The Invasion of Puerto Rico
Capturing Puerto Rico was always part of the war plans of the United States. The only question was if a Puerto Rican campaign should come before or after operations in Cuba. Spanish actions in Cuba precipitated the conflict so there was a strong incentive to begin operations there. On the other hand, Puerto Rico was the key strategic Spanish naval base in the Caribbean. Its capture could potentially prevent the Spanish from sending reinforcements and cripple Spanish logistical support to its beleaguered forces on Cuba.
In particular, Commander of the Army, Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, actively lobbied to make the capture of Puerto Rico the first joint operation of the war. In addition to arguing the island’s strategic importance, Miles contended that the expedition could be successfully executed by the small United States regular army, allowing time for United States volunteer forces to train. Miles further argued that a Puerto Rican operation could keep American troops away from Cuba during the “yellow fever months” of late spring and summer. Miles contended that after Puerto Rico was captured Cuba would be taken easily by the regular army, bolstered by numerous and well-trained volunteers. There Spanish forces, having been subjected to a U.S. Navy blockade during the months it took to capture Puerto Rico, would be greatly over-matched and quickly overwhelmed. Mile’s “Puerto Rico first” argument was supported by reports of Spanish military weakness on that island from the former United States Consul at San Juan, John C. Hanna, who wrote that a full scale invasion of the island would be possible with a force of 10,000 men.
The first assault on the island was a Navy-only operation. In early May, RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, led a sortie against the Puerto Rican port of San Juan, where he believed the Spanish squadron commanded by Adm. PascualCervera y Topete would be forced to stop to coal. Cervera was not at Puerto Rico and American bombardment was ineffectual, but Sampson’s understanding of Puerto Rico’s strategic importance was sound. While the United States conducted operations at Santiago de Cuba, the Navy successively dispatched St. Paul, Yosemite, and New Orleans to San Juan to blockade Spanish naval forces there and to capture or destroy shipments en route to Cuba. While capturing Puerto Rico may have been a goal, the imperative to neutralize or destroy Cervera’s fleet meant that any operation against Puerto Rico would be delayed.
After Cervera’s fleet was destroyed at Santiago de Cuba, Miles impatiently agitated for a campaign to capture Puerto Rico until receiving orders to move forward with his plan from Washington. President William McKinley strongly supported acquisition of Puerto Rico and instructed Miles on 4 June, to take what he needed to capture and hold the island. At the same time McKinley instructed the State Department to include annexation of Puerto Rico as an American prerequisite to ending the war.
On 8 July, Miles and a small force left Charleston, South Carolina, on Yale and Columbia for Santiago de Cuba. Miles was originally sent to assist Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter, whose campaign to capture Santiago de Cuba stymied outside the city. Mindful of the possible Puerto Rico invasion, Miles tried to shield his men from the illness then rampant among the besiegers of Santiago de Cuba by taking his troops to Guantanamo and limiting contact with Shafter’s forces. There he collected more troops for his invasion force and made arrangements with RAdm. Sampson and the Navy Department on 17 July for a Naval escort to Point Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
On 18 July, Adjutant General Henry Corbin informed Miles that the Puerto Rican operation was approved, but problems immediately presented themselves. The Navy Department went to considerable lengths to assist Miles, but inter service arguments and communication problems continued to plague joint operations. Illustrative of these communication problems was an Army request for a convoy of transports that departed for Puerto Rico on 17 July. The request went through the offices of the Adjutant General and the Assistant Secretary of War before being sent to the Navy Department on 21 July. By the 21st the transports were already en route to Puerto Rico. The Navy also staged an attack on the Bay of Nipe in order to provide the Army with a staging ground for their attack on Puerto Rico, but Miles never bothered to utilize the captured port.
Sampson was pressured to provide an adequate escort for Miles’ expedition while still complying with earlier directives sent him by the Navy department. At that time, Sampson was keeping up a blockade of the Cuban coast while outfitting two squadrons to cross the Atlantic: one to join the Asiatic Squadron via the Mediterranean and another to attack ports on the Spanish coast. At the same time, the number of ships at Sampson’s disposal continued to dwindle as vessels in his fleet, having spent months in the Caribbean without respite, developed mechanical issues that forced them to return to ports in the United States for repairs.
Miles objected to the size and composition of the escort that Sampson detailed to support him and demanded a more robust escort for his own Puerto Rican expedition and for a convoy of transports coming to Puerto Rico from Tampa. Miles asserted in letters to the War Department that he feared attacks by Spanish gunboats stationed in Puerto Rico on his troop transports, even though the possibility was highly unlikely. What Miles actually wanted was a robust naval force, along with the 1st Marine Battalion at Guantanamo, to assist his forces in their operations. He planned to use the Navy to cover landings and providing gun support for the Army. While Miles contended that he could capture Puerto Rico with a small land force, he refused to attempt an invasion without significant naval support. Ironically, he later minimized the Navy’s role in the operation.
Sampson offered Miles Annapolis, Wasp, Leyden, Gloucester, the protected cruisers Cincinnati and New Orleans, and the monitors Terror, Amphitrite, and Puritan on top of the auxiliary cruisers Yale and Columbia that had already been assigned to the expedition. Miles believed this force to be inadequate. He wanted ships to bombard Point Fajardo, blockade San Juan, and to convoy and cover the landing of his troops. President McKinley sided with Miles and ordered Navy Secretary John D. Long to have Sampson increase the number of ships escorting Miles. After McKinley’s orders, Long’s instructions to Sampson were very clear: give what Miles with everything he want. Long also, unfairly, rebuked Sampson, by writing “on the face of things you seem dilatory in this matter.”
Sampson added the battleships Massachusetts and Indiana and the cruisers Dixie and Newark to Miles’ escort, but made clear to Long that this came at the expense of delaying the Eastern Squadron until those ships returned or until those in his squadron could be cleaned and repaired. Finally satisfied, Miles with 3,415 men in the auxiliary cruisers Yale and Columbia left Guantánamo on 21 July. He was to be joined at Puerto Rico by another 14,500 volunteers preparing to ship out from Charleston, Tampa and Newport News.
While en route to Puerto Rico, Miles inexplicably decided to make massive changes to the campaign. Instead of landing at Fajardo, forty miles east of San Juan, as the original plan called for and where the reinforcements were planning to meet him, he decided to land his forces at Guánica, on the southwestern side of the Puerto Rico. Miles changed the site of the landing because, he claimed, the Spanish knew where the Americans intended to land and likely strengthened the position. The senior naval officer commanding the escort ships, Capt. Francis J. Higginson of Massachusetts was dumbfounded by the change. The new landing spot put the Army at a greater distance from San Juan, the capitol and the military key to the island. Miles cut himself off from his own reinforcements at Fajardo, on the opposite side of the island, where they were completely unaware of the change in plans. The change further taxed the navy by cutting off collier support and Miles negated the value of the battleships he had fought so hard to obtain because the water off Guánica was not deep enough for them to stand within firing range of the shore. Miles’ waved off these concerns and Higginson was forced to concede.
The Puritan, Amphitrite and Leyden arrived at Fajardo to find the army and the rest of the convoy force missing. After sending Leyden to St. Thomas to find out where the American expedition had gone, Capt. Frederick W. Rodgers of Puritan landed a force to investigate and capture the Cape San Juan Lighthouse. Unopposed in their landing, the party met the local Puerto Rican authorities who agreed to surrender the town and support the American invaders with local militia in exchange for American protection.
While the rest of the convoy left for Guánica, Rodgers remained and the Puritan’s landing party of fourteen sailors held the town until 9 August. Spanish troops finally arrived from San Juan whereupon the landing party left taking with them prominent locals who had cooperated with the Americans. Later commentators saw this episode as damning evidence of how easy a landing at Fajardo and the capture of San Juan would have been had Miles followed the original plan.
The Army’s landing at Guánica was assisted by Gloucester. A landing party from that gunboat captured the city on 25 July, chasing off the small Spanish garrison. Landings were also made at Ponce where Cmdr. Charles H. David, of Dixie, forced the 28 July surrender of the town by threatening it with bombardment. A combined force of sailors and army troops under Gen. James J. Wilson then occupied Ponce. Miles then launched a four-pronged advance into the interior from these ports. The advancing troops met only token resistance as civilians and Puerto Rican militiamen allied with the American invaders.
While Miles campaigned in the interior, the Navy made plans to attack and capture San Juan. Cmdr. Charles H. Davis, who wrote critically of Miles’ strategy to Sampson, asserted that the Navy could force the surrender of the city and the entire island with a naval bombardment. Sampson expressed interest. The delay of the Eastern Squadron by Miles freed his ships for an operation and he pushed the idea on Secretary Long. When Miles learned of the plan, he protested to the War Department that his authority was being usurped and a bombardment would pose and unnecessary risk to civilians. Some historians believe that Miles and the War Department were less concerned about civilians and more concerned with preventing the Navy from winning yet another victory. The Army wanted Puerto Rico to be an Army triumph, Miles planned to call on the Navy only after he had San Juan surrounded. This debate became academic on 12 August, when Miles, bogged down in Puerto Rico’s interior received world of the wars end.