In response to President William McKinley’s call for volunteers upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the 3rd Battalion of North Carolina Volunteers mustered in on 12 May 1898 at Fort Macon, North Carolina. Seven companies, including Corporal Willie Gay‘s Company I, joined the original three in July, forming the 3rd North Carolina Regiment. Though the 3rd N.C. was alerted to prepare to ship out to Cuba, the war ended before they saw action in battle. The Regiment moved west to Knoxville, Tennessee, in September 1898, where its disillusioned members wrote the plaintive letter below to Secretary of War Russell A. Alger. In November, the 3rd was sent to Macon, Georgia — where two Wilson County men were involved in a fatal altercation — then mustered out in January 1899.
Willie Gay’s grave is marked by the only Spanish-American War headstone I have found in Wilson County for an African-American soldier. However, 3rd N.C. veteran Turner H. Utley was also buried in this cemetery.
The following letter is reported to have been sent to Secretary of War Alger by members of this regiment. The names of those who signed the letter were not given to The Journal and Tribune reporter with the copy of the letter.
Third North Carolina Regiment
(All companies) Sept. 23, 1898,
To the Secretary of War:
Dear Sir:–We the undersigned many soldiers, heard that you had been instructed that we wanted to stay in service as garrison duty, but my dear sir, we are now pleading with mercy and deny any such report as there had been reported and we feel that our superior officers has treated us wrong to hold us in service without we knowing anything about it.
We the undersigned did not join the service for garrison duty. We only sacrificed our lives and left our homes simply for the honor of our flag and the destruction of our country and families as the war was going on at that time, but now the war is over and we do feel that we might be mustered out of service because we are getting letters from our families every day or two stating the suffering condition, and oh my God, the way that we are treated. We have to drill harder than any other regiment on the grounds and after drilling so hard, we have to work so hard. We have to cut ditches, sink holes and fill up gullies, put in water pipes. We, the 3rd N.C. regiment soldiers has not had but one pair of pants, one coat, two undershirts, one top shirt. We are in a box fit. Our food is not fit to eat, and oh my dear sir, we are bound up in a little place about 400 feet long 3 feet wide. Just think of the confinement we are under just because we volunteered freely to fight for our country.
We the undersigned many soldiers did not volunteer for garrison duty and we do not think that our honorable government will take the advantage of willing and faithful men who came to the rescue of the flag, stars and stripes. We have a great deal more to tell you but we can not express ourselves like it ought to be done.
Down at Fort Macon we was misled. The question was asked who wanted to stay in the service and go to the front if necessary, called upon them to raise hands, but the question never was asked if we wanted to do garrison duty. If they had of asked that question we never would have been in Knoxville today. Why don’t you know as a good thinking man that we don’t want to leave our wives and families to go on garrison duty. Why if so you would have had more applications in the white house than the mail box would have helt.
You know that these officers is getting a very good salary and they would go in three miles of hell after that dollar, but we who are brave men did not come for the sake of that $15.60, but we gloried in the flag and come to hold it up by the balls and shells. So as we did not get a chance to do so we hope that you will consider this matter. Look it over, give us the judgment of justice and if you do we will go home to our families who are in a suffering condition, so we will not write any more.
We the undersigned await your earliest reply. Many soldiers of the Third North Carolina regiment. We want to go home.
Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), 5 October 1898.
Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2023.