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Profile - The Astor Battery

When the United States declared war on Spain, on April 25th, 1898, John Jacob Astor, one of the nation’s richest men, offered his yacht to the Navy for war service, and ordered his railroads not to charge the government for transporting troops and military supplies.  In addition, he offered the War Department $100,000 (easily $12,400,000 today based on “minimum wage”, and perhaps $83,400,000 based on relative economic value), to "buy a battery" for field service in Cuba. 

Seeing a good deal, the War Department accepted, and offered the command to 1st Lt. Peyton March.  A recent graduate of the Artillery School, March initially didn’t realize that the battery was, in his words, “only a checkbook”.  But he quickly began spending Astor’s money to recruit, equip, and train the battery, a feat that he accomplished with considerable skill and not a little cleverness, since nothing was forthcoming from the War Department.  Recruited in New York City, with an improvised armory and barracks at 552 Broadway (then a new building owned by Astor, and today home to a Banana Republic), by June 5th the battery (officially “John Jacob Astor’s Battery of Mountain Artillery”) mustered into federal service with three officers (March and two other regulars serving in volunteer ranks), plus 99 enlisted volunteers, including several physicians, attorneys, and businessmen, many college boys, some wheelwrights, waggoners, and smiths, and a handful of veterans of American, British, Canadian, or German service, including several who had served as officers.  They also had six Hotchkiss 12-pounder mountain guns, acquired by special order (and a little smuggling) from France.  These pieces could be broken down, so that a single gun required four mules: one to carry the 250 pound, four-foot-long tube, one to carry the 250-pound carriage, and two each to carry 20 rounds of 3-inch ammunition.  On June 9th, using borrowed horses to tow the guns (not yet having mules), the men of the battery marched 19 miles under a hot sun to a farm Astor owned in Bronxville, Westchester County, and set up camp for two days of intensive field training.  Meanwhile, the battery had been ordered, not to Tampa, where the Cuban expedition was concentrating, but to San Francisco, to join Maj.-Gen. Wesley Merritt’s Eighth Army Corps, earmarked for the Philippines, which were under a U.S. naval blockade since Commo. George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. 

On June 12th, the battery returned to New York and entrained for the West Coast on a special train of three sleepers, a coach, and three baggage wagons, all arranged, of course, by Astor.  With a short layover at St. Louis on the 15th to load their authorized allotment of mules (also supplied by Astor), the battery reached San Francisco on the 19th.

The battery departed San Francisco as part of the third echelon of the Eighth Corps, sailing with Merritt and some other troops in the steamer Newport on the 29th.  After an uneventful voyage, they landed at Cavite on July 25th ready for action, as March had drilled his men hard while at sea.

Manila was under siege by American troops and Filipino insurgents.  The Americans held a line inland from Manila Bay, about 3,000 yards south of the city’s defenses.  On August 2nd, the battery was assigned to cover the extreme right of the American lines, as part of Brig. Gen. Arthur MacArthur’s brigade.  The troops spent ten days encamped near the front.  The climate was sweltering, but March’s men suffered less than most, as he had foresightedly procured khaki uniforms, while the rest of the army was wearing Uncle Sam’s standard blue wool.  

The troops moved to the forward line on August 12th, a difficult march in a steady rain, across swampy ground covered with bamboo and other tropical growth, and were in position by nightfall.  Soon after daybreak on the 13th, as he men were having coffee and hardtack, fighting broke out to the battery’s left as a brigade of American troops advanced against the Spanish lines.  Then Filipino troops to the right engaged a Spanish blockhouse, which replied with heavy fire.

Along with the rest of MacArthur’s brigade, the men of the Astor Battery began moving forward through the bamboo, hacking a path so that they were able to get three of their Hotchkiss guns to within two hundred yards of the blockhouse.  Firing grew heavy, and both sides began taking casualties.  But the gunners were able to hit the blockhouse several times, setting it afire and touching off ammunition stored in it.  As Spanish troops fell back from the blockhouse, two of the Hotchkiss guns were manhandled forward, accompanying the American infantry in capturing the blockhouse and the village of Singalong.  Spanish resistance stiffened, as the Americans came under fire from another blockhouse about 100 yards further on.  One Spanish counterattack was beaten off, but a very hot fight continued for perhaps two hours.  With his two Hotchkiss guns out of action due to mud, March organized an attack by his men, who were only armed with pistols, with covering fire from a company of the 13th Minnesota.  The men rapidly covered about half the distance to the blockhouse, but were then halted by heavy fire, and pinned down for a time.  Finally, the Hotchkiss guns got back into action and forced the Spanish from their blockhouse, which shortly was occupied by March’s men.

Soon afterwards, an armistice was declared (part of a deal that actually was arranged before the day’s fighting began, both Spanish and Americans wishing to keep the Filipinos out of Manila).  The Astor Battery had suffered two men killed and eight wounded, one of whom would later die, in about seven hours’ fighting.

After serving on occupation duty, on December 13th the battery boarded the transport Senator.  It had lost five men dead, two killed in action, one of wounds, and two of disease, while several wounded personnel had been discharged or remained in hospital due to disease, and still others had transferred to other units.  Landing at San Francisco, two more men entered a hospital, and several more left as the battery rode the rails to New York, again on a train provided by Astor.  They arrived at New York’s original Grand Central Terminal at 6:30 am on January 22, 1899.  March and the 78 men remaining with the battery were given a tumultuous welcome as they detrained and marched to the 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 34th Street.  On February 2, 1899, following a round of receptions and ceremonies, the troops were discharged and the battery was disbanded.

FootNotes:

  • John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), grandson of America’s first millionaire, was not only a successful businessman, but also an inventor and author of some ability.  In addition to his financial services to the war effort, he entered the Army as a volunteer Acting Inspector General with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and served on Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter’s staff in Cuba.  Several times under fire, once losing a horse to an enemy round, he earned a brevet promotion to colonel, a title that he used to the end of his days, when he went down in the Titanic.

  • Peyton March (1867-1955) graduated from West Point in 1888.  He emerged from the Spanish War as a captain.   Almost immediately promoted to major, he served in the Philippine-American War (1899-1903) as an aide to Arthur MacArthur and in several administrative posts.  Returning to the United States he was assigned to the newly-formed General Staff for a time, and was then an observer during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).  March later commanded artillery units, served in various staff assignments, and had a regiment on the Mexican Border in 1916.  In 1917, as a brigadier general, he commanded the artillery of the 1st Division in France, and then was chief of artillery in the American Expeditionary Forces as a major general.  In March of 1918 he returned to the United States to serve as chief-of-staff of the Army with four stars.  March performed this duty well but acrimoniously, clashing with AEF commander John J. Pershing over military policy and President Woodrow Wilson over American intervention in Russia.  When Pershing succeeded him in 1921, March retired.  

 


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