The American Army Moves on Puerto-Rico

Part 3

by Mark R. Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Archeologist, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office


 New Beachheads at Ponce and Arroyo and the Build Up of Forces

Once Guánica and the rail terminus of Yauco were secured, Miles determined that the city of Ponce was the next logical step towards an American victory in Puerto Rico.  Miles decided to send a contingent to attack Ponce by sea and another overland from Yauco traveling east to Ponce.  The 6th Illinois and 6th Massachusetts and six Regular Army artillery batteries had returned from Yauco to their camp in Guánica and rested from their long sea voyage.  On July 30th the Illinois and Massachusetts troops broke camp to spearhead General Garretson's move eastward to Ponce.  The 6th Massachusetts and 6th Illinois being unaccustomed to the tropical heat suffered greatly on the march.  Many of the men fell out of the march from sunstroke and many others abandoned ammunition, extra clothing, pup tents, and even bayonets.  The last of the volunteers struggled into Ponce on August 4th and less than half of these troops were fit for duty (Bunzey 1901:226-234; Rivero 1972:219-221).

On July 27th, the second group of the invasion force, Major General James H. Wilson's 1st Division of I Corps, containing about 4000 men consisting of the 16th Pennsylvania, 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin, and elements of the 1st Kentucky and the rest of the 6th Illinois arrived off Guánica by transport from Charleston, South Carolina.  The 1st Division of I Corps came in the transports OBDAM, LA GRAND DUCHESSE, #21, #30, and MOBILE.  In the field the 1st Division troops were commanded by Major General Oswald Herbert Ernst.  General Miles ordered them not to debark, but redirected them east by sea to Ponce.

On the afternoon of 27 July, the American vessels DIXIE, WASP, and ANNAPOLIS entered the harbor of Ponce.
 

They met no resistance, for the regular Spanish forces there, under Lt.-Col. Rafael Martinez Illecas, had been pulled out, leaving behind 300 volunteers to hold the town.  With the help of the British [Fernando Toro] and German consuls, the ship's skipper [Captain Charles H. Davis of the DIXIE] entered into prolonged negotiations with the commander . . . whose men were already drifting away (in fact the company stationed at the port of Ponce had flatly refused to take up arms).  Finally, at about 1730 hours [5:30 PM] on the 28th, an agreement was reached that brought honor all around, and a detachment of marines and sailors landed to take control of the port.  Brig. Gen. O. H. Ernst's brigade began landing at 0700 hours [7:00 AM] the next morning [July 29th], followed by Wilson and the staff of I Corps.  Shortly afterward Miles and Garretson marched into Ponce [Nofi 1996:240].
At 5:30 AM of 28th of July, Lt. Greenleaf A. Merriam (Maryland naval militia), Lt. Henry C. Haines USMC, and Naval Cadet George Cabot Lodge (son of US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and nephew of Captain Davis) debarked and took over the Spanish Custom House (Payne 1899:47-51).  The American flag was raised over the nearby "Capitania del Puerto" (Harbor Master's Building).  The Spanish Custom House, on the Beach of Ponce ("Playa de Ponce") became the American headquarters for the remainder of the conflict, and Miles' Headquarters.  Although Miles lodged in the evenings at the Hotel Frances, up the road from the beach in the town of Ponce (Rivero 1972:229).

The taking of Ponce was a critical turning point in the Puerto Rican campaign.  For the first time the Americans held a major port to funnel large numbers of men and quantities of war materiel into the island.  Ponce had the convenience of underwater telegraph cable connections with Jamaica and the West Indies -- putting General Miles and US forces on the island in direct communication with Washington for the first time since they left Cuba on July 21st.  Ponce was also a known center of anti-Spanish feeling which provided Miles with the opportunity to sway more Puerto Ricans to the American side (Nofi 1996:240).  Regimental histories indicate that as the American troops, such as Cavalry Troop A of New York, debarked from their long sea voyages they often spent their first night ashore resting themselves and their horses next to the Cathedral at Playa de Ponce, before moving on to camps around the city (Herbert 1939:120).

On July 31st, a third component of the invasion force, Brigadier General Theodore Schwan's 2,896 strong Independent Regular Brigade, consisting of the 11th and 19th Regular Infantry, Company A, 5th Regular Cavalry, and a Gatling and artillery company arrived from Tampa, Florida, and elements were landed at both Guánica, and Ponce.  The Regulars would remain in their camps until August 6th when General Miles, from his headquarters at the Port of Ponce Customs House (Casa del Rey), ordered Schwan to congregate his regular brigade at Yauco, in anticipation of a great westward swept through the island.

Willard McSherry, 4th Pennsylvania VolunteersMeanwhile, on the same day (July 31st) Major General John R. Brooke brought the four and last elements of I Corp to the Port of Ponce.  Under Brooke was Brigadier General Peter G. Hains' brigade, consisting of the 3rd Illinois, 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiments, H squadron of the 6th Regular Cavalry, Troops A and C New York Volunteer Cavalry, Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, and volunteer light artillery batteries from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.  Hains' Brigade remained two days on their transports before Miles ordered them to Arroyo, a small port 60 miles east of Ponce, to land between August 2nd and 5th.  Arroyo was a coastal town that served the larger, nearby inland town of Guayama.  On August 1st, the bloodless landing and capture of Arroyo, was led by marines and sailors from the GLOUCESTER (Nofi 1996:241).
 

A crowd had gathered on the beach in front of the [Arroyo] customhouse - the entire population apparently - watching the approach of the boat carrying a little white flag.  The alcalde and the village priest stood out in front of the crowd on the beach and bowed low to the Americanos.  Lieutenant Wood of the Gloucester informed them of the terms of surrender, and after a short parley went up to the customhouse and hoisted the American flag at 11:28.  The crowd flocked around the officers and cheered the flag, and seemed to be glad it had come [Brown 1967:413].
During the evening of August 1st, a Spanish guerrilla force under Captain Salvador Acha, reconnoitered the American positions in Arroyo.  After exchange a few shots with the  GLOUCESTER's landing party, the Spanish withdrew northwest to Guayama (Rivero 1972:269-270).

Transport SenecaThe next day (August 2nd) the ST. LOUIS arrived with General Brooke, his staff and the 3rd Illinois.  By the 3rd of August Brigadier General Peter C. Hains and the 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania had landed at Arroyo, followed on August 5th with the cavalry and artillery units (Trask 1981:358).  The sea off Arroyo was jammed with the transports ST. LOUIS, MASSACHUSETTS, SENECA, CITY OF WASHINGTON, ST. PAUL, and ROUMANIAN.  The harbor at Arroyo was so shallow and the charts so unreliable that there was constant danger of running aground on a shoal or reef (Brown 1967:413).  To facilitate troop landings the US Engineers sunk two wooden lighters end-to-end to create a temporary pier (Rivero 1972:271).  Battery A of St. Louis, who had endured such a terrible time on their transport ROUMANIAN finally debarked at Arroyo where they set up camp after a week of unloading supplies, and prepared for combat (Porter 1904:37).

With the exception of the aborted naval expedition at Fajardo, discussed above, August 1st to August 7th was generally a period of time consumed by the landing of troops and supplies, and establishing strong encampments around the three captured southern port cities.  The only other conflict occurred on August 5th when General Haines ordered the 4th Ohio to march out of Arroyo and capture Guayama, supported by the 3rd Illinois and a battery of Sims-Dudley guns, manned by Company G, of the 4th Ohio (Creager 1899:141-142).

On the morning of August 5th, Company A, 4th Ohio stepped off on the main road toward Guayama as the advance guard of the rest of the regiment, under the command of Colonel Alonzo B. Coit.  After an advance of about one mile, Company A encountered a French national who told them "The Spaniards would be found in trenches about two thousand yards further up the road" near some red flamboyant trees (Creager 1899:146).  The Spanish were entrenched on the crest of two small north-south running hills, between which the road from Arroyo to Guayama ran.  Company A spread out south of the road in a skirmish line, while Companies C, B, and I formed a skirmish line north of the road, and then moved west toward the enemy.

Spanish defenders of Guayama
The Spanish defenders of Guayama

At 10:00 AM, the Americans had just crossed a small stream, parallel to, and about 100 yards in front of the two hills, when the Spanish commenced firing on them with Mauser rifles.  Private John O. Cordner, of Company C, was wounded in the right knee, and Private Clarence W. Riffie, of Company A, suffered a Mauser "bullet passing through the fleshy part of both legs" (Creager 1899:151).  Over the next half hour, the American from their protected position in the river bed increased their firing on the Spanish as more American troops were committed to the fight (Creager 1899:152).

Commencing at 10:30 AM, the reinforced American troops pushed on to and over the crest of the two small hills dislodging the Spanish, who now fell back into the town of Guayama.  The four hour American advance was made difficult by "sharp cacti, thick underbrush, swamps, barbed wire fences and (Spanish) defenses" (Creager 1899:153).  Indeed, the American rarely caught sight of the opposing force in this action, and only suffered one additional wound, Private Stewart Mercer of E Company in this advance.  From their observation point on "top of the cathedral in Guayama, the Spaniards could see every movement made by the (4th Ohio) regiment" (Creager 1899:153), but the weight of American forces decided the contest.

The 4th Ohio hesitated as it approached the outskirts of Guayama, in order not to walk into a ambush, but it was soon discovered the enemy had fled north and abandoned the city.  The American flag was raised over the government building facing the plaza and the Puerto Ricans came out of their shuttered houses to welcome the Americans (Creager 1899:155-157).  Thus, ended the Battle of Guayama, which involved two American regiments (4th Ohio and 3rd Illinois - ca. 2400 men) and less than a thousand men on the Spanish side.

The next afternoon (August 6th), Colonel Coit ordered Companies A and C of the 4th Ohio to make a short reconnoitre beyond the cast iron bridge that crossed the Río Guanamí north of the town.  This road wound upward through the mountains toward the town of Cayey.  The Spanish were observed five or six miles up the road, entrenching themselves on the crest of the Guanamí Heights to receive an American attack.  It was felt they were too strongly entrenched to attempt an assault (Creager 1899:164-167).

General Miles' Campaign Strategy

By early August, General Miles' mostly volunteer troops amounted to 9,641 officers and men, in various infantry, artillery, cavalry and support units (Herrmann 1907:14).  As supplies and men flowed into the three ports already secured along the southern coast of Puerto Rico (Guánica, Ponce, and Arroyo) General Miles developed an elaborate 4-prong plan of envelopment of the island.

First, General Schwan's Regular Independent Brigade 1,447 strong would advance northwest from Yauco to the western coast, with the intention of capturing the coastal port city of Mayagüez.  From this point, their objective was to march northwest through the central mountain range occupying Las Marias and Lares, and meeting General Henry's forces at Arecibo on the northern coast of the island (Rivero 1972:296).

Second, General Guy Henry's Provisional Division, consisting of the 6th Illinois and 6th Massachusetts, under General Garretson's direction, would advance straight north from Ponce along a trail identified by Capt. Whitney across the central mountain range to Utuado and then link up with Schwan's Brigade in the north coastal town of Arecibo (Rivero 1972:349; Nofi 1996:334).  These combined groups would then move east along the coast to invest San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.

Third, General Wilson's 1st Brigade, with General Ernst commanding the 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin, 16th Pennsylvania, two Regular Artillery batteries, and Troop C (Brooklyn) New York Cavalry, would advance northwest from Ponce, over the Spanish-built paved military road.  They planned to advance up that road into the central mountain range taking the towns of Juana Diaz, Coamo, and Aibonito, finally linking up with Hain's Brigade at Cayey.

Lastly, General Brooke's 2nd Brigade, with General Hain commanding the 3rd Illinois, 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania, and four state militia light artillery batteries, would push out of Guayama northwest through the mountains to meet Ernst at Cayey.  From Cayey the two brigades would converge on San Juan, with the US Navy providing support from the sea in the investment of the capital.

The last major military campaign of the Spanish-American War was set to begin on August 7th.  On paper the plan had a certain elegance, as the columns swept the enemy toward San Juan.  But in practical terms it was somewhat risky.  General Miles was dividing his forces in the face of the enemy [Nofi 1996:243].

On August 6th, General Miles wrote the following orders to General Schwan in a letter of instruction.  This order illustrates his concern regarding keeping the possibility of American causalities to a minimum.
 

You will drive out or capture all Spanish troops in the western portion of Puerto Rico.  You will take all necessary precautions and exercise great care against being surprised or ambushed by the enemy, and will make the movement as rapidly as possible, at the same time exercising your best judgment in the care of your command, to accomplish the object of your expedition [Herrmann 1907:23].
In anticipation, of what would be the last big offensive of the Spanish-American War in the Caribbean, the American commanders began to pre-position their troops to the best strategic advantage.  General Brooke, as noted above, had earlier moved out of Arroyo and occupied Guayama on August 5th.  The Cautino Residence on the square in Guayama served as his military headquarters (Nofi 1996:243).

General Henry moved his force to Adjuntas, in preparation for an advance on Utuado over the trail found by Capt. Whitney.  This would be a slow movement as the general was also taking road building equipment to "turn the track into a practicable road" and sickness within the 6th Illinois and 6th Massachusetts had weakened those regiments (Nofi 1996:244).

General Wilson's Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Volunteers, with Troop C of Brooklyn, New York scouting ahead, moved up the Spanish military road from Ponce.  At Juana Díaz on August 7th, they meet the author Stephen Crane who had capture the town three days earlier (Nofi 1996:244).

General Wilson's Ponce to Aibonito Movement

On August 7th General Wilson, after relieving Stephen Crane of his "command," continued his march along the military road about seven miles beyond Juana Díaz to the Río Descalabrado, passing the sugar cane fields of southern Puerto Rico.  Intelligence provided by Brooklyn's Troop C, New York Cavalry, showed the Spanish had fortified the approach to Coamo with trenches and a blockhouse, and occupied the hot springs resort of Baño de Coamo, south of the town of Coamo (Fiala 1899:68).

Wilson spent August 8th probing the defenses of Coamo until he learned that there "was a rough but practicable trail which led to the rear of the town, running through the mountains to the west" (Nofi 1996:246).  On the evening of the 8th of August, two battalions of the 16th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent on an overnight march to take up a blocking position at the rear of Coamo, to entrap the Spanish.  While the Pennsylvania units flanked the Spanish positions, the 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin would make a frontal assault on the Spanish positions in front of Coamo at 0700 on August 9th (Immell 1900).  The 3rd and 4th Regular Artillery would provide artillery support for the frontal assault and Troop C would cover the right side against flanking attack from Spanish units believed to be holding Baño de Coamo.  Facing the Americans was Lt.-Col. Rafael Martinez-Illesas with 248 men, or two companies of the Cazadores Patria Battalion, including three rifle companies, some civil guards and a mounted guerrilla company of the 25th Rifles.  Since they had arrived in Coamo the Spanish had been digging entrenchments in front and inside the town (Nofi 1996:246-247).

3rd Wisconsin approaches Coamo

The 3rd Wisconsin awaits orders to charge the Spanish at Coamo

At 0600 hours, Captain Anderson's 3rd and Major Lancaster's 4th Artillery took up position in an open field south of the road leading to Coamo, and began sighting their guns on a blockhouse about 2000 yards to their front, where a spur of the Coamo road turned south to the Baño de Coamo.  They commenced firing at about 0700 hours, and the 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin Regiments, on the north and south sides of the Coamo road, respectively, moved out east toward the town, while Troop C galloped southeast to engage the Spanish at Baño de Coamo (Fiala 1899:70; Immell 1900).

Advised an American attack on Coamo was forthcoming, Lt. Col. Martínez had already ordered most of his troops and wagons eastward along the military road toward Aibonito in the central highlands, and positioned part of his infantry west of Coamo to delay the American advance.  The 16th Pennsylvania Volunteers which had marched all night through the hills north of Coamo to block the retreat of the Spanish east of Coamo was delayed by rough terrain and could not commence the attack on the Spanish rear guard on the military road on east side of Coamo until 0800, with the full strength of the two battalions not coming into the fight until around 0900 hours.  However, the 16th Pennsylvania flanking movement still surprised Colonel Martínez's rear guard.  Colonel Martínez and his second in command (Captain López) were both killed in this action and Spanish resistance ended, as Captain Hita ordered his men to surrender.  At the same time, the Spanish delaying action in front, or west, of Coamo had collapsed under the weight of American artillery and the Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments advance toward the city.  Troop C actually entered Coamo before the Wisconsin infantry, having galloped at top speed north from Baños de Coamo, after finding the resort abandoned by the Spanish (Fiala 1899:71). As the Americans entered the town, they were greeted by the William Harding Davis and a small group of reporters, unattached officers, etc. These men had entered the town, found it abandoned by the Spanish, and accepted the surrender of the townspeople. Davis had been the military governor for twenty minutes.  In the Battle of Coamo the Americans suffered 1 dead and 10 wounded, while the Spanish lost 6 dead, 35 wounded, and 5 officers and 162 men captured (Rivero 1972:243; Nofi 1996:249).

Troop C pursued the Spanish for 5 and a half miles along the military road, even over a single span masonry bridge 4 miles east of Coamo partially destroyed by the retreating Spanish.  There the cavalry were stopped by "Spanish artillery posted at Aibonito Pass, a deeply cut gorge between two steep hills (El Peñon and Asomante) about a mile below the town of Aibonito" (Nofi 1996:250).

On August 10th, men of Troop C and 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers traded fire with the Spanish most of the day (Fiala 1899:78-79).  Probing the Spanish lines continued all day on August 11th under orders of General Wilson who needed information to deal with the Spanish forces in front of Aibonito.  Some 1,280 Spanish troops, (four companies of Cazadores Patria Battalion; 70 mounted guerrilla from the 6th Provision Battalion, two Provisional companies formed from civil guards, police and the 9th Volunteers) and two eight centimeter Plasencia field artillery pieces faced the Americans.  Spanish troops were well entrenched in two positions at San Gervacio Hill and Colon Hill, both above the heights of Asomante (Rivero 1972:252-255).

After spending two days of reconnaissance of the Spanish lines Wilson again tried a flanking movement using, on August 12th, artillery covering fire to mask the movement of the 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin which occupied Barranquitas that night in the rear off the Spanish right for an attack on August 13th.  On the morning of August 12th Battery F of the 3rd Artillery (six 9 centimeter field pieces) under the command of Captain R.D. Potts moved up, escorted by elements of the 3rd Wisconsin.  They began firing at the Spanish field pieces to put them out of action, but the artillery and Mauser rifle fire forced the Americans to retreat.  Three members of the 3rd Wisconsin were killed and 4 wounded in this engagement (Rivero 1972:256-263).

Other action on August 12th, saw two detachments of Troop C work their way north and south of and behind the Spanish positions, returning on August 13th (Fiala 1899:82-85).  The attack proposed for the morning on the Spanish positions for the morning of August 13th was called off when Wilson received word that the Protocol had been signed the day before (Nofi 1996:251).

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