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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
The administration’s position was understandable. It would have been hypocritical indeed for the American government to side with the Boers fighting for their independence from Britain while at the same time continuing to hunt down and kill Filipinos who were fighting for their independence from us. The situations in South Africa and the Philippines were embarrassingly similar.
Winston Churchill, writing from the prison for British officers in Pretoria on November 30, 1899 (his twentyfifth birthday), taunted his American friend Bourke Cockran: “What about the Philippines?—Oh champions of the cause of Freedom!”
Roosevelt, who was governor of New York when the war began and President when it ended in May, 1902, continued his interest in it from beginning to end. The war had been in progress for two months when he wrote to Cecil Spring Rice: The Boers are belated Cromwellians, with many fine traits. They deeply and earnestly believe in their cause, and they attract the sympathy which always goes to the small nation. … But it would be for the advantage of mankind to have English spoken south of the Zambesi just as in New York; and as I told one of my fellow Knickerbockers the other day, as we let the Uhlanders of old in here, I do not see why the same rule is not good enough in the Transvaal.
Eleven months later he wrote: I am not an Anglomaniac any more than I am an Anglophobe … but I am keenly alive to the friendly countenance England gave us in 1898. … I have been uncomfortable about the Boer War, and notably in reference to certain details of the way it was brought on; but I have far too lively a knowledge of our national shortcomings to wish to say anything publicly that would hamper or excite feeling against a friendly nation for which I have a hearty admiration and respect.
Roosevelt well knew that his views were not popular, particularly among Irish voters, of whom there were many. Most immigrants left their politics behind when they came to the New World, but not the Irish; hatred of the English remained and made them automatically pro-Boer. The views of McKinley and Roosevelt were known, of course, and some of their political enemies suggested that President Kruger should be invited to the Democratic National Convention of 1900.
The government’s position was delicate, and the American consul general in the Transvaal, Charles E. Macrum, was instructed to observe “the most absolute neutrality”; but as Churchill noted when he was a prisoner: “His sympathies were plainly so much with the Transvaal Government that he even found it difficult to discharge his diplomatic duties.” Macrum was soon replaced by Adelbert Hay, the twenty-four-year-old son of the Secretary of State, whose pro-British views were in line with those of his government. Hay did his job well. Not only did he look after American affairs, but he also took a keen interest in the welfare of the British prisoners of war.
In the United States different parts of the country seem to have reacted differently to the war. A few months after making a dramatic escape Churchill came here on a money-making lecture tour. He received a mixed response: Boston had its Irish, but also a strong pro-British faction, and he spoke to a full hall; in Baltimore only a few hundred turned up to hear him in a hall that would seat five thousand; and in Chicago he encountered “vociferous opposition.” In New York he was introduced by Mark Twain, who was certainly not pro-British: I think that England sinned when she got herself into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided, just as we have sinned in getting into a similar war in the Philippines. …
The fitting out of the hospital ship Maine was the most publicized pro-British effort by Americans. This ship, described by The Nursing Record and Hospital World as “the most complete and comfortable hospital ship that has ever been constructed,” was a refurbished cattle boat donated on behalf of the Atlantic Transport Company by Bernard N. Baker of Baltimore.
The idea that Americans might provide a hospital ship for British wounded came from Mrs. A. A. Blow, the American wife of a South African mining-company manager. She persuaded Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, to take up the project, and it was through Lady Randolph’s energetic efforts that a committee was formed and the necessary funds raised. Most of the money came from Americans living in Britain, but some came from the United States. A fund-raising “Society Tea” was given in New York by the celebrated actress Lily Langtry, at which she recited with dramatic effect “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” Kipling’s most popular war poem: