Thursday, June 30, 2016

Louis Kortmann in the Wild and Wooly Country of Cuba

Most archives and cultural institutions have hidden collections, these are collections or items that, usually due to time restraints and a large backlog, haven't been cataloged or described yet and are hidden by researchers and staff. One of the perks of working in a place like the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives at SCHS is finding these collections. We recently found a small hidden collection of postcards and photos dealing with Louis W. Kortmann Jr. and his relatives. Kortmann was the president of the Schenectady Trust Company and a rather prominent citizen of Schenectady, judging by the contents of this collection. Kortmann Jr.'s father, Louis Kortmann Sr., served in the Spanish-American War and the postcards are mainly correspondence from Kortmann Sr. to his wife Kate who was staying at the Madison Barracks in Sackets Harbor.

Louis and Kate Kortmann at their home in Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor, NY.
Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The correspondence from Kortmann Sr. is particularly interesting because they document his time serving in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Kortmann enlisted as a private in the Ninth infantry unit at Sackets Harbor, NY. The correspondence to Kate begins on April 20, 1898 as he is traveling from Washington D.C. to Cuba, making stops in Lynchburg, Virginia,  and Rocky Ford, Georgia until he reaches Tampa Bay, Florida on April 22, 1898. Kortmann's unit camped out at Port Tampa for a while and in one postcard he describes the camp as having "sand knee deep and good and hot," with the only trouble being that he can't get enough to eat. The orders to ship out to Cuba came on June 13th and Kortmann writes that there are around 850 men on his ship (the USS Santiago) and that it is "quite a task to breathe." The USS Santiago was among the first ships to arrive at Cuba on June 22, despite this, they were actually forgotten during the disembarking process and ended up having to wait three days till the men were able to leave the humid, cramped ship.

There is a gap in the correspondence between June 26th and July 12th, but we can fill some of
The flag of the 9th Regiment. Courtesy of the
New York State Military Museum
the unit's activity and what Kortmann would have been going through thanks to the website The troops had to march about 12 miles to Santiago in intense heat while carrying their blanket rolls and ammo. The Ninth eventually reached San Juan Hill, but found themselves in the valley between the American artillery and the Spanish troops. As the unit tried to make sense of the battle, their colonel was killed and two lieutenant colonels were wounded leaving Lieutenant Colonel Ezra P. Ewers as the senior officer, which he did not even know until after San Juan Hill was captured.

"We are here at last in the City (Santiago de Cuba) and quartered in the Theater...A great many of our men are sick from exhaustion and malarial fever. - Louis Kortmann

Postcard from Louis to Kate stating that Santiago
has surrendered. Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann
Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Between the intense heat, sickness, and lack of cooking equipment, camp at San Juan was brutal. By the time the Spanish surrendered San Juan, the Ninth had lost one officer and four enlisted men with 27 enlisted men wounded. The Ninth had more to worry about than the Spanish forces as Kortmann writes, "We have plenty of sickness in our camps." By July 22, 132 men out of the regiment's 433 were reported sick and 5 men would die of various illnesses before they reached Camp Wikoff on Long Island. Despite being back in the states, sickness still ran rampant throughout the Ninth. Kortmann writes that "This place (Camp Wikoff) is not a fit place for a camp for sick men. We have to lay on the ground and most of us have only one blanket." In a later postcard he states that the Camp is worse than being in Cuba and that they average six deaths a day.

Doctor William Wallace Walker was stationed at Camp Wikoff and wrote an account of the conditions at the Camp. Walker wrote that “Right here in 100 miles of New York I cannot get medicines for typhoid fever, or chlorinated soda to wash out the bowels in typhoid fever and dysentery, the two principal diseases killing our boys…There is gross mismanagement somewhere and it is costing many lives. Too many politicians and rich men’s sons are appointed to office.” Walker complained of other doctors not visiting sick men till 10 a.m. while he had been working since 5:30 a.m. He was sickened and disturbed by these conditions and requested a transfer back to his regular regiment in San Antonio.

Company E of the 9th Infantry reading newspapers during the Spanish-American war. 1898. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <>, accessed 30 June 2016.
Telegram from Nelson A. Rockefeller to Louis W. Kortmann.
Rockefeller asks Kortmann to meet to discuss the effectiveness
of state programs. Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann
Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Kortmann made it back to his wife and ended up playing for the United States Military Academy Band. In 1905, their son Louis W. Kortmann Jr. was born. The Kortmann’s eventually settled in Schenectady and Louis Jr. started his banking career as a teller at the Schenectady Trust Company. Kortmann would work his way up to become president of the bank. This collection doesn’t contain too many personal details about Louis Jr.’s life, but from its contents, we see that he dealt with some very important people. There is an invitation to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a letter from Robert F. Kennedy, and a telegram from Nelson A. Rockefeller. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much more about Kortmann Jr.’s life. The bits and pieces that are there mostly deal with his time as president of the Schenectady Trust Company. This collection gives a glimpse into his life, and I hope to dig up a bit more about him in the future.

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