The First Marine Battalion

Revisits the scene of the

Fight at Cuzco Well

Transcribed  by Robert Pendelton; Contributed by Patrick McSherry


Click here to read a history of the First Marine Battalion in the Spanish American War

General:

On June 19, the members of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) apparently made a second expedition to the Cuzco hills. Ostensibly the reason for the trip was to determine the effect of fire of the Navy's Lee rifle. Another primary reason would have been to determine if the Spanish showed any signs of returning to the site. The following is an account of the second expedition as recorded by a reporter from the New York Sun who went along with the expedition, believed to be Acton Davis.

The expedition, commanded by 1st Lt. Lewis Clarke Lucas of  Co. C , included 1st Lt. Clarence Luis Adrian Ingate, Co. B; 2nd Lt. Philip Michael Bannon, Co. C; Battalion Surgeon John Marion Edgar, USN; Surgeon Albert Montgomery Dupuy McCormack, USN of the USS MARBLEHEAD, temporarily detached to the battalion as the temporary replacement for deceased Dr. John Gibbs; Battalion apothecaries Samuel Rouse, USN, and William O. Stephenson, USN, a detail of fifty Marine volunteers from the battalion and thirty Cuban Mambises acting as scouts and guides. The expedition therefore consisted of eighty-seven military personel in addition to the correspondent that wrote the story.

Interestingly, the reporter was not particularly familiar with the battlefield and indicated that they could not find the path to the main scene of fighting. In fact, he was only a few hundred yards, at most from the site. It is probably that the reason no one was too keen on going closer may have been that the bodies of the Spanish dead had now been lying exposed in the hot Cuban sun for three days. The stench may have been quite horrible, and with no military need to visit these corpses - the effect of the Lee rifle at close range were not in question, and the bodies would already have been stripped of weapons and similar items - there was no desire to make the visit.

Additional clarifying notes have been added in brackets by historian Robert Pendleton.
 

The Account:

Guantanamo’s Hills
________

A Hot Day’s Trip Over a Part
of the Battlefield
________

TRAMP IN A CUBAN WILDERNESS
________

        Men From Camp McCalla Were Out Hunting For Dead Spaniards
 So That the Effect of Our Bullets Might Be Seen - Work of the
          Dolphin’s Shells. Skirmishings For Relics - Spaniard Officer’s
           Field Cot the Chief Find.

The New York Sun correspondent at Camp McCalla, Guantanamo Harbor, writing under the date of June 20, [1898] about an expedition to the field, says:

Over the valley of Cuzco, four miles back of the hilltop on which flies the American flag , hundreds of vultures are swarming and circling, scenting the Spanish dead which lie below amid the cacti and chaparral. American bullets stretched them there, and the panic among the Spaniards which the slaughter caused was so thorough that they have not even come back to the battlefield to bury their dead. For three days not a single Spaniard has been seen or heard from anywhere in the vicinity of the camp, save across the bay, where communication with Caimanera is easy and whence the march to the wooded hills and gorges back of the camp is long and difficult.

So thoroughly rested have the marines become since the Spaniards ceased to annoy them and so far has the work of fortifying the camp progressed that yesterday an expedition to the battlefield was undertaken. Surgeon John M. Edgar was mainly instrumental in planning the expedition, as he was particularly desirous of examining the wounds inflicted upon the dead and determining something of the character of wounds inflicted by our [Lee] navy rifle. Accordingly 50 volunteers were called for and speedily obtained and put in command of Lieutenant Lewis [Clarke] Lucas.

With 30 of Lieutenant Colonel Tomas’ Cubans to act as scouts and guides, the little party started out, accompanied by the correspondent. Every one was armed as though expecting to meet the enemy, even the newspaper man carrying an enormous revolver in his belt. While it was not deemed probable that the enemy would make trouble, there was no way to tell and every one felt better at the thought that there were 80 rifles, along with 80 belts, each holding 180 rounds of ammunition.

The road taken led down the rocky hillside and into the brush and out of sight of the men above. The soldiers moved single file, of necessity, the path being wide enough for no more. They moved in silence, too, for the walking was not conducive to conversation. The Cubans skirted ahead quite jauntily looking neat and clean in new white Jack Tar suits - presents from Commander McCalla of the Marblehead. Behind them moved the volunteer marines in their now warworn campaign suits of crash [a course, light, unevenly woven fabric of cotton or linen]. The red gravel of the trenches and the profuse perspiration of the men have worked sad havoc with the thin light stuff of which the suits are made. It was terribly hot in the gorge below the camp hill, for it was not yet 9 o’clock in the morning, and the breeze from the sea was still loafing off to the southward. Both sides of the path were closely lined with cactus and other tropical growths. Underneath the feet were rolling stones which made one’s footing insecure. The bushes caught at your eyes with every stumble and the utmost care was essential to prevent mishaps.

About 1,500 yards from the camp, the expedition came upon what is known as the wharf, overlooking what is called the salt pond. This is a long, wide stretch of sand on which the sea from the bay backs and, receding, leaves a thin veneer of salt. On this wharf and half blockhouse was found an outpost of marines guarding the approach to the camp by this path. The salt pond is perhaps 300 yards long. It was perfectly dry when the expedition reached it, the tide being out, and from it arose heat waves that made it fairly dance before the eyes. With the march across it began the emptying of the canteens, for as fast as the tepid water was taken in through the mouth it poured out through the pores. Already the clothing of the whole party was wringing wet.

Past the salt pond the path led through more brush, winding in and out along the path of least resistance, and then we came upon the hills. There were still the brush, the stones and the heat, with the added burden of precipitous incline, up which it was necessary to clamber. Over one and down it, across a gorge, up another hill and down it, and we were in the valley of Cuzco. Up rose the rocky brush covered hillsides all about us with the vultures circling and circling about and then settling out of sight. They told the story, and the scent that the varying winds blew down upon us from all sides only served to intensify the most disgusting of all of warfare’s many phases. This was worse than blood and death.

On the sea side of this little basin, up just a gentle slope commanding a good view of both the basin and the sea on the other side, were the ruins of the blockhouse which had been destroyed on the day of the fight. The soldiers swarmed around it, for it was cool here, the breeze now sweeping in from the sea. All about were pots and kettles of the Spanish soldiers lying just where they had left them when they fled. To one side was the head of a horse which in their hunger the Spaniards had killed and eaten. A little farther on toward the beach could be seen the windmill over the well whence the enemy had obtained their water supply. It was riddled with the shells of the DOLPHIN when Captain Lyons was helping Captain Elliott of the marines to run the Spaniards to cover. The well, which had been filled with stones, was still useless, no effort having been made by the Spaniards to dig it out.

It was between the blockhouse and the windmill that the first corpse was expected to be found, as a Spanish Lieutenant’s body had been seen there the day before by some Cuban scouts. The expedition was too late, however, as the body had been freshly buried. It was of course, not disturbed and the party moved carefully into a gorge that cut in two the eastern slope of the basin. Skirmishers ran ahead to guard against surprise and the grewsome [sic] work began. Not many steps were taken before the first body was found. It was far gone, the vultures having done their work well. The grinning skull was already bleaching so that the doctor’s work was easy. With a bayonet knife he quickly severed it, and pushing back the remaining shreds of scalp, showed just where the well aimed bullet of some marine had entered. There was no fight up this gorge, for the Spaniards were already on the run when they reached it, their first act and most desperate stand having been made on the other side. The wound in the skull showed that the ball had entered the back of the head and come out in front, causing a comminuted fracture at both the entrance and exit.

The hole of exit was larger than that of entrance. The range at which this man was killed, according to Captains Elliott and Spicer, who were in command of the marines on the day of the fight, must have been about 700 yards, and the Spaniards skull shows that up to that range the modern rifle bullet has an explosive effect. Twenty yards beyond another body was found shot through the skull in almost the same manner, the bullet having entered the back of the head as he was clambering up the gorge. The effect was identical. Only those whose bones were struck were of service in this examination, as there was little flesh left, but another corpse was found in which a ball had entered the man’s ribs and broken two of them, showing again the explosive effect.

It has been maintained by some authorities that the Lee rifle, which our navy uses, did not have this effect except at closest range, but Dr. Edgar’s examinations have at least convinced him that those who hold the contrary theory are right. He says, however, that at anything over 1,000 or 1,200 yards range the bullets, having lost some of their velocity, would not cause such brutal wounds.

While Dr. Edgar was picking over his corpses the rest of the expedition were skirmishing for relics. Every one wanted a machete or a Mauser, but the Cubans went carefully over the field on the day of the fight, so that the search for these was fruitless. However, there were plenty of Mauser cartridge clips and empty shells, straw hats and Spanish cockades.

One find was a Spanish officer’s field cot. It was much nicer than any in use in our army, having steel legs and steel head and foot boards. The marine who found it was the envy of all his comrades. They threw the yellow fever scare into him, but he wouldn’t drop it and sweated all the way back to camp with it. After the gorge had been thoroughly explored every one had enough. The field where most of the fighting had taken place had not been visited, but the Cuban guides declared they did not know the road to it. The vultures could be seen hovering over and plunging into it in great numbers but without locating the path. It is impossible to make one’s way through the cactus.

No one was particularly anxious to hunt for it, so the order was given to return to camp. If the way over had been long, the way back was longer. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon now, and the sun was doing its best. Canteens were empty, legs were heavy and feet were sore, but, like a horse making for home, no time was lost on the return. Camp was reached a little before 4 o’clock, and as the tired band crawled over the breast works the men who had not been in the fight realized for the first time what those men had to suffer that day when they had not only to march and climb, but fight as well.



Bibliography:

Idaho Daily Statesman, Boise, Idaho, Sunday, July 4, 1898.

Marines in the Spanish American War, 1895-1899. Anthology and Annotated Bibliography, History and Museum Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. 1998.

1st. Marine Battalion (Reinforced), Company D Muster Rolls, 1-30 June 1898, Unpublished manuscript, Robert M. Pendleton

Journal of [the] Marine Battalion at Guantanamo [Bay], Cuba, 1898 (Nara RG 127 Entry 153).

Medical Journal U.S.S. Solace, April 14, 1898 to January 14, 1899, RG52: Bureau of Medicine, entry 22, Medical Journals of ships, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
 


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