Battle at Punta de la Colorados
On 11 May 1898, crews from the cruiser Marblehead and gunboat Nashville set out in two steam launches and two working launches to drag for and sever two telegraph cables running out of Cienfuegos. Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla, the senior officer commanding off Cienfuegos, met with his staff on 10 May, and ordered the sailing launches to dredge for the cables while the steam launches, commanded by En. Thomas P. Magruder, supported them with fire from their 1-pound guns. Commanding the working launches were Lt. Cameron McRea Winslow and Lt. Edwin A. Anderson. Supporting the operation were the Marblehead and Nashville, commanded by Cmdr. Washburn Maynard. Those ships were to destroy Spanish defenses and fire on Spanish forces that challenged the cable cutting operation.
Because overland cables were vulnerable to being cut by the insurgents, the Spanish in Cuba relied on underwater cables running along the coast, securing communications both on the island and between Cuba and the outside world. The system protected cables from Cuban rebels. The United States Navy saw an opportunity to disrupt Spanish communications without having to stage landings. The cable house at Punta de la Colorados (Colorado Point), near Cienfuegos, was a vital link in this offshore communications system. Cutting the cable there would severely disrupt Spanish communications. To the northwest, the telegraph ran to Havana; to the east, it ran to Santiago de Cuba, and from there to Jamaica and Haiti.
From the outset the mission presented challenges. None of the party had ever dredged for undersea cables. Winslow wrote: “Cable cutting was something new to all of us and I did not know just how to manage it. To tell the truth, I didn’t have the faintest idea of the work.” Punta de la Colorados was a difficult place to learn. The waters off the narrow channel were almost always choppy and the ocean floor consisted of jagged coral formations that jutted above the water’s surface. Both conditions made grabbing the cable difficult under optimal circumstances and those at Colorado Point were hardly optimal. The Spanish dug a series of rifle pits on Colorado Point and in the hills just above it to protect the cable station. The pits were hidden behind trees and shrubs and the Spanish soldiers hadbthe advantage of smokeless-powder Mauser rifles and a clear line of sight to the launches, which would have to run as close as one hundred yards from the shore.
At 7 a.m., both Marblehead and Nashville began bombarding the Spanish positions, destroying a blockhouse and telegraph station, and forcing Spanish defenders to leave their entrenchments. Winslow used the steam launches to tow the working launches close into shore and then turned over command of the steam launch to Magruder, who cruised off Colorado Point laying covering fire on the Spanish positions. This fire, coupled with marine sharpshooters on all the steam and working launches drove away the Spanish defenders and give the work crews cover to operate. After several hours and lots of grueling work, the crews of the two working launches were able to grab both the cables and remove a section about 100 feet long under sporadic enemy fire.
After cutting the second cable, the crews in the work launches discovered a third cable and were attempting to sever it when Spanish reinforcements arrived at Colorado Point and concentrated fire on the launches with a fieldpiece and machine guns. Cable cutting operations became untenable and Winslow ordered that efforts to cut the third cable be abandoned. During the retreat the sailors and Marines suffered casualties, including Winslow, who was shot in the hand, nearly losing three fingers, and Seaman Robert Volz, who was shot in the head.
Nashville ran between the launches and the shore to block Spanish fire, but in doing so, subjected itself to a withering fire. Cmdr. Maynard reported to his wife that, “the bullets flew about as thick as bees,” right before he was struck in the chest by a bullet, which was stopped by his suspender buckle. He was temporarily incapacitated, but resumed command after a “little whiskey” and a few moments rest. While the men in the launches were being recovered, the Revenue Cutter Windom arrived and began to lay down fire on the Spanish.
While cutting the two cables disrupted communications between Spanish outpost in Cuba, the third cable led to Jamaica and the failure to disable it meant the Spanish continued to communicate with the outside world. Marblehead suffered 7 casualties, including two killed; Nashville suffered five casualties, with one killed. While the cutting of the Cienfuegos cables was a small operation, the image of American sailors under fire excited attention from the American press and public and fifty-three men who participated in the operation, including all the men on the launches, received the Medal of Honor. For their part, the Spanish misinterpreted the American objective and assumed it was a landing in force to flank and capture Cienfuegos. They trumpeted their “victory” in repulsing the Americans.