We can always point with pride to our great liberty lovers, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Jackson, Monroe, and Lincoln, but since the days of these great patriots and Americans our leadership has degenerated; trade and greed have taken the place of lofty ideals which made the country the hope and model of every people aspiring to freedom; vulgar ambition for territorial extension has put us on the low level of all the conquering nations of old…
- John Y. Fillmore Blake
Why did many American men travel thousands of miles to participate in the Boer War (1899-1902) between the Dutch republics and Great Britain in South Africa?  There are varied reasons why some American citizens chose to act on their own to become involved in this lesser known war, despite the United States Government’s decision to stay out of this conflict. An examination of the motivations of Americans who joined in the fighting shows that Americans chose to participate on both sides of the Boer War. Those include Americans who harbored hatred for British imperialism such as John Blake and the Irish-Americans; adventurous and liberty-loving citizens represented by John Hassell and the American Scouts; those with entrepreneurial interests within the Transvaal and Orange Free State, inadvertently drawn into the conflict as displayed by George Labram; those who fostered humanitarian and moral issues violated by the British against the Boers; and those who supported the British Monarchy such as Major Frederick Russell Burnham.
Although there is a plethora of primary sources on the Boer War itself, there are only a few from American military personnel directly involved in the conflict and even greater lack of secondary works relating to the overall American experience. Not surprisingly, most of the historiography on the Boer War focuses on either the Boers or the British and not the Americans. Topics range from military specific aspects of the war to studying how it modeled a modern war. Further investigation into America’s involvement in the war provides a unique perspective on the social and political factors that motivated its citizens to fight and the public’s subsequent feeling toward imperialism. The one book that specifically addresses American participation in the Boer War is Donal P. McCracken’s MacBride's Brigade: Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Boer War. For the aspiring historian, therefore, there remains an open window of opportunity to examine not only the American participants of the Boer War, but the why of their motivations. This paper attempts to do both those things.
While Americans fought for both sides, those that fought for the Boers felt morally compelled to help a sister republic fight for its freedom against the monarchial British Empire. While the ideology of each individual man is almost impossible to determine, what is known is that they did not take pay and, therefore, did not fight as true paid mercenaries. A comparison is made between the Americans that fought with the Boers and those that fought for the British. Most of the men came from military backgrounds, and many from the western frontier of the United States. Many of these men’s passions for adventure derived from the desire to explore and expand unknown territories. In some sense, they represented a dying breed as the United States reached the West Coast and into the last Indian territories. Their expertise in prospecting and mining brought them to their last frontier on the African Continent.
By examining the several primary accounts from correspondents, officers and soldiers of both sides of the war, and public opinion at home, the motivations of these men is distinguished. The accounts of John Blake, John Hassell, and Frederick Burnham, provide a backdrop into the lives of these men and the reasons for why they left for South Africa to fight. In conjunction with these accounts, the personal writings of Richard Harding Davis and Howard C. Hillegas provide a different perspective of the units these men led. By looking into several newspaper articles of the time period an understanding of how the American people responded to the war can be gained. The examination presented here is relevant because there have been few secondary sources examining the varied reasons why, despite the stance of official neutrality by the U.S. Government, these American citizens chose to act on their own to become involved in the Boer War. Such a study underlines the developing dichotomy that the United States faced in finding it extremely difficult to remain indifferent to eventual wars among the European powers at the turn of the century, while at the same time forced to confront the passionate interests of the American people with regard to these issues. This included large racial groups that emigrated from Europe, such as the Irish-Americans, that showed an inclination to champion the cause for small nations and oppressed minorities such as the Boers whom they perceived as victims of a more powerful force.
Americans First Become Involved
The influx of large numbers of foreigners from around the world – uitlanders – that included both British and Americans, eventually started the Boer War after the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886. The Boers denied full political rights and power to the large population of foreigners who traveled to the African Veld in search of the gold. Great Britain joined the uitlanders in support of their cause against the Boers. In contrast the Boers fought to uphold their rights as a sovereign nation fighting against British Imperialism and its quest for supremacy in South Africa.
The first Americans who became involved in fighting actually joined their British colleagues in an attempted organized revolt in Johannesburg, over what they believed to be the oppression of their rights as citizens. On 29 December, 1895, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson and some six-hundred men crossed the western boundary of the Transvaal and hoped to reach Johannesburg to join up with organized groups of uitlanders. After a small fight, Boer forces surrounded Jameson’s contingent of men just twenty miles from Johannesburg and forced them to surrender on 2 January, 1896. Those captured and arrested included seven American citizens, among them John Hays Hammond who managed several mines owned by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, the champion of British Imperialism in Africa. In May 1896, the Transvaal government released the American prisoners after they paid a heavy fine and banished Cecil Rhodes (the conspirator behind the whole Jameson Raid) from the country, while everyone else who participated signed a pledge that guaranteed their cooperation of all internal affairs of the Transvaal. The raid affirmed the struggle for fair representation by the Boer government and reached a critical climax that seriously jeopardized the rights and interests of American citizens in the Transvaal.
After the Jameson Raid, the Transvaal government resented the role that prominent American men played in the raid, particularly John Hays Hammond. In the subsequent three years, the Boers still persisted to appeal to a common affinity between the two republics in order to lessen American ties with Britain. Diplomats were unsuccessful and war broke out in 1899. As the war raged on in the first year, the only place where the Boers held any hope of American intervention lie with its people who were willing to act on their own without the support of the United States Government.
Ironically, while those first Americans in the Jamison Raid joined Great Britain, their involvement in the raid can actually be seen as a catalyst for groups of Americans who soon followed and joined the now ongoing war for individual rights and liberty. As the United States did not intervene (a result of the tenuous relationship between it and Great Britain), this produced a wide range of reactions among its people who still fostered hatred for England and support for the liberty of the Boers, such as Blake, Hassel, the Irish-Americans and the American Scouts who chose to join the war.
All the world is interested in warfare among human beings, and there are men who delight in fighting battles in order that their own and public interest may be gratified. It may suggest a morbid or bloodthirsty spirit, this love of warfare, but no spectacle is finer, more magnificent, than a hard-fought game at which human lives are staked against a strip of ground – a position.
- Howard Clemens Hillegas
Americans in the Irish Brigade
For many Irish and Irish-Americans the only reason they wanted to fight lie in the fact that the Boers fought the British. Some fought to uphold the Boer’s liberty as a sovereign nation and some joined simply for the adventure. Many Americans fought under the Irish Brigade; in particular, the one that established itself in Johannesburg by John MacBride. John MacBride was born in 1868 at The Quay, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland and when he arrived in the Transvaal to work in the gold mines became the focal point and influential leader for the more advanced nationalists in the local Irish community. Most of the Americans who lived in the Transvaal and worked in the gold mines joined this Brigade because its commander, Colonel Blake, came from the United States. Later in April of 1900, the Chicago Irish contingent that came thousands of miles under disguise as a Red Cross Ambulance Corps joined the Irish Brigade.
The term “brigade” did not become a true military reality. The thought to create a true brigade originated from the Irish Brigade of Wild Geese that fought as part of the French army in the eighteenth century. More properly coined as “Flight of the Wild Geese,” this term encompassed many Irish soldiers that chose to participate in foreign armies as far back as the sixteenth century. This Irish corps that fought in South Africa, however, became commandos. A commando unit was the term used by the Boers to distinguish groups of fighting men that volunteered to fight from their towns and villages. The names of the commando units came from the towns in which they lived. The Boers did not maintain an official army but instead composed themselves mainly of large groups of commando units similar to militia units in other armies. Typically, they did not give out ranks to the men. Only two men held titles, the kommadant and the veldkornet or field cornet. These men held responsibility to equip, muster, and train the volunteers of each town. Usually, several commando units fell under the command of a general. As more and more foreign men came to assist the Boers, large groups of foreign commando units or organizations developed.
John MacBride and three other Irishmen – Thomas Byrne, Don O’Hara and Richard McDonagh – discussed the idea that they needed to form an Irish unit. According to Donal P. McCracken, MacBride approved the Irish Brigade by a proposal on Sunday, 3 September, 1899. The approval lingered under the conditions that war broke out with Britain. A letter sent to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, requested permission to raise a military unit of Irishman to fight in the event of war, as well as to gain burgher status for any such volunteers. The authorization of the Irish Corps occurred 13 September, 1899, four weeks before the outbreak of war.
John Y. F. Blake, a West Point graduate and officer in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry Regiment in Arizona, received the colonelcy of the brigade. He attended Arkansas State University, at Fayetteville, and when he turned twenty, enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated on 12 June, 1880, and received the rank of second lieutenant. Blake did not distinguish himself academically at West Point, but did well in French, Spanish, and “discipline.” The West Point Register of Delinquencies cites Blake for throwing bread in the hall at dinner, smoking, using profane expressions, striking a horse with a saber at cavalry exercise, and “slowness.” He graduated at the bottom quarter of his class, fortieth out of a class of fifty-three. Blake, unlike the top graduate of his class, Captain Oberlin M. Carter, did not end up in a military prison. Blake served thirteen years in the U.S. Sixth Cavalry; many of those years spent at Fort Leavenworth. He spent some time in the arid deserts of the Navaho and Apache Indians to the south and southwest of the Grand Canyon. In 1887, he received a promotion to first lieutenant and the following year an appointment as commander of a group of Navaho Scouts. There also existed claims that Blake assisted in the capture of the famed Apache Chief Geronimo. Blake retired from the Army to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he managed a railroad business. As a result of the many stories that emerged from South Africa on Cecil Rhodes’ Charter Company, Blake left Michigan in search of more adventures in Africa. Blake stated that he traveled to South Africa because the “gold mining prospects were attracting adventurous men from every part of the world.” While there, Blake became familiar with the land, and he wrote about his experiences for several American and London newspapers. He arrived in Johannesburg shortly before the Jameson Raid.
In the later part of the war, Blake created a small squad of men tasked with blowing up the bridges utilized by the British supply lines. After he convinced General Louis Botha, a young man of thirty-six with great skill in commanding men, on the importance of such a task, Blake called for volunteers to accomplish this duty. Blake records that no one responded other than the Irish boys who “were the only ones among the Boers that understood the business.” The Irish Brigade held responsibility to blow the bridges. Blake “selected the men that [he] knew would do the work well. There were little Mike Halley, the ever to be remembered Joe Wade, Jim O’Keefe, Dick Barry, Tom Herlihy, Tom Tierney, and several others whom [he] selected for this most important work.” Mike Halley came from San Francisco, California, while Joe Wade and Jim O’Keefe are listed in MacBride’s troop numbers with origins in Ireland. The others origin are unknown, though suspected to be of American origin. In accomplishing their tasks, none of these Irish-Americans became casualties. Blake credits these men for doing their jobs well under cannon and rifle fire.
In an ironic coincidence, as these American men destroyed the bridges, two American officers for the British repaired them. After the Irish dynamite squad destroyed the bridge over the Sand River, Major Seymour and Clemens of the British Army tried to repair the bridge but General De Wet and his men killed them. In a condescending tone, Blake condemns these American men as mercenaries. Blake stated that “all were mercenaries in the strict sense of the word, and this class of men are not fit to live in any country.” Blake’s deep-rooted hatred toward the British surfaced even among his own people because they served the Crown as paid mercenaries. Compared to the Americans that took up arms with the Boers, these American men took pay for their services as true mercenaries. On the subject of mercenaries, Howard Clemens Hillegas eloquently states that “All the world is interested in warfare among human beings, and there are men who delight in fighting battles in order that their own and public interest may be gratified. It may suggest a morbid or bloodthirsty spirit, this love of warfare, but no spectacle is finer, more magnificent, than a hard-fought game at which human lives are staked against a strip of ground – a position.” While Blake expressed hatred for these mercenaries, Hilligas seemed to glorify any man that wished to fight in foreign wars.
The Chicago Irish Brigade
By January 1900, the British embassy in Washington expressed concern about the strong Irish movement within the United States that attempted to recruit American men to fight for the Boers. Irish-Americans, in particular, gathered resources and monies to help the Boers in any way possible. Fears of an Irish attack against Canada from New York prompted Governor Theodore Roosevelt to declare that he call out the militia and “clap them all in jail.” Irish organizations around America discussed an idea to send an expedition of some 5,000 men to South Africa. In the end, the Ancient Order of Hibernians collected funds for a much smaller expedition. U.S. law explicitly did not permit the recruitment of its citizens for any foreign involvement. Most of the U.S. shipping to Africa went through Portuguese controlled ports along the east coast of South Africa and the Portuguese government did not dare allow Americans to land in any of its port cities in Africa because of this law. The solution around these obstacles – a small contingent of Irish-Americans, funded by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, volunteered under the ruse as a Red Cross Ambulance Corps.
Captain Patrick O’Connor of the Clan-Na-Gael Guards commanded the Chicago Irish Brigade. On 11 February 1900, thirty-nine soldiers left Lake Shore Station for New York where a steamer awaited to take them to the Portuguese territory of Lorenzo Marquez. Prior to their departure, eleven additional volunteers joined them from Boston. The New York Times on the 12 February reported that they “left for New York to-day on its long journey to join the Boer Army on the battlefields of South Africa. Two special coaches were attached to the regular Lake Shore train for the party.” The article continued stating that the men were “equipped with surgical and medical supplies” and that once they arrived in Pretoria, “the men will join the Boer Army and work under the flag of the American Red Cross Society.” The New York Times reported on 11 April, that indeed the Irish Chicago Brigade arrived in Lorenzo Marquez on the French steamer Caravellao.
After several days of delays due to their questionable intentions and lack of paperwork, the Chicago contingent eventually joined forces with Blake’s Irish Brigade. The correspondent of The Daily Mail in Lorenzo stated the following:
The departure of the Chicago Ambulance Corps for Pretoria was delayed on suspicion of filibustering. The members left by special train this afternoon, accompanied by a motley following of French and Germans, 100 in all. The departure only occurred after many stormy interviews with the Portuguese authorities.
The correspondent said that all of the members did not have passports or any credentials to allow them access into Africa. The Americans left for Pretoria on the happenstance of Miss Clara Barton who produced a letter to the effect that she knew some of them personally and believed them to be “all right,” despite their open statements that they came to fight. Some accounts of the Chicago Ambulance Corps arrival in Africa tell of the famous author, and perhaps first American war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis’ travel with them. Davis arrived in South Africa by other means but did join them on their travels to Pretoria. He obtained an emergency passport from the Consulate of the United States at Lorenzo Marquez, Africa on 11 April 1900, the same day the steamer that carried the Chicago natives arrived.
Davis chronicles many events of the Chicago contingent in his personal writings. He notes, sarcastically, that at every port they visited they “had been most generously treated, local port dues and taxes having been everywhere raised for their benefit.” Davis notes that the Portuguese authorities saw through their disguises as a Red Cross Corps, in particular, “refusing to pass the quinine and whiskey, which apparently formed the chief part of their medical supplies, and taxing them at the custom-house two shillings before they would pass the American flag.” Davis’ account dictates that the American Consul, Stanley Hollis, at Lorenzo Marquez saved them the trouble of the Portuguese customs office and insisted they be sent along their way. While on the train ride through Africa, Davis witnessed a transformation among the travelers on board. Several people that traveled along with the Americans also maintained disguises to gain access into the Transvaal.
Little Frenchmen in Tam o’Shanters and red sashes, who had been shy and inconspicuous in the presence of the Portuguese governor and his haughty clerks, now swaggered along the platform at each new stopping-place, in costumes which became by hourly additions more and more warlike. What apparently had been an abashed and obtuse German farmhand developed into an alert artilleryman, with a skull and cross-bones on each button of his uniform. A Russian count, who had passed as an attaché, appeared suddenly in the full skirts, boots, and silver cartridge-cases of a Cossack officer…Coats of arms and ribbons of the Transvaal, which came apparently from nowhere, began to fasten themselves on the sombreros of my companions, and medals of foreign wars suddenly sprouted upon their breasts.
Everyone on the Train to Pretoria knew why each came. The Chicago Irish-Americans just “laughed and winked,” at the sight of the transformation. They found that the Red Cross badges became burdensome and tight for “it was stopping the circulation of the fighting-blood in their Irish veins.” Davis notes two days later, all but five of the Chicago contingent ripped off the symbol that brought them into the country successfully. As the train got closer and closer to Pretoria, and at each an every stop along the way, more Boer fighters joined the group.
The American flag brought by the Chicago contingent created as sense of hope to the Boers. As Boer farmers boarded the train to return to the front, they believed the flag symbolized American intervention. Davis noted the reaction by some and indicated that “[they] thought that the flag floating from the car platform…meant that the American warships were already steaming into Delagoa Bay. [They] thought that because sixty wild Irish boys from ‘across the tracks’ of Chicago had come ten thousand miles to help him fight for his liberty, the seventy millions of Americans they had left behind were coming, too.” To the 30,000 plus Boers fighting against the imperial goliath, those wild Irish boys counted for something. Not only did the Chicago Irishmen receive warm welcomes but they presented themselves in return in an honorable and distinct way. Davis stated that despite their grueling six weeks at sea, they avoided the “refreshment-bars” at every station that they stopped at. He concluded that the men “conducted themselves as well as the best disciplined troops in the world, and were then, as they were in Pretoria, well behaved and self-respecting.”
Blake received an exaggerated word from Pretoria in April, 1900, that 1,000 Irish and Irish-Americans arrived in Delagoa Bay to join his brigade. In Blake’s first-hand account he stated that, “[he] lost no time in going to Pretoria, not only to meet them, but to prepare for them a red hot time with the English.” He immediately left for Pretoria and ordered his brigade to come reinforce the 1,000 arrivals. Excited by the potential for more troops, Blake stated that “[he] was thoroughly convinced that the Irish and Irish-Americans were intent on doing something good for down-trodden Ireland by proving that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity.” Upon arrival in Pretoria, Blake saw the American Ambulance Corps of fifty-eight men from Chicago and inquired as to the location of the rest of the fighters. He received the answer: “We are the fighters! No more coming that we know off [sic].” Blake introduced Captain O’Connor to President Paul Kruger. Kruger knew why these men arrived, especially from a country that “had always stood for the liberty and for the independence of an individual.” Captain O’Connor left no doubt when he stepped forth and said they came to fight their old enemy, the English.
These Chicago natives enlisted for service and, much to the surprise of the Red Cross and Americans at home, quickly dismissed their medical duties (if indeed they were capable of such tasks) to take up arms with the Boers as part of their original plan. On 19 April, The New York Times reported that the “Chicago men who joined the Red Cross and went to Africa had taken off their badges and taken up arms against the British.” According to the report, the men took oaths to never engage in battle. John F. Finerty, one of the lead members who helped organize the men said that he did not “credit the report that the members of the ambulance corps [had] taken up arms.” Despite the blatant quote denying that the Chicago men took up arms, Finerty maintained close ties to Blake.
Though there is sufficient evidence to suggest that all of the men who volunteered under the Ambulance Corps participated in an elaborate scheme to enter into South Africa to fight against the British, there is some evidence to suggest not all of the men knew of the plot. On 24 April, 1900, the correspondent at Lorenzo telegraphed The New York Times that, “Dr. McNamara of the Chicago ambulance corps has returned here from Pretoria with the banner of the corps. He expresses himself as disgusted with the whole proceeding.” Blake learned from the Chicago contingent that Finerty and Patrick J. Judge, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, raised enough money from private subscriptions to arm and equip the Ambulance Corps. Even though the proposed 1,000 men did not come, the fifty-eight Irishmen came to South Africa to “assist that little handful of Boer patriots in their struggle with the mighty British Empire for liberty and independence.”
These Chicagoans tricked local authorities both at home in America and at Lorenzo Marquez in order to fight the British. Their actions to ruse government authorities displayed the extreme length and means that each man was willing to go to in order to help the Boer cause. Along with the backing of Irish organizations, these men successfully disguised and perhaps pushed their way past Portuguese authorities (with the help of the U.S. Consul) and into South Africa. This group of Americans from Chicago represented the most dedicated and determined volunteers to arrive in Pretoria to support the Boers.
The American Scouts
Howard C. Hillegas presented one of the most detailed accounts of American soldiers in South Africa at the time of the Boer War. Hillegas compiled information from other correspondents to account for the most accurate information on not just the Americans but other foreigners as well. In his first hand account, he immediately stated the following about the American volunteers: “The Americans in South Africa who elected to fight under the Boer flags did not promise to win the war single-handed…” The Boers regarded the American volunteers in high esteem. Hillegas continued and stated that, “In proportion to their numbers the Americans did as well as the best volunteer foreigners, and caused the Government less trouble and expense than any of the Uitlanders’ organizations.” For the most part, those that volunteered did so in smaller Boer commandos because they did not have sufficient strength to form their own American commando unit. Hillegas discussed two of the most prominent men and eventual leaders of the Americans, John Y. Filmore Blake and John Hassell.
Under the command of Captain John Hassell, the American Scouts established themselves as a distinct unit. Hassell came from New Jersey and, prior to the war, spent five years in prospecting and shooting expeditions throughout South Africa. His knowledge of South Africa proved extremely useful when the war finally started. Prior to the formation of the American Scouts, Hassell fought in the Vryheid commando. At the battle of Ceasar’s Hill and Estcourt, he received wounds, recovered, and eventually took command of the American Scouts after the Natal Campaign.
Hillegas described several Americans in Hassell’s unit in detail. John N. King, whose exploits remained in the memory of many Boers for a long time, vowed never to shave his beard until the British left South Africa. At the start of the war “King was employed on a Johannesburg mine, and when his best friend determined to join the British Forces he decided to enlist in the Boer army.” King fought in almost every Natal battle and during non combat periods, he stole livestock and weapons from behind British lines. Lieutenant of the Scouts, John Shea, appeared as “a grey-haired man who might have had grandchildren old enough to fight.” A Spanish-American war veteran, he fought with the Boers, “because he thought they had a righteous cause…” Along with his duties as a lieutenant, Shea became the guardian of the scouts’ mascot William Young, the youngest American to fight along with the Boers. Hillegas does not mention if the boy participated in any of the battles but describes him with the ability to recount all of the battles the Scouts participated in. Young knew nothing of his parents or his early childhood other than his birthplace near the east coast of the United States.
Another American, William Thompson, served on the ship Wabash of the United States Navy under the command of MacCuen during the Chinese-Japanese war. Hillegas discussed the exploits of Thompson stating that “[he] and two others tried to steal a piece of British heavy artillery while it was in action at Ladysmith…” Several newspaper correspondents followed Hassell and his men. Among those known included George Parson, a Collier’s Weekly writer, and J. B. Clarke of Webberville, Michigan, who corresponded to a Pittsburgh newspaper, “whenever some one could commandeer the necessary stamps…” In addition, four or five other correspondents wrote for weeklies back in the western states.
The American Scouts represented a wide array of personalities and skills. As more Americans continued to come to South Africa, many found their way to Hassell’s contingent. Americans who entered the country for the purpose of fighting joined Hassell’s scouts. They added a cosmopolitan character to the overall quality of the organization. A man with the last name of Starfield, and Alan Hiley, both from Texas, fought in the American Army during the Indian campaigns in Arizona. Each decided to join the Boers because “they had faith in their cause.” Hillegas described that two hundred British cavalrymen pursued Starfield for half a day, while Hiley gained the opportunity to kill Lieutenant Carron, an American in Lord Loch’s Horse, “in a fierce duel behind ant-heaps at Modder River on April 21st.” One man came from Paget Sound in a sailing vessel. Another arrived and boldly claimed to be the American military attaché at the Paris Exposition. He “requested every one to keep the matter a secret for fear the War Department should hear of his presence in South Africa and recall him.” This man also assisted Colonel John Blake and the Irish Brigade, and played a large role to secure the American Red Cross men who entered the country in April.
According to Hillegas, of the Americans who fought in the Boer commandos, none did better service than Otto von Lossberg from New Orleans, Louisiana. Born in Germany, he received his first military training in his home country. He became an American citizen and served under General Nelson Miles’ army in the “Porto-Rico” campaign. Upon arrival to the Transvaal in March, he commanded “ the artillery which assisted in defeating Colonel Broadwood’s column at Sannaspost.” Lossburg was seriously wounded in the head but returned to the front two months later.
James Foster or “The Arizona Kid,” became the most noticeable American who joined Hassell’s contingent. Foster served in the U.S. army service both at home and in Cuba as one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Foster deserted from “the British transport service in Dewetsdorp, and promiscuously threw his lot with the Republicans, in whose service he found a number of his countrymen.” Hiley and Hassell describe him as a typical American Cowboy from Arizona, “frolicsome, lithe and reckless, always ready for the sake of excitement, to take part in any sort of enterprises no matter what desperate chances were involved.” In exchange for fifteen dollars and a return passage home, Foster agreed to accompany a cargo of mules from New Orleans to Cape Town. Upon arrival at Cape Town the “English government paid him the fifteen dollars, but declined to send him or his companions back.” They argued the deal was to deliver the mules straight to the front lines. Foster, unable to return home, “together with the other Americans had no other alternative but to go to the front…[they] deserted on the first opportunity.” The other Americans that traveled with Foster are not known, though likely joined the other Americans in Hassell’s scouts. Foster represented a more adventurous American out of Hassell’s group.
Hassell’s contingent of American Scouts fought bravely for the Boers. Prior to the formation of the American Scouts, many of the men fought in different commandos. In one instance, a group of Americans fought with the Boers during a battle on a small hill named Val Krantz. The hill did not pose any strategic importance for either the British or the Boers, but the Boers made the mistake of taking the hill. About forty men occupied the hill, including several Americans. Surrounded, the forces made a run for it. Only eight survived including two Americans, John N. King and Paddy Richardson.
Hiley and Hassell honored the Americans who gave their lives in the battle, “having served their adopted cause with great courage and won the hearts of the people for whom they gave their lives.” Paddy Fahey, Mat Brennan, Oscar Maximitz and Jim Tully sacrificed themselves for a noble cause on a hill with no significant importance. Hiley and Hassell stated that when Fahey “saw his three comrades and countrymen killed, refused to attempt to escape with the few, but hurled lead and abuse at the storming British, until, riddled with bullets, the bayonets stilled him forever.” These American men who fought in the Boer War did so because they felt morally compelled despite the outcomes that awaited them in the African Veld.
American Totals Among Foreigners in the War
The United States did not stand as the only country with outspoken citizens. The Anglo-Boer War reflected a conflict fought for public opinion worldwide. By the end of the nineteenth century, the telegraph and news agencies globalized news and, as a result, the Boer War experienced global coverage on a daily basis. They presented similarities between America’s War of Independence and the conflict between the British and Boers and their fight for freedom. The opinion of the war that prevailed involved significant moral principles. An extraordinary range of nationalities and outlooks never before gathered for a conflict thousands of miles from their homelands.
Prior to the start of the war, the Transvaal existed as home to thousands of foreigners as a result of the discovery of diamonds and gold in that country. Citizens of virtually all European nations and shade of public opinion and occupation joined the Boer forces where they fought alongside Americans. Additionally, the war drew Canadian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers to South Africa. Those who fought for the Boers felt compelled to fight based on moral principles, while those who fought for Great Britain fought for “the common defense of the empire” and the ideology of imperialism.
The moment the war started a large amount of foreigners wanted to join the Boers in their fight. Many sought fame and glory, and desired to lead Boer units into battle. The Boers believed their system of warfare a perfect one, and denied any foreign officer command of a Boer commando unit. Whether this situation existed for all foreigners or not, the Boers believed that most who came to the country did not know the terrain, the burgher mode of warfare, and “lacked adroitness with the rifle…” After several months in the war, the foreigners prevailed in persuading the Boer generals to allow for the formation of foreign commando units or organizations. This free rein soon dissipated and all foreign units fell under the direct command of General De la Rey. They still retained their unique identities through the names of their units.
The foreign countries with high numbers of men included the United States, Ireland, Germany, France, Russia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, and the Natal Afrikanders. No official role call existed for the entire foreign brigades. News correspondents and officers estimated their numbers. As Hillegas mentions, “the Boers had no men whom they could spare to detail the statistical work, and, in consequence, no correct figures can ever be obtained.” In this matter it is difficult to obtain a precise figure of the total number of Americans that ever served the Boers. Here are the estimates given by Hillegas for men from different countries that fought for the Boers in the war:
Foreign Volunteer Estimates:
Total in Organizations
Total in Commandos
Not including the Afrikanders, a total of 2,675 foreign men assisted the Boers. They helped the two small Boer republics fight against the greatest empire in the world.
Alan Richard Hiley and John Arthur Hassell provide different figures in their firsthand account, The Mobile Boer: Being the Record of the Observations of Two Burgher Officers. One important difference is the fact that Hiley and Hassell do not give separate numbers for men in separate organizations than that of the commando units. They just give the totals for each nationality. Here are the numbers provided by them:
Italians & Greeks
Not including the Afrikanders, Hiley and Hassell estimate a total of 2,735 foreigners that fought alongside the Boers. Donal Lowry calculated that 1,650 foreigners fought in the various volunteer corps and another 1,000 fought in the ordinary commandos with a total of 2,650 men.
It can be confidently said the Boer forces acquired roughly 2,700 foreigners to fight beside them. Hiley and Hassell’s, as well as Hillegas’ numbers, account for a total of 300 Americans. The problem with these numbers is that the definition of who constituted an American is vague. Did the total number of Americans include those that volunteered in the Irish units or a completely separate number? Hillegas gives a better estimate by separating the numbers into the actual country’s unit and those who served in other Boer commandos. Thus, the number of Americans in their own organization constituted 150, while the other 150 represented Americans in Boer commandos.
The Boer War represented a war, like many others, that drew from a crowd of people willing to fight from many countries. Richard Harding Davis described an unusual gathering of foreigners that stopped at a small hotel in the quiet town of Ventersburg. The manager of the hotel, an American from Cincinnati, gave the Americans free drinks – John A. Hassell and his American Scouts. Jones’s Hotel became the gathering point for all of the foreigners of the Boer Army the night before that particular battle. The other foreigners knew that Hassell’s contingent were American because of the cowboy spurs that jingled on the floorboards of the bar and billiard-room in the hotel. The commandos all rode up in dusts of smoke, placed their rifles in the corners of the room, shook hands with all and asked for coffee or something stronger. Many men came from distant lands.
Italians of Garibaldi’s red shirted army, Swedes and Danes in semi-uniform, Frenchman in high boots and great sombreros, Germans with the sabre[sic] cuts on their cheeks that had been given to them at the university, and Russian officers smoking tiny cigarettes crowded the little dinning-room, and by the light of a smoky lamp talked in many tongues of Spion Kop, Sannahspost, Fourteen Streams, and the battle on the morrow.
Davis described the encounter of foreigners in great detail. They all took their turns around the tables as they “drank to the health of every nation, save one.” This unique encounter, documented by Davis, placed all of the foreigners together at one place in time later on in the war. These men, commanded by their own consciences, fought together as equals and as friends. Each man with bandolier and rifle in hand, minded his own business, “which was the business of all, - to try and save the independence of a free people.”
Davis argued that these men displayed sentiment and sympathies of the countries that they came from. He labeled them as the “real ambassadors” to the Republic of the Transvaal. Indeed these men represented the views of hundreds of thousands of people at home that held the same feelings toward the Boers. The difference, of course, lie in the fact that these men felt strong enough that they must go abroad and fight. These foreigners, including the Americans, did not represent an exception in opinion; they were extremely adventurous and exceptionally “liberty-loving.” They were not soldiers of fortune; they received no pay and no reward. These brave few men dared to do what the majority of their countrymen in Europe and America only thought. At Jones’s Hotel that night in Venrersburg, “it was as though a jury composed of men from all of Europe and the United States had gathered in judgment on the British Nation.”
Americans for the British
Not all Americans chose to fight alongside the Boers. Major Frederick Russell Burnham represents one of the most famous Americans of the entire Boer War who fought for the British. Crowned the King of the Scouts, his heroics and adventurous personality earned him great respect among the British throughout his time in South Africa. Additionally his adventures in South Africa lay claim to some inspiration behind Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s fictional character, Allen Quatermain. Born 11 May, 1861, Burnham lived through difficult times on the frontiers of the West. While only an infant on the frontiers of New Ulm, Minnesota, he witnessed the onslaught of Sioux warriors under Chief Red Cloud. His mother, Rebecca Russell Burnham, hid him in a small basket of corn husks while warriors raided their farm. She escaped and returned the next day to find Frederick unharmed but the house burned to the ground. Frederick’s father, Edwin Otway Burnham, moved the family to California in 1870. Three years later in 1873, Burnham’s father died. At age thirteen, Burnham decided to stay in California while his mother and younger brother moved back East and, at the same time, became a mounted messenger for The Western Union Telegraph Company. The time spent delivering messages for Western Union only increased Burnham’s sense of adventure throughout the West.
While Burnham served time with The Western Union, he met an influential man who taught him the essential skills of a scout that made him a valuable asset to the British in the Boer War. Burnham, only giving the man’s first name as Holmes, described him as an erratic character who served under John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, and other great scouts. Burnham suggested that the man, “fearing his end was not far off, and having lost his entire family in the Indian wars, he was desirous of finding someone to whom he might impart the frontier knowledge he had gathered throughout his long life.” Burnham inclined himself to the man’s teachings for some six months and learned “the details of trailing and hunting that make up a scout’s work.” He participated in many different encounters against Native Americans and Mexican gangsters along the western frontier of the United States and utilized his skills acquired from the old man. Burnham’s name gradually became more and more recognized throughout the southwest.
Burnham learned of Cecil Rhodes’ mission in Africa to turn it into a civilized continent. Inspired by his cause, Burnham expressed his feelings towards Rhodes’ mission when he stated:
the power of Rhodes had grown from a nebulous wisp on the political horizon to a mighty cloud whose volume not only spread over Africa but overshadowed the whole British Empire. His approach evolved schemes far beyond the wildest imagination…for Rhodes possessed the most masterly mind that ever dominated the Black Continent.
When Burnham became infatuated with Rhode’s vision and dreams of empire building, he moved to Arizona and took employment in the gold mines there. Burnham wrote that he was “thrilled to the core. [He] was as one summoned by an irresistible call, and [he] determined to go to Africa and cast [his] fortune with this unknown leader who so constantly fired [his] imagination.” He prepared plans in 1893 to travel to the African continent.
Burnham espoused a sense of duty to Great Britain. He felt that his destiny lie to help the British in their empire building. Burnham became almost excessive and outlandish in his desire to join Rhodes and his quest for a “civilized” continent. He defended Rhodes’ vision when told of Rhodes’ wickedness. Burnham stated that,
the conquest of South Africa cause much pain in conquerors and conquered, but from that event came a beautiful new life, a wonderful nation, a flower of civilization where once grew only rank weeds of savagery and ignorance, and the chief credit for that noble result should be given to the prophetic genius and wise efforts of Cecil John Rhodes.
Even before his service in the Boer War, Burnham showed a relentless resolve to spearhead Rhodes’ vision at whatever the cost. The first major military test for Burnham came in 1893, when he joined the British South Africa Company (BSAC) in its fight against the Metabele people, a faction of the Zulu people that split away from that tribe. Burnham served the British extraordinarily well and received the British South Africa Company Medal after the famous Shanghai Patrol. Burnham and two other officers survived the ambush that destroyed his entire scouting party of forty men. In 1895, Burnham served the National Territories Exploration Company in order to explore North-Eastern Rhodesia for copper deposits. In 1896, the Metable revolted against the BSAC yet again, and Burnham once more showed his loyalty to the British and served amongst the fighters.
Burnham returned to California for a short time and then moved to Alaska to prospect for gold. When war broke out between the United States and Spain, Burnham tried to make his way south and volunteer for Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. By the time he made it to Seattle, the war with Spain ended. Davis notes in his book, Real Soldiers of Fortune, that Burnham “regretted missing this chance to officially fight for his country.” When tensions grew in South Africa between the Boers and the English, Burnham received a telegram for assistance from his former commander, Lord Carrington, who then served under Lord Frederick Roberts. Within hours from when he received the telegram, Burnham boarded a steamer bound for South Africa.
Burnham served under Lord Roberts from the start of the war until to the capture of Pretoria. He did reconnaissance work for Robert’s staff and kept them well informed of the Boer’s movements. On numerous occasions, Burnham sacrificed himself behind enemy lines and twice found himself captured. He escaped on both occasions. On one instance, Burnham realized his demise and pretended to be wounded in the knee. Davis recounted this incident and stated that Burnham “bound [his wound] so elaborately that not even a surgeon would have disturbed the carefully arranged bandages.” The Boers placed him in a wagon where other captured British officers lie wounded and marched some sixty miles throughout the rest of the day and into the night. Some of the Boers thought that Burnham was indeed Frederick Burnham, the famed American scout. With some quick dialogue and different discussions with the Boer intelligence officers, Burnham convinced them otherwise. In the early hours of the morning Burnham slipped under the wagon and the rest of the convoy slipped by him.
Burnham served the British extraordinarily well. In one occasion he tried to blow up the railway line between Pretoria and Delagoa Bay, the passage that many Boers and foreigners used to escape South Africa. When surrounded by Boer forces, Burnham attempted to escape by horse only to have his horse shot from underneath him. The horse fell on top of Burnham and crushed him underneath it. He lie unconscious for a long time and when both the Boers and British left, he crawled on his hands and knees and destroyed the railroad. He then crawled into an empty kraal, a small enclosure for cattle or other farm animals, and sat for two days. A fire fight broke out near Burnham’s position and he crawled to the sound of the guns. By chance a British brigade discovered him and took him to Pretoria to a field hospital. The surgeons discovered that from his fall with the horse he tore the muscles of his stomach and burst a blood-vessel. His life was saved due to the fact that “for three days he had been without food.”
Burnham represented a soldier highly skilled and highly sought after by the British Empire. It helped that he displayed an equal respect and desire for Great Britain. A major difference between Burnham and the American men that fought for the Boers rested in the rewards given to him. Not only a paid mercenary, Burnham received the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four bars, distinguishing his service in several key battles, in addition to the cross of the Distinguished Service Order. Burnham, wanting to keep his American citizenship, turned down the offer to receive the Victoria Cross. Burnham represented the Americans that fell in line with the thinking of imperialist thinkers; the desire to spread civilization among the savage people on the Dark Continent. Burnham traveled to the African Continent because of the imperialistic goals of Rhodes along with his ability to be at the forefront of frontier life and exploration. He portrayed an American that many other Americans espoused. Especially with the growth of the anti-imperialist movement inside the United States, these people found imperialism and colonization as wrong and deceitful.
One American man, George F. Labram, did not physically fight for the British but utilized his skills and education to assist the British at Kimberley. Labram, born in 1859 in Detroit, Michigan, helped the British at Kimberley by constructing a watchtower, search lights, food storage, including cold storage, a way to retrieve water from the mines, custom shells using mining explosives for the artillery, and even an artillery piece capable of hurling 28 lb. shells 8,000 yards. He played a large role in the defense of Kimberly and gained military honors among the officers and soldiers. Labram’s innovations kept the Boer forces at bay.
As a boy, Labram grew up in Quincy Mine, Michigan where he attended school. According to his sister, Clara, George read books on machinery and engineering. As an adult, Labram worked for many manufacturing and mining companies starting at a machinist and eventually promoted to head engineer. The companies included; S. F. Hodge & Company of Detroit; Fraser & Chalmers, Chicago; M. C. Bullock Manufacturing, Chicago; Silver King Mining Company, Arizona; Boston and Montana Consolidated Copper and Silver Mining Company of Butte, Montana. Labram eventually moved to Dakota to erect a tin mill. In 1893, Labram headed a machinery exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair and later traveled to London, England, to help plan for a concentrating plant for the De Beers Company of Kimberly, South Africa, headed by Cecil Rhodes.
The story of George F. Labram, as author T. J. Gordon Gardiner stated, “holds a unique position in the military history of Great Britain.” At the time of the publication of Gardiner’s piece in 1906, Labram remained unknown among Americans. Even today Labram is not recognized for his heroic efforts at Kimberly during the Boer War. The town of Kimberly experienced the growing tensions in South Africa. It submitted request for arms and ammunition for the defense of the diamond fields that the De Beers Company owned and instead received a small contingent of regular mounted troops, about 564 officers and men, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Kekewich. When war officially broke out an additional 530 mounted police along with 550 local volunteers of the state militia assisted in the protection of the town. A trained military force of about 1,650 men protected the precious diamond fields of Kimberly. Kekewich knew that this was not enough. Consequently, 3,000 volunteers stepped forth from the town’s population of 42,000 to assist the regular troops in night watches and town guard duties.
Lieutenant-Colonel Kekewich relied upon George Labram, who became his right hand man. Gardiner described his personality as being of the New World, compared to the British officers, with his “quaint, quick moving frame,” and that his “deliberate, nasal accents were as conspicuous as was his loose civilian dress among dapper uniforms.” Forced by circumstances and duty to take part in the daily military councils and operations, Labram’s point of view remained that of a man of business. He saw every challenge that the town faced as if a commercial competition. The other British officers enjoyed Labram’s council, his keen sense of humor, and his “Western habit of quaint expression introduced a new element into the councils of the British staff.” Labram first earned the trust of the British officers by outfitting train cars with armor. He then developed a huge conning-tower from an old mining shaft that the officers could situate themselves on and observe for miles around the city. Labram took the liberty to connect the conning-tower with telephone wire so that Kekewich could communicate to the four outer forts, the train station, armored train, ambulance headquarters, and the artillery. His skill as an electrician proved useful in the creation of searchlights for the four outer forts. With these lights, Kimberley protected itself from night attacks.
Labram not only manufactured defensive tools for the overall protection of Kimberley but developed solutions to the town’s food and water problems. The Boers captured a water pumping station and turned off the mains that supplied water from the Vaal River, thirteen miles from Kimberley. Labram discovered that one of the De Beers mines contained an inexhaustible supply of water. Within a few days, Labram engineered equipment to pump 300,000 gallons of water per day to the town’s inhabitants for the rest of the siege. Additionally, Labram designed a cold-storage building to keep refrigerated the large number of cattle it needed to slaughter or risk losing its meat supply. Without the cold-storage facility the meat would spoil.
At the end of the second month of the siege, Labram’s genius earned more respect. In November of 1899, the artillery unit in Kimberley started to run low on ammunition. The artillery maintained a range of about 4,000 yards and kept the Boer forces at bay from that distance. This guaranteed space enough for patrols and grazing grounds for the horses. If ammunition did not arrive soon, the Boers would have closed the gap and destroyed the town with their own artillery. Labram did not allow this to happen. He acquired special blasting powder from the De Beers shops and developed special artillery shells for the British artillery. It should be noted that Labram invented these shells purely from scratch and obtained no manual on how to create the proper fuses. The fuse, described in great detail in Gardiner’s article, proved to be of brilliant design. From the shops of the mining company, Labram “was supplying the artillery headquarters with between sixty and seventy projectiles every twenty-four hours – shells, moreover, of a quality which the military authorities, after exhaustive tests of over three months’ continual use, pronounced ‘extraordinarily good.’”
In addition to the needs of ammunition, the city also required longer range artillery. With two old handbooks on gunnery, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and an old file on “engineering,” Labram locked himself in the De Beers workshop once more. The gun’s main basis contained “a 10-ft. billet of hammered mild steel, 10.5 in. in diameter, weighing 2800 pounds, originally intended for shafting…The rifling consisted of thirty-two spiral grooves each ¼ in. wide and 1/16 in. deep…” Labram’s work lasted twenty-four whole days and the gun emerged from the workshops on 18 January 1900. After some miner adjustments, the gun opened fire on the Boer lines on 19 January, firing shells 8,000 yards away at the Boer camp by the Kimberley pumping station. Long Cecil, as the gun became known, fired 255 shots and showed no signs of wear on its bore or rifling. It did remarkable service and relieved pressure off bombardments by the Boers and hurled shells back at them. For the first time since the siege, the British began to hinder the efforts of the Boer forces.
George Labram became an instant hero to the people of Kimberley. The imminent dangers the population of Kimberley experienced came to an end as a result of the ingenuity of Labram. Gardiner states that “without one thought of disloyalty to the gallant British officer who commanded their town, the people spoke of Mr. Labram as the hero of Kimberley.” On 9 February, the last shot of the day by the Boer artillery exploded in George Labram’s room at the Grand Hotel, “covering his shattered body with wreckage and mercifully killing him on the spot.” The next day Labram received full military honors at his burial. On 15 February, the Boers lifted the siege and retreated for the fast approaching British.
Labram and Burnham represent two American men that helped the British in their fight against the Boers. Labram represents an American man who inadvertently became involved with the war in South Africa. Due to his expertise in engineering, he did not idly stand by but offered his services to the British who protected Kimberley. His motivation to assist the British lie more so along the lines of humanitarian aid in order to protect the citizens of Kimberley but it can be argued that he showed a sense of duty to Cecil Rhodes whom he worked for and who resided in the town during the siege. After all, the artillery shells constructed by Labram bore the message “With compts. C. J. R.” – Cecil John Rhodes, and the artillery piece itself took on the name of Long Cecil. In either case George Labram traveled to the African continent because of his skills in engineering and mining, and for entrepreneurial reasons. As a result, he found himself in a bitter struggle between two countries. Burnham on the other hand, represented an American that sought adventure and the never-ending lust for exploration and opportunity. Inspired by Rhode’s vision he gained experience with the British military in South Africa prior to the war that earned him a war hero’s reputation. Along with his skill in scouting and prospecting, Burnham helped the British accomplish their task to defeat the two Boer republics in South Africa. These American men, along with those that chose to fight for the Boers, harbored their own personal reasons as to why they decided to fight. All in all, these reasons magnified the growth of public and private opinion within the United States as the war raged on.
Public Opinion and American Attitudes
The United States and Great Britain maintained a long record of mutual hostilities towards each other. Two major wars and steady friction between the countries, that flared up to dangerous levels on multiple occasions, left a hostile legacy. Even as late as 1895 and 1896, the two countries clashed over issues in Central America. Many Americans saw England as the enemy that sought the opportunity to strike down the republic that defeated the mighty empire.
In the United States, the hearts of the American citizens supported the Boers, while American political interests supported Britain despite its neutral stance. Many public figures denounced the expansionist goals set forth by the U.S. Government. One of the most famous and outspoken proponents to the anti-imperialist movement resounded in Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. After he returned to the United States from many travels around the globe, Clemens stated firmly that he became an anti-imperialist. On the subject of the Spanish-American War Clemens stated that he “read carefully the treaty of Paris,” and that “[he had] seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.” Clemens became the vice-president of the American Anti-Imperialist League. While in that position he created several political pamphlets for the league. The creation of the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 attracted a fair amount of support. The United States, with its victory in the war with Spain in Cuba, severely undercut their position. The League did receive public attention and several prominent political figures associated themselves with the movement. Those who supported this movement disapproved of America’s policy in the Philippines. The Boers won great sympathy from this movement and in the process convinced many Americans to view imperialism and colonization as “unfashionable.” American attitudes quickly grasped this new concept.
Andrew Carnegie, another outspoken proponent of the anti-imperialist movement, blamed the Boer War on British greed and sided with the Boers. In a personal interview by The New York Times, Carnegie stated that, “the war against the Boers is infamous and unjust, and is on par with our attack on the poor Filipinos. These two attacks are a disgrace to both branches of our race. The people in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State have a right to self-government.” He later expressed the feeling in Europe paralleled the feeling in the United States. “Many of the best men in England have spoken against the Boer war, and everywhere it is deplored…” He further discussed America’s policy in the Philippines, and firmly stated that “our friends,” the British, “feel that we have been false to the great principles of the rights of man which are the essence of republicanism.”
The Democratic Party platform in 1900 also condemned the administration’s policy in the Philippines. They argued that greedy commercialists drove the Republican administration that in turn influenced its Philippine policy. The Democratic Party only favored territorial expansion that added more states to the Union. Additionally, they expressed dislike of the perceived militarism behind American expansionism.
Albert Burleson, a Democrat from Texas, charged that both Great Britain and the United States motivated themselves for “unrighteous purposes.” The British operated concentration camps in South Africa and the United States crushed the opposition in the Philippines. To him, both engaged in the same business – oppression. He concluded that Americans thus supported money and commercialism more so than the rights of human beings. The election of 1900 vindicated America’s foreign policy stance in both the Philippines and in South Africa for many. Despite the victory for American imperialism, anti-imperialists continued as a vocal minority.
In 18 December, 1899, Dr. Benjamin Andrews, former president of Brown University and then Superintendent of the Chicago public schools, delivered an address called “War in South Africa” at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his address he stated that “if Great Britain is ultimately successful in South Africa, the powers of the world will unite to resist her advance. A coalition will be formed against British domination, and when this war of the nations comes, which side will the United States take?” Dr. Andrews successfully stirred the emotions of the pro-Boer crowd as he “referred to the wrongs of the African people, both in the United States and in Africa, and his words brought out great cheering.”
Republican Senator Mason of Illinois encompassed pro-Boer sympathy in the United States. He addressed the United States Senate on 11 December, 1899, and expressed his feelings to the South African republics in their war with Great Britain. The speech drew a large audience to the Senate galleries. He opened the speech with the statement that, “The war between monarchy and republicanism began in earnest July 14[sic], 1776, and no treaty of peace has ever been concluded, nor ever will be, until this question is settled right. The monarchial trust company, though often quarreling among themselves, have always agreed on one thing, that a republic is a mistake.” Parts of Mason’s speech are quoted in full to emphasize how he felt against Great Britain.
But we are told that England was our friend in the war with Spain. How? Her people were our friends because her people are a Christian people; her government has been our friend, except for purposes of its own. I have no desire to twist the lion’s tail, but truth compels the statement, so far as our interests are concerned, that for the last half century the Government of England and the people of England have been divided.
Mr. Mason continued with the following:
You remember 1861? The government did all it could to divide the Union, but the brave, starving weavers refused to resolve against us, saying they would starve before they would say a word for slavery. But even suppose she were to-day our best friend, are we to be silent and uphold a wrong in consideration of that friendship? We Republicans are charged with a secret alliance with England. It cannot be true, and the vote which this or a similar resolution receives will answer the charge.
Mason concluded that under the Monroe Doctrine, and on precedents previously well established, the United States deserved the same right to extend its sympathy and hopes for success to the Boers in their struggle for liberty as the United States interfered with Spain in its conduct of affairs in Cuba. Mason urged that the war in South Africa demonstrated the embattlement between democracy and royalty; between the divine right of Kings and the divine right of man. At the end of his speech, Mason stated that “It is a fight to control South Africa, and the only way England could do it was to threaten, bulldoze, browbeat, and interfere with the Dutchman until, out of sheer humiliation and desperation, he was driven to fight.”
Mr. Mason’s speech lasted an hour and twenty-five minutes. At its conclusion, the Senate suggested he address the British Parliament instead. Henry Cabot Lodge responded like previous government officials in that, “the Executive Department of the Government has assumed a neutral attitude towards the war in South Africa.” He affirmed the government’s stance and insisted that the resolutions passing would immediately change that attitude. He then moved that the resolution be sent to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Many different views presented themselves every day on the Boer War. These included not only stories of rallies and politicians against Britain, but stories of British politicians against the war as well. In their October 26th issue, The New York Times presented an article that stated Michael Davitt, a member of the British Parliament, resigned in protest of the Boer War. The article, quoting Mr. Davitt, stated that, “the war, for the meanest and most mercenary aims, would be known as the greatest crime of the century.” In response to Davitt’s resignation, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, stated that “he would pay the greatest attention to his arguments if I did not know he would use precisely the same arguments in regard to any British war…” The rest of the article quotes Chamberlain’s response to the growing criticism the English government received. In summary, Chamberlain contested that if the United States defended a foreign people from a repressive monarchy in Cuba, then equality dictated Britain to defend its own people in South Africa.
The arguments presented by pro-Boer and pro-British supporters compelled many American citizens to choose a side in the realm of public opinion. Some felt obligated to write in the editorial sections of newspapers of what they thought. Paul Haedicke wrote one such letter to The New York Times. In it, he presented a quote by Frederick the Great and what he thought of the English when they made war with its colonies. He quoted, “the English sinned against justice by breaking their contract with the colonies, and that they acted altogether unwise in declaring war against a portion of their state.” He affirmed his belief that the war in South Africa paralleled that of America’s War of Independence against Britain.
Many people in America garnered this viewpoint. Just as the United States won its independence from the British Empire, the Boer republics deserved the same opportunity. Another letter, written by C. L. Burtnett, expressed pro-Boer sentiment. In it he stated that “The fact that the Boer Government will secure positively and retain their independence need not injure England any more than our securing our independence injured her growth and prosperity in legitimate lines.” Here again the parallel between America’s fight for freedom and the Boer’s fight for freedom is demonstrated. Mr. Burtnett continued, “the United States has no reason or right to side with the English in this matter, being in a state of neutrality with both governments, Boer and English.” He also pointed to the fact that Britain sided with the South and tried to destroy the Union during the American Civil War.
Public opinion did not fall exclusively into pro-Boer or pro-British factions. Opinions that favored neutrality appeared in letters to the editor regularly. An anonymous writer stated, “Hands off I say! Let them fight it out amongst themselves! And if the other nations of Europe choose to mix into the fight, it is all a better reason for the United States to keep out of it.” He or she later concluded that any of the United States’ territorial gains apart from expansion resulted in nothing but spoils of war.
In February of 1900, ex-Secretary of War Russell A. Alger argued that Americans should have been friendlier towards Great Britain. He stated that “it is most unfortunate and in exceeding bad taste for the public men of the United States to mix up in the affairs of South Africa at the present juncture.” He specifically directed that the American public not espouse its hate towards Great Britain. In regards to Britain’s friendliness toward the United States in the Spanish-American War, he stated that “Great Britain’s whole attitude toward us was so unmistakably friendly that its influence in preventing what might otherwise have occurred in the war of European intervention will never be capable of full measurement.” He then urged the public to abstain from interference in England’s present struggle in South Africa.
Many Irish-Americans, the largest group of people and perhaps most read about, stood against anything to do with Great Britain. The U.S. Government, and the British Government, for that matter, concerned themselves with the possibility that Irish agents worked to recruit men to fight for the Boers. The Clan-Na-Gael, one such organization, readied themselves for a moment’s notice. News of the capture of a German steamship off the coast of Delagoa Bay brought excitement to many of this organization’s members when it determined it carried recruits for the Boer War. In an article from 1 January, 1900, it stated that,
a number of Clan-Na-Gael agents are now in South Africa ready to receive recruits sent there by the order. Although the movements of the volunteers are guarded with great secrecy, it is also said that an understanding exist between the official representatives of the South African Republic and the heads of the Irish Physical Force Party, whereby members of the volunteers in this city [New York] would be transported to the scene of war.
Colonel James Moran organized the Irish volunteers of the Clan-Na-Gael in New York City in December, 1895. Similar organizations also established themselves in other large cities throughout the United States.
Clan-Na-Gael men picked members whose qualifications passed their investigation. The purpose of such recruitment focused to “take advantage of a crisis in English affairs caused by either home insurrection or a foreign war, such as that in which Great Britain now finds herself engaged.” The members in previous years seriously discussed the disbandment of their organization. By the insistence of Colonel Thomas F. Lynch, formerly a Major in the Sixty-ninth Regiment, National Guard, who served in the Spanish-American War, the organization continued. An estimate of the total membership throughout the United States approached some 22,000 men. It is apparent that the United States and Great Britain worked extremely hard to prevent the departure of American soldiers within this organization because such numbers never reached South Africa.
The Irish military organization searched for any man who had previous military experience. On top of that, they purchased large orders of United States Army drill manuals. One of the members, who talked on the relevance of the current situation in South Africa, stated that, “This is the precise occasion that was in mind when we organized the volunteer movement. If they can be of no service now, it is doubtful whether they ever could, and if they do not figure in this war, it is likely the movement will be abandoned.” To have such a large organization of men suggested truly an amazing feat and surely impacted the attitudes of many Americans.
An accusation against Assistant Secretary of the Interior Webster Davis for recruitment of men for the Boers presents itself as one of the most interesting articles published during the Boer War in the United States. A Patent Office employee named Gustave Thielkuhl involved himself in the recruitment of men for Boer service. Despite the first admonition by his chief supervisor, he still continued in his attempts to recruit. The article asserted that, “Mr. Davis, having learned that he was a Boer sympathizer, sent for him and proposed that Thielkuhl should insert an advertisement in the Washington papers.” Thielkuhl claimed that he received well over 36,000 letters. He received so many personal visits from people that it caused suspicion by his chief supervisor. The overall plan dictated that Davis visit the Transvaal and meet up with President Kruger in order to obtain the money needed to send the recruits overseas. In closing Mr. Thiekuhl states, “from the facts set forth herein it will be seen that while Webster Davis was Assistant Secretary of the Interior Department of the United States he was disloyal to his Government, and I want the people of the United States to know it.”
With the political debates over the Boer War, widespread concern swept over the United States. The Boer War raised many moral issues for Americans. Public opinion at home, especially in the press, espoused a sense of guilt for the United States and hatred for Britain. Anti-British and anti-imperialist attitudes swept the country from advocates within the U.S. Government, local governments, popular writers, prominent businessmen, and ordinary citizens. They began to question the policies of American expansionism/imperialism and fostered support for the Boer cause. Demands for justice for the Boers and revulsion at the horrors of concentration camps in South Africa struck a chord in America’s conscience. The Boer War caused America to revisit the questions of whether or not American foreign policy should reflect national interests, as determined by the current administration, or should America use its power and influence to further liberty and justice in the world. Many Americans questioned why the U.S. Government chose to act for liberty and justice in Cuba and not in South Africa. Ultimately, the answer lies in the fact that the United States used the excuse to free the people of Cuba from Spain only because of a greater economic and political interest to America. Since the Boer War did not directly affect either of those things, the United States did not feel morally compelled to champion liberty and justice to the Boers. Instead, adventurous, outspoken, and liberty-loving citizens championed the Boer cause without the help of the U.S. Government.
The American units that volunteered to help the Boers portray many similarities of the more recent Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This Brigade, like the volunteers of the Irish-American and American units of the Boer War, contained passionate American men that held to beliefs of liberty and justice. In this case, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought against the National factions in Spain, specifically backed by fascist Italians and Germans. Once again, many European countries stood by idly, including the United States. These men that volunteered for service to fight against the Nationalists felt compelled to uphold international justice. Communist parties all over the world developed the vehicle and the means that thousands of volunteers could fight for the Spanish Republic. They “had the human decency and the guts,” to aid the Spanish people. According to Robert A. Rosenstone, research shows that these men were American radicals who were “impelled” by the “domestic and international crisis” of the 1930s to “defend the cause of western civilization.” Like the Boer War, these men acted on their own accord when the U.S. Government wanted nothing to do with foreign affairs. Just as these American men maintained fervent interests in the affairs of Spain, the Irish-Americans and Americans developed an interest in support of the Boer people.
The American men that chose to fight for the Boers did so because the United States Government stayed neutral. Despite its claims to remain impartial, individual men held fast to the memory of how the United States gained its independence from Britain and hoped to help the Boer republics gain theirs in similar fashion. Even though there existed a strong sense of moral responsibility in the United States as it emerged a global power, it only chose to exert itself when economic opportunity presented itself. The United States Government did not choose a side during the Boer War because it put aside its differences with Great Britain. Those who did not except Great Britain as an ally or America’s policy of expansionism, used its former policy of upholding democracy and freedom as the reason to join the Boers in their fight against the monarchial empire. The significance of these American men and their actions show that the United States found it extremely difficult to remain neutral and isolated from European wars because of the passionate interests and vocal voices of its citizens.
Written by Michael Headley. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Headley at:
About the author:
Michael Headley has a Master's Degree in Military History from Norwich University and a Bachelor's Degree in History from Hope College. He currently lives and works in Grand Rapids, Michigan and participates in historical re-enactments -- specifically British soldiers during the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War.
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