The 10th U.S. Cavalry, an African American regiment served with honor at San Juan Hill in Cuba.
The Spanish American War was a watershed event in American history; a conflict that more than any other placed America in the forefront of the great powers in the world community. With the enforcement of the Monroe doctrine, through a declaration of war against Spain, America would no longer remain an isolated agricultural/industrial nation. The basic outline of Americas road to world power as a result of the Spanish-American war has received extensive treatment in many books and scholarly manuscripts. Few have dealt with the role of the American Soldier, excluding the Rough Riders, in the victory over Spain. Fewer still have examined the role of America's black soldiers in the conflict. The African-American soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment contributed to American success on the battlefield and broke the ground for increased opportunities in the military and raised the level of self confidence that would help them to greater success in civilian life.
Remarkably, some of the most successful American soldiers in the Spanish American War were also the nation's least enfranchised citizens. For these men, despite the inherent hardships, the army afforded them status and opportunity that could not be found in the civilian world. The African-American, Tenth Cavalry Regiment, of the United States Army, fighting in the Spanish American war had an opportunity to achieve a level of valor, dignity, and a distinction that could not be demonstrated in civilian life.
American interest in Cuba goes back to 1848 when the United States first tried to purchase it. Although not at the front of American politics this island had become a growing business interest. Due to the amount of money invested in Cuba powerful Americans became more attentive to the events in Cuba. This concern turned to tension and eventually to outrage with Cuba's colonial ruler, Spain, when an incident arose over American citizens. The Virginius was a ship under the American flag attempting to land troops and munitions in Cuba. Enroute the ship was seized by the Spanish and taken to Cuba. For the attempt to land a hostile force ashore fifty Americans and the crew were executed without trial. The press in the United States cried out in rage at this incident. William Hearst and his New York Journal exacerbated tensions by disclosing a letter written by the Spanish Minister in Washington deLome in which he described President McKinley as "weak and low".
With these incidents and insults Americans began to identify Spain as an enemy. With a growing concern for American interests in Spanish colonies and the sentiment that Spain needed to be shown who was in control in the western hemisphere Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, ordered the American battleship Maine to the harbor at Havana. The excuse was that American interests were in jeopardy due to rioting in Havana.
On February 15, 1898, at 21.45hrs. the Maine exploded, killing 268 on board. With no proof Hearst and other purveyors of the "Yellow Press" blamed the Spanish for the incident. "Remember the Maine" became a call to arms for Americans. Americans demanded a response. Congress, with no declaration of war, authorized the "50 Million Dollar Bill" which authorized that amount of money for military spending, and gave the president much latitude in how to spend it. On the 25th of April, 1898, Congress voted for war against Spain.
There was a sense of identity with the black population in Cuba in the African-American community of the day. Blacks understood the need to support the struggle of former slaves. Some saw the war as an opportunity for the black community to gain wider respect in the country. Booker T. Washington stated "The Negro will be no less patriotic at this time than in former periods of storm and stress."
African-Americans viewed the military, and the war, as means to advance economically and socially. This is almost paradoxical in light of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which preceded the war by only three years. This ruling, that endorsed the"separate but equal" doctrine as the law of the land, created a second class of citizenship for black americans. Yet, this was the first war in which black soldiers were called up as the first wave of personnel to be sent into battle.
At the outbreak of war the army utilized all four of its all black regiments. Despite the prejudice of the time, these units were among the very few experienced combat troops in the army. All four of these regiments had fought in the Indian wars where they gained the nickname "Buffalo soldiers". The army had always maintained a rule of segregation by race throughout its organization. There was one exception to this rule. Only white males were officers at the time. The only African-American soldiers to hold an officers equivalent in rank were chaplains.
The Army viewed its "Buffalo soldiers" as having an extra advantage in fighting the war in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. There was an unfounded belief that African-Americans were immune to tropical diseases. Based on this belief congress authorized the raising of ten regiments of "persons possessing immunity to tropical diseases." These regiments would later be called "Immune Regiments".
When war broke out, the regiment was recalled from its outlying posts and assignments. Within a matter of days the Tenth Cavalry Regiment was assembled at Fort Assinniboine in Montana. Moving by rail, the regiment's first stop was in Wisconsin where they received flags and flowers from well wishers. The reception was much cooler as they approached the south where Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced. The line of racist demarcation was noticed as the troops crossed the Kentucky state border; it was here that the soldiers noticed that cheering crowds were separated by race and that whites stayed on one side of the tracks while blacks stayed on the other.
The Army had arranged for two mobilization centers; Tampa, Florida, and Chickamauga Park. Through these two camps would pass 65,000 regular soldiers headed south. While the army was preparing its invasion force the Tenth Cavalry regiment was expanded. The cavalry regiments sent to Cuba consisted of two squadrons of approximately 400 men. As the regiment expanded, logistical difficulties were experienced. New recruits to the unit took time to equip and then it was weeks before these new soldiers had all of their personal and weapons gear.
The regular army was able to issue the more modern Krag-Joergenson rifles to all of its regulars from the stockpiles of 35,000 rifles.
The men of the Tenth Cavalry regiment waited in Lakeland Florida prior to their departure for Cuba. In preparation for war training days where started at 0500hrs. and ended at 1845hrs. During the training period the average trooper accumulated a kit consisting of: a blanket, shelter half, poncho, extra clothes, food and utensils, cartridge belt and 125 rounds, canteen, weapon and haversack. His uniform consisted of flannel shirts, canvas over blouse, high leather boots with gaiters and a campaign hat. During what little free time the troopers had there were problems with the local citizenry. The troopers did not readily adjust to the extreme segregation of the south. This tension came to a head when a barber in Lakeland threatened troopers with pistols, an encounter that ended with the shooting death of the barber.
The army had given V Corps, under General Shafter, the task of invading Cuba. Shafter had gained a reputation as a fighter during the Indian wars. However, Shafter was obese and in no condition to engage in a serious military campaign. Shafter made the transition from the small army of the frontier to the large army of the invasion badly. He was totally unprepared for the logistics of moving an army overseas. Transport was so poorly organized that food supplies were reduced to make room for 20 pieces of artillery. Trains operated without clear cargo manifests making it impossible to determine which supplies were on which trains. All of which had to wait for the single line of track that went to the port at Tampa. It was a matter of luck that the troopers of the Tenth Cavalry rode from Lakeland to the pier at Tampa in fancy railroad coaches with ice water. However, later in the day they were unable to eat in any of the Jim Crowed restaurants. Food was eventually purchased locally, from peddlers. As the Tenth Cavalry regiment embarked, approximately a third of the troopers stayed behind to tend the horses and equipment. Most of the horses would stay behind as there was insufficient room on the transports. Personnel were placed on transport 21 Leona; artillery, baggage and rations were placed on transport 7, Comal. On June 14, 1898 the advance guard sailed for Cuba in a convoy of 36 transports, the gunboat Helena, and several others. The convoy was met off the Dry Tortugas, by other escort vessels, on June the 15th at 2345hrs., and continued on toward Cuba.
What awaited the invading army at Cuba was no novice force. The Spanish army made effective use of cover and concealment. Their fortifications consisted of rifle pits, entrenchments, earthworks, barbed wire fences, and block houses; that included inter-dependent units known as Fortins. The Spanish army under Generals Linares and Weyler was battle hardened from fighting Cuban insurgents. The individual Spanish soldier was better equipped than his American counter part. He wore a light weight blouse and trousers, straw hat, and rope soled shoes. The Spanish soldier used the Mauser, a smokeless powder, rifle and short bayonet. This weapon was superior to the U.S. rifles in service at the time.
Those troopers of the Tenth cavalry who stayed in Florida did not necessarily stay out of combat. A detachment composed of 50 members of A, H, and M troops were sent to resupply insurgents in Cuba island. The mission involved landing Americans, as well as 375 Cuban soldiers, 65 mules and packs, rations, clothing, and ammunition. Similar missions would be executed throughout the war. On June the 21st a small convoy sailed with the transports Florida, Fanita and gunboat Peoria, under the command of Lt. Johnson. On June 29 a landing at Cienfuegos was attempted but repulsed by the Spanish. The next day the convoy moved down the coast to Tayabacoa. The Cuban commander General Nunez sent 300 Cubans and 28 Americans ashore, under cover fire from the Peoria. The Spanish responded quickly and engaged this force heavily. The Cuban/American force was cut off by the Spanish who were only kept at bay by the Peoria's off shore artillery. Neither side was willing to let go of what it had. The Spanish kept the original force pinned down and repulsed four rescue attempts by the Cubans from the ships.
The situation of the landing party looked hopeless. There was however, one last hope. Lt. Ahern, Sergeant Thompkins, Corporal Wanton and Troopers Bell and Lee of the Tenth Cavalry regiment volunteered to attempt a rescue. Prior to this action none of these soldiers were considered exceptional. Lt. Ahern decided to move under cover of darkness. His long boat was slowly lowered into the water and the oars were carefully pulled through the water so as to reduce noise.
"The party of five regulars", made it to shore and located the survivors in the landing party. Shortly thereafter the Spanish detected the rescue party. The rescue party worked quickly and was able to retrieve all survivors and wounded amidst a hail of Spanish fire.
Upon return to the ship, Corporal Wanton volunteered to go back and retrieve the bodies of their dead comrades. This was deemed too risky. Eventually a successful landing was made at Tunas. For their conspicuous gallantry at Tayabacoa, Sgt. Thompkins, Cpl. Wanton, and Troopers Bell and Lee all received their nation's highest distinction, the Medal of Honor.
On June 22, 1898, V Corps landed at Daiquiri 15 miles east of Santiago harbor. As a diversion to the landing Cuban General Garcia had insurgents attack a village some three miles west of Santiago. Daiquiri was defended by some 300 troops of the 1st Talavera Peninsular Battalion. These troops fled upon the opening volley of naval cover fire, despite their advantages of defense and terrain.
The debarkation process was slow. Troops had to use portholes in order to get to the landing boats. This was made even more difficult by the fact that every soldier was carrying his entire kit on his back. Most of the troops landed in long boats. The sea was rough and caused two men of the Tenth Cavalry to fall into harbor waters. Despite a rescue attempt by Captain William "Bucky" O'Neill (First Volunteer Cavalry), Corporal Cobb and Trooper English drowned becoming the first causalities of the campaign. Those horses which made the trip suffered badly during debarkation. Most were thrown overboard, many of which tried to swim out to sea. A few of the horses were saved when a quick thinking bugler sounded "Right Wheel", which made several of the horses turn toward shore. Owing to a lack of horses the Tenth Cavalry regiment was dismounted, acting in a similar capacity as infantry. Once ashore many of the troopers threw away equipment they thought was unnecessary like blankets and ponchos.
On June 23rd 1898, V Corps, which was the Tenth Cavalry's higher command, established its headquarters at Siboney. The corps cavalry brigade was commanded by General "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler. Wheeler, a former Confederate cavalry officer. moved his brigade towards the ridge at Las Guasimas in order to conduct a reconnaissance. Through Cuban intelligence, Wheeler found that the ridge was defended by both artillery and infantry. The Tenth cavalry, First Squadron, along with First Squadron, First cavalry regiment, followed a northern route to the ridge. While the First Volunteer cavalry followed a southern route.
For the troopers of the Tenth cavalry a silent reveille was held at 0300hrs. on June the 24th. The troopers had a quick breakfast of hard tack, bacon, and coffee and, marched at 0600hrs. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Rubin with 1,500 men were to fight a delaying action. The path taken by Wheeler's units was through dense jungle, and all three units emerged from the treeline at about the same time facing the main blockhouse at Las Guasimas. General Rubin had already placed scouts forward of his position. These scouts had allowed U.S. forces to pass them, signaling that the enemy was approaching by using bird calls. At 0730hrs. contact with the enemy was made. In the battle of Las Guasimas Troop A, commanded by Captain Beck was deployed left of the First Cavalry regiment and parallel to the hill. While moving forward the troop received fire, and linked up with the Rough Riders. Sergeant Buck, of the Tenth cavalry, was later to be commended for pushing his troops forward, calmly and calling them by name in order to motivate them.
Troop B, commanded by Captain Willard, started the advance to Las Guasimas which involved crawling through the jungle to reach the objective. At 0745hrs. the order to lock and load weapons was given. B Troop's Hotchkiss gun drew a lot of fire because of its smoke, which gave away its position. While subject to fire the troop had to search for a way around a wire fence and through thick brush. The troop lost seven men but eventually came into line with the First Cavalry regiment and the Rough Riders. A charge was made and the Spanish were overrun. The battle was over at approximately 1100hrs. Captain Ayers, E Troop's commander, somewhat brief in his after action report stated that the troop was in plain sight at the opening of the battle and on orders held fire for a half an hour. He mentioned little else except some compliments toward his troops. The commander of I Troop, Captain Watson, remained out of the action, until the end as the troop was third in line. Movement was slow going because of heavy foliage. The charge reached the crest of the hill under heavy fire, and Wagoner Boland was killed by a sniper in a tree. The smokey Hotckiss battery that followed B Troop was engaged at 950 yards but had to change position due to the enemy having calculated the its position. Corporal Love and Trooper Gaines were wounded. The twenty rounds fired by the Hotchkiss battery had little effect.
The events at Las Guasimas had an amusing effect on the brigade leader General Wheeler. Upon hearing of enemy contact and the ensuing battle Wheeler commented "Come on! We've got the damn Yankees on the Run!", or so the popular tale had it. Between Wheeler's bravery and Linare's hesitancy the Americans emerged victorious. Lt. Col. Baldwin, the Tenth Cavalry Regimental commander, reported to his superiors that after taking the Sevilla road he engaged the enemy with only one death and ten wounded. It was also the belief of several officers in the Tenth Cavalry that they had saved the Rough Riders by engaging the Spanish with enfilading fire, which allowed the First Volunteer Cavalry to move toward the enemy.
The men of the Tenth Cavalry regiment would have less than a week before they would be in the thick of the battle that would determine the outcome of the campaign. The battle of Santiago was planned so that the village of El Caney would be taken and those forces already positioned outside San Juan would link up on the Spanish left flank. With that objective completed the American army would take the San Juan heights, the hills surrounding Santiago. Prior to the battle the troops were given three days rations consisting of 18 hard tacks, nine slices of raw bacon and water. For the assault on San Juan Hill, the Tenth Cavalry would be part of the Second Brigade which was composed of the First Cavalry Regiment, Tenth Cavalry Regiment, First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, and a detachment with four Hotchkiss guns. Different elements of the American army began moving toward Santiago as early as June the 30th. On the march the artillery had to stop 143 times in three miles, due to poor road conditions.
Each individual troop that participated in the battle for San Juan Hill had its own perspective of the events, but some elements of the battle were common to all units in the Tenth Cavalry Regiment. The regiment as a whole was deployed near the road leading to Santiago. Each unit had to make its way through wire and thickets on the outer perimeter of the Spanish defenses. Most of the regiment used the tall grass in the area to conceal movement. On the morning of 1, July, 1898 at 0830hrs., the infantry elements of the cavalry moved toward Santiago, across the San Juan river. As units moved into position, an army observation balloon was moved down the road toward Santiago. This was towards the middle of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment's position in the line. This balloon drew the fire of many Spaniards. To say the least, all of this "unwanted attention" was unnerving to men on the ground, but the balloon proved of little tactical use as it was soon shot down.
Within an hour and a half all of the attacking infantry units were in position for the assault. As the cavalry units took positions on the far right of the line, Tenth Cavalry Regimental Sergeant Major attended to details between the front line and the position of his commanding officer Lt. Colonel Baldwin in the rear. Meanwhile Spanish fire was rained down on the American positions along the line. Sgt. Major Baker was taking cover during one of the volleys of artillery fire when he discovered one of his men, Trooper Marshall of C Troop, struggling in the San Juan river. With total disregard of the enemy fire, and the pleas of his fellow soldiers, Baker ran forward and dragged the trooper to safety. Baker received two wounds on the left arm and side during this action. Baker managed to get the regimental surgeon and insisted the doctor attend to Trooper Marshall first. For his selfless concern for his trooper in the face of enemy fire Baker became the fifth member of the regiment to receive the Medal of Honor. Baker would later take a commission in the 49th Volunteer Infantry and was one of the few volunteer officers to retain his commission after the war. He eventually retired from the army as a Captain.
The Tenth Cavalry Regiment actively engaged the enemy at a range of 600 yards with its detachment of Hotchkiss guns which were placed 100 yards past the San Juan river, aimed against the blockhouse and entrenchments. The detachment was forced to move due to counter fire. They then took up a position in the vicinity of the First Cavalry's artillery and machine guns. The stories of the individual troops can be seen in the after action reports that were filed by the respective commanding officers. In A Troop, under Captain Beck, the troop had received the order into the line at the left of the First Cavalry Regiment. The troop became dispersed in the chaparral. A Troop then advanced in heavy fire, and became part of the general movement toward the crest in spite of fire from 150 Spaniards. With assistance from the Hotchkiss guns and a detachment of the 24th Infantry Regiment the troop silenced the Spaniards.
B Troop, under the command of Captain Watson, was more focused on the frontal assault. Having moved forward in two rushes the troop broke into double time. By the time the commanding officer reached the top of the hill only seven troopers had kept up with him. Later the rest of the troop reached the crest and took its place in the line. Lt. Anderson's C Troop bivouacked on June 30, at 1630hrs. and left the next morning at 0920hrs. At 1030hrs. the troop received enemy fire and dropped their packs while seeking cover. Colonel Wood ordered the troop to move toward the blockhouse. During the advance the troop lost all cohesion and only 18 members of the troop reached the top of San Juan hill together, having passed two sets of Spanish entrenchments.
D Troop was somewhat more active than its counter parts in the regiment. June the 30th, Under Captain Bigelow the troop was placed on pickets on near El Pozo. Withdrawn, it marched toward the regimental position in the line. The troop occupied the extreme left and was halted by two wire fences. D Troop suffered under the infamous observation balloon. D Troop's presence also checked the retreat of the 71st New York Regiment which was ahead of it in the column. In an episode that had to appear comical Captain Bigelow, tried with bare hands to remove or push over a fence post that was part of the wire fence system the Spanish were using for defence. The captain tried to no avail, when Corporal Walker came over with his rifle and bayonet attached and slashed through the wire affording the troop an opening thorough which to advance. The troop was withdrawn from the road and faced toward the enemy fire, without waiting for higher orders. The troop charged along with the other forces. Lt. Jules Ord of the 6th Infantry Regiment was advancing and reached the top of the hill first when he was shot through the chin. Corporal Walker of D Troop saw Ord's killer and dispatched him in return, thus avenging the death of the first American to reach the top of the hill. Also during the assault on the heights, Captain Bigelow was wounded in action and the leadership of his troop was taken over by Lt. Pershing. After securing the hill the troop was used by General Sumner as a reserve.
Troop E commanded by Captain Ayers was marching in a column of files on July the 1st. At 900 yards the column began bearing on the center of San Juan hill, around a pond, and assaulted the hill at a "quick tripping step. " As the troop approached the Spanish abandoned their positions, allowing the troopers to fire on the fleeing enemy. After the hill was secured the troop remained in place during the entire siege of Santiago.
F Troop commanded by Captain Jones was forced to wait in the waist deep water of the San Juan river. The order "Forward Skirmishers, Guide left March!" was received. The troop then advanced in rushes. At a range of 100 yards the Gatling gun detachment opened fire, causing some Spaniards to flee their positions. At this point the troopers let loose a war cry and the charge began. The troop ended on the heights, forming new skirmishers.
Lt. Roberts commanding, G Troop, moved toward the Spanish at 0900hrs., passed by the observation balloon, and halted at the river. G Troop then moved through the river and became delayed by the wire. As the troop deployed Lt. Roberts was wounded. I Troop movement began at 1530hrs. on June,30,1898. It ended operations in bivouac that night. The troop remained encamped through the initial artillery fire. Packs were left under guard and the troop crossed the San Juan river. They were able to hold cover on the far bank of the river. After this they became part of the line and joined in the assault on the heights. They exchanged volleys with the Spanish on the run and overpowered the trenches between the two blockhouses. Although confusion reigned, it has been said that Corporal Smith of this troop was the first american on the hill who lived to tell about it. The troop held the extreme western crest of the heights until ordered to join C Troop.
It was during the general charge, when all units lost cohesion and became one large, unorganized force, that then moved to the heights of San Juan. Tenth Cavalry gained an unusual distinction during this charge. The Regimental Color Sgt. Berry being part of the melee' was able to see the color bearer of Third Cavalry go down. Sgt. Berry ran forward and retrieved the Third Cavalry Regiment's colors, and continued his advance. Upon reaching the summit he planted the flags and cried" Rally on the flags boys!" In army history he is the only man to carry two standards through a battle to victory. Immediately after securing the hill, all persons were put to the task of building trenches and shelters. During the following days two counter attacks of note both of which were repulsed. The Tenth Cavalry Regiment had lost seven men and had 69 wounded as a result of the battle.
It is at this point on the 3rd of July that the Spanish fleet attempted to break out of Santiago harbor but was destroyed by the American fleet in a running gun battle [Battle of Santiago]. Here the siege of Santiago began. The siege itself was characterized by a series of deadly circumstances. Foremost was the fact that snipers were always on the prowl and no man could afford to move about in the open lest he become a casualty. This forced the troopers to stay in trenches all day. The trench system was unsanitary to say the least. Filled knee deep in mud and water from the almost daily rain showers, these areas became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was in such conditions that malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever began spreading through the ranks. Adding to the trooper's problems was the fact that much of the army's food was spoiling in the tropical sun, this was especially true of the canned beef, an army staple. At night the men in the trenches only slept for short periods before awakening shivering. The only reprieve the soldiers had was the almost daily truces which continued until the Spanish agreed to lay down their arms on the 17th of July.
By the end of hostilities almost 80% of the troops had some form of fever. This precipitated the evacuation of some 20,000 troops to Camp Wikoff on Long Island, where they were placed under quarantine.
White officers outside the regiment praised the Tenth Cavalry troopers as "doing as well as any soldiers could possibly do...They were among the deadliest fighters of the war." By war's end the Tenth Cavalry regiment had in its ranks five Medal of Honor recipients, and 26 members of the unit received Certificates of Merit. Theodore Roosevelt said of the Tenth Cavalry "...brave men worthy of respect, I don't think any Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to the Tenth cavalry. The men of the Tenth soon returned to duty in Cuba as part of the occupying forces under General Wood.
The impact of Sergeant Major Baker's achievement's could not be seen in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war. It would take decades before African-American officers would become an integral part of the American military scene. It was because of Baker's bravery and later his tenacity that future generations of African-Americans would be able to enjoy the benefits of the best the military life has to offer. As every person knows even the longest journey begins with a first step. Baker may not have been that first step, but he definitely was among the first few. His place in the journey of African-Americans in the military made it possible for others to follow, and eventually rise to the pinnacle of power that only the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff holds. If it was not for men like Captain Baker, then it is unlikely that a person like General Colin Powell could have gone as far as he did.
The men of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment had again proven themselves worthy of better treatment than American society was giving to men of color at the time. What they had achieved on the Island of Cuba was a permanent place of honor in the annals of Army history. With that the civilian world would slowly learn to accept its African-American citizenry in uniform
Frank Freidel, The Splendid Little War. (London: The Galley Press, 1958).
Jack D. Foner, Blacks and the Military in American History. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974).
Gary Donaldson, The history of African-Americans in the Military. (Malabar: Krieger Pub. Co.,1991).
Edward Wakin, Fighting Black Men in U.S. History,(New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1971).
Herschel B. Cashin, Under fire with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, (New York: Arno Press, 1969).
Frank N. Schubert, Black Valor, Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898, (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997).
Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, ed., The Abridgement. Message from the President of the United States to the two Houses of Congress at the beginning of the Third session, of the 55th Congress, with the Reports of the Heads of Departments and Selections from accompanying documents, Vol. III, (Washington: GPO, 1899).
Edward L.N., Glass, ed. History of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866 - 1921.,(Ft. Collins: The Old Army Press, 1972.)