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Memories of San Juan Hill

By Sergeant Ousler

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The following account of the Battle of San Juan Hill, Santiago, Cuba was provided by Sgt. Ousler of the U.S. Army.

The Account:

That story about Assistant Surgeon Church, the young Washington medico of the
Rough Riders
, who dressed a fallen man's wound away out ahead of the line amid a hail of Mauser bullets, has been published, but the coolness of that young fellow wasn't even half described.  While he was making an examination of his wounded comrade, paying no attention to the whistle of the bullets, a young private of the Rough Riders , who had been a college mate of Church at Princeton, yelled over to him from a distance of about twenty feet - he was with half a dozen fellows doing sharpshooters' work from behind a cluster. of bushes - to ask how badly the patient was hurt.  The young surgeon looked over his shoulder in the direction whence the private's voice proceeded, and saw his former chum grinning in the bushes.

"Why, you whelp," said Church, with a comical grin on his face, "how dare you be around here and not be killed!

Then he went on fixing the wounded man, and he remained right there with him until the arrival of the litter that he had sent to the rear for.

In my cavalry outfit there was a fellow with whom I soldiered out West four or five years ago.  He was a crack base ball pitcher, and he would rather play ball than eat, any time.  He got a Mauser ball plumb through the biceps of his right arm early in the engagement.  I never saw a man so darned mad over a thing in my life.  The wound pained him a good deal, but it wasn't the pain that hurt so much.  I met him at the rear after the scrap was over.  He had tried to go on shooting with his carbine but he couldn't make it go with his left hand and arm alone, and so he had to drop back.  He was alternately rubbing his arm and scratching his head when I came across him.

"Hurt much?" I asked him.

"Hurt nothing!" said he, scowling like a savage; "but did you ever hear of such luck as this, to get plugged right in my pitching arm?  Why the devil didn't they get me in the neck, or somewhere else, anyhow?  I'll never be able to pitch another game, I'll bet $2, for these muscles are going to contract when the hole heals up," and he went on swearing to beat the band, because the Spaniards hadn't let him have it in the neck, or somewhere else.

One of the fellows in the Rough Riders , an Oklahoma boy, got a ball clean through his campaign hat, which was whirled off his head and fell about five feet away from him.  He picked up the hat, examined it carefully, and said:

I'll have to patch that up with a sticking plaster, or I'll get my hair sunburnt." The fun of it was that his hair was about the reddest I ever saw.

Roosevelt was some distance ahead of the line during the whole scrap, moving up and down with a word here and there to the company and troop commanders.  One of the Rough Riders  from New York rubber-necked after Roosevelt a good deal and watched him narrowly, and then he turned to one of the men alongside him and said:

And yet, by jing, a couple o' years ago we people in New York didn't think Teddy knew enough to review a parade o' cops!"

There wasn't a single case of the yellows during the entire fracas.  There wasn't a man that tried to edge behind a fellow in front of him, and it's a good thing the skirmish was executed in extended order by direct command, for column formation wouldn't have done at all.  The men would have made it extended order, anyhow.  They all wanted to be in front, the further in front the better.  We had to do a good deal of firing for general results, on account of the screen from the shelter of which the Spaniards fought, but there was some very brave and chesty ducks on the other side who stood right out in the open and blazed away at men in our line that they picked out deliberately.  These nervy Spaniards got plenty of credit from our men for their gameness, too.  One of them, a young, small-looking fellow, stood on a little level plateau, within dead easy range, letting us have it as fast as he could for fully five minutes before he went down.  If he wasn't simply crazy with the excitement of the game, then he surely was about as game a kid as they make 'em.  He was noticed by about a dozen men near me, and one of them said:

"That little monkey's too good, and I 'guess I'll just let him have one or two."

"Ah, let him alone, " said another fellow; "there are so few like him in that bunch on the other side that he ought to have a show for his taw alley."

The nervy little Spaniard's work became altogether too accurate and vicious, however, and we got a volley from about a dozen of our men, and he went down in a heap and rolled down the hill from his little rock-table like a log.

While there wasn't a single case of the yellows on our side, it would be plain tommyrot to say that none of us was nervous.  I was a heap nervous for one, and I've been in the outfit a long while, and I heard a lot of the roughies say, after the scrap was over, that they saw the gates ajar in a whole lot of different colors by the time the action was fully under way. One of the roughies, an Illinois fellow, that had to be simply pushed back two or three times, he was so eager to break out of the line all by his lonesome and go at 'em single-handed, was talking with one of his friends after the firing had ceased:

 "I never felt so wabbly in my life," he said, "and it was nothing but pure hysterics that kept me going.  I had to keep saying to myself all the time,.  Steady, there, old fellow, and see to it that you don't welch,' and every time I tussled with a think like this I made a jump forward and got out of line.

One of the Rough Riders from New York, an educated fellow, who'd probably had his little whirl at playing, the horses when he had nothing else to do, said after the fight was over:

"Holy gee, but that game is decidedly more nerve-sapping than dallying with 100 to 1 shots."

I had often read about men inaction dodging bullets out of nervousness, but I never took any stock in those stories until this fight.  Then I found out that it was true.  Men do dodge bullets.  I caught myself doing it half a dozen times, and nearly all the other fellows did it.  They didn't dodge all the time, but only when the Spaniards were engaging in volley firing.  When the sound of the volley reached them, although the volley's bullets had long passed them, they involuntarily gave little ducks of the head, like a man does in a boxing match. They didn't know that they were doing it. I called the attention of one of my bunkies, who fought alongside of me, to his imbecile game of ducking his head, and he turned to me and said:

"Why, you jay, I've been watching you do the same thing for the last ,fifteen minutes," and he was right.

There's a mean kind of a squat cactus growing around the Woods down there, and the digs of the cactus point fooled a lot of the men into believing that they had been pinked in the legs.  I saw one of the regulars, a corporal, sit down suddenly and rub his left leg down near his foot.

"Been nipped?" asked one of his swaddies.

"Yep, in the ankle," was the reply.

Then he pulled up his trouser leg, lowered his sock, and saw nothing but a little abrasion of the skin, from which the blood was trickling. He had struck his ankle against a cactus point.  He got up suddenly, looked at the cactus for a second, and then trampled it into the ground.

"I won't get fooled that way again," he said.  He got a ball in his left shoulder later on.

A lot of the fellows were gagging and whistling and humming during the whole thing - not loud, but just loud enough to hear themselves.  When the firing was the hardest along the left of the line, a half dozen of the fellows, I heard afterwards, struck up the coon song, " Get Your Money's Worth," and kept it going until another bunch in the same outfit drowned 'em out with anotherůsong, "I Don't Like No Cheap Man," which they twisted into " I Don't like No Cheap Span."

There were very few of the fellows who were killed who didn't have some kind or other of a girl trinket on them when they were laid out in the rear.  The officers went around and gathered these things together, making notes of them on pads which they carried around with them.  A good many of these lockets and miniatures and little strands of sweethearts' hair were sent to the people back home of the boys killed, on the dispatch boat "DOLPHIN," that brought me over from Cuba.

The Spanish soldiers had the bulge on us during the engagement in this respect, that they fought without any gear whatever except their rifles and ammunition belts.  All of their individual belongings, such as knapsacks, haversacks, ponchos, and so on, they left behind them with storekeepers, and they didn't have any packing to do during the scrap.  A good many of the troops on our side fought in practically heavy marching order -that is, they went into the fight that way.  They didn't all come out that way, though.  The temperature was something fierce, and the way they chucked gear right and left was a caution.  Most of them hung on to their -canteens, though, for water certainly tasted sweet in that beat.  The thrown-away gear was nearly all gathered together after the rumpus was over, and the men got their belongings back, and without having anything said to them for throwing it away, either.  It was funny to hear the talk of some of the Rough Riders at mess that night.

" What I want, and want right now," said one of them to his companions, is twenty-seven Scotch high-balls, and a caviare sandwich."

"Stop your kidding," one of them replied, "you're in luck that you didn't get one Spanish low ball."

One of the boys of Hamilton Fish's outfit sang in a very sweet tenor voice " The Vacant Chair," at mess that night.  It was enough to choke a man up.

Edward Marshall, that newspaper correspondent who was bit in the spine early in the fight, was a game man all right.  He was conscious when they picked him up.

"Where did you get it, Marshall ?" he was asked before he was examined.

"I pass," said be, for he didn't know where he was hit himself, the bullet made him so numb.  " Any old place from bat to moccasins, I guess.


Holloway, A, Hero Tales of the American Soldier and Sailor. (Philadelphia: Elliott Publishing Co., 1899) 122-126.

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