks continued. Yet, Colonel Fitzhugh Lee rejected tobacco tycoon Julius Skakespeare Carr’s offer to loan the troops their pay.
To everyone’s surprise the First was sent to Cuba in December. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator J.C. Pritchard of western North Carolina asked that the regiment be recalled. While in Cuba, however, the First performed only guard duty on the outskirts of Havana.
The Second Regiment was mustered in May 1898. Commanded by W.H.S. Burgwyn, a former Confederate officer, the Second nevertheless performed unimpressively—maybe in part because their pay was delayed. At Raleigh’s Camp Dan Russell, the ill-supplied troops performed poorly in regular drills, and twenty-seven men went AWOL. In six weeks, half of the regiment was disbursed to other camps across the country to perform guard duty. Shortly afterward, the regiment’s poor performance resulted in its disbandment. Before being mustered out, twenty men of the Second died from disease and fifty-five were classified as disabled. Camp life probably took more lives than combat in Cuba would have.
Many volunteers of the First and Second were sons of Confederate veterans, yet they responded to the United States’ call for troops. They evinced a patriotism that would characterize the Southern region throughout the twentieth century.
The history of the Third Regiment is particularly noteworthy. Governor Daniel Lindsey Russell encouraged the formation of a black regiment, one of three formed in the nation during the war. Political opponents accused the Republican governor’s encouragement of the Third’s formation as pandering to the black vote in an age of Fusion politics.
The all-black regiment (excluding white officers) looked forward, as historian Joseph F. Steelman writes, to “prove themselves worthy of the rights and obligations of citizenship.” The Third was first stationed at Fort Macon in North Carolina and then in September transferred to Camp Poland in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the local populace and garrisons treated them horribly; white civilians killed at least four North Carolina blacks. To avoid the cold weather, the troops in November moved to Macon, Georgia. While away from eastern North Carolina, a race riot erupted in Wilmington. On their return to their native state, the men of the Third were treated as pariahs instead of heroes.