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The Sumner: Floating Place or Hellhole?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 28, 2018

The story of how the U.S. Army transport Sumner ended up stranded at Barnegat Light is full of twists and turns and its involvement with the geopolitics of the time. It had been a passenger ship carrying immigrants to America. Later, as part of the Navy in the Spanish-American war, it had supported the invasion of Cuba. As the US began to fight a guerrilla war in the far-off Philippine Islands, the ship was transferred to the Army and renamed the Sumner. As the ship prepared for its first cruise from New York to Manila, the Brooklyn Eagle of April 1, 1900, explained.

“Last Wednesday Congressman Driggs caused consternation among the members of the national body of lawmakers by reading on the floor of the House the Eagle’s description of the magnificent floating palace into which an old collier of the late Spanish-American war had been transformed at a cost of over $750,000. The installation of $200 bath tubs and $50 wash stands of solid porcelain aroused the members.

“The Congressman rushed to New York to see for himself before the ship set sail.”

“‘My investigation of the extravagance and reckless expenditure of money in fitting up the army transport Sumner,’ said Congressman Edmund H. Driggs yesterday, ‘proves to me that the Eagle told the truth about the matter, and did the public a great service in exposing the matter. … I have examined the Sumner from Firehole to the topmost deck and I can now say from present knowledge that she is equipped out of all reason.’”

What did the visit discover?

“Quartermaster Baker’s private office was the first visited, and Congressman Driggs was amazed with the splendor of the furnishings that surrounded him. … It is furnished entirely in solid mahogany, the furniture consisting of an elaborately carved desk, couch covered with leather, revolving chair. ... Adjoining these princely quarters is the quartermaster’s smoking or reading room. It is also elegantly fitted up, with easy chairs, a couch and other solid mahogany fittings. It is a large room on the most desirable deck on the transport. … These quarters had an air of elegance that one might expect to find at the best hotels in this country.”

The tour got more interesting.

“There seemed to be some things aboard the Sumner that Congressman Driggs was not to see if the officials could pilot him by them. One of these was the exquisitely fitted bathroom which has been built for the exclusive use of the quartermaster captain. It is a dream of elegance and would be an ornament in the private house of any New York millionaire. ‘That’s the prettiest thing in the way of a bathroom that I ever saw,’ exclaimed the Congressman as he hesitatingly stepped inside the door. … A bewildered look came over the national lawmaker’s face as he gazed on the beautifully designed mosaic floor, the light blue tinted wainscoting of glazed tiling that extended about the room to a height of about four feet and the elegant solid porcelain bath tub and washstand of the same material.

“‘What could be nicer than this bathroom … I never saw its equal and I think I’ll send my architect to secure the specifications that I may have one like it built in my private residence.’”

Driggs finally got to see the accommodations for the enlisted men.

“‘This is a tough place to put soldiers. I understand arrangements were made to accommodate 998 men on the Sumner, but that only the other day it was discovered that that number could not be carried. Now, I’d like to know who is responsible for making that blunder and incurring all that expense.’ …Mr. Driggs then took a look at the closets and other sanitary arrangements provided for the soldiers.

“‘Those are the worst affairs I have seen for some time,’ he said. ‘It’s too bad to make any man and especially a soldier on a long journey through tropics like this, use accommodations like these.’

“Mr. Driggs discovered that there are but sixteen shower baths on the ship for the 738 men, while there are dozens of different varieties in separate rooms for the use of the 120 odd officers.”

As Driggs vowed to continue to investigate, the Eagle reported, “The Army transport Sumner at last on her way to Manila. The soldiers were placed on board the ship at two o’clock P.M. yesterday and at 3:12 the transport departed for Manila. Hundreds of friends of the departing men were on the pier to bid them farewell.”

As politicians talked, the story faded until April 29, 1900, when a letter was received by the Eagle from someone on board the Sumner.

“Gibraltar, April 13 – The army transport Sumner arrived here last evening, Thursday, April 12, at 6 o’clock, having made the trip from Sandy Hook in just twelve days, under the most favorable conditions. … In spite of the delightful weather, life on this ‘floating palace’ has not been an ideal dream. Six hundred and fifty enlisted men, forty-six officers and a few other passengers seem to crowd the ship quite seriously. It is the universal comment of those who are posted and able to compare the Sumner with other transports, that she is very poorly arranged.”

The letter described some of the problems.

“The small spar deck aft does not give standing room to the number of men in that part of the ship, nor is the space forward in any sense adequate for the needs of the five companies. … The bathing facilities have been taxed often in the Atlantic and the six shower baths for the 650 men will be entirely insufficient when we reach the tropics. … soldiers are not allowed to pass from one section to the other, for the interior passageways are more than half filled with coal.”

There was more.

“The complaints about the scarcity of food and its being so poorly cooked were very general last week and Sunday the climax came. All of the acting first sergeants went to their respective company commanders and stated the facts. An investigation resulted in a larger issue. There are many men in this recruit detachment who have served previous enlistments and who know just what the soldiers’ ration is and can tell when it is withheld. Boiled potatoes and hash, with fish for a change and occasionally a stew with onion in it, makes up the usual meal. Bread and coffee are included of course.”

James Archibald was a correspondent traveling with the officers, and he told a different story.

“The private soldier’s life while on a long ocean voyage is made as easy and as pleasant as possible by the officers in charge. … A variety of games, from tiddledy-winks to chess, is provided, and the man in charge of this valuable work is active all the day and evening in keeping the men amused. He arranges tournaments and matches, and gives prizes for the winners. He suggests different occupations for the idle men, and in this way does an immense amount of good. The Association also provides reading matter sufficient to occupy the minds of those who care to read.”

Archibald left the ship at the Suez Canal, saying, “The beautiful transport to which I bade good-by at Port Sàìd is as near perfection as a ship made on this earth can aspire. This superlative has a right to be used. The people of the United States have been made familiar with the details of their perfected warships; they have even more reason to be proud of the superb completeness of their ships which have been prepared for the comfort, health, and good cheer of the American soldiers as they sail around the world.”

He also noted one thing the Sumner would need in the Philippines.

“One of the most important and useful features of this magnificent ship is the arrangement for supplying cold-air draft during hot weather. The fresh-air supply is so forced over ammonia pipes that it is cooled and then discharged throughout the entire ship. Each cabin, each deck, and every part of the great vessel receives its supply of fresh air in this manner, so that even in tropical weather the interior of the transport is very comfortable.”

Finally, on May 23, the Eagle announced, “ARMY TRANSPORT MADE THE TRIP IN FIFTY-THREE DAYS. Washington, May 23 – The Adjutant General this afternoon received a cablegram from General Mac Arthur announcing the arrival at Manila of the transport Sumner, 53 day out from Brooklyn.”

Whether floating palace or hellhole, the Sumner was a long way from Barnegat Light.

Next Week: Adventures in the Pacific.


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