Born October 16, 1835
Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Died November 12, 1906
American military officer
"I don't care a damn what you are, I'll treat you all alike."
William Shafter quoted in Pecos Bill: A Military Biography of William R. Shafter.
William Shafter was the commanding officer of the U.S. Army in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). His obesity and medical problems forced Shafter to direct military operations from miles behind the front lines. Hundreds of men died in the fighting, and thousands more died from diseases they contracted during Cuba's steamy summer season. Yet Shafter's troops worked with the U.S. Navy to force Spain to surrender an entire region of Cuba just twenty-five days after landing on the island. This led to a negotiated cease-fire, Cuba's freedom from Spain, and American military control of the island.
Shafter's early years and military career
William Rufus Shafter was born in Comstock Township, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, on October 16, 1835. The oldest of four children, Shafter had a large physique that grew strong as he worked on his family's pioneer farm. Shafter also did well in school, winning many spelling bees.
In 1856, Shafter became a country schoolteacher in Galesburg, Michigan, where he had attended school as a boy. Four years later, he landed a teaching job in Athens, Michigan. He married one of his pupils, Harriet Grimes, in 1862. Just before his marriage, Shafter enrolled in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-65).
Shafter fought in many Civil War battles, including those at Ball's Bluff and Nashville, and he also spent time as a prisoner of war. Several years after the war, on April 14, 1869, he became lieutenant colonel of the 24th United States Infantry. Shafter spent the next three decades as a career man in the army, serving mostly in frontier situations and rising to the rank of brigadier general by 1897, just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.
The Spanish-American War begins
The United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. Spain's colony of Cuba—a tropical island ninety miles south of Florida—was the source of the conflict. Spain had been fighting a war against Cuban rebels there since February 1895. The rebels, tens of thousands of them, wanted independence from Spain and freedom to control their own government.
Led by General Máximo Gómez y Báez (1836-1905; see entry), the rebels sought to destroy the island's sugarcane plantations and mills, thus cutting off Spain's primary source of colonial revenue. This destruction also hurt American businesses, which had invested $50 million in the island. Spain fought back by herding Cuban civilians into concentration camps, where hundreds of thousands of them died from disease and starvation. The mysterious explosion of the American warship Maine in Havana, Cuba, in February 1898 led the United States to declare war on Spain the following April.
Unprepared for war, U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry) had to select someone to lead the U.S. Army on its Cuban expedition. The man he settled upon was William Shafter, who weighed around three hundred pounds and suffered from varicose veins and gout, both painful and debilitating medical conditions. Despite these physical limitations, however, Shafter's record of leading troops on successful frontier missions against Native Americans gave him the necessary experience to fight Spainish troops in Cuba's hot tropical climate.
Landing at Daquirí
After receiving his orders, Shafter traveled to Tampa, Florida, where his troops assembled for action. Before Shafter could take them safely to Cuba, however, the U.S. Navy had to locate the Spanish fleet of Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete (1839-1909; see entry), who had sailed from Spain for an unknown destination. Americans living on the East Coast nervously scanned the Atlantic Ocean, but Cervera did not attack the United States. Instead, his fleet slipped into port at Santiago, Cuba, on May 19. U.S. admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902) and his Atlantic Fleet then trapped Cervera's ships in Santiago, clearing the way for Shafter's ground invasion.
On June 14, 1898, the Fifth Army Corps (or V Corps) steamed out from Tampa destined to land somewhere near Santiago. Working with Admiral Sampson and the U.S. Navy, Shafter planned to defeat Cervera's fleet and then to capture the city, two victories that would give the United States a firm foothold on Cuba. Commanding the three divisions of Shafter's V Corps were Brigadier General J. Ford Kent, Brigadier General Henry W. Lawton (1843-1899), and Major General Joseph W. Wheeler (1836-1906).
On the morning of June 20, U.S. Army ships reached the waters outside Santiago. Sampson boarded Shafter's flagship, the Seguranca, for a conference before both military leaders went ashore to meet with Cuban generals Calixto García (1839-1898; see entry in Primary Sources section) and Jesús Rabí.
García had recommended that Shafter's troops land at Daquirí, about twelve miles east of Santiago. Early on June 22, the U.S. Navy bombarded Daquirí to make way for the landing. After a Cuban rebel signaled that the coast was clear, Shafter's men began to disembark. Lieutenant Colonel, and future president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry) and his volunteer regiment of Rough Riders were among the first to reach the shore. Suffering from gout, Shafter stayed aboard the Seguranca rather than land with his soldiers.
One of Shafter's first orders was to keep news correspondents on the transport vessels until the soldiers had landed. This made Shafter very unpopular with the correspondents, who feared they might miss the V Corps's first battles with Spain. Shafter also alienated the Cuban rebels by suggesting that they carry supplies and dig trenches for the Americans rather than fight with them. When he learned of this, General García objected, saying his men were not just "pack-mules," according to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. It was not the last time that Shafter would insult the Cubans.
The Siege of Santiago
After setting up a telegraph connection to Washington, D.C., the V Corps began its march to Santiago on June 24. Fearful that tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever would overtake his troops, Shafter resolved to get them to Santiago as fast as possible.
The V Corps' first battle occurred that day at Las Guásimas, a few miles from the landing point. Led by General Wheeler and Colonel Leonard Wood (1860-1927), the American troops ran into Spanish soldiers retreating toward Santiago. Death totals were low by military standards, but the Americans learned how hard it is to fight an enemy in jungle terrain. For example, most Spaniards used rifles with smokeless powder, but many American volunteers, including the Rough Riders, used rifles that revealed a soldier's location with a puff of smoke as soon as he pulled the trigger.
After the battle at Las Guásimas, a series of hills called San Juan Heights and the town of El Caney were all that separated the Americans from Santiago. Meeting with his officers on June 30, Shafter said his plan was simply to storm those city defenses. Finally ashore, Shafter traveled to high ground at a place called El Pozo, where he could see Santiago twoand-a-half miles away. Communication problems, however, prevented Shafter from having any real input during the day-long battle on July 1.
The battle proved to be the deadliest of the war. Shafter expected General Lawton's regiment to take El Caney in two hours. It took nine. Meanwhile, Generals Kent and Wheeler stormed San Juan Heights, an operation that included the Rough Riders as well as two African American army regiments. By the end of the day, hundreds of Americans and Spaniards were dead as the surviving Spanish soldiers retreated to temporary safety in Santiago.
Surrender and suffering
Two days later, on July 3, Admiral Cervera's fleet tried to escape Santiago harbor to go to Havana or Cienfuegos. As Admiral Sampson was on his way to a meeting with Shafter, Commodore Winfield S. Schley (1839-1909) led the Atlantic Fleet to victory against Cervera. With no naval defenses and hundreds of people starving in the city, Spanish commander José Torál surrendered Santiago and all twelve thousand of his troops in the surrounding region on July 17.
Surrender gave Shafter another chance to insult the Cubans and disgruntle the news correspondents. Although the Cuban rebels had been fighting against Spain for over three years, Shafter refused to let them participate in the surrender ceremonies on July 17. This snub led Calixto García to resign from the Cuban army the next day. At the ceremony, while U.S. soldiers raised the American flag over the palace in Santiago, Shafter ordered his troops to remove American news correspondent Sylvester Scovel from the palace roof. Scovel refused to get down voluntarily upon Shafter's order to do so and allegedly struck at Shafter in an ensuing argument.
The V Corps then found itself stuck in Cuba during the deadly summer months, when tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever were at their worst. According to Foner, when asked to identify his best generals during the revolution against Spain, Cuban general Gómez had named June, July, and August. But those months had attacked American soldiers also, who were not used to the muggy climate. The majority of the fifty-five hundred American casualties of the war came about as a result of sickness and disease rather than from combat.
The Round-Robin Letter
In this disease-ridden environment, Shafter called his division and brigade commanders and medical officers together for a meeting on August 3, 1898. With Shafter's approval, the commanders and officers decided to write a letter to Shafter, which he would then forward to U.S. war secretary Russell Alger (1836-1907), demanding that the troops be returned to the United States immediately. The Round-Robin Letter, as it came to be called because it circulated among all the officers, was signed by division commanders Kent, Lawton, and Wheeler; regimental commander Theodore Roosevelt; and Shafter's other officers.
American newspapers printed the letter, which infuriated President McKinley and War Secretary Alger. They were trying to supervise peace negotiations with Spain. If the Spanish position in Cuba had been stronger, the letter might have weakened America's negotiating stance by suggesting that its military could not capture and hold the entire island. As it turned out, however, the Spanish military felt it was facing inevitable defeat. Consequently, Spain signed a peace protocol on August 12, 1898, agreeing to free Cuba and to turn over its other island colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States.
After disbanding the V Corps at Camp Wikoff on Long Island, New York, Shafter led a quiet life in the army before retiring in 1901. In retirement, he made his home on a ranch near Bakersfield, California. Shafter's unhealthy weight kept him fairly inactive during this time; he died at his ranch on November 12, 1906.
For More Information
Carlson, Paul H. Pecos Bill: A Military Biography of William R. Shafter. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.
Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1971.
Feuer, A. B. The Santiago Campaign of 1898: A Soldier's View of the Spanish-American War. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.
Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File, 1995.
Miley, John D. In Cuba with Shafter. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899.
Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Sargent, Herbert H. The Campaign of Santiago de Cuba. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1907.
Wheeler, Joseph. The Santiago Campaign. Philadelphia, PA: Drexel Briddle, 1899.
Rhodes, Charles D. "William Rufus Shafter." Michigan History Magazine 16 (Fall, 1932): 370-83.
Shafter, William R. "The Capture of Santiago de Cuba." Century 57 (February, 1899): 612-30.
The Round-Robin Letter
The Round-Robin Letter, as reprinted from Paul H. Carlson's Pecos Bill: A Military Biography of William R. Shafter.
To Major-General William R. Shafter, Commanding United States Forces in Cuba:
We, the undersigned General Officers, commanding various Brigades, Divisions, etc., of the United States Army of Occupation in Cuba, are of the unanimous opinion that this army must at once be taken out of the Island of Cuba, and sent to some point on the northern sea-coast of the United States; that this can be done without danger to the people of the United States; that there is no epidemic of yellow fever in the army at present, only a few sporadic cases; that the army is disabled by malarial fever to such an extent that its efficiency is destroyed, and it is in a condition to be practically entirely destroyed by the epidemic of yellow fever sure to come in the near future. We know from reports from competent officers, and from personal observations, that the army is unable to move in the interior, and that there are no facilities for such a move if attempted, and will not be until too late; moreover, the best medical authorities in the island say that with our present equipment we could not live in the interior during the rainy season, without losses from malarial fever, almost as deadly as from yellow fever. This army must be removed at once, or it will perish as an army. It can be safely moved now. Persons responsible for preventing such a move will be responsible for the unnecessary loss of many thousands of lives. Our opinions are the result of careful personal observation, and are also based upon the unanimous opinion of our medical officers who are with the army, and understand the situation absolutely.