Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

From the Autobiography of Admiral Bowman H. McCalla relating to the capture of Guantánamo

[Extract]

     During the night, after the action of the sixth of June, in obedience to instructions from Admiral Sampson,1 I proceeded eastward in the Marblehead, in order to reconnoitre the Bay of Guantanamo for a naval base; the Yankee joining me there, as part of my command.2

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     The Captain of the Auxiliary St.Louis,3 had permission to accompany us, for the purpose of cutting the two French cable leading into that Bay, and connecting Cape Haytian4 on the East, with Santiago on the West. The two heavily armored ocean cables led into the Bay, and had their terminus in a sheet iron house on Fisherman’s Point, where they were spliced to two much smaller cables, (without armor), which led up the Bay to the village of Caimanera; and from there overhead wires extended to Guantanamo City.

     On a previous occasion, the St.Louis, in company with the tug Wampatuck, had been driven from the Bay, by the Spanish gunboat Sandoval, in an unsuccessful attempt to cut the cables--as we afterwards found from the Sandoval’s log-book, when we raised her.5 The St.Louis was so vulnerable that a shell from a one pounder might easily have disabled this large Auxiliary; and, at this time, her efforts were confined to dragging for the cables, outside the entrance of the Bay.

     At daylight, as the Marblehead, followed by the Yankee, passed Fisherman’s Point, I saw the few soldiers of an out-post about a block-house, on what has since been officially named “McCalla Hill”. In order to clear the block-house and village, I directed that several six pounders and one five inch shell, should be fired at the shore. Two shells from our six pounder passed through the cable house, within one foot of each other, completely interrupting cable communication over the French Line, between Santiago and Europe. The shell from the five inch gun, fortunately set fire to a house in the village containing the ammunition for rifles and for two small field guns. As we passed into the Bay, the gunboat Sandoval courageously came down the channel from Caimanera, opening fire on us from her six pounder; while the guns from the fort on Cayodel Toro, also opened fire--neither doing us any harm. As soon as the Commander [McCalla] discovered the calibre of the guns opposed to him, he prudently retired with precipitation, without being hit; though he subsequently complimented the gun-pointers of the Marblehead, upon their marksmanship.

     The St.Louis found and cut the west bound cable leading to Santiago, by half-past seven that morning, and by eleven o’clock a boat from the Marblehead, in charge of Lieutenant Anderson,6 had found and cut the small east bound cable, inside the bay, which connected Caimanera with Cape Haytian; thus completely isolating the Spanish force at Guantanamo city, sixteen miles inland. There was no overland telegraph between that place and any other points in Cuba.

     Captain Goodrich, in command of the St.Louis, told me that he had orders simply to “mutilate”, and not to cut the east bound outside cable; and to mark the mutilation by a surface buoy, so that the Signal Service might more easily make the repairs, when necessary. This was to comply with a request from Colonel Allen,7 the officer of our Army, who had been sent to the south side of Cuba, in the Adria--as I have already mentioned, a steamer under the Norwegian Flag, chartered by the army and equipped with the necessary apparatus and lengths of cable to repair or to relay. Having in mind the well know belief in the Army, that: “A dead Indian is the only good Indian”, I suggested to Goodrich that submarine cables were very much like Indians, and that my advice would be to cut the east bound cable. I also advised against buoying it at the point where it was mutilated; as it might the more quickly enable the enemy, as well as ourselves, to find and to repair it.

     In the afternoon, of the day of our arrival, after joining the St.Louis in dragging for the outside east bound cable, without success, I returned to the Blockade off Santiago to report the results of our Reconnaissance; leaving the Yankee to protect the St.Louis. Goodrich eventually found the east bound cable, and taking out a few inches of the copper conducting wires, forming the core, buoyed the bight of it, I was told; although, as no buoy was to be seen on the following day, perhaps, he followed one of my suggestions.

     On my return from the Reconnaissance, I took with me two Cuban Officers, who had been brought off to my ship, earlier in the day, in one of the boats of the St.Louis, from the Western point of Guantanamo Bay. These Officers had been sent to Sampson by General Garcia,8 to report that the Cuban Forces, whose outposts occupied positions on the coast, from the mouth of the Yatera river, to a point fifteen miles west of Santiago; were at the disposition of our Commander-in-Chief. These officers returned with me, in the Marblehead on the eighth of June, when I was ordered to assume command of the Naval Base, established on that date in Guantanamo Bay.

     The sequel proved that the advice which I had offered to Goodrich was good. As we approached Guantanamo in the Marblehead on June eighth, her appearance in the distance, accompanied by a Collier, was the signal for a flight of a party of telegraph operators, officials and foreign Consuls from the Company’s cable house on Fisherman’s Point, where they had been in communication with Cape Haytian, over the mutilated eastern cable; that is to say, the office in Hayti had been called up, and asked for “the news”: the answer had been to “wait a minute”, as the operators were busy; but before an answer could be given to the Inquirers the Marblehead was reported in sight, and the whole party in quest of “news” deserted the cable house, steaming hurriedly back to Caimanera. The fact which we learned from this experience, that the mutilation of a submarine cable would not prevent communication, in time of war, was important. The signals must have been transmitted over the steel wires which constituted the “armor”, or else they must have crossed the interval between the mutilated ends, by means of the salt water, which is a good conductor, and which probably found its way through the incisions in the insulations, after the core had been removed.

     From the seventh of June to July fifteenth, the town of Guantanamo had no communication with the outer world. The difficult task of keeping the Spanish “incommunicado” for that length of time, was executed by the constant activity and energy of the comparatively small force of Cubans under General Perez, with the assistance of the Naval and Marine forces under my command. . . .

     On the fifth of June, when I was first told by the Commander-in-Chief, that I was to reconnoitre Guantanamo Bay, I had asked him to send for the Battalion of Marines which was already embarked in their Transport, and awaiting orders at Key West. On the ninth, the Oregon came to the Naval Base at Guantanamo to coal, bringing the Fleet Marine Officer;9 and I was directed by Admiral Sampson, to permit him to select a site for a camp, in advance of the arrival of the Transport, carrying the Marine battalion, which had been ordered by cable to Cuba. After an examination of the eastern side of the Bay, made under the protection of a body of Marines from the Oregon and Marblehead,10 a location was chosen and approved by me, as the “senior Officer present”. I did not think that a better one for the purpose could be found; though twice, afterwards, I was obliged to refuse requests from the Battalion Commander, who wished to move his force to another position.11

     After the Camp had been established and the hill above had been entrenched, General Pareja’s Chief of Engineers12 reported that there was no other position on the Bay, (other than the one taken for the Marine Camp) from which our ships could be harassed; although the Spanish General,13 in an address delivered in the public Square, in Guantanamo City, had, not long before, told his soldiers and the citizens, that they were about to witness an unusual sight: that of “Spanish Infantry, capturing a Yankee Battleship”, It was a compliment both to the infantry and to the third class Cruiser Marblehead.

     On the tenth of June the Marines arrived from Key West; landed at once, burned the village on Fisherman’s Point, in compliance with my orders,14 and established a Camp there; which Lieutenant Colonel Huntington did me the honor to name for me.15 The following day they entrenched a position about the remains of the Block House on the hill above, since officially designated “McCalla Hill”. On the first day two Marines at an outpost, some distance in advance of the Camp, were killed; and that night the men on a picket, defended themselves successfully from attack, the enemy’s force being doubtless made up of guerillas in both instances. On that same night, our whole force, including the Marblehead and Dolphin, was engaged in battling with the foe; and during the engagement Surgeon Gibbs and others were killed.16

     On the twelfth, I took the Marblehead to Leeward Point, to embark seventy Cuban officers and men, who had marched from General Perez’ Division, to join my force; two of them being residents of the village of Fisherman’s Point, and thoroughly familiar with the trails in the vicinity, (there were no roads), as well as being pilots for the adjacent waters.

     As the Cubans came off the Marblehead in our boats, I greeted them with the shout “Viva Cuba Libre!” to which they responded with enthusiasm; and as soon as they were all on board, they were given a good dinner, after which White uniform working suits, with shoes, rifles and ammunition were issued to them, in place of the rags which they word [i.e., wore]. With this change of apparel and the very good straw hats which they brought with them, their appearance was so much improved, that when General Perez visited me, a fortnight later, and his men were drawn up as a guard of honor, he asked me who they were!

     I am reminded, that as the Cuban General17 was given the usual salute for an officer of his rank, with the Cuban Flag displayed from the Masthead of the Marblehead; the “sea lawyers”, agreed with each other, in criticizing me severely; for in their opinion I had recognized a New Nation, by thus honoring the Emblem, under which the Cubans had fought for so long –-and they said that my action was in violation of International Law.18

     Before returning to the Bay, I steamed to the well of Cuzco, the only fresh water supply for miles, which the enemy could obtain; I shelled it and a house near the shore, driving out some troops; after which the Cubans were landed at Fisherman’s Point, where they quickly built themselves comfortable huts, from the palms and trees along the shore. Before sunset, I saw them deploy in “pairs” across the land front of the position held by the Marines; burning the brush and undergrowth as they advanced; and I felt great relief, for I recognized at once, that the Cubans with their knowledge of the ways of the enemy, gained from long experience, were able to cope with the tactics of the Spanish guerillas, with which we were not familiar. The example of assuredness shown by the Cuban contingent, was, as I believed a beneficial one for our force on shore; for, after the night of the twelfth, the fire control in camp, was perfect.

     A few days later, I sent the Suwanee to Leeward Point, to meet a hundred more Cuban officers and men, whom General Perez sent to me, at my request.

     On the fourteenth, in order to relieve the pressure of the enemy on the Marine Camp, I authorized an offensive movement, in the direction of the Well of Cuzco, which was entirely successful; for after the engagement of that day, the Spanish abandoned that locality, though a position at “Dos Caminos” (the crossing of two roads) was fortified under the impression and apprehension that we should eventually advance by that road to attack Guantanamo City.

     Two companies of Marines, with fifty Cubans – two hundred and thirty in all – with Captain Spicer and Lieut. Colonel Thomas constituted our force;19 one portion advancing by the cliffs to the Well of Cuzco, supported by the Dolphin.20 The other diverged to the left, and were guided by one of the two pilots – Polycarpio – up a valley which also led to the Well of Cuzco; the two pieces meeting on the side of an adjoining mountain. Our force attacked three or four hundred Spanish soldiers and guerillas, driving them from the field with a loss from forty to sixty killed and wounded; capturing one officer and seventeen men. We lost two Cuban soldiers and had four of our men wounded, two of them Cubans; the last words of one of the Cubans who was shot through the heart, and buried on the field, were “Viva Cuba Libre!”--the other died after being taken on board the Dolphin. Captain Spicer and twenty-two Marines were prostrated by the effect of the sun; this heat prostration was doubtless due, in part, to the mistake of leaving their campaign hats on board their Transport. The Dolphin shelled the Spanish position, and supplied ammunition and water to our forces on shore; and after the fight, she returned with the wounded, and those who were overcome by the heat.

     The Spanish retreated hastily at Cayo del Toro, with eighteen wounded; they arrived there at midnight, crossing to Caimanera, where they reported that they had been attacked by ten thousand Americans. In consequence of this defeat and exaggerated statement, Caimanera was hastily evacuated, as I afterwards heard; and I subsequently remembered that on the morning following this very successful engagement, the officer of the watch on the Marblehead, had called my attention, at daylight, to a train of box cars-plainly visible with binoculars- which were leaving the station, the tops of which were crowded with men. One of the Spanish prisoners is reported to have said that: “it was not fair for our men to have shot so fast.”

     Not unlike many joint operations, each component part believed that its own part had been the most important to the success of the day. The Marines claimed that they would have done better without the Dolphin; while it was stated on the Dolphin, that it would have gone hard with the Marines had she not taken part in the fight. The present General Elliott had succeeded to the command of the land force, when Captain Spicer was disabled, and Admiral Lyon was then the Commander of the Dolphin; both officers acquitting themselves most creditably.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 464.

Footnote 1: RAdm. William T. Sampson, commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 2: Auxiliary cruiser Yankee, Cmdr. Williard H. Brownson, commanding.

Footnote 3: Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich.

Footnote 4: That is, Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

Footnote 5: Sandoval was scuttled by its crew when Guantánamo City surrendered to American forces on 25 July. McCalla oversaw her successful raising soon afterward. Chadwick, The Spanish-American War, 2: 311, 319. The gunboat was then taken into the United States Navy as U.S.S. Sandoval. See, DANFS.

Footnote 6: Lt. Edwin A. Anderson.

Footnote 7: Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich, U.S.N. and Lt. Col. James Allen of the Army Signal Corps.

Footnote 8: Maj Gen. Calixto García y Iñiquez. McCalla elsewhere identified one of the Cuban officers as Lt. Col. Gonzalo Garcia Vieta.

Footnote 9: Marine Capt. Mancil L. Goodrell.

Footnote 10: The landing party consisted of 20 Marines from Sampson’s flagship New York, 20 Marines from Marblehead, and 40 Marines from Oregon. Marines in the Spanish-American War, 14.

Footnote 11: Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington. Huntington was not the only Marine officer to question the choice of this site. Marine Capt. Charles McCawley, the battalion quartermaster, wrote that the site was a “faulty one” from a “military point of view” because a short distance in its front a larger ridgeline dominated the Marine held hill. According to McCawley, “had the enemy been at all energetic or possessed of an ordinary amount of military knowledge they could have, in occupying this hill with sharpshooters, rendered our positions untenable.” Ibid., 55. When Huntington presented his objections, McCalla reportedly replied: “You were put there to hold that hill and you’ll stay there. If you’re killed I’ll come and get your dead body.” Maj. Henry C. Cochrane Diary, entry of 11-12 June, quoted in Marines in the Spanish-American War, 56.

Footnote 12: The chief of engineers serving under Brig. Gen. Félix Pareja Mesa has not been identified.

Footnote 13: That is, Brig. Gen. Félix Pareja Mesa.

Footnote 14: The houses were burned “as a precaution against yellow fever.” See: McCalla, Lessons of the Late War.

Footnote 15: As noted earlier, the location of the camp was a point of dispute between McCalla and the officers commanding the Marines.

Footnote 16: For more on these attacks on the Marines, see: Robert Huntington to Charles Heywood, 17 June 1898.

Footnote 17: Gen. Pedro Augustín Pérez.

Footnote 18: In April 1898, Congress agreed to intervene in Cuba, but without recognizing the Cuban Revolutionary Government.

Footnote 19: Marine Capt. William F. Spicer was one of the company commanders in the force; the overall commander was Marine Capt. George F. Elliott. The Cuban contingent was commanded by Lt. Col. Enrique Tomas.

Footnote 20: In his orders of 13 June to Comdr. Henry W. Lyon of the Dolphin concerning the attack on the Cuzco Well, McCalla made no mention of a land force or of it being a joint operation. His instructions were simply for Lyon to “destroy the well.”  DNA, AFNRC, M625, roll 231.

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