Saturday, June 5, 2021

Sepia Saturday: Pvt Rucker, Artificer

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

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo features a soldier looking carefree. My great-grandfather’s brother John Wesley Rucker sporting his uniform and rifle in this photo looks more proud and ready than carefree. Despite the prevailing sentiment of Virginians opposed to war with Spain, he was one of thousands of soldiers who reported to Jacksonville, Florida in 1898, to aid Cuba in its fight for independence.

John Wesley Rucker at Camp Cuba Libre
photo courtesy Linda Pruett

from Fold3
In 1898, John Wesley and Matilda Stockdell had been married 18 years and were parents to teenagers Elizabeth Rucker and her brother Percy Cleveland Rucker. When war became a reality, John Wesley enlisted in Company C of the 2nd Virginia Regiment Infantry and was assigned as an artificer. He was the man charged with maintenance of a military unit’s equipment. In other words, he was basically a mechanic and repairman.  

The 2nd Virginia was sent to Florida in June 1898 and became part of the Seventh Corps under the leadership of Major General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee. Camp Cuba Libre had been established in May 1898 near Jacksonville to serve as an assembly area in preparation for the liberation efforts in Cuba. 

Fitzhugh Lee
He looks like his uncle Robert E,
don't you think?


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. The Peace Protocol was signed in August 1898 resulting in the War Department ordering the release of many regiments, among them the 2nd Virginia. It was another month before any of them left camp to return to their home station. The Regiment was officially mustered out in mid-December 1898.


Souvenir booklet

Souvenir Booklet - 2nd Virginia Regiment Company C
from Historical Society of West Virginia

I don’t know what John Wesley did in the months following, but he left his home in Shenandoah, Virginia on May 1, 1899 to work in the shipyard in Newport News. Within just a week he was too sick to work and returned home where he died on May 29 at the age of 44. 

The obituary does not say but it is possible that 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.

Matilda wrote her husband’s obituary. One can’t help sensing that the family was devout in their Christian belief.


In loving memory of John W. Rucker, who died May 29, 1899. The subject of this notice was a son of Frank and Sarah Rucker, born July 20, 1854, and at the time of his death was forty-four years, ten months, and nine days old.

He left his home and family on May 1st for Newport News, Va, where he obtained work in the Navy yard. He worked only a week when he was taken down on a sick bed from which he never rose, although brought home and everything that loving hands and kind friends could do was done to relieve his sufferings. He died in three days after he arrived home. Death had marked its victim and nature had to yield to a Power stronger than man’s. While we are almost crushed with grief at the loss of our dear one, we know of this beautiful possibility of his soul’s salvation. Just a few hours previous to his death he said, “The Lord is gathering in his sheaves” and that he did not fear the dreadful hour of death.

His funeral was preached by Rev. Black, taking for his text Amos, fourth chapter and a part of the twelfth verse, “Prepare to meet thy God.”

We laid him to rest in the new cemetery at Elkton, close to father and mother, to await the resurrection day when we hope to meet and clasp the hand of our dear one in the New Jerusalem.

Dear husband, you have left us

Here our loss we deeply feel.

'Tis God who has bereft us,

He can all our sorrows heal.

By his wife

John Wesley's tombstone
in Elk Run Cemetery
Elkton, VA
Ironically, Matilda is buried
in Fields UMC Cemetery
Shenandoah, VA

For more stories of soldiers and carefree photos, please visit Sepia Saturday.


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. So sad to see that he died so early, and that Camp must have been pretty hard on all the men!

  2. I know so very little about this part of history and I certainly did not know the word artificer. Again - so many deaths due to illness spreading through military camps. Whenever I read of someone with the name John Wesley something, I assume they were Methodist - or at least that the parents were. His obit doesn't say, but their connection to faith and the church is evident.

  3. I had never heard the term artificer, either, and was just ready to google it when I read on to see you had described it.

  4. He was far to young to leave this world and it must have seemed to unfair to those who survived him after all he'd done to help others. But life is what it is. A little strange, husband & wife buried in different places. That's why I simply want my ashes scattered across the Sierra Mountains somewhere near Lake Tahoe. That way I can be close to everyone as they come to the Lake on summer vacations where we have a family reunion every year. :)

  5. What an interesting history lesson! I didn’t know anything about him. You are a great genealogist!

  6. Another fine post. It's surprising how old John was to join up, so your story seems appropriate in some ways for Memorial Day too. The Spanish-American War was incredibly brief, especially compared to our current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many units like John's were unprepared for a modern war. Disease in soldiers, even those who never reached Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Philippines was a terrible consequence of how inadequate our military force had become. Norfolk, like so many ports, must have endured regular reports of typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever coming in from ships. These were the same deadly plagues that struck the workers on the Panama Canal too.

  7. I had not previously read the genealogy of someone who served during the Spanish American War, very interesting. I have ancestors who were military Artificers, and had not known the term before researching them. Thanks for sharing!