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Fighting

New Enemy
The Closing Days of the 
Splendid Little War

 

While General Miles and his I Corps were departing for the landings at Puerto Rico, the war in Cuba was winding down.  The Spanish navy had suffered a defeat from which it would never recover, and with the capitulation of Santiago, most hostilities ended.  The ground war that began scarcely six weeks earlier with the landing of Colonel Huntington's Marines at Guantanamo Bay had been bitterly fought, but the victories that ranged from the Cuzco Well to the heights over Santiago had been won with relatively little loss of life.  Indeed American battle deaths for the entire campaign (including the US Naval actions in both theaters of operation) were less than 500 men.

Throughout the three-week siege to take Santiago, General Shafter had watched his fighting force slowly dwindle away through an attrition caused, not so much by enemy bullets or fierce battles, but by a new enemy.  His soldiers might well have encamped around the city of Santiago to cut off the enemy from any resupply, even if it took months to "starve out its defenders", were it not for the tropical diseases that were decimating his ranks.  Veterans of the campaign described long days spent in muddy trenches that were re-filled with rain water during cold nights.  The puddles bred mosquitoes that not only made life miserable, but tenuous.  Rations of embalmed beef provided little sustenance, and Shafter's V Corps didn't have TIME to wait out the forces inside Santiago.  It was these factors that pushed the general to pursue the surrender of General Toral with increased vigor in the early part of July.

 

With the capitulation of the Spanish forces on July 17th, a steady stream of American soldiers could be seen returning to the over-crowded hospital at Siboney.  Meanwhile, the hard-won victory opened the way for General Miles to launch his Puerto Rican campaign, departing from Guantanamo Bay with his troop ships on July 21st.

Overlooking the large harbor at Guantanamo was Camp McCalla, still firmly under the control of Colonel Harrington's Marines.  Since the battle at Cuzco, the Spanish had withdrawn most of their forces from the jungles around the vast harbor, and confined their activities to the city.  Believing themselves out-numbered, the 7,000 man force were hesitant to mount further major attacks on the Marines.  

Guantanamo Bay is a harbor of distinctive design, almost like being "two harbors in one", stretching ten miles inland.  The outer harbor that sat beneath Camp McCalla is dotted with numerous inlets.  It is narrow, but deep enough to accommodate even the larger of America's warships.  For weeks these ships had patrolled the waters with impunity, and General Miles' troop transports had spent a week in the outer harbor awaiting his return from meetings with General Shafter at Santiago.  

Further inland is the larger expanse of Bahia de Guantanamo, nearly six miles long and five miles deep.  Inside rests the port of Caimanera with its natural moorage and well constructed piers.  The port city of Caimanera served as the primary shipping point for the city of Guantanamo, which is actually 20 miles inland from the bay that bears its name. 

Guantanamo Bay had seen plenty of activity since the arrival of Harrington's Marines and had served as a re-coaling station for the Navy for weeks.  With hostilities winding down and the demands for landing replacements and supplies for the American soldiers in Cuba, by late July the time had arrived for the Navy to finally venture into the inner reaches of the bay.  Despite the strong American presence in the outer harbor, however, Bahia de Guantanamo was anything but safe for shelter.  The small inlet that connected the two bodies of water was a dangerous passage, filled with deadly mines. 

The mines themselves were French-made, constructed to explode upon contact with the force of a 45-pound blow.  This meant they were dangerous not only to large ships, but even to smaller landing craft.  The mines contained forty-five kilograms of explosive guncotton, and would easily destroy a small craft and wreak major damage on larger vessels.  Clearing the entrance to the inner harbor would be a tedious and dangerous job, and would have to be accomplished under the watchful eyes of Spanish soldiers still still trying to recover from the surrender of the entire southeastern region of Cuba.

 

On the morning of July 26th, two small boats set out from the USS Marblehead, patrolling just outside Guantanamo Bay.  In those small boats was a group of sailors, tasked with entering the harbor near Caimanera to find and destroy these dangerous mines.  The process was simple in design, effective in its implementation, and extremely hazardous to say the least.

The two small boats entered the passage fifty yards apart, connected by ropes and a chain.  The chain formed something of a drag-net, which the boats slowly pulled along until it snagged on one of the many mines in the harbor entrance.  When this happened, the two boats would carefully close in on the mine while the brave sailors assigned this hazardous duty cut the contact wires.  Then the explosive contents were destroyed, rendering the mine harmless.

For two days the two small boats remained at their task, the courageous sailors from the Marblehead destroying one mine, then moving on to find yet another.  "The task was perilous in the extreme," said Seaman Samuel Triplett, one of the volunteers.  "But it was accomplished expeditiously and without the loss of a single man."

Seaman Triplett's job was made even more dangerous by pockets of resistance from the shore.  He later recounted the scene as the two boats went about their two-day mission.  "The Spaniards ashore eyed us keenly as we rowed toward them, and fully understanding our design waited with their fire until we would be within their reach.  No sooner had we come within reach of their fire than they began to open up on us, and for a time it rained bullets and deadly missiles.  Their fire did little damage, and a number of steam launches which accompanies us on the expedition protected us from a more direct and certainly more effective attack."

Over the two days of July 26th and 27th, these brave sailors found and destroyed 27 such contact mines.  Four of them received Medals of Honor.


William
Morin

William
Spicer

Axel
Sundquist

Samuel
Triplett

These were the LAST Medals of Honor of the Spanish-American War!


 

 

The Spanish-American War didn't end in time.  By the July 17th capitulation of the Spanish at Santiago, General Shafter's force was already well on its way to defeat from within.  In the last two weeks of July the hospital at Siboney continued to fill.  It signaled the brewing of a new war, a war of words between the commanders in the field and the commanders on the home front.

It is reasonable to assume that military planners were well aware of the potential for a military disaster at the hands of the tropical climate and mosquitoes well in advance of the Cuba operation.  Indeed history reflected that more than one military force had suffered disastrous results in previous incursions in the Caribbean.  This concern was addressed by the timing of the invasion, planning it for the months of July and August, when yellow fever was least prevalent.  It wasn't enough.

Shafter's force had begun landing in Cuba on June 22nd, already suffering from too many days cramped in the hold of transport ships, and ill-dressed and ill-supplied for tropical warfare.  Ten days later when these same soldiers attacked the heights over Santiago, many were already suffering from the early stages of disease, and in the days of trench warfare that followed, the malady spread rapidly.  Shafter could see the toll disease was taking on his Army, which is why he requested permission to attack the city immediately.  President McKinley and Secretary of War Alger denied  his request, citing the heavy casualties to American soldiers such a battle would create.  Shafter realized that if he maintained his soldiers in their trench positions around the city for any length of time, the casualty rate would rise as quickly from disease as it would from battle, requesting permission on July 3rd to move his soldiers five miles further inland where he felt the threat of disease would not be as strong.  Again the general's request was denied.

By the end of July the situation in Cuba was critical.  American soldiers were jaundiced and running high fevers (the term Yellow Fever stems from the combination of jaundice and fever).  In its advanced stages, victims often vomited dark blood, giving the deadly malady another nickname..."the black vomit".  Secretary Alger ordered General Shafter to separate his forces into two camps:  the sick camps, and the well camps.  The largest of the sick camps was the makeshift tent hospital at Siboney.  Those who were well, did their best to keep a distance from those who were sick.

Colonel Charles Greenleaf was the surgeon in charge of the hospital at Siboney.  He had very little to work with.  Even his tents were borrowed...from the state of Michigan.  Shafter's V Corps had been sent to war poorly supplied for combat, the medical corps was even more poorly supplied to treat the casualties of that combat.  Greenleaf requested help from the combat forces returning from Santiago.  General Shafter was hesitant to order any unit to Siboney, realizing he would be ordering men to expose themselves to great potential for infection.  Instead, he offered a call for volunteers.  Eight different regimental commanders ignored the call for volunteers.  On July 16th the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Regular Infantry arrived at Siboney.  Again the call for volunteers went forth, and this time, to a man, the soldiers of the 24th Infantry stepped forward to render their services.  Said the surgeon of that valiant act:

"There is more real heroism in marching into a fever-stricken tent and staying there day and night...than there is in making a single charge up any hill.  Yet, I made the demand, asking the colonel of the regiment to appeal to his men so that, say, a dozen of them would come as volunteers to work in the hospital.  'Tell them that when they go in they will have to stay in, and that I want no man who is not willing to face danger.'

He made the call not twelve men, not a hundred men, but every single man in the regiment.  There was not one Negro who stayed behind.  (It was) as fine a bit of heroism as was developed in the whole war."  (Leslie's Weekly, 3 November 1898)

The great compassion and courage of the men of the 24th Infantry did not come without great price.  For six weeks they performed the job no other soldiers would volunteer to do.  Only 24 among their ranks escaped sickness during their tenure at the hospital, and 31 men of the regiment died.

 

The Army Nurse Corps

The United States Military had always accepted any idea of including women among its ranks with great reluctance.  Despite the fact that women had bravely served their nation since the American Revolution, such served was only accepted as a CIVILIAN service.  Indeed for many years, American law prohibited women from military service.   During the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker served through numerous battles as a contract surgeon, a civilian hired to treat the wounded from the fields of battle.  Throughout her years of service, which included time as a prisoner of war, Dr. Walker served with courage and distinction.  Following the end of the Civil War, Dr. Walker petitioned Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for a commission as an Army major.  Stanton denied her request, but did recommend that President Johnson award her the Medal of Honor.  She became the first, and only woman in history, to receive that award.

In the early days of the Spanish-American War, Congress authorized the Army to hire civilian nurses and contract surgeons to care for the anticipated casualties of that war.  These were soldiers in their own right, though they were denied that title by the Army.  They remained civilians, hired for their skills of medical mercy, and paid thirty dollars a month for their service.  In Cuba, when eight regiments refused to serve as guards for the hospital at Siboney that housed so many sick and dying veterans, these nurses did their best to ignore the dangers and perform their duties.  Among the nurses in Cuba was Annie Wheeler (pictured above), daughter of General Fighting Joe Wheeler, who became known as The Angel of Santiago.

Over the following two years more than 1,500 women served from Cuba to Puerto Rico, in the Philippine Islands, and on a Naval Hospital ship.  Fifteen nurses died of Typhoid Fever contracted from their patients during the Spanish-American War. 

(Photo at Left - Nurses with troops at a field Hospital in Havana) 

Two years after the end of the Spanish-American War, the valor of these civilian volunteers to the U.S. Army provided a turning point in American military history.  General George M. Sternberg was Surgeon General of the United States during the period of the Spanish-American War.  Initially dubious of even the contract use of civilian women volunteers,  in his 1899 Annual Report he wrote:

"American women may well feel proud of the record made by these nurses in 1898-99, for every medical officer with whom they served has testified to their intelligence, and skill, their earnestness, devotion and self-sacrifice."

The following year Sternberg requested a bill to establish the ARMY NURSE CORPS.  That bill was enacted as part of the Army Reorganization Act of 1901, and a contract nurse from the war with Spain, Miss Dita H. McKinney was appointed as the first Army Nurses Corps Superintendent.  For the first time in American history, women finally had an official role in the United States military.


 


"A man who is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward."

President Theodore Roosevelt, June 4, 1903

 

Even as General Miles was departing for his Puerto Rico campaign, the soldiers from the Santiago campaign were looking forward to the return home.  Young American men who had eagerly swamped recruiting stations only months earlier to volunteer their services to their country, now looked forward to returning home with equal and greater emotion.  In those brief months these young men had traveled to foreign shores, witnessed unspeakable death and horror, suffered ravaging wounds and diseases, and matured far beyond their years.   

In our Nation's Capitol, Secretary of War Alger issued orders for the manner of their return.  General Shafter and his men would come home throughout the month of August, with one qualification.  ONLY those veterans in the well camps would be allowed to touch the shores of their homeland.  The Secretary would not risk importing Yellow Fever and Malaria by allowing the sick soldiers to return.  It was a final indignity to men who had suffered much, and given all.

In Cuba the brigade and division commanders called a meeting to address this new issue.  All of the field officers were angered at the Secretary's decision, and feared that unless they got their sick soldiers home quickly, they would be condemning all of them to death.  Even so, most of these high-level officers were career men with little desire to defy their civilian boss and jeopardize that career.

Attending that meeting was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, now a brigade commander himself.  Roosevelt was also a victim of Malaria, a disease he carried in his body for the rest of his life.  With no career to protect, but feeling the responsibility for the care of the men he loved, Roosevelt volunteered to report back to Secretary Alger.  Following the meeting the intrepid Colonel prepared a telegram urging the Secretary to reconsider his position, urging "If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die."  In his unflinching tendency to speak bluntly and to the point, his report was emphatic.

To increase public pressure on the Secretary in this regard, General Shafter intentionally leaked the contents of Colonel Roosevelt's communications to the Associated Press.  The President and Secretary of War first read the words of Colonel Roosevelt in the newspaper.  Needless to say, both the President and Secretary Alger were none too happy with the upstart hero of San Juan Hill.

On July 28th General Shafter was ordered to begin the immediate return of his troops "to prevent an outbreak of yellow fever".  On August 7th, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders boarded the transport USS Miami for the return home.  Over the ensuing weeks, the remaining veterans of the war in Cuba and Puerto Rico followed them--both the sick and the well.

On August 13, 1898 all hostilities ended with the signing of the peace protocol establishing an armistice until the terms of peace could be negotiated and signed by both the United States and Spain.  The Splendid Little War had reached its conclusion. 

For all too many young American men,

It's ending was NOT so SPLENDID!

 

 

 

The Rough Riders transport took them to Montauk, New York where they were met by throngs of adoring citizens who had hung on their exploits through the reports of the media.  All were hailed as heroes, their intrepid Colonel returning a larger-than-life American legend.  As the soldiers left their ship, someone in the crowd yelled out to ask Colonel Roosevelt how he felt.

"I've had a bully time and a bully fight.  
I feel as big and as strong as a Bull Moose!" 

The crowd responded with cheers of approval.  Colonel Roosevelt had returned to his hometown, the most popular man in America.

Despite his popularity with the people, not everyone loved TEDDY.  The Colonel's outspoken criticism of Secretary of War Alger's handling of the war had  created personal enemies in high places.  General Wheeler recommended Colonel Roosevelt for the Medal of Honor, an action endorsed by General Shafter and General Lawton...both Medal of Honor recipients themselves.  Had it been left to the people to decide, his award would never have been in doubt.  Instead, the recommendation had to pass through the higher echelons in Washington, D.C.; the one place in America where Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was NOT a legend.  Many historians believe it was Secretary Alger himself who was most instrumental in denying the award to Theodore Roosevelt in his lifetime.  

Charges of incompetence on the part of Secretary of War Russell Alger subsequently led President McKinley to appoint a special commission to investigate the charges.  Among the most reported issues revolved around the rations the soldiers had dubbed "Embalmed Beef".  During the hearings, General Nelson Miles charged that Alger and other War Department officials, in collusion with meat-packers, had deliberately sent the American troops in the Caribbean, meat that had been injected with dangerous chemicals as an experiment.  Though these charges were never proven, the public uproar against Alger forced him to resign in 1899.  (Russell Alger did subsequently return to Washington, DC to serve as a Senator from his home state of Michigan from 1902 until his death in 1907.) 

The Walking Dead

Perhaps no where was the inept manner in which the veterans of the Spanish-American War were received home more vividly illustrated than at Camp Wikoff, a "hospital" built on Long Island, New York and named for Colonel Charles Wikoff who had been killed during the Spanish American War.  Intended to be a place for returning veterans from the sick camps to get well, it became instead a place for them to die.

The first veterans began arriving at the hastily established tent-hospital on August 9th.  There wasn't an ample supply of potable water, and almost no food.  An article in The New York Sun reported, "There are no board floors in (the tents), but strips of canvas are spread on the ground and the men lie on them with their own uniforms for pillows and army blankets for covering.  The men are all pale and wasted.  In one tent, two men burst out crying when a reporter asked them if they were getting all they wanted to eat."

Collier's Weekly demonstrated the grim reality of Camp Wicoff on the cover of their magazine, a sad portrait with the caption beneath that read "HOME!"

Food rations arrived slowly, some filled with worms.  Medical supplies were in short supply, and sanitation was almost non-existent.  The first veteran died at Camp Wikoff on August 17th.  During its two-months of operation, 21,000 veterans passed through its squalor, another 250 war veterans died.  

Stories about the conditions of the camp moved the citizenry to act, descending on the the camp with food, blankets, water, and whatever else they could muster.  The East Hampton Star wrote:

"There must be a screw loose somewhere when Uncle Sam's soldiers, backed by a country of unlimited resources, are...compelled to depend upon charity for food."

It was perhaps, a fitting epitaph for the Splendid Little War that claimed fewer than 500 lives in combat action, resulted in an unqualified victory that launched the United States into prominence as a world power, and ended with more than 4,000 non-combat deaths...to the lingering effects of foreign service.  Indeed, no war is ever SPLENDID....

And sadly, how quickly the valiant who serve are forgotten, when the peril of war has passed.

A Splendid Little War

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