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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
A number of Americans were in South Africa not to report on the war but to fight in it. Of these perhaps three hundred fought for the Boers. John A. Hassell, an American mining engineer, was in the Transvaal when the war started, and he at once joined a commando and saw action at Lady-smith and in the fighting along the Tugela River. Believing there were other Americans in the country who would be willing to fight under an American leader, he obtained permission to form a unit he called the American Scouts. An advertisement in the Standard and Diggers News (an English-language newspaper published in Johannesburg) produced about sixty recruits, and with these Hassell went south to fight against Lord Roberts.
Hassell acquired some additional men as the war progressed. One of these was James Foster, known as the “Arizona Kid,” whom Hassell described as “a typical American cowboy … frolicsome, lithe and reckless, always ready for any excitement, to take part in any sort of enterprise no matter what desperate chances were involved.” He had come to South Africa on a ship carrying mules, joined the British transport service to get to the front, and then deserted to the Boers.
J. H. King, called “Dynamite Dick,” won a reputation for his skill in blowing up trains and bridges and for his reckless bravery. His first notable feat was performed during the Battle of Vaalkrantz when Alec Brand, son of a former president of the Orange Free State, lay seriously wounded between the lines. King and another man crawled out under heavy fire and brought Brand in to safety.
When in September, 1900, the bulk of the Transvaal army was pushed back against the border of Mozambique, some Boers escaped by fleeing north into the dry, inhospitable bush veld in what is today Kruger National Park, while some three thousand men, including most of the foreign volunteers, crossed the border into Portuguese territory. Abandoned at the town of Komatipoort on the frontier lay locomotives, railway cars, and stacks of supplies and ammunition. Dynamite Dick King destroyed all he could; then he, too, crossed the border and made his way to Lourenço Marques on the coast.
King knew that both the British and the Portuguese were anxious that the stone railway bridge at Komatipoort not be destroyed, so he went straight to the British consul, declared that the bridge was mined, and swore he would blow it up unless he was given £3,000. The consul stalled while he telegraphed a warning to Lord Roberts and in reply was told that Komatipoort and the bridge were safely in British hands. King, meanwhile, had been arrested by the police for brawling in a local saloon. He was deported on a Portuguese warship and disappeared from history.
John Y. Filimore Blake, like Hassell, commanded an American unit in the Transvaal army. He was a huge man with a vanity and presumption to match his size. Although born in Missouri and raised in Arkansas, he habitually wore a cowboy costume in South Africa. He called himself “colonel,” even though no such rank existed in the Boer armies and his highest prior rank had been first lieutenant in the American Army. A West Point graduate, he had served in the Far West with the 6th Cavalry. After nine years of army life he married a rich Detroit woman and tried to settle down as a civilian. But shortly before the war began he left home, saying he was going to “shoot big game in Africa.”
Although severely wounded in the right arm in the fighting along the Tugela River when the Boers were attempting to prevent Buller from relieving Ladysmith, he stayed on. When Buller, after several tries, finally succeeded in breaking through and the Boers were fleeing in disorder, Blake and his Americans distinguished themselves by saving one of the heavy guns the Boers had abandoned in their panic.
Most of the men in the unit I led by Blake were Irish-Americans, and some got to the Transvaal by devious means. In April, 1900, an Irish-American ambulance unit arrived from Chicago. The Reverend Henry James Batts, an English Baptist minister whom the Boers had allowed to stay in the country, first encountered them lounging about the Grand Hotel in Pretoria wearing Red Cross armbands. “I was not much impressed by their appearance,” said Batts, “only that I would not like to meet them on a dark night.” A few days later he saw the same men with rifles and bandoliers, marching off under Blake to be presented to Kruger, who gave them a short speech, telling them to obey their officers and take care of their horses. Of the fifty-three members of the ambulance unit all but the five surgeons and the two nurses had exchanged their Red Cross brassards for rifles.
After the Boer debacle at Komatipoort most of the Americans fled over the border, but Blake stayed on, growing a long beard, learning to speak good Afrikaans, and continuing to fight to the bitter end. His subsequent career is not positively known, but he is said to have shot himself.