By Nicole O’Connell
Last spring, you may have noticed the “SP-AM” posters plastered on bulletin boards around campus. These posters were not announcing the arrival of canned meat at the POD, but instead, a class taught by Worcester State University adjunct History professor Linda Hixon. The “SP-AM” in question refers to the Spanish-American War; a conflict fought mainly over the summer of 1898. Students in Professor Hixon’s class, as well as volunteers, wrote chapters about SP-AM-related topics and biographies of local men involved in the war. A book collecting their research is currently in the process of being published.
No stranger to these types of projects, the SP-AM book is Professor Hixon’s third consecutive war research class at WSU. In 2016, For the Unity of the Republic was published, a book of biographies on the men from Worcester lost during the Civil War. In 2017, a collection of biographies and research on the local men and women who died during World War I was published under the title They Ventured Far.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk with Professor Hixon about the so-far-unnamed SP-AM book as well as a future project on the Spanish Flu.
Why did you decide on the Spanish-American War as a topic for the research class?
Technically, 2018 was the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of it, and I always think of it as a forgotten war. Although I’ve got to tell you, starting the research on it, I realized how many books were written on this war. I mean it was a really big deal up until probably World War I, and then it’s not a big deal anymore. There were so many books written on it, so I thought it was a forgotten war but it really wasn’t. Also, I think the monument we have, the one that’s down near the Memorial Auditorium, is really cool and very different for a war monument, so that caught my eye. So I figured for the one hundred and twentieth anniversary we’d go for it.
How is the Spanish-American War monument different from other monuments?
It was done by a modernist sculptor. He was a local boy, Andrew O’Connor Jr. In most war monuments, the soldiers are very trim and neat, and in this one, he’s all relaxed and rumpled like he just got out of bed or out of a trench. He’s got this certain swagger to him that’s kind of cool. It’s a very different monument. If you put it up against the Civil War monument and look at the two, you can really see the difference between them. I know war monuments now are more relaxed, but it was 1913 when they put this one up, so it feels very modern for the time. That’s why I like it.
How does this book differ from the Civil War and World War I books?
[The SP-AM book] is not just biographies, because we did chapters on the other aspects of the war. I did that in part because we don’t have a lot of deaths in this war. We also don’t have a monument with a list of the dead. We have three tablets, or four, outside of City Hall that lists all the guys that served. There’s only about 200 or something, so they could list them all. [The book] is less about the people as individuals and more about looking at the war from the local perspective.
We didn’t end up [writing about] all of the dead. And it’s been done. Alfred Roe, wrote that book (Worcester in the Spanish War) where he actually wrote about the guys that died, so most of them were done. We tried to find guys that hadn’t been written about. There’s a difference because the World War I book and the Civil War book were both written about something that had never been written about. We found people who have never really been written about — only a few of them had. With the Spanish-American War, a guy wrote a book in 1904. We didn’t want to replicate that, so that’s why I didn’t let students pick the names that he’d already done.
How did the difficulty of research compare to the Civil War and World War I projects?
Much harder. Because we’re missing that 1890 census (the 1890 census was burned in a fire). You don’t realize just how much information we get every ten years. And without that 1890 census, you’ve got guys that would have been kids in that census [that we don’t have records for], because that war was in 1898. So they would have been about 10 or 15 years old. And without that census… They’re not in the 1880 census, most of them. Your older guys are, but most of your soldiers are not in that census, so you’ve got this whole missing piece. And if they died in the war, they’re not in the 1900 census, so you can have this whole blank.
And from what I understand, a lot of people had trouble finding these people, and how they even came into the country, because immigrants can be hard to find. We catch them in the census. If you don’t know where they came from from that census record, you can have a hard time finding them in shipping records, in passenger manifests. So a lot of [students and volunteers] were banging their heads against the walls. The fact that, just because of that missing census, the Civil War was easier than this war was just stunning to me, and World War I was easier too. It really screwed us up. I knew it was going to. I said that on the first day of class: “We’re going to have trouble because of it.” And we did.
Until recently, I did not know a lot about the Spanish-American War, so when you told other people about the project, how did they react?
Most people didn’t know anything about the Spanish-American War. People don’t understand. It was, we thought, really short, which it technically wasn’t because we also have other wars which fall under that heading (the Philippine-American War and Boxer Rebellion) which we found out about in class. I didn’t know — I figured it was a three-month war, bing-bang-boom, done. No. People react not understanding what it is.
People don’t understand that people died in Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and China fall under this umbrella. And people don’t understand, they think Teddy Roosevelt, they think the Rough Riders. They don’t understand that it was bigger than that, that it was scarier than that, that you had New England boys outside of Havana in July in wool uniforms dying of yellow fever and malaria because they couldn’t handle the heat, and they went into this war really gung-ho, thinking we’re saving the Cubans from these horrible Spaniards, we’re saving them.
But that’s not what the war was about; it was about the Americans wanting territory. We wanted to be part of the whole territorial grab, and we’d missed the boat, and this was our way to get territory. So it’s this ugly political yellow-journalism war that people just don’t get. I’m teaching US History II now, so I get to teach them about it and now I know more about it. I love that part of doing these projects because I can show them pictures of local guys who died in the war.
How would you describe Worcester’s role in the war?
I think Worcester stepped up just like it always does. I think our immigrant population stepped up, and we know we had Buffalo soldiers, so we know that the black population stepped up.
Are there any surprising stories that you or others uncovered during your research?
Why can’t we find obituaries for these people? I think of one KIA that we know of, and there were a couple, but the guy who died in Cuba and was killed, we cannot find an obituary for him. It was really hard just to put his story together. Where are their obituaries? We had the telegraph, we had ships with motors at the time. There should have been obituaries within a short period of time, and we looked for a year afterwards and couldn’t find obituaries, so I think that was the most frustrating part.
I don’t remember any really interesting deaths because most of the deaths are from illness, from malaria, from yellow fever, from stuff like that. So it’s all kind of sad and pathetic. There were some killed in action. There was one guy who was missing in action, presumed drowned in a river. We don’t have the fun, heroic stories that you get from World War I. But it added to that idea that war is really just stupid. That was the whole thing I got out of it.
Do you have a planned timeline of when the book will be finished?
The hope is to have it printed by Armistice Day, by November. But I’m still trying to find a printer and find out how much it’s going to cost, because I have been paying for these things. Zach (a graduate student) suggested approaching the Worcester Foundation to see if they could help us with the cost, because I paid for the last book and they are not cheap to print, but that’s the hope: to have it done for November 11. That’s the plan.
Do you have a proposed title?
I have not found a title yet! I cannot think of a title for this one. The monument says nothing. It just says to the men and women who fought in the Spanish-American War. That’s boring, you know? So, I haven’t come up with a title yet. Because usually the monuments speak to me and they have the title right on them, but not this time. That’s the problem with this war. You know what we could call it—what did they call it? A “splendid little war.” But that’s been used over and over and over again, and that’s not a local thing. I think I might go back through some of the articles on the war at the time and see if somebody has something interesting that they said about it and maybe use their words. I like to let the primary sources title my things, and this time the primary source is not titling, so I’m stumped. I’m totally stumped.
Are there any other thoughts you want to share about the book or the Spanish-American War and how we view it?
It would be nice if we view it at all. It was a stupid war fought for a stupid reason, and people died for it, and I hate that, I hate that. Because we made that war happen. It’s like with the Mexican-American War: we made it happen. People weren’t poking us and making us come to war with them. We made that one happen, and I don’t like that. That bothers me, as an American. It really bothers me.
So I’d like for people to remember that, that maybe we shouldn’t make war. Americans have a tendency to react to war. I don’t think we should make war. I just don’t think that’s the American way. But people who like the military will argue that point with me.
It was a stupid war, maybe we’ll call [the book] that, “The Stupid War,” “SP-AM, the Stupid War.” I don’t know, I’m so caught on the title. It was a stupid war and then it became all these other little stupid wars and us getting our hands involved in stuff we shouldn’t have.
Are there any future projects you want to mention?
Right now we are doing the Spanish Flu. We’re not doing it here. Sean Driscoll and I are working with Bancroft school, which helped with the World War I book, and Worcester Academy, and a high school class in Worcester Public Schools — I’m not sure which high school class. We’re doing a book on the Spanish Flu, which is really important because it’s something people don’t remember.
Think about it. We lost, in this country, 550,000 people, most of them dying between September and December of 1918. Think about that, half a million people. At the time in this country, there were about 100 million people…We’ve lost half of a percent of our population. If we lost that now, that would be 1.5 million people. Imagine if an influenza or a disease went across this country in the course of four months and killed 1.5 million people. We would be going insane! We’d be insane about that! And yet, people don’t even know.
People would spontaneously just bleed. They would have massive nosebleeds. Or, women would suddenly just bleed like they had their periods, and that’s why women who were pregnant would miscarry because they’d just bleed. Or, bleeding out of their eyes. People were so depressed if they survived the flu, they were so depressed, so psychologically damaged, that even children would leap from buildings. They were so depressed. This is a flu like no other flu that we’ve ever had.
So yeah, that’s the next project. We found that there’s anywhere from 700 to 1,000 people from Worcester who died and the problem is we don’t have an exact number because most people, once they got beyond the first few days of the flu, if they got double pneumonia and died, then their death record says pneumonia. It was probably flu, but it says pneumonia; that’s why there’s a discrepancy. Doctors said they’d never seen lungs like that; people were literally drowning. It’s just the scariest thing ever. It’s really scary. Anyway, it’s depressing. Why do I keep doing these death things?
Nicole O’Connell is the executive editor of the New Worcester Spy. Professor Linda Hixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org