An 1898 print shows the "U.S.S. Merrimac", a cargo ship, under fire as it passes between fortifications at the entrance to Santiago de Cuba Bay, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress

Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.

Cheryl MullenbachCheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.

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“I’m not going around trying to get kissed. I haven’t done anything brave. No one but a darned fool would have gone on that Merrimac trip.”

Stuart, Iowa, native Osborn Warren Deignan was being modest when he claimed he hadn’t done anything brave. Most Americans in 1898 disagreed with the Spanish-American War hero when it came to his statement about bravery.

The Spanish-American War was one of the shortest wars on record. The actual fighting took place over 15 weeks. Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, and the United States had interests in the island. The Cuban people had made attempts at independence from Spain, and the American public supported those efforts. In addition, most Americans were in favor of sending troops to Cuba to protect American citizens and businesses there. It became the war that made Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders famous.

War started in April 1898 when Spain and the United States declared war on each other, and by June Deignan was onboard the US naval steamer named the Merrimac. The navy had sent it to block the Spanish fleet in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. The plan was for the Americans to blow up the Merrimac in order to obstruct passage by the Spanish ships. Deignan had volunteered for the duty. Before the Americans could act, the Spanish fired on the Merrimac and it sank. The crew was captured and taken as prisoners of war.

By July the crew of the Merrimac had been released by the Spaniards, and they were returned to the United States. They were greeted as heroes throughout the country. Everywhere they went the sailors were mobbed by crowds. Newspapers carried reports of the men being pursued by girls eager to kiss the returning war heroes. It happened in New York City, and Deignan encountered the same upon his return to his hometown.

In the fall he made a trip to Stuart and was greeted at the train depot by a crowd of about 500 people. The governor was there and so were a swarm of cheering young girls. They grabbed his hands and tickled his bearded chin. And they were not shy about planting kisses on the cheeks of the hometown boy. Finally, Deignan pushed the enthusiastic fans away, saying, “There are more handsome men in the crowd than me.”

Deignan’s experiences on the Merrimac was the most well-known story of his heroism, but he also saved the life of a fellow sailor during the interval between the Cuba battle and his visit to Stuart. And the second experience caused a delay in his Iowa homecoming.

He happened to be in Brooklyn (NY) navy yard one day when two sailors fell from their boat into the water. As they bobbed to the surface, Deignan saw one of the men had been injured and was bleeding. He immediately jumped into the water and pulled the sailor to safety.

Unfortunately, Deignan was wearing a new uniform at the time and carried his gold watch and chain and about $90 in gold and silver coins in the pockets. As he struggled in the water to save the drowning sailor, he wriggled out of his trousers to better navigate the waters. He managed to save himself and the sailor, but all his valuables and the uniform went to the bottom of the river. In a letter to his mom, Deignan wrote that he would have to postpone his furlough to Iowa for “another month or so” until he could save up traveling money.

Deignan was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his “extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor” in Cuba. The navy gave him a promotion and a $20 per month pay raise.

©Cheryl Mullenbach

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