The Final Legacy of the Civil War Generation

The Civil War reshaped and defined the United States in ways still very visible today. That is enough for one generation, right? Yet the Civil War generation also led the United States throughout the late 19th Century of industrialization, expansion, and development. Still, that generation’s final legacy seems underappreciated: world power status, which was gained between 1898 and 1903 in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine War, and the China Relief Expedition during the Boxer Rebellion.

The young officers of the Civil War served as the leaders of the Spanish-American War era, which covers the period from 1898 through the effective conclusion of the Philippine War in 1903. A few years later most of them had passed from the scene, having in their lifetimes seen the United States undergo dramatic changes with the promise of more to come.

Who were these leaders who ushered the United States onto the world stage? Here is a list of the most familiar. Their Civil War connections are noted next to their names in parentheses:  

William McKinley (23d Ohio) – President of the United States, 1897-1901.

John Hay (secretary to President Lincoln) – U.S. Secretary of State, 1898-1905. Instrumental in settling the peace with Spain and securing U.S. possession of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Developed the Open Door Policy with China and negotiated with other powers regarding the China Relief Expedition.

George Dewey (USN) – Led the U.S. fleet in the victory at Manila Bay on 1 May 1898, and used his ships to sustain and support U.S. Army operations ashore into 1899.

William T. Sampson and Winfield Scott Schley (both USN) – Commander and deputy commander, respectively, of the U.S. fleet off Santiago. Their names will be forever linked by the controversy over their actions during the naval victory off Santiago in July 1898.

Nelson Miles (64th New York/Army of the Potomac) – U.S. Army Commanding General 1895-1903. Supervised the recruitment, training, and deployment of U.S. troops 1898-1903. Personally led the conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898.

Arthur MacArthur (24th Wisconsin) – Commanded successively a brigade and division in the conquest of the Philippines and beginnings of Philippine War. Served as military governor of the islands 1900-1901.

Elwell S. Otis (140th New York) – commanded troops in the conquest of the Philippines and served as military governor before being recalled due to his harsh policies.

William Shafter (Army of the Potomac staff) – commanded U.S. V Corps in Cuba, 1898. Masterminded the Santiago campaign and siege.

John R. Brooke (Army of the Potomac) – commanded U.S. I Corps in the capture of Puerto Rico, 1898. Military governor of the island and then later Cuba.

Wesley Merritt (Army of the Potomac & Army of the Shenandoah Cavalry Corps) – commanded U.S. VIII Corps in the capture of Manila, 1898. First military governor of the Philippines.

Samuel Young (Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps) – Commanded a brigade and division under Shafter in Cuba. Later served in the Philippines. First U.S. Army Chief of Staff, 1903.

Adna Chaffee, Sr. (Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps) – Commanded the U.S. elements of the China Relief Expedition, 1900. He was the first U.S. officer to command as part of an allied force since the Revolutionary War.

Fitzhugh Lee (Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps) – U.S. Consul General in Havana, 1896-1898. Later took a Major General’s commission and served in Cuba and the Philippines.

Joseph Wheeler (Army of Tennessee Cavalry Corps) – Led a cavalry division under Shafter in Cuba. Famously announced “We’ve got the Yankees on the run!” after a victory over the Spanish.

M.C. Butler (Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps) – Major General U.S. Volunteers, 1898-1899. Held training commands in the U.S.

Tom Rosser (Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps) – Major General U.S. Volunteers, 1898. Held training commands in the U.S.

4 Responses to The Final Legacy of the Civil War Generation

  1. I read with interest your posting concerning the Final Legacy of the Civil War Generation. It just so happens that I know a relative of one of the men mentioned in your writing, M.C. Butler, Matthew Calbraith Butler, (referred to by his friends and relatives as Calbraith.) What a life this man lead! Before the War he was a lawyer, then a member of the South Carolina State Legislature. With the outbreak of hostilities, he joined Wade Hampton as a captain of a regiment in in his famous “Legion”. He was severally wounded at Brandy Station and as a result, lost a foot. After his recovery, he rejoined the army in 1864 and by War’s end, he lead a division of the Confederate Calvary with the rank of Major General. Back in South Carolina, he was elected twice as U.S. Senator from that state and then he ended his service to his country as mentioned, as a major general in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War.

  2. Just “wow.” At its best, history is an ongoing true story of the lives of specific people and how they are interwoven with the lives of all of us. Wesley Merritt is a particular favorite of mine. One of three “boy generals,” he became the last one standing, and standing proudly. Thanks for this, Chris.

  3. Nelson Miles served in the 61st New York Infantry (along with Francis Barlow), not the 64th New York.

  4. Thanks for the remembrance of so many Civil War vets who went on to serve the nation, in the military or on the national political stage. Let’s not forget the other portion of the “greatest generation” of the Nineteenth Century, Civil War veterans who left the military and reentered civilian life for futures as leaders in fields such as business, industry, literature, public service and social activism.

    One of my favorites of this lot is George Washington Cable, who served as an officer in the 4th Mississippi Cavalry and was wounded-in-action.. After the war, he settled in his native New Orleans and eventually embarked on a literary career, penning novels, articles and essays. He also became an outspoken critic of Jim Crow laws and segregation and an advocate for equal rights for African Americans. His views earned mostly scorn in New Orleans and, in 1884, he moved north to New England, eventually settling in Northampton, Mass., a community that had been a hotbed of abolitionist thought and activism. The same year he moved north he began a tour of 85 cities and conducted readings of his work with Mark Twain, who highly praised the Confederate veteran’s writing, insight and honesty.

    While living in Northampton, Cable became a progressive community and church leader, among other things starting “small fireside clubs” and establishing reading rooms to help teach and empower uneducated citizens. An institution he started for that purpose, now called “the People’s Institute,” has evolved and still stands, now offering education and enrichment programs and courses to the public. He died in 1925 and is buried in the Bridge St. Cemetery, Northampton.

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