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

This offensive was scheduled for 1 July. As a preliminary move, Lawton’s 2nd Infantry Division and a battery of artillery were to clear the American right flank by moving 2 miles (3.2 km) north to take the fortified village of El Caney. This would cut Santiago’s water supplies, which flowed from Cuabitas in the north, and also put an American block on the road down which the Spanish reinforcements were said to be advancing. Shafter thought that the El Caney operation should take about two hours, after which Lawton’s division could wheel south-west to take up a position on Wheeler’s right as the third division for the main assault, in the process enveloping the northern flank of the Spanish entrenched defences on the San Juan Heights and Kettle Hill.

The only other route available to any Spanish reinforcement was the Cobre Road from the north-west, and Shafter asked Garcia to block this with his rebel forces. The last components of the offensive were a feint advance along the coast road toward Aguadores by one regiment of an infantry brigade that had just landed at Siboney, and a naval demonstration off the entrance to Santiago harbour.

The overall plan was good, but its implementation proved far more difficult than anyone had expected, largely as a result of poor co-ordination, very difficult terrain, and the enervating effect of the heat and humidity. One of the main problems was that Shafter, who can be described most charitably as corpulent, was laid low by the heat and had thus to leave operational control of the Battle of San Juan to others. Except for open ground at El Caney and the coverless slopes of the San Juan Heights, the battlefield was heavily wooded. This restricted movement to the area’s few roads. The Spanish were well acquainted with the area, and their fixed defences were sited to wring maximum advantage from the terrain. The defences themselves were centred on small forts and blockhouses built of stone, and many were covered by barbed wire entanglements.

The first US formation to encounter problems was the 2nd Infantry Division at El Caney. Here the Spanish garrison of 520 men under Brigadier General Joaquin Vara de Ray was well dug in and stubborn. The US artillery fired at long range and proved ineffective, while the smoke of its black-powder Springfield rifles made the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment so conspicuous that the Spanish made good practice with their modern 7-mm (0.276-in) Mauser rifles and forced the regiment back out of the line. Brigadier General John C. Bate’s independent infantry brigade was sent up to reinforce Lawton, bringing the American strength to some 6,650 men, but still no real progress was made until the early afternoon.

The Spanish position was based on a fort and stone blockhouses connected by wire entanglements, and it was only as they began to run out of ammunition that the Spanish began to falter. Lawton moved his artillery closer, and shortly after 16.00 the Americans stormed the fort, in the process killing the heroic Vara de Ray and most of the garrison.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at the top of San Juan Hill

The Battle of San Juan Heights
Farther to the south, the attack by the 1st Infantry Division and the Cavalry Division, in all some 8,400 men, had started off slowly with a confused advance from their overnight bivouac positions along the road to Santiago. An observation balloon of the Signal Corps was being towed along by this force, and it made a good aiming point for the Spanish artillery. Two American field guns, both obsolete black-powder weapons, tried to support the advance with fire from El Pozo Hill just south of the line of advance, but were quickly forced out of action by the more effective fire of two Spanish guns of modern Krupp manufacture.

With the advance straggling along, the balloon-borne observer finally reported the existence of a small but roughly parallel track to the south of the main road, and Kent diverted part of his division onto this as a means of speeding his advance and broadening his front. At this point Kent’s leading unit, the 71st New York Regiment, panicked and refused to advance, but was then driven forward by the weight of the regular units behind it.

Eventually both US divisions took up an irregular line along the San Juan River, roughly south-east of Kettle Hill that itself lies due east of the San Juan Heights. The American regiments tried to advance up the exposed slopes of the hills leading to the ridge line that was their objective, but were completely pinned down by the rifle fire of the Spanish infantry. The American position was now becoming dangerous, for the supply of ammunition was running short, artillery support had ended, the casualty rates was mounting, and communications were virtually nonexistent. It was also clear by now that no support could be expected from the 2nd Infantry Division, which was still tied up around El Caney.

Gatling gun intervention
At this critical moment of the battle, 2nd Lieutenant John H. Parker arrived between the two divisions with his battery of Gatling guns. Parker pushed his guns as far forward as he could, and opened a withering fire on the Spanish trenches, whose defenders immediately started to pull back. It remains unclear who actually ordered the main assault at about 12.00, but at about this time the Americans stormed forward against the Spanish forward positions. Elements of the Cavalry Division, including the 9th Cavalry Regiment and part of the 10th Cavalry Regiment (both Negro units) together with Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders’ stormed Kettle Hill. Then men of the 1st Infantry Division, supported by the Gatling guns, stormed San Juan Hill at the southern end of the ridge line forming the San Juan Heights, driving the 520-man Spanish force commanded by Vaquero back from their network of blockhouses and wire-covered trenches toward Fort Canosa. Exhausted by the day’s movement and fighting, the men of the 1st Infantry Division and the Cavalry Division could not pursue the Spanish as they retired to Fort Canosa, which was the core of the main Spanish defence line.

The 2nd Infantry Division started toward Santiago once it had taken El Caney. Soon after nightfall, however, Lawton’s advance guard came under fire near the Ducoureau House and the American divisional commander sidetracked his formation as he was unwilling to commit his men to a night action against a force of unknown size in unknown country. Moving back to El Caney and then down to El Pozo Hill, the 2nd Infantry Division finally reached its allotted place on the right of the main force, less than one mile west of the Ducoureau House, only at 12.00 on 2 July.

The Americans had therefore achieved their main task of the day, albeit more slowly than anticipated and at the cost of some 1,700 casualties. Shafter’s corps held the dominating ground of the San Juan Heights, yet its formations were disorganised and its men thoroughly shaken. Shafter’s appreciation of this situation had to take these factors into account, and also the fact that the Spanish had in fact been driven only from their outer defence line, and were still firmly sited for the protection of Santiago in a main defensive position considerably more formidable than the outer line that had already cost the Americans so dear.

On 2 July the arrival of the 2nd Infantry Division allowed the American line to be extended round the north of Santiago and then south-west virtually to the head of Santiago Bay, with Garcia’s 4,200-strong rebel forces occupying the heights north of the Cobre Road to prevent the arrival of any Spanish reinforcements. There was some fighting on July 2, mostly at long range, and each side suffered considerable losses without any significant modification of the overall situation.

Low morale
American morale was low after two days with little food and sleep. Shafter was now urged by some of his subordinate commanders to pull back to a stronger position on the Sevilla Heights, about 5 miles (8 km) down the road from Santiago to Siboney. The V Corps commander telegraphed to Washington that he was considering such a withdrawal, which would put the Americans in a position easier to supply and less prone to Spanish fire. Secretary of War Alger telegraphed back that ‘the effect on the country would be much better’ if the V Corps stayed in its advance positions. Shafter therefore stayed put, and demanded the surrender of Santiago. The demand was refused, but negotiations continued.

Meanwhile, Shafter urged the navy to break past the defences of the entrance and move into Santiago Bay. But McKinley and the Navy Department were united in refusing to consider so risky a move. There was now every chance of a bitter dispute between the two services, which would almost certainly have become embarrassingly public, but the situation was saved by a Spanish move. Acting under firm orders from Havana and Madrid to save his squadron if the loss of Santiago appeared imminent, Cervera tried to escape from Santiago on 3 July. The Spanish admiral’s plan was to reach the Spanish-held port of Cienfuegos, well to the north-west along Cuba’s southern coast. The Spanish squadron comprised four armoured cruisers and two torpedo boats, and sailed with Infanta Maria Teresa (flag) leading the other cruisers, namely Vizcaya, Cristobal Colon and Almirante Oquendo, followed by the torpedo boats Furor and Pluton. The ships were all in poor mechanical condition, and while the cruisers were well armed they were also very poorly protected.

Sampson was ashore meeting with Shafter, a fact that provides clear proof that the Americans were not expecting any such Spanish move, and Schley was in temporary command afloat. The sortie therefore took Schley and the US squadron completely by surprise, but once the initial shock had passed, the Americans reacted with speed and vigour. The US force was considerably more powerful than the Spanish squadron and comprised, in addition to the two armed yachts Vixen and Gloucester that were maintaining an inshore watch, the armoured cruiser Brooklyn (flag) and the battleships Texas, Iowa, Oregon and Indiana.

Suicide of the Spanish squadron
The Spanish ships emerged from the mouth of Santiago Bay at 09.35 on 3 July, and immediately shaped a course to the west. Brooklyn and Texas were right off the entrance to the bay, while the three other battleships were slightly to the east. Schley soon mustered his squadron for the pursuit, and the ships opened fire as soon as they were in range. The outcome was a foregone conclusion as the weight and accuracy of the US fire disabled the ships and forced them ashore. The first to go were Maria Teresa and Almirante Oquendo, driven ashore west of Cabana Bay at 10.15 and 10.30 respectively. Next were Pluton and Furor, which were beached slightly farther to the east at 11.00 and 11.06 respectively. Vizcaya came ashore near Asseraderos at 11.15, but Cristobal Colon was able to use her superior speed to avoid interception and move west until she was bracketed by 13-in (330-mm) shells from Oregon and forced ashore near the mouth of the Turquino river at 13.30. It was a stunning defeat for Spain, for in a mere three hours and forty minutes since they had first opened fire at 09.50, the Americans had destroyed all four cruisers and two torpedo boats. In the process the Americans had suffered only two casualties (one sailor killed and another wounded), but killed and wounded 474 Spanish sailors as well as taking prisoner another 1,750.

On the same day, Coronel Federico Escario brought a reinforcement of 3,580 Spanish troops into Santiago along the Cobre Road without hindrance from the Cuban rebels entrusted with the task, raising Spanish strength to nearly 17,140. Command was now exercised by General Jose Toral, who had replaced Linares after the latter had been wounded in the fighting on San Juan Heights. Demoralised by the defeat of Cervera’s squadron, which convinced it that its isolation was complete, the Spanish garrison was further troubled by lack of ammunition and a shortage of food, while conditions for the citizens of Santiago were becoming bad because of a whole range of shortages and deficiencies.

Negotiations for surrender
Shafter continued to press the Spanish to surrender. The Spanish were not aware that conditions similar to their own, if not worse, were affecting the Americans. Shafter had received some reinforcements, allowing him to replace the Cuban rebels on his right flank with US soldiers, but his lack of artillery made its impossible to consider any assault on Santiago. About half of his men were already afflicted with dysentery, malaria and typhoid. More worryingly, the first cases of the dreaded yellow fever had begun to appear among the forces besieging Santiago. Supplies were in very short supply, and Shafter was increasingly concerned that the imminent hurricane season could destroy his already tenuous line of supply and communication.

On 10 and 11 July, Sampson contributed with a long-range naval bombardment, and on 14 July Toral agreed to surrender the whole of the Spanish IV Corps including more than 12,000 men in all the other garrisons of Santiago province. The agreement was formalised on July 15, and the Americans entered the city on 17 July.

On 11 July General Miles had arrived off Santiago with a volunteer brigade. The task allotted to this force was an assault on the Spanish batteries to the west of Santiago Bay. Discovering that the surrender negotiations were well under way, Miles kept the brigade on board its ships until the surrender had been implemented, and then sailed to Puerto Rico, a Spanish possession farther to the east.

The considerable achievement of V Corps at Santiago was marred by the revelation in the US press about a major disagreement between Shafter and some of his senior subordinates. Worried by the spread of disease among the men, these officers had drafted a letter to Shafter proposing an immediate withdrawal from Cuba. The letter became known to the press before it reached Shafter, and thus Washington knew of the subordinates’ fears and proposal before the man to whom they were addressed. There was embarrassment on every side, but a useful side effect was the hastening of plans to evacuate the troops to an isolation camp which the Army Medical Department was creating at Montauk Point on Long Island for the treatment of those with tropical diseases. Another important consequence of the army’s Cuban campaign, and thus its first-hand experience of the effects of disease and climate, was the Army Medical Department’s long-term but eventually successful programme to find the cause of yellow fever.

Early in August 1898, V Corps had to be withdrawn because of the spread of yellow fever, and it was replaced by a number of ‘immune regiments’ thought erroneously to be immune to the disease. It is a telling statistic of the Cuban campaign that while only 379 Americans died in battle, more than 5,000 succumbed to disease.

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