Report of

Maj. Charles Morton

Concerning the

Actions of the 3d U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the San Juan Heights

(courtesy of Scott Hamric, Director  Director, Third Cavalry Museum )


General:

The following is a report of the July 1 action at the San Juan Heights, written by Major Charles Morton, of the 4th U.S. Cavalry. It provides information on the actions taken by the 3d U.S. Cavalry.

The Account:

"New York City   Nov. 4, 1898.

Adjutant General U.S. Army
Washington, D.C.
            (Thro’ Genl. Shafter’s Headquarters)

Sir:

Having learned that no report has been received at the War Department of the operations of the 3rd Cavalry at the battle of San Juan, though I made one relating to the squadron I commanded, and knowing that the only one of which a copy was kept give few or no details, that the splendid work of the regiment that day achieved by the heroic conduct of officers and men, may not be lost to record, I have the honor to submit the following facts, accompanied by a rough topographical sketch taken in part from one by Capt. D. H. Boughton, 3rd Cavy. [The sketch referred to does not appear in the microfilm record from which this transcription was made.]

The first and second squadrons of the regiment were aroused from their bivouac on the height at El Pozo at dawn on the 1st of July, 1898, and before the men had their coffee it was required to move back to give place to Grime’s Battery. It was in columns of fours in rear of the battery, when the latter opened fire, and shrapnel from the enemy wounded one man of the band and three men of troop I. The regiment marched in rear of the cavalry division, and as the latter halted before the Second Squadron had cleared the battery, stampeding limbers from it ran through the ranks of the two near troops, B & I, deflecting them from the road.

When the regiment arrived at what is now called “Bloody Bend” there appeared to be no troops in front but the small advance guard under Lieutenant McNamee. Packs were taken off in the bed of the stream, and the regimental commander, Maj. H. W. Wessells, explained that the regiment was to go through the chaparral, pointing in a direction nearly north, and ordered the first squadron to move out as skirmishers, at one yard intervals, and the second to follow in line as support at two hundred yards. The lines were formed parallel to the stream but the front line was soon drawn back to give way to troops moving in front, so that it was against the Second and the latter on and in places under, the verge of the creek bank, the center at the point where Assistant Surgeon Newgarden established the dressing station.

With glasses the enemy could be plainly seen, through intervening tree-tops, in a trench, apparently watching our movements. Infantry, in columns of fours, crossed the stream at this point and marched in prolongation of the lines to the left. The enemy opened fire, at first rather high, probably directed at the [observation] balloon, enfilading the lines. Men of Troops F (1st line) and B (2d line) were required to give place to the dynamite gun, put in their midst. It fired one shot, got out of order and was withdrawn, but replaced by the Hotchkiss guns. The smoke from all these marked exactly our location for the enemy, and the fire became accurate and murderous.

There is no data at hand to furnish the number of casualties at this point. Captain Dodd received a scalp wound, and of the eleven in Troop E I believe ten occurred here. For about an hour and a half the regiment was held under this fire, not only inactive, but seeing carried by its own wounded and that of the whole Cavalry Division and some of the infantry. This was enough to shake the morale of old veterans; yet not three per cent had been under fire before, and not a single officer or man left his place except when wounded or aiding the wounded.

Watches differed, and my own was out of order, but Lieut. Conrad kept notes throughout the battle. By his time it was 12.15 P.M. when the advance was made. Lieutenants Howze, Harmon, Steele, and perhaps Andrews, all aides, were arguing in my hearing as to the exact orders for the advance, and one of them wanted Major Wessells to give orders to the brigade to move, as they could not find its commander in the dense brush. The Major declined to give the orders to the troops when he did not know the object in view, and was certain the commander was near. He was ordered to move the regiment to the attack, and, turning to me, directed that the Second Squadron, (Troops H, Capt. Morgan and Lieut. Sirmyer; K, Capt. Hunter and Lieut. Conrad: I, Lieuts. Dugan and Morrison; B, Capt. Boughton and Lieut. Pattison;) would be the attacking line, and the First (C, Capt. Johnson and Lieut. Chitty; E, Capt. Ripley and Lieut. Merillat: F, Capt. Dodd and Lieut. Raymond;) would be the support, and directed me to move forward at once, and pointed in the direction of the house on Kettle Hill. Unknown to me, the Sixth Cavalry was in front, and the skirmish line soon came upon it. The line was marched by the right flank some distance and then forward. There were still troops found in front, and the line was halted. Troops on the right had evidently mistaken, from occasional glimpses caught through the trees, fort San Juan for the house on Kettle Hill, and were moving across my front. The brush was so dense as to be almost impenetrable, and break up all formation. This was under a heavy fire, but our troops were screened somewhat by the foliage. Noise dwarfed all commands, but the Captains of the squadron used whistles and kept their men pretty well in hand. The San Juan was crossed at places so deep men had to be aided to avert drowning. Two hedges and a barbed wire fences were passed through and the rough slope ascended. Sergeant Andrews, carrying the regimental standard fell from a wound, but the line moved on, and the National Flag was planted on the hill near the large kettle, by which it is now designated. Sergeant-Major Thornton calling attention then and there that it was the first flag on the hill. The line was halted on the west crest, firing upon the enemy in a line of trenches across the valley. General Hawkins, commanding the right brigade of infantry, had requested Capt. Boughton, commanding the left troop of my squadron, to keep touch with the infantry. Complying with this request, and other troops conforming, made the movement practically a left wheel, and at the finish the line extended from the Santiago road north to the house on Kettle Hill. Personally I passed near the kettle. The hill was not only swept by the enemy’s front, but his rear line of trenches.

The troops had become commingled in the chaparral, and ascending the hill and men arriving without formation would halt on the eastern crest of the hill to fire at the enemy though my line was in front. While waiting orders for some specific movement against the enemy I busied myself ordering men forward who halted as stated. Casualties were numerous and the position was untenable. It was here Lieut. Meyer; Adjutant of the Second Squadron, fell wounded through the right groin.

Major Wessells, near the center of the line, led a storming party forward around the right of the pond. In the absence of any orders, but seeing the movement, I ordered an advance from the right. But the incessant firing drowned my commands. Moving in front with a shout I was followed by Lieut. Sirmyer, some fifteen men of troop H, and a few men of various commands, to assault the trench just north of the Santiago road; Major Wessells having headed towards the one at the house. Capt. Hunter and part of his troop, (K), reached the trench with me, the enemy having fled during the onset. Capt. Morgan and Lieut. Conrad were in the party with Major Wessells. Lieut. Thayer, Acting Regimental Adjutant, was wounded on the south slope of Kettle Hill, but accompanied Major Wessells until exhausted escending the slope to the trench. He rejoined three days later, and remained during the siege.

The pond deflected Troops I and B to the left, so that turning the south and troop I went up to the trench just south of the Santiago road, and troop B with the infantry to Fort San Juan. The fire was kept up by our own troops so long and heavily at the latter point, and the intervening trees so obstructed the view, I could not determine whether the enemy fled from the north trenches first or the fort. The Squadron was practically in tact, the troops in the same order they started in, and it was the first on four or five trenches of the enemy, and participated with the infantry in taking the fifth. No officers and but a few men were absent unless wounded.

The rear trenches of the enemy suspended fire during the retreat from the first, and Major Wessells summoned myself and party to join him hear the house. This was the first order I received after the one to advance from “Bloody Bend.” As all were about exhausted from the great effort and intense heat, the Major directed a rest to be taken. Besides the officers mentioned, Captain West, 6th Cavalry , and Lieuts. Howze and Steele, were at this point when joined.

The enemy soon opened a heavy fire, and Major Wessells and Capt. Hunter were wounded, the former in the back of the head, and latter in the right thigh. I at once moved the troops (H & K) forward to a position near the palm tree. While I believed the enemy was demoralized and a stronger force could have driven him into the city, my force was so weak that a repulse might forfeit the commanding position already gained. So I deemed it prudent to await the arrival of the support, and fell back to the crest. This was at 2.10 P.M.

Small parties joined the line on the right and left. Capt. Galbraith, 1st Cav., reported to me with his troop, and I ordered an advance, but the enemy opened on the position from many points, and I again abandoned the move. Lieut. McNamee, on the extreme right, called for re-enforcements, but, being able to see his front, and believing that his position was not critical and that my own was of more importance, and that both would soon be strengthened by the support, I felt compelled to send only my regrets, with promise of relief in case of attack. The enemy opened on us with shrapnel that enfiladed the line, and the squadron was then moved for shelter a few yards to the right, behind the point afterwards called the “Salient,” and between Galbraith and McNamee. Seeing some of the 1st Vol. Cav. ["Rough Riders"]On my left, I visited them and finding Lieut. Col. Roosevelt there, reported that I was the Senior officer at his right, and placed myself under his orders. He had nothing special to give, but asked that I allow Sergeant Hogan near him with some fifteen other men of troop E of the support to remain.

The enemy opened on the “Salient” with a battery, almost due west, making a cross-fire of artillery and an incessant rifle fire upon that point. Word came that the position was to be abandoned, and I went to Colonel Roosevelt and explained to him that it was a commanding one, could and should be held. A little later troops I and B joined from the left and rear. This was about three P. M. I then asked Capt. Boughton to accompany me to Colonel Roosevelt to get him to make representation that the position should not be abandoned and could be held. This the Captain did and expressed himself in the strongest terms.

The Gatling guns, under Lieut. Parker, came to the “Salient” and opened on the trenches. This would in a measure silence the enemy’s trenches for a time, but increase the shrapnel fire. These conditions obtained all the afternoon. Capt. McBlain and Lieut. Stevens, 8th Cavalry, applied for reenforcements for the right, but I had to decline to furnish them. Late in the afternoon a part of the 13th Infantry strengthened that position. I sent word two or three times for the support to come up, but it did not come. Lieut. Williams, 1st Cavalry, finally volunteered to carry the message. I sent it to General Sumner, but Lieut. Williams informed me afterward that he delivered it to General Wheeler. Major Wessells rejoined between sunset and dark, and I reverted to the command of my squadron only. He, however, sent for the support, and it joined about 9 P. M. Major Jackson informed me that it had been held on kettle Hill by order of General Sumner.

There was considerable suffering from want of water, and the men had received no coffee or warm food since noon of June 30th, but there was no complaints. Captain Boughton and Lieut. Morrison were sent to the packs to get as many haversacks as their men could bring, and by midnight all had something to eat. There was an attack, or general fusilade, from the enemy during the night, and a heavy fall or rain. Intrenching tools asked for in the evening came before morning and were kept busy till daylight digging trenches. Part of the command, however, did not get cover, and was exposed to the incessant fire all day, particularly troop I for three or four hours, suffering some losses. The regiment had no assistance from a surgeon or any member of the hospital corps after leaving the “Bloody Bend,” and the wounded were cared for by comrades. Between sunset and dark on the second the regiment was marched to the left and given the position that had been held by the 10th Cavalry, on the Santiago road. Soon after reaching this position two troops of my squadron were put in the trenches, presumably made by the 10th Cavalry. As they were not so advanced as the line on the right, Captain Boughton and I took a working party after dark and commenced a trench in prolongation of the one occupied by the 9th Cavalry, then on the immediate right, placing an outpost in front of the party. After work was fairly started, my presence being no longer necessary, I returned to the squadron, and somewhat jaded from loss of sleep and rest, quickly fell asleep, but was soon awakened by the attack. The working party being between the regiment and the enemy, fell back quickly, but the outpost fell back only to the newly made trench, one of whom, belonging to Troop E, was killed. This was practically the end of the Battle of San Juan. The regiment held this position til the close of the siege, participating in the bombardment of the 10th of July, firing upon the enemy’s trenches, and doing some volley firing at a gun off to the left of the enemy’s barracks, but sustaining no losses. I have inadvertently failed to mention that Major Wessells captured one prisoner at the trench; that Capt. West, of the 6th Cavalry, had three or four men with him on the front line, near my squadron, during the afternoon of July 1st, and Captain Lewellyn, of the 1st Vol. Cavy., with ten or twelve men, occupied a position on the line at the right, near the road; and there two or three officers with Capt. Galbraith whose names I cannot re-call.

The bravery, coolness and fire discipline of the men during the battle was simply superb.  The officers were not only cool and daring, but chaffed and fretted to do more. Their conduct was not only equal to every emergency, but all that could be desired, and I sincerely hope and trust their gallantry will receive substantial recognition.

      Very respectfully,
          (SGD.)  Chas. Morton
                     Major 4th Cavalry." 


Bibliography:

Sullivan, William P. - Copy of letter and data on John Bennett/Michael Harrington.

Maj. Charles Morton’s account of the battle of the San Juan Heights, appended to the front of National Archives Microcopy No. M774, Roll No. 27, Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments Received by the Adjutant General’s office; Regiment of Mounted Riflemen (3d Cavalry) Oct. 1846-Dec. 1850. It is copied verbatim, including errors.



 
 

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