War with Spain - Charles Morris

The Raid of the Rough Riders

While the work of landing the army of invasion and its supplies was still in progress, the first battle had taken place on Cuban soil. The Spaniards had made a stand in force, and the vanguard of the army had received its baptism of fire. Raw as the troops were and difficult as the ground, they had behaved with conspicuous gallantry, winning victory in the face of much larger forces placed in ambush and with every advantage of position. This battle merits special attention as the first, with the exception of the minor affair at Guantanamo Bay, fought by American soldiers since the close of the Civil War, thirty-three years before. In it sons of the South and of the North fought side by side, and proved themselves worthy the reputation for courage and daring which their fathers had won on many a hard-fought field a third of a century in the past.

The men who had the honor of taking part in this initial engagement were all of the cavalry arm of the service, horsemen serving as infantry. The position was one in which horses could not have been employed had there been any to use. The force consisted of eight troops of Colonel Wood's regiment, Roosevelt's Rough Riders as they will be known in history, and four troops each of the First and the Tenth Cavalry, a total force of nine hundred and sixty-four men, constituting nearly the whole of General Wheeler's cavalry command.

[Illustration] from The War with Spain by Charles Morris


On the 23rd, Wheeler, under orders from the commanding general, proceeded to Siboney, to find that the enemy had withdrawn from that place towards Sevilla, skirmishing with the Cuban scouts as they retreated. He rode out to the front and found that the Spanish had halted and established themselves at a point about three miles in advance. Studying the ground with the aid of General Castillo, in command of the Cubans, Wheeler determined to make an attack on the enemy at daybreak of the 24th, a rough map of the country being drawn as an aid to the projected movement.

The country was rougher than any map that could be made of it. The theory was that it was traversed by roads; but in effect these roads were simply rude paths through a dense tropical forest, along which ox-teams could laboriously make their way in dry weather, but which in wet weather were impassable to teams and almost so to men on horseback. There were no bridges, and the rains made torrents of the streams that crossed the roads. In the subsequent movement of the army new roads had to be made before a single wagon-train could get through, and the bridges built for this purpose were repeatedly swept away. As a consequence, on several occasions the army had to depend on pack-trains, and the movement of supplies to the front became a very difficult operation. As for the siege-guns, landed with difficulty, not one got beyond Siboney.

The roads to be traversed by General Wheeler's force were of the character here described. There were two of them, one following the foot of the hill upon which the Spaniards had made their stand, the other ascending the slope. These so-called roads were little more than gullies, rough and narrow and at places almost impassable. On both sides they were lined by prickly cactus-bushes, while the underbrush was so thick that it was impossible to see ten feet on either side. The conditions were favorable for a murderous ambuscade, and this was the one mode of fighting in which the Spanish soldiers excelled.

The enemy, doubtless having good reason to look for an advance of the invaders along these roads in their movement towards Sevilla, had prepared to give them a warm reception. On the hill-slopes had been erected two block-houses, flanked by irregular intrenchments of stones and felled trees. Behind these and in the thick underbrush on both sides of the trail a large body of Spaniards had posted themselves, considerably outnumbering General Wheeler's force, and expecting to check his advance with ease. Hitherto they had fought with Cubans only, and judged their new foes from experience of their old. As the Spaniards could not be seen, their numbers could be estimated only by the weight of their fire, which was constant and heavy and much more accurate than had been expected.

There were practically two battles,—General Young leading the regulars along the road at the base of the hill, with the design of making a feint on the enemy's front, and Colonel Wood leading the Rough Riders along the ascending trail, proposing to attack them in flank. As a result, when the enemy was reached the two detachments were about a mile apart. The first part of the journey of the Rough Riders was over steep hills several hundred feet high. The men carried two hundred rounds of ammunition and heavy camp equipment. Although this was done easily in the early morning, the weather became intensely hot as the day advanced, and the sun beat down severely upon the cowboys and Eastern athletes as they toiled up the grade with their heavy packs, frequent rests becoming necessary. The trail was so narrow that for the greater part of the way the men had to proceed in single file. One by one the men, unable to endure the sweltering heat, threw away their blankets and tent-rolls and emptied their canteens, retaining only their arms and cartridges.

The first intimation that there were Spaniards in the vicinity was when they reached a point three or four miles back from the coast, when the low cuckoo calls of the Spanish soldiers were heard in the brush. It was difficult to locate the exact point from which these sounds came. The men were ordered to speak in whispers, and frequent halts were made. Finally, a place was reached, about eight o'clock, where the trail opened into a space covered with high grass on the right-hand side of the trail and the thickest kind of bramble and underbrush on the other. A barbed-wire fence also ran along the left side. The dead body of a Cuban was found on the side of the road and the heads of several Spaniards were seen in the bushes for a moment.

It was not until then that the men were permitted to load their carbines. When the order to load was given, they acted on it with a will, and displayed the greatest eagerness to make an attack. At this time the sound of firing was heard a mile or two to the right, apparently coming from the hills beyond the thicket. It was the regulars replying to the Spaniards, who had opened on them from the thicket. In addition to rapid rifle-fire the boom of Hotchkiss guns could be heard. Hardly two minutes elapsed before Mauser rifles commenced to crack in the thicket, and a hundred bullets whistled over the heads of the Rough Riders, cutting the leaves from the trees and sending chips flying from the fence-posts by the side of the men. The Spaniards had opened and were pouring in a heavy fire, which had a disastrous effect.

Infantry Camp at Las Guasimas


Sergeant Hamilton Fish was the first man to fall. He was shot through the breast and lived but twenty minutes, giving a small hunting-case watch from his belt as a souvenir to a messmate. Captain Capron and others rallied around him, firing into the bush, but they were in the thick of the Spanish fire, and the captain soon fell with a mortal wound. Dead and wounded were falling all around, but the men held their ground, seemingly without a thought of retreat. Our troops had evidently fallen into an ambush held by a much superior force, and Captain Capron's troop, in the advance, were in a hot place, the Spanish fire pouring upon them in volleys.

This was a state of affairs that called for either a retreat or a charge. Of the former no thought was entertained Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt at the head of one wing, and Colonel Wood and Major Brodie leading the other, advanced in open order on the foe, Major Brodie falling wounded before the troops had advanced one hundred lards. An order for a general charge was now given, and with a yell the men sprang forward. Roosevelt, snatching a rifle and ammunition-belt from a wounded soldier, led the way at the head of his men, cheering and yelling as loudly as the best of them.

For a period the bullets were singing like a swarm of bees all around them, and at every instant men fell from the ranks. On the right wing Captain McClintock had his leg broken by a bullet from a machine-gun, while four of his men went down. At the same time Captain Luna lost nine of his men. Then the reserves, Troops K and E, were ordered up. There was no hesitation. Colonel Wood, with the right wing, charged straight at a block-house about eight hundred yards away, and Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt, on the left, charged at the same time. Up the men went with their cowboy yell, never stopping to return the fire of the Spaniards, but keeping on with a grim determination to capture the block-house or die in the attempt. That charge was the last. By the time the American advance had got within six hundred yards of the block-house the Spaniards abandoned it, not having the resolution to stand that furious rush, and in the next moment were flying at their utmost speed through the brush beyond, followed by a hail of bullets from the victorious troops.

While this hot battle had been taking place on the hill, the regulars under General Young were having as lively a time below. The battle here began in much the same manner as above, and when the machine-guns poured their rain of bullets into the brush, the Spanish from their lurking-places on the hill-side sent volleys at the gunners below. A charge was now made up the hill by part of the force, while the remainder covered with their rifles every point from which the Spanish shots came. Back through the thicket, step by step, went the enemy, firing as they retreated, and finally seeking refuge in the block-house in front of Colonel Wood's command They were dislodged with their comrades by the irresistible charge of Wood and Roosevelt and their men. In the words of General Young, the battle was one of the sharpest he had ever experienced. It was only the quick and constant fire of the troopers, whether they could see the enemy or not, that forced the Spanish so soon from their ambuscade. Reinforcements had been ordered forward from Juragua, but the march was a long one and the fight was over before they arrived.

Theodore Roosevelt


In the two hours' fighting, during which the volunteers battled against a concealed enemy, many deeds of heroism were done. One of the men of Troop E, desperately wounded, was lying squarely between the lines of fire. Surgeon Church hurried to his side, and, with bullets pelting all around him, calmly dressed the man's wound, bandaged it, and walked unconcernedly back, soon returning with two men and a litter. The wounded man was placed on the litter and brought into our lines. Another soldier of Troop L, concealing himself as best he could behind a tree, gave up his place to a wounded companion, and in a moment or so later was himself wounded.

Sergeant Bell stood by the side of Captain Capron when the latter was mortally hit. He had seen that he was fighting against terrible odds, but he never flinched. "Give me your gun a minute," he said to the sergeant, and, kneeling down, he deliberately aimed and fired two shots in quick succession. At each a Spaniard was seen to fall. Bell, in the mean time, had seized a dead comrade's gun and knelt beside his captain and fired steadily. When Captain Capron fell he gave the sergeant a parting message to his wife and father, bade him good-by in a cheerful voice, and was then borne away dying.

A private was shot through the thigh, the bullet entering at the side and going out at the back. He made his way to the field hospital and was told nothing could be done for him. Returning to the front, he crawled along, firing with the rest.

Colonel Wood, who was at the front throughout the entire action, saw a trooper apparently skulking, fifty feet in the rear of the firing-line, and ordered him sharply to advance. The boy rose and hurried forward, limping. As he took his place and raised his carbine, he said,— "My leg is a little stiff, sir."

Colonel Wood looked, and saw that a bullet had ploughed along the trooper's leg for twelve inches.

The ground was uneven, and the advance was impeded by vines an inch thick, trailing bushes, and cactus plants, known as Spanish bayonets, which tear the flesh and clothes. Through this the men fought their way; falling, stumbling, wet with perspiration, panting for breath, but obeying Colonel Wood's commands instantly The Rough Riders disproved all that had been said in criticism of them when the organization was formed. The cowboys observed perfect discipline, and the Eastern element in Troop K, from clubs and colleges, acted with the greatest coolness and intelligence.

The spirit of Mr. Marshall, a correspondent of the New York Journal, was as admirable as that of any soldier on the field. He was shot in the first firing-line, arid though the bullet passed within an inch of his spine and threw him into frequent and terrible convulsions, he continued in his intervals of consciousness to write his account of the fight and gave it to a wounded soldier to be forwarded to his paper. This devotion to duty by a man who believed he was dying was as fine as any of the many courageous and inspiring deeds that occurred during the two hours of breathless, desperate fighting.

The result of the battle was to give the Americans possession of La Quasimas, the point of meeting of the hill-side and the valley roads. The complete exhaustion of the men, from their exertions and the great heat, prevented their continuing the pursuit, and they contented themselves with holding the ground they had gained. The total loss on the American side was sixteen killed and fifty-two wounded. That of the Spaniards could not be told, but from the number of dead found it must have been much more severe. The engagement, in the words of General Wheeler, "inspired our troops, and must have had a bad effect upon the spirits of the Spanish soldiers. It also gave our army the beautiful and well-watered country in which we established our encampments, with a full view of Santiago and the surrounding country, and enabled us to reconnoitre close up to the fortifications of that place."

An interesting commentary on this pioneer battle is contained in the words of a Spanish soldier who was in the battle and was afterwards captured by the Cubans. He said of the volunteers:

"They did not fight like other soldiers. When we fired a volley, they advanced instead of going back. The more we fired the nearer they came to us. We are not used to fighting with men who act in that way."

In other words, they were not fighting with Cuban insurgents, and the tactics used in guerilla warfare did not apply. Under the fire which the Americans faced they could without dishonor have fallen back. But, instead, they kept on in a steady, cool advance, which only ceased when they were in possession of the enemy's base and the Spaniards were in full retreat.