The dawn of U.S. military might
The year was 1898. The United States stood on the brink of a new century, and anything seemed possible. Inventors around the world had been experimenting with flying machines for several years, and the earliest motion pictures had already been shown. The nation was trading horses and buggies for automobiles and muskets for machine guns.
And those machine guns seemed ever more important as the U.S. military embarked on its first truly overseas expedition. 1898 marked the first time the still-growing nation intervened to save another people from tyranny, the first time it emerged as a global power. In little more than a century, it had gone from 13 colonies full of revolutionaries fighting for their lives to a divided, warring nation to a future superpower that would save Europe.
This was in large part thanks to the lessons and overseas territories gained from the Spanish-American War. The U.S. had declared war on Spain that April. Popular sentiment had long been with Cuban rebels, who had been struggling for freedom from Spain for decades, but after the USS Maine was mined in Havana’s harbor and 266 Sailors perished, war fever swept the nation. “Remember the Maine!” became a popular rallying cry. Young men rushed to recruiting stations in such numbers that many were rejected. The war became global, with engagements in not only Cuba, but Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had at one point been a captain in the New York National Guard, was one of the many who felt called to serve. He resigned his position in Washington and joined his friend Col. Leonard Wood in raising the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders.
“I suppose every man tends to brag about his regiment,” Roosevelt mused in his autobiography, “but it does seem to me that there never was a regiment better worth bragging about than ours. … The rank and file were as fine natural fighting men as ever carried a rifle or road a horse.”
The Rough Riders were a diverse crew. Many were recruited from the southwest because they were used to the heat they would encounter in Cuba, and were cowboys and Indian scouts and even Native Americans who were already comfortable on horseback. Others were college boys or athletes. And a few, like Roosevelt himself, were blue-blooded Yankees.
According to Glenn Williams, a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, Wood and Roosevelt, now a lieutenant colonel, were determined that although the Rough Riders were volunteers, they should be “as good as regulars, if that was possible. They pressed the Army to give them the same equipment and weapons that were allocated to the regular units. They tried to train them as close as possible as regular units would be trained. They must have been successful because when the Army did deploy to Cuba, they were one of the few volunteer units that did go. They were the only volunteer cavalry unit that (went).”
Together with the rest of the expeditionary force, the Rough Riders arrived in Tampa, Florida – their point of embarkation – to find a disaster, “ a scene of the wildest confusion,” according to Roosevelt. There weren’t enough barracks or supplies, and the rations the Army had actually provided (tinned beef) were disgusting, all problems that would haunt the Army throughout the campaign. Still worse, to the minds of men who were eager to lick the Spaniards, there weren’t enough boats and ships to actually transport everyone to Cuba. In the end, about 17,000 of the more than 100,000 volunteers and regulars deployed.
Wood and Roosevelt commandeered the steamship Yucatan, basically stealing it from another unit, but the Rough Riders still had to leave about a third of their men behind, as well as many of their horses and mules. Still more animals drowned when being unloaded in Cuba in late June, an event that was every bit as “higgledly-piggledy” as the deployment. In fact, the Americans didn’t even have enough animals to transport supplies, let alone horses for the cavalry. Fortunately, Williams explained, the Rough Riders would have trained in ground combat techniques, and the men proved they could hold their own.
The first battle – a skirmish really, according to Williams – came the very next day, June 24, when under command of Maj. Gen. “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, a former Confederate general, the Americans decided to secure Las Guasimas, a Spanish outpost that was along the road to the Army’s ultimate objective of Santiago de Cuba. The Rough Riders took the left trail leading to the road, while the 1st U.S. Regular Cavalry and the 10th U.S. Regular Cavalry (an African-American or “Buffalo” unit) attacked from the right.
Although it only lasted a couple of hours, the fight was a terrifying and bewildering experience for many of the Soldiers. They had a few brand-new machine guns, but were armed primarily with Craig Jorgenson rifles, which still used old-fashioned powder, while the Spanish had new Mausers. Not only did the Mausers use smokeless powder, they fired more rounds per minute than the American weapons. This meant that when the Spanish were hidden in the thick Cuban jungle, they were almost invisible and could fire with impunity. It was “mean fighting because we couldn’t see what to shoot at,” Rough Rider Carl Lovelace wrote to a friend, adding “bullets fairly rained about us.”
“For an hour and a half they held their ground under a perfect storm of bullets from the front and then the sides, and then Colonel Wood, to the right, and Lieutenant-colonel (sic) Roosevelt to the left, led a charge which turned the tide of the battle and sent the enemy flying over the hills toward Santiago,” wrote the Tarrytown (New York) Argus, Saturday, July 2.
“Up the men went,” it continued, “yelling like fiends, and never stopping to return the fire of the Spaniards, but keeping on with a grim determination to capture the blockhouse. The charge was the end. When within 500 yards of the coveted point, the Spaniards broke and ran, and for the first time we had the pleasure which the Spaniards had been experiencing all through the engagement of shooting with the enemy in sight.”
The article quoted Roosevelt as estimating the Spanish strength at 1,500. He also reported that 16 Americans had been killed and 60 were wounded or missing.“Their bodies were laid in one long trench, each wrapped in a blanket,” the article continued. “Palm leaves lined the trench and were heaped in profusion over the dead bodies. … The dead Rough Riders rest right on the summit of the hill where they fell. The sight is most beautiful. A grown of rich, luxuriant grass and flowers covers the slopes, and from the top, a far-reaching view is had over the tropical forest.” Their comrades, the reporter added, sang an impressive, bass version “Nearer, My God to Thee” as the fallen were laid to rest.
Before the Army could reach Santiago, however, it had to conquer the surrounding San Juan Heights, which consisted of San Juan Hill and another hill the Americans dubbed Kettle Hill thanks to a pot found on an old plantation. The American forces split to charge the heavily defended hills, July 1, with the Rough Riders among the units at the base of Kettle Hill, a position extremely vulnerable to not only Spanish rounds, but also U.S. artillery. “It soon became impossible to continue the march,” Roosevelt remembered.
“The Spaniards had a hard position to attack, it is true,” he continued, “but we could see them, and I knew exactly how to proceed. … I rode up and down the lines. … I had come to the conclusion that it was silly to stay in the valley firing at the hills, because that was really where we were the most exposed, and that the thing to do was to try to rush the intrenchments (sic).”
Roosevelt “got tired of being shot at,” Williams said, “and he thought the only way they were going to do anything was to take the fight to the enemy.” He decided to charge the hill head on. During this battle, he famously threatened to shoot any Soldier who didn’t follow him, including 10th Cav. Buffalo Soldiers. The Soldiers, Williams said, loved Roosevelt’s bravado – he was “the ideal dashing cavalry colonel,” according to Lovelace – and bolted up the hill despite the heavy fire. Aided by three Gatling guns, they took the hill in roughly 20 minutes, albeit with some hand-to-hand combat and heavy casualties.
“There wasn’t a single case of the yellows during the entire fracas,” remembered a Sgt. Ousler. “There wasn’t a man that tried to edge behind a fellow in front of him. … They all wanted to be in front, the further in front the better.”
The rest of San Juan Heights was secured in another hour, leaving the Americans in control of the high ground surrounding Santiago. The Spanish would not surrender, however, and so the Army settled in for a siege. “Our position,” Pvt. Alexander H. Wallace wrote to his sister, “is most easily described by the simile of a horse’s foot, shod. The American Army occupies the position of the show, and the enemy that of the frog in the center of the horse’s foot. The position of the Rough Riders, shared by the Tenth Cavalry on our left and the First Cavalry on our right, is that of the toe cork in the shoe.” Wallace added that the Rough Riders had tremendous respect for the gallantry and fighting ability of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cav., noting “They do not know fear. Excellent shots, gritty and ambitious in the extreme.”
As the summer rainy season progressed, however, the Americans were stalked by their real enemy. It wasn’t the Spanish, it was disease: yellow fever, malaria, dysentery and typhoid. More than 4,000 men eventually became sick, including Wallace, who lost 52 pounds and died of typhoid after returning to the States. Like all other supplies, medicine was scarce and food became scarcer when refugees – women, children and old men – streamed out of Santiago. (When the Army returned to the States, most of the Soldiers were quarantined for weeks at Montauk Point in Long Island, New York.)
The situation was unsustainable for both sides, and left with nowhere to go, the Spanish surrendered the city, July 13. In separate battles, the U.S. Navy destroyed two of Spain’s three fleets, one in Cuba and one in the Philippines, and the Spanish sued for peace. Hostilities ended August 12, and in the Treaty of Paris later that year, Cuba gained its independence. The U.S. gained Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
It was the end of an era for Spain, just as it was the beginning of a new age for the United States, one that saw the military used for power projection, not simply defending the U.S., according to Williams. “The most important aspect of the Spanish-American War is that it led the United States to become a world power, not just a continental power – continental being the United States – and is seen that way by other nations in the world. Although it’s still not one of the main players, we are at least more visible,” he said.
Williams added that the reforms that revolutionized the War Department in 1903 were a direct result of the lessons of the Spanish-American War: the supply and transport disasters, the need for more modern weapons, an organized Reserve Corps, the need to train the National Guard and the Reserves to the same level as the active Army and effective treatments for diseases. Those reforms meant that a decade and a half later, the Army could confidently deploy to France in the Great War.