Tales from the Archives: The DAR and the Spanish-American War

Written by: Tracy Robinson, DAR Director of Archives and History
February 15, 2018

One hundred twenty years ago today, the United States armored cruiser naval ship USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor killing approximately 260 of the 355 sailors on board. The ship was on a mission to protect American citizens in Cuba caught up in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain, which had begun in 1895. Although no one could prove Spain was behind the attack, the sailors’ deaths greatly angered the American public. United States newspapers captured the national mood with the slogan, “Remember the ‘Maine,’ to hell with Spain!” and Spain was unable to avoid war with the United States.

Although the DAR had yet to reach its eighth birthday, the Spanish-American War represented the Society’s first chance to participate in a major war relief effort. Two of DAR’s founders, Mary Desha and Ellen Walworth, made enormous sacrifices on behalf of wounded servicemen.

Miss Desha was appointed Assistant Director of the DAR Hospital Corps under Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee. In that capacity she helped process the applications of more than 4,500 women who aspired to serve as nurses in the Spanish-American War. She also took charge of supplying the 12 aprons that were provided to each nurse sent to the army by direct endorsement of DAR. 

Miss Desha never missed a night of work during her entire five months of service for the Hospital Corps. Leaving her office every day at 4 p.m., she attended the Corps office every evening until midnight. Eulogizing her, Dr. McGee said, “When you crown the Founder, who has so lately passed from us, with a wreath of laurel, may one leaf of it represent her efforts in promoting the saving of lives of our soldiers in the Spanish War.” Miss Desha’s interest in the nurses did not end with the war. With the consent of the National Society, she sent to each chapter an appeal for contributions toward the monument to the Spanish-American War nurses which was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1905.

As director general of the Woman’s National War Relief Association during the Spanish-American War, Ellen Walworth was present at the field hospital at Fortress Monroe. Her duties included assisting with the distribution of supplies and the management of the nursing staff. Her daughter, Reubena Hyde Walworth, fell ill and died while nursing the wounded in the hospitals at Montauk Point, N.Y. 

Hostilities ended on August 12, 1898 and the United States and Spain signed a peace treaty in December. The United States gained all of Spain's colonies outside of Africa in the treaty, including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

It remains unknown to this day who was responsible for the explosion aboard the USS Maine.

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