The 71st New York at San Juan Hill

By

Lt. Herbert Hyde True

General:

Lt. True, of Company L, Seventy-first New York Regiment, has the distinction of being one of those who claimed to be the first man to gain the crest of San Juan Hill, in the assault of July 1. "Before Santiago could be taken it was necessary that the Spanish works on San Juan should be captured.  On the summit was a strong blockhouse about which several pieces of artillery were mounted and so posted as to threaten the hill slope with a plunging fire.  In addition to these defences trenches were dug at frequent intervals on the hill and barbed-wire fences were strung to impede the approach.  There was little open country, the slopes being covered with a dense underbrush, in which Spanish sharpshooters concealed themselves and, using smokeless powder, fired upon our advancing troops without discovering their own position.  To prepare the way up this hill for the advance of troops not only required daring, but physical strength and endurance.  General Hawkins selected Lieutenant True to command the pioneer corps of the First Brigade of the First Division, composed of picked men from the Seventy-first Regiment, the Sixth and the Sixteenth Infantry.  This advance up the mountain side was the fiercest engagement of the war".



Lt. True's account:

I remember that when we started I called out to the boys: "Come on, pioneers!  We've got to take this hill.  Let's do our duty, no matter what happens." The hill was very steep; so steep that we had to cling. to the long grass to keep ourselves from falling backward.  The Sixteenth and Sixth Infantry and the Seventy-first Regiment fellows circled to our left and right flanks.  The higher up we went the more dangerous became our path.

When we left Sevilla we started in column of fours, but we had to go in Indian file up the mountain road, over brooks and through ravines.  We got along at a fair pace until we struck thick underbrush that was almost impenetrable, behind which were concealed Spanish sharpshooters with Mauser rifles and smokeless powder.  We knew our position was dangerous and the quicker we got out of it the better.  The quickest way was to go ahead and get at the Spaniards by cutting the barbed wire of the trocha.  It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, this locating the Spanish sharpshooters, for while their bullets kept singing in our ears we couldn't see them bidden as they were by the trees and bushes.

The 71st New York

The 71st New York waits to attack San Juan Hill

I saw an opening and we rushed through it. I called out: We've got so far and we'll go the rest of the way." The boys cheered, and on we went with a rush. The Spanish artillery was at  work  in earnest, but every time we saw shrapnel coming the men would shout " low bridge," and we'd throw ourselves flat.  It was pretty warm work.  Three men were shot beside me, but I was lucky enough to get off without being hit.  The Spanish put up a good fight.  I'll give them credit for that.  The big balloon that followed the Seventy-first along the charge helped them to locate our men, and their fire, although generally wild, was sometimes effective.  The Americans had really underestimated their fighting ability.  They knew how to shoot, and they had the advantage of knowing  every inch of the ground.  Still, they gave way when our men charged and retreated in a hurry.  Our pioneer corps cut the wires with clippers and axes, and not a man was killed.

I was the first man to reach the summit of San Juan Hill, and l think it was our quick action that saved our lives.  The Spaniards were not expecting such an impetuous charge, and we took them by surprise.  The greatest strain came upon us the night after the first day's battle.  I didn't sleep a wink, but spent the night looking after my men.  The smell from rotting vegetation accumulated for years was almost overpowering as we lay in the trenches, but there was not a murmur.  The second day's fighting was really more exciting than the first, but we had got used to being under fire and didn't mind it.  Bullets flew about us like hailstones, and men fell all around us.  We had to cross a couple of. creeks, in, which we waded waist deep against strong currents, and it was at the creek near the field hospital that the Spaniards did the most damage.  Even our wounded and the Red Cross nurses carrying, disabled men were shot down.

I want particularly to praise the Twenty-fourth Infantry, colored. They did everything in their power  to help the Seventy-first boys. and some of them even gave up their places and rations to our men.



Bibliography:

(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)

Goldstein, Donald M. and Katherine Dillon, The Spanish-American War : The Story and Photographs. (Washington: Prange Enterprises, 1998).109 (image).

Holloway, A, Hero Tales of the American Soldier and Sailor. (Philadelphia: Elliott Publishing Co., 1899) 121-122.


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