The American Army Moves on Puerto-Rico

Part 1

by Mark R. Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Archeologist, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office


This paper will discuss the U.S. Army's campaign on the island of Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War, including the battle of Fajardo, the skirmish at Guanica, and the battles of Yauco and Coamo. The article also includes a study of Miles's strategy, and the movements of each of his four prongs of attack.

 The American Army Moves on Puerto Rico

About the time Admiral Sampson's fleet was bombarding San Juan (May 12th) the American army began to see the need to increase to its forces, as the most of the Regular Army forces were rapidly being committed to the Cuban campaign and the occupation of the Philippines.  All throughout May and June of 1898 volunteer state militia units were mustered into the United States Army.  By June President McKinley was ready to order General Miles to invade Puerto Rico mainly with these fresh troops (Long 1923:200).  The increase in available and trained troops would allow for greater speed in the engagement of the Spanish on that island.

General MilesHowever, Miles and his invasion force could not leave directly from the United States for Puerto Rico because of the military situation in Cuba in early July. General Shafter had telegraphed the President that he had taken heavy causalities in the attack on San Juan Hill and he was not sure he could hold his position, particularly with the recent outbreak of yellow fever in his camp. As a result, the administration detoured Miles to Santiago to booster Shafter, who upon being told Miles was coming with reinforcements, commenced to demand the surrender of General Toral's Spanish forces in Santiago.

With the end of the Santiago de Cuba campaign, on July 17th, General Miles shifted the seat of the war to Puerto Rico (Porter 1904:32).  The Puerto Rican campaign was now the highest priority of the McKinley administration as the Spanish government of Prime Minister Sagasta had approached the French government to serve as a go-between to initiate peace negotiations with the United States (Millis 1931:336).

If the United States were to claim Puerto Rico in peace talks it was vital to land troops on the island immediately.  However, Miles and his troops were delayed in Cuba by Admiral Sampson's refusal to detach armored cruisers and battleships to escort Miles' expedition to Puerto Rico, until July 21st.  While Miles had sufficient transport vessels for moving his troops to Puerto Rico, he was concerned about not having enough armored battleships to protect the troop transports in the event of an attack by Spanish torpedo boats, which had already sallied out of San Juan to attack American warships twice before.  Miles cabled his concerns about Sampson to the Secretary of War on July 20th.

 The NUECES and LAMPASAS came in [to Guantanamo, Cuba] last night with engineer corps, artillery train, and 600 troops.  There are now ten transports here, ready to move to Porto Rico, including four batteries, light artillery and siege artillery, and other en route.  The horses are suffering and some dying from long and close confinement, and the troops are subjected to much discomfort.  I have been waiting for Admiral Sampson to furnish proper naval assistance . . . [U.S. Government 1902:293]
Sampson was preparing for an attack on the Canary and Balearic Islands, and a possible bombardment of coastal Spanish towns if the war was to drag on and he was loath to part with his big ships (Nofi 1996:168).  However, a telegram from the President released the ships and the Miles expedition departed Santiago de Cuba for Puerto Rico on July 21st with a mostly volunteer force that had been waiting and training for three months to see action.

The strategy Miles had developed for the Puerto Rico campaign would not have mattered without sufficient military force, which he did not yet have.  Miles was under orders to return to the United States after the surrender of the Spanish in Cuba, and possibly he feared that he would not be permitted to lead the invasion.  So with only 3500 troops, but sufficient naval support he decided to depart from Guantanamo, Cuba for Puerto Rico.  Other elements of the invasion force would simply have to follow Miles' lead (Trask 347-349).

As previously discussed with President McKinley and Secretary of War Alger, General Miles was to coordinate his personal arrival off Puerto Rico, with a few thousand volunteer troops, mainly the 6th Massachusetts and the 6th Illinois regiments, who accompanied him to Cuba to reinforce Shafter.  The 11th and 19th Regular Infantry Regiments jumping off from Tampa, and more volunteers leaving from Charleston, South Carolina, and Newport News, Virginia would all land simultaneously at Cape San Juan, near the Fajardo Lighthouse, with Miles, on the northeastern point of Puerto Rico.  From there, over 25,000 American troops would march west for sixty miles overland to capture the fortified city of San Juan with the assistance of the US Navy.  This was the plan approved by the President and Secretary, before Miles left Washington for Cuba, on 26 June (Nofi 1996:232).

The departure of the troops from the United States for the Puerto Rican campaign experienced much less trouble than Shafter's forces in the Cuban campaign that left from Tampa, as they left from several ports usually with good shipping facilities.  Rather then concentrating all the troops at a port like Tampa whose facilities could only sustain relatively small numbers of troop movements.  The first elements of I Corps, about 3500 men, accompanied by Miles, included General Henry Garretson's Brigade, consisting mainly of the 6th Massachusetts and 6th Illinois Volunteers, and a few Regular Artillery Batteries and Engineers left Charleston, South Carolina on July 7th, on the transport USS YALE and the cruiser USS COLUMBIA and arrived off Cuba to reinforce Shafter's V Corps on July 11th, where they were met with additional elements of Miles' I Corps (Trask 1996:346; Nofi 1996:232).

The landing of these troops on Cuba was rendered unnecessary by the surrender of Spanish forces a few days later.  General Toral was overawed by the size of the reinforcements Miles had with him - not realizing they were intended for Puerto Rico.  By protecting his troops from exposure to fevers, which was already infecting large numbers of Shafter's V Corps, and would ultimately account for a larger number of deaths than that suffered in Cuban combat, Miles could land in Puerto Rico with a strong force, but one that had been sitting on ships in the tropical climate for over two weeks (Nofi 1996:233).

Of concern to Miles was the length of time his troops would have to remain on the crowded and make-shift transports.  As noted in the official history of Battery A of St. Louis, transport by ship could be very difficult indeed,

Roumanian at dockAfter arriving in Newport News, [Virginia, from Chickamauga, Georgia] the battery was loaded on the "ROUMANIAN" and sailed for Puerto Rico.  The sleeping quarters were at the bottom of the "black hole", reached by a crude ladder that ran down through the port hatches, past two decks of houses, into the darkness.  Hammocks were hung at night in double tiers between rows of upright posts, and so close together that elbows touched.  The air was hot and stifling and the sight of the mass of legs and arms protruding in all directions, in the dismal half gloom from the lantern, recalled Dore's pictures of the Inferno.  The ship having been used for years as a cattle boat, the reminiscent odor combined with the smell of bilge water and stale provisions can convey no adequate appreciation by mere description.  From the cracks in the boards that covered temporarily the rough bottom a dark slime oozed and made the footing insecure.  One could hardly stay there without feeling giddy, but that is where the men were expected to sleep and eat.  A soldier found on deck after taps had sounded was summarily ordered below, on penalty of arrest . . . Only the guard relief and the sick men were allowed to sleep on deck . . . The ship being shorthanded, soldiers were asked to volunteer for stoker duty.  The reward was food: three portions of sailor's stew a day.  The temptation to get something beside weevily hard-tack, spoiled canned beef and rotten tomatoes, drew many a sturdy lad to the fire-room . . . Few of the soldiers could stand the test for more than one shift, although the promise of food was hard to resist . . . The water supply provided for the men was warm and polluted.  The steward of the boat made a nice profit selling ice water at ten cents a glass and warm beer at half a dollar a bottle, till stopped by the commanding officer . . . The sanitary arrangements of disarrangements of the ship transcend all description.  Let it be said in short that the "ROUMANIAN" was considered the very worst transport that ever went out, and its faults were added to by the incompetence of the captain-quartermaster in charge, who it is a pleasure to say afterward went to jail, and by the indifference, to put it mildly, of a regular army martinet, who confessed no love for volunteers, but might have, if he chose, somewhat ameliorated their condition . . . When the "ROUMANIAN" rounded the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico, she ran aground on a coral reef.  Full tide considerately released her [Porter 1904:32-37].
This particular experience illustrates the lack of control that was occurring in the United States Army during the war.  While the ROUMANIAN might be considered a particularly lurid example of the difficulty of transporting large numbers of troops caused in 1898, a reading of other volunteer accounts shows that Battery A, of St. Louis were not the only American troops exposed to these types of conditions.

Delay encountered in Cuba - securing proper naval escort, and treating with General Toral - caused General Miles to move his transports to Guantanamo Bay.  But, it was imperative that Miles leave Santiago soon in order to rendezvous with Major General James Harrison Wilson's force of 3,571 men of General Enrst's Brigade.  This brigade consisted of the 16th Pennsylvania, 2nd and 3rd Wisconsin, and the remaining elements of the 6th Illinois Volunteer Regiments, and had departed Charleston, South Carolina, on the 20th of July, bound for Cape Fajardo (Rivero 1972:223).  Miles' command as he left Cuba consisted of 3,145 troops from the 6th Illinois and 6th Massachusetts, plus small units of combat and telegraph engineers, artillery, and a sanitation unit.  These men were transported mainly on the USS YALE and USS DIXIE, with the battleship USS MASSASSACHUSETTS, cruiser USS COLUMBIA, and gunboat USS GLOUCESTER providing protection against Spanish torpedo boats in Puerto Rican waters.  Overall command of the naval force was under Captain Francis J. Higginson, captain of MASSASSACHUSETTS, which served as the flagship for the Puerto Rican expedition. The bulk of Miles' troops were on the transports LAMPASAS, CITY OF MACON, NUECES, COMANCHE, UNIONIST, STILLWATER, RITA, and SPECIALIST (Rivero 1972:181-182).

However, sometime between the 21st and 24th of July, General Miles did something for which he was well known in military circles - he changed his mind about landing at Fajardo.  Without consulting the President or the Secretary of War he ordered Captain Higginson to change course and sail for Guánica on the southwest side of the island, probably based to a large extent on the information supplied by newly promoted Captain Henry F. Whitney fresh from his espionage in Puerto Rico, who was now with Miles' expedition.  Miles determined that a landing on Guánica would have the benefits of surprise and a more welcoming population (Trask 1981:353).

Instead of marching upon San Juan by the short route from Cap Fajardo, the General had decided to sweep triumphantly through the island, beginning at the most distant point and spreading his conquering armies throughout its entire area.  The General later advanced a number of reasons for this change of plan.  One was that, since the press had of course announced the original destination to the world, he would probably find it easier to land somewhere else [Millis 1931:336-7].
Regardless of the tactical advantage that Miles reported, this action was not popular with Secretary of War Alger, Captain Alfred T. Mahan or Captain Francis Higginson, commander of the USS MASSASSACHUSETTS.  Considering Miles' change of landing sites indefensible, Mahan wrote to Secretary Long,
The Porto Rico landing I once told you, at Guanica, and the initiation of operations there, appears to me a military stupidity so great, that I can account for these acts only by a kind of obsession or vanity, to do a singular and unexpected thing [Trask 1981:355].
It has been suggested that Mahan's reaction to Miles Guánica plan stemmed from Mahan's over confidence in dealing with the Spanish military (Trask 1981:355), and his possible suspicion that Miles did not intend to share the glory of the campaign with the Navy (Millis 1931:337).  Captain Higginson, however, had more practical reasons for his objection to the plan.  The harbor at Guánica was not deep enough for the MASSACHUSETTS, COLUMBIA, and DIXIE to enter and so could not give proper naval support for debarking troops.  Captain Higginson was not convinced that he could provide adequate offensive support in an operation on Guánica (Trask 1981:355).  Should troops landing at Guánica come under fire they could only be supported by the shallow draft gunboat GLOUCESTER, formerly J. Pierpont Morgan's yacht the CORSAIR, now armed with four 6-pounders, four 3-pounders, and two Colt automatic machine guns and commanded by Captain Richard Wainwright, the former executive officer of the USS MAINE.

The Gloucester bombarding Spanish Troops

The Gloucester bombarding Spanish Troops at Guanica, July 25, 1898

Accepting General Miles overall authority for the Puerto Rican campaign, Captain Higginson ordered a change in the course of the fleet south through the Mona Channel and dispatched the DIXIE to meet the NEW ORLEANS, then on blockade duty off San Juan on the evening of July 24th.  The DIXIE conveyed orders from Captain Higginson to Captain W.H. Folger of the NEW ORLEANS to proceed to Fajardo to direct American ships that would soon be arriving at the original landing point to Guánica.  The DIXIE turned around and pursued the main invasion fleet, which was navigating the Mona Channel with its running lights off, arriving before Guánica at 5:20 AM on July 25th, 1898 (Rivero 1972:184).

In a serious breach of professional courtesy, Miles did not see fit to inform either of his civilian superiors -- the President of the United States or the Secretary of War Alger -- of the change in landing site.  On July 26th, a dumbfounded Secretary of War Alger learned of the change in the landing site from the Associated Press "that General Miles had suddenly changed his whole plan of campaign while in mid-passage" to Puerto Rico, landing at the small port of Guánica on the southwest coast of the island (Millis 1931:336).  Miles appears to have based his change of landing site on a variety of reasons 1) the Spanish had prior knowledge of the intended landing at Fajardo from American newspaper articles; 2) Whitney's spy mission and intelligence from Puerto Rican exile alerted Miles to strong anti-Spanish attitude among the people in the southern part of the island; 3) a landing far from strong Spanish forces would provide Miles' volunteer forces time to organize and prepare themselves for combat; and 4) lighters to transport troops and supplies from the transports were readily available at Guánica (Picó 1987:56).

Three days after landing (July 28th), Miles finally communicated with Secretary Alger and sent the following reassuring cable after the landings were secured and once he had establish communication links with Washington via the underwater telegraph lines in St. Thomas, Danish Virgin Islands.

Spanish troops are retreating from southern part of Porto Rico . . . This is a prosperous and beautiful country.  The Army will soon be in mountain region; weather delightful; troops in the best of health and spirit; anticipate no insurmountable obstacles in future results.  Results thus far have been accomplished without loss of a single life [U.S. Government 1902:330].

 The Spanish Victory at Fajardo (August 1-8)

General Miles appears to have made the right decision to land the American army at Guánica, rather than Fajardo, based on the experiences of the marines and sailors of the USS PURITAN who would land and attempt to hold the Fajardo area, on the northeast corner of Puerto Rico.  The USS PURITAN, under the command of Captain Frederic W. Rogers, was the largest of a "modern" line of monitors to replace Civil War vessels of this type.  This 6,060 ton vessel carried four 12-inch guns, six 4-inch guns, and six 6-pounders (Dyal 1996:271).  The PURITAN had arrived off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, between San Juan and Fajardo and relieved the NEW ORLEANS from blockade duty, which proceeded to St. Thomas for coaling on July 31st.

On August 1st, Captain Rodgers ordered a contingent of sailors, marines, and Puerto Rican volunteers to land at the original landing site selected by the war planners in Washington.  The next day the PURITAN was joined by the USS AMPHITRITE, a monitor; the USS LEYDEN, an armed tugboat; and the USS HANNIBAL, a coaling ship.  On this day the shore party raised the American flag over the Fajardo lighthouse (Rivero 1972:353-354).

Fajardo Lighthouse

The Fajardo Lighthouse

On the morning of August 3rd the Spanish authorities in the nearby town of Fajardo finally became aware that the lighthouse was in the hands of US forces and notified and Spanish Military Headquarters at San Juan by telegraph of the situation.  Headquarters ordered the evacuation of all Spanish forces (25 infantrymen under a lieutenant and the civil guards) from Fajardo, leaving the local officials and municipal police in charge (Rivero 1972:356).

For the next two days, Dr. Santiago Veve Calzada, a local physician, unsuccessfully attempted have Spanish troops sent from Humacao to Fajardo to safeguard the inhabitants and town.  Dr. Veve then approached the Americans at the lighthouse and requested the town of Fajardo be taken over by US forces.  Dr. Veve was conveyed out to the AMPHITRITE where he convinced its commander, Captain Charles J. Barclay and Captain Rodgers to bring the town under American protection (Rivero 1972:357-358).

On the afternoon of August 5th, Dr. Veve, Captain Barclay, Ensign Albert Campbell and 14 marines entered the harbor of Fajardo on the LEYDEN.  They raised American flags over the Customshouse and City Hall.  All the municipal employees of Fajardo swore fealty to the United States and were then confirmed at their posts by Captain Barclay.  Barclay also organized a citizen's militia to patrol the town (Rivero 1972:360-362).

On the same day (August 5th), Captain General Macías, ordered his aide-de-camp, Colonel Pedro del Pino to take 200 men to Fajardo.  Moving quickly by rail from Hato Rey to Carolina, and then marching the rest of the way, they entered the town of Fajardo by the afternoon of August 7th.  However, learning of the Spanish advance most of the inhabitants (some 500 to 800 people) of Fajardo had already retreated to the lighthouse and the safety provided by the naval guns of the AMPHITRITE, and recently arrived protected cruisers USS COLUMBIA, and USS CINCINNATI (LeJeune 1930:135-137; Rivero 1972:375).

Around midnight in the early hours of August 8th, Colonel Pino's troops attacked the 28 Marines and hundreds of Puerto Rican refugees in and around the lighthouse.  After a while the marines turned off the light, a prearranged signal with the US ships that they were to bombard the lighthouse area.  Naval shells rained about the lighthouse, with one actually blowing a large hole in the structure.  The marines relit the light and the bombardment was lifted and shortly thereafter the Spanish retired back to Fajardo, ending the engagement (1972:370).  The next morning, the naval captains decided to abandon their foothold on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico.  Two marine detachments, under a future Marine Corp Commandant -- Lt. John A. LeJeune, described the closing acts of the Fajardo expedition.

 At daylight [August 8th] the [USS CINCINNATI] Marine Detachment landed and on reaching the beach was joined by a detachment of sailors from the AMPHITRITE commanded by Junior Lieutenant Volney Chase.  We advanced cautiously through the thickets and woods to the lighthouse, and although the many piles of empty cartridge cases we found indicated that firing of considerable volume had been conducted by a good sized force, we did not encounter a single Spanish soldier.  The refugees said that firing had ceased a short while before daylight and that the attacking force had then withdrawn.  We sent the refugees off to the tug [LEYDEN] and they were taken to the Port of Ponce, which was in the possession of the United States forces [1930:136-137].
As the Americans evacuated the Fajardo lighthouse, the Spanish retired to San Juan, taking the two American flags raised on August 5th as trophies and leaving behind the Civil Guard to maintain order in the town.  The Fajardo expedition was the only engagement of the Puerto Rico Campaign where American forces withdrew after conflict with Spanish troops during the Puerto Rico Campaign.


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