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The Crowded Hour

The Charge at
El Caney
& San Juan Hills

PHOTO RIGHT:  Rough Rider Color Sergeant Wright

 

Among the regiments assembled and digging for shelter from the enemy guns at the foot of San Juan Hill was the 6th US Infantry, a part of General Kent's 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division under Brigadier General Hamilton S. Hawkins.  Among the members of Hawkins' staff was an eager young lieutenant who had told a friend he would return from battle as either a colonel or a corps.  As the enemy fire continued to rain upon the stalemated American soldiers, Lieutenant Jules Ord turned to his commander.  Tired of the wait he informed General Hawkins, "General, if you will order a charge, I will lead it."

A veteran of Civil War assaults on fortified enemy positions, General Hawkins considered the young lieutenant's offer, weighing it against the high rate of casualties he knew such a charge would create.  Lieutenant Ord broke the silence of the general's contemplation.  "If you do not wish to order a charge, General, I should like to volunteer," he offered.  "We can't stay here, can we?"

"I would not ask any man to volunteer," General Hawkins replied.

"If you do not FORBID it, I will start it," Ord implored.  "I only ask you not to refuse permission."

Of a truth, it was an unusual conversation between a commanding general and a junior staffer.  But the grizzled veteran also realized that Lieutenant Ord was right, the men couldn't stay where they were and continue to suffer at the mercy of the enemy guns above them.  "I will not ask for volunteers, I will not give permission and I will not refuse it," the general finally responded ambiguously.  "God bless you and good luck!"

Shirtless against the heat and armed with a pistol in one hand and saber in the other, Lieutenant Ord rose up and shouted to his men, "Come on, you men.  We can't stay here.  Follow me!".   In the tension of the moment and inspired by the sight of the brave lieutenant, the men of General Hawkins' 6th Infantry rose to their feet to charge directly into the guns of the Spanish.  Almost immediately, Lieutenant Ord was struck by enemy rounds and fell dead, but his shout had energized the moment and the 6th Infantry continued to rush the hillside.  

To the right of the 6th, the men of the Rough Riders saw Lieutenant Ord and his men begin their assault and rose also, attacking the enemy above.  To the rear the 10th US Cavalry became caught up in the excitement, rushing forward to join the attack.  In the spontaneity and confusion of the moment,  the all-black regiment split with part of the 10th joining the 6th Infantry to attack San Juan Hill, and the other half mingling with the Rough Riders to assault Kettle Hill.

Among the Buffalo Soldiers that mingled with the Rough Riders was the 10th Cavalry's regimental quartermaster, an 1886 graduate of West Point who had been an instructor at his alma mater when the Spanish-American War broke out.  He had requested a combat assignment with the statement that, "If I did not make every effort to obtain an opportunity for field service I should never forgive myself."

When the young lieutenant was informed that all West Point instructors were frozen in their positions, and when repeated letters to the assistant secretary of war proved fruitless, he threatened, "I shall resign (the West Point position) and join some National Guard or volunteer unit that stands a chance of being sent to Cuba."  Having previously served with the 10th US Cavalry, he also wrote his friend Colonel Guy V. Henry, commander of the 10th, requesting a return to service in his old unit.  When Colonel Henry requested the assignment of the young lieutenant to the 10th as it prepared for duty in Cuba, the assistant secretary of war finally granted him permission to leave his teaching duties.

As a white officer among the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th, the lieutenant had been given a nickname.  Though his first name was John, he was facetiously referred to as "BLACK JACK".  It was a moniker that would follow him for life, long after his service with the 10th Cavalry ended, and nearly twenty years later would become one of the most famous names in military history when Lieutenant John J. Black Jack Pershing would become a general and lead the Untied States Expeditionary forces in The Great War.

As Lieutenant Pershing charged up Kettle Hill among the men of his 10th Cavalry and Colonel Roosevelt's Rough Riders, he was more than impressed by what he was witnessing.  He later wrote:

"Each officer or soldier next in rank took charge of the line or group immediately in his front or rear and halting to fire at each good opportunity, taking reasonable advantage of cover, the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees.  White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans."


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Precisely BECAUSE it was a spontaneous moment, the charge to drive the Spanish from San Juan and Kettle Hills lacked any semblance of military order.  What it lacked in order, it more than made up for in valor.  The inter-mixing of the 13 regular and 2 volunteer regiments that assaulted the two-in-one hillside would lead to centuries of debate among historians about "who did what", and how much credit Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders really deserved for their role in events.  While historians continue the debate even today, the record of valor and co-operation that would result in victory is unchallenged.

Colonel Roosevelt had planned to dismount at the foot of the hill and lead his Rough Riders to victory on foot.  As the sea of young soldiers rose and attacked however, he quickly found he could cover more ground more quickly on horseback, leading and encouraging his men forward.  As he spurred Texas among the ranks of his charging Rough Riders, he soon found himself well into the lead, ahead of the attacking forces.  Armed only with a pistol, appropriately salvaged from the wreckage of the USS Maine, his courageous leadership...bordering on carelessness in the face of enemy fire...inspired those who followed and generated a snap-shot view that would become a historic image of the war in Cuba.

Forty yards from the top of the hill, Colonel Roosevelt still far to the front of his regiment, reached the last line of enemy barbed wire.  He dismounted, turning Texas over to his orderly who had managed to keep up with his colonel's reckless charge, to continue his advance on foot.

Behind him swarmed hundreds of American soldiers, the mixed assortment of volunteer cowboys, lawmen and outlaws that comprised the Rough Riders, the regular Army professionals of the 1st, 3d, and 6th US Cavalry, and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry.  

Color Sergeant J. E. Andrews of the 3rd Cavalry surged forward with the colors of his regiment when enemy fire struck him in the stomach.  He called to his lieutenant to take the colors, but tumbled down the hill still clutching the flag, before a replacement could reach him.  Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry was moving forward with the standard of his own regiment when he saw Andrews fall.  Quickly he grasped the colors of the 3d Cavalry together with the colors of his own 10th Cavalry, raised them bravely and shouted "Dress on the colors, boys, dress on the colors!" and he valiantly carried BOTH standards up the hill.

As the Americans neared the blockhouse at the top of the hill the Spanish defenders quickly escaped down the opposite slope, retreating for the safety of Santiago.  Quickly the Rough Riders planted their standards, while Sergeant George Berry planted the colors of both the 3d and 10th Cavalry.  He became the only soldier in US military history to carry TWO standards through battle and plant them victoriously on the enemy's works.

The taking of Kettle Hill did not conclude the hostilities, or the ever present rain of enemy fire.  From positions between Santiago and the heights, the Spanish now shelled the blockhouse and outbuildings they had occupied less than an hour earlier.  Quickly fanning out across the hilltop, several soldiers took shelter behind a large kettle, presumed to have been used for processing sugar.  Thus it was that the hill just to the north of San Juan Hill gained a name, KETTLE HILL.  In the hours after their incredible victory, the American soldiers began digging in their own fortifications and preparing for an anticipated counter-attack.  Except for Colonel Roosevelt, all senior officers of the six cavalry regiments had been killed or wounded either in the charge or by the enemy fire directed on the hill after it was taken, leaving the Colonel in command of the survivors of all six regiments.

 

From their vantage point on Kettle Hill the Rough Riders had an excellent view of the charge that was still in progress by General Kent's infantry on San Juan Hill.  "Obviously the proper thing to do was to help them," Roosevelt later said, "and I got the men together and started them volley-firing against the Spaniards in the San Juan blockhouse and in the trenches around it."

Upward the infantry charged, the 9th, 13th and 24th Infantry leading the way and the 71st New York and 16th Infantry following from the river bottom below (as illustrated in the above painting by Charles Johnson Post).   As the first elements neared the crest, Roosevelt ordered a halt to the firing lest the attacking American Infantry be subjected to danger from their neighboring units.  The final stronghold was the yellow stucco home that had been converted into the blockhouse atop San Juan Hill.  Inside 35 enemy soldiers remained barricaded as 19 Americans climbed onto the building's red, tile roof.  Four dropped inside through a hole opened in the ceiling by an artillery round, all of them quickly overcome and killed by the Spanish defenders.  The remaining 15 infantrymen jumped through the opening, engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, subduing them and capturing their prize.  It was 1:50 in the afternoon when Private Arthur Agnew of the 13th Infantry pulled down the Spanish flag.

But the fight was far from over as the retreating Spanish took up positions in their trenches across a ravine from the slope of the hill.  Seeing this, and taking note of the heavy fire his own men were taking from those Spanish trenches, back on Kettle Hill Colonel Roosevelt ordered a charge and rushed in the lead towards the enemy position.  Dodging enemy bullets, he leaped a barbed wire fence in his fearless assault, only to find that only five of his Rough Riders had followed him.  One of them was killed, another wounded, and Roosevelt realized he could not continue to lead the remaining three men in the assault.  Ordering them to cover, he raced back to the top of the hill, again leaping the fence, to angrily berate the bulk of his regiment for failing to follow his lead.   

The failure of the assault was in no part a matter of cowardice by the Americans.  In the confusion that reigned, only five men had heard the Colonel's order to attack.  A short time later, leading the rest of his Rough Riders and elements of the other cavalry regiments, Roosevelt again jumped over the barbed wire fence to attack and drive the Spanish from their positions.

THE CROWDED HOUR from the time Lieuteant Ord led the opening charge until Private Agnew pulled down the Spanish flag that flew over San Juan Hill was an amazing example of finding victory in chaos.  In the years to come men of the various regiments would debate who was first to reach the crests of each hill, which regiment was foremost in battle, and who was first to plant their flag.  Unquestionably Colonel Theodore Roosevelt would emerge in the American media as the hero of San Juan Hill.  But the simple facts of the disorganized but united charge of the intermingled regiments of General Shafter's soldiers prove one undisputable thing.  The charge at San Juan Hill was a victory that belonged not to any single soldier or commander, not to any particular regiment, not the the regular army or the volunteers, but to the entire conflagration of brave young Americans.

In addition to Sergeant Major Baker, 13 soldiers would receive Medals of Honor (six from the 21st US Infantry, five from the 10th US Infantry, and one each from the 13th US Infantry and the US Volunteers).  All but Baker and Captain Albert Mills of the US Volunteers were cited simply for "GALLANTLY ASSISTING IN THE RESCUE OF THE WOUNDED FROM IN FRONT OF THE LINES AND WHILE UNDER HEAVY FIRE FROM THE ENEMY."  Captain Mills was conspicuous for his courageous leadership in the charge, even after being shot in the head and blinded.

In all the battle at San Juan and Kettle Hills cost the American forces 124 killed and 817 wounded.

 

 

 

 

 


Though the Colors of the United States of America were flying from the summits of San Juan and Kettle Hills by 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon, General Henry Lawton's 2nd Infantry Division was still struggling for both survival and victory at El Caney.  Among the first to attack in the early morning was the 71st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, many of its men falling to the devastating fire from the Spanish blockhouses.  Two regular infantry regiments moved into position as the 71st fell back, the ranks of these units likewise being quickly repulsed as they pushed through the high jungle grass in their attempt to charge the enemy.

The Spanish were not, however, without their own tragic losses.  General Vara de Rey fought his soldiers well, until falling himself...shot through both legs.  While being carried to safety on a stretcher, he was hit again, this time in the head, and died instantly.  Before the day came to a close, two of his sons, serving under him at El Caney, would also be killed.

Two hours after the US Colors had risen over San Juan Hill, Lawton's 3rd, 20th, and 25th US Infantry launched a heavy assault.  Much like the earlier charge at San Juan Hill, it was an almost spontaneous eruption of brave American soldiers who had fought all day and tired of the constant rain of enemy fire from the trenches.  The terrain was now littered with the bodies of dead and wounded Americans while, inside the city a small handful of leaderless Spanish soldiers was all that remained to make a final valiant stand.  Of the 520 Spanish soldiers who had defended the city earlier in the day, less than 100 remained to face the American charge.  

The charge began as Lieutenant Kinnison of the 25th observed, "We cannot take the trenches without charging them," then almost immediately fell wounded by an enemy round before he could sound the charge.  Second Lieutenant A. J. Moss replaced him as yells and whoops "which would have done credit to a Comanche Indian" went up and down the ranks, according to Sergeant Major Frank Pullen of the 25th.  The Buffalo Soldiers charged with a fury, ignoring the men that fell around them, to charge the enemy trenches and rout the last of the enemy defenders.  Company H was first to reach the blockhouse where Private Butler took possession of the enemy flag for his company.  (Later an officer of the 12th infantry entered and ordered Butler to give up the flag.  Dutifully, Butler followed the white officer's orders, but not before cutting a swatch from the enemy standard to later substantiate his claim that his company and his regiment had been the first to take the position.)

Within half an hour the battle was over, the city secured and the stone fort at El Viso destroyed.  By five in the evening all Spaniards who had not escaped into the jungle were either dead or captured.  The "two hour victory" had taken a full day, but because of the valor and determination of the young American soldiers, victory had at last come.  It was not without great cost, 81 Americans killed at El Caney, another 360 wounded.  Nine members of the 17th Infantry Regiment received Medals of Honor, all for "GALLANTLY ASSISTING IN THE RESCUE OF THE WOUNDED FROM IN FRONT OF THE LINES UNDER HEAVY FIRE OF THE ENEMY.


 

At both El Caney and at San Juan Hill, the efforts to bury the dead and treat and evacuate the wounded went long into the night and after the midnight hour.  At San Juan the Americans pitched their tents and dined on captured enemy provisions.  Throughout the night an alert vigil was maintained against the expected counter-attack that never materialized.

At El Caney General Lawton prepared his troops to finally move south to join with the other two divisions, nearly a full day behind schedule.  

 


El Caney

17th US Infantry

2LT Charles Roberts
1Lt Benjamin Hardaway
 

Company C

 

Company D

Cpl Ulysses Buzzard   Cpl Norman Ressler
Pvt George Berg   Cpl Warren Shepherd
Pvt Oscar Brookin  
Pvt Thomas Graves  
Pvt Bruno Wende  

San Juan & 
Kettle Hill

Company F
10th US Cavalry
 

SgtMaj Edward Baker

Company F
10th US Infantry
  Company H
21st US Infantry
Pvt Charles Cantrell   Pvt John Deswan
Sgt Andrew Cummins   Cpl Thomas Doherty
Pvt William Keller   Pvt Frank Fournia
Pvt James Nash   Pvt Thomas Kelly
Pvt Alfred Polond   Pvt George Nee
  Mus Herman Pfisterer

Company A
13th US Infantry

 

US Volunteers

Sgt Alexander Quinn   Cpt Albert Mills


Berg


Brookin


Doherty


Keller


Nee


Polond


Roberts

Though Colonel Theodore Roosevelt emerged from the Spanish-American war a larger-than-life hero, in great part due his reckless but valiant leadership at Kettle Hill.  Never-the-less, he was denied the Medal of Honor.  Many historians believe this was due to his outspoken criticism of Secretary of War Alger and other top military planners.  While the public adored "Teddy" and fed vociferously on the reports of his Rough Riders, those who were the subjects of Roosevelt's scathing reports of poorly planned military actions and inept efforts to properly equip and supply his soldiers, exacted their revenge.  Indeed, Roosevelt went so far as to say publicly, "I Am Entitled to the Medal of Honor and I Want It".

Though two Medal of Honor recipients who had witnessed Roosevelt's actions at Kettle and San Juan Hills (Generals Shafter and Wood) recommended the intrepid leader of the Rough Riders, his political enemies succeeded in denying it to him during his lifetime.  Beyond Roosevelt's death, his actions were debated for decades and finally, more than 100 years after his famous charge during the Spanish-American War, Congress approved the award.  On January 16, 2001 President William Clinton presented Theodore Roosevelt's Medal of Honor to his great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt, in ceremonies at the White House.  His award brought the total of awards earned in the July 1, 1898 battles at El Caney, Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill to an even two-dozen.  Ironically, Roosevelt's long-sought Medal of Honor would be the ONLY posthumous award of the entire Spanish-American War.

Theodore Roosevelt's MOH Citation

 

 

 

 

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