|Ray Jerrems with Research and Recollections by Sandra Walcyk||
This is one of the "Remember Me" series of articles which I have written for the Jerrems Journal. It is about Sandra's "Uncle Billy", who grew up in the United States and served in a conflict which our Australian readers may never have encountered before, the Spanish-American War. Another interesting aspect is that he had a most unusual experience during that war.
Sandra's great great uncle William M. Bohling was born in Utica, NY in 1878 and died in Port Leyden, north of Utica, in 1945. Utica was the city where Sandra's great grandparents (Joseph and Sarah Jerrems) grew up after they migrated from England (readers may remember that Joseph came from the Wappenham Jerrems/Jerrams family). Uncle Billy served in the Philippines with the United States Army (more about this later).
Uncle Billy's claim to fame
Uncle Billy first came to my attention through an anecdote I received from Sandra (passed on to her by her parents) about an uncle who was very proud of an army water canteen which he hung on the dining room wall of his farmhouse. This would have been of interest in itself, but it had a bullet hole in it, and he had said that the canteen saved his life. We do not know the details, but it would seem obvious that the canteen had deflected the bullet or slowed it down sufficiently to save him from serious injury.
It can be seen from a photo of the canteens used at the time that they were held by two leather straps attached towards the top of the canteens, indicating that the straps could have hung around the necks of the soldiers. It is therefore likely that the bullet hit Billy's canteen when it was hanging in front of his upper body.
I have read about soldiers being saved by Bibles, diaries and other objects in their chest pockets, but this is the first time I have heard of a canteen doing the same.
The Spanish American War
Briefly, this War had two components, campaigns in Cuba (which succeeded quickly) and in the Philippines.
The Philippines campaign started with a successful naval attack by the US "Asiatic Squadron" which destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in May 1898, followed by a naval blockade. Three months later US troops arrived and entered Manila. In December Spain ceded the Philippines to the US for $20M (like the Louisiana Purchase almost a century earlier this turned out to be a bargain), however for a further two years additional troops (presumably including Billy) were employed in putting down a local insurrection backed by Philippines troops.
We do not have records of Billy's childhood, but we can form a picture of it by looking at surrounding circumstances. The first port of call is to look at his parents and the events which surrounded them. Looking at Billy's parents also gives us a picture of conditions which people of that era experienced. Readers will realise that this is a continuing theme in my articles. Apart from being a matter of general interest it gives me an idea of the conditions encountered by my great great grandparents when they migrated to Australia in the 1850s. I have far more information about their American counterparts than I will ever be able to obtain about them, but I can draw parallels.
Readers will detect here another continuing theme in my articles, of hardships and premature deaths comparable with those experienced both by my ancestors and by Sandra's ancestors (for instance her great great grandfather Joseph and his brother James).
Billy's parents (John and Juliane) were born in the (then) kingdom of Hanover in northern Germany (it is now the State of Lower Saxony) and they had five boys in the US spread over ten years. Billy was the youngest.
Sadly, Billy's father died at the age of 40 when Billy was only five. This placed the family in a difficult financial position, exacerbated by the fact that by a remarkable (but unhappy) coincidence his mother's father died in a different town on exactly the same day as Billy's father.
After reporting that a "double funeral" would be held for the two men, a Utica newspaper made the following observations:
"Mr Bohling had been a hardworking labourer, and his wife, though not strong of frame, has taken in washing and does such other work as she is able to do to assist in returning a comfortable living. She is now left without husband or father and with five children to feed and clothe. The case is one upon which substantial charity may be worthily bestowed." It seems from these observations that Billy's father had been ill for a while before he died.
In terms of relatives who could have helped the family, it seems that Juliane's in-laws did not migrate to the US, and that her mother had long since predeceased her father. The only relative left was Juliane's older sister Dora Meyn, who also lived in Utica. However Dora also had 5 children of almost identical ages to Juliane's five sons (who of course included Billy), and (wait for it!) she had herself been widowed six years earlier, her husband dying in his mid 30s. We have here the tragic situation of two couples of German origin (probably not able to speak English) setting up home in the US and each having (coincidentally) 5 children of similar young age, only to have the husbands cut down in their prime.
At least Dora had the presence of mind to remarry two years later to a fellow German migrant (John Siemers), who merely had one daughter and was described in the 1900 Census as a grocer (coincidentally, the occupation of my great great grandfather Thomas when he lived in Gainsborough)."
The upshot was that in financial terms Dora was fully committed and therefore Juliane had nowhere to turn for family financial support. Money would have been very short even if the public had chipped in to help the large family.
The newspaper report referred to Juliane taking in washing and doings such other work as she was able to do. Taking in washing involved heavy work and was repetitive, but at least she could carry it out at home while looking after the children. The downside would have been that it was poorly paid and could have had health risks arising from fumes given off by the soaps and toxic bleaches she would have used.
Traditionally daughters would help in the house and carry out other domestic duties. In this family's case the five boys would probably have helped their mother in the house and supplemented the family income by running errands etc.
Billy holding boy
Why did Billy join up?
One reason Billy signed up could have been a sense of patriotism. To quote an article "A generation of young men whose fathers and grandfathers had fought in the Civil War was coming of age, and these men sought to prove their courage, attain glory, and honorably serve their country in their own war."
For Billy, whose parents migrated to America in the mid 1860s, there could also have been the element that (his mother having died) there was nothing to stop him at the age of about 20 from spreading his wings. His childhood would have been a hard slog and the Army offered the prospects of regular employment and a worthy cause.
The patriotism felt by the public had been fuelled by the Press. The precursor to the Spanish American War was that US newspapers, notably the "yellow press" of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, had been agitating for US intervention in Cuba for some years. They had printed sensational accounts of Spanish oppression in Cuba, and carried seriously exaggerated reports that a quarter of the Cuban population had died. Finally, in January 1898 the US battleship "Maine" was blown up in Havana Harbour under suspicious circumstances with the loss of 266 sailors. In the furore that ensued the US declared war on Spain and Spain reciprocated, and there was a severe outbreak of patriotic fervour in the US, promoted by the rallying cry "Remember the Maine!".
President McKinley called for 125,000 volunteers, and the response was so overwhelming that numbers had to be restricted to members of the National Guards of the States.
Despite this restriction most of the volunteer soldiers did not even get to Cuba or the Philippines, let alone see action there, so it could be said that Billy was "lucky" to do so.
It is interesting to remember that Billy's parents were German migrants, just as the parents of the "Jerrems boys" (see JJ of TBA) who served in the Civil War were migrants. The fact that the children were so keen to sign up as volunteers gives an indication of their degree of assimilation into the US.
The citizens of Utica certainly knew how to mount a celebration, and the homecoming of the troops from the Philippines was no exception!
The Utica Sunday Journal of 9th June 1901 devoted a long article to the plans to welcome the 36th Regiment veterans (including Billy) back to Utica. Titled "VETERANS OF THE ORIENT" the newspaper informed readers that preparations were now complete for the reception of the 36th Regiment, which would take place at the State Armory on Wednesday evening of the following week. It was proposed to begin proceedings with a march through the city. The line of the march would glow with red fire (whatever that meant), and flags and bunting would be displayed on the buildings. During the parade the St John's and Grace Church chimes would be sounded, together with the City Hall bell, and the whistles would be blown at the numerous manufacturing plants in the city. Groat's Battery would be stationed at the foot of Genesee Street and would fire the salute at 8pm.
The parade would include a platoon of police, military bands, and the veterans, sons of the veterans, other army units and a number of local organisations. About 50 veterans were listed to attend the parade and dinner, and they would be addressed at the dinner by 10 speakers. The appropriately named "Oriental Quartet" would sing.
Particularly poignant was the plan to have 4 empty seats at the dinner representing the 4 men who had not returned, with a wreath to be placed ceremonially on the tables where they would have dined. This reminds me of that melancholy Civil War song "The Vacant Chair" where at dinners families would place an empty chair at the table in remembrance of a lost son.
Almost 40 years earlier the four "Jerrems boys" would have marched out of the same Armory in Utica on their way to the Civil War. If I believed in ghosts I could imagine the ghosts of Jesse Jerrems and Robert Colbrook (both of whom had already died) congratulating Billy at the dinner on his safe return.
After returning from his war service Billy settled down into a far more routine life. He married Bessie Alexander in December 1901, and they had 3 children, George, Gerrie and Ione. Billy became a farmer in the small town of Port Leyden (near his wife's birthplace at Lyons Falls), about 40 miles north of Utica. He also did construction and carpentry work for New York State on a feeder canal at Port Leyden, and for a local paper mill. He died in 1945 at the age of 67, his wife dying later at the ripe old age of 81 in 1967.
Sandra has happy memories:
"Uncle Billy died in 1945 doing what he loved best - fishing. This was before I was born, but I remember visiting Aunt Bessie many summers in the 1950's & 1960's with my parents & grandparents. She would cook big chicken dinners with apple pie made from her apple trees and fresh milk from the 1 or 2 cows she had. She still chopped her own wood when she was in her '70's."
Uncle Billy must have told the canteen story many times, and his proud wife carried on the tradition after he passed. Perhaps the canteen will turn up at one of our local antique shows or flea markets - I'll keep my eyes open!" No doubt Sandra's memories will resonate with our readers, but can anybody cap home-made apple pie!
The photograph of Billy
The photograph of Billy is part of a much larger photo of a family reunion taken in about 1925. I think he is wearing boots and gaiters and he seems to be wearing a cardigan under a shirt. He has large hands (and also broad shoulders), indicative of a person who has done a lot of manual work. His feet position and his posture are precise, possibly a throwback to his military training.
The boy he is holding is probably about three. Of course Billy and Bessie did not have any grandchildren, but he is holding the child in such a nonchalant way that I would have said that they were related. Regardless of his relationship to the child, my conclusion from the photo would be that he was a very kind man.
What can you deduce from the photo?
To fill in further physical details of Billy, his description from his First World War Draft Registration says he had blue eyes and light hair.
Billy was proud of the canteen on the wall. No doubt it reminded him of the role it had carried out in saving his life, but it would also have reminded him of the wealth of experiences he had encountered when he was a young soldier which he would never have otherwise experienced: the train trips across the continent to and from San Francisco, the sea voyages to and from the Philippines via Hawaii, the much warmer climate compared with his home in Utica in far northern United States, the different food and culture, and the ecstatic welcome in Utica when he returned. Also he would not have seen the devastation and high loss of life resulting from the earlier Civil War and the later World Wars which for many veterans were their prevailing (and disturbing) memories.
In lighthearted moments perhaps Billy would have also seen the water canteen as a symbol of the merit of temperance. Drink water and it could save your life!
Sadly Billy's family has not carried down to the present (his two sons married but had no children, his daughter never married). Although Billy's treasured memento has been lost perhaps I should say that it has been lost physically but its memory has carried on.
The Last Post
This article had the humble origin of a low-key reference by Sandra to a relative's water bottle with a bullet hole in it. This prompted me to ask her for more information. In due course the additional information and my own research led to this article. Which all goes to show once again that if any of you readers have an anecdote to share with us we will follow it up. No worries.
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