The Passing of San Juan Hill

(A visit to the battlefield after twelve years)

By Richard Harding Davis, War Corresondent


General:

This account of the grounds on which the battle of San Juan Hill was fought was written by Richard Harding Davis. Davis was present and took part in the battle. He was the era's most famous war correspondent.
 
 

Richard Harding Davis relaxing in ManchuriaWhen  I was a boy I thought battles were fought in waste places selected for the purpose.  I argued from the fact that when our school nine wished to play ball it was forced into the suburbs to search for a vacant lot.  I thought opposing armies also marched out of town until they reached some desolate spot where there were no window panes, and where their cannon-balls would hurt no one but themselves.  Even later, when I saw battles fought among villages, artillery galloping through a cornfield, garden walls breached for rifle fire, and farm-houses in flames, it always seemed as though the generals had elected to fight in such surroundings through an inexcusable striving after theatrical effect-as though they wished to furnish the war correspondents with a chance for descriptive writing.  With the horrors of war as horrible as they are without any aid from these contrasts, their presence always seemed not only sinful but bad art; as unnecessary as turning a red light on the dying gladiator.

There are so many places which are scenes set apart for battles - places that look as though Nature had condemned them for just such sacrifices.  Colenso, with its bare kopjes and great stretch of veldt, is one of these, and so, also, is Spion Kop, and, in Manchuria, Nan Shan Hill.  The photographs have made all of us familiar with the vast, desolate approaches to Port Arthur.  These are among the waste places of the earth-barren, deserted, fit meeting grounds only for men whose object in life for the moment is to kill men.  'Were, you shown over one of these places, and told, "A battle was fought here," you would answer, "Why, of course!"

But down in Cuba, outside of Santiago, where the United States army fought its solitary and modest battle with Spain, you might many times pass by San Juan Hill and think of it, if you thought of it at all, as only a pretty site for a bungalow, as a place obviously intended for orchards and gardens.

On July 1st, twelve years ago, when the American army came upon it out of the jungle the place wore a partial disguise.  It still was an irregular ridge of smiling, sunny hills with fat, comfortable curves, and in some places a steep, straight front.  But above the steepest, highest front frowned an aggressive block-house and on all the slopes and along the sky-line were rows of yellow trenches, and at the base a cruel cat's cradle of barbed wire. It was like the face of a pretty woman behind the bars of a visor.  I find that on the day of the fight twelve years ago I cabled my paper that San Juan Hill reminded the Americans of "a sunny orchard in New England." That was how it may have looked when the regulars were climbing up the steep front to capture the block-house, and when the cavalry and Rough Riders, having taken Kettle Hill, were running down its opposite slope, past the lake, to take that crest of San Juan Hill which lies to the right of the block-house.  It may then have looked like a sunny New England orchard, but before night fell the entrenching tools had lent those sunny slopes "a fierce and terrible aspect." And after that, hour after hour, and day after day, we saw the hill eaten up by our trenches, hidden by a vast laundry of shelter tents, and torn apart by bomb-proofs, their jutting roofs of logs and broken branches weighed down by earth and stones and looking like the pit mouths to many mines.  That probably is how most of the American army last saw San Juan Hill, and that probably is how it best remembers it-as a fortified camp.  That was twelve years ago.  Men I revisited it, San Juan Hill was again a sunny, smiling farm land, the trenches planted with vegetables, the roofs of the bomb-proofs fallen in and buried beneath creeping vines, and the barbed-wire entanglements holding in check only the browsing cattle.

San Juan Hill is not a solitary hill, but the most prominent of a ridge of hills, with Kettle Hill a quarter of a mile away on the edge of the jungle and separated from the ridge by a tiny lake. In the local nomenclature Kettle Hill, which is the name given to it by the Rough Riders, has always been known as San Juan Hill, with an added name to distinguish it from the other San Juan Hill of greater renown.

The days we spent on those hills were so rich in incident and interest and were filled with moments of such excitement, of such pride in one's fellow-countrymen, of pity for the hurt and dying, of laughter and good-fellowship, that one supposed he might return after even twenty years and recognize every detail of the ground.  But a shorter time has made startling and confusing changes.  Now a visitor will find that not until after several different visits, and by walking and riding foot by foot over the hills, can he make them fall into line as he thinks he once knew them.  Immediately around San Juan Hill itself there has been some attempt made to preserve the ground as a public park.  A barbed-wire fence, with a gate, encircles the block-house, which has been converted into a home for the caretaker of the park, and then, skirting the road to Santiago to include the tree under which the surrender was arranged, stretches to the left of the blockhouse to protect a monument.  This monument was erected by Americans to commemorate the battle.  It is now rapidly falling to pieces, but there still is enough of it intact to show the .pencilled scribblings and autographs of tourists who did not take part in the battle,, but who in this public manner show that they approve of its results.  The public park is less than a quarter of a mile square.  Except for it no other effort has been made either by Cubans or Americans to designate the lines that once encircled and menaced Santiago, and Nature, always at her best under a tropical sun, has done all in her power to disguise and forever obliterate the scene of the army's one battle.  Those features which still remain unchanged are very few., The Treaty Tree, now surrounded by a tall fence, is one, the block-house is another.  The little lake in which, even when the bullets were dropping, the men used to bathe and wash their clothes, the big Iron sugar kettle that gave a new name to Kettle Hi11, and here and there a trench hardly deeper an a ploughed furrow, and nearly hidden by growing plants, are the few landmarks that remain.

Bloody Bend
Bloody Bend

Of the camps of Generals Chaffee, Lawton, Bates, Sumner, and Wheeler, of Colonels Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt, there are but the slightest traces.  The Bloody Bend, as some call it, in the San Juan River, as some call that stream, seems to have entirely disappeared.  At least, it certainly was not where it should have been, and the place the hotel guides point out to unsuspecting tourists bears not the slightest physical resemblance to that ford.  In twelve years, during one of which there has been in Santiago the most severe rainfall in sixty years, the San Juan stream has carried away its banks and the trees that lined them, and the trails that should mark where the ford once crossed have so altered and so many new ones have been added, that the exact location of the once famous dressing station is now most difficult, if not impossible, to determine.  To establish the sites of the old camping grounds is but little less difficult.  'The head-quarters of General Wheeler are easy to recognize, for the reason that the place selected was in a hollow, and the most unhealthy spot along the five miles of intrenchments.  It is about thirty yards from where the road turns to rise over the ridge to Santiago and all the water from the hill pours into it as into a rain barrel.  It was here that Troop G, Third Cavalry, under Major Hardee, as it was Wheeler's escort, was forced to bivouac, and where one-third of its number came down with fever.  The camp of General Sam Sumner was some sixty yards to the right of the head-quarters of General Wheeler, on the high shoulder of the hill just above the camp of the engineers, who were on the side of the road opposite.  The camps of Generals Chaffee, Lawton, Hawkins, Ludlow, and the positions and trenches taken and held by the different regiments under them one can place only relatively.  One reason for this is that before our army attacked the hills all the underbrush and small trees that might conceal the advance of our men had been cleared away by the Spaniards, leaving the hill, except for the high crest, comparatively bare.  To-day the hills are thick with young trees and enormous bushes.  The alteration in the landscape is as marked as is the difference between ground cleared for golf and the same spot planted with corn and fruit-trees.

Of all the camps, the one that to-day bears the strongest evidences of its occupation is that of the Rough Riders.  A part of the camp of that regiment, which was situated on the ridge some hundred feet from the Santiago road, was pitched under a clump of shade trees, and to-day, even after seven years, the trunks of these trees bear the names and initials of the men who camped beneath them. These men will remember that when they took this hill they found that the fortifications beneath the trees were partly made from the foundations of an adobe house.  The red tiles from its roof still litter the ground.  These tiles and the names cut in the bark of the trees determine absolutely the site of one-half of the camp, but the other half, where stood Tiffany's quick-firing gun and Parker's Gatling, has been almost obliterated.  The tree under which Colonel Roosevelt pitched his tent I could not discover, and the trenches in which he used to sit with his officers and with the officers from the regiments of the regular army are now levelled to make a kitchen-garden.  Sometimes the ex-President is said to have too generously given office and promotion to the friends he made in Cuba.  These men he met in the trenches were then not necessarily his friends.  To-day they are not necessarily his friends.  They are the men the free life of the rifle-pits enabled him to know and to understand as the settled relations of home life and peace would never have permitted.  At that time none of them guessed that the "amateur colonel," to whom they talked freely as to a comrade, would be their Commander-in-Chief.  They did not suspect that he would become even the next Governor of New York, certainly not that in a few years he would be the President of the United States.  So they showed themselves to him frankly, unconsciously.  They criticised, argued, disagreed, and he became familiar with the views, character, and worth of each, and remembered.  The - seeds planted in those half-obliterated trenches have borne greater results than ever will the kitchen-garden.

Rough Riders' Camp
The Rough Riders' Camp

The kitchen-garden is immediately on the crest of the hill, and near it a Cuban farmer has built a shack of mud and twigs and cultivated several acres of land.  On Kettle Hill there are three more such shacks, and over all the hills the new tenants have strung stout barbed-wire fences and made new trails and reared wooden gateways.  It was curious to find how greatly these modern improvements confused one's recollection of the landscape, and it was interesting, also, to find how the presence on the hills of 12,000 men an the excitement of the time magnified distances an disarranged the landscape.

During the fight I walked along a portion of the Santiago road, and for many years I always have thought of that walk as extending over immense distances.  It started from the top of San Juan Hill beside the block-house, where I had climbed to watch our artillery in action.  By a mistake, the artillery had been sent there, and it remained exposed on the crest only about three minutes.  During that brief moment the black powder it burned drew upon it the fire of every rifle in the Spanish line.  To load his piece, each of our men was forced to crawl to it on his stomach, rise on one elbow in order to shove in the shell and lock the breech, and then, still flat on the ground, wriggle below the crest.  In the three minutes three men were wounded and two killed; and the guns were withdrawn.  I also withdrew.  I withdrew first.  Indeed, all that happened after the first three seconds of those three minutes is hearsay, for I was in the Santiago road at the foot of the hill and retreating briskly.  This road also was under a cross-fire, which made it stretch in either direction to an interminable distance.  I remember a government teamster, driving a Studebaker wagon filled with ammunition coming up at a gallop out of this interminable distance and seeking shelter against the base the hill.  Seated beside him was a small boy, freckled and sunburned, a stowaway from one of the transports.  He was grandly happy and excited, and his only fear was that he was not "under fire." From our coign of safety, with our backs to the hill, the teamster and I assured him that, on that point, he need feel no morbid doubt.  But until a bullet embedded itself in the blue board of the wagon he was not convinced.  Then with his jack-knife he dug it out and shouted with pleasure.  "I guess the folks will have to believe I was in a battle now," he said.  That coign of safety ceasing to be a coign of safety caused us to move on in search of  another, and 1 came upon Sergeant Borrowe blocking the road with his dynamite gun.  He and his brother and three regulars were busily correcting a hitch in its mechanism.  An officer carrying an order along the line halted his sweating horse and gazed at the strange gun with professional knowledge.

"That must be the dynamite gun I have heard so much about," he shouted.  Borrowe saluted and shouted assent.  The officer, greatly interested, forgot his errand.

"I'd like to see you fire it once," he said eagerly. Borrowe, delighted at the chance to exhibit his toy to a professional soldier, beamed with equal eagerness.

"In just a moment, sir," he said; "this shell seems to have jammed a bit." The officer, for the first time seeing the shell stuck in the breech, hurriedly gathered up his reins.  He seemed to be losing interest.  With elaborate carelessness I began to edge off down the road.

"Wait," Borrowe begged; "we'll have it out in a minute."

Suddenly I heard the officer's voice raised wildly. "What-what," he gasped, "is that man doing with that axe ?"

"He's helping me to get out this shell," said Borrowe.

"Good God!" said the officer.  Then he remembered his errand.

Until last year, when I again met young Borrowe gayly disporting himself at a lawn-tennis tournament at Mattapoisett, I did not know whether his brother's method of removing dynamite with an axe had been entirely successful. He said it worked all right.

At the turn of the road I found Colonel Leonard Wood and a group of Rough Riders, who were busily entrenching.  At the same rnoment Stephen Crane came up with "Jimmy" Hare, the man who has made the Russian-Japanese War famous. Crane walked to the crest and stood there as sharply outlined as a semaphore, observing the enemy's lines, and instantly bringing upon himself and us the fire of many Mausers.  With every one else, Wood was crouched below the crest and shouted to Crane to lie down. Crane, still standing, as though to get out of ear-shot, moved away, and Wood again ordered him to lie down.  "You're drawing the fire on these men," Wood commanded.  Although the heat - it was the 1st of July in the tropics - was terrific, Crane wore a long India rubber rain-coat and was smoking a pipe.  He appeared as cool as though he were looking down from a box at a theatre.  I knew that to Crane, anything that savored of a pose was hateful, so, as I did not want to see him killed, I called, "You're not impressing any one by doing that, Crane." As I hoped he would, he instantly. dropped to his knees.  When he crawled over to where we lay, I explained, "I knew that would fetch you," and he grinned, and said, "Oh, was that it?"

A captain of the cavalry came up to Wood and asked permission to withdraw his troop from the top of the hill to a trench forty feet below the one they were in.  "They can't possibly live where they are now," he explained, "and they're doing no good there, for they can't raise their heads to fire.  In that lower trench they would be out of range themselves and would be able to fire back."

"Yes," said Wood, "but all the other men in the first trench would see them withdraw' and the moral effect would be bad.  They needn't attempt to return the enemy's fire, but they must not retreat."

The officer looked as though he would like to argue.  He was a West Point graduate and a full-fledged captain in the regular army.  To him, Wood, in spite of his volunteer rank of colonel, which that day, owing to the illness of General Young, had placed him in command of a brigade, was still a doctor.  But discipline was strong him, and though he looked many things, he rose from his knees and grimly saluted.  But at that moment, without waiting for the permission of any one, the men leaped out of the trench and ran. It looked as though they were going to run all the way to the sea, and the sight was sickening.  But they had no intention of running to the sea.  They ran only to the trench forty feet farther down and jumped into it, and instantly turning, began pumping, lead at the enemy.  Since five that morning Wood had been running about on his feet, his clothes stuck to him with sweat and the mud and water of forded streams, and as he rose he limped slightly.  "My, but I'm tired!" he said, in a tone of the most acute surprise, and as though that fact was the only one that was weighing on his mind.  He limped over to the trench in which the men were now busily firing off their rifles and waved a riding-crop he carried at the trench they bad abandoned.  He was standing as Crane had been standing, in silhouette against the sky-line.  "Come back, boys," we heard him shouting.  "The other men can't withdraw, and so you mustn't.  It looks bad.  Come on, get out of that!" What made it more amusing was that, although Wood had, like every one else, discarded his coat and wore a strange uniform of gray shirt, white riding-breeches, and a cowboy Stetson, with no insignia of rank, not even straps pinned to his shirt, still the men instantly accepted his authority.  They looked at him on the crest of the hill, waving his stick persuasively at the grave-like trench at his feet, and then with a shout scampered back to it.

After that, as I had a bad attack of sciatica and no place to sleep and nothing to eat, I accept Crane's offer of a blanket and coffee at his bivouac near El Poso.  On account of the sciatica I was not able to walk fast, and, although for over a mile of the way the trail was under fire, Crane and Hare each insisted on giving me an arm, and kept step with my stumblings.  Whenever I protested and refused their sacrifice and pointed out the risk they were taking they smiled as at the ravings of a naughty child, and when I lay down in the road and refused to budge unless they left me, Crane called the attention of Hare to the effect of the setting sun behind the palm-trees.  To the reader all these little things that one remembers seem very little indeed, but they were vivid at the moment, and I have always thought of them as stretching over a long extent of time and territory. Before I revisited San Juan I would have said that the distance along the road from the point where I left the artillery to where I Joined Wood was three-quarters of a mile.  When I paced it later I found the distance was about seventy-five yards.  I do not urge my stupidity or my extreme terror as a proof that others would be as greatly confused, but, if only for the sake of the stupid ones, it seems a pity that the landmarks of San Juan should not be rescued from the jungle, and a few sign-posts placed upon the hills.  It is true that the great battles of the Civil War and those of the one in Manchuria, where the men killed and wounded in a day outnumber all those who fought on both sides at San Juan, make that battle read like a skirmish.  But the Spanish War had its results.  At least it made Cuba into a republic, and so enriched or burdened us with colonies that our republic changed into something like an empire.  But I do not urge that.  It will never be because San Juan changed our foreign policy that people will visit the spot, and will send from it picture postal cards.  The human interest alone will keep San Juan alive.  The men who fought there came from every State in our country and from every class of our social life.  We sent there the best of our regular army, and with them, cowboys, clerks, bricklayers, foot-ball players, three future commanders of the greater army that followed that war, the future Governor of Cuba, future commanders of the Philippines, the commander of our forces in China, a future President of the United States. And, whether these men, when they returned to their homes again, became clerks and millionaires and dentists, or rose to be presidents and mounted policemen, they all remember very kindly the days they lay huddled together in the trenches on that hot and glaring sky-line.  And there must be many more besides who hold the place in memory.  There are few in the United States so poor in relatives and friends who did not in his or her heart send a substitute to Cuba.  For these it seems as though San Juan might be better preserved, not as it is, for already its aspect is too far changed to wish for that, but as it was.  The efforts already made to keep the place in memory and to honor the Americans who died there are the public park which I have mentioned, the monument on San Juan, and one other monument at Guasimas to the regulars and Rough Riders who were killed there.  To these monuments the Society of Santiago will add four more, which will mark the landing place of the army at Daiquairi and the fights at Guasimas, El Caney, and San Juan Hill.

San Juan Hill Blockhouse
The Blockhouse on San Juan Hill

But I believe even more than this might be done to preserve to the place its proper values.  These values are sentimental, historical, and possibly to the military student, educational.  If to-day there were erected at Daiquairi, Siboney, Guasimas, El Poso, El Caney, and on and about San Juan a dozen iron or bronze tablets that would tell from where certain regiments advanced, what posts the held, how many or how few were the men who held those positions, how near they were to the trenches of the enemy, and by whom these men were commanded, I am sure the place would reconstruct itself and would breathe with interest, not only for the returning volunteer, but for any casual tourist.  As it is, the history of the fight and the reputation of the men who fought is now at the mercy of the caretaker of the park and the Cuban "guides" from the hotel.  The caretaker speaks only Spanish, and, considering the amount of misinformation the guides disseminate, it is a pity when they are talking to Americans, they are not forced to use the same language.  When last I visited it, Carlos Portuondo was the official guardian of San Juan Hill.  He is an aged Cuban, and he fought through the Ten Years' War, but during the last insurrection and the Spanish-American War he not only was not near San Juan, but was not even on the Island of Cuba.  He is a charming old person, and so is his aged wife.  Their chief concern in life, when I saw them, was to sell me a pair of breeches made of palm-fibre which Carlos had worn throughout the entire ten years of battle.  The vicissitudes of those trousers he recited to me in great detail, and he very properly regarded them as of historic value.  But of what happened at San Juan he knew nothing, and when I asked him why he held his present post and occupied the Block-House, he said, "To keep the cows out of the park." When I asked him where the Americans had campcd, he pointed carefully from the back door of the Block-House to the foot of his kitchen-garden.  I assured him that under no stress of terror could the entire American army have been driven into his back yard, and pointed out where it had stretched along the ridge of bills for five miles.  He politely but unmistakably showed that he thought I was a liar.  From the Venus Hotel there were two guides, old Casanova and Jean Casanova, his languid and good-natured son, a youth of sixteen years.  Old Casanova, like most Cubans, is not inclined to give much credit for what they did in Cuba to the Americans.  After all, he says, they came only just as the Cubans themselves were about to conquer the Spaniards, and by a lucky chance received the surrender and then claimed all the credit.  As other Cubans told me, "Had the Americans left us alone a few weeks longer, we would have ended the war." How they were to have taken Havana, and sunk Cervera's fleet, and why they were not among those present when  our men charged San Juan, I did not inquire. Old Casanova, again like other Cubans, ranks the fighting qualities of the Spaniard much higher than those of the American.  This is only human.  It must be annoying to a Cuban to remember that after he had for three years fought the Spaniard, the Yankee in eight weeks received his surrender and began to ship him home.  The way Casanova describes the fight at El Caney is as follows:

"The Americans thought they could capture El Caney in one day, but the brave General Toral fought so good that it was six days before the Americans could make the Spaniards surrender." The statement is correct except as regards the length of time during which the fight lasted.  The Americans did make the mistake of thinking they could eat up El Caney in an hour and then march through it to San Juan.  Owing to the splendid courage of Toral and his few troops our soldiers, under two of our best generals, were held in check from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon.  But the difference between seven hours of one day and six days is considerable.  Still, at present at San Juan that is the sort of information upon which the patriotic and puzzled American tourist is fed.

Young Casanova, the only other authority in Santiago, is not so sure of his facts as is his father, and is willing to learn.  He went with me to hold my pony while I took the photographs that accompany this article, and I listened with great interest to his accounts of the battle.  Finally he made a statement that was correct.  "How did you happen to get that right?" I asked.

"Yesterday," he said, "I guided Colonel Hayes here, and while I guided him he explained it to me.


Bibliography:

Davis, Richard Harding, Notes of a War Correspondent. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910) 113-134.

Freidel, Frank, The Splendid Little War. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958) 274 (Bloody Bend, Rough Riders' Camp and San Juan Hill Blockhouse images).


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