Cuba 1898

The Cuban people rebelled against Spain in 1895, and it was not long after the initial rebellion when two insurgents came to the fore, (Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez); in three years, these two geniuses had only secured two Cuban provinces.  The suggestion here is that the revolution wasn’t going very well.

In January 1898, the United States dispatched the USS Maine from Key West, Florida to Havana to protect US interests during the Cuban War of Independence.  Maine was a coal fired ship, which means that explosive coal dust was present on every deck of the ship, including the holds containing the ship’s armament, which contained more than five tons of powder charges for the ship’s six and ten-inch guns.  An explosion originated from these powder holds, obliterating the forward one-third of the ship while at anchor in Havana Bay.  At the time of the explosion, most of the crew were sleeping in the forward part of the ship; 260 men lost their lives; six more later died from their injuries.  Altogether, only 89 sailors survived the explosion, 18 of whom were officers who were quartered aft.  An initial inquiry determined that the ship had been sunk by a naval mine.  Whilst likely an error, the determination propelled the United States into conflict with Spain —aided by publishing magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer who gave the sinking intense press coverage.  Both men exaggerated and distorted information about the sinking of the Maine, including blatant fabrications, and this in turn resulted in Americans demanding that the US government do something about this affront to American sovereignty.  The sinking of the Maine may not have resulted in an immediate declaration of war with Spain, but journalistic dishonesty created an atmosphere in America that made it impossible for the US government to achieve a peaceful solution.

In April 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, siding with Cuban insurgents.  Soon afterwards the US Navy blockaded Havana harbor.  By the end of May, the Spanish fleet was bottled up in Santiago Bay, 40 miles west of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  In the United States, the US Army began to organize an expeditionary force for action in Cuba.  The first successful foray against Spain, however, occurred in early June as the US Navy cut communications from Guantanamo Bay to the outside world.

Despite the insurgency’s offensive positions near Guantanamo Bay, Spanish regulars held Guantanamo City, the port of Caimanera and the railroad that connected the two cities.  The Spanish garrison consisted of 5,000 men under the command of General Felix Paraja.  A Spanish blockhouse stood on the hill overlooking Fisherman’s Point near the entrance to Guantanamo Bay and a fort stood guard over Cayo del Toro overlooking a channel from the outer bay.  The Spanish gunship Sandoval commanded the inner bay, while a string of blockhouses defended the railroad line from Guantanamo City, fourteen miles inland.

The decision to establish a base at Guantanamo was handed to the First Battalion of U. S. Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Huntington commanding, which consisted of six companies of 650 Marines (four companies of infantry, one of artillery, and one headquarters company).  Arriving at Santiago on the converted transport Panther, Huntington’s plan for an assault was soon approved by the Naval Landing Force Commander: The Marines would assault and occupy a place designated as Camp McCalla (after Commander McCalla, Landing Officer of the Naval Fleet) —a flat ridge atop the hill overlooking Fisherman’s Point.  In addition to the artillery company, Huntington’s battalion was armed with the Model 1895 Browning machinegun and the Lee (6mm) (.23 caliber) Naval Rifle, a magazine-fed rapid-fire rifle using high velocity smokeless power cartridges.

The Marines landed unopposed on 6 June 1898 with five companies.  Its artillery contingent was left aboard to off-load the ship (the ship’s commander had refused to allow ship’s company to perform unloading duties).  Once ashore, the Marines burned the existing crude huts along with what remained of the blockhouse along the shore.  This action was designed to preclude the possibility of Marines incurring “yellow fever,” as the Spanish garrison had abandoned their possessions with some rapidity, leaving behind soiled clothing, weapons, cash money, and jewelry.  Not long after landing, the Marines raised the American flag at Camp McCalla —the first ever to do so on Cuban Soil.

Company C occupied a hill some distance from the main position; it was not a very good position because the main body at Camp McCalla could not provide fire support to the Marines of Company C.  Two forward outposts were established, one at a road junction located several hundred yards ahead of the camp known as the “Crossroads”, and one called “The Bridge” placed across a road a mile and a half from the American camp where Spanish forces were expected to bring up artillery from Caimanera.  With the sea at their backs, and lacking mutual support between outposts, Marines had a less-than-ideal tactical situation.  Commander McCalla criticized Huntington in the placement of his Marines because the outposts were too far forward and could not be seen or supported in the dense undergrowth.  Three Marine companies stacked arms and returned to the ship to help with unloading operations.  Then, shortly after sundown, the Marines had their first meal of coffee and hardtack[1].  The enemy revealed its presence soon afterwards; voices were heard and faint lights were seen in the thicket — but no attack came that night.  We now know that Spanish forces defending the area were desperately short of food; they delayed attacking the Marines until the Marines had completed unloading their stores with hopes of seizing American supplies.

By daybreak, the Marines had completed unloading their stores and equipment, although the artillery pieces and ammunition were left aboard ship. The remaining companies of the battalion came ashore; Company C was withdrawn from its isolated hill outpost. The only sound in the thickets was the cooing of doves, a sound Marines soon learned was a favorite signal used by Spanish loyalist guerrilla forces.

Colonel Huntington was joined in the afternoon by Cuban Army Colonel Laborde, who for several days had been with Commander McCalla serving as pilot on USS Marblehead, and had  now been sent ashore to assist the Marines and provide intelligence about the enemy.  Laborde informed Huntington that the headquarters of the major Spanish force in the area was located at the “Well of Cuzco”, two miles southeast of Fisherman’s Point; this well was the only source of fresh water in the area.  The Spanish force of about 500 soldiers and guerrillas, joined by the troops driven from the blockhouse on the bay, constituted the gravest threat to the U.S. base of operations.  Laborde opined that the seizure of Cuzco Well (and destroying it) would push Spanish forces into retreat all the way to Ciudad Guantánamo (Guantánamo City).

Enemy fire suddenly erupted from the thicket in front of the Marine position at 0500 hours.  Colonel Huntington led his Marines forward, but the assault was impeded by the thorny tangle of trees, underbrush, and cactus; Huntington then realized that the occupation of Camp McCalla was tactically unsound even with naval gunfire support.  The Spanish guerillas, employing rapid-fire Mauser rifles, advanced towards Camp McCalla.  After heavy fighting, the Spanish withdrew pursued by the Marines, who continued their assault through the listening post positions occupied by Privates William Dumphy and James McColgan.  Dumphy and McColgan’s bodies were discovered severally shot and desecrated by Spanish guerillas (Source: Journal of Frank Keeler, 1898).

Colonel Huntington’s executive officer (second in command) was Major Henry Clay Cochrane.  He later described the Spanish attack as the “100 hours of fighting”.  At Camp McCalla, the Marines dug in and began disciplined fire at the concealed Spaniards; they were aided by three 3-inch field pieces and two additional 6mm Colt–Browning machineguns which had been landed from USS Texas.  Gunfire from the USS Marblehead passed overhead of the Marines and impacted in nearby hills.  Wearing large palm leaves tied to their uniforms for camouflage, and firing smokeless powder cartridges, Spanish forces were difficult to locate as they moved through the dense undergrowth.

A desperate firefight began on the evening of 12 June when enemy forces came within fifty yards of the Marine positions at Camp McCalla.  Marines responded with rifle and artillery fire.  The Marine’s intense fire may have deterred the Spanish from attempting to overrun the camp, but Acting Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs and Sergeant Charles H. Smith were both killed in the exchange of gunfire.  Later, Marines found several blood trails indicating significant Spanish losses, but discovered no bodies, because the guerrillas removed their wounded and dead to conceal their casualty figures.

The next day, sixty Cubans under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Tomas reinforced the First Battalion; the Cubans had been equipped with rifles and white-duck sailor uniforms by Commander McCalla from the USS Marblehead.  Familiar with guerrilla tactics, the Cubans deployed in pairs in front of the camp, burning the brush and undergrowth as they advanced denying cover and concealment to the enemy.  At dusk, as the USS Marblehead (having provided shore bombardment on several occasions) steamed down the coast and shelled the well at Cuzco; the Spanish resumed their attack: two more Marines —acting Sergeant Major Henry Good and Private Goode Taurman— were killed.

By nightfall on 13 June 1898 the Marines were exhausted. They had not slept nor rested for 100 hours. Relief or reinforcement was impossible because U.S. Army troops had yet to leave the United States.  The Marines continued fighting for two additional days.

Colonel Tomas of the Cuban rebel forces advised Colonel Huntington to attack the Spanish garrison at Cuzco Well.  The Spanish garrison consisted of four companies of Spanish infantry and two companies of loyalist guerrilla forces totaling approximately 500 men.  By denying fresh water to the Spanish forces, the Marines hoped to push the Spaniards from the area.  Commander McCalla approved Huntington’s plan and the attack was scheduled for 0800 the next day.

Companies C and D (about 160 men) (serving under Captain George F. Elliott (a future Commandant of the Marine Corps)) and sixty Cubans under Colonel Tomas approached Cuzco along the cliffs by the sea.  A smaller Marine force advanced through an inland valley holding a picket line for the main force, with men in reserve to assist if necessary. The USS Dolphin provided naval gunfire support from the sea.

The day was already hot when the combined American—Cuban force began its march on 14 June.  Colonel Laborde guided the main force; a Cuban scout guided a smaller force led by 2nd Lt. Magill. The march was slowed by rough terrain, vicious undergrowth, and increasing heat.

The Spaniards spotted the Cuban rebels, who were marching ahead of the Marine companies; a race for the crest of the hill ensued.  The Marines and Cuban rebels reached the summit first, albeit under heavy fire from the Spanish and loyalist guerrillas. The smaller Marine force approached on-the-double, using their Lee Rifles to pour a deadly crossfire on to the enemy flank.  Three of the four Browning machineguns accompanying the Marines were used by Company C in the fighting.  According to Pvt. John Clifford of Company D, the machineguns were instrumental in supporting the Marine assault.[2]

The light weight of the Marines’ new Lee cartridge proved to be of considerable benefit, allowing each Marine and machinegun crew to transport large amounts of ammunition over the mountainous, jungled terrain.  Midway through the battle, Cuban rebel forces ran out of 6mm cartridges and were resupplied with an additional six clips (30 cartridges) from the belts of individual Marines, yet none of the Marines ran short of ammunition despite firing some sixty shots apiece in the battle —a testament to the Marine’s fire discipline and the accuracy of Marine Corps rifle marksmanship training.

During this portion of the fighting, Captain Elliott had requested that Dolphin provide fire support to the Marines by shelling the Spanish blockhouse and nearby positions with her naval guns. Through a miscommunication of signals, however, the gunboat unknowingly began dropping shells in the direct path of a small force of fifty Marines and ten Cuban rebels led by 2nd Lt. Magill, who at the time was attempting to flank the Spanish position and potentially cut off any avenue of retreat.  Affixing his handkerchief to a long stick and braving the Spanish fire, Sergeant John H. Quick took up an exposed position on the ridge to immediately wigwag a signal flag to Dolphin to adjust her gunfire.  War Correspondent Stephen Crane, who had accompanied the Marines, later described the scene in his war tale “Marines Signaling Under Fire at Guantanamo”:

“Sergeant Quick arose, and announced that he was a signalman. He produced from somewhere a blue polka-dot neckerchief as large as a quilt. He tied it on a long, crooked stick. Then he went to the top of the ridge, and turning his back to the Spanish fire, began to signal to the Dolphin.  Again we gave a man sole possession of a particular part of the ridge.  We didn’t want it.  He could have it and welcome.  If the young sergeant had had the smallpox, the cholera, and the yellow fever, we could not have slid out with more celerity.

“As men have said often, it seemed as if there was in this war a God of Battles who held His mighty hand before the Americans. As I looked at Sergeant Quick wig-wagging there against the sky, I would not have given a tin tobacco-tag for his life. Escape for him seemed impossible. It seemed absurd to hope that he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a little, in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.

“I watched his face, and it was as grave and serene as that of a man writing in his own library.  He was the very embodiment of tranquility in occupation. He stood there amid the animal-like babble of the Cubans, the crack of rifles, and the whistling snarl of the bullets, and wig-wagged whatever he had to wig-wag without heeding anything but his business. There was not a single trace of nervousness or haste.

“To say the least, a fight at close range is absorbing as a spectacle. No man wants to take his eyes from it until that time comes when he makes up his mind to run away. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle is in itself hard work. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle and hear immediate evidences of the boundless enthusiasm with which a large company of the enemy shoot at you from an adjacent thicket is, to my mind at least, a very great feat. One need not dwell upon the detail of keeping the mind carefully upon a slow spelling of an important code message.

“I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung his clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it once caught on a cactus pillar, and he looked sharply over his shoulder to see what had it. He gave the flag an impatient jerk. He looked annoyed.”

When Sergeant Quick finished this message, the ship answered.  Quick then picked up his Lee rifle and resumed his place on the firing line. For his gallant and selfless conduct during this action, Quick would later receive the Medal of Honor.

Dolphin shifted her fire onto the enemy camp and blockhouse, by 1400.  The Spanish had broken and fled the blockhouse.  Unfortunately, 2ndLt Magill’s men were delayed sufficiently to prevent them from cutting off a Spanish retreat, though his men did capture the Spanish signaling station and its heliograph[3] equipment.

As Spanish forces withdrew through a gully on the other side of the valley, Marines opened fire at 1,200 yards, firing volley after volley with good effect.  The Spanish were unable to accurately return fire, allowing Company B Marines and the Cuban rebels to close the distance, firing as they advanced.  The Spanish first attempted to concentrate their fires on the Cubans and managed to kill two of them, but were forced back by Marine rifle fire once again, at which point the remaining enemy, which up to that point had been withdrawing in good order, broke and scattered.

Within an hour the enemy had abandoned the battlefield and all hostile fire had ceased.  Most of the Spanish had escaped, but a lieutenant and seventeen enlisted men were captured.  According to these sources, the Spanish suffered 60 killed, 130 wounded.  They left behind 30 modern 7mm Mauser rifles and ammunition.  Two Marines and two Cuban rebels had been wounded; two Cubans were killed, whom the Marines buried where they fell.  The most serious casualties suffered by the Marines were from heat exhaustion, which disabled one officer and twenty-two enlisted men.  USS Dolphin took these men aboard after the fighting for transportation back to Camp McCalla.

The result of the battle was that the Spanish headquarters building (blockhouse) was burned, and the freshwater well at Cuzco was destroyed, thus ending its immediate usefulness —even to the Marines, whose officers would not let them drink from it prior to its destruction.  The officers could not be certain whether the Spanish had tainted the well before its capture.  After two hours, water was brought up from the USS Dolphin.

Spanish forces retreated in small groups to Guantánamo via Cayo del Toro and Caimanera.  Apparently expecting U.S. forces to follow up the victory, they fortified the small settlement at Dos Caminos and added several blockhouses to the number already erected along the railroad line.  The Spanish soldiers were apparently impressed by Marine firepower; upon arrival at Ciudad Guantánamo (Guantánamo City), the surviving members of the Cuzco Well garrison informed General Pareja that they had been attacked by 10,000 Americans.

Camp McCalla saw no further attacks by Spanish or guerilla forces, and was disestablished on August 5, 1898.  The threat posed by U. S. Naval forces and a battalion of US Marines, plus the stranglehold on land communications imposed by more than 1,000 Cuban insurgents successfully checked a Spanish army of 7,000 men.  The Marines, having completed their assigned mission, embarked aboard USS Resolute and sailed for home, arriving at Portsmouth on the evening of 24 August 1898.  The naval campaign continued along with the employment of US Army regular and irregular forces.  A peace was signed on 12 August 1898 and a new naval base was created at Guantanamo Bay, which continues to serve the interests of the United States today.

Notes:

[1] Hardtack (or hard tack) is a simple type of biscuit or cracker, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, it was and is used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods, commonly during long sea voyages, land migrations, and military campaigns.

[2] This was the first known tactical use of machinegun fire for mobile fire support in offensive combat.

[3] A heliograph is a signaling device by which sunlight is reflected in flashes from a moveable mirror.

10 thoughts on “Cuba 1898

  1. WELCOME back – it’s been far too long!!
    Too many people have completely forgotten these actions. You’ve done a lot of research for this! kudos!!

  2. Old soldiers, it is said, fade away. However that isn’t necessarily the case with older Marines. Once again Colonel Benjamin delights and informs. Super historian and all round very bright guy. Keep writing , bucko. Your audience is bigger than you think.

    • Marines do not fade away because we are full of ourselves. 🙂 Thank you for you kind words, Tad. I hope you are well.

  3. Good to see you posting again, my dear friend.

    And a wonderful history lesson.

    When I was in my American History class in college, we were taught by our professor — a liberal, of course — that it was most likely that the United States blew up the Maine for the express purpose of getting our nation involved in the Cuban Revolution. Nary a word about explosive coal dust was present on every deck of the ship, including the holds containing the ship’s armament, which contained more than five tons of powder charges for the ship’s six and ten-inch guns. An explosion originated from these powder holds.

    When I read journalistic dishonesty created an atmosphere in America that made it impossible for the US government to achieve a peaceful solution, I couldn’t help but think the recent bombing of Syria. I’m probably reading too much into that particular clause….

    • Real American history is lost to college professors because they have their own (anti-American) agenda. Thank you for stopping by AOW … and for your comments.

Comments are closed.