The Signaling at Cuzco Well

Pvt. John Fitzgerald and Sgt. John Quick perform Actions that

Earn them the Congressional Medal of Honor

Contributed by Robert Pendleton
General:

At the battle of Cuzco Well, elements of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) were hotly engaged against Spanish infantry and Cuban loyalist guerilla forces. During the action, the need arose several times to communicate with the U.S. Gunboat DOLPHIN which was to provide support fire. The communication between the Marines and the naval vessel had to be carried out using the Myer signalling system in which a single flag was held and dipped alternately to the left or right (designating a "1" or "2") to spell out words using the Myer Code. The Myer Code assigned numerical designations that were a combination of 1's and 2's for each letter of the alphabet. For instance, the letter "P" was "1-2-1-2." Needless to say, communicating with this system took time, and the signalman had to stay motionless save for the motions of the flag, so that the signal could be read.

With that in mind, when the need to send a signal using the system to the DOLPHIN arose during the battle, and knowing that the signalman had to be standing and in clear view, the actions of these signalmen - Pvt. John Fitzgerald  and Sgt. John Quick  - are all that much more amazing. Both would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Stephen Crane accompanied the Marines and Cuban Mambis on their expedition against the enemy at Cuzco Well and saw the actions of Fitzgerald and Quick. The following is his account of the actions of the two men.

Sergeant John Henry Quick (June 20, 1870 - September 9, 1922), of Charlestown, West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Congressional Medal of Honor as well as the Navy Cross on the 13th of December 1898.

Private James Fitzgerald (March 17, 1873 - April 19, 1948), of Limerick, Ireland, was awarded the Navy Congressional Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor was presented to him by his company commander, Major General Commandant George Frank Elliott on December 8, 1910 approximately one month after Commandant Elliott had retired from active duty.

Also, it should be noted that the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) had six signalmen. They were:

Costello, Michael, Private, Company B
Ellis, Harry, Private, Company B
Fitzgerald, John, Private, Company C
Kelly, James, Private, Company B
McMahon, Joseph F., Private, Company C
Quick, John Henry, Sergeant, Company C


The Account:

“At the wild little fight at Cusco [sic] there were some splendid exhibitions of wig-wagging under fire. Action began when an advanced detachment of marines under Lieutenant [Lewis Clarke] Lucas [of Company C, First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) ] with the Cuban guides had reached the summit of a ridge overlooking a small valley where there was a house, a well, and a thicket of some kind of shrub with great broad, oily leaves. This thicket, which was perhaps an acre in extent, contained the [Spanish infantry and Cuban loyalist] guerillas. The valley was open to the sea. The distance from the top of the ridge to the thicket was barely two hundred yards.

The DOLPHIN had sailed up the coast in line with the marine advance, ready with her guns to assist in any action. Captain [George Frank] Elliott, who commanded the two hundred marines in this fight, suddenly called out for a signalman. He wanted a man to tell the DOLPHIN to open fire on the house and the thicket. It was a blazing, bitter hot day on top of the ridge with its shrivelled chaparral and its straight, tall cactus plants. The sky was bare and blue, and hurt like brass. In two minutes the prostrate marines were red and sweating like so many hull-buried stokers in the tropics.

Captain Elliott called out:

“Where’s a signalman? Who’s a signalman here?”

A red-headed “mick” - I think his name was Clancy [he was actually Private John Fitzgerald of Company C] - at any rate, it will do to call him Clancy - twisted his head from where he lay on his stomach pumping his Lee, and, saluting, said that he was a signalman.

There was no regulation flag with the expedition, so Clancy was obliged to tie his blue polka-dot neckerchief on the end of his rifle. It did not make a very good flag. At first Clancy moved a ways down the safe side of the ridge and wigged-wagged there very busily. But what with the flag being so poor for the purpose, and the background of ridge being so dark, those on the DOLPHIN did not see it. So Clancy had to return to the top of the ridge and outline himself and his flag against the sky.

The usual thing happened. As soon as the Spaniards caught sight of this silhouette, they let go like mad at it. To make things more comfortable for Clancy, the situation demanded that he face the sea and turn his back to the Spanish bullets. This was a hard game, mark you - to stand with the small of your back to volley firing. Clancy thought so. Everybody thought so. We all cleared out of his neighbourhood. If he wanted sole possession of any particular spot on that hill, he could have it for all we would interfere with him.

It cannot not be denied that Clancy was in a hurry. I watched him. He was so occupied with the bullets that snarled close to his ears that he was obliged to repeat the letters of his message softly to himself. It seemed an intolerable time before the DOLPHIN answered the little signal. Meanwhile, we gazed at him, marveling every second that he had not yet pitched headlong. He swore at times.

Finally the DOLPHIN replied to his frantic gesticulation, and he delivered his message. As his part of the transaction was quite finished - whoop! - he dropped like a brick into the firing line and began to shoot; began to get “hunky” with all those people who had been plugging at him. The blue polka-dot neckerchief still fluttered from the barrel of his rifle. I am quite certain that he let it remain there until the end of the fight.

The shells of the DOLPHIN began to plough up the thicket, kicking the bushes, stones, and soil into the air as if somebody was blasting there.

Meanwhile, this force of two hundred marines and fifty Cubans and the force of - probably - six companies of Spanish [infantry and loyalist] guerillas were making such an awful din that the distant Camp McCalla was all alive with excitement. Colonel Huntington sent out strong parties to critical points on the road to facilitate, if necessary, a safe retreat, and also sent forty men under Lieutenant [Louis J.] Magill [of Company A] to come up on the left flank of the two companies [C and D] in action under Captain Elliott. Lieutenant Magill and his men had crowned a hill which covered entirely the flank of the fighting companies, but when the DOLPHIN opened fire, it happened that Magill was in the line of the shots. It became necessary to stop the DOLPHIN at once. Captain Elliott was not near Clancy at this time, and he called hurriedly for another signalman.

Sergeant Quick arose, and announced that he was a signalman. He produced from somewhere a blue polka-dot neckerchief as large as a quilt. He tied it on a long, crooked stick. Then he went to the top of the ridge, and turning his back to the Spanish fire, began to signal to the DOLPHIN. Again we gave a man sole possession of a particular part of the ridge. We didn’t want it. He could have it and welcome. If the young sergeant had had the smallpox, the cholera, and the yellow fever, we could not have slid out with more celerity.

As men have said often, it seemed as if there was in this war a God of Battles who held His mighty hand before the Americans. As I looked at Sergeant Quick wig-wagging there against the sky, I would not have given a tin tobacco-tag for his life.

Escape for him seemed impossible. It seemed absurd to hope that he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a little, little in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.

I watched his face and it was as grave and serene as that of a man writing in his own library. He was the embodiment of tranquility in occupation. He stood there amid the animal-like babble of the Cubans, the crack of rifles, and the whistling snarl of the bullets, and wig-wagged whatever he had to wig-wag without heeding anything but his business. There was not a single trace of nervousness or haste.

To say the least, a fight at close range is absorbing as a spectacle. No man wants to take his eyes from it until that time comes when he makes up his mind to run away. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle and hear immediate evidences of the boundless enthusiasm with which a large company of the enemy shoot at you from an adjacent thicket is, to my mind at least, a very great feat. One need not dwell upon the detail of keeping the mind carefully upon a slow spelling of an important code message.

I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung his clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it once caught on a cactus pillar, and he looked sharply over his shoulder to see what had it. He gave the flag an impatient jerk. He looked annoyed.”



Bibliography:

Crane, Stephen, Wounds in the Rain; War Stories. (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1900. Second Edition).

Pendleton, Robert M., The 1st Marine Battalion (Reinforced) Roster. Unpublished manuscript, 2006.


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