Michigan’s Oldest Spanish-American War Veteran

Ben Shiffman was one of only a few Jews to serve and was Michigan’s oldest veteran in the Spanish-American War.

Arthur Horwitz, president of the Detroit Jewish News Foundation, characterizes the historic pages of the Detroit Jewish News and the Detroit Jewish Chronicle in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History as the “DNA of the community.” Indeed, more than 100 years of the history of Jews in Michigan, Detroit and America can be found in the Archive.

On Jan. 13, I gave a presentation to the Adults Seeking Knowledge (ASK) group at Temple Israel. I discussed the Davidson Digital Archive and presented a few stories I found interesting. The audience was great, and I enjoyed the event. And, it resulted in an unexpected story — today’s column.

When demonstrating how to navigate the Archive, I asked the audience for a name for a search. A fellow shouted out: “Ben Shiffman.” It was Douglas Shiffman, grandson of Ben Shiffman. It seems Ben was a notable war veteran, 1898-1902, from Detroit with an amazing story to tell. He was one of only a few Jews to serve in the Spanish-American War.

Michigan’s Oldest Spanish-American War Veteran
Detroit Jewish News Foundation

The Spanish-American War itself was a very limited 10-week affair in 1898. It was most notable for its catalyst, a spectacular explosion that destroyed the battleship U.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Historians now believe the sinking of the Maine was due to an internal explosion, but newspapers at the time cried “Remember the Maine,” blaming Spain for sabotage.

An eager Congress led the U.S. into war. Today, the war is most notable for Admiral Dewey’s victory over an outmatched Spanish fleet in the Philippines and future president Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba (point of interest: although the Rough Riders were cavalry, the charge was made on foot).

The war also resulted in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and other Spanish territories being transferred to U.S. control. The U.S. then continued the fight against guerillas in the Philippines.

Michigan’s Oldest Spanish-American War Veteran
Detroit Jewish News Foundation
Michigan’s Oldest Spanish-American War Veteran
Detroit Jewish News Foundation

Born in Austria, Shiffman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1901 and was stationed in the Philippines for two and half years. There he served under Lt. George C. Marshall, who would become the Army’s leading general during World War II. Shiffman’s photos and memorabilia are now preserved by the Temple Beth El archives.

According to a report in the March 17, 1967, issue of the JN, Shiffman was one of the last “Hebrew Veterans of the War with Spain.” The same article also noted that he and his wife, another immigrant from Austria, were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary (although Ben or the Shiffmans are cited on 77 pages in the Archive, I could not find Mrs. Shiffman’s first name).

The Shiffmans moved to Ionia, Mich., from San Francisco, and then to Detroit, where Ben owned several Super Auto Service gas stations. He was a longtime member of Detroit Jewish War Veterans Post 135. Moreover, mentshes that they were, the Shiffmans spent a lot of time taking wounded vets to dinners and ballgames.

Ben died in 1969, Michigan’s oldest veteran of the Spanish American War. I really appreciate Douglas Shiffman leading me to this great story.

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.