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It's Chapter 4 (“The Cavalry At Santiago”), and we're rapidly gaining on the day that cemented Roosevelt's legend and guaranteed his place on Mount Rushmore. I don't know if I'm more excited about San Juan Hill or that they got enough mules together to take the dynamite guns this time! Come on! Guns! That shoot dynamite! Don't tell me you wouldn't want to see that...from a safe distance.

On June 30th, the words everybody had been waiting for came down: get yourselves together, we're making a move on Santiago. As before, the men, officers included, only took what they were able to carry themselves, which included three days' provisions.

At last, toward mid-afternoon, the First and Tenth Cavalry, ahead of us, marched, and we followed. The First was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Veile, the Tenth under Lieutenant-Colonel Baldwin. Every few minutes there would be a stoppage in front, and at the halt I would make the men sit or lie down beside the track, loosening their packs. The heat was intense as we passed through the still, close jungle, which formed a wall on either hand. Occasionally we came to gaps or open spaces, where some regiment was camped, and now and then one of these regiments, which apparently had been left out of its proper place, would file into the road, breaking up our line of march. As a result, we finally found ourselves following merely the tail of the regiment ahead of us, an infantry regiment being thrust into the interval. Once or twice we had to wade streams. Darkness came on, but we still continued to march. It was about eight o'clock when we turned to the left and climbed El Poso hill, on whose summit there was a ruined ranch and sugar factory, now, of course, deserted. Here I found General Wood, who was arranging for the camping of the brigade. Our own arrangements for the night were simple. I extended each troop across the road into the jungle, and then the men threw down their belongings where they stood and slept on their arms. Fortunately, there was no rain. Wood and I curled up under our rain-coats on the saddle-blankets, while his two aides, Captain A. L. Mills and Lieutenant W. N. Ship, slept near us. We were up before dawn and getting breakfast. Mills and Ship had nothing to eat, and they breakfasted with Wood and myself, as we had been able to get some handfuls of beans, and some coffee and sugar, as well as the ordinary bacon and hardtack.

We did not talk much, for though we were in ignorance as to precisely what the day would bring forth, we knew that we should see fighting. We had slept soundly enough, although, of course, both Wood and I during the night had made a round of the sentries, he of the brigade, and I of the regiment; and I suppose that, excepting among hardened veterans, there is always a certain feeling of uneasy excitement the night before the battle. (pp. 113-5)

General Wheeler was a bit under the weather, and although he was out at the front, he didn't directly command, which leads to another “devolution of command” passage. You'll forgive me if I take a flyer on rattling that off; these things are involved enough as it is.

In the morning, the guns were brought into position on a hill crest pointing in the direction of Santiago, and the American and Cuban troops were falling into formation. The only orders they had at the outset was that Lawton's force was taking the main fight to El Caney, off to the right by several miles, while Roosevelt's force and the artillery were to be used as a diversion. (The most famous diversion there ever was(!!!), of course, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) At 6 a.m., the first cannon sounded from El Caney, and immediately the guns from their position answered. “Wood and I were sitting together, and Wood remarked to me that he wished our brigade could be moved somewhere else, for we were directly in line of any return fire aimed by the Spaniards at the battery. Hardly had he spoken when there was a peculiar whistling, singing sound in the air, and immediately afterward the noise of something exploding over our heads. It was shrapnel from the Spanish batteries.” This was the first volley of a fifteen or twenty minute barrage which wounded four of Roosevelt's men, as well as two or three regulars (one of which lost a leg), and—I know I'm going to get it for this—raised a big ol' goose-egg on Roosevelt's wrist. The Cubans weren't quite so lucky, as another shell landed right on their position, killing and wounding several while scattering the rest “like guinea-hens.” And here I thought we'd get through five pages without a negative image of the Cuban rebels. Silly me.

After things cooled down, Wood formed his brigade, with Roosevelt's regiment at the frontmost, and in columns of four they hit the trail for the San Juan River. “The Spaniards in the trenches and block-houses on top of the hills in front were already firing on the brigade in a desultory fashion.” “Desultory” is an interesting choice of words. “Did we hit anyone yet?” “Eh. I'm just runnin' down the clock.”

And here's where the fun starts. And by “fun,” I mean “something grisly that I can nevertheless get my smartass teeth into.” Regardez:

Our orders had been of the vaguest kind, being simply to march to the right and connect with Lawton—with whom, of course, there was no chance of our connecting. No reconnoissance (sic) had been made, and the exact position and strength of the Spaniards was not known. A captive balloon was up in the air at this moment, but it was worse than useless. A previous proper reconnoissance and proper look-out from the hills would have given us exact information. As it was, Generals Kent, Sumner, and Hawkins had to be their own reconnoissance, and they fought their troops so well that we won anyhow.

I was now ordered to cross the ford, march half a mile or so to the right, and then halt and await further orders; and I promptly hurried my men across, for the fire was getting hot, and the captive balloon, to the horror of everybody, was coming down to the ford. Of course, it was a special target for the enemy's fire. I got my men across before it reached the ford. There it partly collapsed and remained, causing severe loss of life, as it indicated the exact position where the Tenth and the First Cavalry, and the infantry, were crossing. (pp. 119-20)

Since to my eyes, this is the most memorable “what the hell?” moment of the whole operation so far, a little background is called for here. The US Army had been experimenting with manned recon balloons since the Civil War, and the balloon section, recently created under the supervision of the Signal Corps, accompanied the troops down to Cuba, arriving at field headquarters on the afternoon of the 29th. Once the 28 man section got their equipment unloaded (what they were allowed to unload, anyway), they patched their single leaky balloon as best as they could, they made a few observations of the countryside ahead (reconnaissance, remember, was a weak point of the operation so far). That was all fine and dandy, until Lt. Col. Derby, chief engineer of the 5th Corps, decided the balloon really needed to be right on the front lines. I have no idea what you'd call that type of decision in military terms, but I think the civilian term is an insanely bad idea.

At first (according to the Army Communicator article linked above), the balloon did exactly what it was sent to do: help spot troop positions on the enemy side. However, the guys manning the Spanish guns correctly figured out that that big ol' balloon probably showed the furthest American advance, and made a dandy range marker to boot. So they just started firing at that, managing to do all kinds of damage to the Americans with almost pinpoint precision. The balloon wasn't a bad idea, don't get me wrong, but somebody got a little too overambitious.

And now, back to the Roosevelt part of the story, which is still in progress and still under Spanish fire. “After awhile I came to a sunken lane, and as by this time the First Brigade had stopped and was engaged in a stand-up fight, I halted my men and sent back word for orders.” And we finally catch sight of a Famous Hill. Or at least it would be famous if people learned how to tell this story correctly.

Captain Mills was with me. The sunken lane, which had a wire fence on either side, led straight up toward, and between, the two hills in our front, the hill on the left, which contained heavy block-houses, being farther away from us than the hill on our right, which we afterward grew to call Kettle Hill, and which was surmounted merely by some large ranch buildings or haciendas, with sunken brick-lined walls and cellars. I got the men as well-sheltered as I could. Many of them lay close under the bank of the lane, others slipped into the San Juan River and crouched under its hither bank, while the rest lay down behind the patches of bushy jungle in the tall grass. The heat was intense, and many of the men were already showing signs of exhaustion. The sides of the hills in front were bare; but the country up to them was, for the most part, covered with such dense jungle that in charging through it no accuracy of formation could possibly be preserved. (pp. 120-1)

Yeah. Kettle Hill. San Juan Hill was the other one. I can't blame them. That just doesn't sing like “San Juan.”

Anyway, the fight was on in earnest, and Roosevelt observed that they were being hit with two types of shells: the Mauser bullets, which made a “small, clean hole” that healed nicely, and a brass-jacketed bullet shot from a .45 rifle which exploded with a pop, making a jagged sheet of shrapnel which made “a ghastly wound.” T.R. was convinced that the Spanish fire wasn't being targeted so much as raked across the general area, but very few of the wounded who didn't get shot through the heart, spine, or brain actually died at this point. Not that there weren't more than a few of those, and one of the dead under fire was already revealed a few chapters ago.

The most serious loss that I and the regiment could have suffered befell just before we charged. Bucky O'Neill was strolling up and down in front of his men, smoking his cigarette, for he was inveterately addicted to the habit. He had a theory that an officer ought never to take cover—a theory which was, of course, wrong, though in a volunteer organization the officers should certainly expose themselves very fully, simply for the effect on the men; our regimental toast on the transport running, “The officers; may the war last until each is killed, wounded, or promoted.” As O'Neill moved to and fro, his men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants said, “Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you.” O'Neill took his cigarette out of his mouth, and blowing out a cloud of smoke laughed and said, “Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn't made that will kill me.” A little later he discussed for a moment with one of the regular officers the direction from which the Spanish fire was coming. As he turned on his heel a bullet struck him in the mouth and came out at the back of his head; so that even before he fell his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness. (pp. 123-4)

As with any story too dripping with dramatic irony to be real, there are sources (even among the battle survivors) that say it didn't quite happen that way, but who's telling this story, anyhow? Raise your hand if you were there. Anybody? Anybody? Yeah, I didn't think so. Even if it's Roosevelt goosing the story for maximum impact, it makes for a good yarn, which is what we're looking for here, if you remember.

In a variation on the whole command devolution theme these battle stories have been drenched in so far, O'Neill's men were temporarily at a loss regarding whom to follow; one man, Henry Bardshar, attached himself to Roosevelt as his orderly. In the meantime, Roosevelt himself was getting a little impatient, and was about to use his own initiative (again) to march his guys toward the guns, when Lt. Col. Dorst finally settled it with the command to support the regulars in the assault on the hills.

General Sumner had obtained authority to advance from Lieutenant Miley, who was representing General Shafter at the front, and was in the thick of the fire. The General at once ordered the first brigade to advance on the hills, and the second to support it. He himself was riding his horse along the lines, superintending the fight. Later I overheard a couple of my men talking together about him. What they said illustrates the value of a display of courage among the officers in hardening their soldiers; for their theme was how, as they were lying down under a fire which they could not return, and were in consequence feeling rather nervous, General Sumner suddenly appeared on horseback, sauntering by quite unmoved; and, said one of the men, “That made us feel all right. If the General could stand it, we could.” (pp. 125-6)

You don't have to tell a guy like Roosevelt twice...or even once, sometimes. “The instant I received the order I sprang on my horse and then my "crowded hour" began.”

Next: “My 'crowded hour.'” And no, that's not the title of a Steve Miller song.


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