San Juan Heights
Without question, San Juan Hill is the pivotal feature of American involvement in the Santiago Campaign. As soon as American forces landed and began moving west, the "San Juan Heights," on Santiago's eastern edge, became the major strategic element of both the Spanish defense of Santiago and the American offensive aimed at dislodging the Spanish fleet. The center of these heights was the focus of sharp fighting on July 1, 1898. And once they were thoroughly invested, the conflict was largely resolved. The great bulk of memorials to the 1898 War are raised near the center of the San Juan Heights and "San Juan Hill" is the name that survives in American popular culture as the high point of the War.
Spanish fortifications were spread across many of the hills that ring Santiago. On the eastern side, these highlands include a series of linked hills that were known as the San Juan Heights. American troops stormed what they saw as a central point of those fortifications on those heights. The point of that assault has come to be viewed as "San Juan Hill" although it may have had little separate identity. Once that area was taken, the Spanish fell back to an interior defensive line and American forces proceeded to establish a siege parameter that spread around the rest of the highlands around the city. Until a truce was declared on July 12, from that line American troops exchanged gun fire with the Spanish lines, and constructed their own fortifications – consisting mainly of trenches and "bombproof" shelters. This phase of the fighting gave rise to the accounts of the hardship of "life in the trenches" that loomed large in post-War literature. Historic photos indicate that American forces bivouacked on the east and southern sides of San Juan Hill for some time after the armistice. Even later, after the fighting and occupation ended, the heights experienced a variety of treatments.
Today, a modern parkway crosses the San Juan Heights. This pleasant landscaped thoroughfare appears to follow the route of the old colonial road to Siboney. It forms the northern side of the modern San Juan Hill Park and it divides the northern and southern portions of the San Juan Heights. The major assault occurred to the south of this road. The area immediately north of that assault is an integral part of San Juan Hill, but it has had a very different history. Spanish troops had built defenses in this area, but they were not fully manned on July 1. Dismounted cavalry of Sumner’s division assaulted this area after then has taken Kettle Hill. T. R. Roosevelt describes some combat in this assault, but in general, it seems to have been less violent than the fighting that took place just to the south.
The northern portion of the San Juan Heights is now an area covered by suburban residences and an apartment complex. On a quite street corner one block north of the modern parkway, there is a single small monument to the presence of the Rough Riders in this area. Aside from that, there is little other evidence of its military history.
The focus of the American assault on July 1 was the southern end of the San Juan Heights. This area had been fortified with a blockhouse complex, trenches, and barbed wire entanglements and was occupied by at least several companies of Spanish infantry supported by a couple of artillery pieces. These fortifications were raised in an unsystematic way and appear not to have been well designed. They appear to have been concentrated on the very crest of the heights, as opposed to just below the summit on the "military crest" which would have allowed their occupants a better view of the slope.
The assault proceeded from the south across the plain of the San Juan River. Infantry units that formed Gen. Jacob Kent's division, notably the 71st New York Volunteer Infantry the 6th, 16th, 9th, 13th, and 24th U.S. Infantry formed the core of the attacking force. They began their charge without artillery support, but subsequently were supported by field guns based at El Pozo and a detachment of Gatling guns. They reached the crest by the mid afternoon of July 1 and immediately established a perimeter which they began to fortify.
In the years following the assault, the San Juan crest also became the center of war memorialization and a popular public park. Subsequently, a normal school (which became a hotel formerly called the 'Leningrad') was built near in this area, and a zoo and an amusement park were established on its margin. Most of the crest of San Juan Hill is maintained as a very pleasant park. It is fenced, with access off the east-west parkway that crosses the hill. Roads and parking areas run along the eastern side of the park, an area that likely held at least Spanish entrenchments.
Several of the grassy lawns on the crest may preserve traces of trenches. In addition to these features, at the western end of the walkway through the monuments on the crest, a triangular section of the trenches American forces dug have been re-excavated and presented as a display. This work was apparently done in 1928 as a part of the 30th anniversary ceremonies. Most of the walls of the reconstructed trenches are lined with mortared masonry. The most obvious fixtures on the crest of San Juan Hill are the memorials that cover most of the area. These include major monuments to groups and parties involved in the fighting of July 1898 — Spanish troops, Cuban 'Mambi,' and various American units. Most of these were initially raised between 1899 and 1928. There are also monuments to individuals and events important to the post-War Cuba. These include an impressive centennial monument raised by the Cuban government. In addition to the monuments, a symbolic replication of on the Hill’s original block houses has been constructed on the crest and is a popular focus of tourist visits. Several cannons are distributed among the monuments. These include field guns of the type used by the artillery batteries at El Pozo, naval guns remounted from Spanish ships and installations, and a number of 18th century muzzle loading tubes found in Santiago after the armistice.
Kettle Hill is the name given to a small, relatively isolated hill that lies on the eastern edge of the highlands that ring Santiago's eastern side. Entrenched Spanish troops occupied this area, but major fortifications, trenches and a block house were located on the San Juan Heights which are located directly to the west. The narrow valley that separates Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights is less than 1/4 mile wide. Kettle Hill appears to have had little strategic significance before the fighting of July 1, 1898 and did not form a separate strategic focus for either American or Spanish forces. American troops bestowed the name Kettle Hill because after the battle they found several large sugar processing vessels atop the hill.
Kettle Hill can be considered a distinct portion of the San Juan front for a couple of reasons. First, although smaller that its more famous neighbor, Kettle Hill does have a distinct identity. Second, it had a distinctive combat history in that it was stormed by a distinct portion of the American force, the dismounted cavalry of Gen. Samuel Sumner's division. That means that it was the focus of the fighting by both the Black troops of U.S. 9th Cavalry, and the 'Rough Riders' of T. R. Roosevelt’s 1st Volunteer Cavalry.
The dismounted cavalrymen of Sumner’s division approached along with the rest of the American forces from the south and east. Today, these areas are either open areas associated with major roadways or truck garden plots. The area is modernized and full, but it conveys a sense of the contested landscape. In approaching the hill from the west, the troopers had to ford the San Juan River which historic photos suggest was narrow and shallow. Today, a couple of low cement weirs have made the stream larger than it was.
Today there is active construction on the eastern side of Kettle Hill. Indeed, the entire southeast side of the hill — the area that was crossed by units like the Rough Riders — has been removed. Most of the east side of the hill is now a vertical cut bank that reaches from the level of the plain to the top of the hill. Most of the southern end of the top of Kettle Hill is covered by modern ferro-concrete buildings and associated facilities.
In 1898, El Pozo was a small community located on the hills at the southern edge of plains east of the San Juan Heights. This spot offered a full view of the plain and hills that American forces had to cross on the way to Santiago. And since the road between Siboney and Santiago was just north of the community, it was easily accessible. Before moving into the battles of July 1, American troops bivouacked near El Pozo on June 30. Gen. William Shafter set up his initial headquarters at the eastern edge of the plain about a mile behind El Pozo, but he sent his adjutant, Lt. Col. Edward McClernand, to El Pozo to observe the progress of the fighting as soon as the assaults on El Caney and the San Juan Heights were begun. Shortly after that, Shafter moved his operations forward to El Pozo to have a full viewed of the terrain in which his forces were engaged. In addition to serving as an observation point and forward headquarters, El Pozo was selected as the base for an artillery battery that was to support the San Juan assault. Four 3.2" breech loading light field guns under Capt. George Grimes were set on the bluff west of the village.
Modern El Pozo consists of a small cluster of residences south of the Siboney road and a large, modern complex of high rise apartments higher on the hillside. To the west of the apartments, the western side of the bluff is unused field. This field has a good view of the area of assault and may have been where Grimes's battery was located. One of the residences on the north side of El Pozo bears a striking resemblance to the building shown in historic photos as a military headquarters. Certainly, the building includes elements that appear to date from the colonial period, but it has also been modernized and maintained.