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The End of An

Empire

 

The once mighty and far-flung Spanish Empire evaporated with the wisps of smoke that still spiraled into the heavens on the morning of July 4th.  The American ships were crowded with defeated Spanish sailors, many of them wounded.  Indeed the victorious sailors were conspicuous by their reverent treatment of their captured foes.  Later, upon his return home, Admiral Cervera wrote in his official report:

"The Americans clothed and fed our men--giving them anything they needed.  The victors suppressed their shouts of joy in order not to increase the suffering of the defeated--and all vied to make our captivity as easy as possible."

One American newspaperman heralded the valiant last gasp of Cervera's squadron when he wrote:  "If Spain was served as well by her statesmen and public officials as she was by her sailors, she might still be a great country."

Indeed Admiral Cervera and his men had never had a chance--outnumbered and outgunned--they had obeyed orders with full knowledge that their fate was sealed the moment they left the confines of Santiago Harbor.  In all, the big American battleships fired 9,429 shots to utterly destroy all six of the Spanish ships.  Of Cervera's 2,227 officers and men, 323 were killed and 151 wounded.  The more fortunate were taken prisoner by the Americans, some 1750 Spanish sailors and officers.  The less fortunate reached the shoreline to attempt to reach their friendly fortress at Santiago.  Most were caught and executed in the jungles by Cuban insurgents.  (Those taken prisoner by the Americans were subsequently sent to the United States where they were held until the end of the war, at which time they were returned to Spain.  Admiral Cervera was held at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland where he was more an honored guest than a prisoner of war.  He returned to a hero's welcome in Spain after the war's end.)


Santiago de Cuba

In the jungles around Santiago, American soldiers heard the sounds of the naval battle of July 3rd.  For them it was a signal that something major was happening, and word of Cervera's defeat spread quickly.  Initially, General Shafter had set a deadline of 10 A.M. on July 4th for the surrender of the city.  In view of the unexpected naval battle within hours of issuing his ultimatum on July 3rd, and at the urging  of the representatives of foreign governments still residing in Santiago which came out personally to meet with the American commander, General Shafter extended the deadline an extra day.

Inside the besieged city,  General Jose Toral, who had assumed command from the wounded General Linares, faced increasingly dangerous possibilities.  Surrounding him in the hills and jungles on three sides were the American soldiers.  So close had the Americans pushed towards Santiago, by July 4th the 22nd Infantry Regiment had moved within two hundred yards of the enemy rifle pits on the north-east edge of the city.  "We were so close to the Spaniards," Captain Wassell later stated, "that we could yell at each other.  Some of our men could speak Spanish, and many verbal exchanges took place - usually ending in mutual cursing."  To the west, Santiago Harbor seemed eerily empty, patrolled now only by the Reina Mercedes.  

Named for the wife of King Alfonso XII of Spain, the Reina Mercedes was launched in 1887 and served near her homeland until 1893 when the unprotected (unarmored) cruiser was dispatched to serve in the waters around Cuba as the flagship of the Spanish Navy in the region.  Upon the arrival of Admiral Cervera's squadron in Santiago Harbor, Reina Mercedes was tasked with patrolling the harbor entrance.  She was the same ship that had fired on the USS Merrimac during the early morning darkness of May 3rd when Richmond Hobson and his volunteers had valiantly attempted to scuttle their own aging collier to block the harbor entrance.

During the June 6th bombardment of Santiago by the ships of Admiral Sampson's fleet, the Reina Mercedes took 35 hits and was badly damaged.  Among the Spanish casualties of that night was the Reina's captain, Commander Emilio Acosta y Eyermann.  He was the first Spanish Naval officer killed in the war.

General Toral pondered the new dangers posed to the fortified city with the destruction of Admiral Cervera's squadron.  Before the six ships could depart the harbor, it had been necessary for the removal of the torpedoes that had served as protective mines.  With those mines now gone, along with the six Spanish ships, Santiago was subject to possible siege from the sea should Admiral Sampson choose to send his own warships into the harbor.  

The uneasy truce ended on July 5th, and General Shafter send word anew to General Toral to surrender the city to the Americans.  Near famine conditions had fallen upon the city, and General Toral opened the city's gates for the civilian inhabitants to escape before the imminent American bombardment could begin.  "They were received with compassion and kindness," one American soldier later wrote.  "The rabble were hungry, and stricken with disease and infection.  They were truly more menacing to the Americans than all of the soldiers of Spain.  Houses and huts in which yellow fever was raging were visited regularly, and the dangerous germs of this and other diseases were inhaled as a matter of course."

Still, the Spanish general chose to hold out his own beleaguered forces.  During the night of July 5th he began preparing his crumbling fortress to withstand assault from the sea as well as from land.  As darkness fell over the harbor, he sent the Reina Mercedes out with a skeleton crew under the leadership of Ensign Nardiz.  The ship that had been the first to fire on the USS Merrimac was about to attempt an almost identical mission.  

It wouldn't be a major loss, certainly not compared to the Spanish warships that had been lost two days earlier.  The Mercedes had no armor, a limited battery of guns, and only three of the ships ten boilers were still operable.  Ensign Nardiz mission was to steam his ship into the harbor entrance beneath the towering Morro Castle, then drop his anchors fore and aft to hold the ship in place while it was scuttled to block any entrance by the American ships.

It was near midnight that the Mercedes reached the harbor entrance, only to fall under the glare of search lights from the USS Massachusetts.  The American warship, along with the nearby USS Texas, immediately opened fire.  Ensign Nardiz dropped his anchors and the Mercedes began quickly sinking (it was never determined if the sinking was at the hands of the American warships or the vessel's own crew), precisely in the chosen spot.  Unfortunately for the ship's daring crew, a shell from one of the American warships cut the stern spring cable and the current in the harbor swung the doomed cruiser to the edge of the channel.  As had been the case of the Merrimac little more than a month earlier, despite the courage of the crew, the Mercedes was also only partially successful.  It came to rest in the shallows just below the Morro Castle.  It now seemed there was nothing to stop the American Army from completely destroying Santiago de Cuba.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside the city, young American boys found their dreams of combat glory filled with nightmares of fighting an unseen enemy that was not vulnerable to bullets or artillery.  Though the enemy soldiers that manned the guns in and around Santiago were living on "borrowed time", victory was not assured for the Americans.  "The men had been standing day and night crouched in trenches - often knee deep in water from thunderstorms, and always short on rations," reported General Marcus Wright of the 22nd Infantry.  "The oppressive heat and sickness was having a detrimental effect on the troops.  They were unprotected from the drenching rains, and fell easy prey to tropical diseases.  Morale was low, and every day it became more difficult to arouse them to vigorous action."

General Shafter realized that his hoped-for ground victory over the Spanish would quickly vanish unless it came soon.  His Fifth Army was loosing the battle to the tropical climate almost as quickly as Spain's Navy had lost its ships to the Americans.  On July 6th he sent word to General Toral that his patience had worn thin.  If the Spanish commander didn't surrender, Santiago de Cuba would be shelled and destroyed by the American guns.  General Toral requested time to communicate with General Blanco in Havana before making such a decision, and General Shafter granted extra time.  Whether as a gesture of good will, or as a humanitarian gesture towards the now ill members of Richmond Hobson's volunteers, General Toral also released the eight valiant prisoners on July 6th.  Six Spanish officers were released by the Americans in the friendly exchange.

On July 8th the Spanish squadron from Cadiz, Spain, at last en route to the Caribbean, was recalled to protect the homeland.  There would be no relief for the Spanish defenders.  On July 9th the Fifth Army was reinforced however, by the arrival of the First Illinois and the First District of Columbia Regiments under General Randolph.  General Shafter sent word to General Toral that, unless he surrendered, his attack on the city would commence at 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the 10th of July.

Two hours before the deadline, General Shafter extended his surrender demands again, coupled with the promise that if the Spanish Commander complied, all of his soldiers would be transported home to Spain.  When General Toral continued to resist, the battle was renewed.

Actually, it was the Spanish soldiers that fired first when the deadline passed, but their efforts were brief and lackluster.  There was little fight left in the embattled and doomed Dons.  The Americans answered the Spanish guns with heavy fire, supported by a horrible rain of artillery from the ships of Admiral Sampson's fleet.  The Morro Castle was reduced to rubble, and devastated what remained of the Spanish forces.  Within 48 hours General Toral sent word to General Shafter that he would resist no longer.

In the interim between the renewed battle and General Toral's reluctant decision to end the fight, General Nelson Miles arrived in Cuba.  The man who had earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and who had been named Commanding General of the Army three years earlier, came to Cuba to confer with his senior ground commander on how best to end the stalemate at Santiago.  On July 14th General Miles joined General Shafter in meeting personally with the Spanish commander to negotiate the surrender.

The meeting was indeed an open negotiation.  General Toral was left with no other option but, to make his tough decision more palatable, General Shafter agreed to avoid the use of the word "surrender".  Instead, General Toral, now with the permission of the government in Madrid for which he had served and to which he had sworn his allegiance, would "capitulate" his Army and the city of Santiago.  The capitulation would include all of southeast Cuba, including the 11,500 Spanish soldiers remaining at Santiago as well as another 12,000 enemy throughout the region.

On July 17th General Toral presented his sword to General Shafter in the formal capitulation of Santiago de Cuba and the surrounding regions.  Sick and weary American soldiers lined up across their six miles of trenches to witness the end of their war.  At exactly 12 noon the American artillery boomed a salute as the Stars and Stripes were raised over Santiago.  

With the capitulation of General Toral and his army, the Fifth Army's campaign in southeast Cuba ended in an unqualified victory.  For all practical purposes it also signaled the end of the Spanish-American war, save for a few skirmishes elsewhere around the island, and a brief campaign into Puerto Rico.  Perhaps however, it opened the most un-splendid chapter of that Splendid Little War.

With the capitulation, American units like the 71st New York Infantry (shown here), began leaving their trenches to move back to Siboney.  Large numbers of the men were gravely ill with Malaria, Yellow Fever, and other tropical illnesses.  Eventually the war that had lasted only three months and claimed fewer than 500 American combat deaths, would in its relatively peaceful time of recovery, claim more than 5,000 more lives.

 

 Even as the capitulation of General Toral and his forces at Santiago de Cuba did not end the death toll of American servicemen and sailors in Cuba, neither did it end all armed engagement or other associated dangers of two countries trying to negotiate a settlement to the war.

 Three days after the capitulation, the USS Iowa was patrolling the Caribbean when, at 7 o'clock in the morning it was shaken by an explosion.  A manhole gasket in one of the boilers of fire-room Number 2 blew out, and with it the compartment filled with live steam.  Boiling water covered the floor as the 120 degree liquid flew from the boiler under immense pressure.  

In a nearby compartment, Coppersmith Philip Keefer and Second Class Fireman Robert Penn heard the sound of the erupting boiler, and rushed into the dangerous inferno.  Robert Penn noted a badly injured coal-passer, blinded by steam and both feet scalded, about to collapse.   With no thought for his own safety, he rushed to the aid of his fellow sailor, pulling him from the boiling sea that swept the floor of the fire room, and carried him to safety.

Immediately returning, Penn found that Coppersmith Keefer had  braved the fire, boiling water and hot steam to carry out fires from two inboard furnaces of boiler B.  With several inches of boiling liquid now covering the floor, Penn fashioned a rickety bridge by throwing a plank across some ash buckets.  While a third sailor held the planks, Robert Penn carefully negotiated his perilous gangway to carry out the remaining two fires.

The brave actions of Robert Penn and Philip Keefer resulted in the prompt control of a dangerous situation that could have resulted in disaster for their ship and many of their fellow sailors.  For that action on July 20, 1898, both men were awarded Medals of Honor.


On that same afternoon, General Leonard Wood was named Military Governor of Santiago.  Upon entering the city, he found the population sick and starving from the protracted siege, and immediately embarked upon a humanitarian campaign to feed, cloth and treat the civilian population.  The young lieutenant John J. Pershing later described the conditions faced in and around Santiago:

"Old and young, women, children and decrepit men of every class--those refined and used to usury, together with the ragged beggar--crowded each other...It was a pitiful sight.  The suffering of the innocent is not the least of the horrors of war."

Elsewhere, other small battles continued.  On July 21st four US gunboats entered the harbor at Nipe where, after a fierce one-hour bombardment, the port was captured.  Further to the northwest, another heated battle occurred on July 23d.  Save for the courage of First Lieutenant John William Heard, it would have spelled disaster for the American soldiers.

Lieutenant John Heard was a 38-year old, 1883 graduate of the Military Academy at West Point when he was sent to Cuba as a part of the 3d US Cavalry.  His mission was similar to that which had resulted in near tragedy at Tayacoba less than a month before, when Privates Bell, Lee, Thompkins and Wanton went ashore to rescue the stranded remnants of their own force. 

With eleven men from his Cavalry unit and a force of 40-50 Cuban filibusters, Heard departed Florida on the wooden transport Wanderer in a mission to land supplies and ammunition to Cuban forces on the northwest coast of the Caribbean island.  The landing was planned to take place at the mouth of the Mani-Mani River, only six miles from the Spanish garrison at Bahia Hondo, west of Havana.  The close proximity to the large enemy outpost made his mission doubly dangerous.

On the morning of July 23rd, Heard began directing the unloading of the supplies and ammunition from the Wanderer, at a distance of only 400 yards from the heavily forested shoreline.  A large force of Cuban insurgents was to be waiting in the nearby jungle to provide protection for the mission, as well as to receive the new supplies.  Unknown to Lieutenant Heard at the onset, only about 200 Cuban freedom fighters were on the beach.

The initial landing went smoothly, soldiers and crew of the Wanderer reaching the beach to unload the badly needed supplies.  Then, unexpectedly, a heavy fire began to rain down on the beach from the nearby jungle as a force of 1,000 Spanish cavalry charged the landing party.

With cool efficiency, Lieutenant Heard shouted orders in an attempt to calm the now panicked filibusters.  Vastly outnumbered, Heard ordered his men to lie down and open fire on the advancing Spaniards.  The quick response mounted the the American officer halted the charge, and the enemy withdrew into the jungle to regroup.  They left behind a large number of casualties to the effective fire of the shore party.

Knowing the Spanish cavalry would, upon retiring to the jungle, plan and mount another assault on his small force, Lieutenant Heard ordered his men to load their small craft and return to the Wanderer.  In the evacuation, the intrepid officer was careful to insure no one would be left behind, including a number of severely wounded members of his 3d Cavalry or his filibusters.  

The withdrawal was prompt and well organized, and effected none-too-soon.  As the small boats came along side the Wanderer, the Spanish cavalry charged again, sweeping the mouth of the river with their Mausers.  Hundreds of bullets peppered the wooden hull of the Wanderer.  In Lieutenant Heard's subsequent Medal of Honor citation it is noted that, "After two men had been shot down by Spaniards while transmitting orders to the engine-room on the Wanderer, the ship having become disabled, this officer took the position held by them and personally transmitted the orders, remaining at his post until the ship was out of danger."

As was the case with all too many historical records of valor in the Spanish- American war, Lieutenant John William Heard's Medal of Honor citation was a major understatement of his personal courage and leadership.

 

The Spanish Cavalry charge at the mouth of the Mani-Mani rivers was among the last major engagements of the Spanish-American War.  For all practical purposes, Cuba had been wrested from the control of Madrid and all that remained was to mop up enemy outposts and negotiate a final settlement of the island's war for freedom.  The United States had already indicated its intent NOT to acquire Cuba, and was indeed prohibited from conquest of the Island by the Teller Amendment.

While the Teller Amendment prohibited American expansion in Cuba, however, it did not restrict the American expansion in the Pacific, or even elsewhere in the Caribbean Sea.  Back at Santiago, General Nelson Miles looked east towards the last morsel of the Spanish Empire in the New World.  Before peace would be negotiated, he determined it was in the interests of his country to wrest it from Spanish control as well.


A Splendid Little War

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