How Grandpa joined the war with Spain

Robert Burns Dees in the late 1950s

Robert Burns Dees in the late 1950s

Amazing, the things you find out even after 25 years of marriage. 

We were sitting at the dining room table when my wife mentioned that her grandfather had served in the Spanish-American War.

Remember the Maine? Well, no one living today remembers the U.S. battleship getting blown up in Havana harbor.

Hard to believe Mary could have a grandfather who was in a war as far removed in time as 1898. Considering we’re baby boomers, World War I would have been easier to figure.

Right away, I wanted to know about Robert Burns Dees.

Mary’s mom, Naomi Schleicher, who lives in Allentown and taught in the Easton Area School District for years, told me that her dad grew up in Arkansas and signed up in Texas, but didn’t leave the country during the war. Afterward, he worked for a Texas rancher and married his daughter. The couple moved to California and had eight kids, Naomi being No. 7 in 1922.

First thing was a Google search. “Robert B. Dees” got 3,900 hits. But when I narrowed it to “Dees & Spanish-American War & Texas,” I got a hit on Texas Adjutant General Service Records 1836-1935 at the Texas State Library and Archives. Dees is listed on the site as a U.S.volunteer in the Spanish-American War.

I wrote to the library for any information it might have. A few days later, a librarian called and said there’s info on Dees online, and she walked me through it on my PC.

The Texas State Library website,, allows you to do a search on individuals. I plugged in Dees’ name and got a prompt for “image.” When I clicked on that, I got a single photocopy of a one-page document in PDF format.

Dated November 1901, it says: “Received from Honorable Joseph D. Sayers, Governor of Texas, the sum of $8.32 in payment of amount due me, late private Company L, 4 Texas Volunteer Infantry as compensation for services …. [in] the war with Spain.” It has Dees’ signature and address in Ballinger, Texas.

A Google search on 4th Texas Volunteer Infantry found a summary of its service, which says its men were mustered in during July 1898, after the main battles and a month before the fighting stopped.

The unit, which had 46 officers and 949 enlisted men, did not go overseas but was stationed at Fort Houston as part of the Department of the Gulf. Dees was 21 at the time. He was mustered out, along with the rest of the 4thTexas, in March 1899.

I got on the National Personnel Records Center website,, and printed out Standard Form 180 for requesting military records. I filled it out with as much as I now know about Dees, including his date and place of birth and date of death, which I got from Naomi. The paperwork is in the mail to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington,D.C. I’ll let you know what, if anything, I get in return.

Dees died in 1961 at age 84.

One of the hits I got on my Internet search of his name had a newspaper item about a family tragedy that must have caused him and his wife profound grief.

It’s a 1918 story in the Mariposa (Calif.) Gazette about the accidental death of their 9-year-old daughter Mary Belle, who was hit in the head by a falling tree limb. Both parents saw it happen.

 Naomi was born four years later. She remembers that when she was a child, her father looked down at her and said, “My little Mary Belle.”

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