Tag Archives: Gideon’s War

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 ┬áthere 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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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.