- Historic Sites
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 Earl of Yarmouth was persuaded to act as bartender, and the affair raised five thousand dollars.
With a staff of American doctors and nurses, the Maine arrived at Durban, in the colony of Natal, shortly after the Battle of Spion Kop. One of the first patients taken on board was Lady Randolph Churchill’s youngest son, Jack.
Although William Randolph Hearst thought Britain should win—because “civilization and progress demand it”—most American publishers and their newspapers were pro-Boer. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World sided with the Boers and favored American mediation. It even worked up a petition to the President urging this which was signed by 19 bishops and archbishops, 104 out of 442 members of Congress, 89 college presidents, 13 mayors of important cities, and many distinguished judges, editors, and businessmen. William Jennings Bryan would not sign, however, because “our refusal to recognize the rights of the Filipinos to self-government will embarrass us if we express sympathy with those in other lands who are struggling to follow the doctrines set forth in the Declaration of Independence.” Andrew Carnegie felt the same way.
A Philadelphia newspaper outdid the World . When a group of schoolboys wrote a memorial expressing their sympathy for President Kruger and his cause, the Philadelphia North American took up the idea and promoted it with such enthusiasm that it developed into a huge scroll signed by twenty-nine thousand schoolboys (girls were excluded) from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and points in between. The North American decided to send it to Kruger by special messenger. To go along with it a collection of newspaper clippings and pictures about the war were assembled and pasted into a large book packaged in a handsome, specially made leather case.
James Francis Smith, a curly-haired fifteen-year-old boy from New York, was selected from among two thousand messenger boys for his “independence and character” to deliver the scroll and the book personally to Kruger in Pretoria. Jimmy reached Pretoria on May 29, 1900. Kruger was still there, but it was a sad day for the old president, the saddest he had yet experienced in his long life. He was preparing to flee, to leave behind him forever his sick wife, his children, and the capital of the country he had ruled for so many years. The bayonets of the invader were glistening on his country’s doorstep, and his government was in the process of packing up. Already the archives, the gold from the mint, and all of the movable paraphernalia of government had been loaded on trains for the flight. Yet on this troubled and busy day Kruger took time to see Jimmy. When the big, beautifully bound book of clippings was presented to him, he was visibly disappointed at the discovery that it was not, as he had thought, a Bible, but he thanked Jimmy graciously.
Of the American newspaper correspondents in South Africa none was more famous than the handsome and dashing Richard Harding Davis. In February, 1900, four months after the war started and nine months after his marriage, he arrived in South Africa with his bride. Although his sentiments were pro-Boer, he went first to Natal to watch General Sir Redvers Buller relieve besieged Lady-smith. He then went to the Transvaal, joining the burghers retreating before a steadily advancing British army under Lord Roberts.
In an article written for Scribner’s Davis had harsh words to say of the British, even of British prisoners of war. He reported that officers held in the Model School in Pretoria (from which Churchill escaped) drew offensive cartoons on the walls, made rude remarks to Boer women who walked past, and were “cheeky” to Boer officials. He was repeating hearsay, but his words were picked up by antiwar journals in Britain and provoked indignant letters of rebuttal to the Times of London.