A Columbus County man served in the U.S. Army during two of its most romanticized periods – but details of his time in the service have been lost.
Charles E. Sullivan was born in South Carolina, but eventually made his home in the Ransom area of Columbus County. He was born in 1872, and died Feb. 27, 1964. He passed at his home, located at Route 1, Box 14, Riegelwood. He was preceded in death by his wife Caroline, also known as “Carrie”.
Like many people born in the 19th century, Sullivan had no Social Security number. His death certificate lists “heart attack” as the cause. Beatrice Sykes officially contacted the county coroner in Whiteville for the family. He was interred at Union Grove Cemetery near Freeman, and Coble Funeral Service of Wilmington handled the final rites.
On the surface, Sullivan’s death certificate is like thousands of others from the time period – except for Line 15 of the death certificate.
Under the question, “Was deceased ever in U.S. Armed Forces?” the coroner typed “Yes-Spanish American.” Sullivan was also noted to have retired from the “U.S. Army due to a disability.”
A contemporary newspaper clipping announcing Sullivan’s death implies much more than just service in the short and nearly forgotten war of 1898. According to The News Reporter from the week following Sullivan’s funeral, the 91-year-old served as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, and was later part of the expeditions against Mexican bandit and revolutionary, Pancho Villa.
But the story gets even more confusing.
Veteran researchers Layton Dowless and Mike Hollingsworth discovered that military service ran in Sullivan’s family.
Sullivan’s son – known as Charles E. Sullivan Jr. – served in the Korean Conflict in the U.S. Army. He was born in Wilmington in June of 1934. His occupation was a “dredge operator” in 1957, and he lived in the 700 block of Market Street in Wilmington. Charles Jr. was shot to death in Wilmington in 1957, and buried in the same cemetery where his father would eventually be laid to rest seven years later.
Finding more information about either of the men, however, becomes a challenge – if for no other reason that their names were switched in both official records and the tombstone they share in Ransom.
For some reason, Charles Edward Sullivan (who was never known as Charles Sr. in official records) became Charles Emmanuel Sullivan in many public records. The Army refers to him simply as Charles E. Sullivan in his South Carolina enlistment papers.
The real Charles Emmanuel Sullivan, however, is referred to in the New Hanover Register of Deeds records by his correct name, as is his father.
“It got a little confusing,” laughed Layton Dowless. “But that’s the kind of thing you run into sometimes.”
According to Dowless’ and Hollingsworth’s research, Charles Edward Sullivan (Sr.) was born March 13, 1872, in Bolton. His parents’ names are listed as unknown, as is much of Sullivan’s early life until he joined Co. K of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry in Columbia, S.C., in August of 1898.
With the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, the United States plunged into a year-long war with Spain. American officials had nearly given up on efforts to force Spain to honor its promise to grant autonomy to the Philippines and Cuba when the Maine was mysteriously bombed — and America went to war.
Charles Sr. joined the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, but never actually saw combat. The 2nd SC served as part of the Army of Occupation in Cuba, and while its troopers didn’t participate in the battle for San Juan Hill, their unit was made part of the famous “Rough Riders” commanded by Teddy Roosevelt. After completing basic camp and advanced training – including the use of newfangled machine guns – the unit was stationed on harbor security duty in Jacksonville, Fla., before landing in Cuba on Jan. 3, 1899.
The total strength for the unit was 46 officers and 787 enlisted men.
Like a number of units comprised of men who joined up in a spirit of patriotic fervor, only to see the war with Spain come to a quick and decisive end, many of Graham’s comrades and officers were disappointed. The unit records indicate that 19 men died of disease in the malaria-ridden, dysentery-polluted camps in Panama Park, Fla. and later Cuba. Morale was low for much of the unit’s service, with three men being court martialed, and 51 deserting.
At one point in time, Col. Willie Jones wrote to General J.W. Floyd of the South Carolina Volunteers that 204 men were on sick call, due to polluted water and unsanitary conditions. By that point, eight of the soldiers were dead from disease, never even having seen the island of Cuba, much less its battlefields.
“I am satisfied their deaths were caused by the bad climate and the horrible water we had to drink,” Jones wrote after the war.
Jones requested that the unit be transferred anywhere, “just so we left Panama Park.”
The soldiers were sick, disappointed, and thoroughly mosquito-bitten when they reached their new bivouac on Dale Avenue. Morale was quick to improve, even though the soldiers were, according to one historian, “champing at the bit to gallop into war.”
Col. Jones had a more practical mindset, but he too was pleased with Savannah.
“This camp proved to be the finest that we had occupied during our entire term of service, and the water was the best I ever drank,” Jones wrote. “We had not been in camp at Savannah but a very short time before our men commenced to get well and soon we had not a dozen men in the hos¬pital….I do not believe that there was ever an army treated so well before, and I have never heard of or read of such magnificent treatment any where (sic).
The Savannah posting salved some of the hurt feelings, since the ladies of the city turned out with a Thanksgiving dinner for the entire army corps, with “eight ladies” assigned to each company. The ladies set tables for the soldiers, and even waited on them during the meal.
There were some disputes after a requisition for lumber to build barracks was turned down, but Jones noted that just a few days later, the South Carolina troops embarked for their tour of duty in Cuba.
Most Cubans saw the American forces as liberating heroes, and while conditions weren’t as plush as they had been in Savannah, Jones noted that everyday Cubans regularly lined the streets and cheered marching American troops. After a bureaucratic mixup left the South Carolinians with no rations, meat was donated to the army commissary without charge by grateful Cubans. A number of the soldiers were caught up by the charms of the Cuban ladies “in their thin white muslin dresses.” The Spanish authorities, however, were described as “polite but aloof” toward the victorious Americans.
While their time on what had been the front line was short, Graham’s fellow soldiers had learned their lessons well. Camps were erected on higher ground, and kept cleaner than in Florida. Water supplies were also secured and kept clean; when soldiers went on the march, wagons were used to transport clean barrels of water from wells that were known to be good, rather than relying on water from surface sources that could be contaminated. Efforts were made to keep down the insect population, thus preventing the yellow fever and malaria that crippled more Americans than were ever hit by bullets or cannonfire during the brief war.
While Graham mustered out with the rest of his unit on their return to the United States in March, he is apparently one of the soldiers who stood out enough to be recruited for the regular U.S. Army. It’s possible he was, like many recruits drawn from State Troops, targeted by recruiters because he was a better soldier, or needed skills (Graham may be the C.E. Graham listed as a blacksmith or farrier in later documents.) If could be he just had no desire to return home just yet to the sawmill and railroad towns of the Carolinas.
As it was, Charles Graham (Sr.) was apparently one of the estimated 10 percent of Spanish American War volunteers who signed up for the U.S. Army. While many served in the drawn-out conflict with the Moro tribes in the Philippines, others were posted throughout America.
While Graham’s obituary lists him as a member of the Rough Riders and his death certificate notes him as a disabled U.S. Army veteran, the remainder of his military career is a mystery. Like many veterans of the 1905-1919 era, his records were lost in a massive fire in the early 20th century equivalent of the modern Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C.
Graham’s obituary lists him as having ridden against Francisco “Pancho” Villa in 1916, and a survey of Army extracts shows a “C.E. Graham” working as a blacksmith and farrier during the first of the “punitive expeditions” against the Mexican revolutionary and bandit.
Villa was a member of a Mexican nationalist group that wanted to reclaim Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from the United States. He led numerous raids into Texas from 1916 until his death in the 1920s. When American farmers were killed and railroads, towns and manufacturies damaged or destroyed by Villa’s guerrilla’s, the U.S. Government dispatched Army units to chase Villa in 1916-17 in one of the most neglected periods in American history.
Under the command of Gen. John Pershing, the 10,000 American troops sent to capture the bandit-guerilla were prohibited from crossing the Mexican border in pursuit.
At the same time, Mexican Army and National Guard units friendly to Villa began intruding across the American border in support of the guerillas. The U.S. ended up concentrating virtually all its units based in the country along the border, and called up National Guard units (which had then replaced all State Troop volunteers).
Historians speculate that had the U.S. not been drawn into the war in Europe, America might have declared war against Mexico, thus creating another combat theatre for World War I. American forces on horseback, foot and Model T trucks continued fighting some Mexican guerilla units as late as 1919. Diplomats managed to settle the issues between America and Mexico, and the militaries of both sides stood down – but Villa was never caught.
What role Graham played in the Punitive Expeditions is not known; what was unusual about that undeclared war is that an unusually high percentage of the soldiers deployed did see some form of combat. Graham’s name does not appear in surviving WWI records, so it doesn’t seem that he made his way to the trenches of France after fighting in the unforgiving wilderness along the Mexican border.
Charles Sr. made his home in eastern Columbus County after the war, farming and working in the logging industry. He married Caroline Walker, and settled down. Eventually, Charles and Caroline moved to Wilmington, where Charles Jr. was born July 2, 1934.
Caroline died when her only son was just 10 years old, and was buried in the Union Grove Freewill Baptist Church Cemetery in Delco.
A number of confusing factors play a role in finding out more about Charles Sr. and Charles Jr. In the first case, the men are never officially referred to as junior and senior, Dowless noted.
“I think there is an error on the tombstone,” he said.
While his parents returned to Ransom township before World War II, Charles Jr. married Shirley Hinson and the couple made their home on Market Street in the Port City. Charles Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the U.S. Army during Korea. He was killed by a “gunshot wound” to the “brain” after being “shot during an affray” around 11 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1957.
The gravemarker shared by the two Charles denotes them as junior and senior, with “father” and “son” in quotation marks. Also, the men’s middle names have been switched on the tombstone, according to death certificates and other documents.
Dowless said it may never be confirmed if the elder Sullivan was a career soldier who served during two forgotten periods of American history.
“I’ve never heard of anybody else around here who served against Pancho Villa,” Dowless said. “Most people don’t even know who villa was, much less that we almost went to war with him.”
Dowless said many similar stories of veterans are still out there and unknown, especially for veterans who served in the time period from the late 1800s through World War.
“There’s a lot of history that gets forgotten,” he said, “but it’s all important. I’d love to know the whole story behind this man – sounds like he was part of a special time.”