The USA spreads its wings – The Spanish-American War in Cuba (Part II)

The sensible and wholly practical strategic plan did not accord with the mood of the US public, which wanted immediate action against the Spanish. As a result Secretary of War Russell M. Alger, who had been a general in the Civil War, overruled Miles and ordered the infantry regiments of the regular army to assemble instead at New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa. These were all ports on the Gulf of Mexico and could therefore be used as launching points for an invasion of Cuba. Some infantry regiments did in fact go at a later date to Chickamauga Park, where they were able to undertake combined-arms training with the cavalry and artillery regiments of the regular establishment.

It was at this point that the politically motivated decision to create a large volunteer force came home to roost, and seriously compromised the army’s plans as much of its administrative effort was turned aside to the task of equipping, supplying, and training the many thousands of volunteers who flooded into reception areas. These were located in the southern states so that the men would be fairly close to their embarkation points, and also receive a measure of acclimatisation to the type of conditions likely to be met in Cuba. Some of these volunteers had militia experience, but most were completely raw.

Their first taste of military life cured the volunteers of most of their enthusiasm. In the reception camps they found that much essential equipment (including such basics as underwear, socks, shoes, and even rifles) was lacking, food was in short supply and very badly prepared even when available, sanitary facilities were appalling, and medical services were swamped. Training of the volunteers was further hampered by a lack of effective volunteer officers. Even when these failings were highlighted in the press, red tape combined with poor management skills to stymy all efforts at remedying the situation. The sole department to emerge with any measure of credit from this trying time was the Ordnance Department.

The inefficiency that made the life of the volunteers so miserable was also evident in the War Department’s planning and implementation of operations. The Congress had provided no peacetime apparatus for the co-ordination of military capability with foreign policy requirements, the USA entered the war without any real grand strategic plan, and indeed without the staff and intelligence apparatus to undertake realistic operational planning. In April 1898 the army was faced with the problem of undertaking an amphibious assault on an enemy shore after a sea crossing. This is one of the most difficult and hazardous military undertakings there is, and both the bureaux of the War Department and the high command of the army found themselves unprepared. There were capable men in both organisations, and these could probably have come up with a workable, indeed effective, plan in time. But time was a commodity not given to them by political pressures and public opinion, which demanded an immediate invasion of Cuba.

As it turned out, the decisive operations of the Spanish-American War fell to the navy, which was much better prepared to accept the burden. Even so, last-minute alterations in its strategic plan to deal with the Spanish navy threatened to reduce its overall effectiveness.

Dewey's flagship, the cruiser Olympia, arriving in Manila

Rumour sweeps the east coast
Soon after the US declaration of war, it was rumoured that a Spanish fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete was sailing from Spain toward the USA’s Atlantic coast, and a thoroughly alarmed public screamed for naval protection of this seaboard. The Navy Department therefore removed some of the best fighting ships from Rear Admiral William T.Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron, which had been allocated the task of blockading Cuba. These ships were used to create the Flying Squadron under Commodore Winfield S. Schley, whose task was to maintain a watch for Cervera off the USA’s east coast. Right at the beginning of the war, therefore, the Navy Department altered its own strategic scheme, based on Mahan’s teachings, to concentrate its eastern forces in a single fleet to operate in the Caribbean against any Spanish naval reinforcement of Cuba.

In the Pacific theatre, the Navy Department stuck to the latest form of its overall plan, which has been completed as late as June 1897. Developed since 1895 by officers at the Naval Staff College in collaboration with the Office of Naval Intelligence, the plan called for a naval descent on the Philippines to destroy all Spanish warships, capture Manila, and blockade all major ports. The objective of this plan was to weaken Spain by cutting her important revenues from the Philippines, and to provide the United States with a bargaining counter in the eventual peace negotiations, when the United States would be able to offer Spain the return of the Philippines in exchange for its departure from Cuba.

The navy had started active preparations for war in January 1898 under the impetus of Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore D.Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long being in poor health. Roosevelt telegraphed to all commanders, instructing them to ready their forces for war against Spain.

Dewey in the Pacific
Commodore George Dewey was instructed to gather his Asiatic Squadron in the British colony of Hong Kong, where it would be handily placed for a descent on the Philippines after taking on coal and other supplies. On 24 April, therefore, Dewey was fully prepared on the day that he received his orders to implement the attack on the Philippines. The American naval commander had used his time in Hong Kong most effectively, for apart from preparing his ships and men, he had made a complete study of the Spanish forces in the Philippines and was completely confident that his force could destroy the Spanish squadron in the islands. Dewey had also made contact with Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the main Filipino movement seeking to secure independence from Spain.

The USA was now at war, and in accordance with international law the British ordered the Asiatic Squadron to leave Hong Kong by 25 April. The squadron sailed on that day, anchoring in nearby Chinese waters until 27 April, when two Filipino leaders arrived. Dewey then sailed for the Philippines, and put the two rebel leaders ashore on the west coast of Luzon during April 30. Sailing south to Subic Bay, the main Spanish naval base on the western side of the Bataan peninsula, Dewey discovered that the Spanish squadron was absent, and pressed ahead into Manila Bay past the coast defence batteries on Corregidor and El Fraile islands in the mouth of the bay.

The Battle of Manila Bay
The Asiatic Squadron spotted the Spanish squadron off Cavite, just south of Manila, early in the morning of 1 May. The line of American ships was headed by Dewey’s flagship, the cruiser Olympia followed by another cruiser, Baltimore, the gunboat Petrel, the cruiser Raleigh, the gunboat Concord, the cruiser Boston, and a revenue cutter. Lying at anchor, Admiral Patricio Montojo’s squadron comprised one modern cruiser and 10 elderly cruisers and gunboats. In a line running south-west from the Spanish flagship, Reina Christina, these were Castilla, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, Don Antonio Uloa, Don Juan de Austria, Marques del Duero, Generale Lezo and Velasco, with Argos and El Cano lying closer inshore. The ships were all at anchor, and their own guns were supplemented by three coast-defence guns, one of 120-mm (4.72-in) ) calibre and the other two of 150-mm (5.91-in) calibre.

The US squadron ran south through the fire of the Spanish batteries protecting Manila (two 120-mm [4.72-in], four 140-mm [5.51-in], two 150-mm [5.91-in] and four 240-mm [9.45-in] guns), and once the Spanish ships were within range opened fire at 05.48 to begin the Battle of Manila Bay. The US ships circled to seaward of the Spanish ships as they fired, and the first phase of the gunnery duel lasted until 07.35, when Dewey broke off the action after he had been mistakenly informed that ammunition was running short.

The break allowed the Americans to take stock of the situation, count casualties, and take a leisurely breakfast before resuming the battle at 11.16. By this time the smoke of the battle’s first phase had cleared, revealing that the Spanish squadron was in poor shape, with Reina Cristina and Castilla sunk, and most of the surviving ships badly damaged. For another three hours the American ships pounded their stationary targets, which were all sunk or put out of action. The Spanish losses were 381 men killed or wounded, while the only American casualties were eight of the Baltimore’s sailors injured by a shell from one of the guns at Cavite. Dewey now ordered the batteries at Cavite to be shelled, and once these had been pounded into submission the Americans landed and took possession of the peninsula on which Cavite lies. Dewey’s total strength was only 1,700 men, wholly inadequate to tackle Manila, and the commodore therefore requested the despatch of army forces from the USA. While these were being readied in California and transported to the islands, Dewey ordered a blockade of this Spanish possession’s capital and also came to an agreement with the Spanish governor that the shore guns would not fire on the US ships on pain of a bombardment of Manila.

Land and sea blockade
Pending the arrival of US land forces it was important to keep the Spanish pinned in Manila, and Dewey therefore gave small arms and other support to the Filipino rebels, who invested the city from the land side and soon spread the rebellion to other islands. Late in May an American ship brought Aguinaldo from Hong Kong to take command of the rebellion. A major problem faced by Dewey was the arrival of British, French, and German naval forces in Manila Bay. Sent on the pretext of protecting their nationals in the islands from excesses by the rebels, these ships were in fact clear evidence that the European powers were not prepared to let a potential power vacuum develop in the islands should the Americans pull out. The most troublesome of the European commanders was Rear Admiral Otto von Diederichs, but Dewey’s firm and patient handling of this German officer prevented any incidents. As soon as the European powers were confident that the Americans were not about to abandon the Philippines, they pulled out their naval forces.

Many thousands of miles to the east, meanwhile, events had been gathering momentum more slowly. Here, in the Caribbean, American naval strength decided the complexion of land operations. During the first part of May, the location of Cervera’s Spanish fleet remained a mystery, and until this was resolved the army could not decide where to undertake any landing in Cuba. Pending the discovery of Cervera’s whereabouts, the War Department moved ahead slowly with plans for a landing somewhere near Havana by Miles’s expeditionary force, which was being readied at Tampa, Florida.

Cervera reaches Cuba
Cervera had in fact sailed from Cadiz in southern Spain with four armoured cruisers, three of them towing torpedo boats, on a slow progress across the Atlantic hampered by the poor condition of the ships and a shortage of coal. Proceeding via the Canary Islands, Cervera reached the Cape Verde Islands on 24 April and departed only on 29 April. The Spanish squadron then crossed the Atlantic to reach the French island possession of Martinique on 12 May. Here the Spanish admiral could not get sufficient coal for his ships, and departed for the Dutch island of Curacao, which he reached on 14 May. The same situation prevailed here and, leaving the island on the following day, Cervera decided to seek the safety of Santiago de Cuba, the only unblockaded port in Cuba. The Spanish squadron ran in under the safety of the guns during 19 May. The presence of Spanish ships was confirmed by the arrival of Schley’s Flying Squadron, which had left Norfolk, Virginia, on 13 May. The squadron had sailed south along the US coast, then west past the tip of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, and finally round the western end of Cuba to arrive off Santiago on 26 May. The Navy Department was not at first sure that Schley had in fact discovered Cervera’s squadron, and it was only with the arrival of Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron on 1 June that the fact was confirmed. Sampson had been patrolling between Havana and the Puerto Rican port of San Juan, and was at the western end of his patrol when Schley’s news reached him. The North Atlantic Squadron immediately turned and, passing round the eastern end of the island, reached Santiago on 1 June. Sampson soon relayed the information that Schley was right, and plans were set in hand to defeat Cervera’s squadron and effect a landing in Cuba.

Santiago harbour lies in a large bay whose entrance is only about 400 yards (365 m) wide and dominated by high ground on each side. On the eastern side lay Morro Castle and two groups of coast-defence guns (the Morro and Estrella batteries), and on the western side two more groups (the Upper and Lower Socapa batteries). On the inland side of this entrance is a small island, and around this the Spanish had sited three groups of remotely controlled mines. Finally, any ships that managed to break past these defences faced a last group of guns (the Punta Gordo battery) on a headland north-east of the island before they could enter the harbour proper. Most of the guns in these fortifications were old muzzle-loading weapons, dating from 1688 to 1783, but there were also a few modern guns taken from a cruiser and mounted in the Upper Socapa and Punta Gordo batteries.

Despite the age of the fortifications and the majority of their guns, Sampson found by bitter experience that a naval bombardment could not silence them and so make it possible for his ships to enter the harbour. Sampson now decided that the best course was to block the harbour entrance by sinking a collier in the channel and so bottle up the Spanish squadron. On the night of 2/3 June, Lieutenant (jg) Richmond P. Hobson and seven volunteers took the Merrimac into the entrance and sank her. This gallant effort failed to block the channel, however. Sampson now decided that he needed the support of land forces to take the batteries. Pending the arrival of an army detachment from Florida for this task, the admiral used his marines to seize Guantanamo Bay, to the east of Santiago, as a forward base. Thus the first land skirmish of the Spanish-American War was a brisk fight as the marines drove off the small Spanish forces in the area.

Over-hasty yet slow embarkation
The War Department had organised the army into eight corps for the Spanish-American War, but by the end of May 1898, only Major General William R. Shafter’s V Corps was anywhere near ready for action. Receiving Sampson’s request for land forces, the War Department decided that this was the ideal moment to follow public opinion. Shafter was accordingly instructed on 31 May to embark his men at Tampa, move to Cuba as rapidly as possible, and undertake operations against Santiago in co-operation with the navy.

It took two weeks to embark the corps. The slow progress of this operation was attributable to many factors including lack of any overall embarkation plan and staff, and the poor facilities offered by Tampa as an embarkation port. There was only a single pier and only a single-track railroad linking Tampa with the rest of the USA, so movement snarl-ups were frequent, the men often had to wait long periods in railroad cars before reaching their ships, and supplies were loaded as they arrived rather than according to a plan that took account of unloading priorities for an assault landing. The confusion was great, but eventually the corps was loaded and ready for departure.

The formation had 16,888 men, and comprised 18 regular and two volunteer infantry regiments, 10 regular and two volunteer cavalry squadrons serving in the dismounted role, one mounted cavalry squadron, six batteries of artillery, and one company of Gatling guns. These were organised into two infantry divisions, one understrength cavalry division, and one independent infantry brigade. The troop convoy sailed on 14 June, made rendezvous with its naval escort on the following day off the Florida Keys, and reached a point off Santiago on 20 June. As yet there was no agreed plan for the use of the troops, so as Sampson and Shafter met to discuss such matters, the men and animals on board the transports had to suffer torments of heat, bad food, and unsanitary conditions.

Sampson wanted the troops to land on the eastern side of the harbour entrance and storm up a 230-ft (70-m) bluff to take Morro Castle and the Morro and Estrella batteries from the rear. Such a move, the naval commander said, would open the bay to his ships, which could then clear the mines, enter the bay, and tackle the Spanish ships. Shafter thought that his lack of heavy artillery would make it impossible to take the castle at the summit of a steep rise, and he therefore decided to follow the advice of a rebel leader, General Calixto Garcia, and land at Daiquiri some 12 miles (19 km) to the east. This would allows the men of the V Corps to come ashore against minimal opposition, provide a base for subsequent operations, and constitute a jumping off point for the operational scheme that Shafter had wanted all along, namely an encirclement of Santiago from the east.

The landing at Daiquiri
The landing was ordered for 22 June, diversions being created by naval bombardments of Aguadores and Siboney, and by the feint landing of one division at Cabanas west of the entrance to Santiago Bay. The landing areas were shelled, the troops finally began to land, and no opposition was encountered. Unloading was as confused as the loading in Tampa had been, especially as many merchant captains refused to bring their chartered ships close inshore. This meant that the landing was slow and hesitant, especially as the navy had no lighters to spare. The horses were generally dropped into the sea to swim ashore, but many swam out to sea and were lost.

Had the Spanish been able to respond rapidly and firmly, they would have stood a very good chance of driving the Americans back into the sea. By this time there were more than 200,000 Spanish troops in Cuba, including 36,000 in Santiago province alone, but there was no effort to tackle the landing directly. Thus 6,000 Americans landed on the first day and the other 11,000 on the following two days. Once ashore, the American soldiers were joined by perhaps 5,000 rebels under Garcia. Shafter wasted little time before pushing west toward Santiago. On 23 June, Brigadier General Henry L. Lawton’s advance guard moved along the coast road to seize Siboney, which became the V Corps’ main base of operations on 24 June. On this day the dismounted cavalry of the division commanded by Brigadier General Joseph W. Wheeler, a celebrated Confederate cavalry commander of the Civil War, pushed inland and at Las Guasimas encountered the rearguard of the Spanish forces pulling back to Santiago. The Spanish had only 1,500 men here, though they could have concentrated about 12,000 in a short time, but after checking the 950 dismounted cavalrymen in the so-called Battle of Las Guasimas, fell back once more.

Wheeler was an impetuous commander, and as senior officer ashore took both his own and Lawton’s divisions forward to Sevilla, a move that put the Americans within five miles of the San Juan Heights overlooking Santiago, though only at the expense of a considerably more complicated logistic chain than Shafter had envisaged. Shafter now ordered Wheeler to make no further advance, and the next few days were spent in concentrating the V Corps and its supplies near Sevilla.

By this time Shafter had come ashore, and it was soon apparent to him that heat, humidity, and disease were already affecting his men. The hurricane season was also imminent, and information reached Shafter that some 8,000 Spanish troops were moving south from Holquin to bolster the 28,200 men of General Arsenio Linares’s IV Corps for the defence of Santiago. Shafter decided that the only sensible choice was an immediate attack to capture Santiago. The commander of V Corps laid out a simple plan, based on an early capture of the dominating San Juan Heights by Brigadier General Jacob F. Kent’s 1st Infantry Division on the left and the dismounted Cavalry Division on the right, in all some 8,000 men with support elements. Wheeler was ill, so the Cavalry Division was commanded by Brigadier General Samuel S. Sumner.

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