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.
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