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The Rowlen Boys In The Spanish-American War

The oldest Rowlen boy, Benjamin W., was born in Barnesville, Ohio, June 23, 1870, and his younger brother, Clarence E. (called Ed), was born on March 23, 1872. Ben had moved to Iowa with his parents in 1876, and was educated in the West Branch schools. He took a course in the Iowa City business college, but soon dropped out and entered the building trade as a plasterer. On March 2, 1896, Ben Rowlen traveled to Des Moines, where he enlisted in Troop C, 1st United States Cavalry. Fifteen months later, Private Rowlen transferred to Company F, 4th U.S. Infantry.

Meanwhile, Ed Rowlen, a West Branch teamster, had gone to Chicago, where on March 31, 1897, at Camp Sheridan, he enlisted as a private in Battery A, 2d U.S. Light Artillery.

In April 1898 the United States declared war on Spain, and the units to which the Rowlen boys were assigned were soon en route to Tampa, Florida, a port of embarkation. It was rumored in West Branch that Ed had been seen sneaking about the town after dark, and that his parents were harboring a deserter. To squelch these stories, Ed on June 9 wrote the editor of the West Branch Times, pointing out that he had not been in West Branch since his hasty departure in March 1897. If any one doubted this statement, they should write his battery commander, Capt. G. S. Grimes. [1]

With her husband en route to Cuba, Ben Rowlen's wife visited her West Branch in-laws. On Thursday evening, June 23, Mr. and Mrs Frank Rowlen entertained their daughter-in-law, members of the West Branch band, and other associates of their eldest son at an ice cream social at their home. [2] Two days later, Mrs. Ben Rowlen returned to Chicago. Though a stranger when she detrained in West Branch, by the end of her three-week visit she had made many friends and was "much pleased with her visit and thought West Brunch a good place to live." [3]

The invasion convoy sailed from Port Tampa on June 13, 1898, and hove to off Daiquiri, 40 miles east of Santiago-de-Cuba. After the fleet had shelled the area, the troops prepared to disenbark. Pvt. Ed Rowlen reported:

We could not get close enough to the dock to unload the ships so we had to push the horses overboard into the ocean and swim them ashore. Then the barges were towed alongside the ship and the cannon, forge, and provisions were loaded on and towed to the dock, where they were packed off, where we could get at them.

On going ashore, Battery A camped near a coconut grove. Private Rowlen informed the West Branchers, in a letter written on June 25, that because of crowded conditions aboard ship there had been much suffering. All the men in the battery had survived but several horses had died. The sight of Cuban soldiers, many of whom were half-starved, was a sobering experience. They lived on nothing but fruit, and hung around the regulars' camp, trying to swap fruit for hardtack. Their uniforms were nondiscript and most of them were barefoot. [4]

The next letter to arrive from Cuba and appear in the West Branch Times was from Pvt. Ben Rowlen. He reported that his unit, the 4th U.S. Infantry, had been in "some hot places" and had lost heavily. He was unable to "imagine, and never will know how I escaped, my neck is sore yet [from] dodging Spanish bullets, which came fast and thick." During the July 2 attack on San Juan Hill, his regiment had advanced to within 1,000 yards of the blockhouse. It was his opinion that the attack would have been repulsed "had it not been for our artillery," which hammered down the fortifications and caused the foe to panic.

He had seen his brother only once since they had landed in Cuba, and that was after the battle of San Juan Hill. Battery A had seen heavy action and had suffered a number of casualties. Ben had accompanied his brother back to the battery's camp, where they cooked their rations. While en route, they had crossed ground where 15 American soldiers had been killed and 60 wounded. Eight of the bodies were laid out in a row, ready for burial.

Ben Rowlen found Cuba a delightful country, which "beats Florida all over." The temperature was about the same; there was "plenty of good water and shade;" and few men on sick call. [5]

The war soon ended with Spain asking for peace. Peace came none too soon, because malaria and yellow fever had made their appearance in the camps of the American army. Battery A, 2d U.S. Light Artillery left Cuba on August 23, 1898, for Camp Wikoff, New York, where it reported on September 20. On October 20 Pvt. Ed Rowlen was hospitalized with malaria, but he returned to duty on the 24th.

Meanwhile, the 4th U.S. Infantry had been evacuated from Cuba and returned to the United States, going into camp at Montauk Point, Long Island. There Pvt. Ben Rowlen was stricken with fever. To speed his recouperation, Private Rowlen was given a 30-day furlough in the first week of September, and traveled to West Branch in a "very weak condition." He was "unable to walk from the depot to his parents' home on Orange Street." When the West Branch Times went to press on September 22, the editor reported that Private Rowlen "even with the best of care and medicine . . . has failed to improve. The malerial trouble has developed into a regular course of typhoid fever, from which he is now lying in a critical condition." [6]

By the end of October, Ben Rowlen was recovering and Ed was also home on furlough. On the 31st members of the local G.A.R. post and the West Branch band marched out to the Rowlen home, "to honor the brave boys who so nobly did their part at Santiago, and who are still in the service of their country." After being serenaded by the band, the Rowlen boys were presented with gifts as tokens of friendship from "their old associates and those who have watched with interest their gallant and obedient response to the call in defense of human liberty." Ben's gift was a "finely mounted cane" and Ed's a gold pin. [7]

Shortly thereafter, the Rowlen boys returned to duty, Ben reporting in at Camp Sheridan, where he was honorably discharged on January 5, 1899, and Ed to his unit at Huntsville, Alabama. On January 17, 1899, Battery A returned to Cuba, going into camp at Camp Columbia. In April, Ed was stricken with typhoid fever and died in the hospital at Columbia on May 12. [8]

Mrs. Rowlen, in applying for a Mother's Pension on the death of her son, reported that her husband's annual income was only $225. Real estate in her possession consisted of a house and lot in West Branch valued at $1,000. Up-keep on the house and taxes totaled $25 annually. [9]

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Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006