Army VS. Navy. Spanish Navy.

26 Jun

Fuselit and I never intended to release Gideon’s War on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cuba 117 years ago; but since we have done that, why not blog a bit about why the army was in Cuba in the first place?

Most people — who give the matter any thought at all — have the idea that we went there to free the Cubans. Not true. The Cubans were on the verge of doing that themselves. They had fought the Spanish army to a standstill. 25000 guerrillas had worn down an army of a quarter million over three years, and, with President William McKinley vaguely suggesting that things could get a lot worse if Spain didn’t pull out, the government in madrid was simply looking for an exit that would leave the royal family on the throne.

That was the situation when the Maine blew up. Why the Maine blew up is still a mystery today and might be a good topic for another blog. But there is no mystery about what happened next: the United States blamed Spain, and wanted revenge. We declared war, backdating it to cover a couple of warlike acts we committed in advance, and called up the national guard.

Spain, for its part, sent most of its fleet in the direction of the Caribbean — four good, but worn-out armored cruisers, and a pair of destroyers. The fleet, having disappeared into the North Atlantic and caused panic along the East Coast, was finally discovered essentially hiding out in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. The U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Squadron sailed down there to blockade them.

The commander of the squadron began to demand that the army come down there and force the Spanish fleet to “come out” by taking the city behind it. The longer the blockade went on, the harder it would be maintain it, with the hurricane season coming on, and the inevitability of mechanical problems on the American ships.

Nowadays the Marines would get the job. Back then, there were barely enough Marines to seize a small harbor close to Santiago named Guantanamo Bay, where a coaling station could be set up. That left the army, all 29,000 men of it. By sending nearly every regular soldier it had to Tampa, the army was able to organize an understrength corps of about 15,000. This included 18 out of 25 regular infantry regiments, 5 and 1/3 out of ten regular cavalry regiments, and a handful of artillery, medical, and supply types. Joining this Fifth Corps were two regiments of National Guardsmen, the 2nd Massachusetts and the 71st New York, and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders.

So, that was that. The Fifth Corps would go to Cuba for the purpose of forcing the enemy fleet to fight. If that sounds a bit strange — it was.

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