The air was thick, damp — the temperature sweltering on the 1st of July. The cavalrymen, forced to leave their mounts behind for lack of transport, suffered from exhaustion, struggled through thick chaparral working down the trails to the foot of the heights. The wilds of Arizona, the Dakotas and Montana might be hot, but this jungle climate was as steamy as an Indian sweat lodge. The loose, khaki field uniforms approved in May had failed to materialize and the men soaked through their heavy, blue flannel shirts and felt hats. The place was Cuba – the foot of the San Juan Heights; the year – 1898.
Carrying inferior, bolt action Krag rifles, the soldiers found themselves outgunned by the opposing Spanish soldatos armed with Mausers. Their enemy wore lightweight, cotton tunics and straw hats. US artillery proved inferior too when every black powder round, besides falling too short to be of affect, betrayed the gun positions with billowing smoke clouds. The Spanish replied with accurately placed rounds of smokeless ammunition. The Americans were overmatched and might have failed but for two things, Lieutenant John Henry Parker and the robust health and moral of the American soldier.
For years Parker had touted his vision of mobile machine gun assault to his superiors. No one much cared. But when he presented a detailed operation plan with requirements for draft animals, ammunition transport, gun carriages, and crew schedules, the Cuban invasion command relented. As the famed assault up San Juan Hill began it was “Gatlin Gun” Parker’s rapid fire weapons that led the way. In after action reports it was clear the vast majority of Spaniards had been cleared from the heights not by the Krag rifle, but by the devastating effectiveness of the machine gun, a lesson many armies would fail to learn until a generation later in the trenches of France.
But the Spanish suffered terribly before the deadly hail of bullets began. For years they’d fought in the malarial tropics and it showed in their health. The preceding three years saw over 50,000 soldatos die of illness. The US troops, new to the tropics, were yet to feel the jungle’s ill effects.
The American cavalrymen were vigorous and healthy. They charged the heights behind Parker’s destructive rain of automatic fire. Corporal Smith of I Troop and Sergeant George Berry were first to the top of the ridge. The latter bore two regimental standards to the crest with him. A man of great stature, Sergeant Barry rallied the assault force on his position by waving the flags while he endured a withering fire from Spanish riflemen. Troops from other regiments including Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders swarmed the hill to join Barry, the Color Sergeant of the 10th US Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers.
That’s right – the newspapers of the day didn’t report it, but the first men to the top of the San Juan Heights, the noncoms Smith and Berry, were Black men. Lt John Pershing of that regiment had, in a recent posting to West Point, been derided for his enthusiastic support of Black troops and saddled with the nickname “Nigger Jack“. Ironically the same writers who failed to credit the 10th Cavalry sanitized Pershing’s sobriquet when citing him in their Cuban reports. Pershing would retain this more polite and printable handle, “Black Jack” when he later commanded the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War. He would also remember the effectiveness of both Black troops and machine guns, making good use of both.
In a larger twist of irony, these men’s division commander Joe Wheeler, was a former General in the Confederate Army. It was believed he’d prevent southerners from attacking the blue clad troops transporting across Dixie in route to embarkation in Tampa – odd, since the unreconstructed rebel hated Yankees and distained Blacks. In fact when the first shots in Cuba erupted the aging general famously cried out, “Get those damned Yankees.”
After Cuba was secured the Americans, now too long in country, began to suffer under tropical maladies too. The commanding general called the entire lot an “Army of convalescents”. So in one final insult, the 9th US Infantry, Colored, was left to garrison the island as the army was withdrawn. It was assumed Black men were better at resisting jungle diseases. Of course they were not, and fully 10% succumbed to yellow fever.
And people claim we haven’t gotten any smarter in America over the past century.