A Soldier's Account of the Spanish-American War (1898)
A SOLDIER'S ACCOUNT OF THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR (1898)
The Spanish-American War evoked much enthusiasm and patriotism across the nation, as newspaper headlines and war hawks trumpeted "Remember the Maine" in an attempt to stir up popular support for the conflict. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine, the United States claimed to desire war with Spain in Cuba in order to rid the Western Hemisphere of a decaying imperial presence, although the American impetus was really much more Machiavellian than that. The United States had to execute an amphibious landing, a task at which it was wholly inexperienced, if it were to wrest control of Cuba from the Spanish. Nonetheless, a poorly trained and inadequately outfitted expeditionary force, which included the First Volunteer Cavalry, embarked in Tampa Bay, Florida for a landing on Cuban shores near the village of Daiquirí.
The First Volunteer Cavalry, nicknamed the "Rough Riders," were a raucous band of men recruited for their shooting and riding abilities by territorial governors in the U.S. West. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt left an important Navy post in Washington, D.C. in order to serve as second in command of the First Volunteer Cavalry, instantly winning the affection and respect of his men. The Rough Riders' most famed exploit occurred at San Juan Hill, where Roosevelt recklessly led his men up a smaller rise, Kettle Hill, and chased the Spanish from their positions. Roosevelt later recalled that "San Juan was the great day of my life."
The Rough Riders' reputation spread more as a result of their swagger and Roosevelt's bumptious personality than any real military accomplishments. As the soldier's account which follows attests, their organization left much to be desired and their energy could be as much a detriment as an asset. The Spanish failed to muster much resistance in Cuba, seeking an armistice prior to an expected clash outside of Santiago.
One lovely morning a thin, distant, and darker haze appeared off to the south. The shadows on the deck began to shift and we knew we were changing course to round Cape Maisi. We were in sight of Cuba at last!
It was a rugged coast, and in those mountains Cuban soldiers and Spanish troops were fighting. We could see some little settlements on the beaches—from one of these, perhaps, centuries ago, buccaneers had put forth in their crude cockleshells to board a Spanish galley and plunder it for silk and rum and doubloons.
Presently we approached the shore, coming close to a little dock which we later found was Daiquiri, where the Rough Riders were to land. Then, farther on and nearer to Santiago, we came to a little bend in the coastline, sheltered under a hill. This was the cove of Siboney where we were to go ashore. Above the little village and on all the hills and ridges that surrounded it were the little Spanish fuertes—blockhouses—that were always built in sight of each other for protection against the Cuban troops in the field. A little farther to the west, we passed the narrow entrance to the Bay of Santiago where Admiral Cervera's fleet lay at anchor. The entrance was almost indistinguishable from the green jungle that rose above it on each side. We could see the pinkish ocher of the ancient forts that guarded it. They looked like the toy forts made for children, or like picturesque defenses of the old-time barons, but Washington knew that they had modern guns as well as the olden bronze cannon. We were three miles off shore, wholly safe, and we gave the Spaniards a review in force—some fifty ships and transports in single column, while our battleships and cruisers fringed the line. Not a shot was fired; it was a demonstration.
We turned slowly back to Guantanamo, and drifted lazily along the coast with the tide, with only here and there a transport turning her engines occasionally to keep her place in the column.
Then we steamed back to the entrance to the Bay of Santiago. This time, the cruisers and battleships began the attack on the forts that guarded the bay. Our transports lay about three miles off, and we had good seats for a perfect panorama. The air was as clear as crystal.
Slowly the battleships and cruisers steamed past the entrance, perhaps two miles off; sometimes it seemed closer. Their turrets would burst into a vast billow of smoke as they scanned the hills with their fire; and occasionally they would turn one into the ancient forts that would burst forth in a blast of shattered brick and dust. We could see shells burst in the jungle. The cruisers steamed slowly from Daiquiri, past Siboney and on past the Santiago forts and into the west, bombarding as they went, and then came back again. The little Spanish blockhouse above Siboney seemed to be hit—yet later, when we landed, it was intact and without a trace of damage. For fifty miles the coast was bombarded, a maneuver to mislead the Spaniards as to where we would land.
It is doubtful if this bombardment had any effect, other than perhaps to delude the Spaniards. They had the whole coast and Cuban mountain range to retire behind—and they did.
Then we prepared to land.
We steamed back to the bight of land where a little beach stretched down from the village of Siboney. Then we drifted with the tide, waiting our turn to land. We watched the little steam launches of the Navy towing strings of ship's boats packed with soldiers and their horse-collar blanket rolls. We envied them. Great Scott, there wouldn't be any Spaniards left by the time we could get ashore! Impatiently we lined the rails and looked at these boatloads of lucky men. We could see the troops form up on shore and then lose themselves in the green that fringed the foothills of the mountains beyond.
The horses and mules were jumped overboard and swam ashore. And not a colonel or a wagon master had the power to tell a ship captain how close in to shore he should come. The transports were under charter merely, and it was the ship captain who could tell the colonel what he, the skipper, would or would not do with his ship. The horses and mules were jumped overboard from a half to a quarter mile off shore—depending upon the skipper's digestion or his judgment—and then swam. Horses by the hundred were drowned.
I have been told by some authorities that if a horse gets water in its ears the animal feels all is lost and will drown. This may have accounted for the heavy loss of horses and mules in the landing.
It was this loss of horses that left each field battery with no spares. Later, when Captain Best's battery was on San Juan and had to be withdrawn, they did not dare risk the horses up in the open on the hill. Two infantry companies were sent over to screen the withdrawal of the guns by the cannoneers. Over twenty infantrymen were casualties in three minutes, though only one artilleryman, a sergeant, was killed. Also, two generals went into the battle of San Juan on foot—an unheard of thing for those days—and one of them reached the battle line from his headquarters riding on a cargo mule. Horses were reserved for orderlies and messengers and for the immediate staff of General Shafter. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt had a horse but left it behind when the fighting began at Kettle Hill, and fought the rest of the day on foot; but Teddy had a certain way with him.
SOURCE: Post, Charles Johnson. The Little War of Private Post. Boston: Little Brown, 1960.