To most Americans, San Juan Hill conjures up images of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders dashing up the hill to victory, but other soldiers also played an important role in driving the Spanish off the heights overlooking Santiago, Cuba. One such soldier was 1st Lt. John J. Pershing, the quartermaster of the 10th Cavalry, the famed "Buffalo Soldiers." Pershing’s experiences in Cuba gave him important battlefield experience and showed him how an army at war behaves. This would pay off when Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces into battle on the fields of France in World War I, less than twenty years later.
As tensions heated up between the United States and Spain, Pershing was teaching tactics at West Point. Desperate to join the action he foresaw as inevitable, he bombarded the assistant secretary of war, George Meiklejohn, with letters. Realizing the importance of combat duty, he wrote, "if I should accept any duty which would keep me from field service, indeed if I did not make every effort to obtain an opportunity for field service I should never forgive myself."1
Pershing was not totally unprepared for battle. An 1886 graduate of West Point, he had seen duty against the Plains Indians with both the 6th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The 10th was one of two black cavalry regiments commanded by white officers. Pershing was called "Black Jack" in reference to his service with the10th, and the nickname stuck long after he left it. Pershing had also taught military tactics and mathematics at the University of Nebraska and earned a law degree there.
Unfortunately for Pershing, when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898, the secretary of war froze all West Point instructors in their jobs. Undaunted, Pershing realized the only way into combat was to be requested for duty by a line unit. He wrote to Col. Guy V. Henry, the commander of his old unit, the 10th Cavalry, asking to rejoin it. Henry wrote to the War Department requesting that Pershing be assigned to the unit as regimental quartermaster. Pershing soon showed up at Meiklejohn’s office to press for approval. When Pershing told Meiklejohn "I shall resign and join some National Guard or volunteer unit that stands a chance of being sent to Cuba," the assistant secretary relented and approved orders for Pershing to rejoin the10th.2
Pershing found his unit in training at Chickamauga, Georgia, and moved with it to the port of Tampa, Florida, from where it would sail for Cuba. The 10th was part of Brig. Gen. William R. Shafter’s Fifth Corps, whose mission was to capture Santiago, where the fleet of Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera lay at anchor. Shafter, a veteran of the Civil War and Indian fighting, had grown soft and fat in his sixty-three years and was overwhelmed by the task of preparing his force. Confusion reigned in Tampa, where thousands of Regular Army and volunteer soldiers prepared to leave with little semblance of order. The 10th Cavalry and other elements of the dismounted Cavalry Division were assigned space on the Leona, a coastal merchant ship pressed into military service. Loading the ship was conducted without incident, and the Leona set sail with thirty-one other transports on 14 June 1898.
The trip went badly. In addition to the Leona’s becoming separated from its convoy for nearly a day, the men below decks became seasick and hungry. Their woolen Army uniforms were ill suited for the tropical climate, much less existence in a hot, cramped ship’s hold, and there were no cooking facilities aboard ship. Unpalatable field rations were the only food available. Finally, on 22 June, the 10th Cavalry disembarked at Daiquirí, thirteen miles east of Santiago. There were no port facilities, and small boats were used to move the men as close to shore as possible. Many men had to jump from the boats carrying their equipment and wade to shore. Two men drowned during the transfer. The next day, while Pershing stayed on board to supply materiel to an insurgent Cuban unit, squadrons of the 10th, the 1st Cavalry, and the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) clashed with Spanish units at Las Guásimas, then drove the Spanish from their defenses inflicting heavy casualties. The 10th lost one man killed and ten wounded.
Pershing longed to be with his men, but the Leona was ordered west to pick up 1,000 ragged Cuban rebels of General Calixto García’s command who had been fighting the Spanish. Pershing was not impressed with the insurgent fighters: "A miserable lot they are, in my opinion they will prove of little service to the Americans."3
The next day, leading a pack mule laden with supplies, Pershing caught up with his encamped regiment. To his chagrin, he found that the men had earlier thrown away all but their most essential gear and they were now hungry and without shelter. He spent the next five days traveling the narrow jungle trails, bringing up supplies, no easy task considering the confusion on the beaches where only the efforts of individual officers had brought "at least the semblance of order."
The confusion taxed many men’s patience but not Pershing’s. When one officer complained about the supply problem and that "fat old slob" Shafter, Pershing confronted the complainer and scolded "Why did you come to this war if you can’t stand the gaff? War has always been this way. . . . The fat Old Man you talk about is going to win this campaign. When he does these things will be forgotten. It’s the objective that counts, not the incidents."4
By 30 June, enough troops had been landed to begin the advance on Santiago. The 10th moved with its division to within five miles of the city where it set up camp on a hill near the old hacienda of El Pozo, waiting for the other divisions to arrange themselves. A half mile northwest of his position Pershing spied his division’s objectives, "the dark lines of masked intrenchments and the mysterious blockhouses of the hills of San Juan."5 Beyond that he could glimpse Santiago’s strong defenses. He knew the task laid out for the Army would not be easy. No fires were allowed that night, and pickets went out to watch for the enemy.
About 8:00 on the morning of 1 July came the crash of artillery, first American, followed by Spanish. For forty-five minutes the duel continued with the Americans getting the worst of it. Their black powder guns poured smoke, revealing their positions, while the Spanish guns, using smokeless powder, remained hidden. Near Pershing, a Hotchkiss gun exploded, wounding two troopers. The frightened Cuban insurgents who were with Pershing fled.
As the barrage subsided, the Americans started down the ridge and moved forward along a jungle path. Lt. Col. Theodore A. Baldwin, commanding the10th, ordered Pershing to act as a guide for the regiment, making sure it found its objectives and kept an orderly advance. The task was difficult; scattered artillery and rifle fire rained down as the men mixed with elements of the 71st New York Infantry along clogged roads inadequate for such large numbers. Pershing could do little but sit on his horse and shout orders to the men. Then to make matters worse, an observation balloon was sent up above the advancing column, drawing fire and revealing the American route of approach. The Spanish soon concentrated their fire on the area around the balloon, whose observer responded by telling the troops below that the Spanish were firing on them. Pershing and his cavalrymen were decidedly unimpressed by this intelligence.
Pershing, along with three other officers from the brigade, was posted in a stream bed where he dismounted to better urge the men forward. Standing in waist-high water, he led one squadron after another forward through exploding shells and intense Mauser fire. As he ran back and forth bringing up squadrons, he spotted Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, the division commander, and his staff, mounted on their horses in the middle of the Aguadores River. As Pershing saluted, a shell landed between the two men, drenching them both with water. Wheeler returned the salute, wheeled his horse around, and left.
Enemy fire intensified, and panic ensued as men fell everywhere. Eventually, by continually running back into the jungle, finding lost groups, and guiding them forward, Pershing managed to get the 10th across the river. During the action he was continually exposed to enemy fire. One officer who appreciated Pershing’s efforts to organize the men under fire commented that "the gallant Pershing . . . was as cool as a bowl of cracked ice."6
As the men of the division waited at the edge of a wooded area below the two American objectives, San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill, they began taking more fire. Spanish snipers, in their elevated position, had a clear shot at any cavalryman who stood. Casualties mounted, a half-hour passed, and still no orders arrived to attack. Finally, 1st Lt. Jules Ord of the 6th Infantry decided that he had had enough. Shirtless, with a bayonet in one hand and a pistol in the other, he yelled to his men, "Follow me, we can’t stay here." Ord’s charge energized the Rough Riders and parts of the 10th to join the attack. Pershing was amazed and proud at what he saw: "Each officer or soldier next in rank took charge of the line or group immediately in his front or rear and halting to fire at each good opportunity, taking reasonable advantage of cover, the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans."7
The men waded across the San Juan River and rushed forward, slowed only momentarily by a barbed-wire fence, which most chose to climb under. In the confusion the men of the 10th divided themselves between Ord’s 6th Infantry charging up San Juan Hill and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders attacking Kettle Hill. Pershing found himself with the Rough Riders, running up the exposed slopes of Kettle Hill. It was quickly taken. In the last push to the top he saw the Spanish fleeing their positions and heading for Santiago.
Pershing had a perfect view from Kettle Hill of the ongoing fight for San Juan Hill. Realizing how tenuous it was, he, and the other men on Kettle Hill, rushed forward to assist. There they struggled against the worst fire Wheeler, a Confederate Civil War veteran, had ever seen. Despite the enemy salvos, the men pushed forward, assisted by the timely arrival of a few Gatling guns brought forward for the attack. A battle yell went up along the American line. After a final, brief American artillery barrage, the troops made a final lunge for the top. Ord, with the help of the 10th Cavalry, was the first American to reach San Juan’s summit, where he was immediately killed by enemy fire.
The victory was not without its price. Dead and wounded men lay all over the hill. The 10th Cavalry lost half its officers and roughly 20 percent of its men. Pershing came upon a wounded officer and asked him if he was badly hurt. "I don’t know," he replied, "but we whipped them, anyway, didn’t we?"8 Pershing also was witness to the moral character of his men when he saw a Buffalo Soldier stop at a trench filled with Spanish dead and wounded, gently lift the head of a wounded officer, and give him the last drops of water out of his canteen.
Although driven from the heights of San Juan, the Spanish had not surrendered. At 3:00 a.m. their artillery again opened up on the American positions as small arms fire picked up. The men of the 10th manned their posts and waited for the expected counterattack, but none came. By 5:30 in the morning the firing began to slacken. Just before dawn, entrenching equipment and ammunition arrived, but no food for the hungry victors. As the sun rose, Spanish snipers began firing at anything that moved. When a sniper bullet wounded the regiment’s adjutant, Colonel Baldwin placed Pershing in the position. The rest of the day, while both sides traded fire, Pershing delivered messages to the front and ran the regiment in Baldwin’s absence. The conditions for the men were miserable. Some soldiers formed a bucket brigade from the front trenches to a watering hole a mile to the rear. Front-line soldiers tore off their heavy woolen shirts in the hot air, and soldiers who had a simple frying pan and fork became the envy of the regiment.
The firing continued into the next day, but actions farther afield most heartened the American soldiers. About 9:00 a.m. on 3 July, men heard heavier explosions reverberating from the south of Santiago. It was the guns of Rear Adm. William Sampson’s U.S. fleet routing Admiral Cervera’s Spanish squadron as it attempted to flee from Santiago. Like their navy, the Spanish troops in Santiago could neither flee nor survive. General Shafter sent a message of truce to Santiago. He initially gave the Spanish until 10:00 a.m. on 4 July to surrender or American ground and naval artillery would shell the city. This deadline was later extended.
During the truce, the men of the 10th continued to strengthen their positions. While the soldiers worked, Pershing read to them two messages of commendation; one from President William McKinley and the other from Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, the commanding general of the Army. Miles said that he would arrive in Cuba soon with reinforcements. The men exulted in Miles’ promise. Soon after, Cuban refugees from the city, hoping to escape the expected bombardment, began to cross into the American lines. Pershing was moved at what he saw:
"Old and young, women, children and decrepit men of every class—those refined and used to luxury, together with the ragged beggar—crowded each other in this narrow column. It was a pitiful sight; from daylight until dark the miserable procession trooped past. The suffering of the innocent is not the least of the horrors of war."9
As the truce lengthened, Shafter kept up the verbal pressure on the Spanish while his men advanced their siege trenches and living conditions worsened. The rainy season began, drenching the men and filling their trenches with water. The Americans started coming down with malaria and yellow fever. Pershing was no exception. Soon he was wracked with malarial fever, but this merely slowed him down. Traveling back to a supply depot, Pershing bargained successfully for a wagon which gave him the means to bring his men food, bed rolls, tenting equipment, medical supplies, and cooking utensils. Pershing was everywhere obtaining gear. He visited docks, depots, and any place else where he thought he could find some comforts for his men. He made a special effort to bring up personal baggage to front-line officers.
Spanish authorities soon realized the situation inside Santiago was hopeless, and, with permission from his government in Madrid, General de División José Toral agreed on 15 July to surrender the city. The formal capitulation took place on 17 July 1898. After General Toral handed his sword to General Shafter, the American troops were drawn up in a line along their six miles of trenches to witness the raising of the Stars and Stripes above the government palace in Santiago. At exactly 12:00 noon, a cheer went up from the American lines as artillery boomed a salute. The campaign was over.
First Lt. John Pershing had excelled in his role during the Santiago campaign. He led troops, filled in for fallen officers, braved enemy fire, and kept his men well supplied. Officers who witnessed his actions were quick to praise. Colonel Baldwin, his regimental commander, wrote Pershing: "You did some tall rustling, and if you had not we would have starved. . . . I have been through many fights and through the Civil War, but on my word ‘you were the coolest and bravest man I ever saw under fire in my life’ and carried out your orders to the letter—no matter where it called you." But the greatest praise Pershing received came from Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood, newly appointed military governor of Santiago, who wrote to the adjutant general of Pershing’s accomplishments. The letter was passed to President McKinley who wrote on it: "Appoint to a Major, if there is a vacancy."10
During his seven-day cruise back to the United States in August, Pershing reflected on what he had learned. He had found the fighting spirit of American soldiers excellent, even among the volunteers. As long as men were moving forward their confidence rose; sloth and disease set in only when the troops halted. Keeping units together instead of splitting them up also helped maintain esprit de corps. Pershing also realized that weapons had to be upgraded to include smokeless rifles and artillery; and old commanders would have to be replaced with younger, more agile men. The greatest problem facing the Army, however, was supply. If the Army could not keep supplies coming forward it could not succeed in battle. Pershing focused his complaints in this sphere on civilian staff who lacked the competence needed in wartime. "Good commissary and quartermaster sergeants or clerks would have been infinitely better and more deserving," he concluded.11 Lessons Pershing learned during the Spanish-American War were invaluable. He would draw on them two decades later when he led the largest overseas American army into battle on the fields of France.
Kevin Hymel is research coordinator with the Cowles History Group in Leesburg, Virginia..
2. Ibid., 1: 174
3 . Donald Smyth, “Pershing in the Spanish-American War,” Military Affairs 30 (Spring 1966): 27.
4 . Ibid.
5 . Vandiver, Black Jack Pershing, 1: 199.
6 . Ibid., 1: 203.
7 . Herschel V. Cashin et al., Under Fire with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry (1899, reprint ed., Niwot, Colo., 1993), pp. 207–08.
8 . Ibid., p. 209.
9 . Ibid., p. 213.
10 . Vandiver, Black Jack Pershing, 1: 211, 213.
11 . Ibid., 1: 213.