Not much is still known about George W. Hall’s life.
His death, however, will be forever significant.
We know Hall was a 26-year-old private in the First Idaho Infantry Regiment of United States Volunteers — a fledgling group that would evolve into the Idaho National Guard.
We know he enrolled in the infantry’s Company B in Boise by May 25, 1898.
We know he was a Christian and likely carried the standard-issue Springfield breech-loading single-shot rifle with him to battle.
What has largely been forgotten is that Hall has the sad distinction of being the first Idahoan killed in action from an Idaho military unit after it became a state in 1890, according to retired Master Sgt. Jeff Packer.
And he died on the first day of battle in a war you’ve probably never heard of: the Philippine-American War in 1899.
“It’s one of the saddest parts of American history that is unknown,” said Shelton Woods, a Boise State University professor born and raised in the Philippines who specializes in southeastern Asian history. “If you would ask, 95, 98 percent of Americans about the Philippine-American War they would look at you with a blank face and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It’s just not on their radar.”
As Idahoans enjoy a three-day holiday weekend, Packer, the chief curator at the Idaho Military Museum, hopes Americans never lose sight of what Memorial Day is really about: remembering all servicemen and women who gave their lives for country.
Remember the Maine!
Why would an average citizen like Hall volunteer to fight in a brand new regiment in a conflict taking shape in a hot, humid country comprised of more than 7,000 islands an ocean away?
“I don’t imagine the answer to that question then is any different to the answer to that question today,” said Idaho National Guard Capt. Robert Taylor, who serves as the Guard’s historian. “It’s still a volunteer force. It’s still people willing to deploy and fight for their state and country.”
To understand how Hall and the rest of the First Idaho Volunteers — which was made up of eight companies, 32 officers and 644 enlisted — ended up waging war against the Philippines, one must go a bit further back in history.
After America pushed its frontier into the West, it didn’t exactly slow down when it came to expansion.
“We said, ‘Reaching the Pacific isn’t going to stop us,’” Woods said. “’We’re going to keep going.’ People like Teddy Roosevelt, who believed in American exceptionalism, said keep on moving west to Hawaii, Guam and then the Philippines.”
The United States, which had been keeping its eye on Spain’s colonial rule over Cuba, was pulled into the Spanish-American War when the USS Maine, sent to Havana to ensure the safety of American interests, sunk in Havana Harbor. Although the cause of the blast that doomed the ship is still disputed, President William McKinley and his administration used the deaths of the 260 aboard as a rallying cry — Remember the Maine! — to enter war.
Meanwhile, Spain — and the Catholic Church — felt its control over the Philippines slipping away as Filipinos began demanding independence from their colonial mother.
The United States, realizing there were strategic and economic benefits to controlling the Philippines, helped the Filipino insurgents rid the Spanish from the archipelago.
As American military units remained in the Philippines months after Spain’s departure, it became clear the United States intended to retain the islands as its own colony. Relations between the United States and the Filipino insurgents quickly deteriorated.
“No matter how you skin the cat, you’re not giving people liberty by going over and saying you are now our colony,” Woods said. “The American Revolution started because we were saying we don’t want to be a colony. We want freedom. So there was a sense of how can we condemn the Europeans for making colonies in Africa and southeast Asia ... when we say people should have self-determination?”
President McKinley calls for troops
To maintain order over its new colony, President McKinley and the War Department sent word to each state governor — including Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg — to gather the state’s militia and prepare for war with insurgents in the Philippines.
Idahoans from Rathdrum, Lewiston, Pocatello and all corners of the new Gem State heeded the call — something they have done for every conflict the United States has entered since, Packer said.
“There were still a lot of people with deeply patriotic sentiment toward the country and to the new state,” he said. “That was part of it. They’d worked long and hard from 1863 to 1890 as a territory. When they finally got their statehood, they were very proud of that.”
Woods said many of these men would have grown up hearing the stories of the Battle of Gettysburg and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed March to the Sea during the Civil War.
“They’ve got these visions of heroism in their minds and so this was like, ‘Here’s our chance now to be heroes and to fight,’” Woods said.
Hall’s experience of joining the First Idaho Volunteers would not have exactly transpired like someone joining the military in 2018, Taylor said.
“It was way different than what we think about today,” Taylor said. “It was almost ... more like a gentleman’s club. Officers were popularly elected back then; they would vote on who gets to be the commanding officer.”
Many volunteers mustered on the spot as the trains — one of which displayed a banner with the “Remember the Maine!” battle cry — were gearing up to depart from Boise to San Francisco. From there, the untrained and ill-equipped infantry would board a ship for a monthlong trip to the Philippines.
“That’s totally unheard of today,” Taylor said. “You can’t just show up at the train station, basically be included in the Army and get to deploy and go and fight.”
The first day of battle
The First Volunteers’ Second Battalion, led by the popular Maj. Edward McConville, spent three days in the trenches of the Philippines before President McKinley suspended hostilities with Spain on Aug. 12, 1899. The First Idaho Volunteers were among three battalions placed on reserve and tedious guard duty for months — an “inglorious assignment,” according to the Idaho National Guard’s official history book.
Then came the night of Feb. 4, 1899 — the first date the Americans and Filipino insurgents would reach a tipping point and tensions boiled over to full-on war.
When four armed Filipino soldiers attempted to pass through the American lines near a fortified building, members of the Nebraska Regiment fired the first shots of the conflict that would ultimately last more than three years.
Almost immediately, the city of Santa Mesa came under attack, and the First Idaho Volunteers were mobilized to defend their positions. They gathered around the Paco Church.
“They prepared to advance on several occasions, only to return to the churchyard,” according Idaho National Guard official history.
That’s when a sniper’s bullet passed through the arm of Sgt. Ernest Scott, but Hall was also hit by the same bullet. It went through Hall’s body near his hips and he died.
It was his first, and last, day of battle.
Scott, after two months of recovery, was ready for duty two months later.
Hall, along with Maj. McConville — who led his men into battle — and three Idaho enlisted men died that day.
Because of his status and notoriety in the Gem State, McConville’s body was transported back to the United States almost immediately. He was buried in Lewiston, with the governor and other state officials in attendance.
Hall’s body, as well as the other enlisted killed in action, came back to the United States when the rest of the First Idaho Volunteers fulfilled their duty. They were sent home after 16 months of service.
The Idaho Statesman covered the return of Hall’s remains with a story headlined “Boise People Pay Fitting Tribute to the Memory of the Dead Volunteer.” Wrapped in the folds of Old Glory, Hall’s remains were moved slowly up Tenth Street to Main toward the Grand Army of the Republic Hall while a band, with muffled drums, played a “mournful dirge.” His father and sister attended the procession in a closed carriage.
“As the box holding the metallic coffin in which the remains rest was lifted tenderly from the express car, the Columbia band played ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ while tears coursed down the cheeks of many of those who witnessed the sorrowful spectacle,” the Statesman article reads.
His remains were taken to Sweet, Idaho, for burial at a family home, where they remained unmarked for 30 years.
“In the 30 years that have elapsed, the homestead has changed ownership and has become a cow pasture. Not even a marker remained to denote (Hall’s burial) location,” reads a Nov. 16, 1930, article from the Emmett Index.
That’s when 12 of Hall’s fellow veterans from the First Idaho Volunteers officiated a ceremony to re-inter Hall’s remains. The event was an “impressive removal (ceremony) with the presence of 250 spectators,” the article reads. A firing squad of eight gave a salute and an American Legion bugler blew taps over the new grave. Complete with military headstone, Hall’s remains are at the Sweet-Montour Cemetery, where it’s decorated today with a small American flag for Memorial Day.
Packer said he hopes Hall would be proud of the Idaho Military Museum’s efforts to preserve the memory of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, and every day.
“We’re getting farther and farther away of maintaining that history,” he said. “We see a lot of artifacts being donated to us from World War II veterans, particularly because we’re losing them at a very rapid rate. They bring us their mementos that came back from the conflict with them because the family doesn’t want them, which is really sad.
“In my day … there was always going to be somebody in the family to carry that on and pass it down. What we’re trying to do here is to maintain that history as much as we possibly can.”