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Before we move into the actual battle (shades of PRI's Marketplace), let's do the numbers: “General Young had in his immediate command a squadron of the First Regular Cavalry, two hundred and forty-four strong, under the command of Major Bell, and a squadron of the Tenth Regular Cavalry, two hundred and twenty strong, under the command of Major Norvell. He also had two Hotchkiss mountain guns, under Captain Watson of the Tenth.” For those who didn't follow the links, the Hotchkiss guns were carriage mounted light artillery designed especially for rough country. The light mountain gun was a 1.65-inch (42 mm) piece with a range of up to two miles. The shells it fired sound like a really nasty piece of work: “The common shell would explode on contact showering the enemy with jagged shell fragments. The canister would rip open at the muzzle spraying the enemy with a fan shaped pattern of hardened lead 1/2 inch balls. This projectile was used at close range.” Yikes.

Did I mention they found something? Well, they did.

It was at half-past seven that Captain (A. L.) Mills, with a patrol of two men in advance, discovered the Spaniards as they lay across where the two roads came together, some of them in pits, others simply lying in the heavy jungle, while on their extreme right they occupied a big ranch. Where General Young struck them they held a high ridge a little to the left of his front, this ridge being separated by a deep ravine from the hill-trail still farther to the left, down which the Rough Riders were advancing. That is, their forces occupied a range of high hills in the form of an obtuse angle, the salient being toward the space between the American forces, while there were advance parties along both roads. There were stone breastworks flanked by block-houses on that part of the ridge where the two trails came together. The place was called Las Guasimas, from trees of that name in the neighborhood. (pp. 81-2)

“Obtuse angle”? I was told there would be no math...

The attack didn't begin until around eight o'clock to allow Wood to get into position, and in the meantime General Wheeler was brought up to speed on the plan. They led with the Hotchkiss guns while the Spanish troops fired back “almost as on parade,” and do you remember that smokeless powder that Wood was so eager to get? The Spanish were also well stocked with the stuff, which made it harder to get a fix and return fire, so we can assume they were both in the same boat on that account. Nevertheless, Young began to push the men forward, but it was so hard to see what was going on in the jungle that the support troops eventually got mixed in with the vanguard. But don't read into that a more general breakdown, since Roosevelt tells us there were no stragglers in the regulars (“the men followed their leaders with the splendid courage always shown by the American regular soldier”), and were so unshakable that not one of them used more than ten rounds during the battle.

At this point, showing how meticulous this record is intended to be, we get a quick list of the handoffs of command during the battle that reminded me more of the “begats” which opened the New Testament, but it shows a continuity of leadership that wouldn't be broken.

Major Bell, who commanded the squadron, had his leg broken by a shot as he was leading his men. Captain Wainwright succeeded to the command of the squadron. Captain Knox was shot in the abdomen. He continued for some time giving orders to his troops, and refused to allow a man in the firing-line to assist him to the rear. His First Lieutenant, Byram, was himself shot, but continued to lead his men until the wound and the heat overcame him and he fell in a faint. The advance was pushed forward under General Young's eye with the utmost energy, until the enemy's voices could be heard in the entrenchments. The Spaniards kept up a very heavy firing, but the regulars would not be denied, and as they climbed the ridges the Spaniards broke and fled. (pp. 84-5)

Passing around the glory is all fine and dandy, but this book is called The Rough Riders, not General Young On A Mule In Cuba. Where's the guy across from the title page? He's had troubles of his own, since his still-footsore horsemen-minus-horses needed to march up a steep hill, and a number of them kept falling out of line. Thanks to a combination of these stragglers and a detail that was left behind to guard the supplies on shore, the Rough Riders went into their first real charge with less than 500 men. And while they managed to get enough precious mule-power to bring along some Colt automatic guns (the “Potato Diggers,” among the first generation of automatic machine guns used by the United States), they had to leave the dynamite gun behind “as mules for it could not be obtained in time.” Dammit, if it turns out Roosevelt dangled a provocatively-named piece of artillery in front of me just to yank it away, I'm going to get salty. We already lost the horses and most of the mules, throw me a bone over here!

With Captain Capron's troop in the lead, Sergeant Hamilton Fish and three other men at the frontmost, they made their way through a jungle trail so narrow, they had to march single-file. With them were two civilian journalists, Edward Marshall and Richard Harding Davis, who held their own with the soldiers. And just to keep the well of goodwill poisoned, we can't let this one slip by: “There was a Cuban guide at the head of the column, but he ran away as soon as the fighting began.”

But enough of the locals, let's have some local color!

After reaching the top of the hill the walk was very pleasant. Now and then we came to glades or rounded hill-shoulders, whence we could look off for some distance. The tropical forest was very beautiful, and it was a delight to see the strange trees, the splendid royal palms and a tree which looked like a flat-topped acacia, and which was covered with a mass of brilliant scarlet flowers. We heard many bird-notes, too, the cooing of doves and the call of a great brush cuckoo. Afterward we found that the Spanish guerillas imitated these bird-calls, but the sounds we heard that morning, as we advanced through the tropic forest, were from birds, not guerillas, until we came right up to the Spanish lines. It was very beautiful and very peaceful, and it seemed more as if we were off on some hunting excursion than as if were about to go into a sharp and bloody little fight.

Of course, we accommodated our movements to those of the men in front. After marching for somewhat over an hour, we suddenly came to a halt, and immediately afterward Colonel Wood sent word down the line that the advance guard had come upon a Spanish outpost. Then the order was passed to fill the magazines, which was done. (pp. 86-7)

Wood gave orders for Roosevelt to deploy three troops to the right of the trail, where the jungle was thickest, while Major Brodie would take the other troops to the left where there was something close to open ground. All of this was barely in place when “a crash in the front announced that the fight was on.”

Meanwhile I had gone forward with Llewellen, Greenway, Kane and their troopers until we came out on a kind of shoulder, jutting over a ravine, which separated us from a great ridge on our right. It was on this ridge that the Spaniards had some of their intrenchments, and it was just beyond this ridge that the Valley Road led, up which the regulars were at that very time pushing their attack; but, of course, at the moment we knew nothing of this. The effect of the smokeless powder was remarkable. The air seemed full of the rustling sound of the Mauser bullets, for the Spaniards knew the trails by which we were advancing, and opened heavily on our position. Moreover, as we advanced we were, of course, exposed, and they could see us and fire. But they themselves were entirely invisible. The jungle covered everything, and not the faintest trace of smoke was to be seen in any direction to indicate from whence the bullets came. It was some time before the men fired; Llewellen, Kane, and I anxiously studying the ground to see where our opponents were, and utterly unable to find out.

We could hear the faint reports of the Hotchkiss guns and the reply of two Spanish guns, and the Mauser bullets were singing through the trees over our heads, making a noise like the humming of telephone wires; but exactly where they came from we could not tell. The Spaniards were firing high and for the most part by volleys, and their shooting was not very good, which perhaps was not to be wondered at, as they were a long way off. Gradually, however, they began to get the range and occasionally one of our men would crumple up. In no case did the man make any outcry when hit, seeming to take it as a matter of course; at the outside, making only such a remark as: "Well, I got it that time." With hardly an exception, there was no sign of flinching. I say with hardly an exception, for though I personally did not see an instance, and though all the men at the front behaved excellently, yet there were a very few men who lagged behind and drifted back to the trail over which we had come. The character of the fight put a premium upon such conduct, and afforded a very severe test for raw troops; because the jungle was so dense that as we advanced in open order, every man was, from time to time, left almost alone and away from the eyes of his officers. There was unlimited opportunity for dropping out without attracting notice, while it was peculiarly hard to be exposed to the fire of an unseen foe, and to see men dropping under it, and yet to be, for some time, unable to return it, and also to be entirely ignorant of what was going on in any other part of the field. (pp. 88-90)

It was at this point that Richard Harding Davis, in a remarkably un-Geraldolike moment, succeeded in finding the Spanish entrenchments with his field glasses by finding the tops of their hats. Using three or four of his best shooters, they managed to flush out enough of them to know they were onto something. After a round of quick firing, the Spaniards retreated to another position, followed by another large body of men who T.R. later discovered were more Spaniards. At the time, however, he thought they were the Cuban forces Young had been promised, since he didn't get the message that they slept in or had to drive their mom to the farmacia...y'know, whatever makes them look worse in the post-game report. The short version is that they didn't shoot at the second group because they didn't know who they'd be shooting at..

Once the action heats up, it becomes increasingly difficult—inadvisable, even—for me to do much more than artful editing, especially when we run across passages like these.

At every halt we took advantage of the cover, sinking down behind any mound, bush, or tree trunk in the neighborhood. The trees, of course, furnished no protection from the Mauser bullets. Once I was standing behind a large palm with my head out to one side, very fortunately; for a bullet passed through the palm, filling my left eye and ear with the dust and splinters.

No man was allowed to drop out to help the wounded. It was hard to leave them there in the jungle, where they might not be found again until the vultures and the land-crabs came, but war is a grim game and there was no choice. One of the men shot was Harry Heffner of G Troop, who was mortally wounded through the hips. He fell without uttering a sound, and two of his companions dragged him behind a tree. Here he propped himself up and asked to be given his canteen and his rifle, which I handed to him. He then again began shooting, and continued loading and firing until the line moved forward and we left him alone, dying in the gloomy shade. When we found him again, after the fight, he was dead.

At one time, as I was out of touch with that part of my wing commanded by Jenkins and O'Neill, I sent Greenway, with Sergeant Russell, a New Yorker, and trooper Rowland, a New Mexican cow-puncher, down in the valley to find out where they were. To do this the three had to expose themselves to a very severe fire, but they were not men to whom this mattered. Russell was killed; the other two returned and reported to me the position of Jenkins and O'Neill. They then resumed their places on the firing-line. After awhile I noticed blood coming out of Rowland's side and discovered that he had been shot, although he did not seem to be taking any notice of it. He said the wound was only slight, but as I saw he had broken a rib, I told him to go to the rear to the hospital. After some grumbling he went, but fifteen minutes later he was back on the firing-line again and said he could not find the hospital—which I doubted. However, I then let him stay until the end of the fight. (pp. 92-3)

And here, good friends and better strangers, is where I just fall flat. This is all the heaviest of stuff, with guys unflinchingly paying the gravest price—the textbook definition of “red-blooded,” in other words. It's also ultra-manly to the point where your bookmark turns hairy. Meanwhile, my biggest physical agony of the past twelve months that didn't involve rolling over in bed the wrong way was when I hand-washed a glass with a cracked rim and cut the bejeezus out of my thumb just enough to get some impressive bleeding action going for the next half-hour or so. Hoo-boy, was I ever a wreck for the rest of the day! My pinafore was all stained with salty tears, and only a cookie and a story could ease my simpering.

So yeah, I'm not stupid enough to get all glib about the actual battles. You don't mind if I still rag on the storytelling, do you? Because if I don't have something to react to, I might as well turn this into an all-poetry blog, and as we all know, that's a path straight into the mouth of madness.

Next: the dramatic conclusion of our first battle (and possibly Chapter 3)! Also, my inner smartass comes out of its hole once the shooting stops!

(Gun info found at The Spanish-American War Centennial Website...because sometimes Wikipedia just isn't up to the job.)


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