Joint American Operations at Santiago de Cuba
The story of joint operations at Santiago de Cuba is primarily the story of American inter-service rivalry. The Army fulfilled its mission to force the Spanish fleet of RAdm. PascualCervera y Topete to leave the harbor at Santiago de Cuba, and the Navy succeeded in destroying that fleet, essentially ending the war, but the path to that victory was mired in disagreements, misunderstanding and escalating resentments. The good feelings that had developed between the Army and Navy in planning for the war and in the convoying and landing of the Army’s Fifth Corps on the southeastern coast of Cuba devolved into petty intrigue and finger pointing and created ill-feeling that continued long after the peace.
As seen in the section on Pre-War Planning, the Army and Navy had worked out joint plans for operations in Cuba to be executed in case of war with Spain. When war began, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long reiterated the Navy’s offer to assist the Army in getting to Cuba and in their operations on that island. Once Cervera’s fleet was confirmed to be at Santiago de Cuba, the focus of operations shifted there. It was at this point that fissures developed between the Army and the Navy. Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles proposed an operation in which the Army Expeditionary Force would capture the city, thereby forcing the Spanish fleet to evacuate. The Navy proposed that the Expeditionary Force seize the fortifications at the entrance to the harbor thus allowing the Navy to sweep the mines that had been deployed in the waterway leading to the harbor. Interestingly, the orders issued to Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter, the expedition commander, were ambiguously worded and left open both options.
The key event was a conference held that included Shafter, Sampson, members of their staffs, and the Cuban insurrectionist leader, Gen. CalixtoGarciía y Iñiguez. What was decided at that meeting has become the subject of controversy. While all agreed that the American troops would be landed at Daiquirí and Siboney, there is no agreement as to what they decided the Army would do once ashore. Shafter later said that he clearly informed Sampson and his staff that he was planning to advance into the interior and attack the city. Sampson and the other naval officers were equally sure that Shafter had promised that the Fifth Corps would immediately initiate operations to capture the forts guarding the entrance to Santiago harbor.
Initially, the advance of the American forces was unopposed. Even so, the movement was not without difficulties. Landing and moving provisions, stores, and equipment to the front lines via a route that lacked usable wharves, a sheltered anchorage, and had available only a single road—really a trail—cut by numerous creeks and ravines and wide enough for a single wagon alone, which made forwarding heavy equipment, such as siege guns, impossible.
This unopposed advance came to a halt on 26 June, when Shafter’s forces encountered the Spanish entrenched at San Juan Hill and the nearby village of El Caney. Shafter asked the Navy to bombard the bridge at Aguadores to prevent Spanish reinforcements from moving up but without destroying a valuable bridge so that his troops might use it later. Interestingly, he did not ask the Navy to bombard the Spanish positions at San Juan Heights or El Caney, which they could have easily done and which would probably have forced the Spanish forces to evacuate their lines there. The Navy, reportedly assuming this was the start of the Army’s movement against the fortifications guarding the harbor entrance, bombarded the bridge at Aguadores on 1 July, the same day the Army launched its own attack on San Juan Heights and El Canay. In response to a later request from Shafter, Sampson’s fleet also fired into the city itself to silence Spanish artillery that was harassing the American advance.
While the bombardment was successful in preventing the Spanish from moving troops to the front and in suppressing Spanish artillery fire, the Army’s assault on the Spanish lines was costly. While the Americans overran the Spanish positions and occupied their trenches, the day’s hard fighting claimed some 1,000 American casualties.
The results of the battle dramatically changed the dynamic between the Army and Navy at Santiago de Cuba. The heavy casualties taken in defeating a force of no more than 2,000 Spaniards convinced Shafter and his officers that it would be impossible for the now-weakened Fifth Corps to storm the Spanish trenches closer to Santiago. Shafter thereafter considered shifting his position and attacking the forts at the harbor entrance, as the Navy had advocated, but his second-in-command, former Confederate general Joseph Wheeler, convinced him that an attack on those forts would result in “terrible” American losses.
Shafter decided that the only way forward was for Sampson to “force the entrance” to Santiago and bring about the surrender of the city. While the Navy might suffer losses, Shafter argued that the Navy could afford to lose men while the Army could not. Since neither service leader held supreme authority and cooperation depended entirely upon mutual agreement, this campaign consisted of Shafter arguing his point of view in telegrams and through proxies back in Washington. Not surprisingly, Sampson refused. The Navy’s commander argued that he did not fear casualties, but could not risk his battleships, which would, he asserted, be damaged or destroyed by the mines planted in the harbor entrance and those mines could not be removed until the forts protecting them were neutralized. His only concession was to say that he would consider counter-mining operations but he warned that the Navy was not experienced in these and it would take many days to make the attempt. Even if Sampson had wanted to do as Shafter asked, he could not do so without approval from the Secretary of the Navy John D. Long who had ordered him not to risk losing capitol ships to mines. Frustrated, Shafter continued to press Sampson and even, probably mockingly, offered to let the Navy use an Army vessel to drag the minefield.
In addition to pressing the Navy to undertake an attack on Santiago, Shafter also pressed his superiors in Washington for reinforcements. There were troops assembled in the United States, but the Army had no shipping available to carry them to Cuba. The Navy came to the rescue. Late in June, it loaned the Army three auxiliary cruisers--fast, lightly-armed former passenger liners that the Navy had been using as scout ships--to transport troops to Cuba. These auxiliary cruisers, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia carried 1,000 troops each. By the time Columbia and Yale arrived off Santiago, however, the negotiations for the surrender of the city were in their final stages and these ships and the troops were diverted instead to Puerto Rico. The Navy also helped alleviate the Army’s shortage of supplies by lending ships to carry materiel to the forces in Cuba.
Things changed dramatically on 3 July. The Spaniards had fared far worse than Shafter realized in the hard fighting of 1 July. Spanish lines were thinly held; the Americans held the high ground, poised to fire down and destroy the Spanish defensive works; the city’s defenders were desperately short of supplies, including ammunition and food; and the Americans were in a position to cut the city’s water supply. The Spanish situation was critical. As a result, on 2 July the Governor-General of Cuba ordered Cervera to sally from the harbor rather than chance the capture of the squadron at anchor. The result was the destruction of the Spanish squadron and an overwhelming American naval victory.
This victory created a dilemma. Should the siege of the city continue? The objective of the campaign--the destruction of the Spanish fleet--had been achieved and Santiago de Cuba had never been considered a worthy target before Cervera’s fleet had anchored there. On the other hand, the land campaign was well underway and the Army wanted a victory. In spite of the fact that the besieging American troops were beginning to show signs that an outbreak of yellow fever was imminent, Shafter requested and received approval from President William McKinley to continue the siege.
During the siege little occurred because for most of it a truce to allow for negotiations was in effect. This truce dragged on because each general believed delay benefitted him. Gen. José Toral y Vázquez did so in the hope that his force might be rescued; Shafter delayed while waiting for reinforcements because he believed his force too weak to storm the Spanish defenses. As a result, negotiations continued for days as did Shafter’s demand that the Navy storm the harbor. When Toral finally agreed to surrender on 14 July, relations between the Army and Navy were at a low point. When the surrender agreement was finally completed on 16 July, Shafter excluded the Navy and no Navy officers signed the capitulation despite custom and precedence dictating that they be included. To justify this slight, Shafter argued that Sampson had not mentioned the role of the Army in the naval victory on 3 July, writing: “I respectfully invite your attention to the fact that no claim for any credit for the capture of Cervera and his fleet had been made by the Army, although it is a fact that the Spanish fleet did not leave the harbor until the investment of the City was practically completed. . .”
Sampson went to great lengths to dispel the accusation that the Navy had done virtually nothing to bring about the surrender of the city. The ill-feeling only increased when the Army claimed control of Spanish vessels captured in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba rather than surrendering them to the Navy, as was custom.
The anger and hurt feelings continued after the war and found expression in the printed memoirs of leaders of both services. Despite this, in the judgment of at least one prominent historian “the story of joint operations” at Santiago de Cuba is “one of success.”