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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Naval Operations Guantánamo Bay

     On 31 May 1898, Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long. In it Sigsbee commented that he believed the Navy should seize Guantánamo Bay on the Southeastern coast of Cuba because the “United States vessels would have a fine base for operating against Santiago. . .  . [and] Coaling at sea off Santiago will be very difficult much of the time.”1 Journalist and war reporter W.A.M. Goode wrote of the anchorage: “No better spot for a base could have been desired. The depth of the outer harbor, which was well sheltered, allowed the entrance of the deepest-draught vessels; the climate was comparatively healthy, and the Spaniards never bothered any one.”2

     Operations at Guantánamo Bay actually pre-dated the decision to use it as a staging area and coaling station. The auxiliary cruiser St. Louis and Navy tug Wompatuck were sent there to cut telegraph cables between Guantánamo Bay and Cape Haitian, Haiti. However, the two vessels were driven off by a Spanish gunboat. On 5 June, RAdm. William T. Sampson sent St. Louis back to Guantánamo Bay escorted by the cruiser Marblehead and the auxiliary cruiser Yankee. The three warships drove off the Spanish gunboat and secured the lower bay. The operation, headed by Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla of Marblehead, succeeded when the Spanish gunboat retreated without a fight.3 The only remaining threat the were from mines the Spanish planted in the bay.4 This sortie lead to an American Naval presence at Guantánamo Bay that continues to this day.

     After his reconnoitering of the bay, McCalla advised Sampson to secure it as an American base and to use a detachment of United States Marines, then at Key West as a foothold on the ground.5 On 10 June, the First Marine Battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington landed and bivouacked on a hill near an abandoned Spanish blockhouse.6 McCalla’s choice of a campsite—later named Camp McCalla--incited controversy. The Marines believed it to be “faulty” from a “military point of view” as a ridgeline beyond the camp dominated the position according to some of the Marine officers,7 but Bowman spiritedly maintained after that war that the location of the camp was sound.8

     During the initial days of the occupation the Marines were under almost constant attack. One Marine officer called it “100 hours of fighting.”9 The Marine commander said the heavy underbrush made the attacks possible; a Navy commander blamed overconfidence on the part of the Marines who did not, he wrote, secure their position and were haphazard in where they pitched their tents.10

     There is contention on how the Spanish attacks were finally ended. The Marines contend that the defeat of a Spanish force at Cuzco Well, the only source of water within nine miles and a staging area for the Spanish attackers, ended Spanish activities in the Guantánamo Bay area.11 McCalla, on the other hand, gave credit to a force of Cuban insurrectionists that he landed at the site of the Marine camp. He contends that once these Cubans arrived, Spanish attacks stopped.12

     Even the defeat and scattering of the Spanish forces at Cuzco Well is not without controversy.13 While the main force of Marines poured fire into the Spanish position from a ridge commanding the valley below, a flanking force of forty Marines moved to the left of the main Marine force and began to pour a flanking fire into the enemy force. The Marines contended that that flanking force was shelled by the Navy ship Dolphin, which opened fire on the Spanish position, stopping the Marine advance and allowing the defeated Spanish troops to escape capture.14 The commander of Dolphin disputed this account and contended that Dolphin did not impede the Marines and, in fact, played a key role in defeating the Spanish and then supporting the Marine detachment after the battle.15

     With the Marine’s position in lower Guantánamo Bay finally secure, the Americans now began a push into the upper bay. The first steps were a bombardment of the forts protecting the upper bay, and the deploying of an armed reconnaissance by small boats into those waters, and finally the clearing of mines.16 The target was the Spanish gunboat Sandoval, which was lying in the upper bay.17 The American movement into the upper bay began on 24 and 25 June. Although no Spanish troops were encountered in this first foray, Spanish pickets were observed on the way ahead and several mines were discovered and retrieved.18

     The movement into the upper bay was still in progress when the Spanish commander at Santiago de Cuba surrendered the entire eastern portion of Cuba to American forces, including the gunboat Sandoval.19 Rather than turn over the gunboat to the Americans, the commander of that vessel scuttled it, although McCalla was able to raise it. Afterward it was commissioned into the United States Navy.20

Footnote 2: Goode, With Sampson Through the War, 170.

Footnote 7: See: Huntington to Heywood, 17 June 1898; the quotation is from a report by Capt. Charles McCawley, the battalion’s quartermaster, and is quoted in Marines in the Spanish-American War, 55.

Footnote 9: Maj. Henry C. Cochrane diary, entry of 11-12 June, quoted in, Marines in the Spanish-American War, p. 55.

Footnote 13: On the victory, see: McCalla to Sampson, 19 June 1898.

Footnote 17: See: Squadron Bulletin No. 5, 17 June 1898.

Footnote 20: In a letter to Secretary of the Navy Long, Sampson wanted to place the commanding officer of the Sandoval, Lt. Pablo Scandella y Beretta, under close arrest for having scuttled the vessel after the official surrender and after he had been warned that if any damage was done to the vessel he would “be regarded as outside the pale of ordinary prisoners of war.” See: Sampson’s Command Diary, July 1898, entry of 25 July. The threat proved idle and no action was taken against Lt. Scandella. See: Squadron Bulletin No. 40, 22 July 22 1898.

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