The Men of the Ninth U.S. Infantry's Experience on Picket Duty

Contributed by Glenn Haselfeld
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General:

The Ninth U.S. Infantry served in Cuba during the Spanish American War. The event described below occurred in the days following the attack on San Juan Hill, and had the possibility of greatly changing world history.

The Account:

"Among the United States regulars whose terms of enlistment expired during the Santiago campaign, and who quit the service upon returning to this country, was a man of the Ninth Infantry, known to the members of the regiment as Johnson of Maryland.  He was a tall, lanky Southerner, and the pride of the Ninth, because of his marksmanship, which was so true that Johnson was head and shoulders over all the others in handling a Krag-Jorgensen.  He appeared to be the most contented man in Uncle Samís service, and often spoke of re-enlisting, until an event occurred just after the first dayís fighting at San Juan, which caused him to change his mind, and he vowed never to handle a gun again.  He would never speak of it to his comrades, but they all knew why he quit; and although they argued and tried to persuade him to remain, Johnson only shook his head and said, 'No, boys, I canít stay with you any longer.  Iíd like to, but donít ask me again.  I canít do it.  I must get out.'

One of the members of Johnsonís company tells the story of what caused the Ninth to lose its crack shot: 'We had been engaged in the hottest kind of work for some hours, and after taking the first line of Spanish trenches we were fixing them up for our own use.  The Spaniards had been driven back, but their sharpshooters were still at it, picking off our men here and there.  The Mauser bullets were whizzing around us pretty lively, and I noticed that Johnson was getting more and more impatient every minute, and acting as if he was just aching to get at those Spanish sharpshooters, and finally he turned to me, and in his drawling tone, said:  ĎSay, its tough we canít get a chance at them.í

He soon got his chance, however, for just as dusk began our captain ordered a dozen of us to advance a short distance ahead, and well beyond the trenches our forces had captured.  When we arrived on the spot we were halted on the edge of a dense wood.  Just ahead of us was an open space of clear ground, and on the other side of that a low, thick brush, which extended as far as I could see.

Just before night came on we received our final orders, which were to pay particular attention to the brush just ahead of us on the other side of the clearing, and to shoot at the first head we saw.  We had settled down to our tiresome occupation of watching and waiting, but always prepared for anything, and Johnson and I were talking in low tones of the dayís fighting we had just passed through, when we heard the sound of a dry twig breaking.  We were alert in an instant, and all the men in our line were looking straight ahead with pieces half raised, ready for use.  As I looked at Johnson I could see him smile, apparently with the hope of a chance to shoot.  The sound repeated itself, this time a little nearer, but still quite indistinct.  An instant later we again heard it, and it sounded directly ahead of Johnson and me, and was, beyond a doubt, a cautious tread, but too heavy for a man.  While we waited in almost breathless silence for something to happen we again heard the cautious tread, now quite plain.  It was the tread of a horse and was just ahead of us.  Suddenly, as the head became plainer, a dark object appeared just above the top of the brush.  Dozens of guns were raised, but Johnson whispered:

íIíve got him.í

He crawled a few paces forward and we saw him raise his gun, his fingers nervously working on the trigger.  At that instant the brush parted and a horse and rider stepped out.  We saw Johnson stretch out his piece and we expected to see a flash, but just then the rider turned in his saddle and by the dim light from the dull red glow that still tinged the sky we saw a pair of eye-glasses flash.  We all knew at once who it was, but not one of us spoke.  We were probably too horrified, and before I could say a word Johnson turned to me and with a look on his face I shall never forget exclaimed, in a hoarse voice:

íMy God, Ben, Roosevelt!  And I nearly plucked him.í

With this he threw his gun from him and just sat there and stared at the place in the brush where Colonel Roosevelt and his horse had entered.  The latter, when he heard the voices of our men, came straight up to us, and appeared surprised to find us so far beyond the trench.  When he heard of the orders about shooting at the first head we saw he smiled and said:

íThat is the first Iíve heard of the orders.  The were probably issued while I was away on a little reconnoitering on my own hook.í

He spoke cheeringly to the men about and passed on, little thinking how near he was to death a few minutes before.  The more we thought of it after he passed the more in the dumps we got, for every one of us loved the Colonel of the Rough Riders, particularly for his kindness to his men, and I tell you it was a gloomy crowd that sat there watching Johnson, who, with his head supported by his hand, was either praying or thinking hard.

ďWe were relieved shortly afterward, and as we marched back in silence Johnson walked with bowed head and none of us spoke to him, for we imagined that he felt as if he would like to be alone.  From that day Johnson showed a restlessness that was new to him, and I never saw him so happy as the day he stepped aboard the transport bound for home.

I donít know whether any word of the affair ever reached Colonel Rooseveltís ears, but it was a mighty narrow escape, and I tell you that I would rather have twenty-five Spaniards with a bead on me at 100 yards than for Johnson to pick me out for a target at 300 yards.  In the first case you would have a good chance of escaping injury, but with Johnson shooting it was a clear case of cashing in your chips.Ē



Bibliography:

The Story of Our Wonderful Victories - Told by Dewey, Schley, Wheeler and Others. (Philadelphia: American Book and Bible House, 1899). 215-217.


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