Like many young men, Walter Cork probably had romantic ideas about joining the Army and going to war against the Spanish in 1898. But the idealistic dreams of our imagination rarely come true when they come face to face with reality. They certainly don’t when faced with warfare and the tropics.
Walter was the 6th child of William Cork and Jane Dame. He was raised in the small town of Mazomanie, Wisconsin about 15 miles west of Madison. When he was about 20 years old he headed to Minneapolis, Minnesota where his sisters Selina and Bertha and two of his brothers Charles and Hugh lived. Perhaps he left for better job opportunities? His brothers both worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway and he took a job there as a carpenter when he arrived.
I imagine that he read the newspapers in late 1897 and heard about the sequence of events that lead to the declaration of war against Spain. First, there were the headlines about Spain’s cruel treatment of its Cuban citizens and the Spanish army putting down the colonists bid for independence. Then in early 1898, McKinley sent the American ship the USS Maine to Cuba to protect the Americans living there. Shortly after the ship arrived in February, it exploded and sunk in Havana Harbor. It is unclear if the cause of the explosion was internal, but at the time it was thought that the Spanish had attacked the ship. The Spanish and the Americans declared war on April 21, 1898. It was in this patriotic environment that Walter joined the army on June 13 and headed to the Philippines.
It is unclear from his service record when he arrived in the Philippines and if he ever actually fought in any battles. What is clear is that by the beginning of August, he was in the hospital with typhoid and had pemphigus on his back. (This is very nasty blistering on the skin and I suggest you look it up for pictures…I couldn’t post them…ick.)
And then all the fighting was over in Cuba and the Philippines on August 16th. Walter was sent home to San Francisco to recover at the Army Hospital for a few months and he was finally discharged December 31st 1898.
It turns out that Walter was actually one of the lucky ones. From May 1898 through April 1899 there were 968 people killed as a result of battle, there were 5,438 who died from disease and over 20,000 that were sick from tropical illnesses.
Serving in the military doesn’t always turn out to be all honor and glory, but Walter deserves respect for the sacrifice he made during those 6 months of his life. I hope that he didn’t suffer lasting effects from typhoid or that horrible skin ailment.
Minneapolis Directory Company, Davison’s Minneapolis City Directory, XXV, 1897: 306; digital images, fold3 www.fold3.com: accessed 7 Jul 2014.
Compiled service record, Walter John Cork, Pvt., Co. L, 13th Minnesota Inf.; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s–1917, Spanish-American War; Record Group 94; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington.
US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History – The Spanish-American War: http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/misc/evprev/ch7.htm
Public Broadcasting Service – The Great Fever: The Scourge of the Spanish American War: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fever/peopleevents/e_cuba.html