Cuban Battlefields of the Spanish-Cuban-American War

The Santiago Campaign

The Spanish-Cuban-American War was a brief, but pivotal event in American history. It marked a major change in American foreign policy and military development. The Santiago campaign was the major land engagement between the U.S. and Spain and forms the core of American popular perceptions of the War. American understanding of the War usually overlooks the fact that the fighting of 1898 was but a part of a larger conflict between colonial Spain and Cubans seeking independence. Active conflict between the Spanish army and well organized Cuban forces had been ongoing since 1895. Given the history of underappreciation, clarifying the activities of Cuban forces constitutes one of the major areas in which archeology can offer substantive new insights into understanding of the War.

A Spanish fleet had taken refuge in the harbor at Santiago in mid May 1898. American war planners felt that this fleet 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 in Cuba — initially at Daiquiri and later at Siboney — beginning on June 22, 1898. These landing sites are some 30 miles east of Santiago. They were selected as accessible sandy beaches on an otherwise rocky coast. The landings were unopposed, largely because Cuban forces controlled the region. The U. S. force consisted overwhelmingly of infantry and dismounted cavalry. It included relatively little artillery and limited transport capacity.

Essentially all members of the regular infantry and cavalry units were armed with smokeless .30 caliber, bolt action, Krag-Jorgensen rifles or carbines. Many of the volunteer units, however, were armed with obsolete single shot, Springfield rifles that fired a black powder charged .45-70 round. Essentially all of the Spanish troops were armed with model 1893 Mauser rifles. These were five shot, bolt action guns that fired a smokeless powder, 7 mm cartridge. It is important to note that Spanish forces were well invested in Cuba. Their force in the area of Santiago numbered more than 10,000 regulars plus colonial Cuban troops. Having been engaged in a five year war against Cuban freedom fighters, the Spanish forces were battle hardened. Cuban liberation forces unquestionably played a major role in the campaign of 1898. They covered the American landings, served as scouting and picket formations, and took part in some major assaults. The role and exploits of Cuban troops have been variously described by Americans and are not widely appreciated in accounts of the War. Based on arms exhibited in museum displays we visited, Cuban liberation forces were armed with a variety of firearms, including large bore single shot breech loaders and even muzzle loading guns. These arms mean that Cuban forces left a distinctive archeological signature that will be easy to distinguish from firing done by either Spanish or American troops.

Once ashore, Shafter decided to make his major assault against Santiago on an inland course. He sent his main force up a wagon track that led to the eastern side of the city. 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.

Spanish defenders fortified a number of locations on the low hills that blocked the eastern approach to Santiago. In most cases, these fortifications consisted of excavated trenches and small wooden "blockhouses." Some had barbed wire barricades, but not all of them were continuously manned and at least some seem to have been poorly designed. Shafter planned to take the city with a direct attack on the San Juan Heights, but 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. El Caney is northeast of Santiago. It had defenses like those of the San Juan Heights arrayed around a substantial "stone fort" atop of a conical stone hill.

On the morning of July 1, shortly before main assault on the San Juan Heights was set to begin, a force of American infantry under Brig. Gen. Henry Lawton attacked the Spanish installations around the suburban village of 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. Lawton's force was supported by Cuban insurgents, but their contribution to the fight is subject to varying interpretations and needs clarification.

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. The cavalry division, led by General Samuel Sumner after Joseph Wheeler fell ill, included the famed "Rough Riders" of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry. They 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 then crossed the separating lowlands to occupy the northern portion of San Juan Heights.

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 (457-732m) 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 and spread their perimeter around the city. They engaged in long distance exchanges with Spanish until 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."