The book lay in the shop like some ancient shipwreck, beached amid rows of rattan bookcases, Art Deco clocks and threadbare rugs and left to the ravages of time. There was nothing especially appealing about its cover. Indeed, a prior owner had resorted to silver duct tape in a half-baked attempt to secure its crumbling binding, and the title had long since worn down into ghost lettering. It was the ghosts behind those few words that arrested one’s attention:
THE STORY OF THE WAR OF 1898
Peruse any present-day compendium of military history, and you’ll find no such conflict—ah, but there was one. And no one knew that better than the book’s author: U.S. Navy Lieutenant W. Nephew King. Long before it became known as the Spanish-American War, King and his fellow sailors and soldiers shipped off to confront imperial Spanish forces in the Caribbean and Pacific in a 109-day conflict that changed the destiny of all participant nations.
There in the first few pages is a full-color plate of the battleship Maine anchored in Havana Harbor, Old Glory flying from its masthead, its gleaming white hull reflecting the Cuban sun. Flip the page to a stark black ink rendering of Maine blowing sky-high in a blast whose cause remains hazy but whose occasion prompted cries for “War!” from William Randolph Hearst and others with dubious agendas. Today the mast towers over Arlington National Cemetery, proudly flying the colors for the dead of many wars.
Representing the Philippines is an emotive panorama of the Manila Bay battle between ships of the American Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey and the outmatched Spanish Pacific Squadron under Rear Adm. Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. The May 1 clash was the first major engagement of the war, and it was over before noon.
The decisive moment in the fight for Cuba came during the July 1 storming of San Juan Heights—famously by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, though Buffalo Soldiers shared in the victory if not the glory. King credits the latter for having “aided no little in the repulse of the Spaniards,” yet the black troops are absent from period photos and the painting in the book.
Hostilities ceased on August 12, and eight days later U.S. warships took a victory lap up New York’s Hudson River past the tomb of President Ulysses S. Grant—hero of a prior war—who had been reinterred there only a year before. King’s book reminds us of that not-long-past history. MH