Cuban Battlefields of the Spanish-Cuban-American War

Background to the War

The decision to begin land battles against Spain with an invasion in the area of Santiago de Cuba was largely a result of the fact that a Spanish fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera took refuge in the harbor at Santiago in mid May 1898. This force had to be neutralized to protect American operations in the Caribbean. When an attempt to seal the harbor failed, a land assault on Santiago was adopted as a means of forcing the fleet out to sea where American ships were waiting.

The U. S. Fifth Army Corps, under General William Shafter and numbering some 25,000 troops, landed at Daiquiri and later at Siboney beginning on June 20, 1898. Once ashore, Shafter made his major assault against Santiago on an inland course. On June 24, U.S. forces, led by the dismounted cavalry division, met Spanish troops dug in and behind barbed wire barricades at the Village of Las Guásimas. After a brief but sharp skirmish, the Spanish fell back and the American advance toward Santiago continued.

Drawing near to Santiago, Shafter planned to take the city with a direct attack on the hills on San Juan Heights. He also decided that the defended area around El Caney could not be ignored even though it was not on the direct route to the city and its harbor.

On the morning of July 1, shortly before main assault on the San Juan Heights was set to begin, Brig. Gen. Henry Lawton, with a force of infantry, attacked the Spanish installation near El Caney. This was expected to be a very brief engagement, but it dragged on all day, involved fighting from fixed positions, and caused serious casualties among both the Americans and Spanish.

The assault on the San Juan Heights began about mid day on July 1, 1898. The major attack, led by General Jacob Kent's infantry, was aimed at the fortified southern end of a portion of the heights that has come to be known as San Juan Hill. General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry division, which included the famed 'Rough Riders' of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, approached the central part of the Heights from the east, where a smaller hill stood. They took that hill, giving it the name "Kettle Hill," and crossed the separating lowlands to occupy the northern portion of San Juan Hill. These attacks were supported by artillery consisting of four 3.2" cannons that fired from the area of El Pozo, some 2600 yards (2377m) east of the fighting. Better covering fire was offered by a detachment of three .30 caliber Gatling guns that were set up south of the Hill. Colt machine guns were available to the Americans, but proved to be undependable.

The American assault on San Juan was confused and the Spanish defense was not well organized. Still, American forces took some 10 percent casualties before reaching the top of the Hill. When they did, Spanish troops fell back and set up a defensive front some 500-800 yards west of the Heights. At the time, this area was outside the city, but is now an entirely urbanized area of residences and businesses.

Once on the high ground, American forces did not pursue their victory. Instead, they immediately began to fortify the area with their own earthworks. They stayed on San Juan Hill, building "bomb proofs" and engaging in long distance exchanges with Spanish until a surrender was arranged on July 17. The surrender was arranged by a group of Spanish and U.S. officers who met in the shade of a tree that stood in the area between the opposing lines. This came to be known as the "Surrender Tree."

Background to the War

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