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Las Guasimas
"First Blood"

 

.

 

 

They called him  "Fighting Joe", the grizzled 62-year-old Major General, commander of Volunteers and dismounted cavalry landing at Daiquiri behind General Lawton's 2nd Division.  Like his counterpart General Lawton and like corps commander General Shafter, Wheeler was a veteran of the Civil War.  Unlike the other two generals, "Fighting Joe" did not wear the Medal of Honor.  His valor on the fields of battle, his brilliant leadership through  campaigns at Stone River, Chickamauga, Knoxville and Atlanta might have earned him one but for one minor technicality.  

General Joseph Wheeler had served in the Civil War as a commander of cavalry in the CONFEDERATE Army.

A man of immense character, Joe Wheeler quickly earned the deep respect of both friend and foe.  Following the War Between the States, Fighting Joe had settled down in his home state in a community quickly named for him, Wheeler, Georgia.  For almost two decades he served his state as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, working hard for reconciliation between the North and South in the post-war years.  At the outbreak of hostilities in Cuba, Fighting Joe was coaxed out of retirement to command the U.S. Volunteers.  Despite his age, his reputation and sturdy nature made him legendary.  The years had not diminished his faculties, his military prowess, or his individualism.  In a war that often placed a group of highly competitive and fiercely independent general officers against each other, General Joseph Wheeler could hold his own.


 

General Shafter was proceeding, despite the disagreement of Admiral Sampson, to initiate his plan to land his troops and then move them westward to encircle and capture Santiago.  This plan called for General Lawton to take the lead, moving his men westward on June 23rd to secure Siboney as a landing site for the remainder of the troops of his Fifth Army Corps, most of which consisted of General J. Ford Kent's 1st Division.  Wheeler would follow, and when all was ready, a two-pronged assault would be launched against Santiago with Lawton's troops attacking from San Juan while General Kent's 1st Division and Fighting Joe's volunteers and dismounted cavalry attacked at El Caney to cover the flank.  Fighting Joe however, had ideas of his own.

 

As General Lawton's advance guard moved westward, they encountered the Spaniards in a brief battle.  The enemy quickly withdrew and, upon hearing this, Fighting Joe Wheeler himself led a reconnaissance force to determine the enemy strength and position.  Moving ahead of General Lawton's advance, he found them.  The enemy had pulled back inland from Siboney to fortified positions near Sevilla, which the Americans called Las Guasimas (because of a particular tree that grew around it).  Wheeler ordered an assault, but quickly found the enemy resistance stronger than he had anticipated.  

As he withdrew, General Wheeler sent orders to General Lawton to prepare for an assault on Las Guasimas the following day.  (General Shafter was still off shore in his floating command post, and when the Corps Commander was not on the ground, General Wheeler was the senior officer with authority to issue such orders.)  General Lawton wasn't happy with his new orders, was in fact even more disturbed by Fighting Joe's direct actions in defiance of Shafter's own orders.  Never-the-less, orders were orders and the men were all eager for action.  The ground battle for Cuba was about to begin in earnest.

 

 

Throughout the afternoon of June 23rd General Lawton's First Brigade (which included the Rough Riders) under General Young, continued its advance to Siboney.  It was long after nightfall when the soldiers reached their destination and began setting up camp for the night.  Almost as quickly as the Rough Riders built fires to prepare their dinner, a tropical rain storm hit, drenching them all and extinguishing their fires.  The weary soldiers, men accustomed to traveling everywhere on horseback, were tired after the day's march.  The heavy rain and lack of shelter did nothing to ease their comfort.

Meanwhile, Colonel Leonard Wood departed to meet with General Young.  Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt likewise met with Captain Capron of the Rough Riders as they discussed the coming battle.  After a couple hours the rain ended and the men began to bed down.  Close to midnight Wood returned and awakened Roosevelt to detail General Young's plan for meeting the enemy the following morning.

 

 

At a quarter to six General Young began forming up the men of his First Brigade and marching them towards Las Guasimas, four miles to the north.  The main force, 244 men of the First Regular Cavalry under Major Bell, and 220 men of the all-Black 10th Regular Cavalry under Major Novell, would proceed along the roadway.  Fifteen minutes after their departure the Rough Riders under Colonel Wood would move out along the higher ridgelines in support of the two cavalry squadrons.  If all went according to plan, they would find and destroy the enemy positions near Las Guasimas.

It didn't take long to find the Spaniards.  Less than two hours later General Young's aid Captain A. L. Mills with two scouts, was leading the advance of the regular cavalry when they discovered they enemy near a junction in the road.  The Spanish had dug defensive pits to fortify their position while others lay hidden in the heavy jungle surround the roads.  To the right was a large ranch, also firmly under enemy control.

General Young personally rode his mule to join Captain Mills and his advance scouts, quickly making a visual reconnaissance of the enemy and their positions.  He ordered his men to fill their magazines and placed his Hotchkiss battery in a firing position about 900 yards from the enemy fortifications.  He deployed the 1st Regular Cavalry in position to storm the enemy, with the 10th in support.

Wisely, General Young delayed his attack while he dispatched a Cuban messenger to advise Colonel Wood as to the enemy position.  Knowing the more difficult jungle route the Rough Riders were taking would slow them down, he held up his assault to coincide with their arrival.  During this brief delay General Wheeler personally moved to the front, reviewing and then approving Young's plan of attack. 


 

At eight o'clock General Young ordered his Hotchkiss guns to open fire, while the brigade commander himself led his troops from the firing line.  Throughout the day, indeed throughout the days of ground war that followed, it was commonplace for the commanding officers to lead from the forefront of the battle, often at greater peril than that of their enlisted soldiers.

As quickly as the American guns began their initial volley, the Spanish returned fire.  The denseness of the jungle along the roadway, combined with the enemy's use of smokeless powder, made it difficult to locate the enemy positions.  General Young began pushing his men forward, taking the fight to the Spaniards.

Observing the action, as was the constant case throughout the Spanish-American War, were members of the media.  All expected the men of the First Regular Cavalry to perform well under fire, these being professional soldiers.  The speculation was on how the other elements of the brigade would perform...the all-Black Tenth Cavalry and the all-volunteer Rough Riders.  Both would give such solid account of themselves in that first battle, the First Regular Cavalry would become all but ignored while the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth and the Rough Riders of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry became national heroes.

General Young's main force pushed the attack, struggling through the heavy jungle to find and rout the enemy.  The struggled through barbed wire fences, scaled the high ridges, and attacked with determination and courage eloquently recalled by Theodore Roosevelt himself:

"They were lead most gallantly, as American regular officers always lead their men; and the men followed their leaders with the splendid courage always shown by the American regular soldier.  There was not a single straggler among them, and in not one instance was an attempt made by any trooper to fall out in order to assist the wounded or carry back the dead, while so cool were they and so perfect their fire discipline, that in the entire engagement the expenditure of ammunition was not over ten rounds per man.  Major Bell, who commanded the squadron, had his leg broken by a shot as he was leading his men.  Captain Wainwright succeeded to the command of the squadron.  Captain Knox was shot in the abdomen.  He continued for some time giving orders to his troops, and refused to allow any man in the firing-line to assist him to the rear.  Lieutenant Bryam was himself shot, but continued to lead his men until the wound and the heat overcame him.

The advance was pushed forward....with the utmost energy, until the enemy's voices could be heard in the entrenchments.  The Spaniards kept up a very heavy firing, but the regulars would not be denied, and as they climbed the ridges the Spaniards broke and fled."

Watching his troops attacking and routing the enemy, General  Fighting Joe Wheeler couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement, though in his joy he momentarily forgot in what war he was engaged.  It was later reported that in the heat of the attack he yelled out to his men:

"Come on!  
We've got the damn Yankees on the run!"

 

 

 

 

 

It was an exhausting pace that Colonel Wood set for his Rough Riders, many of whom were not at all comfortable with marching for two days in a row.  As they struggled up steep hillsides through dense jungle, some of the men dropped their bundles or fell from the heat and exhaustion.  With a detachment from the Rough Riders still back at Daiquiri guarding supplies, compounded by the men who had fallen to the heat and the march, only about 500 of the regiment's soldiers were able to complete the move northward.

"I was rather inclined to grumble to myself about Wood setting so fast a pace," Roosevelt wrote.  "When the fight began I realized that it had been absolutely necessary, as otherwise we should have arrived late and the regulars would have had a very hard work indeed."

Slowly the regiment continued forward, Sergeant Hamilton Fish and 20 men of Captain Capron's troop leading the way along a trail so narrow and overgrown with jungle foliage that the men had to move forward in single file.  For more than an  hour the soldiers crossed the first high hill and wound their way through ridges and valleys of beautiful jungles filled with the calls of exotic birds...a setting so serene it belied the tumult that was about to erupt around them.

Colonel Wood commanded from a position forward with Captain Capron's troop, when the advance party encountered a Spanish outpost.  Quickly he began deploying his Rough Riders, three troops under Roosevelt moving to the right of the trail while three troops deployed left.  The final troop was held back in reserve.

Suddenly the sound of the enemy's Mausers began to erupt all around.  The heavy foliage and the enemy's use of smokeless powder made them almost invisible.  As bullets whipped through the air, some of the Rough Riders began cursing.   "Don't swear--SHOOT!"  grumbled Colonel Wood as he moved back and forth among his men.

Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt was taking cover behind a large palm tree as he peered around it looking for the location of the enemy.  At that moment a Mauser bullet struck the tree, passing through-and-through, showering his face and filling his left ear with dust and splinters.  It was fortunate, for had Roosevelt not been looking out from the side of the tree, the bullet would have been in direct line with his head.

The opening moments of combat were both terrifying and frustrating.  The men had been eager for combat, had trained and prepared for this very moment.  Now, as the enemy attacked with ferocity, the Rough Riders could find nothing to shoot back at.  Several soldiers including their leader probed suspected enemy locations with infrequent bursts of fire, to no effect.  It was a non-combatant that finally gave them the break they needed.

"There they are, Colonel," shouted Richard Harding Davis.  Davis was one of two newspaper reporters Roosevelt had allowed to accompany him on this mission.  Pointing across the valley to the right he yelled, "look over there; I can see their hats near that glade."  

Finally noticing the location of the enemy, Roosevelt pointed them out to a couple of his better marksmen, who began returning fire.  The first rounds fell short, but in minutes the Americans had the enemy's range and the Spaniards jumped up to run to new positions.  Following their movement, Roosevelt began to make out dozens of hats of enemy soldiers.  His Rough Riders began moving forward, attacking with courage and determination.

Slowly Roosevelt's men began taking casualties.  Harry Heffner of G Troop was shot in the hips.  He fell without uttering a sound.  Two of his companions dragged him to the shelter of a nearby tree.  Slowly, painfully, Heffner dragged himself up to lean against the trunk.  He asked his comrades to hand him his canteen and his rifle.  As the battle raged, he continued to fire at the hidden enemy while his comrades pressed ever forward.  When they returned later, Heffner was dead, but he had gone down fighting.

At the front of the regiment, Sergeant Fish was one of the first casualties, killed instantly by enemy bullets.  Three of his 20-man advance party also fell.  A few minutes later Captain Capron was also killed.

When Captain Capron died, leadership of L Troop transferred to First Lieutenant Thomas.   In minutes Thomas was shot in the leg and for the third time in less than half an hour, command changed.  Second Lieutenant Day, a very young junior officer, now led the troop.

Seeing the battering Capron's troop was taking, Captain McClintock ordered B Troop, composed mostly of Arizona volunteers, to its relief.  McClintock was shot in the leg, and command of B Troop fell to young First Lieutenant Wilcox.

Roosevelt ordered G Troop forward, dashing with them past the lifeless body of Sergeant Fish to the forward firing line.  The cover had thinned out and the sparce line of Rough Riders was still moving forward, taking cover wherever they could find a depression in the earth, a small tree, or a boulder.  Across the open expanse Colonel Wood strolled back and forth shouting orders and encouraging his men.  

As casualties mounted, the Rough Riders fought with courage and grim determination.  When someone fell wounded, his comrades rushed past him to press their attack.  "It was hard to leave them (the wounded) there in the jungle, where they might not be found again until the vultures and the land-crabs came," Roosevelt wrote, "but war is a grim game and there was no choice."

One man did tend to the wounded.  A 32-year old assistant surgeon and former Princeton football player named James Robb Church did his best to stop the flow of blood and bind up ruptured flesh throughout the morning.  Time and again he braved the fusillade of enemy Mauser bullets to enter the battlefield, locate the most badly injured, and then carry them through the gauntlet of enemy fire to the safety of the rear.  So outstanding was his display of courage in saving lives not only from serious wounds, but directly under the guns of the enemy, the men of the regiment recommended him for special recognition.  His was to be the first Army award of the Medal of Honor of the Spanish American War.  While valor abounded on the jungle ridges around Las Guasimas on the morning of June 24, 1889; he was the only hero to be so recognized for his courage in that first Army engagement of the war.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt was also distinguishable for his courage and leadership in the Rough Riders baptism of fire.  With the same disregard for enemy fire shown by Colonel Wood, he boldly led his men into the foray, swiftly moving to the forefront.  Nearby he watched as Major Brodie, who was commanding the other three troops of Rough Riders, take a Mauser bullet in the arm.  The heavy round shattered the limb, spinning Brodie completely around.  Despite his severe wound, Brodie continued to lead and encourage his men, refusing to return to the rear for medical treatment.  He lead valiantly until his wounds made him so faint, he had to be carried from the field of battle.  Under Colonel Wood's orders, Roosevelt took command of Brodie's troops.

Slowly the enemy fire began to taper off, then cease altogether.  Roosevelt was to the extreme front of the action when the enemy pulled back.  Quickly he began placing his men in defensive positions in case the Spaniards returned, and ordered his men to check their ammunition and resupply their canteens.  During this period he received some devastating news.  Colonel Wood had been killed during the fierce fighting.  Sadly but efficiently he took command of the Rough Riders, seeking to insure their firm hold now on the ridges around Las Guasimas.  His soldiers took control of the nearby ranch buildings, and began gathering their wounded.  Only then did Roosevelt return to the rear.  It was a happy moment for him, returning to find the reports of Wood's death had been in error.  For a brief moment, if even based upon false information,  Theodore Roosevelt had been commander of the Rough Riders.  He was happy to resume his role as executive officer when he found his friend still among the living.

By mid-afternoon the Rough Riders had built their camp, firmly staking their claim to the heights just beyond San Juan Hill and Santiago.  Search details combed their way through the foliage to locate the dead and wounded.  The latter carried back to Siboney on litters.  Among the wounded was a non-combatant, a correspondent named Edward Marshall.  The newsman had been shot in the back and no one expected him to survive his awful wound.  Struggling to remain conscious, the correspondent insisted on ignoring his pain to dictate his account of the battle at Las Guasimas and record it for the newspapers back home.

Also among the wounded was Thomas Isbell, a half-breed Cherokee from L Troop.  Isbell was part of Sergeant Fish's advance party, among the first to taste enemy fire.  In the opening volley, Isbell was shot through the neck.  Ignoring his wounds, he continued to fight, being hit again in the left thumb.  Refusing medical attention, the intrepid volunteer continued to battle, receiving wounds  in the hip, a second wound to the neck (the bullet remained lodged against the bones), his left hand, scalp, and a third neck wound.  A total of seven times enemy rounds broke his flesh, but he had remained in the battle until he was so weakened by blood loss, he had to be carried back to Siboney.

A New Mexico cowboy named Rowland was also among the wounded.  Though able to walk back to Siboney under his own power, upon arrival the physicians determined his wounds so severe that they ordered him to bed to await removal back to the United States.  (That night, under cover of darkness, Rowland slipped out a window with his rifle and pack to return to the Rough Riders.  His determination was met with a respectful welcome, and he continued with the regiment through the coming battles.)

The wounded like Marshall, Isbell and Rowland were all placed in a large, improvised open-air hospital at Siboney as the physicians did all they could to stem blood flow and save lives.  Nearby lay the bodies of their dead comrades.  Amazingly, the wounded accepted their fate without whimper, not even crying out in their agony.  Sometime in the late afternoon, one of the wounded men began to hum "My Country 'tis of Thee".  One by one the others joined in, their refrain loud enough to be heard across the hospital, out even into the jungles where they had met and defeated the enemy.

The following day the Rough Riders buried their dead.  In the fight at Las Guasimas they had lost eight men including Captain Capron whom Roosevelt described as "the best soldier in the regiment" and the venerable Sergeant Fish.  Thirty-four Rough Riders were wounded.

The First Regulars and Tenth Cavalry also lost eight men killed, eighteen wounded.  The 964 young Americans had, however, met a force of 1,100 enemy soldiers, well entrenched in fortified and camouflaged positions, and sent them scurrying back to Santiago in retreat.  

 

 

 

After burying their dead on the afternoon of June 25th, the Rough Riders moved a couple miles from Siboney before setting up camp along a stream near a marshy, open valley.  Here they would rest for five days, a badly needed break before their historic assault in General Shafter's drive to take Santiago.  During this period General Young developed a fever, and Colonel Leonard Wood was promoted to Brigadier General and assumed command of the entire 2nd Brigade (First Regular and Tenth Colored Cavalries along with the Rough Riders).  Theodore Roosevelt was promoted to Colonel and assumed command of the Rough Riders.

On the night of June 30th, the Rough Riders began preparations for the long-awaited assault to take Santiago that would commence the following morning.  The men of the Tenth Cavalry had already distinguished themselves in the battle at Las Guasimas, and would further add to their glowing traditions on the following day.  But in the day preceding the assaults on San Juan Hill and El Caney, four members of the 10th Cavalry were making history miles away on the small island of Cuba.

 

A few members of the 10th Cavalry had been left behind when the bulk of the regiment sailed out of Tampa for Daiquiri on June 14th.  Most were members of M Troop, along with a few members of A and H Troops.  In all these were close to 50 Buffalo Soldiers who would not depart the American coast until June 21st, the day before the rest of their regiment began landing at Daiquiri.

When these soldiers did finally set sail for Cuba, theirs would be a different and dangerous mission.  Together with their horses, 65 mules laden with ammunitions and supplies, and 375 Cuban soldiers, they were assigned the task of landing further north on the underside of the island.  From there they would move through the enemy infested jungle to deliver the needed supplies and rations to the Cuban rebels fighting for their independence.  On June 29th the small fleet carrying the force attempted to land them at Cienfuegos.  The enemy shore batteries were too much for the single gunboat accompanying the two transports, and the convoy moved southeast to Tayacoba.  On the following day, several Cubans and 28 Americans went ashore at Tayacoba to make a reconnaissance of the enemy fortifications.

The advance party slowly rowed to the shoreline in their small boats launched from the transports Florida and Funita.  As soon as they reached the shoreline they hid their boats in the heavy jungle around the horse-shoe shaped bay, and began creeping inland.  Suddenly enemy fire raked their midst from a Spanish blockhouse.  The enemy fire was overpowering, and the party began moving back to the water, several Americans falling wounded and five or six Cubans killed in the action.  When they reached the waters of the bay, they found their boats destroyed by enemy artillery.  

Stranded and hopelessly outnumbered, the advance party seemed doomed to annihilation.  Aboard the Florida, Lieutenant C. P. Johnson had heard the sounds of battle, anxiously awaiting the return of his reconnaissance patrol.  When they did not materialize, he began to realize the worst.  Quickly he organized four detachments of Cuban soldiers to go ashore and rescue the stranded soldiers.  Each attempt was met with heavy enemy fire, all four rescue attempts failing miserably as the Cubans were turned back to their transports.  It appeared that the American and Cuban soldiers who had landed at Tayacoba were hopelessly lost.

 

Meanwhile, further down the coast at Manzanillo, American Naval forces were engaging the Spanish in an unrelated action.  The gunboat Centinela (named for the Spanish word "sentinela" meaning GUARD), was overtaken by three American warships.  During the ensuing battle, the Spanish vessel was quickly sunk.  One of the three American ships involved in the lopsided victory was the USS Wompatuck.  Mate Frederick Muller so distinguished himself in the brief battle, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  

Back at Tayacoba, darkness was falling as the surrounded Americans on shore hid along the lagoon to hope and pray for a miracle.  Aboard the Florida,  Lieutenant Johnson met with Lieutenant George Ahern of the Tenth Cavalry to discuss the tragic situation and the failure of the previous rescue attempts.  "My only hope," he told the officer, "is to try your colored boys."

Lieutenant Ahern went below to the hold where his young cavalry soldiers had spent most of their long trip from Florida to Cuba.  He appraised them of the fate of the landing party, explained the danger of any rescue effort while citing the previous four failures, and then asked for volunteers to make a fifth effort under the cover of darkness.  Quickly, four of them:  Privates Dennis Bell, Fitz Lee, William Thompkins and George Wanton volunteered.

The four men along with Lieutenant Ahern lowered their small boat from the Florida, quickly rowing towards the shore under cover of darkness.  As quickly as they reached the beach and began securing their boat, the Spaniards opened fire, streaks of deadly fireballs flying over their heads and smacking dully into the surrounding sand.  Ignoring the enemy fire, the five volunteers slowly worked their way through the jungle growth along the beach, searching for the stranded shore party.  Eventually the enemy fire ended, and an eerie silence fell over the lagoon.

Lieutenant Ahern's men continued their quiet search until the silence was interrupted by a whispered, "Hey, over here."

 Peering into the near total darkness, Private Thompkins started moving towards the sound of the voice while his comrades kept their weapons poised to open fire if it turned out to be a Spanish trick.  "Who's there?"  Thompkins whispered back into the darkness when he neared the area from which he had heard the initial sounds.

"Chandler," the voice replied.  "I'm over here."

Thompkins knew that Winthrop Chandler was one of the missing men from the shore party, but still continued slowly and alertly forward in case it was an enemy ruse to draw him in.  In the darkness he stumbled over a body on the ground, but ignored it to continue forward.  His heart pounding, the sudden appearance of two white faces in the dark shadows may have startled him.  Then he heard one of the apparitions say, "I'm Chandler.  Thank God, you found us."

As Thompkins moved to greet the Americans, the Spaniards opened fire from the nearby jungle, a torrent of leaden death reaching out across the beach.  While two of the Buffalo Soldiers remained behind to provide cover fire, the rescued Americans were helped to the boats.  Lieutenant Ahern's valiant men worked swiftly to locate and rescue all surviving members of the shore party. Then they joined the group in launching their boat into the lagoon, rowing anxiously towards their transport ship.  Enemy fire continued to rain about the Americans, both the rescued and the rescuers, bullets smacking like stones into the calm waters of the lagoon.  Heedless of the danger, the small boat continued to move forward.  Finally, by three o'clock in the morning, the rescued shore party was safely aboard the transport ship.

Despite the danger the men had endured, Private Wanton volunteered to return to retrieve the bodies of their dead comrades.  Lieutenant Johnson deemed the effort too risky however, and denied permission.

Dennis Bell Fitz Lee William Thompkins George Wanton

For their heroism, Privates Bell, Lee, Thompkins and Wanton were awarded Medals of Honor.   

 

On that dark night of June 30th, miles away near Santiago de Cuba, the remainder of the Tenth Cavalry knew nothing of the historic heroism of their four comrades at Tayacoba.  They, along with the other soldiers of General Shafter's Fifth Corps were preoccupied with preparations and thoughts for tomorrow.   The long awaited assault on Santiago was about to begin, and with daylight the Tenth Cavalry would join Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in an assault on the heights over the city.  Their attack would take place near the village of San Juan. 

"From the generals to the privates, all were eager to march against Santiago," Roosevelt later wrote.  "In the evening, as the bands of regiment after regiment played the "Star Spangled Banner," all, officers and men alike, stood with heads uncovered, wherever they were, until the last strains of the anthem died away in the hot sunset air."

 

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