CHAPTER XI. The Campaign Of Santiago De Cuba
In planning the campaign against Santiago, Admiral Sampson wished the army immediately to assault the defenses at the harbor mouth in order to open the way for the navy. General Shafter, however, after conferring with General Garcia, the commander of the insurgents, decided to march overland against the city. The army did not have sufficient small vessels to effect a landing; but the navy came to its assistance, and on the 22d of June the first American troops began to disembark at Daiquiri, though it was not until the 26th that the entire expedition was on shore. On the second day Siboney, which had a better anchorage and was some six miles closer to Santiago, was made the base. From Siboney there stretched for eight or ten miles a rolling country covered with heavy jungle brush and crossed by mere threads of roads. There was indeed a railroad, but this followed a roundabout route by the coast. Through this novel and extremely uncomfortable country, infected with mosquitoes, the troops pressed, eager to meet the enemy.
The first engagement took place at Las Guasimas, on the 24th of June. Here a force of about a thousand dismounted cavalry, partly regulars and partly Rough Riders, defeated nearly twice their number of Spaniards. This was the only serious resistance which the Americans encountered until they reached the advanced defenses of Santiago. The next week they spent in getting supplies ashore, improving the roads, and reconnoitering. The newspapers considered this interval entirely too long! The 30th of June found the Americans confronting the main body of Spaniards in position, and on the 1st of July, the two armies joined battle.
Between the opposing forces was the little river San Juan and its tributaries. The Spanish left wing was at El Caney, supported by a stone blockhouse, rifle pits, and barbed wire, but with no artillery. About four miles away was San Juan Hill, with more formidable works straddling the main road which led to Santiago. Opposite El Caney, General Lawton was in command of about seven thousand Americans. The fight here began at half-past six in the morning, but the American artillery was placed at too great a distance to be very effective. The result was a long and galling exchange of rifle firing, which is apt to prove trying to raw troops. The infantry, however, advanced with persistency and showed marked personal initiative as they pushed forward under such protection as the brush and grass afforded until they finally rushed a position which gave opportunity to the artillery. After this they speedily captured the blockhouse.
The fight lasted over eight hours instead of two, as had been expected, and thus delayed General Lawton, who was looked for at San Juan by the American left. The losses, too, were heavy, the total casualties amounting to seven per cent of the force engaged. The Americans, however, had gained the position, and after a battle which had been long and serious enough to test thoroughly the quality of the personnel of the army. Whatever deficiencies the Americans may have had in organization, training, and military education, they undoubtedly possessed fighting spirit, courage, and personal ingenuity, and these are, after all, the qualities for which builders of armies look.
The battle of El Caney was perhaps unnecessary, for the position lay outside the main Spanish line anal would probably have been abandoned when San Juan fell. For that more critical movement General Shafter kept about eight thousand troops and the personal command. Both he and General Wheeler, however, were suffering from the climate and were unable to be with the troops. The problem of making a concerted advance through the thick underbrush was a difficult one, and the disposition of the American troops was at once revealed by a battery of artillery which used black powder, and by a captive balloon which was injudiciously towed about.
The right wing here, after assuming an exposed position, was unable to act, as Lawton, by whom it was expecting to be reinforced, was delayed at El Caney. The advance regiments were under the fire of the artillery, the infantry, and the skillful sharpshooters of an invisible enemy and were also exposed to the fierce heat of the sun, to which they were unaccustomed. The wounded were carried back on litters, turned over to the surgeons, who worked manfully with the scantiest of equipment, and were then laid, often naked except for their bandages, upon the damp ground. Regiment blocked regiment in the narrow road, and officers carrying orders were again and again struck, as they emerged from cover, by the sharpshooters' fire. The want of means of communication paralyzed the command, for all the equipment of a modern army was lacking: there were no aeroplanes, no wireless stations, no telephones.
Throughout the morning the situation grew worse, but the nerve of the men did not give way, and American individual initiative rose to the boiling point. Realizing that safety lay only in advance, the officers on the spot began to take control. General Hawkins, with the Sixth and Sixteenth Regulars, advanced against the main blockhouse, which crested a slope of two hundred feet, and the men of the Seventy-first New York Volunteers joined promiscuously in the charge.