In response to President McKinley’s call for troops following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in February 1898, North Carolina raised two regiments of white troops. It also raised one black regiment, as did three other states. War was officially declared on April 20, 1898.57
The first of the two white North Carolina regiments (consisting of troops fromwestern counties, where enthusiasm for the war was far higher than in the east) assembled at Camp Bryan Grimes outside Raleigh. Others were sent to Camp Cuba Libre at Jacksonville.
Conditions in the two camps were not identical, but troops were in general plagued by bad weather, sickness (typhoid fever, malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery), poor training, insufficient supplies, inadequate and spoiled food, and antiquated equipment. Not surpisingly, discipline was poor, morale low and desertion frequent. Delayed pay forced some Camp Cuba Libre troops to beg on the streets of Jacksonville.
Within less than six months, half the troops (especially from the 2nd Regiment) had been sent home. It had not been a happy episode. Charges and countercharges of political favoritism, mismanagement, maltreatment and the like emanated from all sides, and bad feelings lingered for years.58
The black 3rd Regiment faced all of the problems experienced by the white regiments, as well as many others deriving from their race. North Carolina’s Gov. Russell exerted considerable political pressure in Washington to receive authorization to raise black troops, and endured political insults at home once he had embarked on the recruitment. Three companies arrived at Fort Macon at the end of May and established Camp Russell. Seven other companies (a total of more than 1,000 men) followed in mid-July, forming the 3rd Regiment, commanded by black legislator James H. Young, former editor of the Raleigh Gazette
Although some black troops considered repression and racism at home more important than military intervention in Cuba (especially after the November race riot in Wilmington), others saw the war as an opportunity to prove their courage and patriotism. On the whole, they were certainly not moved by the jingoism and “heady patriotism” about the war reflected in the media. Newspapers across the state published insulting and degrading articles about the black regiment.59
The black troops’ stay at Fort Macon (actually chosen because of the relatively small local white population) was fraught with difficulty, although fortunately the food was better than at the white encampments. The white community viewed the black troops “with a mixture of curiosity, suspicion and disdain,” says Fort Macon historian Paul Branch. A local Methodist church charged twenty-five cents to take parishioners by boat to see the black troops.
Other reactions were more hostile than curious. The Morehead City Pilot reported that the troops were being permitted “to roam at large all over this city in squads of five to twenty, unaccompanied by any commissioned officer; to drink liquor, quarrel and fight among themselves and with others; to remain away from the camp overnight reveling in places of disrepute outside of the city limits . . . .” Other whites complained that the troops were “insolently defying the authority of our city government, and insulting our citizens by their impudence and offensive language and conduct.” Whatever problems (actual or imagined) that appeared were seized upon and magnified by the state’s racist Democratic newspapers.60
Despite, having experienced such hostility and abuse in order to offer their service, the 3rd Regiment’s soldiers did not get to prove themselves in battle. Peace came in mid-August, and in mid-September North Carolina’s black troops moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and then to Macon, Georgia for the winter.
With regard to local white hostility, the city of Macon repeated the troops’ earlier experience at Fort Macon. A total of about 4,000 black troops were stationed at Macon, and their presence incited a great deal of hostile reaction from whites – especially toward the North Carolina troops, who were commanded by black officers (contrary to a longstanding military policy requiring that black troops be commanded by white officers). Four members of the regiment were killed by white civilians, but their killers were acquitted by white juries.
The 3rd Regiment returned to Raleigh in January 1899 – hounded during their journey by hostile police and newspapers. They disbanded in February, after which the legislature enacted a special law banning them from service in the State Guard.61
World War I
With the approach of World War I, the state registered nearly a half-million men for the draft (including more than 140,000 African-Americans), and initially called up more than 60,000. More than 86,000 North Carolinians eventually served, and nearly 2400 died (just under three percent of those who served).
The war made relatively little physical impact upon the Banks. A relatively modest number of Carteret County’s men went to war. Army enlistments totaled about 314 (244 white and 70 Negro); about 283 (all white, under the segregation laws of the time) served in the Navy. About a dozen men died, either in battle or from disease (two percent of the total).62
Virtually all war-related action occurred offshore as a result of attacks by German submarines against U. S. and British shipping. Hostile submarine action in North Carolina waters was initiated by U-151, which had operated off the northeastern coasts in the spring of 1918 before heading south. On 5 June near Knotts Island, U-151 torpedoed the British steamer Harpathian. It also torpedoed three Norwegian vessels off Currituck Beach and a Cuban ship near Nags Head. U-151 was soon replaced by six other submarines that operated on the east coast. Another U-boat, U-140, sank four other ships off Little Kinnakeet and Cape Hatteras, and torpedoed Diamond Shoals Lightship No. 71.
Most infamous of all was U-117, which torpedoed the British tanker Mirlo off Cape Hatteras, leading to a heroic, six-hour rescue of her forty-two surviving crew members by the legendary Midgetts (five of them, led by John Allen “Captain Johnny” Midgett) of the Chicamacomico station. Fortunately, they were equipped with a gasoline-powered self-bailing surfboat and draft horses to drag it six hundred yards to the launch site.63