At about 9.40pm on the evening of 15th February 1898, the United States battleship Maine, anchored quietly in Havana Harbour, suffered a catastrophic explosion, possibly as a result of a mine. It tore out the ship’s keel causing her to rapidly sink with the loss of some 260 American officers and men of the vessel’s total complement of some 400. The following morning all that could be seen above the waterline were the twisted & mangled remnants of the ship’s iron superstructure, recorded in hauntingly stark detail in numerous contemporary photographs.
The Sinking of the USS Maine, Havana Harbour, Feb 15th 1898
[Courtesy of Library of Congress]
At the time of the Maine‘s visit to Havana, the Spanish regime in Cuba was wrestling with a violent revolt by nationalist guerillas seeking independence from the mother country. No clear cause or explanation for the sinking of the Maine was ever discovered nor exactly who or what was responsible for the original explosion. Many Americans, particularly press figures such as William Randolph Hearst and Jospeh Pullitzer and hawkish Senators such as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, rapidly inflamed the situation by coining the popular battle cry of “Remember the Maine” and squarely laying the blame for the outrage on the Spanish authorities. President McKinley was widely criticized for trying to cool an increasingly volatile diplomatic situation. It was a losing battle and within the space of two months Spain and the United States were at war – the brief and decidedly one-sided Spanish American War of 1898 – with hostilities declared on April 24th-25th. Within three months it was all over, with superior American fleets in the Philippines and Cuba annihilating their Spanish counterparts in the briefest & most unequal of engagements.
In the period between the sinking of the Maine in mid-February and the declaration of War in late April, one young American boy, aged just seven, expressing his own sense of personal patriotism, briefly captured the imagination of the American Press and rapidly became something of a national hero. Extensive press reports were written about him and photos of him draped in the Stars and Stripes appeared in newspapers & journals across the country. His actions were widely celebrated and praised. In March 1898 a popular poem would even be penned about him entitled To the Boy with A Country…by the well-known writer, James Whitcomb Ridley [1849-1916].
And who was that child? One Dan Wallingford of Indianapolis, described as “a rosy, chubby, healthy-looking specimen of boyhood”, with a clear-florid complexion, blue eyes, dark-brown hair, just over four feet tall and weighing in at 69 pounds. Dan was the only son of well-known Indianapolis architect, Charles Augustus Wallingford [1854-1909] and demonstrated a poise, maturity & sensibility far beyond his youthful seven years.
Dan is of course, Daniel Kirkwood Wallingford [1890-1964], well-known to 20th Century cartophiles for his amusing & popular pair of 1930s maps, A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America  and A Bostonian’s Idea of the United States of America , poking fun at the often somewhat blinkered and distorted sense of regional & national identity which Wallingford encountered during his residence in both cities in the 1920s and 1930s.
So here is Ridley’s poem:
To the Boy With A Country, Dan Wallingford
Dan Wallingford, my jo Dan!–
Though but a child in years,
Your patriot spirit fills the land
And wakens it to cheers,–
You lift the flag –you roll the drums–
We hear the bugle blow,–
Till all our hearts are one with yours,
Dan Wallingford my jo!
Seven year old patriot & poster boy, Dan Wallingford, March 1898
And what exactly was this exemplary patriotic spirit shown by the young Dan Wallingford and so fervently applauded by Ridley?
The Indianapolis News of Wednesday 2nd March 1898 summarized matters with an attractive pencil sketch portrait under the headline, Master Dan Wallingford, Indianapolis’s Seven-year-old Patriot.
It quoted a press announcement of the previous week, February 24th:
Washington DC, February 24th – In Secretary Long’s mail (James D Long, Secretary to the Navy) was an envelope containing twenty four 2-cent postage stamps and this letter from Dan Wallingford, seven years old, of 442 North Pennsylvania Street, Indianapolis: “I have been wanting to do something for my country. I think now is the time, so I send you all the pennies I have to build a new ship.”
“There was another note in the envelope from Dan’s mother. She said the boy was a great reader of American history and patriotic literature and had written the letter and sent the stamps entirely without suggestion from any person. The stamps were purchased with money from his savings account and represented all it contained. An appropriate letter of thanks will be sent to the young patriot. The Navy Department does not know what to do with the stamps. Officials of Secretary Long’s office say that they think the next battleship could appropriately be named the “Dan Wallingford” but the law provides that all battleships shall be named after the States of the Union. Perhaps the very smallest torpedo boat which Congress will authorise this year may be named in his honour”
Included in the same report, is a transcript of Secretary Long’s response:
February 24th 1898
My Dear Little Patriotic Lad:
I have your letter and the twenty four 2-cent postage-stamps enclosed with it, which you have so generously taken from your spending money and given to your country.
There is not so much need for help in building a battleship as there is for the relief of the poor sufferers on the Maine. I have therefore given the stamps to Mrs Edwin Stewart…who is secretary of a society of ladies who are collecting money for the benefit of those sufferers and I have asked her to send you a letter of acknowledgement.
I am sure that a little fellow, seven years of age, who begins by showing so much interest in his country, will grow up to be an honorable and useful citizen.
With very best regards,
I am very truly yours,
JAMES D. LONG
Master D Wallingford
442 N.Penn St
Dan Wallingford did indeed grow up to become a very honourable & useful citizen. His youthful precociousness fed through to an unusually inventive and creative talent, which by his teens was clearly demonstrated in the design of his own patent, originally filed in August 1906 and published in June 1908. The patent was for a newly formulated safety attachment for elevators, by which the descent of an elevator car might be brought to a rapid and well-cushioned halt, without any of the sudden jarring usually associated with such an action.
Following his father’s premature death in 1909, Wallingford progressed to Cornell University in September 1911, graduating in architecture four years later, in 1915. Until the Spring of 1917 he worked in architects’ and engineers’ offices when he was drafted for war service. He was in the first officers’ training camp and was commissioned as a first Lieutenant in the Field Artillery, 84th Division, Louisville, Kentucky in the second half of 1917, having previously been at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis. In the Spring of 1918 he was posted to the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, passing the training course and being retained as a gunnery instructor there for the remaining duration of the war. Wallingford would feature in a special article in the Indianapolis News in March 1918, which revisited his youthtful patriotism of 1898 & compared it to that of twenty years later. He was discharged from the Army at the end of March 1919 but retained the rank of major in the officers’ reserve.
Wallingford’s own childhood scrapbook of cartoons & cuttings relating to the Spanish American War is now preserved in the General Research Division of the New York Public Library
His subsequent career and map making ventures will be the feature of a forthcoming blog post.