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Princeton University and the Spanish American War

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

When the United States intervened on behalf of Cuba in 1898, the naval ship USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor. Though the cause remains unclear, popular belief was that Spain was responsible. Americans were outraged. Princeton University students, enthusiastic about the possibility of fighting for their country, agitated to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War.

On April 2, 1898, students demonstrated their feelings in what the Chicago Daily Tribune called “an outburst of patriotism.” They cheered for U.S. President William McKinley, the American flag, and Cuba. They marched through town dragging the Spanish colors through the streets and carrying pro-American and pro-Cuban slogans, a dozen American flags, and one Cuban flag. Finding their way to the residence of former U.S. President Grover Cleveland on Bayard Avenue, they cheered for him as well. They then went on to the home of Princeton president Francis Landey Patton, who addressed the students with praise for McKinley. Patton’s words were met with more cheering. After this parade through town, the students returned to Cannon Green, where they burned Spain’s King Alfonso XIII in effigy, waved flags, joined hands, danced in circles around the cannon, and sang, “O me, O my; how we’ll make the Spaniards cry!”

Following this display, physical geography professor William Libbey encountered Patton and James Ormsbee Murray, Dean of the Faculty, looking deeply unsettled, “so much so that the gloom impressed me,” Libbey later wrote. Students were planning to enlist en masse, and Patton worried that this would be the end of Princeton University. “We are afraid that they are going to break up [the] College,” Patton told Libbey. Libbey said he had an idea: he could go to the enlistment meeting the students planned and organize military drills for them on campus, providing an outlet for their emotions while keeping them in school. Patton agreed to the plan.

William Libbey, undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC067), Box FAC59.

At the mass meeting the students had planned, Libbey persuaded them that it was not yet time to enlist, but they should begin getting physically prepared. He would help them, he said. The next day, Libbey organized the students into squads that began drilling on Brokaw Field. Libbey later wrote, “When exams came on, enthusiasm oozed and the Company disbanded. The object was to keep the men here. The fellows never realized the joke that was played on them.” Although a few students did enlist, most of those who attended the mass meeting were contented with the on-campus drills, which eventually drew 300 students marching in ranks.

Drilling at Princeton University, 1898. Photo from Bric-a-Brac (1900).

Patton received letters from angry parents. “My dear President Patton,” one began, “What do you mean by allowing that fire-brand Libbey to make food for cannon out of my boy?” Libbey wrote to her to address her concerns, letting her know his plot to keep the students busy drilling as way of blowing off steam in order to keep them on campus and asking her to keep the secret from her son.

Though this ruse worked to keep most current students on campus, many other students, as well as alumni, served in combat during the war. Several members of the Class of 1897 wrote accounts of their experiences in the first reunion book for the class, Record of the Class of 1897 of Princeton University (1898). This includes Evaristo Vicente de Montalvo, the only Cuban and one of just two Catholics among an otherwise overwhelmingly Protestant and American Princeton class. “It was Cuba’s fight—my fight,” he wrote. “Duty stared me in the face.” Thus, he enlisted. Ironically, he did not find himself in Cuba, but the Philippines, where he acted as a translator. While waiting for his troop ship, de Montalvo became an object of curiosity in San Francisco, where well-wishers came to have a look at a real, live Cuban. “Some were surprised because I looked very much like anybody else.”

Other Princetonians served in combat in Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt presented James Robb Church (Class of 1888) with the Medal of Honor for his service as an assistant surgeon with Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” under heavy fire during the Battle of Las Gausimas on June 24, 1898. Church carried several wounded soldiers unaided to a secure position.

Church had been a star football player at Princeton. Journalist Richard Harding Davis noted this fact in Scribner’s, linking college athleticism with war heroics: “As I stepped out of the trail he raised his  head and smiled and nodded, and left me wondering where I had seen him before, smiling in the same cheering, confident way, and moving in that same position. … then I remembered him. He had been covered with blood and dirt and perspiration as he was now, only then he wore a canvas jacket and the man he carried on his shoulders was trying to hold him back from a whitewashed line.” Davis wrote that the “same spirit” that motivated Church as a college football player had motivated him during the battle.

Princetonians wounded in the Battle of Las Gausimas included Horace K. Devereux (Class of 1880) and Walter S. Cash (Class of 1891). A complete list of alumni who served in the Spanish-American War is printed in the 1900 Bric-a-Brac. The Daily Princetonian summarized stories of military involvement among Princeton’s alumni in an 1898 article. Five Princetonians are counted among the casualties of the war and are memorialized in Nassau Hall.

Ralph Wilson Simonds, Class of 1899

Harold Perry Smith, Class of 1898

Paul Devereux Stockly, Class of 1898

Edward Yeomans Thorp, Class of 1893

William Bernard Schwarz, Class of 1898


Nassau Hall War Memorial, ca. 1940s. Nassau Hall War Memorial Records (AC274).

The Prince noted that in spite of the continued strains between North and South from the Civil War of a few decades prior, the Spanish-American War united Princetonians (and America) as one nation. “Men from the North and South enlisted and fought side by side in the same organizations, and to both sections of the country was a like share of honor due.”


The Best of PAW: 100 Years of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

Bric-a-Brac (1900)

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Nassau Hall War Memorial Records (AC274)

Papers of Princeton

Record of the Class of 1897 of Princeton University (1898)


For additional reading:

Burn Alfonso XIII in Effigy: Princeton Students Cheer McKinley and Cuba and Make a Bonfire with a Mimic King.” Chicago Daily Tribune 3 April 1898, 14.

Davis, Richard Harding. “The Rough Riders’ Fight at Guasimas.” Scribner’s Magazine 24, no. 3 (September 1898): 259-273.

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