Ch 11: To Cuba Again

Reaching Washington on May 5th, I made preparation to cross the Spanish lines and re-enter Havana City on secret service. Finding however, that an army of invasion would leave for Cuba in a few days, I hurried to Tampa to join the Fifth Army Corps. The regular army was then mobilised, and outwardly all was in readiness for a forward move.
   General Wesley Merritt, then the only West Point general officer in the United States Army, was named for commander of the invasion, and when his appointment to lead the Philippine expedition was announced, it was universally supposed that General Miles would take the army to Cuba. But to the surprise of every one, General William R. Shafter was placed in command of the forming Cuban expedition. An officer weighing considerably more than three hundred pounds, and suffering from gout, seemed the last man to lead an army into a difficult country like Cuba, where the activity and intelligence of the leader could do much to overcome the obstacles of the country, and mitigate risks to the health and life of those exposed to such a climate.
   Shafter’s appointment though, was a mere indication of the lack of system in the War Department apparent at Tampa where confusion reigned. The size of the army was increased sevenfold by a mistaken stroke of the pen; and since the available transportation facilities under the Stars and Stripes could not have carried more than 25,000 men from the coast, the Administration is frequently blamed for not first devoting its entire energies to securing the logistics and equipment of a small army for service, before the vast resources of the National Guard were called upon, and the department paralyzed by the immense mobilization.
   Tampa, assuredly, was not an ideal spot for the preparation of an army of invasion. The white Florida sand made good camping-ground; but though drier, the climate is scarcely less enervating than that of Cuba. The great drawbacks, however, were the limited railway facilities and the fact that everything in Tampa was expensive. This ensured a great hardship on officers and men, who frequently were forced to purchase necessaries of food and clothing that the commissariat should have provided. Despite this exorbitance, though, life was tolerable in the palatial Tampa Bay Hotel, the great winter resort which became army headquarters. Here the band played at night in the Oriental annex, under flourishing palms, and officers danced with bright-eyed Cuban senoritas, a number of whom had fled from Havana.
   Eager groups animatedly discussed the war. The bronzed Indian fighters from the plains sharing their enthusiasm with the young subs just from West Point, and the civilian appointees, swelling 'neath their newly acquired rank and uniform. When Colonel Roosevelt's Rough Riders arrived, it was distinctly refreshing to find the sons of millionaires and professional men of prominent families serving as troopers in the ranks with cowpunchers, packers, and "bad men" of the West, all actuated by the same patriotism, and all deserving honour commensurate with their individual self-sacrifice.
   Gathered in or around headquarters at the Tampa Bay Hotel were considerably more than a hundred war correspondents and artists, representing newspapers from every quarter of the globe. Evidently Lord Wolseley's idea that the "drones of the Press" were the curse of modern armies was not shared by the war lords of Washington. It was surprising to find that the vast majority of correspondents, even those representing great New York dailies, had never seen a shot fired in anger, and were absolutely ignorant of military affairs. There were, of course, exceptions and London sent some tried veterans, among them; Robinson, Wright, Sheldon, McPherson, Hands, and Atkins; but many held passes who would never be permitted to accompany an army in the field by the British War Office. The rigours of home camps soon proved too great for much of this impedimenta, and it was a greatly diminished but very fit body of Press knights who finally landed in Cuba.

General Shafter’s Expedition HQ - Tampa Bay

   Hundreds of expatriated Cubans living in Ybor City formed themselves into companies of volunteers and, swelled by natives from all parts of the country, three strong contingents were raised, commanded respectively by brave old Lacret, who had slipped over from Cuba a few weeks previously, and Generals Nunez and Sanguili. Colonel Janiz, the brave little doctor of Camaguey, was now his chief of staff. Karl Decker, Herbert Seeley and I were honorary members, and among other officers I was delighted to find young Mass, now a major, Frank Agremonte, Aguirre, and other brave fellows whose past services in Cuba and consequent sufferings in Spanish prisons had by no means deterred them from responding again to their country's call. General Nunez was joined by Colonel Mendez, two sons of the Morales family, and two New Yorkers, Thorne and Jones, all of whom did excellent service later in Cuba. Dr. Castillo took charge of the "Florida," and landed the expeditions safely.
   The military authorities punctiliously enforced trivialities to the letter, and it was surprising to see the laxity and consequent disorder in more important matters. Sanitation and the water supply of the camps seemed a secondary consideration; and the issue of rations and suitable outfits to the army would have discredited a staff of school-boys. The officers of the regular regiments smiled grimly, but could say nothing. Seven miles of freight cars were stalled in the sidings between Lakeland and the Port. The stores had been rushed forward indiscriminately, no manifests were provided, and no specific attempt was made at headquarters to evolve order from chaos. A few details of intelligent non-commissioned officers could have gone through the cars and tabulated their contents; but if beans were wanted, a search was made until they materialised, and the same cars would be overhauled by men searching for beef or tomatoes later in the day. Thus only the most necessary stores were brought to light, and tons of provisions, delicacies for the sick and medical stores were never unloaded.
   General Shafter's force was ever sailing "tomorrow" until "manana" took on a Spanish significance. The waiting seemed endless but the order for a general advance at last arrived on June 5th. Its promulgation at 10 pm. is history; this was war and it emanated from the commanding general that "All who were not on board the transports by daybreak would be left behind."
   Officers and correspondents dashed off to their quarters to pack, dress, and catch the 11 o’clock train for war. It arrived at 5 the next morning and we reached the embarkation pier at 6 am. Whole battalions were moved in the rush. Regiment after regiment had hurried down to the narrow pile dock, which was soon packed indescribably with men and baggage. Troops at the extreme end of the pier were afterwards assigned to transports moored at the shore end, and vice versa. The embarkation resembled the sailing of a vast excursion party rather than a military movement. With the capacity of each transport, and the roster of each regiment before him, the youngest officer could have made effective assignment and saved such dire confusion, which took two days to untangle, and entailed much sun-exposure and hardship on the soldiers. But toward evening, June 7th, all was ready.
   Boom! went a saluting gun, and away went transport after transport; the bands playing, the troops, relieved from the tedium of the wait, cheering as only such enthusiasts can cheer. But a gunboat, previously a private yacht, had sighted two tramp steamers, and from unexplained reason, taking them for Spaniards, showed a clean pair of heels to Key West with the tidings. When this erroneous news was cabled to headquarters, the order to:

! Stop the Expedition !

was sent urgently from Washington. The leading transports were headed off far down the bay at this time, and only recalled after a long chase by the "Helena". A weary wait ensued and the men, cramped on the vessels, which were fitted and filled like cattle-ships, grew sick with the delay. The water grew stale; the lack of exercise, and the foul air of the crowded holds in the fierce semi-tropical heat, soon affected the troops. The halt laid the foundation of many a subsequent death, beside the loss of a dry week in Cuba.
   One week later we sailed. On the 13th the flag ship "Seguranca" signalled the start; and with colours flying and bands playing, the vessels glided out to mid-stream and dropped down toward the sea. As the battery on shore boomed out a farewell salute, the soldiers swarmed to the deck and rigging, and the air was rent with a shout of triumph from sixteen thousand throats. The cheers were taken up on shore and echoed and re-echoed in pine forest and everglade. They were not evoked only by the usual zest for war shared by all men, the savage lust to fight which lies dormant in the piping times of peace. Those troopers knew they had a mission to fulfil. They remembered the blackened wreck in Havana Harbour, and the sailor comrades sleeping in that foetid slough; they thought also of the women and children crying aloud for deliverance from starvation and despair, and of the ragged patriots fighting for liberty as their own fathers had fought.
   Petty politicians have used the war for their own purposes, thimbleriggers have not been idle; but to the close observer it was evident that the war was a war of the people, the will of the multitude, inflamed perhaps by much exaggeration and misrepresentation, but nevertheless exerted for a just purpose when unvarnished facts stand forth.
   Twenty hours after the start was signalled we rounded Dry Tortugas, and in double column the fleet headed Cuba-wards, flanked on either side by the guard of warships. The massive cruiser "Indiana" held to the shore side, while the aggressive torpedo boat "Porter" dashed inshore at intervals, on the lookout for any lurking gunboat of Spain that might emerge on a forlorn hope, sink a transport, and meet the inevitable fate gloriously. The "Annapolis", "Bancroft", "Castine", "Helena", "Morrill", "Manning" and "Hornet" guarded the fleet of transports on the voyage, with the "Detroit", "Osceola" and "Ericsson" acting as scouts.
   The first land sighted was the sandy loam on Cayo Romano, and as the sun set in tropical suddenness, a fire flickered from the summit and was answered by a second flare on the distant heights of Cubitas: a message from the watchful guardia costa to the beleaguered Cuban Government, which has meted isolated justice in spirit rather than in letter, that the day of Cuba's triumph was at hand.
   We had two alarms: three Spanish gunboats came up boldly, but dashed into Nuevitas when the "Osceola" steamed out to engage them, and later mysterious vessels sighted at night near Lobus, disappeared in the darkness as the warships raced to meet them.
   The stoutly built British lighthouses fringing the Bahama Isles, alone broke the monotony of sea and sky after this, and as the three and one-half days' trip became lengthened into six days and seven nights, every one grew heartily sick of slow travel and cramped quarters. A call was made at Man of War's Bay, Inagua Isle, a little-known British possession lying midway between the extreme points of Cuba and Haiti and, after passing through the Windward Passage, the mountains of Santiago at last loomed into view.
   Everything was quiet and peaceful, the transports lay to off Morro Castle, far out of range, and nothing but tiny clouds of smoke marked the presence of the blockading fleet, hidden below the dip of the horizon. For twenty-four hours we lay there. General Shafter joined Admiral Sampson, and they landed at Asseredo to hold conference with General Garcia.
   On June 22nd plans were perfected, and the transports headed to Daiquiri, sixteen miles east of Santiago. Here the Jaragua Iron Company own an iron pier for loading the ore, and at an early hour, as the warships drew near, a great column of smoke and flame went up: the Company's great storehouse and the township were fired by the Spaniards. As the garrison evacuated, the fleet bombarded the forts and road, checking the advance of some Cuban soldiers, mistaken for the enemy. At 10 am. boats were lowered and the first regiment, the 8th Infantry, landed without opposition. Horses and mules had to swim ashore, and all the men landed in a heavy surf in small boats, and not until the next evening had the cavalry and Lawton's brigade disembarked.
   The landing of the army was picturesque and spirit-stirring. As the sun rose above the mountains, a flood of lustre was thrown over the fleet of transports and massive warships, lying off shore on a sea of clearest blue. Away toward Guantanamo, the water shone like liquid gold, the waves washing over the base of the distant promontory in white cascades as the regular undulations were broken by the rocks. The appearance of the romantic shore was heightened by the debarking troops, forming up on the yellow beach, their arms glistening bravely in the sun, while just above them lay the little town backed by the lofty Sierras, the grim volcanic cliffs stretching westward, a dividing line between the expanse of sea and sky.

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