War with Spain - Charles Morris

The First Fight on Cuban Soil

Carefully as Lieutenant Hobson's enterprise had been managed, and cool as he had been in carrying out its every detail, it proved practically a failure. The loss of the rudder had rendered it impossible to handle the vessel, and she had sunk along instead of across the channel, leaving space for a war-ship to pass by her side. Thus the services of the fleet were still necessary to hold the Spanish ships in check, and none could be spared from the blockade. The necessity of alertness was to be demonstrated before many weeks by a startling event. It was still a matter of doubt, however, whether the whole of Admiral Cervera's squadron lay within. Not all the ships had been seen, and it was not sure but that some of them might still be in the open seas, prowling for prey in the West India or North Atlantic waters. It was known that the torpedo-boat destroyer Terror  was still at large, and it was just possible that others might be outside of Santiago harbor. This question it was important to settle definitely.

For this purpose, Commodore Schley, after his bombardment of the Santiago forts, opened communication with the insurgents at a point on the coast about eighteen miles east of the city. They were asked to send scouts to the vicinity of the city and try to learn the number and names of the vessels then in the harbor. On Friday, June 3, Lieutenant Sharp, of the Vixen, visited the place of rendezvous and received from the insurgents a map of the harbor, showing the entire Cape Verde fleet, with the exception of one of the torpedo-boats. They lay at the upper extremity of the harbor, under the guns of Blanco battery.

This information, definite as it appeared, was not fully satisfactory to Admiral Sampson, who seems to have preferred American to Cuban eyes as means of accurate observation. He therefore despatched Lieutenant Blue, a daring young officer of the fleet, on an enterprise only second in peril to that performed by Lieutenant Hobson. Leaving shipboard, the lieutenant made a detour of seventy miles around the harbor of Santiago, counting and inspecting the ships that lay there from commanding points of observation on the high hills surrounding, and satisfying himself beyond doubt that all the ships of the squadron, with the exception of the Terror, were there. This tour of observation in a hostile country was one that demanded no small degree of courage and resolution. In military law he would, if taken, have been adjudged a spy, and in all probability would have been hanged as one. It was simply another instance of that intrepidity which seems so common a trait of the American sailor and soldier.

The fact of the presence of the Spanish fleet being definitely established, the blockade went on, its monotony broken by occasional stirring incidents. On the night of June 3 a second attempt to use their torpedoes against the blockading ships was made by the Spaniards. It was defeated by the sharp lookout kept up on the American fleet. Shortly after ten o'clock a flash of colored lights on the deck of the New Orleans  gave warning that an enemy was in sight. A second signal indicated that a torpedo-boat had been seen. Immediately night signals flashed around the six or seven miles' circuit of the blockading squadron, while shots came from the rapid-fire battery of the New Orleans. The New York  sought the locality at full speed, hoping to shut off the daring stranger from the harbor.

"A torpedo-boat one point forward on the port-beam, sir; headed this way," reported Ensign Mustin to Captain Chadwick, and for some minutes the guns of the flag-ship boomed out through the night. The Oregon, coming up to the eastward, followed with two shots from her big guns. Then the signal "Cease firing" was given. The search-lights showed no signs of an enemy. The prowling craft had escaped. That it had not been a false alarm was proved the next morning, when the torpedo-boat Porter  found two loaded torpedoes floating off shore. They had evidently been discharged at the ships, but had missed their mark. One of them was taken on board the Porter, the other sank as they were seeking to lift it. The one recovered was a 14-inch Whitehead torpedo, worth about $3500, in perfect condition, and calculated to have sunk any ship against which it struck. The result added another to the numerous failures in the attempted use of torpedo-boats.

A second bombardment of the forts at Santiago was made on June 1, the large vessels of the American fleet pouring in a steady and effective fire from 7:45 until nearly 11 A.M. The fleet formed in double column, six miles off Morro Castle, and steamed slowly along three thousand yards off shore, the Brooklyn  leading one column, followed by the Marblehead, Texas, and Massachusetts, and moving westward. In the second column, headed eastward, the New York  led, the New Orleans, Yankee, Iowa, and Oregon  following. A sharp fire was directed against all the forts with the exception of the Morro, which was saved from attack by the supposed presence of Lieutenant Hobson and his men.

The bombardment appeared to be very effective, the Spanish fire weakening until it ceased entirely. The Estrella and Catalina batteries seemed to have particularly suffered, while considerable injury was done to the Reina Mercedes, the only Spanish ship within reach. Throughout the engagement not an American ship was hit and no American was injured. The Spaniards fired with their usual lack of aim, wasting their projectiles idly upon the waters of the harbor. The attack was specially directed against Aguadores, a small town on the coast a little to the east of the harbor entrance. A fort recently constructed there was completely wrecked, and a party of marines were landed at Baiquiri, some distance east of Aguadores, and near a station on the railroad running to Santiago. They were attacked by Spanish infantry and cavalry, but held their ground, being aided by a neighboring force of Cuban insurgents. The purpose of this landing was probably to hold the point as a landing-place for the expected troops; but the position was not maintained.

On the same day a similar movement was made near the mouth of the fine harbor of Guantanamo, which lies some forty-five miles along the coast east of Santiago harbor. This bay is a very fine one, the harbor being capacious and with forty feet depth of water. The town lies some six miles inland from the mouth of the bay. The Marblehead  and the Yankee, under orders from Admiral Sampson, entered the lower bay on the date mentioned, drove a Spanish gunboat into the interior harbor, and silenced the batteries after a few minutes' bombardment. On Friday, the 10th, a landing was effected, forty marines from the Oregon  going ashore and occupying the western entrance to the bay. Soon after the troop-ship Panther, with six hundred marines, arrived, and these were landed without opposition, the Spanish having been driven back by the fire of the Marblehead  the day before. The marines found evidence that the Spaniards had left in panic haste,—watches, hammocks, and ammunition being left scattered about their works. The landing-party, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Huntington, made its way up the rocky hill-side to the deserted earthworks on top, and soon the American flag was flying from the flagstaff of the captured Spanish camp.

The position of this force on the crest of the hill to which it had climbed was an exposed one. It occupied a bare spot surrounded on all sides by heavy brush, the ground descending inward into a ravine, whose chaparral offered close cover to the Spanish bush-fighters, while the American camp, outlined on the bare crest against the sky, seemed as if intended as a target for rifle-fire from below. Only for the aimless character of Spanish marksmanship, the marines must have suffered severely for their incautious temerity.

The guerillas had gathered thickly in the brush, and at five o'clock on Saturday afternoon, the day after the landing, a brisk fire told of the presence of an unseen foe. It was answered sharply from the camp, the men sheltering themselves as best they could and firing at random into the bushes. The exact position of the enemy could not be discovered on account of their use of smokeless powder. This firing was kept up all night long, ending only at six o'clock on Sunday morning, when reinforcements from the Marblehead  joined the beleaguered troops. The loss on the American side was small, considering the advantage in position of the enemy, being but three men killed and one wounded. Among the killed was Surgeon John Blair Gibbs, son of Major Gibbs, one of the victims of the Custer massacre. The loss of the Spaniards was unknown. Fears were entertained that the advance pickets, under Lieutenants Neville and Shaw, had been cut oft by the foe; but during the morning these officers appeared in camp with their thirty men, much exhausted by their long term of picket duty and all-night fight with the enemy, but otherwise none the worse lot: this arduous service. During most of the time they had been surrounded by a superior force, but had firmly held their ground, inflicting considerable damage and receiving none.

Shortly after midnight a fierce assault was made upon the camp, the Spanish charging boldly up the southwest slope. They were met by rapid volleys from the marines who encircled the inner side of the crest, and broke before they were one-third of the way to the top. Some of them came farther up, and at points there was almost a hand-to-hand struggle. It was during this charge that Surgeon Gibbs fell. As a rule, however, the Spaniards fought under cover, creeping up as close as they dared to the American line and delivering their fire from the brush. It was a mode of warfare in which they displayed an Indian-like skill, and which they had long practised in their contest with the Cubans.

On Sunday morning Colonel Huntington decided to change the position of his camp, the tents being removed from the crest and pitched on the side of the hill facing the harbor, where they were under the protection of the guns of the war-ships. The crest was given up to batteries and rifle-pits, two 3-inch guns being drawn up the hill and mounted on the works in expectation of a second attack on Sunday night. Other guns of smaller caliber and two Colt machine-guns were also mounted. The looked-for attack began shortly after dark and was kept up all night, the firing being incessant, but not very effective. Two of the marines were killed and three injured. During the night the Spaniards made an assault on the camp on the hill-side, and the Marblehead, under the mistaken idea that the Americans had been driven out, threw several shells into the place, fortunately without harm. The attack was easily repulsed by the few marines in camp.

The night battle was a picturesque and striking spectacle, tongues of fire darting from every bush encircling the camp, while the search-lights of the ships swept back and forth over the hills, revealing the lurking enemy to the marines on the crest. These gleams of light were accompanied by a strange variety of sounds, including the crack of the Mauser rifles, the twitter of the long steel bullets overhead, the rattle of the machine-guns, the crash of the field-guns as they drove their canister into the thicket, the sharp reports of the rapid-fire 1-pounders in the ship launches below, and an occasional screech from the large guns of the Marblehead.

Lieutenant Neville was again sent out on scout duty, and attacked a small stone fort, from which the Spaniards were driven with loss, fifteen dead bodies being found within. On Monday the marines received an important reinforcement, being joined by about sixty Cuban allies, whose acquaintance with the country and with the Spanish method of fighting made them of great value. General Garcia had sent General Rabi, his chief of staff, with about one thousand men, to occupy Ascerraderos, a village on the coast to the west of Santiago, following up this movement with the main body of his forces, and sending a detachment to reinforce the marines.

During Monday the works on Crest Hill were strengthened, and a body of Cubans and marines was sent to establish strong outposts a mile in advance. This gave the battalion a rest during Monday night, and the next day an attack was made on the Spanish camp, which scouts had located at a point about four miles inland, near the only well to be found for miles around. A force of marines under Captain Elliott and of Cubans under Colonel Thomas left the camp on Tuesday morning, and about eleven o'clock caught sight from a hill-top of the Spanish quarters on a brush-covered ridge below. Orders for an immediate attack were given, and a spirited charge was made, the troops coming close up before they were discovered by the foe. A sharp engagement followed, the Spaniards resisting for some twenty minutes the onset of the marines. Then they broke for a thicket in the rear, the American bullets pouring into the fleeing line with deadly effect. Resistance was continued until about 3:30 P.M., by which time the rout was complete, when the assailants returned, burned the camp buildings, and destroyed the well by filling it up with earth and stones. No other drinking water was to be had nearer than Guantanamo, several miles away. An attempt was made by Captain Elliott to cut off the enemy's retreat by climbing through cactus and brush a high hill in the rear, but the misdirected fire of the Dolphin  checked this movement and gave the Spaniards an opportunity to escape.

The bodies of about forty dead Spaniards were found in the vicinity of the block-house and eighteen prisoners were taken. The Cubans had two men killed and four wounded, and the marines two wounded, while twenty-three were overcome by the intense heat. In truth, the heat seemed more deadly than Spanish bullets, which were fired without regard to aim. This affair ended the conflict, the Spanish having been too severely punished to make any new assault on the camp of the marines.

The experience of the marines taught some useful lessons. It showed that the Spaniards were shrewd and daring bush-fighters, and that American camps needed to be carefully protected against night attacks. It also proved that bullets from magazine rifles might be wasted at an extraordinary rate without execution under the shades of night. In the daylight attacks the Spaniards had concealed themselves in the brush by wearing plantain leaves on their foreheads in place of hats. They also, wearing bark-colored trousers and tying green branches round their waists, had shown themselves able to move slowly across open spaces without being detected. Another trick was to make a moving screen of two or three large palm leaves, which formed an excellent disguise in the chaparral, from which stunted palms everywhere rose.

The Cuban allies far surpassed the marines in detecting these tricks, with which they were thoroughly familiar, having often practised them against the Spaniards. These men, mostly negroes, were keen-eyed woodsmen, well versed in bush-fighting, in which they displayed a during that called forth American admiration. But they were wildly reckless in handling the magazine rifles with which they had been supplied, and as wretched in marksmanship as the Spanish troops.

The final engagement in the bay of Guantanamo was the shelling, on June 16, of the fort and earthworks atCaimanera, a town on the west side of the bay some distance inward from the camp of the marines. These works were demolished, and aU resistance was brought to an end. On the same day the fleet made a third bombardment of the forts at the mouth of Santiago harbor, with the exception of the Morro, where Lieutenant Hobson was supposed to be confined. The affair continued for about an hour, the Spaniards replying briskly but wildly, while in the end most of their guns were abandoned. Not a ship was struck nor a man hurt on the American side. On the other hand, the batteries showed signs of being seriously injured, and many of their guns appeared to be dismounted.

The interesting feature of this affair, however, was the work of the dynamite boat Vesuvius. The dynamite guns carried by this vessel had been tried with good effect on land, but they had never been tested at sea, and the dread that the gun-cotton cartridges might explode within the tubes and blow the vessel to fragments made naval officers fearful of them. In consequence the Vesuvius  had been used as a despatch-boat, and only on this occasion was permission given for a trial of her guns. At midnight of the day preceding the bombardment she drew cautiously in and fired three of her 250-pound projectiles with perfect safety to the vessel. From two of these no report came. The third exploded with terrific violence on Cayo Smith, a frightful fiery gleam illuminating the harbor. From the ships the next morning a deep crater appeared on the side of the island, though subsequent observation indicated that no great harm had been done. On June 24 the Vesuvius  performed a service of a different character, entering the harbor at night and passing unobserved around the wreck of the Merrimac. The result of the reconnoissance was to prove that the channel had not been closed, and that a battle-ship could pass in safety on either side of the sunken collier.

On the 20th occurred the first landing of officers of the regular army on Cuban soil. This was at Ascerraderos, twelve miles west of Santiago, where General Garcia had established his camp. General Shafter, commander of the army of invasion, with his staff, landed for a conference with the Cuban general, accompanied by Admiral Sampson and his chief of staff. No soldiers or sailors were landed, the escort of ragged Cuban soldiers sufficing. The meeting took place in a very picturesque location, on the summit of a high cliff that overlooked a valley green with the royal palm, while beyond the white breakers at the beach stretched far away the calm blue sea, dotted thickly with transports and ships-of-war.

The three commanders took their seats under the palm-leaf roof of an open hut on which the sun's rays fell hotly. Outside stood five half-naked negro sentries, and beyond were grouped hundreds of Cubans, officers and men commingled, conversing as well as they could with the staff-officers from the fleet.

Plans for the coming attack on Santiago were discussed and arrangements for the co-operation of the allied forces settled, a map of the surrounding country being frequently consulted. This done, the conference ended, the three principal actors in the drama about to be played bade one another adieu, and the Americans returned to their boats, leaving their Cuban allies to seek again their lurking-places in the brush.