Our research into West Acton’s football team revealed that William G. Rodway, the team captain, enlisted in the army during the Spanish American War and died from disease while in service. Recently, we looked for his name on the monument erected in front of the Town Hall in 1912 to memorialize “Acton Men in the Spanish American War 1898.” We were surprised to discover that William G. Rodway is not listed there. Given the fact that he was the only Acton soldier who died in service in 1898, the decision seems an odd one. His death certificate confirms that Acton was his residence, and according to his obituary, he was considered by the townspeople to be one of Acton’s own. Harold Phalen’s 1954 History of the Town of Acton suggests that he was omitted from the monument because he joined up with a Boston regiment. The decision process is lost now, but in honor of Veterans Day, we remember William G. Rodway, Acton veteran, and share what we have learned about him.
William G. Rodway was born in Castle Hanley, Worcestershire, England, between January and March 1873. He was born to parents also from Worcestershire, William Rodway, born in Welland, and Sarah Booker, born in Leigh. William G. was baptized on March 23, 1873 in Malvern Wells. He was recorded in the Welland 1881 Census (at age 8) with his parents and siblings Charles (age 11), Harry (10), James (6), Roslina (usually known as Rose, 4), and Alice (2). His father was an agricultural laborer.
We have not yet established what happened to the family between 1881 and 1889. According to British death indices, a William Rodway died in 1883 in the registration district that contains Welland; he was probably the father of the family, though that fact has not been confirmed. We did find that William G’s older brothers Charles and Harry emigrated from Liverpool to Boston in May, 1888. The next year, William Rodway (age 14) travelled on the ship Cephalonia with his mother Sarah (45) and siblings James (11), Rose (9), George (7), and Helen (5), arriving in Boston on April 8. They probably headed to Acton because they had relatives there. Apparently, Sarah had a brother George Booker who had emigrated previously with his family and settled in Acton.
William Rodway was, from what we can tell, an active young man. Thanks to the Concord Enterprise, we know that by November 10, 1892, he was in a militia company in Concord with his brother Harry, both of them having obtained marksman qualifications. We already knew that he played football; he was enough of a leader to be the captain of the team, and his athleticism earned praise. The November 12, 1896 Concord Enterprise called him a "great all around player." The previous week, it had been reported that he had scored all of the touchdowns in a game against Maynard.
For some time prior to his enlistment, William Rodway worked for the West End Railway in Boston. Whether he enlisted with acquaintances from his workplace, we do not know, but instead of joining the “Concord company” (Massachusetts Sixth Regiment, Company I) with others from Acton, he signed on with Company C of the Ninth Massachusetts Volunteers. He was made a corporal.
According to the Adjutant General’s Report published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth (1898 Annual Reports, Volume X), the Ninth trained for a few weeks at Camp Dewey in South Framingham (May 1898) before being sent to Camp Alger in Virginia for more drilling and endurance training (June 1898). They set sail for Cuba on the USS Harvard on June 26, arriving on the afternoon of July 1. That night, they were ordered to do an overnight march to the front where they took their places in the trenches. (Letters published in the Boston Post of July 18th reported that they spent little time actually shooting. They lacked smokeless powder and their Springfield rifles created too much smoke, so they were sent to stay in the trenches as backups.) Unfortunately, the original orders to march had specified that the men leave their blanket rolls behind, leaving them little protection from the elements. After the city of Santiago surrendered on July 17th, the regiment participated in the ceremony, and on the 18th, the regiment was moved from the trenches and “was sent back some four miles to bivouac in a swamp; and here disease in an alarming degree broke out among our troops. The officers and men, all of whom had borne up in a remarkable manner until now, seemed to succumb at once, and the sick roll increased tremendously.” (page 187) During the next few weeks, the regiment “was practically struggling for its existence against the inroads of disease and the inclemency of the weather. In details those men who were able to stand upon their feet were ordered to the hospital to assist the sick; and it was this work, so admirably and unselfishly done, that completed the work of devastation, and sent home to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the tottering remnants of as physically strong a regiment as this State ever possessed.” (page 188) Local newspapers reported on deplorable conditions, widespread sickness, and losses endured by the regiment. (The Boston Post, in particular, published letters, reports, and disputes over blame.) Pressure built to get the regiment out of Cuba. It was sent to Montauk Point, Long Island on September 1.
On September 15, 1898, the Concord Enterprise’s West Acton news stated that Harry Rodway was visiting his brother William who was in critical condition at Camp Wikoff, Montauk Point, New York. It added, “Harry returned home Friday, but started back again Tuesday, the family feeling so anxious for the sick one.” The September 20, 1898 Boston Post reported that William G. Rodway was very sick in the hospital in the camp at Montauk awaiting the opportunity to be sent home. A doctor from Boston City Hospital was travelling back and forth, trying to accompany the sick to Boston. The October 6th Enterprise reported that William was improved and expected home soon.
Sadly, William Rodway died of dysentery on October 18, 1898 in St. Peter’s Hospital, Brooklyn, New York. According to an obituary in the Boston Daily Globe (Oct 20, page 7), his brother brought him home. Family and friends must have been shocked when they realized what happened to him; according to his Concord Enterprise obituary (Oct. 27, page 8), “He was a young man of fine personal appearance and splendid physique, but had become so emaciated by disease none would have recognized him.” His funeral was attended by, among others, members of his company and the Acton G.A.R. post who attended as a group. All flags were at half-mast and businesses closed in the afternoon “in honor of the brave young life given at the country’s call.” After the funeral, he was buried with military honors (provided by members of the Ninth Regiment) at Mount Hope Cemetery.
William G. Rodway was not in the United States long enough to be found on a surviving census. As far as we know, he never became a citizen. Yet when volunteers were called for, he signed up to help the cause of his adopted country. It only seems right that the people of Acton should remember him as one of their men who served.