Gen. Toral’s surrender to Gen. Shafter, July 13, 1898
“We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”
‑Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler, USA (formerly CSA) overheard at Las Guasmas
The U. S. army had been mobilizing volunteers at five major and several smaller camps. All were created out of wilderness, and the construction of facilities could not keep pace with the new arrivals. Conditions were atrocious, and a major scandal resulted from the number of men who died of diseases contracted in the camps. Of 5,462 service deaths in 1898, only 379 resulted from combat. Meanwhile, the regular army was sent to Tampa, the US port closest to Cuba that had rail connections. Tampa, too, had primitive facilities, poor water, and was located on swampy ground. Its railroad connections were totally inadequate; its port facilities were crude. There was little time to correct any of these deficiencies.
The War Department wanted the expedition to begin loading on May 30th, but the chaos on land extended to the docks. Loading did not begin until June 8th. For the voyage to Cuba, the Army had to provide its own transports. Prohibited from chartering ships until the outbreak of war, it found all suitable transports already hired by the Navy. The Army eventually collected 32 old coastal steamers and paddle‑wheelers in time for the expedition and a few more later. These made for an utterly miserable voyage to Cuba.
The invasion flotilla finally got underway on June 14th. Loaded aboard was the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. Win. R. Shafter commanding. It comprised 16,873 officers and men along with 498 civilians and 11 foreign attaches. The Corps was short of equipment but high in spirit. The force was organized into two infantry divisions (Gens. Lawton and Kent) of three infantry brigades; a cavalry division (Gen. Wheeler, also second in command of the Corps) of two brigades; an independent brigade (Gen. Bates); and attached corps units. On the voyage to Santiago they were escorted by fourteen warships ‑ protection from Spanish torpedo gunboats thought to be lurking along the Cuban coast. Fortunately, no gunboats appeared and, also fortunately, there was no storm. The invasion flotilla was slow, not maneuverable, and not seaworthy.
On the way to Santiago, Gen. Shafter studied invasion plans. In the 1700s the British had tried both storming the Morro and making a long approach march from Guantanamo Bay.
Both had failed. Rugged hills covered the immediate harbor area and extended both to the west and inland to the east. Shafter’s most pressing problem was getting ashore safely. He decided upon Daiquiri; it was lightly defended, had a good beach, and was recommended by the rebels.
In the early morning on June 22, the invasion began. The fleet bombarded coastal blockhouses while the soldiers clambered into small boats that would carry them ashore. The Army made directly for the single pier, encountering no opposition. The Spanish troops, numbering only 300, had fled. As Wheeler’s cavalry raised the first US flag it discovered that the bombardment had not hit any of the blockhouses. Had the American landing been opposed, it could have been a bloodbath. Six thousand men landed that day. Lawton’s Division, in the lead, pushed on to Siboney, where it established a new base and awaited the rest of the army (mostly Wheeler’s Div.).
Early the next day, Wheeler’s Division set off from Siboney along the road to Santiago. One column took the main road, while the second, including the Rough Riders, moved along a jungle trail that closely paralleled it. Three miles ahead, the trail and road merged at Las Guasmas where 1,500 Spanish awaited with two Krupp guns. The battle began when Spanish sniper fire hit and pinned down the Rough Riders. Soon, the Americans returned fire and scrambled forward. The Spanish readily gave ground; by 10 A.M. this first skirmish was over. Although the US lost 16 dead and 52 wounded while Spain lost only 35, the Americans had proven themselves.
From the hills around Las Guasmas, the rooftops of Santiago could be seen. The intervening ground seemed deserted, yet the Army did not move. It could not. Only the troops had been landed, their supplies were not yet ashore. Apparently, the chaos of Tampa had not been left behind. The supply problem was fast becoming a crisis.
Meanwhile, the Spanish were busy fortifying the San Juan Heights, which covered Santiago from the east. In Santiago province, General Arsenio Linares commanded over 36,000 men. The Americans had been ashore three days, but Linares deployed as though he faced only the rebels. While the road net in Santiago province was not good, a more daring commander could nevertheless have concentrated some 12,000 troops directly against the American landings. But Linares refused to thin his garrisons. Reinforcements did depart from Manzanilla, but this was 140 miles to the west. Would they arrive in time? Since Cervera did not expect to leave soon, about 1,000 sailors could be deployed as riflemen but this was a stopgap measure. At Santiago, 10,429 men were spread in a broad circle around the city. Linares was defending everywhere, and nowhere in strength. He probably feared the rebels would cut off the city’s food and water supplies.
At 6:35 A.M., July 1st, American artillery opened fire on the Spanish regiment of 520 men entrenched at EL Caney. The infantry of Lawton’s Division (5,400 men) expected to attack shortly. Simultaneously, the remainder of US Fifth Corps was to advance westwards and attack San Juan Heights. Splitting the US army was potentially disastrous. Had the Spanish concentrated against either wing, the US would have been defeated.
Shafter approved the plan because Lawton estimated his division could take E1 Caney in three hours and would rejoin the main force in time for a combined assault. Furthermore, Lawton reasoned, a fortified enemy base should not be left in the army’s rear ‑ the simultaneous attack on San Juan Heights would block Spanish reinforcement of El Caney.
Lawton’s men had expected to surge forward immediately after the bombardment, but every rush was pinned down by a deadly fusillade. At noon, the battle for El Caney still raged. The 2nd Massachusetts Volunteers had to be pulled out of the line; smoke from their Springfields kept giving away their positions. Bates’ brigade was sent to assist them but accomplished little. Finally, in mid‑afternoon, after nearly ten hours, El Caney fell.
The Spanish had nearly run out of ammunition and had suffered over 400 casualties. Spanish survivors seemed astonished that they were not immediately executed.
The assault on San Juan Heights also began with an artillery barrage. The night before, the army had moved forward, but at daybreak still had some distance to cover. As at Las Guasmas, sniper fire hit first, though aimed high, but now the Krupp artillery struck with deadly accuracy. Kent’s Division was deployed to the left, Wheeler’s (Sumner now commanding) to the right. Immediately in front of the Spanish positions lay the San Juan River (only a small stream here and more often called the Aguadores River). The Rough Riders had little trouble approaching the river, but found sharp fighting immediately after crossing. Kent’s troops took casualties all the way. Over 400 men were killed or wounded along the trail and approaches.
Covering the foot of the San Juan Heights was a barbed wire entanglement. Here Spanish fire was heaviest. All the US regiments were pinned, but slowly the Americans hacked their way through. Then the Gatling guns arrived. This battery delivered 3,600 rounds a minute, quickly putting the Spanish to flight. Now at last the advance was renewed, with many little columns winding single file up the hills. The confusion and delay at the wire and river caused the intermingling of adjacent regiments, but the effect was to make the American force more fearsome as they blended into a single mass. Noteworthy in this advance was Roosevelt, now in command of his regiment since Col. Wood assumed command of the brigade. Roosevelt led from front on horseback and was himself the second man on top of the hill. Actually, the Rough Riders advanced (not charged) up Kettle Hill, a spur of San Juan Hill and only later that day assisted in the capture of San Juan Hill proper.
Sundown found the US troops shaken and exhausted but in firm possession of the San Juan Heights. The day had cost the US 205 dead, 1180 wounded; while Spain lost 215 dead, 376 wounded. Among the Spanish wounded was Linares, so Gen. Jose Toral assumed command. Some US commanders, thinking the day’s casualties had been too hard on an army that must soon face rains, disease, hunger and Spanish reinforcements, requested a withdrawal. Wheeler would not hear of it. To him, the day’s fighting was hardly more than a skirmish compared to the Civil War battles he had experienced, although he did veto the idea of an assault on the Morro as being potentially too costly.
So there the American Army stood, having proven itself in battle and the fortitude of its fighting men, if not all their commanders.
THE FINAL ACT
The U.S. Navy smashes Admiral Pascual Cervera’s Spanish fleet.
In Santiago, the Spanish viewed the situation with gloom. The Americans were moving to surround the city. Insurgents in the rear were delaying the arrival of Escario’s relief column. Food and ammunition were running low and Cervera’s squadron had orders to leave.
On 2 July Havana issued new orders to Cervera: “In view of the exhausted and serious condition of Santiago… go out immediately.” During prior weeks the admiral and his captains had discussed various ways to exit the harbor. American ships formed a rough semi‑circle outside the harbor mouth with light units close in and the battleships farther out. During the day they were six miles from the harbor entrance and at night they closed to about three miles and lit the entrance with searchlights when there was no moon.
One captain proposed that the Squadron sortie on a moonless night with destroyers in the lead. These would torpedo the battleships while Colon would head straight for Brooklyn and perhaps ram her. The remaining ships would then escape to the southeast. Another captain argued that escape should be attempted only if one of the US armored cruisers left. The others did not favor any attempt. It was agreed, however, that a night sortie carried too great a risk that a ship might go aground or strike a mine, thereby blocking the channel for the remaining ships. It was further agreed to risk the Squadron in battle rather than surrender or scuttle.
Sunday morning July 3, 1898, at about 9:30 the Spanish squadron emerged. As luck would have it, this was one of the few days that Sampson was not present. He, his flagship, two cruisers, and a battleship had left at 9:00 for Guantanamo Bay to recoal, leaving Schley in charge. Schley later recalled sitting in his desk chair on the Brooklyn and remarking about the smoke rising from Santiago Harbor. Suddenly the Spanish ships emerged, one at a time, at intervals of 10 minutes and 600 yards: Teresa leading, followed by Vizcaya, Colon, Oquendo and the two destroyers Pluton and Furor. They began steaming west, hugging the shore. Up every signal mast of the US fleet went the flaghoist meaning, “Enemy’s ships are coming out.”
As naval battles go, there was little doubt who would win. The only question was whether any of the Spanish ships would escape. Teresa got off the first shot; her main battery fire falling short of Iowa. Then Brooklyn opened up against Teresa. Being too close, Schley turned to open the range and now Texas joined in. Broadsides from both fleets volleyed with mechanical rapidity but the torrent of Spanish shells flew overhead while US fire struck home. The Iowa pounded Teresa at 2,500 yards, then Vizcaya, then Oquendo. The latter were also engaged by Indiana and Oregon. The two Spanish destroyers attempted to run at an American battleship and launch torpedoes, but the US armed yacht Gloucester stood in their way. Her fire was deadly. Pluton took a critical hit, exploded, and sank within minutes. Furor suffered an early steering hit and was beached with difficulty.
The Brooklyn’s turn made Cervera gave up the idea of ramming her with Teresa. Instead, Cervera tried to pull away, his ships outpacing the Indiana and Iowa. But he could not outrun Oregon and Brooklyn, and the damage he was taking continued to mount. Teresa, suffering from an earlier serious hit, had to flood magazines and beach. Oquendo had been taking concentrated fire from nearly the entire US fleet; at 10:30 she, too, was beached. Now Vizcaya took the concentrated US fire. The closest, Brooklyn, opened fire at 950 yards, near enough for every gun type to hit, and hit they did. Vizcaya staggered out to 1,200 yards, but the heavy American fire crippled her and she, too, made for the beach. This left only Colon, the fastest of all.
While the US navy concentrated against her slower sisters, Colon built up a six‑mile lead. The only pursuers with a chance of success were Oregon, Brooklyn, and Texas. Their best chance of catching up would come when Colon would swing out from shore to round Cape Cruz. American luck still held. At 12:30 Colon’s supply of good coal ran out.
The Oregon tried a bow shot. When the sixth round found the range, Colon struck her colors, opened her seacocks, and made for shore. It was 1:15. Spain had lost her fleet and the 2000 sailors who manned it (including 323 dead). The US suffered the incredible total of one dead, six wounded, and suffered virtually no damage to her ships.
With the slaughter of Cervera’s Squadron, morale in Santiago plummeted. Escario’s relief column arrived the next day, but there was little reason to defend the city. The column was just that many more mouths to feed. Santiago was nearly out of food and the US demanding the city’s surrender. On July 5th, the civilian population was allowed to evacuate; on July 6th, Toral asked that his force be allowed to evacuate to the interior under “conditions honorable to Spanish arms:” Shafter relayed this proposal to Washington, but the War Department demanded unconditional surrender. On the 14th, this was accepted and the city and province were surrendered on July 17th. The Santiago campaign had ended.
Though Cervera’s squadron was sunk and Santiago captured, the war was not quite over. During June a new armada had been assembled in Spain centered on Pelayo and Carlos V and commanded by Admiral Manuel de la Camara. Some 17 ships were eventually collected, but the fleet was dispatched to the Philippines instead of to Cuba. On 1 July the new fleet arrived at Port Said, Egypt, and sailed through the Suez Canal. However, unable to purchase coal and learning of Cervera’s disaster, the fleet began its return to Spain on July 8th. Had this squadron arrived at Manila, which was about 40 days distant, Dewey would have been outclassed.
With the surrender of Santiago, the US Army was free to pursue other objectives. On July 25th US troops landed at Guanica on the south coast of Puerto Rico. Over the next three weeks they encountered only light resistance as they swept north towards San Juan. About half the island was cleared before the end of the war.
Spain first sought peace on July 22nd with a letter requesting terms. Madrid was ready to trade Cuba for peace and hoped to retain everything else. However, McKinley’s terms were the independence of Cuba and the cession of Puerto Rico and Guam. In the Philippines, Manila was to be held pending a peace treaty. Interestingly, the question of annexing the Philippines saw vigorous debate across the country. When at length McKinley decided in favor of doing so, he (and many protestant ministers) explained that God had imposed a national duty to Christianize the Filipinos; indeed, McKinley had a personal mission to do as divinely revealed to him one night during his prayers.
The protocols of peace were signed August 12th and the war formally ended by treaty signed at Paris on December 10, 1898.
The Spanish American War was A product of its times. In many ways it represents the end of the 19th century. American foreign policy in the 1800s had been quite successful. The Mississippi Valley was freed; the Union reforged in the crucible of the Civil War. But for the last, these were triumphs at small cost. American success ultimately flowed from the national goals. These were limited and tangible.
Contributing in no small way to the American success was its proximity to these lands, whereas the Europeans were far away. Further, the European “balance of power” system protected the US; no single European nation could become powerful enough to menace her without gravely threatening the rest of Europe. This protected the US during the war with Spain.
“Manifest destiny” had guided US expansion across the continent and its legacy was the belief that America was destined to be a great Pacific power. The US looked west across the Pacific for new markets, especially in China; and likewise south across the Caribbean ‑ though soon fascinated by the idea of building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Such a canal was considered by the influential naval theorist Alfred T. Mahan to be of vital importance to a nation that spanned the continent. If America was to be a great power, she must have the unrestricted capability to easily transfer naval forces from ocean to ocean.
These themes of expansion culminated in the Spanish‑American War. The United States would now be recognized as a major force in world affairs. She was territorially and commercially ready for the twentieth century, a century which in many respects can be called the “American Century.”