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Taking Sides In The Boer War
The United States remained officially neutral, but many Americans fought alongside both opposing armies and several became legendary heroes
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Mobilization was a simple affair for the Boers. Traditionally, each district or major town formed its own unit, called a commando, and elected a commandant to lead it. When called out for war, every man between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five took his rifle, his horse, several days’ provisions, and sometimes his ox wagon with a span of sixteen oxen, and joined his commando, which assembled at a farm or village. Then with his friends, neighbors, and relatives he rode off to war. There were no uniforms, just a bandolier of ammunition slung over the shoulder; some men wore neckties, and some of the older men rode off to war in tall hats and coats with claw-hammer tails.
There were no medals, no flags or drums, no military formations; there was no saluting, and there was no pay. There was not much discipline, either. If a man took a dislike to the comrnando he was with, he simply left and joined another; if he tired of the war, Vie went home. They had, almost to a man, learned to ride and shoot in early boyhood and had spent most of their lives in the saddle with a rifle. This was the way they had fought the Bantu tribesmen, and this was the way they prepared to fight the British. They were armed with modern Mausers, then the finest rifles made, and they had recently purchased some modern artillery in Germany, France, and, strange as it may seem, Britain. They were, then, essentially armies of mounted infantry reinforced by some artillery.
Boer tactics, at least in the beginning, consisted of finding a good defensive position and letting the British attack them. If the British came too close, they bolted for their ponies and rode off to find another position. If they advanced and the British holed up in a town—as they did at Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley—the Boers made no serious attempt to storm the town but were content to besiege it. By such tactics they incurred small losses themselves while inflicting heavy casualties on the British. To defeat these nimble farmers Britain was eventually forced to field nearly a half million men, then the largest army in British history, larger even than the entire Boer population—men, women, and children—of the two republics.
Besides men, the British needed tens of thousands of horses, mules, and donkeys, and to procure them purchasing officers were sent far afield. The United States was the biggest supplier, shipping more than a hundred thousand horses and eighty thousand mules to South Africa. Mules, practically nonexistent in Britain, were particularly valued, and half of all the mules used in the war came from America.
In addition, the United States sold the British tens of thousands of tons of preserved meat, hay, and oats. Boers and their friends in this country tried to prevent such sales, and the Chicago branch of the American Transvaal League and the Boer Legislative Committee of Philadelphia lodged formal protests with the government. In May, 1902, Representative Henry Burk of Pennsylvania moved in the House that mules, remounts, and other supplies be declared contraband, but by this time the war was practically over.
There was a good deal of pro-Boer sentiment in Congress. Senator A. O. Bacon of Georgia introduced a “Resolution of Sympathy for the South African Republic”; other proBoer resolutions were introduced by senators from Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Local politicians also expressed popular feelings. The city council of New York and the common council of Boston both passed unanimous votes of sympathy for the Boers, and the governor of Illinois made a personal appeal for money on behalf of the Boer Relief Fund. But not much of this political activity was of any help. When, for instance, the British captured a young, handsome guerrilla leader, Gideon Scheepers, and condemned him to death, Senator Henry Moore Teller of Colorado moved a resolution in the Senate asking Britain “to set aside the sentence in the interests of humanity.” But the British had already shot him.
In 1900 a Boer delegation arrived in America and toured the country from coast to coast. Everywhere the delegates were given a warm and sympathetic reception, but as Mr. Dooley noted: “Ivrybody’s listenin’ to thim. But no wan replies.” The Boers even obtained an interview with President William McKinley but were given no encouragement that the United States would intervene in any way or even attempt to mediate.
The official government view of the war in South Africa was different from that of most of the electorate. In 1898, just a year before the Boer War started, the United States had fought what Secretary of State John Hay called a “splendid little war” with Spain. Both President McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded him, were keenly aware of Britain’s friendly attitude toward us during this war, particularly in the face of German opposition to our gobbling up the Philippines. Kipling had urged us to “take up the white man’s burden,” and we were willing, but we were not sure it could be done without mighty Britain’s beaming approval. John Hay was determined, as he wrote privately to a friend, that “the one indispensable feature of our foreign policy shall be a friendly understanding with England.”