Aaron Cook, of the Watson Grade community near Ray City, GA, was 30 years old when the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.
Born June 23, 1867 in Berrien County, GA , Aaron A. Cook was the youngest son of Lucretia Sirmans and John Jasper Cook. His parents’ farm was in the Watson Grade community just northeast of Rays Mill, GA. His sister Charlotte married William Jackson Boyette, and sister Mary Ellen Cook (1876-1939) was the wife of Reverend Orville A. Knight.
Just weeks after his birth, local South Georgia papers observed that a rebellion was underway in Cuba, wryly noting that the U. S. government seemed to be more supportive of rebels in other countries. The Cuban rebels founded the “Revolutionary Committee of Bayamo” in July 1867 and the period of Aaron Cook’s childhood and young adulthood coincided with Cuba’s long struggle for independence from Spain. The people of Wiregrass Georgia were largely indifferent to the Cuban rebellion, although there was some U. S. desire for the annexation of this “Queen of the Antilles” where American commercial interests were heavily invested. In Cuba, the rebels quickly initiated an all-out military uprising against Spanish rule, starting the Ten Years’ War and unleashing contention with Spain which spanned a period of thirty years.
The smoldering Cuban insurrection re-erupted in the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898). In Wiregrass Georgia, the Cuban conflict was mostly marked by rising costs of coffee and sugar caused by the war, and a mild interest the Cuban rebels’ plans for emancipation of the slaves that worked the Cuban plantations. A curious side note was circus promoter W. H. Harris’ offer of the man-killing elephant, Gypsy, to the Cuban insurgents. In 1896, Gypsy had performed before Wiregrass crowds in Thomasville, GA as a part of Harris’ Nickel Plate Show. Harris reckoned, “If Hannibal found elephants useful in battle, why should not [the Cubans] conquer with Gypsy.” The elephant would be killed five years later after a murderous rampage in Valdosta, GA.
For the U. S., the war exploded with the sinking of USS Maine:
In January 1898, USS Maine, a second-class battleship built between 1888 and 1895, was sent to Havana to protect American interests during the long-standing revolt of the Cubans against the Spanish government. In the evening of 15 February 1898, Maine sank when her forward gunpowder magazines exploded. Nearly three-quarters of the battleship’s crew died as a result of the explosion. While the cause of this great tragedy is still unsettled, contemporary American popular opinion blamed Spain, and war followed within a few months. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/spanam/events/maineskg.htm
Following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, the United States entered the conflict, allying with the rebels and declaring war on Spain on April 25, 1898.
No where was there greater war fervor than in Georgia. “Georgia furnished according to population more volunteers than any other State of the Union,” and Wiregrass babies were named in honor of the war’s heroes.
Aaron Cook was among some 3,000 Georgians to serve in the Spanish-American War. He was enlisted on July 2, 1898, and mustered in at Macon, GA as a private in Company E, Third Regiment, U.S. Volunteer Infantry. Other Berrien countians s erving in the Third Regiment were Luther Lawrence Hallman and William F. Patten, both in Company B. Company E was mustered in with 63 enlisted men and 23 recruits under the command of Captain Yancey Cade Carter, 1st Lieutentant John A. Sibley, of Tifton, GA, and 2nd Lieutenant Edward Stevens. Of the Georgia units activated for the Spanish American war, only the Third Volunteer Infantry would see overseas duty, serving as an occupation force in Cuba during the first three months of 1899.
The U.S. War Department was fully aware that Yellow Fever would pose a major threat to U.S. military operations in Cuba.
Yellow fever begins after an incubation period of three to six days. Most cases only cause a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. In these cases the infection lasts only three to four days.
In fifteen percent of cases, however, sufferers enter a second, toxic phase of the disease with recurring fever, this time accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain. Bleeding in the mouth, the eyes, and the gastrointestinal tract will cause vomit containing blood, hence the Spanish name for yellow fever, vomito negro (“black vomit”). The toxic phase is fatal in approximately 20% of cases, making the overall fatality rate for the disease 3% (15% * 20%). In severe epidemics, the mortality may exceed 50%.
Surviving the infection provides lifelong immunity.
The Third Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of ten that had been created by Congress as “Immune Regiments” – intended as special forces that could remain effective combat units even in tropical zones where Yellow fever was endemic.
THE IMMUNE REGIMENTS
New York Times May 21, 1898;
The Immune Regiments:
The first step toward the raising of 10,000 yellow fever immunes for the army of Cuban invasion was taken today, when the President sent to the Senate the nominations of Colonels for six of the ten regiments into which the special corps will be divided…No definite scheme for the enlistment of these special regiments has been settled upon. It is not considered that it will be possible to get together 10,000 men who have actually had yellow fever, and that will not be attempted. The recruiting will be done chiefly in the Southern Coast States, however, and the effort will be to take in men who, if they have not passed through a yellow fever epidemic, have been thoroughly acclimated to a hot climate and are accustomed to outdoor life. When so made up it is considered that these regiments will be far superior for rough and ready campaigning in Cuba to the ordinary volunteers, many of whom are young clerks or salesmen absolutely unaccustomed to outdoor life in a sultry clime.
President McKinley named Colonel Patrick Henry Ray as commander of the Third Regiment, and the unit became known as Ray’s Immunes.
The Third Regiment trained at Camp Price, Macon, GA. Camp Price was located in Central City Park in the south part of the city, south of 7th street along the river. The Macon Telegraph reported “Camp Price has been proven to be a healthy and an ideal place for a camp. There is an abundance of pure, clear water for all purposes and the forest oaks keep the grounds well shaded and cool. The cottages and other buildings furnish splendid quarters for the regimental officers, and there is nothing lacking to make the place a complete success.”
July 12, 1898
At Camp Price
The Soldiers Have Received Their Guns and Dog Tents
The soldiers at Camp Price drilled with their guns for the first time yesterday afternoon, and the sight was an imposing one, as they drilled in battalion in the race track enclosure.
The soldiers have also secured their dog tents, which they take as good evidence that they are soon to move to the front. The regiment is now complete and the boys drill almost like regulars. It is a fine body of men and can be counted on in any emergency.
The officers yesterday formed a mess, so that all of them will be together. This, it is thought, will be to their mutual advantage.
After this training the Regiment moved to Savannah, GA to embark for Cuba. The Regiment left Savannah on Saturday evening, August 13, 1898, and arrived at Santiago de Cuba about 10:00am on Wednesday, August 17, 1898. By the time they reached Cuba, an armistice had been signed between the U.S. and Spain. With the fighting ended, the Third Regiment assumed the role of occupation forces. After a few days at Santiago, the Regiment was transported by boat to Cameira de Cuba, then by train to Guantanamo, leaving garrison troops at each of these locations. Around August 22, the regiment arrived at Jamaica de Cuba, about 12 miles northwest of Guantanamo.
Aaron Cook’s unit, Company E, was assigned to maintain the garrison at Jamaica de Cuba and to man outposts at Los Canos, Santa Cecilla, San Carlos, Romila, and La Luisa.
The regiment served in Cuba until March 30, 1899 when it steamed for the U.S. The transport ship departed from Sagua de Tanamo and arrived at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, GA on April 2, 1899. The ship was sent to Sapelo Island for five days quarantine. Upon the return to Savannah, the troops were put aboard a train and sent to Macon, GA to be mustered out.
Aaron Cook received an honorable discharge on May 2, 1899. Afterwards Aaron and his wife, Nancy Baldree Cook, spent the rest of their lives farming near Ray City, GA.
Aaron Cook died December 2, 1946 and was buried at Empire Church near Ray City, GA. His widow applied for and received a headstone provided by the government to mark the graves of honorably discharged veterans. The upright marble headstone is inscribed in raised lettering inside a recessed shield. The inscription encompasses the arched name and abbreviated military organization. No emblems of belief or additional inscriptions were inscribed. While the dates of birth and death were allowed below the shield, these were not inscribed on Aaron Cook’s marker.
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