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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
At first glance it would appear that the Irish-Americans and the Boers were quite different types, but it seems that they worked together very well. Roland Schikkerling, a young Boer from Johannesburg, noted that although the German and Dutch volunteers were closer in blood, they seemed out of place in the Transvaal army, while the Irish blended in so well that “you could not pick Patrick out of a herd of the wildest Boers. …”
Some of the Americans viewed the fracas as a class war. Arthur Baynes, thé Anglican bishop of Natal, visited a group of prisoners captured by the British early in the war and taken to Pietermaritzburg: Some of them were Germans, two were Americans, and one or two were half English or Irish. I think of the whole lot the most helhcose and the most anti-English were the Americans. They had all got it well drilled into them that this was nothing but a capitalist movement pure and simple, and that the working man ought to be on the side of the Boers. The Americans went so far as to say that the best Government for the working man was the Transvaal Government.
As did a number of other nations, the United States sent military observers to the war. Captain Carl Reichmann, iyth United States Infantry, was sent to observe the Boers, and Captain Steven Slocum, 8th United States Cavalry, to watch the British.
There were rumors that the foreign observers sometimes dropped their role as neutral sightseers. Reichmann was accused of leading the Boers at the Battle of Sannah’s Post, where an exceptionally clever trap was laid for a British cavalry brigade. He had indeed been present, but it was the brilliant Boer general Christiaan de Wet who planned and led the attack. During the battle Reichmann was mostly occupied with caring for the Dutch military observer, a young lieutenant wounded by a British shell.
Reichmann managed to maintain S %. his neutrality and objectivity as an impartial observer, but his colleague Slocum with the British sometimes found it difficult to stay out of the action, and he is known to have made suggestions to Lord Roberts. An American fighting with the British who had known Slocum during the Apache wars called him a remarkably keen observer with “an uncanny instinct as to where there would be action, and … he could always be found where the bullets flew thickest.”
Although exact figures are not available from either side, it would appear that in spite of the strong pro-Boer sentiment in the United States there were more Americans serving on the British side than with the Boers. One congressman claimed that there were between two and three thousand Americans with the British, but he was guessing. Perhaps one reason for the greater number with the British was that expressed by a former Rough Rider who wrote to Theodore Roosevelt from South Africa: Dear Teddy— I came over here meaning to join the Boers, who I was told were Republicans fighting Monarchists; but when I got here I found the Boers talked Dutch, while the Britishers talked English, so I joined ihe latter.
Another pragmatic reason was that it was so much easier to get to the British side of the front. The thirteen British purchasing officers ranging this country buying horses and mules also hired men to tend the animals on the long voyage to South Africa. An advertisement for muleteers in the New Orleans Picayune gave the going rate: “$ 15 for the run and 75C a daycoming back.” More than four thousand men, mostly cowboys and other Westerners, were so hired. Quite a number stayed in South Africa, and as it was neither easy nor cheap to get from Cape Town to the Transvaal, most joined one of the volunteer colonial units of the British army. Arthur Conan Doyle, who served as a doctor during the war, said that an entire squadron of Roberts’ Horse was made up of Texas cowboys, and Churchill found many Americans in the South African Light Horse, including one old trooper who had served under Philip Sheridan in the Civil War.
Two Americans who wore the British uniform were Major Lewis Seymour and his friend Lieutenant Joseph Clement. Both were railway engineers. At the beginning of the war Seymour, an uitlander who had fled to Cape Colony, offered to raise a unit to work on the railroad. His offer was accepted, and a regiment of more than a thousand men, mostly uitlanders, was quickly raised and given the task of repairing all the bridges the Boers had destroyed. While trying to defend a half-finished bridge across the Sand River in the Orange Free State on June 14, 1900, Seymour was attacked by a force that included Hassell’s American Scouts, and both he and Clement were killed. They were buried together in a joint grave and their tombstone describes Seymour as “Citizen U.S.A., Major in Her Britannic Majesty’s Railway Pioneer Regiment.” He died, says his epitaph, “in a British regiment for a cause the inherent justice of which he was firmly convinced.”
Of all the Americans who served in the British army the most universally admired was Roberts’ chief scout, Major Frederick Russell Burnham. “A most delightful companion … amusing, interesting and most instructive,” Sir Robert Baden-Powell wrote in a letter to his mother. Rider Haggard declared him to be “more interesting than any of my héros of romance.” Lord Roberts, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Harding Davis were all admirers.