Richard Harding Davis

views updated Jun 08 2018

Richard Harding Davis

Born April 18, 1864
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died April 11, 1916
Mount Kisco, New York

American journalist

"I claim that trained writers are just as important to this war astrained fighters."

Richard Harding Davis quoted in The Reporter Who Would Be King.

Richard Harding Davis was one of the world's most popular journalists at the time of the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). Although raised in upper-middle-class comfort, he relished the chance to join the U.S. Army in the hot, humid jungles during the fighting in Cuba. Davis's coverage of the Rough Riders helped put that regiment in the history books and its leader, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry), in the White House. With a knack for finding the human drama in the stories he reported, Davis created war accounts that shocked and entertained Americans back home.

Early life and education

Richard Harding Davis was born on April 18, 1864, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother, Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis, was a successful novelist who was very close to Davis and helped him with his writing until her death in 1910. Davis's father, Lemuel Clarke Davis, was the editor of the Philadelphia Public Register. Davis grew up comfortably in Philadelphia with a younger brother named Charles and a younger sister named Nora. He attended Lehigh University and then Johns Hopkins University before dropping out without a degree to pursue a writing career.

From Philadelphia to the world

In 1886, Davis's father got him a job as a reporter at the Philadelphia Record. In the ensuing years Davis wrote for the Philadelphia Press and the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph before becoming the managing editor of Harper's Weekly in New York in 1890. His work there took Davis around the world, writing stories about the American West and many European and Latin American countries.

Throughout this time Davis developed a dramatic style of writing about controversial subjects such as abortion, execution, and suicide. He also developed the strong belief that writers should be independent of their publishers and hold personal opinions about their subjects. In 1890 he published a short story called "Gallegher" in Scribner's Magazine. Over his career, Davis published twelve collections containing a total of around eighty stories. Meanwhile, a war between two New York newspapers and a revolution in Cuba took Davis to that island in 1897.

Looking for war in Cuba

Spain had been fighting rebels in its colony of Cuba since February 1895. By late 1897, two New York newspapers, the Journal and the World, were engaged in their own war—a fight for readership. Journal owner William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951; see entry) devised the strategy of hiring the best talent to write sensational stories about shocking events. At the end of 1896, Hearst offered Richard Harding Davis $3,000 to report on the Cuban revolution for a month.

Along with illustrator Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Davis planned to sneak into the Cuban jungles to join Cuban general Máximo Gómez (1836-1905; see entry), who was leading the military effort for the rebels. Thanks to travel problems, the men found themselves in the city of Havana instead, along with Spanish general Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930). Weyler gave the men a pass to tour the island as reporters, but they found no fighting, so Remington returned home out of boredom.

Davis remained, however, capturing images in his stories of the suffering on the island. One rebel military strategy included economic destruction, and thus Davis saw beautiful tropical scenery marred by plumes of smoke rising from burning sugarcane fields. In a Journal article printed on January 31, 1897, Davis described the awful conditions in the concentration camps that Weyler used to prevent civilians from helping the rebels. Davis used his pass to get to the famous Spanish trocha, a military barrier that crossed the entire island at its narrowest point. In a story entitled "The Death of Rodriquez," Davis described the Spanish firing squad execution of a Cuban rebel soldier who met his death with apparent bravery.

Davis breaks from Hearst

While in Cuba, Davis ran into fellow reporters George Bronson Rea and Sylvester Scovel, who carried a copy of the Journal from January 17. In it, Hearst reported that Davis and Remington were in Cuba with Gómez and the rebel fighters. Hearst often used lies to create sensational stories, and this one infuriated Davis, who soon decided to return home.

Traveling aboard the commercial ship Olivette from Havana, Davis met a Cuban woman named Clemencia Arango. Arango had been arrested for helping the rebels and expelled from the colony by Spain. Upon Arango's arrival at the dock for departure, Spanish authorities had strip-searched her, once in an inspection house and again in a cabin on the ship. Outraged by such treatment of a woman, especially on an American vessel, Davis filed a story about the incident as soon as he reached Tampa, Florida.

Davis failed to report whether it had been a man or a woman who had searched Arango's naked body. Hearst, however, rewrote the article and included a Remington illustration that depicted three Spanish men in straw hats inspecting a naked woman. The story had the intended effect of angering Americans, who became increasingly interested in war with Spain. The rewritten story also infuriated Davis, who vowed never to write for Hearst again.

Finding war in America

In February 1898, the U.S. warship Maine mysteriously exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. Two months later, the United States declared war on Spain. This time, Davis would cover the action for the Times of London, which was the most popular newspaper in the world. He also wrote stories for the New York Herald, a paper that, unlike the Journal, was not using stunts and falsifying stories to compete for readership.

On April 25, the day the United States declared war, Davis persuaded Admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902) to let him board the flagship of the fleet that would patrol the waters around Cuba. This allowed Davis to witness the first military engagement of the war when the Spanish artillery at Matanzas, Cuba, fired upon the New York on April 27. The flagship and two others returned fire immediately, ending the attack in less then twenty minutes.

After U.S. Navy secretary John D. Long (1838-1915) ordered all correspondents but one off the New York, Davis headed to Tampa, Florida, where the U.S. Army was assembling an invasion force for Cuba. The chaotic process took weeks to complete; during the preparations, army officers stayed in the Tampa Bay Hotel. In his book The Cuban and Porto Rican Campaigns, Davis wrote, "This was the rocking-chair period of the war. It was an army of occupation, but it occupied the piazza of a big hotel."

The officers may have been sleeping comfortably in a hotel, but the soldiers stayed in nearby camps, where food was scarce at worst and bad at best. The men could smell their latrine pits (holes dug in the ground that served as communal toilets) as they tried to sleep at night. Among them was the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel Leonard Wood (1860-1927) and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Davis, sensing that covering Roosevelt would further his own career, reported that the Rough Riders, a cavalry of volunteer soldiers in Cuba during the Spanish-American War famous for their ferocity and bravery, was the best-trained regiment in the Fifth Corps (or V Corps) invasion force.

Returning to Cuba

When the V Corps finally left Tampa on June 14, Davis was one of just seven reporters who traveled on the Segurança,the ship that also carried invasion force leader General William R. Shafter (1835-1906; see entry). Shafter planned to invade Cuba at Santiago, located near the southeastern end of the island. Navy admiral Sampson had trapped the fleet of Spanish admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete (1839-1909; see entry) in the harbor there.

On June 20, Davis and four other journalists accompanied Shafter and Sampson to a meeting with Cuban general Calixto García (1839-1898; see entry) to decide where to land the American army. Davis had to ride on a horse because his sciatica (pain in his lower back) had flared up, making it difficult for him to walk. At the meeting, Shafter took García's advice to land at Daquirí, a small town twelve miles east of Santiago.

As the V Corps began to land two days later, Davis had a disagreement with Shafter that soured his already poor opinion of the military leader. Although the navy had bombarded the landing spot and a Cuban rebel had signaled that the coast was clear, Shafter ordered that only army personnel be allowed to participate in the initial landing, in case fighting was necessary. Prohibited from participating, Davis became very angry, for if fighting occurred, someone had to be there to capture it in writing. Davis protested to Shafter that he actually was more of an historian than a news reporter. According to Charles H. Brown in The Correspondents' War, Shafter snapped back, "I do not care a damn what you are, I'll treat you all alike."

Riding with Roosevelt

On June 24, American soldiers began the trek from their landing point toward Santiago. Davis, riding atop a mule while suffering from another attack of sciatica, followed along with Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. As the army reached a point called Las Guásimas, an invisible Spanish ambush opened fire from trees and jungle perches. The U.S. Army suffered many losses until it detected the Spanish soldiers's hats, a feat that Roosevelt credited to Davis. This finally allowed the army to fire back with some effect.

During the battle, Davis borrowed a carbine—a light rifle—and fired at the Spaniards. Afterwards, he saw the horrible results of war, including a captain with a wound in his chest, a boy dying from a gunshot between his eyes, and a wealthy New Yorker dead from a bullet through his heart.

The army rested for six days before marching on June 30 to its next battles at El Caney and San Juan Heights—Spain's last lines of defense before Santiago. The fighting began early the next morning when General H. W. Lawton's (1843-1899) division began its assault on El Caney. When that battle lasted beyond its expected duration of two hours, the army began the assault on San Juan Heights as well.

The result was deadly. American regiments marched down a narrow trail before emerging into a clearing at San Juan Heights, where the Spaniards fired upon them. Unable to fire back, thanks to orders from Shafter (who was miles behind in a camp), and unable to retreat, thanks to the regiments marching behind them, American soldiers died by the hundreds. In The Cuban and Porto Rican Campaigns, Davis described the scene as follows:

This was endured for an hour, an hour of such hell of fire and heat, that the heat itself, had there been no bullets, would have been remembered for its cruelty. Men gasped on their backs, like fishes in the bottom of a boat, their heads burning inside and out, their limbs too heavy to move. They had been rushed here and rushed there wet with sweat and wet with fording streams, under a sun that would have made moving a fan an effort, and they lay prostrate, gasping at the hot air, with faces aflame, and their tongues sticking out, and their eyes rolling. All through this the volleys from the rifle-pits sputtered and rattled, and the bullets sang continuously like the wind through the riggings in a gale, shrapnel whined and broke, and still no order came from General Shafter.

After painful waiting, the troops finally got the order to charge. General Hamilton S. Hawkins led troops up the largest hill, San Juan Hill, while Roosevelt, who had been promoted to lead his regiment, led the charge up nearby Kettle Hill. The U.S. Army took San Juan Heights more on the strength of its charge than by its firepower. As Roosevelt was one of the few men sitting high atop a horse, Davis wrote that nobody expected him to survive. When the Spaniards fled down the hills toward Santiago, Davis rushed to the top of San Juan Hill, only to flee quickly to avoid gunfire from the valley below.

From Shafter to Miles

The Americans won the battles of July 1 at the heavy cost of over sixteen hundred casualties, or one out of every six of the soldiers who fought. Defending their position at San Juan Heights was difficult with Spanish soldiers firing from below. In an article printed in the Herald on July 7 titled "Our Brave Men Defy Hardships," Davis called the situation "exceedingly grave." He described the American soldiers as tired and weary and barely able to hold out a few more hours. Shafter was to blame for the whole situation, in Davis's opinion: "Truthfully the expedition was prepared in ignorance and conducted in a series of blunders. Its commanding general has not yet even been within two miles of the scene of operation."

The story ran at a time when the United States was trying to negotiate terms of surrender with Spain. Newspapers accused Davis of disloyalty for writing the story under such tense diplomatic conditions. After the war, Shafter said he would have arrested Davis and thrown the reporter off the island if he had seen the article with his own eyes.

As things went, Spain surrendered Santiago and the surrounding region on July 17. Davis had left the island by then to follow Major-General Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925) on an expedition to capture nearby Puerto Rico from Spain. The highlight of the trip for Davis was the day he rode into Coamo with three other correspondents and accepted the town's surrender. Spain and the United States signed a peace agreement soon afterward, on August 12.

End of a writing life

Davis spent the rest of his life publishing as much as he could. Over his career, he wrote seven popular novels and twenty-five dramatic plays. In 1901, his short story "A Derelict" told the tale of two reporters covering the Spanish-American War. It is believed Davis based the characters on himself and his fellow correspondent Stephen Crane (1871-1900; see entry in Primary Sources section). Davis became ill in the last months of his life and died, after a heart attack, on April 11, 1916. His war reports live on as recommended reading for students of journalism.

For More Information

Brown, Charles H. The Correspondents' War: Journalists in the Spanish-American War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.

Davis, Richard Harding. Cuba in War Time. New York: R. H. Russell, 1897.

Davis, Richard Harding. The Cuban and Porto Rican Campaigns. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898.

Lubow, Arthur. The Reporter Who Would Be King. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Osborn, Scott C., and Robert L. Phillips Jr. Richard Harding Davis. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Richard Harding Davis

views updated Jun 11 2018

Richard Harding Davis

The American journalist Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was also a fiction writer and dramatist whose swashbuckling adventures were popular with the American public.

Richard Harding Davis was born into a well-to-do and rather pious Episcopalian family in Philadelphia. His father, an editorial writer, and his mother, a well-known fiction writer, often entertained Philadelphia artists and visiting actors and actresses, and the boy from the start was completely at ease with celebrities. After graduating from Episcopal Academy and Lehigh University, he studied political economy during a postgraduate year at Johns Hopkins University. In 1886 Davis became a reporter for the Philadelphia Press. The editor and other reporters confidently expected the cocky young dandy to fall on his face, but he shortly proved to be a superb reporter and a talented writer. From 1888 to 1890 he was in New York writing special stories for the Sun. He also published two volumes of short stories, Gallegher and Other Stories (1891) and Van Bibber and Others (1892). At the age of 26 he became the managing editor of Harper's Weekly and soon was writing accounts of his worldwide travels, which were collected in books such as Rulers of the Mediterranean (1894), About Paris (1895), and Three Gringos in Venezuela and Central America (1896).

As a picturesque and alert correspondent for New York and London newspapers, always appropriately attired for each adventure, Davis covered the Spanish War and the Spanish-American War in Cuba, the Greco-Turkish War, the Boer War, and—toward the end of his life (he died in 1916)—World War I. He based a number of books upon his experiences. More short stories filled 10 volumes, including The Lion and the Unicorn (1899), Ranson's Folly (1902), and The Scarlet Car (1907). A number of Davis's novels covered the international scene; notable were Soldiers of Fortune (1897), The King's Jackal (1898), Captain Macklin (1902), and The White Mice (1909). In addition, Davis wrote about two dozen plays, of which dramatizations of Ranson's Folly (1904), The Dictator (1904), and Miss Civilization (1906) were the most successful.

The critic Larzer Ziff in The American 1890's admirably summarized Davis's significance: "He demonstrated to those … who would listen that their capacity for excitement was matched by the doings in the wide world. But he also demonstrated to an uneasy plutocracy … that their gospel of wealth coming to the virtuous and their public dedication to genteel manners and gentlemanly Christian behavior were indeed justified."

Further Reading

For a complete list of Davis's writings consult Henry Cole Quinby, Richard Harding Davis: A Bibliography (1924). Two studies relate the author to his background admirably: Fairfax D. Downey, Richard Harding Davis: His Day (1933), and Gerald Langford, The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of a Mother and Son (1961).

Additional Sources

Lubow, Arthur, The reporter who would be king: a biography of Richard Harding Davis, New York: Scribner; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992. □

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