The wresting of Guantánamo Bay from Spanish forces in 1898 was a brief but violent phase of the Spanish-American war. Overshadowed by the land and sea battles on a grander scale at Santiago, and largely ignored by historians, the establishment of a United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay and the rout of defending Spanish troops by combined U. S. and Cuban forces had an effect on the war which far transcended its local consequences.
In 1898 Guantánamo Bay had a measure of commercial
importance because of the sugar port of Caimanera on the western shore of the inner bay,
some five miles from the sea. At the entrance of the bay, on the eastern side (known as
Fisherman's Point), a fishing village sprawled on a flat beach below 30-foot cliffs, and
villagers piloted the vessels which entered the Bay, bound up the channel to Caimanera.
Cuba was in turmoil in 1898. The Cubans had been in rebellion against their Spanish masters since 1895. Two of the great insurgent leaders, José Martí and General Máximo Gómez, had landed at the little beach of Cajobabo, between Guantánamo Bay and Cape Maisí, soon after the inception of the rebellion, their dramatic return from exile fanning the flames of insurrection in Oriente Province. Now, after three years of bloody but indecisive fighting throughout the island, the insurgents held the offensive in only two provinces-Oriente and its adjoining neighbor, Camagüey.
Spanish Were Strong
Despite the nominal offensive position of the insurgents in the vicinity of Guantánamo Bay, Spanish regulars and guerillas held Guantánamo City, the port of Caimanera and the railroad connecting the two cities, the large sugar mills, and other outlying strong points. A Spanish blockhouse stood on the hill overlooking the village on Fisherman's Point near the entrance to the Bay, and a fort on Cayo del Toro commanded the relatively narrow channel leading from outer to inner bay. The Spanish gunboat Sandoval was based at Caimanera on the inner bay, and a string of blockhouses defended the railroad to Guantánamo City, fourteen miles inland, where 7,000 Spanish troops under General Pareja were stationed.
The Cuban insurgents maintained coastal outposts from the mouth of the Yateras River, east of the Bay, to a point fifteen miles west of Santiago, and were in undisputed possession of the western (Leeward) point at the entrance to the Bay.
And in 1898, the United States was at war with Spain. Relations between the two nations had been strained by American public indignation over the oppression of the Cubans, had progressed to the breaking-off of diplomatic relations after the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor in February, and thence to a U. S. declaration of war. A U. S. blockade of Havana harbor, followed by a Caribbean pursuit of the elusive Spanish fleet had finally culminated at the end of May in the bottling-up of the Spanish fleet in Santiago Bay, forty miles west of Guantánamo Bay, by the U. S. fleet under Rear Admiral W. T. Sampson. In the United States an army expeditionary force was rapidly being readied at the same time for action in Cuba. Thus one of the world's great powers was allied with the Cuban insurgents.
First U. S. Attack
The first successful U. S. foray against Guantánamo Bay occurred on 6 June, with the arrival of the cruiser Marblehead, captained by Commander B. H. McCalla, and the auxiliary St. Louis. Commander McCalla had been detached by Admiral Sampson from the blockading fleet at Santiago and ordered to reconnoiter the Bay for a naval base. The captain of the St. Louis was to cut the cables which had their terminus in a small station on Fisherman's Point, and connected Cuba with Haiti and the outside world.
On a previous occasion the St. Louis, on a similar mission, had been driven from the bay by the Spanish gunboat Sandoval.
As the two ships came into the bay at dawn, Spanish soldiers clustered about the blockhouse on the hill above Fisherman's Point which is today known as McCalla Hill. The blockhouse and the village were speedily cleared by fire from the Marblehead's six-pounder and one five-inch shell. The Spanish gunboat Sandoval came down the channel from Caimanera to meet the attack, but retired precipitately upon discovering the caliber of guns against her. The guns of the fort on Cayo del Toro also opened fire on the Marblehead, without effect.
The cables leading east to Cape Haitien, west to Santiago, and the small cable in the bay connecting Caimanera (and Guantánamo City) with Cape Haitien were all successfully cut, and from the seventh of June to 5 July the town of Guantánamo had no communication with the outside world.
Upon returning to the blockading fleet from the reconnaissance, the Marblehead carried two Cuban officers who had been brought off to the ship from Leeward Point (the western side) of Guantánamo Bay. They had been sent to Admiral Sampson by General Calixto García (the same who figured with U. S. Lieutenant Rowan in the famous "Message to García") to report that the Cuban forces, whose outposts occupied positions on the coast from the mouth of the Yateras to a point fifteen miles west of Santiago were at the disposition of the U. S. Commander-in-Chief. Commander McCalla thereafter maintained close liaison with General Pedro (Periquito) Pérez, commanding the Cuban forces around Guantánamo City, through the latter's Chief-of-Staff, Colonel Vieta, and thus received valuable advice and assistance.
Marines Move In
With the decision to establish a base at Guantánamo Bay, a battalion of Marines which had been awaiting orders at Key West, was ordered to proceed to join the fleet off Santiago. On 9 June in advance of the arrival of the battalion, Commander McCalla approved a camp site selected for the Marines by the Fleet Marine Officer, who had been sent to Guantánamo Bay by Admiral Sampson for the purpose. The site selected was a flat ridge on top of a hill, above the village on Fisherman's Point.
The Marines arrived on 10 June and four of the six companies were immediately disembarked from their transport, the Panther. The rude huts of the village and the remains of the blockhouse were burned with all their contents in order to avoid the possibility of yellow fever. The Spanish had fled in such a hurry that clothing, money, jewelry and weapons had been left behind, and the Marines looked on hungrily as all these souvenirs went up in smoke.
With the sea at their backs, and the thorny scrub and cacti of the arid hills stretching in a dense tangle before them, the Marines were in the best position available, but it was still not an enviable one. Shortly after sundown they had their first meal in camp-coffee and hardtack. Soon afterward came the first alarm. Voices were heard, and lights were seen in the thicket, but no attack materialized during the uneasy night.
A restless night gave way to the scorching sunlight of another day. The Marines completed camp without molestation, and the remaining two companies of the battalion came ashore. The only sound in the thickets was the peaceful cooing of mourning doves, a serenade which it was learned later was partly made up of signals given by Spanish guerillas.
Colonel Huntington was joined in the afternoon by Colonel Laborde of the Cuban army, who for several days had been with Commander McCalla as pilot on the Marblehead, and now had been sent ashore to assist the Marines and provide them with intelligence available concerning the enemy.
Colonel Laborde reported that the major Spanish force in the vicinity had its headquarters at the "Well of Cuzco," two miles southeast of Fisherman's Point. The well provided the only fresh water nearer than Guantánamo City. It was this Spanish force of about 400 soldiers and guerillas, augmented by the troops driven from the blockhouse on the Bay, which would constitute the gravest threat to the new U. S. base of operations.
As the two conversed, firing broke out in the thicket in front of the position, and Colonel Huntington led most of his command toward the front. The thorny tangle of trees, underbrush, and cacti turned the larger force back however, and he was forced to proceed with only one company.
It was quickly learned that two pickets who had been on outpost duty 300 yards in advance of the main position had been killed. These Marines-Pvts. William Dumphy and James McColgan were the first U. S. casualties of the war.
A fruitless pursuit of the enemy, in which shots were exchanged but no one was hit, was abandoned by the Marines at dark.
That night, bullets riddled the Marine camp as the enemy attacked in force. Acting Ass't Surgeon John Blair Gibbs and SGT Charles H. Smith were killed.
On the following day the Marines were reinforced by 50 Cuban officers and men under command of LTCOL Enrique Thomas. Familiar with guerilla tactics, they soon deployed in pairs in front of the camp, burning the brush and undergrowth as they advanced, denying to the enemy the cover which had been used to such advantage.
In a supporting move, the Marblehead, which had provided shore bombardment on several occasions at the request of Colonel Huntington, steamed down the coast and shelled the well at Cuzco.
Despite these precautions, the Spanish attack was resumed at dusk, and two more Marines-Acting SGT Major Henry Good and Pvt. Goode Taurman-were killed in the night-long fighting.
By nightfall on 13 June, the Marines were unbearably fatigued. They had not slept nor rested for 100 hours. Relief or reinforcements were out of the question, since U.S. Army troops had not yet left the States.
In this desperate situation, Colonel Thomas advocated an attack in force on the Spanish headquarters at Cuzco. Defeat of the enemy there, and destruction of the fresh water well, would inevitably force a retreat and relieve the pressure on the Marine Camp. Colonel Huntington agreed, and Commander McCalla approved the plan. Eight o'clock the next morning was set as the time for launching the attack.
Two companies of Marines (about 160 men) under CAPT G. F. Elliot, with 50 Cubans under Colonel Thomas, would approach Cuzco along the cliffs by the sea, while a smaller Marine force would advance by an inland valley, holding a picket line for the main force, with men in reserve to go to its assistance if necessary. The USS Dolphin was assigned to support the attack from sea.
The sun was already bright and hot when the combined U.S.-Cuban force began its march. Colonel Laborde guided the main force, and a Cuban pilot named Polycarpio the smaller. Hampered by rough terrain, vicious undergrowth, and increasing heat, it was nearly 11 o'clock when the main force reached the steep, horse-shoe shaped hill which almost encircles Cuzco valley.
At about the same time, the Cubans in advance were discovered by the enemy. A mad race for the crest of the hill ensued, and the Marines and Cubans won, under heavy fire from the Spanish and guerillas. The smaller Marine force came up on the double at the sound of firing, and poured a deadly crossfire on the enemy flank. Though the Spanish were well concealed in a dense cluster of sea grape trees, the volley firing of the Marines drove them from cover, and a straggling retreat began.
SGT John H. Quick sent a signal for the Dolphin to shell the retreating enemy, and for his bravery in exposing himself while signaling from the crest of the hill, with his back to the enemy, later received the Medal of Honor.
Spanish Forces Flee
By 3 o'clock the enemy fire had ceased. Most had escaped, but a Lieutenant and 17 enlisted men were captured, along with 30 Mauser rifles and ammunition. The enemy had lost 58 men killed and 150 wounded.
It was learned that 800 enemy troops had been engaged, of whom about 500 were regulars and 300 were guerillas.
Two Marines were wounded, two Cubans killed, and two wounded in the battle. The most serious casualties suffered by the Marines were due to heat prostration, which disabled one officer and 22 men. The Dolphin took these aboard after the fighting was over.
The Spanish headquarters building was burned, and the Well of Cuzco was filled up, thus ending its immediate usefulness.
Spanish forces were so demoralized that they retreated all the way to Guantánamo, via Cayo del Toro and Caimanera. Apparently expecting the U. S. forces to follow up the victory, they fortified Dos Caminos, a small settlement at the crossing of two roads, and added several blockhouses to the number already erected on the rail line.
The Marine Camp was not further molested by Spanish or querillas, and remained on the hill over Fisherman's Point until disestablished on 5 August 1898.
Meanwhile attention was soon focused on other areas of the Bay. The Spanish were adding to their earthworks on Cayo del Toro, where they had three bronze 6.4-inch guns and a modern 3.5-inch Krupp gun. At Caimanera, on the bluff south of the village, were mounted three more of the 6.4-inch guns, and the small gunboat Sandoval had a battery of one six-pounder and an automatic one-pounder Maxim.
Fort Toro Shelled
It was determined by Admiral Sampson that the fort of Cayo del Toro should be shelled, and he sent the Texas and Yankee to join with the Marblehead in this plan on 16 June. Fire from the three ships temporarily dismounted two of the enemy's big guns, destroyed the buildings on the Cay, and drove the troops from all guns and trenches. One enemy shell landed near the bow of the Marblehead, sinking within ten yards of the ship, but no hits were scored.
Disaster jostled the U. S. ships as they steamed up the Bay past Caracoles Point. As they proceeded slowly, a lookout on the Marblehead reported that the starboard propeller was foul of a buoy. The engine was stopped, and the propeller was cleared of the "buoy", which turned out to be a contact mine. The mine was successfully disarmed. Afterward it was learned that the ships had passed through a field of eighteen such mines, or torpedoes, on the trip up the Bay and through the same field on the return trip, without injury of any kind.
A few days after the attack on Cayo del Toro, the mine field was thoroughly explored, and fourteen mines were recovered. Their failure to explode on contact was attributed to mechanical faults, plus a healthy growth of barnacles on the contact levers.
The mine-sweeping operation, carried out without specialized equipment, is worthy of more than passing mention. Two steam launches and two whale boats from the Marblehead and the Dolphin-a launch and whaleboat side by side, connected to the other launch and whaleboat by a rope with a chain drag in the center-swept the channel. When the drag met an obstruction, the boats came together and crossed the ends of the drag. The boats were then hauled carefully up to the mine, which was brought to the surface and disarmed. Twice the drag brought up two mines together.
While sweeping for mines, the boats had been fired on from Hicacal Beach, where 250 Spanish infantry were posted to guard the mine field. It was determined to rout the last enemy force remaining in the vicinity of the Bay, and on 25 June Colonel Huntington led two companies of Marines and 40 Cubans in an amphibious assault on Hicacal Beach. It proved to be a bloodless encounter, for the Spanish had left a day or two earlier.
With Guantánamo Bay now successfully occupied, U. S. interest centered on operations at Santiago. An American expeditionary force of 17,000 officers and men under Major General W. R. Shafter was landed east of the city at the small ports of Daiquiri and Siboney on 22-25 June, without opposition. A week later, on 1 July, the historic battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill ended in victory for U. S. forces, opening up the approaches to Santiago itself. On the morning of 3 July a demand was sent to the Spanish Commander, General Arsenio Linares, to surrender or suffer bombardment of the city as an alternative.
On the same morning, the Spanish fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera sallied forth from Santiago Bay, only to meet with complete destruction at the hands of the U. S. fleet.
Major Spanish resistance at Santiago was at an end, although it was not until 15 July that a preliminary agreement was signed. U. S. forces occupied the city on 17 July.
Why had not the 7,000 Spanish troops at Guantánamo City, only 40 miles away, marched to the aid of Linares' besieged army, thus possibly reversing the outcome of the battle? The answer lay at Guantánamo Bay. Prior to the cutting of his communications, General Pareja had been directed by his superiors to hold Guantánamo City at all costs, since the Spanish feared that the Guantánamo valley might be used as an invasion route by U. S. forces, as the English had once used it to advance on Santiago.
After the Navy cut the cables and established a base at Guantánamo Bay, General Pareja remained in complete ignorance concerning the course of the war, for the Cuban insurgents maintained such a tight ring about the city that not one messenger got through their lines. Fifteen were caught and executed as spies. None of General Linares' frantic requests for aid reached Pareja.
The threat posed by U. S. Naval forces and a battalion of Marines at Guantánamo Bay, plus the stranglehold on land communications by 1,000 Cuban insurgents, effectively pinned down an army of 7,000 men which might have changed the outcome of the fighting at Santiago.
Less than a week after the surrender of Santiago, the base at Guantánamo Bay was used to launch the invasion of Puerto Rico, 500 miles to the east. Thirty-five hundred troops under General Miles sailed from the Bay on 21 July.
This was the last important event in the Spanish-American War phase of Guantánamo Bay, for on 12 August the war ended with the signing of the peace protocol and an armistice.
The new U. S. Naval Base was not formalized by lease agreement between the United States and Cuba until five years later, when in 1903 it was acquired as a "coaling and Naval station", but its infinite worth was already proven.
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