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War in the Jungle

While the U.S. Navy had prospered in the period of relative peace following the Civil War, the Army and Marine Corps had not fared as well.  The Army consisted of only 25,706 enlisted soldiers under the leadership of 2,116 officers.  Military intelligence estimated that any ground force required to end the Spanish rule in Cuba would face more than 80,000 men under General Blanco.  Two days before the United States declared war on April 25th, President McKinley issued a call for 125,000 volunteers to train and prepare for war in the Antilles.

The call to service was met with great exuberance.  Whipped into a patriotic fervor by the stories of the yellow journalists, it seemed everyone from aged Civil War veterans to the youngest of America's sons wanted to go help the Cubans earn their independence.  From among these volunteers eager to fight was selected a special unit.  On May 15th former Under Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt arrived in San Antonio, Texas.  He had resigned his position and received an Army commission as a Lieutenant Colonel to train and prepare the unit that was officially designated the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, but would forever be called "The Rough Riders".

Ten days into the Rough Riders two-week training program at San Antonio, the first Army expedition left San Francisco for duty in the Philippine Islands.  That same day, May 25th, President McKinley issued the call for an additional 75,000 volunteers.

At the outbreak of war, the Marine Corps was perhaps even more unprepared to wage a ground war.  The Corps could muster only 2,900 men, and this force was already spread thin to man 14 shore stations from coast to coast, and to serve 40 U.S. Navy ships.  Most of the Marine Corps cadre of officers were graduates of the Naval academy, but these leaders numbered only 77 men, several of whom were Civil War veterans too old for field assignments.

One of these aging Civil War commanders was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington.  At the outbreak of war, Colonel Commandant Charles Haywood, himself a Civil War veteran, ordered every available Marine to report for duty at New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Posts and receiving ships were pared to the minimum, and within days Lieutenant Colonel Huntington had mustered 23 officers and 623 enlisted men.  They were designated the 1st Marine Battalion, and began training immediately for combat in Cuba.  Colonel Commandant Haywood took a personal interest in their progress, insuring that Huntington's Marines were well supplied for battle.  The battalion's 5 rifle companies were issued the new Lee Navy rifles, and the artillery company was supplemented with four 3-inch rapid fire guns.

 

During the Civil War, Huntington had been a young lieutenant during the battle of Bull Run, where the savage fighting and heavy casualties taught him the importance of training.  Thirty-five years later, as a Lieutenant Colonel, the wizened old warrior was determined that his young Marines would be well prepared for battle.  Under his leadership they trained constantly.  (With 35 years of service and his impeccable military record, had he been in any other branch of service he would have been a general or admiral by now.  But promotions were excruciatingly slow in the Corps, military men admired for their unit discipline, but for the most part considered glorified guards for the Navy's ships and posts.  Huntington's First Marine Battalion was about to change all that, and create a new tradition for the Corps.)

The prevailing lack of respect for the Marines is quickly evident in the response to their presence on the U.S.S. Panther, en-route from New York to Key West, Florida.  The Panther (AD-6) had been re-christened from a former merchantman vessel to serve as transport for the First Marine Battalion.  The ship's skipper, Commander George C. Reiter saw the 623 Marines and their officers as cargo and a sometimes inconvenience.  When the Panther arrived in Florida in May, Commander Reiter sought opportunity to empty his "cargo" and requested permission to order the Marines ashore until they received further orders.  When his request was granted by the commodore at Key West, Reiter quickly dumped the Marines into the swamps of the Florida Keys...without their supplies.

What might have angered or frustrated lesser men, Lieutenant Colonel Huntington turned into a positive.  As quickly as the Marines were dumped in the swamps on May 24th, he used their situation to continue training for the war that would come in the similar jungles and swamps of Cuba.  That impromptu training would occupy the Marines for two weeks.

 

Even as the Marines learned to survive the swamps, Admiral Sampson was locating the Spanish flotilla in Santiago de Cuba, engaging in his ill-fated attempt to choke the harbor entrance with the Merrimac, and then building a Naval blockade outside that harbor's entrance.  For the moment the Naval action was stalemated, and there was a concern that Admiral Cervera might be able to keep his ships protected in Santiago Harbor for weeks, perhaps even months.  In the meantime, Sampson's war ships would have to continue their blockade of the harbor, as well as their patrols around the Caribbean island.  The rotation of his vessels to Key West to re-coal was becoming both a nuisance and a tactical bombshell.

Forty miles to the east of Santiago Harbor was Guantanamo Bay, an excellent port from which to undertake the re-coaling of the American warships.  Admiral Sampson was ordered to "take possession of Guantanamo and occupy (it) as a coaling station."  Upon receiving these orders, Sampson responded with a cable to both Key West and Washington, D.C. that simply said:

 

 
"Send Colonel Huntington's Marines!" 

 

 

The First Marine Battalion boarded the Panther on June 7th for the 3-day voyage to Guantanamo Bay.  While they were en-route, Commander Bowman McCalla took three Navy warships into the bay on a reconnaissance mission.  On the morning of June 10th McCalla assembled a force of 40 Marines from the U.S.S. Oregon and the U.S.S. Marblehead and sent them ashore to scout the area.   This advance reconnaissance element made contact with local Cuban freedom fighters, scouted the proposed base area, and gathered important intelligence information.  Upon returning they reported that Spanish General Felix Pareja had 7,000 troops inland, and all around Guantanamo Bay.

As the morning turned into afternoon, the Panther arrived with its 623 Marines.  Even with the knowledge that they would be outnumbered 10 to 1, Lieutenant Colonel Huntington's leathernecks fixed bayonets and waded into the waters to make their amphibious landing.  As they landed they faced their first foe on these foreign shores--but it was not the Spanish.  It was the skipper of their transport ship, Commander Reiter.

As the Marines began establishing positions above the bay, their commander noted their lack of supplies.  Returning to the beach he found his Marines performing stevedore duties, their landing slowing as they were required to unload their own cargo while the crew of the Panther simply watched in amusement.  When he confronted Commander Reiter, the skipper of the Panther once again showed his complete disdain for the men of the Marine corps.  To further infuriate Lieutenant Colonel Huntington, Reiter informed him that he had chosen to keep most of the small-arms ammunition of the First Marine Battalion aboard his ship to provide ballast.

Huntington did his best to maintain his military bearing, and immediately headed for the Marblehead to appeal his case to Commander McCalla.  A month earlier McCalla had watched as Marines from the Marblehead and Nashville had entered Cienfuegos Harbor in small boats, braving rough seas, mines and point-blank enemy fire to cover the cable cutting mission.  Having seen these young Marines in action, he had gained an appreciation for their courage and ability to fight.

McCalla went directly to Commander Reiter with orders that left no questions.  "Sir," he bellowed to the skipper of the Panther, "break out immediately and land with the crew of the Panther, 50,000 rounds of 6-mm ammunition.  In the future, do not require Colonel Huntington to break out or land his stores with members of his command.  Use your own officers and men for this purpose, and supply the Commanding Officer of Marines promptly with anything he may desire."

The inter-service rivalry firmly settled by Commander McCalla, Lieutenant Colonel Huntington, his officers and 623 enlisted Marines directed all their efforts to securing their positions.  The unopposed landing went well and by late afternoon the leathernecks had set up their camp.   Color Sergeant Richard Silvery from C Company was the first to raise the American flag over Cuba during the war, and Huntington displayed his own respect for the commander of the Marblehead by naming what would be the first permanent American base on foreign shores, Camp McCalla.

As afternoon gave way to evening, outposts were established to protect the camp.  It was an inevitability that the enemy that had been a no-show for the landing, would not long ignore the American presence on the island, and Huntington wanted his leathernecks well prepared.  Commander McCalla promised the commander of the First Marine Battalion that, when that time came, his Marines could count on the support of Naval gunfire from his fleet.  McCalla further demonstrated his respect for Huntington by telling him, "If you're killed, I'll come and get your dead body."

The Marines had 24 hours of unmolested opportunity to establish their presence on foreign shores, and then the enemy came.  On June 11th, Company D was attacked by a Spanish force.   Under the leadership of their company commander, Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville (who's heroism sixteen years later at Vera Cruz, Mexico would earn him the Medal of Honor), the leathernecks did their best to repulse the initial probe.  The first shots attracted the attention of all the Marines, as well as the bevy of reporters who had followed them into Guantanamo Bay to write stories for the newspapers back home.  One of them wrote, "Up from the sea came a line of naked men, grabbing their carbines and falling into place as Lieutenant Colonel R. W. Huntington issued his orders getting a formation in a semicircle behind the brow of the hill, and waiting to see how much force would develop against them."  The untested leathernecks of the First Marine Battalion responded to their training.  Most had spent the day stripped to underwear in the tropical heat and, with the first sounds of gunfire, rallied to meet the enemy.  The same correspondent continued, "There was no fun in this for naked men, but they held their places and charged with the others."

Much of the history of the Splendid Little War was preserved for future generations because of the competition among newspapers and magazines back in the United States for readers.  Throughout the war, seldom did a force move without a large contingent of correspondents.  Indeed, as Naval ships moved from place to place, even while landing troops, movements were often hampered by the criss-crossing of smaller boats carrying the eager reporters.  The media presence included some of the best-known names in American publishing, including the combat art of famed western artist Frederick Remington.  Joining the Marines at Guantanamo Bay was the now famous young author of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane.  Crane was reporting for McClure's Magazine while nearby, Moby Dick author Herman Melville also was observing the leatherneck's operation and filing dispatches for the news at home.  

 

That first battle was brief, a quick hit-and-run of the American defenses.  The prompt response by the Marines and shelling from the Marblehead soon caused the Dons, as the Spanish were called, to pull back.  In the quiet that followed, the Marines assessed their casualties and found two, Privates William Dumphey and James McColgan of Company D.  Huntington quickly ordered Captain George Elliot and Company C to pursue and find the enemy.  Meanwhile, Huntington himself led another patrol along with Captain Charles McCawley and Sergeant Major Henry Good.

The patrols fought their way through the tropical foliage, quickly learning the nuances of jungle warfare.  Before Elliot's leathernecks could locate the enemy, the enemy found them.  The Dons had used the foliage to their advantage, hiding their presence until the patrol was almost upon them, then springing their ambush.  Fortunately the same heavy jungle that provided camouflage, also made accurate fire difficult, and none of Elliot's Marines were seriously wounded.

 

 


That night the enemy came again......

This time in force!

Throughout the jungles the dark tropical night was interrupted by flashing lights and signal fires as the Dons crept ever closer to the vastly outnumbered Marines at Guantanamo Bay.   Save for the sound of the breeze whispering among the large palm leaves, all was quiet.  And then the stillness was shattered by the sharp crack of a Spanish Mauser, followed by another...and then a cacophony of death reaching out to claim the lives of Colonel Huntington's leathernecks.

The inky darkness became an inferno of exploding shells from McCalla's ships in the bay, the shouted commands of Marine officers and noncoms, and the chaotic but valiant efforts of the young Marines to man their positions.  Private Frank Keeler later wrote, "There was a sharp 'bang', and a bullet came whistling by my head.  the bullet cut the leaves from a bush just in front of me.  I ran into the post, and there we could see big palm leaves dodging from bush to bush.  The crafty Dons had strapped the big leaves in front of them to deceive us."

In the darkness the Battalion's assistant surgeon John Blair Gibbs was killed.  Before morning dawned he would be joined in death by a young Marine private, and several other Marines would be wounded.  But for their training, the leadership of veteran officers and noncoms like Huntington, and the courage of the young Americans to stay their posts despite the nightmare, the small force would have been overwhelmed.  Daylight finally dawned to find the Marines victorious, but exhausted from continuous battle and  strained by lack of sleep.

 

 

Daylight on the morning of Sunday, June 12th would afford the weary Marines no day of rest.  The near disaster of warfare the previous night had given Lieutenant Colonel Harrington clear indication that his defensive positions needed to be improved, reinforced, and some even relocated.  Beneath the hot, tropical sun the Marines stripped to underwear to begin the arduous task of chopping away jungle growth around their stations, digging earthen shelters, and otherwise preparing for subsequent enemy assaults.

As the Marines bent to their tasks, the Spanish snipers hidden in the jungle around Guantanamo Bay had everything going their way.  In the early morning a swift and brutal attack was launched against First Lieutenant Neville's Company D.  In minutes Sergeant Charles Smith was killed and three Marines were wounded.  As quickly as it started, the firefight ended, and the enemy pulled back into the jungle before an effective resistance could be mounted.  For three more days the Dons would harass the Americans with impunity in these hit-and-run assaults.  The Marine battalion's executive officer, Major Henry Clay Cochrane, later referred to the events as the battalion's "100 hours of fighting".  

 

 

Sunday night the enemy came again, the sharp bark of their Mausers shattering the stillness of the warm Caribbean breezes.  For Marines who'd had little or no sleep in more than 48 hours, and who had toiled all day in the sweltering heat of the sun amid the prospect of sudden and real death, it was a night of increased terror.  Stephen Crane wrote that it was a night that "strained (the Marines') courage so near the panic point."   During the fighting of the night, Sergeant Major Good was killed and additional Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Colonel Huntington had endured the challenges of leadership well, he was a man of strong character.  But his age could not weather the nights without sleep, or the strength-draining heat of the sun during the day.  His health and his psyche took a terrible beating.  By the time his battalion's third night at Guantanamo Bay ended with the rising sun of another hot tropical day, he was fed up with the way his war was going.

 

 

Huntington's frustration came, not so much from the days and nights of fighting as much as from the manner of combat.  The Spanish soldiers would hide in the jungle, creep into places of concealment to snipe at and kill or wound unsuspecting Marines, and then quickly fade back into the foliage.  It was almost like fighting ghosts, only these ghosts were systematically wounding or killing young American Marines with relative impunity.  About the only positive thing to happen for him in four days came on Monday morning, when more than 50 Cuban soldiers (insurgents) arrived with their leader, a Cuban Colonel.

During the day, the weary Marine Battalion Commander had ample opportunity to visit with these newly arrived Cuban soldiers, men who knew the terrain well and had a good grasp of the enemy force encamped in and around Guantanamo Bay.  Despite the known fact that General Blanco had at least 80,000 soldiers throughout Cuba, and in spite of the report earlier from a 40-man Marine recon unit that as many as 7,000 enemy occupied the hills and jungles in the extreme southeast part of the island, the Cuban rebels estimated that there were only 500 to 800 troops in the immediate area.

As the two military commanders watched the Marines suffering in the sweltering sun, pausing occasionally to sip the somewhat sepid  water that filled their canteens, the Cuban colonel reminded Lieutenant Colonel Harrington that maintaining a fresh supply of water was a challenge for all military men on the island, Americans, Cuban freedom fighters, and even the Spanish.  The turn of the conversation, combined with the new information about enemy strength in the area, slowly lead to a bold and daring plan to break the stalemate.

 

Into the evening Lieutenant Colonel Harrington laid out his plans, briefing his officers and NCOs while conferring further with the Cuban colonel.  He had learned from the Cubans that the Spanish soldiers in the area got their own drinking water from a well at Cuzco, about three miles to the east of Camp McCalla.  On the following morning Harrington would dispatch a contingent of his Marines, prepared for war in the jungles, to defeat the Spanish defenses at Cuzco and destroy their well.  It was at once, a small measure of revenge and a solid tactical effort that would make war in the jungle much more difficult for the enemy.

 

 

 

 

At dawn on Tuesday, June 14th, the Marines of Companies C and D moved out of Camp McCalla towards Cuzco.  The 150-man assault force was reinforced by 50 Cuban rebels and, as they began their trek eastward, the U.S.S. Dolphin (PG-24) began a slow steam parallel the men along the coast line.  Under the command of Captain W.F. Spicer, the 3-mile trek was doubled as the Marines slowly wound their way along the jungle trails and over the hills.  

Stephen Crane accompanied the men on their mission, watching events unfold around him with a reporter's eye and later transcribing them with the same colorful language that had made his second novel The Red Badge of Courage such powerful reading.  "The Marines made their strong faces businesslike and soldierly," he reported.  "Contrary to the Cubans, the bronze faces of the Americans were not stolid at all.  One could note the prevalence of a curious expression--something dreamy, the symbol of minds striving to tear aside the screen of the future and perhaps expose the ambush of death.  It was not fear in the least.  It was simply a moment in the lives of men who have staked themselves and come to wonder which wins--red or black."

The men of the First Marine Battalion were making history which, when subsequently reported in the flowery language of Crane and Melville,  would make the exploits of these leathernecks the precursor of the Marine Corps of the future.  Their amphibious assault, the first combat troops in hostile territory, and now an offensive against the enemy, would provide heroes for the reading public at home and inspirations to thousands of future Marines on foreign shores.

Three days of sleepless nights and constant danger began taking its toll on the Americans, and the hot sun combined with the arduous trek began to quickly sap any remaining strength.  Nearly half-way to Cuzco, these factors began to take its toll on the force.  Several Marines began to suffer heat stroke.  Faces flushed, minds becoming numbed and disoriented, and cramps setting in, several had reached the limit of their endurance.  Among those to fall victim was the commander, Captain Spicer.  

Half-way to their destination, Company C's commander Captain George Elliott assumed command of the force from the ailing Captain Spicer.  In the distance the Dolphin cruised just off shore, and a stretcher party was mounted to moved down to the beach with the casualties of the heat and jungle conditions.  (As yet there had been no contact with the enemy, hence no casualties to wounds received in combat.)  Then the assault force continued its march to Cuzco.

A little over two miles from their destination, Elliott commanded First Lieutenant L.C. Lucas to take his platoon along with half of the Cuban rebels, and flank the advancing men of the main assault force.  Lucas' men moved out with the intention of surprising any enemy pickets between the assault force and Cuzco, and cutting them off from the fortifications about to come under attack.  Hot, sweaty, tired, and moving forward under sheer guts and determination, sound discipline began to falter as the leathernecks forsook the painstaking, slow movement through the jungle.  As they stumbled ever forward, the enemy outposts quickly noted their presence and withdrew to the protections at Cuzco.  By the time Captain Elliott's main assault force reached its destination, the element of surprise was gone and the Spanish garrison was armed and awaiting the Americans arrival.

Six companies of riflemen of the Sixth Barcelona Regiment manned the gun ports at Cuzco as the Marines arrived.  Elliott's quick recon revealed a large, horseshoe-shaped hill nearly a thousand yards from the enemy.  The high ground dominated the landscape and provided the Marines with a tactical advantage should they be able to reach it.  Elliott gave the command and his Marines began the frantic rush to its crest.  Enemy gunfire erupted as the weary leathernecks ignored their exhaustion and the heat to force their bodies beyond reason.  Even at that great distance, the heavy Mausers of the enemy were unable to unleash a lethal torrent of fire.  Their rounds "sang in the air until one thought that a good hand with a lacrosse stick could have bagged many," wrote Stephen Crane.

Marine Private Frank Keeler was less flowery but more succinct when he penned his observations in his diary.  "Up the hill we charged in the face of fire, but we drove them back in disarray."

As the leathernecks scrambled for the heights, they paused only long enough to return fire.  First Lieutenant Neville began to shout orders across the hilltop as he rallied his men.  The boom of his voice became one of the most memorable events of the day, leading to his Marines bequeathing him a nickname.  It was a moniker he would carry with him in the years to follow.  From his actions 16 years later in Mexico that earned him the Medal of Honor, to his years as Commandant of the Marine Corps, he would be facetiously but affectionately remembered as "Whispering Buck".

The sounds of the battle at Cuzco could be heard all the way back to Camp McCalla, and Lieutenant Colonel Harrington quickly dispatched Second Lieutenant Louis Magill and 50 men from Company C to cut off any Spanish withdrawal.  A second contingent under First Lieutenant J. E. Mahoney was also dispatched to reinforce Captain Elliott's assault force.

Meanwhile, Captain Elliott requested heavy fire support from the port guns of the U.S.S. Dolphin, still pacing the Marines just off the Cuban beaches.  On the high ridge, the leathernecks whooped with glee as one of the warship's big shells slammed into a blockhouse below, sending frantic Spanish soldiers fleeing in all directions.  The accurate long-range fire of the Marines, combined with the heavy shells from the Dolphin, had a devastating effect on the enemy.  Quickly the battle began turning into a rout.  Amid the cheers of the Marines however, disaster loomed.

A short distance away Lieutenant Magill's 50-man force was furiously engaging the retreating Dons, as the shells from the Dolphin mopped up the action.  Suddenly, as the shells fell on the Spanish, they also began raining deadly missiles on Magill's leathernecks.   From the heights, Captain Elliott's Marines were about to helplessly witness the annihilation of their comrades...to errant friendly fire.

.

 

Sergeant John Quick grabbed his blue polka-dot bandanna and quickly fastened it to a stick.  From the high hill he could see the Dolphin in the distance, and surely in his exposed position they could see him.  So too, could the Dons.  "I watched his face, and it was grave and severe as a man writing in his library" Crane wrote in his own account of what happened next.  "I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion.  As he swung the clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it caught on a cactus pillar.  He looked annoyed."

The only way to effectively signal the American ship was to insure that they could see him.  As the enemy rounds whistled through the air all around him, he bent to his task.  "He spelled out his message with extreme care amid the whistling snarl of Spanish bullets all round him," Crane continued.  "His back turned toward the enemy in apparent contempt for whatever they would do.  He was magnificent."

Sergeant Quick's use of the flag to advise the Dolphin via Morse Code, resulted in the immediate end to the deadly rain of Naval gunfire.  Lieutenant Magill and his 50 Marines were spared death by the quick thinking and intrepid action of a lone, leatherneck sergeant.

 

Within an hour it was all over, the Spanish soldiers who survived the battle at Cuzco pulling back into the jungle and retreating.  Elements of Captain Elliott's strike force gave pursuit, while others entered Cuzco.  Shortly after three in the afternoon they destroyed the well.

Casualties for the Marines had been light, one wounded and twenty heat casualties.  Two of the Cuban insurgents were killed and two others wounded.  Losses for the Spanish were much higher, though hard to estimate.  Eighteen enemy soldiers were captured, perhaps as many as sixty killed, and as many as one-hundred fifty wounded.  Thirty enemy Mausers were captured as well.

 

At home Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote of the Marine triumph at Cuzco, "The Marines had done their work most admirably and fought with the steadiness and marksmanship of experienced brush fighters."  For his heroism at Cuzco, Sergeant John Quick was awarded the Medal of Honor, as was the young Marine Private John Fitzgerald.  Of the 39 Medals of Honor yet to be earned in the Splendid Little War, only one more would go to a Marine.  Lieutenant Colonel Harrington's First Marine Battalion had done their job so well, and fought so fiercely, they gave the enemy cause to thereafter avoid them.  Not only had their battle at Cuzco well destroyed the enemy's water supply, it had robbed them of their will to fight.

While Harrington returned his valiant Marine force, now grown to nearly half of the full 647-man battalion, to Camp McCalla, Spanish survivors straggled back to the city of Guantanamo to advise General Pareja they'd been attacked by 10,000 Americans.  The disturbing news caused the enemy general to halt all attacks at Camp McCalla.  With the exception of those Marines stationed aboard Navy vessels, the Spanish-American war was a brief but bitter 4-day affair that rewrote Marine Corps History.

.

 

 

A Splendid Little War

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