The naval battle of Santiago left about 1700 Spanish prisoners on board the American men-of-war and auxiliary vessels.
What disposition should be made of them was now a problem.
The Navy Department solved it by selecting a site on Seavey's Island for a military prison and camp, and at once let contracts for building a stockade, erecting barracks, kitchen, closets, etc., bringing a water-supply to the camp, and furnishing provisions. All arrangements were made for the comfort and health of the prisoners, provided the contractors could fill their orders, and worked with dispatch.
Information having been received that the first vessel loaded with prisoners would arrive on Monday, July 11th, the Department wisely telegraphed Paymaster Loomis to proceed immediately to Portsmouth, N.H., and report to the commandant for duty as commissary of the camp and assume such duty at that place.
Taking the next train the paymaster arrived at Portsmouth Saturday morning, and having reported to the commandant, went out to the camp to see if everything was in readiness for the prisoners. What might be termed the quartermaster's and the commissary's departments seemed in need of most energetic measures. The kitchen or cook-house was only outlined by a few frames, and some flooring, and there was no sign of a stove, or shelter for stores and provisions when they should arrive. This was Saturday afternoon, and the prisoners were expected Monday morning.
Taking a steam launch post-haste for Portsmouth the paymaster rang up the Department at Washington (of Supplies and Accounts) over the long distance telephone. He reported that, though he was ready to furnish provisions and supplies for the prisoners, there was no place for cooking them, or storing a reserve supply. The substance of the reply was, that the Department wished every preparation to be made for the health and comfort of the Spanish prisoners, and it conferred upon him all authority to adopt such measures as would facilitate that result. Clothed now with full authority as quartermaster and commissary, the paymaster interviewed the contractor for the erection of quarters, storehouse and kitchen. "The kitchen must be under cover to-night, and the storehouse to-morrow," said the paymaster. "It can't be done, it is impossible," was the reply. "It must be done," said Loomis, and it was done. "Where are the stoves for the kitchen?" They were awarded to another contractor. So the stove-dealer was interviewed. "I want fires in the stoves to-morrow night," was the greeting. "Why, there is no place ready for them; moreover, the stoves are still in Boston." "The kitchen will be ready, and the stoves must be in place with fires lighted in them to-morrow night before I leave the stockade," was the ultimatum. Sunday night 21 ranges were in place, lighted and ready to roast and boil for 1700 men. Cooks were to have been furnished, but had not appeared on Sunday; so by a diligent search of Portsmouth Sunday afternoon, 10 were obtained.
The next morning the transport was sighted coming up the harbor; by noon 700 prisoners were mustered ashore and marched into camp, sitting down to a hot dinner of hot coffee, fresh beef, fresh bread, potatoes and onions, probably the first "square meal" of fresh food that they had enjoyed since sailing from Cape Verde Islands.
Immediately after landing each man received a hammock, mattress and two blankets. Hooks were arranged in the barracks, so that the men slung their hammocks at night and lashed and stowed them in the morning.
The meals were served at 7 a.m., 12 and 5 p.m. Meat was usually issued for breakfast and dinner; it was at first issued for all the meals, but it was found that a number were made ill by this excess over their accustomed allowance of meat—one meal only, or even none at all. Three tables were arranged near the entrance to the mess-hall, and the squads were marched in lines between them, pannikin in hands, and the servers-out helped each man to his portion, the men passing to seats at the table in the mess-hall; the time occupied in serving out a meal to the 1700 men varying from 10 to 20 minutes, according to the bill of fare, dinner always taking the longest time.
Better and more experienced cooks than those first obtained were gradually added by the Navy Department till the number reached 20. Then the Spanish cooks began to assist, in order to get the pickings and perquisites belonging to cooks the world over, so that the final number was about 30.
All needful clothing and even shoes were furnished them, the latter a luxury to which many, no doubt, were but little accustomed. At first the medical officers detailed by the Department attended to all the sick as well as to the sanitary condition of the camp; but Spanish medical officers were soon able to look after the bodily ills of the prisoners; and two Spanish priests, who were among the captives, looked after their spiritual welfare.
Drinking water was brought down in a pipe from a neighboring reservoir in sufficient quantities to supply the camp.
A line of closets was established overhanging the banks of the Piscataqua, and the kitchen sink drained into its swiftly running waters; so by vigilant policing, the camp could be maintained in a perfectly sanitary condition indefinitely.
Sentries were established on beats overlooking the stockade, along the water-front, at the water-supply, and at the barracks; bugle calls of reveille, meal-formation, taps, and barracks were introduced, and the routine went on without incident.
The officers were paroled, and spent their afternoons in Portsmouth, apparently enjoying themselves heartily.
The only danger apprehended was from fire—one who knows Jacky's fondness for a sly smoke in his hammock can readily appreciate this fact; and after tobacco had been issued to them, constant and successful effort was made to prevent smoking in the barracks.
The camp broke September 12th, and the prisoners sailed for Spain, healthier, stronger, and better fed than in all their lives; they are no doubt still recounting to open-mouthed and half incredulous friends and kinsmen how the Americans gave them meat twice a day, and even shoes to wear. The cost of this good, wholesome food (and plenty of it) was found to have averaged, for the two months, 19 cents a day per capita.
The colonel commandant, who twice inspected the camp personally, reported:
"September 2nd and 3rd I thoroughly inspected the camp and prisoners, with the commanding officer of the marine barracks, Lieut.-Colonel Mead, who had a few days before relieved Colonel Forney, and I could hardly realize the great improvement which had taken place in the condition of these men. The prisoners were drawn up in two lines in their respective barracks, and I inspected every prisoner in the camp. Most of them were dressed in white suits, all the clothing was very clean, and the men looked well and contented. Their bedding was opened and found to be clean and neat. I also inspected the grounds, racks, sinks, mess pavilion, and other buildings at the camp, and found them clean and in a perfectly sanitary condition, showing that great care had been bestowed upon the men and camp by Colonel Forney and Lieut.-Colonel Mead, as to health and comfort, since they landed at Seavey's Island."
For resource displayed in utilizing the material at hand, the perfection of details and promptness of execution, the establishment of this camp, though one of the minor incidents of the war, is deserving of great commendation; and the prompt initiative of the commissary, in his dual capacity of commissary and quartermaster, in forcing matters to a successful issue, when quick work is needed, is an example by which the service may well profit.