So There They Were

28 Jun

2 1/3 infantry divisions, the only cavalry division we had, and a number of Cuban guerrillas who’d come into the firelight looking for a meal. Orders were to stay put until the move inland, up a head-high ditch called El Camino Real, could be organized. But the ranking general on the beach was Fighting Joe Wheeler, and he had other ideas.

Wheeler was one of at least two former Confederate generals McKinley had commissioned because he was worried the South might not show up for the war. And he was a congressman, so  there was that. Wheeler was in his seventies, barely five feet tall, and he hadn’t done a day of military service since 1865. But by 1898 standards, the fact that he had done any made him almost an expert. He certainly thought so.

He saw no reason why his First Cavalry Division should wait for a bunch of infantry types to decide they were ready to fight, and he didn’t. On June 24th, he took his two brigades up the trail to find a battle.

After a few hours’ march, just east of the village of Las Guasimas, they walked into an ambush. Trying to fight in the thick hammock and jungle all around them, the Americans took losses, and got lost. The Rough Riders had to be put right by Richard harding Davis, a war correspondent, who found their main line and sent it in the direction of the battle. When they had gone on a little farther through trees and brush that were full of Mauser bullets, they saw the village above them, and the Spaniards dug in behind a low wall.

The battle didn’t last much longer than that; the Spanish had been ordered to pullout anyway, and from their vantage point they could see a large force of infantry coming up to engage them. They began their withdrawal, which the Americans took to be a full-scale retreat.

Wheeler was to deny later that he shouted “After ’em boys, we got the damnyankees on the run!” but he probably did. And his troops were so encouraged they actually tried to run down the Spaniards.

Wheeler should have been put on the next boat home, and he probably would have been if the battle had been a defeat  some historians claim that the Spaniards were the actual winners. But it looked like a victory in the newspapers, and Wheeler kept his job and went on to write a handsome two-volume report on our new empire in the early years of the 20th century.

So does history happen.

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