American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV


The President at the Camps—Roosevelt's Rough Riders—The Army's Departure for Cuba—Landing at Baiquiri—Battles of La Guasima, El Caney, and San Juan Hill


While the army was being placed upon a war footing, President McKinley visited several camps and made himself acquainted with all the details of the gigantic system which was being created whereby our soldiers could be sent to Cuba or elsewhere and in such condition that failure to win out in battle would be next to impossible. He also visited some of the hospitals, and his kind and encouraging words to the sick will not be forgotten.

All over the country the militia were recruiting finely, and to this body of men sworn into the United States service were added the Rough Riders. The lieutenant-colonel of this command was Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded McKinley as President. Roosevelt was a man who had seen much of life, a graduate of Harvard who had been at one time a ranchman and hunter of the West, and at another Police Commissioner of New York. When the war broke out, he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but he resigned that position for the sake of active service in the field. He was courageous to the last degree, a perfect shot, a man who knew how to manage men, and beloved by all the rough riders—cowboys and others—who served under him.

Having been sworn into the United States service, the gathering army was quartered at Tampa, Florida, Chattanooga Park, Tennessee, Falls Church, Virginia, and other points farther west. At Tampa the soldiers were put under the leadership of General Joseph Wheeler, an officer who had served with marked distinction in the Confederate army during the Civil War, while among the newly appointed officers was Colonel Bryan, McKinley's former Democratic opponent for the Presidency. Thus was the last of the line between the North and the South wiped out, and all political differences for the time forgotten.

While the troops were gathering at Tampa and elsewhere, many people of the Nation became impatient and wanted to know why our soldiers did not sail for Cuba at once, to fight the Dons, as the Spanish soldiers were commonly called. They did not realize that to send an army to Cuba would necessitate the use of a large number of ships, and that such a fleet of transports must be adequately protected by warships while making the trip, or the Spanish might swoop down upon them with disastrous results.

"We must make haste, but we must be sure of what we are doing," said President McKinley, and he pushed forward the purchasing of vessels and supplies with all possible speed.

The flotilla which finally set sail for Cuba was a formidable one, including thirty-two transports and fourteen warships. The transports were crowded with soldiers and officers to the number of nearly seventeen thousand. Of this body the greater part were from the regular army, the volunteers being the Seventy-first New York, the Second Massachusetts, and Roosevelt's Rough Riders. So crowded were the transports for space that the Rough Riders had to go into the campaign on foot, leaving their well-trained horses behind.

The destination of our army was the lower coast of Cuba, the intention being to strike at Santiago both by land and by sea. The force was under the command of General Shafter, who, as soon as the vicinity of Santiago was reached, was to confer with Admiral Sampson upon the next move to make against the Spaniards holding the city and the bay.

To the east of Santiago Bay is the bay of Guantanamo, and between these points is the settlement of Baiquiri, having a long dock and a short line of railroad running into a mineral section of the country. It was decided that the army should land on the beach and at the dock at this place; and to humbug the Spaniards concerning what was going on, several warships were sent away to bombard another point, while the Cuban patriots in that vicinity were asked to make a charge in still another direction.

The landing was made with caution, but there was no attack by the enemy, and soon
American Boys' Life of McKinley p279.jpg

President Roosevelt.

after the troops were ashore General Lawton, afterward so well known for his daring military work in the Philippines, threw out a strong picket guard on the Santiago highway westward, and on the roads running north and east.

The day after landing, the troops moved through Juragua to La Guasima, and it was here that the first resistance of the Spanish army was felt. A sharp skirmish that developed into a regular battle ensued, in which some Regular Infantry and Roosevelt's Rough Riders took the principal part. After the loss of about sixty killed and wounded, the enemy were driven back, and our own troops then took up another position which was considered safer to hold.

This portion of Cuba is much broken by mountains and hills, and the roads through the jungles are narrow and in a bad condition. Consequently, the progress of the army was slow. Everything that the Spanish mind could devise to stop the progress of the Americans was used, from pitfalls in the roads to barbed wire fences running through the undergrowth. The Spanish sharpshooters were located at various high points, and they picked off our officers and men at every available opportunity.

General Shafter's plan was to form a semicircle around Santiago, starting from El Caney on the north and running in an irregular line to Aguadores on the south. He had now with him some additional troops, yet the line to be covered was nearly twenty miles long, consequently the picket guard at some points was exceedingly thin.

The troops under General Shafter consisted of two divisions of infantry, two brigades of cavalry, and two brigades of light and four brigades of heavy artillery. As we know, the Rough Riders were without horses, and the artillery found it next to impossible to move about, owing to the bad roads.

It was not until the end of June that the American and the Spanish armies faced each other for the battles of El Caney and San Juan hill. Each force occupied a semicircle as before mentioned, that of the Spanish lying of course between the American line and the city of Santiago. North of the line, at the head of Santiago Bay, were stationed the Cuban troops under General Garcia, put there to prevent the enemy from bringing to the front extra troops lying on the west of the bay.

The attack began on July 1, and practically occupied the whole line, although the principal fighting was at El Caney and at San Juan. These hills commanded a good view of Santiago, and the Spaniards had fortified them well, knowing that if they were captured by our forces, artillery would be placed there and Santiago would be bombarded until it surrendered.

It was gallant General Lawton who commanded at El Caney. This heroic and daring leader had with him some Regular Infantry, Capron's battery, and the Second Massachusetts Volunteers. The battery opened fire at half-past six in the morning, and soon the booming of cannon was heard on every side. Then the soldiers advanced on the double-quick, along trails and through dense undergrowth, climbing the wire fences, and leaping the pitfalls dug to receive them. The main points of attack were a quaint blockhouse and an old stone church, with some other buildings close by.

"Down with the Dons! Remember the Maine!" was the war-cry heard upon every side, and forward went the troops, with Chaffee's brigade to the northeast, Miles's to the west, and Ludlow's to the south. From the blockhouse and the old stone church the Spaniards sent a galling fire, and many a poor soldier went down to rise no more. So great was the slaughter in one locality that it has since been called "The Hornets' Nest." But our brave boys kept on, until presently the first of the Spanish intrenchments were gained. Then the enemy fled toward the church and blockhouse.

"Who'll go ahead?" was the cry that arose. Who? Everybody! There was a wild cheering, and up the hillside scrambled company after company, while the battery continued to send shot after shot over their heads into the midst of the enemy's ranks. Then came another halt in front of the blockhouse, the Spaniards fighting with the desperation of despair. The flag was shot down, but a Spanish soldier lad quickly picked it up and held it aloft. In justice to the enemy it must be stated that the hill was not taken until nearly every defender of the blockliouse had given up his life for his country.

The losses at El Caney were heavy, and one portion of the battle has well been designated "The Slaughter Pen," for here scores of brave soldiers fell while trying to cross a barbed wire fence and mount the slippery hill beyond. Some of the charges will live for a long time in history, and those who participated in them have every reason to be proud of their gallant services. It is no light thing to face death and to do it as unflinchingly as did the heroes of El Caney. And when it is remembered that some who took part had never before been under fire, the credit is even more deserving.

While the struggle was going on for the possession of El Caney hill to the northward, the American troops in the vicinity of San Juan hill were by no means idle. Grimes's battery had been stationed on El Pozo heights, and from this point threw a telling fire toward San Juan, which was crowded with Spanish troops, stationed in a blockhouse and in a long line of intrenchments.

The advance was led in part by General Kent, having with him a number of Regulars, and the Seventy-first New York Volunteers, and by trustworthy General Wheeler, leading the Regular cavalry and the Rough Riders. The advance was made across a mountain stream and through rough undergrowth and grass beaten down by recent rains. In the undergrowth the barbed wire fencing was thick, and at some places it was impossible to pass through before the wires were cut. Here many were shot down, the Spanish sharpshooters taking advantage of every halt made.

But the progress of the Americans could not be stopped, and led by Wheeler, Roosevelt, and other fearless officers, they mounted the side of the hill amid a fierce firing from the Spaniards. Bullets whistled in all directions, and overhead burst many shells, dealing out death and destruction. Some of our soldiers used rifles with old-fashioned powder, making a great smoke, and thus served as a mark for the enemy's gunners, of which the Spaniards were not slow to take advantage. The final shock came at the blockhouse, where steel met steel, and many fought face to face until one or the other laid down his life for his cause. But in the end the enemy was forced to retreat, and this kept up until night brought the fighting to a close.

On July 2 the fighting was renewed with more or less spirit in several directions, but the Spaniards had suffered severely, and by dark they had again retreated, this time to the outer defences of Santiago itself. Seeing this, General Shafter sent word that he must have more troops, and six thousand additional soldiers reached him eight days after the battle. Then the American lines were drawn around Santiago as closely as possible, siege guns and other heavy artillery were posted on the hills which had been captured, and all other preparations were made to bombard the city and thus force it to surrender.