Friday, October 12, 2012

Sepia Saturday: A Virginia soldier in Camp Cuba Libre


Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt is a group of moustached military men.  But instead of presenting a CORPS or PLATOON or SQUADRON, I give you merely ONE soldier – complete with moustache – one of 30,000 who reported to Jacksonville, Florida in 1898, to aid Cuba in its fight for independence from Spain.

Meet John Wesley Rucker, my great-grand uncle on my mother’s side.  He was the second son of Frank and Sarah Rucker of Rockingham County, Virginia, and an older brother to my great-grandfather.

John Wesley Rucker at Camp Cuba Libre, Jacksonville, Florida 1898
John Wesley Rucker at Camp Cuba Libre
photo courtesy of Linda Pruett

He was a member of the Virginia Volunteer Infantry that was part of the Seventh Corps under the leadership of Major General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee.   When the Tampa area camps were full, Camp Cuba Libre was established in May 1898 near Jacksonville to serve as an assembly area in preparation for the liberation efforts in Cuba. 

In the early days of Camp Cuba Libre, the soldiers had to fend for themselves as supplies were sent elsewhere.  Some supplies were sent to other corps already scheduled to deploy; other supplies were deliberately withheld as a way to toughen up new soldiers.  The men received only partial uniforms, and they ate with their hands off shingles since there were no forks or plates.  

That was the early days before Fitzhugh Lee arrived on the scene.  He saw the horrible conditions and implemented changes that turned Camp Cuba Libre into a model camp. 

Like his comrades, John Wesley Rucker spent his days in drill and target practice.  However, the Seventh Corps never saw action.  With the fall of Santiago in July of 1898, morale and discipline at the camp fell apart since there was nothing to do.  I wonder if John Wesley was part of the drunken riot that ensued in the streets of Jacksonville. 

Most of the soldiers were gone by October, and the camp officially closed in January 1899.  I don’t know when John Wesley was sent home, but he must not have stayed very long in Jacksonville.  According to his obituary, John Wesley went to work in the shipyard in Norfolk on May 1, 1899.  Within just a week he was too sick to work and returned home to Shenandoah where he died May 29 at the age of 44. 

The obituary does not say, and I have no death record since this is a line that I have not researched extensively, but I wonder if he suffered from typhoid fever. The outbreak in the Florida camps had drawn so much national attention that even Clara Barton and Walter Reed visited Camp Cuba Libra to gather information.  In fact, more soldiers died of disease in Jacksonville than did soldiers who died in battle.

I hope you’ll deploy to Sepia Saturday to see what my comrades have made of this week’s theme.

39 comments:

  1. I wonder whether the term Cuba Libre as I know it (Coca Cola with rum added) has anything to do with the camp that you have described.
    Also I was not aware that Cuba was under Spanish rule until the end of the 19th century. It is not a fact that plays a prominent role in history books on this side of the Atlantic.
    Thanks for increasing my historical awareness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know translated it means "Free Cuba," so maybe it's a case of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? The drink or the camp?

      Delete
  2. I never paid much attention to history, so I learned a lot from your post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm pretty sure I didn't learn much about the Spanish-American War when I was in school. We barely made it to World War II by the end of the year, so I think the teacher probably gave a nod to the S-A war and moved on. Thank-you Google.

      Delete
  3. According to Wikipedia, despite some stories about it having been invented by members of the U.S. Signal Corps in Old Havana during the Spanish-American War in 1898, the drink Cuba Libre could not have been made that early because Coca-Cola was not available in Cuba until 1900.

    I learnt a lot too, thanks Wendy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah - Brett, thanks for looking that up. I gave a quick flip of an answer to Peter without bothering to check the facts. So Peter and I have now learned something else too.

      Delete
  4. These men were really roughing it weren't they? Partial uniforms would certainly be a morale buster as well as grubbing around, eating off a shingle with your hand - I can't see withholding essentials as a "toughening up". You'd feel like an after-thought under those conditions. I often wonder how they survived at all. Very interesting and informative post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed - it doesn't seem like much appreciation for the volunteers. The men in charge would probably just shake their heads at you and me and say, "Women!"

      Delete
  5. That's a neat photo of your great uncle, Wendy. The Spanish American War was so brief, there are not many photos of men in uniform, and John seems rather proud to have his taken. I would not have expected a man in his 40's to volunteer. Any idea of his motivation? Perhaps following Lee and a Virginia military tradition? Yellow fever was also very common in Florida and Georgia, and was carried on the ships.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had the same thought as you - why did he volunteer? He had a wife and 2 teenagers at home. Certainly he shouldn't have been out of work. I wonder if political propaganda inspired him.

      Delete
  6. Sounds a good theory, Wendy (Typhoid Fever). Considering the early conditions at the camp, his immune system may have been vulnerable to start with.

    I can't help but think of "Cuba Libre" the drink, which has always been a cocktail I enjoy (though not with any regularity, of course).

    Kat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I drank rum and coke long before I knew it had a name. If you're familiar with "The Big Bang Theory" (a comedy tv show about a group of nerdy physicists), you might remember the episode in which Sheldon orders a "virgin Cuba Libre" - diet!

      Delete
  7. Great post Wendy. Withholding food and essentials seems pretty poor thinking when it comes to keeping a soldier strong but I have read many things about such. I am constantly looking for novels written with a background of such wars and recently read several books by an author from Dominican Republic that fled to Cuba then to America and cannot think of her name. Will check it out and give you the name. If you read a lot you will like her books.
    QMM

    ReplyDelete
  8. Found that author. Julia Alvarez "In The Time of Butterflies" and "Before We Were Free, are just two of her books. I have read them all. Great reading.
    Peggy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I agree, a good piece of fiction with a strong historical backdrop is sometimes the most enjoyable (and painless) way to learn about the past.

      Delete
  9. Wow, it's like going back to history class, but really taking in some awesome info. I usually turned away at any war history (when I could) in school, still today I'm not so fond of it. But there is so much worthy information to know. Very nice!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I always enjoyed history, probably because I was good at memorizing dates and names and such. But like I said, I don't recall studying this war in school.

      Delete
    2. I know we were limited too, I wonder if it was that often people didn't want to speak of war. My mother never wanted to share any of her days growing up until it was almost too late in her life.

      Delete
  10. I've been educated too as I had not heard of the Spanish-American war. Considering more recent problems between Cuba and the USA it seems a bit ironic that the American were tryig to liberate them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My thoughts exactly! I guess Cuba traded one set of atrocities for another when Castro came to power.

      Delete
  11. I've learned a lot too Wendy. Those poor volunteers being treated so badly and poor old John Wesley to come to such an early end. A fascinating piece of history about which I knew nothing previously.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Apparently that "toughen up" plan didn't last long. Lee was apparently a good and caring leader who made sure the men had clothes, floor boards for their tents, fresh water, and access to hospitals.

      Delete
  12. Great story Wendy, it's terrible to think there were more deaths from disease than in the battles, this should NEVER happen again! Either from disease or combat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The war didn't last long to begin with, so that odd statistic makes a little more sense.

      Delete
  13. I just don't understand the ridiculous theory of withholding food as a way to toughen them up. Sounds like it would more likely break them down instead, morale-wise and physically.

    Great post with a lot of interesting history included!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd have been considering desertion.

      Delete
  14. Thanks for the history lesson. In school I don't recall learning much about the Spanish-American war. It's a shame how the soldiers were treated...partial uniforms,eating on shingles and supplies being withheld. It's hard to understand why they treated volunteers like this. Guess it was a different time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't remember studying it either except as a mention during discussion of Teddy Roosevelt.

      Delete
  15. Hey, Wendy! Very interesting. What a mess, to be made to go to war and then be treated as a prisoner in a third world country by your own people. That is sad. Then to come home and die. Your post and mine had many similarities this week, didn't they?

    Kathy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you're right. Both of our soldiers survived the war only to meet an early death. Life just isn't fair sometimes!

      Delete
  16. I love that photograph with the tent in the background. Did it have a floor or did they simply sleep on the ground? It is surprising that some wars receive all the press while others are missed. I thoroughly enjoyed learning a bit about the S-A War and some book recos from Peggy to boot! More reading. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John Wesley's tent had a floor. The first tents didn't, but once Fitzhugh Lee got there, he ordered boards for everybody.

      Delete
  17. I think John Wesley looks too proud in his uniform to have taken part in the drunken riot. But under such poor conditions, he may have been driven to it. Such a great photo to have!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After reading his obituary with all the religious references, I wonder too if he participated.

      Delete
  18. It's amazing how much information you have on John Wesley. It's so sad the way he died.
    Also sad is all the troubles that poor little island (Cuba) has had from then until now.
    Great and interesting post.
    Nancy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The irony is all I had was a picture and an obituary. Google to the rescue.

      Delete
  19. Great picture of an unfortunate destiny. So much efforts, for nothing. And when you think that Cuba became the following century a communist country, I wonder if the USA would have been so inclined to free it from Spain. That could have changed History in a big way... But I still think the embargo on Cuba should be revoked. The notion has become obsolete and cannot lead to anything positive for anyone.

    I hope Rucker didn't suffer too much for those few weeks and remained mainly out of it, 'till the end.
    :/~
    HUGZ

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, all that preparation in Florida only to have the war end early. It's like getting all excited for the big game only to have it rained out. Or going to a concert only to have the star attraction not show up due to laryngitis.

      Delete
  20. I like the idea of a Camp Cuba Libre. It's my favorite drink!
    But seriously it really was an interesting, informative post.
    And about my Dad's photos...I always thought he was handsome enough for a pin- up calendar, too.
    Barbara

    ReplyDelete