Battle of San Juan Hill: Wikis


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Battle of San Juan Hill
Part of the Spanish–American War
San Juan Hill by Kurz and Allison.JPG
Detail from Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry at San Juan Hill,July 2, 1898 .
Date July 1, 1898
Location near Santiago, Cuba
20°01′15″N 75°47′46″W / 20.0209106°N 75.7961154°W / 20.0209106; -75.7961154
Result U.S./Cuban victory[1]
United States United States
Cuba Republic of Cuba
Spain Kingdom of Spain
United States William Rufus Shafter
Spain Arsenio Linares
15,000 infantry
4,000 guerrilleros
12 field guns
4 gatling guns
800 infantry
5 field guns
Casualties and losses
205 dead
1,180 wounded
58 dead
170 wounded
39 captured

The Battle of San Juan Hill (July 1, 1898) is an actual misnomer, but was popularized in the American press of the day. The actual battle was for the San Juan Heights. The heights were a north-south running elevation about two kilometers east of Santiago de Cuba. The names San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill were names given by the Americans. This fight for the heights was the bloodiest and most famous battle of the Spanish–American War. It was also the location of the greatest victory for the Rough Riders as claimed by the press and its new commander, the future Vice-President and later President, Teddy Roosevelt (who was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during this battle). Overlooked then by the American Press, much of the heaviest fighting was done by African-American troops.[2]



At San Juan Hill, 760 Spanish soldiers were ordered to hold the heights against an American offensive on July 1, 1898. For unclear reasons, Spanish General Arsenio Linares failed to reinforce this position, choosing to hold nearly 10,000 Spanish reserves in the city of Santiago. Spanish hilltop entrenchments, while typically well-constructed, had been poorly positioned, which would make even point-blank rifle volleying at the advancing Americans difficult. General William Rufus Shafter commanded about 15,000 troops in three divisions. Jacob F. Kent commanded the 1st Division, Henry W. Lawton commanded the 2nd Division, and Joseph Wheeler[3] commanded the dismounted Cavalry Division but was suffering from fever and had to turn over command to General Samuel S. Sumner. Shafter's plans to attack Santiago de Cuba called for Lawton's division to move north and reduce the Spanish stronghold at El Caney, which was to take about 2 hours then join with the rest of the troops for the attack on the San Juan Heights. The remaining two divisions would move directly against San Juan Hill with Sumner in the center and Kent to the south. Shafter was too ill to personally direct the operations and instead set up his headquarters at El Pozo two miles (3 km) from San Juan Hill and communicated through mounted staff officers.

Order of battle


V Corps – Major General William Rufus Shafter
Second-in-Command – Major General Joseph Wheeler


IV Corps – General Arsenio Linares – 15th Provisional Battalion – 4th Battalion Talavera Peninsular Regiment – 1st Battalion San Fernando Regiment – 1st Battalion Asia Regiment – 1st Battalion Constitutional Regiment – 1st Battalion Cuba Regiment – 2nd Battalion Cuba Regiment – 1st Battalion Simancas Regiment – 1st and 2nd Guerrilla Companies – 1st Cavalry Regiment


"Hell's Pocket"

A company from the signal corps ascended in a hot air balloon to reconnoiter the hills. The balloon made for a good target for the Spaniards. Hawkins' brigade had already passed by the new found route and Kent ordered forward the brigade under Colonel Charles A. Wikoff. It was 12 p.m. by the time Wikoff began heading down the trail, and a half an hour later he emerged from the woods and was struck by a bullet. He died as his staff officers carried him to the rear. Next in command was Lt. Col. William S. Worth who assumed command but within five minutes fell wounded. Lt. Col. Emerson Liscom assumed command and within another five minutes received a disabling wound. Lt. Col. Ezra P. Ewers, fourth in command of the brigade, assumed command.

Kent and Sumner lined up for the attack and waited for Lawton's division to arrive from El Caney. Lawton did not arrive as scheduled, and no orders came from either Shafter or Wheeler and the troops waited at the base of the hill plagued by Spanish gunfire in areas dubbed "Hell's Pocket" and/or "Bloody Ford".

Kettle Hill

Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill by Frederic Remington.

Many of the officers grew impatient of waiting for orders. One such officer was Col. Theodore Roosevelt, commander of the volunteer "Rough Riders" regiment. Roosevelt's dismounted cavalry lay waiting in trenches at the base of the hill while suffering casualties. One of the casualties that occurred in the trenches was the death of Captain Buckey O'Neill. Repeatedly Roosevelt was told to hold his position. Upon word to support the regulars to his left, he took it upon himself to lead a bold charge. Facing the Rough Riders was a smaller hill which received the name Kettle Hill 20°01′21″N 75°47′37″W / 20.0225486°N 75.7937336°W / 20.0225486; -75.7937336 because the Americans found a large sugar kettle near the base. Roosevelt formed his regiment and began to advance. The advance began to slow as troops dropped from heat exhaustion. Roosevelt feared that he could not keep up on foot in the tropical heat and instead stayed mounted until he was forced to advance on foot. Soon officers from the rest of Wood's brigade along with Carrol's brigade began to advance, and the units became intermingled. One of the units involved was the 10th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldiers" along with one of its lieutenants, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. The attackers eventually cut their way through barbed wire near the top of the hill and drove the Spaniards out of their trenches on Kettle Hill.

Kettle Hill was a smaller part of the San Juan Heights with San Juan Hill 20°01′12″N 75°47′54″W / 20.0200185°N 75.7982129°W / 20.0200185; -75.7982129 and its main blockhouses being the highest point with a dip or draw in between the two hills on a north-south axis. The heights are located about a mile east of Santiago. The Rough Riders took Kettle Hill on the American right with assistance from several troops of the "black" 10th Cavalry and the entire 3rd Cavalry ("white" volunteers). Most of the 10th supported by elements of the 24th and 25th colored infantry on the left took San Juan Hill. The 10th had held the center position between the two hills and when they went forward they split toward the tops of the two hills. Ord started the regulars forward on the American left and Roosevelt claimed he started the charge on the right. Retreating Spanish troops withdrew toward San Juan Hill still being contested. The regulars fired toward them and supported their comrades fighting on the adjacent hill. Thus the so called myth was started that the Rough Riders alone took the Kettle Hill.[6] Sergeant George Berry took his unit colors and that of the 3rd Cavalry to the top of Kettle Hill before the Rough Rider's flag arrived. This is supported in the writings of "Black Jack" Pershing who fought with the 10th on Kettle Hill.[7] It appears that politics and racial discrimination led to many myths about the fighting in Cuba where the African-Americans were involved.[8][2]

San Juan Hill

In the meantime Hamilton Hawkins' brigade was faring no better than Roosevelt had in his original position. A former brigade staff officer, then assigned to D Troop of the 10th Cavarly, First Lieutenant Jules Garesche Ord (son of General E.O.C. Ord).[7] arrived and initiated an unusual discussion with his commander by asking, "General, if you will order a charge, I will lead it." Hawkins made no response. Ord again asked "If you do not wish to order a charge, General, I should like to volunteer. We can't stay here, can we?" "I would not ask any man to volunteer," Hawkins stated. "If you do not forbid it, I will start it," returned Ord. Hawkins again remained silent. Ord finally asked "I only ask you not to refuse permission." Hawkins responded "I will not ask for volunteers, I will not give permission and I will not refuse it," he said. "God bless you and good luck!"[7]

With that response Ord rushed to the front of the brigade advising them to support the charge of the regulars. Captain John Bigelow, Jr. of D Troop of the 10th with his second in command of Ord in the lead moved out of the trenches and advanced up the slope. Other units seeing the "Buffalo Soldiers" advance moved forward without commands to do so. General Hawkins apparently was not opposed to the attack since once the men began he joined in directing supporting regiments. At 150 yards from the top of the hill the troops charged, cutting their way through the barbed wire. Bigelow was hit four times before falling. There he continued to encourage his men to not stop until the top.[7]

Seeing the 'spontaneous advances' of Ord and then Roosevelt, General Wheeler (having returned to the front) gave the order for Kent to advance with his whole division while he returned to the Cavalry Division. Kent sent forward Ewers' brigade to join Hawkins' men already approaching the hill. Kent's men discovered that the Spanish had placed their trenches in faulty positions and were actually covered from their fire while the attackers climbed the hill. Ord, still in the lead, was among the first to reach the crest of San Juan Hill. The Spanish fled, as Ord began directing supporting fire into the remaining Spanish when he was shot in the throat and mortally wounded. Hawkins was wounded shortly after.[7]

After losing Kettle Hill, Linares's men still on San Juan Hill began to fire on the Rough Rider's newly won position. While Kent's secured a blockhouse to the south after hand-to-hand fighting, Sumner also charged San Juan Hill. Roosevelt personally led the attack but paused after charging a few feet with only a handful of men following. He turned around and inquired why no one had followed. His men replied they had not heard the order and quickly joined the attack. Kent's remaining brigade under Colonel E. P. Pearson arrived after Hawkins and Ewers had already charged and moved further to the south and drove the Spanish off of a knoll on the Spanish right flank.

General Wood sent requests for Kent to send up infantry to strengthen his vulnerable position. Wheeler reached the trenches and ordered breastworks constructed. Roosevelt's men did in fact repulse a minor counterattack on the northern flank. The Americans' position on San Juan Hill was exposed to artillery fire from within Santiago, and Shafter feared the vulnerability of the line and ordered the troops to withdraw. Wheeler assured Shafter that the position could be held; still Shafter ordered the withdrawal. Before the men could withdraw Wheeler called aside Kent and Sumner and reassured them that the line could be held, and during the night they worked at strengthening the lines while reinforcements arrived late.


Roosevelt and the Rough Riders atop San Juan Heights, 1898

The battle had been a hard one for the Americans, who suffered almost three times as many losses as the Spanish had. The Spaniards, meanwhile, had literally fought to the knife, losing a third of their force in casualties but yielding very few prisoners.

Lawton's division, which was supposed to join the fight early on July 1, did not arrive until noon on July 2, having encountered unexpectedly heavy resistance in the battle of El Caney. The Americans, along with the aid of Cuban insurgents, immediately began the investment of Santiago, which surrendered on July 17.

Theodore Roosevelt, along with the rest of the Rough Riders, achieved notoriety with the victory. This prestige was leveraged into further political gain, as Roosevelt was subsequently elected governor of New York, and later selected as the vice-presidential running mate of William McKinley in the election of 1900. Also, it indirectly helped his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt win the 1933 election, since the name of Roosevelt had already been glorified in war and presidential office. This despite that the heaviest fighting was done by African-American troops who took the highest point on the heights.[2]

Young Jules Garesche Ord never received recognition in the popular press of the day for his actions. The Army quietly turned down the requests for a medal for his heroisim from his commanding officer and his commanding general. Slowly, history is now recording his noble deed and proper place in the story of San Juan Hill. Tragically, his father General E.O.C. Ord died in Havana, Cuba of yellow fever. Both men were laid to final rest at Arlington Cemetery.[7]

Famous reggae singer Bob Marley wrote a song about the African-American troops who took part in the battle. 

See also


  1. ^ Konstam, Angus San Juan Hill 1898: America's Emergence as a World Power: 1998, p.77
  2. ^ a b c Anthony L. Powell (1998). "Black Participation in the Spanish-American War". The Spanish-American War Centennial web site. Retrieved September 11, 2009. 
  3. ^ Once the fighting had begun General Wheeler rode to the front becoming the senior ranking officer on the front lines as General Shafter was far to the rear at his headquarters. There he directed parts of Kent's Division and his own Cavalry Division during the attack.
  4. ^ The 22nd U.S. Infantry in the Spanish–American War Retrieved January 10, 2007
  5. ^ Samuel Sumner was in command of the division when the battle began as General heeler was ill. Wheeler returned to the front once the battle was underway.
    Longacre, Edward G. A Soldier to the Last: Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler in Blue and Gray: 2006 p.227
  6. ^ Roosevelt, Theodore (1898). The Rough Riders, Chapter III,
  7. ^ a b c d e f Kinevan, Marcos E., Brigadier General, USAF, retired (1998). Frontier Cavalryman, Lieutenant John Bigelow with the Buffalo Soldiers in Texas. Texas Western Press, The University of Texas at El Paso. ISBN 0-87404-243-7. 
  8. ^ Evan Thomas (2008). "A 'Splendid' War’s Shameful Side The finale of the Spanish-American war, rooted in misunderstanding and racism, still reverberates.". Retrieved September 11, 2009. 

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