On May 1, 1898, the First Washington Volunteer Infantry Regiment musters at Camp Rogers south of Tacoma for the Spanish-American War. Governor John P. Rogers (1897-1901) appoints U.S. Army First Lieutenant John H. Wholly, Professor of Military Science at the University of Washington, as the regimental commander with the rank of Colonel. The 1,126 men of the First Washington will be sent to the Philippine Islands, but instead of fighting the Spanish, the regiment will battle Filipino insurgents.
The Spanish-American War
The Spanish-American War was fought primarily in Cuba and the Philippines, where revolts were under way against Spanish colonial power. The United States, with its own imperial goals, intervened against Spain. In April 1898, the U.S. declared war after Spain sank the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor. President William McKinley called for 100,000 volunteers.
The Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War in 1899, and Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. Filipinos then declared their independence and Emilio Aguinaldo led a guerrilla war against the U.S. In the Philippine Islands, the men of the First Washington battled not the Spanish but these Filipino insurgents. The United States won the war and acquired the Philippines as an overseas territory.
The Washington Infantry Regiment
In May 1898, Governor Rogers ordered the Washington National Guard to form the nucleus of a regiment of infantry for federal service. Volunteers and activated National Guard companies from Washington communities assembled on a prairie south of Tacoma dubbed Camp Rogers. The 1,200 openings were quickly filled and men eager for adventure and patriotic service were turned away.
The 12 companies of the First Washington Volunteer Infantry were from the following cities: Seattle (2), Spokane (2), Walla Walla, Vancouver, Centralia, Dayton, Tacoma, North Yakima, Waitsburg, and Ellensburg. Most of these men were from the Washington State National Guard. In Seattle on May 6-7, 1898, about 125 men joined Companies B and D.
The head of the Washington National Guard was Tacoma lawyer William J. Fife, but he was hunting for gold in Alaska when the call came. Fife returned to find himself second in command to Wholly. Wholly instituted a strenuous training program and Army discipline. A popular company commander from Centralia was disqualified for medical reasons and some of his men refused to serve under another officer. Wholly dismissed the entire company and invited the men to reenlist. Most took up the offer and the former officer and his loyalists went home.
War in the Philippines
After less than a month at Camp Rogers, the regiment's battalions traveled to San Francisco for more training. The regiment left San Francisco for the Philippines in October 1898, after hostilities with the Spanish had ended.
In February 1899, fighting erupted between the U.S. troops and the insurrectos and America's first war in Asia started, officially lasting three and a half years. The 1,126 Washington volunteers helped garrison Manila and held a line that separated the city from Filipino insurgents led by Aguinaldo. They battled insurgents for six months before being sent home.
The regiment disbanded in San Francisco in November 1899. The men made their own way home to hometown receptions, the largest being a three-day celebration in Seattle. Volunteer Park in Seattle is named for the First Washington.
The First Washington lost 129 killed and wounded, including 14 felled by disease and accident. Some 239 men, including Col. Wholley, remained in the Philippines to pursue private interests or to reenlist in other units.
By comparison, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt's First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the Rough Riders, served just 133 days in 1898 and fought in one skirmish and one battle in Cuba. The First Washington served 18 months and fought almost daily for at least six months.