Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Lieutenant Charles N. Atwater to Captain Charles J. Barclay

U.S.S. Amphitrite, 2d Rate,

Off Cape San Juan, Porto Rico, August 10, 1898.

Sir: I have the honor to make the following report of occurrences during my absence from this vessel, in command at light-house,1 August 6 to 9.

     Ensign K. M. Bennett, with Asst. Engineer D. J. Jenkins, Naval Cadets W. H. Boardman and Paul Foley, Pay Clerk O. F. Cato2 and 14 petty officers and men left the ship at 7 p. m. to reoccupy light-house. At 7.15 I received orders to follow with a second boat and take command. At 7.45 I started with Asst. Surg. A. H. Heppner3 and 14 armed petty officers and men. . . . It only remains to add of Mr. Boardman that he had gone ahead to the light-house by Mr. Bennett’s order, with three men. Entering the dark hall, he had assured himself that the place was unoccupied by any enemy, and then directed his men to lay aside their loaded weapons before ascending the spiral stairway to the light. At this order belts were taken off. A revolver dropped from a defective holster (it was found later to have no catch) and, falling on the marble-tiled floor, went off, the bullet striking Mr. Boardman. . . .

     On the 7th spent the forenoon instructing the men in the use of arms and Colt gun and in perfecting defenses.

. . . Two days’ supply of food and ample ammunition were supplied from ship by your order, and each night every receptacle was filled with drinking water. Sentries were posted on the tower, on east and west end of roof, and at the entrance door. Part of the time it was necessary to post a sentry outside at the end of a narrow lane that formed the only approach; but when the moon rose he was called in and the door barred. By day a tower sentry and a post at the gate were maintained, the petty officer acting corporal of the guard having strict orders to allow no outside communication without my authority. The Colt gun was mounted on the roof to sweep the lane. Two seamen who spoke Spanish did the interpreting.

     The force available was divided into 4 sections of 6 men each, commanded by a petty officer. Each pair of sections had an officer. Cooks, police, scouts, signalmen, and interpreters all stood watch and watch, or quarter watch, as seemed necessary, and every man knew his station, and slept ready for a call. The men behaved with admirable good will, and I heard absolutely no complaints or grumbling, and the only requests made me were for permission to go scouting—a duty assigned to E. J. Brown, a boatswain’s mate, first class, in addition to his duty as corporal of the guard and interpreter, and which some of the other men coveted.

     The natives were excellently disposed toward us, and showed a disposition to assist us in every way that involved no personal risk. They had machetes, but absolutely no firearms. On the 7th these people came with all kinds of impossible rumors of approaching Spanish troops, from whom they evidently dreaded the worst possible treatment, and I at length allowed Brown to go for information. He dressed in native costume, carried a revolver, and set out on a very inferior nag, and I watched him over the hill 2 miles away with some misgiving, but five hours later he returned at full gallop on a beautiful horse and reported having counted or estimated a troop of mounted infantry, proceeding from Loquillo to Fajardo, numbering between 90 and 100 men. We learned later there were 120 of them. With reliable information of such a force about 4 miles away, the men fully realized the necessity of precautions already taken.

     About the time the scout returned large numbers of women and children were seen coming from direction of Fajardo. Among them were the wives of Drs. Veve and Bird,4 whom I had orders from you to receive into the light-house. With them came about 200 people, and about 500 more followed. As to take them all was impossible, and entirely unnecessary had it been possible, I received about 50 women and children whom the Spanish might annoy on account of the stand taken by the men of their families. I turned away all servants and people I judged of no political consequence, advising them to get back home as soon as they could. I advised them they were in a dangerous neighborhood and could not be assisted in case of attack. Notwithstanding my urgent representations, I believe there were from 500 to 800 people among the hills of the peninsula who remained there from the 7th until the evening of the 9th, when the Spanish had attacked and withdrawn, leaving this district at 3 p. m. that day. They lay concealed at night behind the hills I pointed out to their leaders as safest from shell fire of our ships. They had no shelter and little besides fruit to eat, but their dread of the Spanish soldiers was more than my arguments could dispel. The men hung around our clearing the night of the 7th, causing constant alarms, and the following day I sent word that I would shoot at anyone who came in sight after dark. The good results of this appeared the night of the attack, when we had no false alarms. . . .

     On the 7th and 8th men kept dashing up on horseback with the wildest rumors—one had seen 500 Spanish soldiers, another 800, etc. The best information I could get from ships and shore convinced me that either 240 or 350 were reasonable estimates, depending on whether two or three parties of about 120 each had been seen. I am now inclined to think the latter was nearer the truth. I tried to make use of the body of 200 men armed with machetes that lay beyond the west hill to form lines of runners and warn us from beyond the isthmus of any movement of the enemy on the night of the attack. They promised readily, but the attack came without other warning than our own vigilance afforded.

     At 11 on the night of the attack I began to get indications of something going on, and, although it was too dark to be sure of anything, I thought I saw moving figures of men in white on the edge of the woods 250 yards southwest. As the men greatly needed rest, I determined not to arouse them needlessly. Flashing of lights was reported, but since none could be shown me, I was uncertain. At about 11.45 it began to lighten a little as the moon rose behind clouds, and with my night glass I made out what I believed to be an officer at the corner of the woods referred to. . . . I gave no noisy alarm, but cautioned the lookouts to watch carefully. I had men on roof shaken awake, went downstairs and called Mr. Hansard,5 and went out to Gunner Campbell,6 who had charge below. I met him on the step and ordered him to have the corporal of the guard bring in the sentry and close the door. I started with him for the gate when the sentry and corporal came running up, having seen men in the road, and at that instant there came a volley from without. We retreated inside and closed the door. Certain as to my arrangements, and entirely confident of Gunner Campbell, I went up to the roof. There I found the men steady at their stations shooting over the parapet without unnecessary exposure. . . .

I had the light put out as a signal of attack, and the ships’ search lights began to play and their secondary batteries to fire. They were 1,800 yards distant. I thought with search lights to direct the fire we should be in no danger from the ships, but I noticed the men were annoyed at the proximinity of their shells, several of which passed nearly over us and exploded on a hill in line half a mile beyond, and one shrapnel exploded over us. At about 12.30 a shell struck the parapet between two men, throwing one of them prone. . . . Although the shell must have traveled almost within touch of six men not one was hurt. It was found at daybreak on the roof, and was one our 6-pounders.

     I at once had the light lighted. About 12.30 the whistling of bullets overhead ceased, though flashes still came occasionally from the brush and were answered. Shortly after I gave the order to cease firing. Immediately after a man fired at a flash in the bushes, and these were the last shots fired.

     I signaled the ships we needed no help and that no one was hurt. At 2 two Spanish soldiers crossed an open space, but I would not allow my men to fire on them, as they were going away and I thought it unnecessary to arouse the ships again. It was now so light from the moon that there was no chance for a surprise. I kept the doors closed until after daylight, and the men kept ready of their own accord, though only half were required to do so.

     I have no doubt that if the Spanish intended a serious attack they were deterred both by finding us ready and by the fire and search lights of the ships.7 At day no Spanish were about, and the natives who approached had no news of any, except that they brought in a few evidences of the night attack in the shape of empty Mauser shells, a rifle, etc. Pools of blood were also found at the corner, and some equipments; also the cleaning rod of a machine gun. . . .

     Of the numbers of the enemy present or engaged I can form no reliable estimate, but I do not think they were in force along the clearing. The estimate of the country people (though they still stick to it), that 300 were engaged and 109 killed and wounded, may safely be considered absurd. The report made to you by Dr. Veve’s man of 72 infantry and 24 cavalry, with 2 killed and 3 wounded, one of the killed a lieutenant, seems much more probable. I saw no cavalry, however. Mr. Campbell estimates 150, but I do not know his reasons for that opinion. One thousand one hundred shots were fired from the 22 rifles in the light-house.

     To conclude, I am convinced that we could have held the place against a first rush attack of any number of Spanish soldiers not exceeding 200.

     The relief party landed the morning of the 9th and the women and children to the number of 60 were sent to the Leyden without accident. We closed the light-house, and by your orders left the flag flying. . . .8

     I am, very respectfully,

Charles N. Atwater,

Lieutenant, U. S. N.

Source Note Print: Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, pp. 652-57. Addressed below close: “Capt. Chas. J. Barclay,/Commanding U. S. S. Amphitrite.” In his history of the Spanish-American war, Navy Captain French E. Chadwick uses this letter to criticize Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles’ decision to land on the opposite side of Puerto Rico from San Juan, the only fortress on the island and “thus necessarily the main objective.” He argues that Fajardo, the landing place originally decided on which was only forty miles from San Juan, was “practically undefended, being occupied and held in the first week of August without difficulty by a small detachment from the monitor Amphitrite.” Chadwick continues: “A road was available skirting the coast, and thus, always under the guns of accompanying ships, the numerous small rivers running north into the sea gave ample water supply, and there were several small ports which might have served for landing supplies. On the other hand, the southern side had no value as a base for operations against San Juan. To reach the only real objective of the island would, if the war had continued, have meant fighting one’s way against an enemy supported in the strongest manner by natural obstacles.” Chadwick, The Spanish-American War, II, 299-300.

Footnote 1: Cape San Juan Lighthouse. There are background events concerning the engagement at Fajardo not covered in this narrative. Under orders from RAdm. William T. Samspon, monitors Puritan and Amphitrite, armed tug Leyden, and collier Hannibal steamed from Port Nipe to Cape San Juan, arrived late on the  afternoon of 1 August. The ships anchored behind a series of small islands out of sight from the mainland and awaited the arrival of an expected U.S. Army invasion force. However, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, the commander of that force, abruptly and unilaterally changed the invasion site from Fajardo to Guánica. See: Capt. Francis J. Higginson to Sampson, 2 August 1898. Finding no transports at Fajardo save Arcadia and Mississippi that "had been ordered to make a landing, but were at a loss what to do," Capt. Frederick W. Rodgers, commanding Puritan, ordered Leyden to sail to St. Thomas to find out what had happened. While awaiting Leyden’s return, Rodgers sent parties by boat to reconnoiter. On 2 August, one of these parties seized the Cape San Juan lighthouse. See, Rodgers to Long, 2 August 1898, DNA, AFNRC, M625, roll 237; Walter S. Crosley, “Some Experiences on a U.S. Naval Tugboat,” Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, vol. XXV, 1899, 77-79.

The Spaniards in Fajardo, about 5 miles away, did not become aware of the American presence until the early hours of August 3, when an employee of the telegraph office in Fajardo phoned the lighthouse and overheard voices speaking English. Word of the American “invasion” was telegraphed to Governor-General Manuel Macías y Casado at San Juan, who immediately ordered the Spanish troops in Fajardo to withdraw. 1898 La Guerra Hispano Americana en Puerto Rico: Los incidentes de Fajardo. http://home.coqui.net/sarrasin/incidente.fajardo.htm, accessed 17 November 2014.

When Dr. Santiago Veve Calzada, an influential Fajardan civic leader, realized that the Spanish garrison had withdrawn and the city was defenseless against the invading Americans, he entreated the Spanish authorities in San Juan to dispatch troops to defend Fajardo but upon receiving no assurances that anything would be done and believing that the Spanish had abandoned Fajardo, Veve, on August 5, went to the lighthouse seeking American protection for his town. Rodgers and Barclay met with Veve and other Fajardan civic leaders, and in return for their cooperation, agreed to protect their families from any Spanish reprisals. Leyden had in the meantime returned from St. Thomas with news of the landing at Guánica so Puritan and the two army transports sailed for Ponce on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Ibid.

Amphitrite remained at Cape San Juan and on the afternoon of August 5, Captain Barclay with a landing force of fourteen sailors and accompanied by a few prominent civic leaders debarked at Fajardo. The Americans took possession of the town, including posting an American flag at the Customs House in the harbor and over city hall. Barclay also organized a citizen’s militia to patrol the town and appointed Veve to be military governor of eastern Puerto Rico. Barclay then returned to Amphitrite. Ibid.

In the meantime, Macías had sent an officer, Capt. ÁngelRivero Méndez, to investigate the situation in Fajardo. Rivero Méndez reported to his commander, Gen. Ricardo de Ortega y Diez, that the Americans no longer occupied the town and that it would be easy to capture it and those Fajardans who had betrayed Spain. Ortega y Diez urged Macías to send 200 soldiers and an artillery battery to retake the town and capture the disloyal Fajardans, including the Americans occupying the lighthouse even if it meant destroying that structure. On August 5, Macías dispatched such a force under Col. Pedro del Pino. Moving by rail from Hato Rey to Carolina and then moving the remainder of the way by foot, the Spanish troops entered Fajardo the afternoon of August 7. When Fajardans learned of the approach of the Spanish troops, the citizen militia disbanded and many in the town fled to neighboring towns and into the hills. Dr. Veve and other town leaders fled to Amphitrite. Rivero, Crónica, 562-63.

Footnote 2: En. Kenneth M. Bennett, Asst. Eng. David J. Jenkins, Cadets William H. Boardman and Paul Foley.

Footnote 3: Asst. Surgeon Albert H. Heppner.

Footnote 4: Enrique Bird Arias served as translator for the Americans while they occupied Fajardo. 1898 La Guerra Hispano Americana en Puerto Rico: Los incidentes de Fajardo. http://home.coqui.net/sarrasin/incidente.fajardo.htm, accessed 17 November 2014.

Footnote 5: In a portion of the letter not printed here, Atwater described Hansard as a local coffee-plantation owner and former British soldier. He served as Atwater’s aide-de-camp.

Footnote 6: Acting Gunner Herbert Cambell.

Footnote 7: The other ships were the cruiser Cincinnati and armed tug Leyden. In his report of the engagement at Fajardo, Capt. Colby M. Chester of Cincinnati wrote that his ship was the only one “with search lights in working order.” See: Chester to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, 2 September 1898.

Footnote 8: Chester wrote that Barclay decided to withdraw his men and the refugees on the morning of 9 August and that a marine guard from Cincinnati commanded by Lt. John A. Lejeunne conducted the withdrawal. After the Americans had departed, men of the force commanded by Col. Pedro de Pino confiscated the U.S. flags that flew over the Customs House and City Hall in Fajardo as trophies of war. They were later sent to Madrid where they can be seen at the army museum there. It is not known what became of the American flag at the lighthouse. See: Chester to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, 2 September 1898.

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