The battle of San Juan Hill

The story of the siege of Santiago by the regulars and volunteers is one of heroic endurance of dangers more terrible than the ordinary perils of battle. Tropical heat and rain-storms, miasma in the moist air, hordes of repulsive land-crabs and creeping things in the reeking vegetation, wet clothing and scanty food--these were the trials our inexperienced soldiers had to withstand, stimulated as they were to reckless bravery by the ring of the Spanish bullets that kept hailing on them from the bewildering distance where the enemy fired with smokeless powder. Our ships were pouring shells into the enemy's centre while three grand assaults were being made by the forces under General Shafter. The right wing was under General Lawton, who met his death two years later in the Philippines. The centre was near El Caney, under Generals Wheeler and Kent. Its purpose was to capture the high hill of San Juan, not far from Santiago city. From the conflicting accounts, as to details, of those fierce struggles, it is certain that the Spanish resistance was stronger than General Shafter had counted on. His plan of a sharp, quick attack and victory had to be changed before the successful tactics of the brave enemy, whose concealed sharpshooters laid low many a soldier whose life might have been saved under more cautious tactics. At the "bloody bend" of San Juan, where our raw fighting men received that deadly baptism of fire, there quickly fell Colonel Wikoff and Lieutenant-Colonels Worth and Liscum, the former killed, the last two wounded--three commanding officers down in ten minutes. It was a critical military situation, and for the Americans a deadly one. Then Brigadier-General Hawkins advanced up the hill with the Sixth and Sixteenth regiments, as the brigade under Colonel Ewers came up on another track. Hawkins led the charge. The Spaniards were driven from the trenches, but at a severe cost to our forces. At another point Roosevelt, heading the Rough Riders, asked and got the consent of General Wheeler to charge up the hill. Aided by some of the Twenty-first Infantry and the Ninth and Tenth (black) Cavalry, the Rough Riders tore ahead up that first hill and then up another one, capturing the deserted intrenchment.

Meantime General Lawton was attacking El Caney, on the top of a near-by hill. General Chaffee, Colonel Miles and General Ludlow were in the fight, backed by the field-guns operated by Capron. After a long, desperate struggle, the fort was captured at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Its defenders had made a brave stand. The scene of carnage was dreadful when our men entered. The town remained to be captured. The struggle was even fiercer here. Our force suffered severely, but conquered before nightfall of that terrible 1st of July. Our men were 5,000 against 8,000 at San Juan, well placed for defence, and we numbered about as many at El Caney. Generals Shafter and Wheeler had been incapacitated for several days by the heat and malaria, from which they recovered sufficiently to earn their full share of the glory of a famous campaign.

[The following is taken from an address during the peace jubilee by General Shafter of the first Illinois Volunteers.]

We were twice embarked and twice taken back to Tampa and disembarked. On the first occasion the cause was the appearance of Admiral Cervera's fleet, it requiring the entire navy that was disposable to go after that fleet; and the second time by a report that afterwards turned out to be incorrect, that in the Nicholas channel, through which we would have to go, some Spanish cruisers had been seen.

When ordered to Tampa to command the first Cuban expedition, I took the troops that I thought best fitted and prepared for that service. There were some magnificent regiments of volunteers, but to part of them I had issued arms only two or three days before. They were not properly equipped, and lacked experience. As I had the choice, I took all of the regulars that were there, and with them three regiments of volunteers. They were magnificent men, as perfect as men could be, as you who served in '61 know, poorly prepared to take care of themselves at first. You recollect it was months before we were prepared, and we made numerous mistakes that led to sickness and death. The same things have occurred again, and they always will continue with troops that are not used to the field, and in this campaign men were taken directly from their camps immediately after being mustered in, and put into the most difficult campaign of modern military history.

I had practically the entire regular army of the United States, twenty of the twenty-five regiments of infantry, five of the ten regiments of cavalry, and five batteries of artillery, with three regiments of volunteers, the Seventy-first New York, the Second Massachusetts, and the regiment known as Roosevelt's rough riders. The last were practically seasoned soldiers. They were men from the frontier, men who had been accustomed for years to taking a little sack of corn-meal on their saddles, and a blanket, and used to sleeping out of doors for a week or a month at a time. Of course, they knew how to care for themselves in camp.

Early in June I was called to the telephone in Tampa and told from the President's mansion in Washington to proceed immediately with not less than 10,000 men to Santiago. The news had been received that day that the fleet of Cervera was surely within the harbor, and that if 10,000 men could be placed there at once, the fleet and the city could be captured in forty-eight hours. The horses and mules, as well as the men, had been taken off from the ships, and the time consumed in reloading the horses and mules allowed me to embark 17,000 men nearly. That was very fortunate for me and our cause.

On arriving off Santiago, with Admiral Sampson, I went down the coast about twenty miles, and saw General Garcia, and asked him his opinion of the country, what his force was, and whether he was disposed to assist. I found him very willing and very glad to offer his services at once, with 3,000 men that he had with him and another thousand that he had up the country a little farther, which were to join us immediately. In sailing along the coast, looking for a landing-place, I selected two places--Siboney, a little indentation in the coast about twelve or thirteen miles east of Santiago, and another little bay about eight miles farther east, where small streams emptied into the sea, making a valley and a sand-bar about 150 to 200 yards in extent. All the rest of the coast is abrupt, perpendicular walls of rock from ten to thirty feet high, against which the waves were dashing all the time, and where it is utterly impossible to land.

We had the earnest and able support of the navy and its assistance in disembarking, and the next morning were bombarding the two little places and driving away the few hundred Spanish soldiers who were there. We began disembarking, and before the end of the day the men were on shore with the artillery and 2,000 horses and mules that we had to throw overboard to get ashore.

I knew that my entire army would be sick if it stayed long enough; that it was simply a question of getting that town just as soon as possible. I knew the strength, the courage, and the will of my men, or I thought I did, and the result shows that I was not mistaken. It was a question of starting the moment we landed and not stopping until we reached the Spanish outposts, and, therefore, as soon as a division was put on shore it was started on the march.

On the 24th the first engagement took place, in which there were between 800 and 900 men on the American side and probably 1,000 or 1,200 on the Spanish. The enemy was strongly entrenched, showing only their heads, while the American forces had to march exposing their whole bodies to the fire of the enemy.

It is announced by military experts as an axiom that trained troops armed with the present breech-loading and rapid-firing arms cannot be successfully assailed by any troops who simply assault. Of course you can make the regular approaches and dig up to them. The fallacy of that proposition was made manifest that day, when the men composing the advance, marched as deliberately over those breastworks as they ever did when they fought with arms that could be loaded only about twice in a minute, and had a range of only 200 or 300 yards.

This army was an army of marksmen. For fifteen years the greatest attention had been paid to marksmanship, and I suppose four-fifths of all the men in that army wore on their breasts the marksman's badge. I had given orders, knowing that the noise of firing is harmless and that shots put in the air are harmless--I had given the strictest orders to all officers that their men should be told not to fire a shot unless they could see something moving, and the firing was to be by individuals, what is called file firing, individual firing. The Spanish troops, not so well drilled in firing as ours, used volley firing, which is very effective against large bodies of troops massed and moving over a plain, but utterly inefficient when used against skirmishers moving over a rough country. In that battle, which lasted two hours, less than ten rounds of ammunition per man was fired by my men, and the losses, notwithstanding my men had exposed their whole bodies, while the enemy were in trenches where only their heads could be seen, were about equal.

I saw the commander of that force a few days later in Santiago, and in talking about it he said to me: "Your men behaved very strangely. We were much surprised. They were whipped, but they didn't seem to know it. They continued to advance and we had to go away." He was quite right about it. They did have to go away.

On the 29th we had reached the immediate vicinity of the peaks in front of Santiago, about a mile and a half from the city. On the 30th I carefully reconnoitred the ground as much as one could in the dense undergrowth, and determined where I would make my attack, which was simply directed in front, and to make a direct assault. There was no attempt at strategy, and no attempt at turning their flanks. It was simply going straight for them. In that I did not misjudge my men, and that is where I succeeded so well. If we had attempted to flank them out or dig them out by regular parallels and get close to them, my men would have been sick before it could have been accomplished, and the losses would have been many times greater than they were.

The only misfortune, as I judged it, of the first day's fight, but which I have since learned was for the best, was that immediately on our right, and what would be in our rear when we attacked the town, was a little village called El Caney, four miles and a half from Santiago, and whence the best road in the country connected with Santiago. I did not know the exact force there, but it was estimated to be 1,000, and perhaps a little more, and it would, of course, have been very hazardous to have left that force so near in our rear.

Instead of finishing the affair by 9 o'clock, as we expected, it took until 4:30 o'clock in the afternoon before the last shot was fired, and then after a loss of nearly a hundred killed and 250 wounded on our side and the almost total annihilation of the force opposed to us. They had an idea that they would be killed, and when men believe that it is hard to capture them. Just at the close of the battle three or four hundred did attempt to escape, but ran out in front of a brigade that they did not see, and in the course of about three or four hundred yards most of them were dead or mortally wounded, so that probably not more than twenty men on the other side escaped from that battle. It was a most desperate struggle.

Men were killed in the trenches by being knocked on the head with muskets, and two days later I was shown one man with what would be called a tremendous head on him. When the interpreter asked him how that had occurred he doubled up his fist and spoke of the soldier who had hit him, as a black man who had dropped his gun and hit him in the head with his fist. That was pretty close work.

Meanwhile the battle in front of Santiago progressed, with three divisions on our side, one of dismounted cavalry and two of infantry. It was beautifully fought. Every man knew what he had to do, and so did every officer. The orders were that immediately upon being deployed they were to attack. They did it. Every man kept going, and when one's comrade dropped the rest kept going. The result was that in less than two hours the line was taken, and practically that afternoon the battle of Santiago was ended, for those men never advanced beyond that point.

During the night I brought up the soldiers of General Lawton that had been on the right at Caney and put them on the extreme right, where I had intended to have them the day before. Had they been there we should probably have taken the town and have gotten only the men who were there, and not the 12,000 who were far beyond our reach and surrendered a few days later.

On the morning of the 2d a weak attempt was made upon our lines. In that the Spaniards had to expose themselves, while my men were covered. The fight lasted but a little while and they retreated.

On the morning of July 3 I thought we had so much of an advantage that I could notify the enemy, first, that I wanted a surrender and, second, if they declined to surrender that they could have twenty-four hours to get the women and children out of town. Of course, civilized people do not, if they can avoid it, fire on towns filled with women and children if they will come out. The Spanish commander declined very promptly to surrender, but said he would notify the women and children and those who desired to go, but he wanted twenty-four hours more, and said there were a great many people to go out. They began to stream out at once, and for forty-eight hours old men, women and children poured out until it was estimated that at least 20,000 people passed through our lines and out into the woods in the rear. Of course, there was an immense amount of suffering, and numbers died, especially of the old. Fortunately we were enabled to give them some food, enough to sustain life, but at that time, with the Cuban forces that I had, I was issuing daily 45,000 rations. Forty-five thousand people are a good many to feed when you have such fearful roads and food could only be carried on the backs of mules.

On that morning of the 3d, about an hour after the time for surrendering, Cervera's fleet left the harbor, and went out, as you know, to total annihilation. It was not more than twenty or thirty minutes after it left the mouth of the harbor before, so far as we could hear, the firing had ceased, and 1,700 men were prisoners, 600 were killed and three or four battle-ships and some torpedo-boats were either on the rocks or in the bottom of the sea--a most wonderful victory, never equalled before in naval history, and due mainly to the magnificent marksmanship of our men, who covered the Spanish decks with such a hail of iron that no sailors on earth could stand against it.

Two days after this I saw General Toral, and I was convinced from conversation with him that he was going to surrender. I had no one but myself to take the responsibility, in fact, I did not want anyone else to do it, but while I was convinced myself it was hard to convince others. I knew that we could capture the town at any time, that we had it surrounded so that the garrison could not get away, although on the night of July 2, 2,800 men marched in. I had understood there were 8,000, but when we counted them a few days afterwards there were only 2,800. I knew that if we carried that town by assault, a thousand men at least would be lost to the American army. One thousand American soldiers are a good many to expend in capturing a Spanish town, and I did not propose to do it if I could talk them into a surrender.

General Toral knew just as well as I did that I knew just what he had -- that he was on his last rations, and that nothing but plain rice, that we had his retreat cut off, that we had the town surrounded, that he could not hurt us, while we could bombard him and do some little damage, perhaps, and that it was only a question of a few days.

I found out a few days later what the hitch was which caused the delay, for General Toral had told me that he had been authorized by Blanco, the Captain-General, to enter into negotiations and make terms for surrender. In Cuba, you know, General Blanco was in supreme command. His authority was such that he could even set aside a law of Spain. Knowing that, I felt sure that after very little delay they would surrender. They desired to get permission from the Madrid government to return to Spain. That is what delayed them. Immediately upon receiving the permission to return to Spain they surrendered.

I had in line when the fighting was going on, about 13,000 men -- not more than that at any time. Inside the Spanish trenches there were about 10,000. There were 11,500 surrendered, and I think about 1,500 of them were sick. The disproportion, considering the difference of situation, is not very great. In fact, I think that 10,000 American soldiers could have kept 100,000 Spaniards out, had they been in the same position, although I do not wish to disparage the bravery of the Spanish troops. They are gallant fellows, but they have not the intelligence and do not take the initiative as do the American soldiers; and they have not the bulldog pluck that hangs on day after day.

Toral made the first proposition to surrender. He said if I would let him take his men and such things as they could carry on their persons and on a few pack-mules that they had, and guarantee him safe-conduct to Holguin, which was fifty-two miles away to the north and in the interior, they would march out. I told him, of course, that that was out of the question; that I could not accept any such terms as those, but I would submit it to the President. I did so, and was very promptly informed that only unconditional surrender would be received, but I was at liberty to say to General Toral that if they would surrender they would be carried, at the expense of the United States government, back to Spain. When that proposition was made to him I could see his face lighten up and the faces of his staff, who were there. They were simply delighted. Those men love their country intensely, they had been brought to Cuba against their will, and had stayed there three years, poorly clad, not paid at all, and not well fed, and the prospect of going back to their homes had as much to do with conforming their views to our wishes as anything that was done during the campaign.

Meanwhile ten or twelve days had elapsed and I had received quite a number of volunteer regiments -- two from Michigan, the First District of Columbia, a Massachusetts regiment, and an Ohio regiment, the Eighth Ohio -- all splendid troops and well equipped, and while they were not there at the hardest of the fighting they were there during the suffering, and everything that soldiers were called upon to do they did like men. It is a great deal harder to stand up day after day and see companions die from sickness and disease than it is to face the perils of battle. When I told General Toral that we would carry his men back he said: "Does that include my entire command?" I said: "What is your command and where are they?" He replied, the Fourth Army Corps; 11,500 men in the city, 3,000 twenty miles in the rear of us; 7,500 he said were up the coast less than sixty miles, and about 1,500 who were 125 to 150 miles off on the northeastern coast.

There were 3,440 odd, and at a place less than sixty miles east there were over 7,500, I know, as we counted them and took their arms. The result of that surrender was probably as unexpected to us as it was to every person in the United States. There was simply a little army there, which had gone down to assist the navy in getting the Spanish fleet out and capturing that town. Then we expected no other result from it than victory on the spot at the utmost, but in attacking the limb we got the whole body. It was expected that, beginning about the first of October, the objective point of the campaign was to be Havana, where we knew there were from 125,000 to 150,000 men. It was also expected that about the first of October a large army would be sent over there, and the battle that would decide the war would be fought in the vicinity of Havana. I think that was the universal feeling, but the loss of Santiago and of those 24,000 men -- 23,376, to be accurate -- so dispirited the enemy that within a week the proposition of Spain to close the war was made, and, happily, the war was ended.

The difficulties of that campaign were not in the fighting. That was the easiest part of it. The difficulties were in getting food and medicine to the front. There was but a single road, a muddy and terrible road, and with five or six wagons going over it the sixth wagon would be mired up to the axle-tree. In taking up some artillery I had fourteen horses to one battery that was usually drawn by four. Even with that number it went out of sight. We had to leave it and dig it out after the water had subsided.

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