Assault on San Juan Hill

The Battles of San Juan Hill and El Caney produced many heroes. Not all of them appear in American history books

To the average American, the Battle of San Juan Hill, fought 100 years ago this July, evokes heroic images of the uphill charge of the Rough Riders under their new com-mander (and future president), Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Southerners will be inclined to remind you that a malaria-ridden ex-Confederate hero, Major General Joseph Wheeler, was also there, while African-American historians will see to it that the role of the equally gallant 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry (Colored) regiments are not forgotten. Cubans (both at home and in exile abroad) have a right to give due credit to Cuban guerrilla forces under General Calixto García Íñiguez for their role in harassing Spanish Colonel Federico Escario's 3,500-man relief column from Manzanilla, delaying its arrival at Santiago until July 3.

In case anyone has forgotten those images, they were brought to life last year in John Milius' television miniseries, The Rough Riders--a promising enterprise, particularly for its attention to technical detail, which, nevertheless, fell disappointingly short in overall accuracy and impact.

One thing that American histories of the Spanish-American War--and the film--lack is balance. American and Cuban forces involved in the Cuban campaign are usually described in minute detail. The opposing forces are not. They are simply the Span-iards--foul remnants of the oppressive rule of Governor-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (who had left Cuba in late 1897), an anonymous blight to be routed from the island by its American liberators.

Not surprisingly, Spanish history books put San Juan Hill (or El Caney, as they call the overall battle) in a somewhat different perspective. For the Spanish, their defense of El Caney, fought adjacent to the struggles for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, holds a place in history similar to that of the Alamo in Texan history books. There, three companies of the 29th Regimiento de Infanteria "La Constitución"--467 line infantry and 47 sharpshooters, backed by two 140mm Hontoria cannons and, more significantly, equipped with deadly Model 1893 Mauser rifles--held off the 6,653 Americans of Brig. Gen. Henry W. Lawton's 2nd Division for more than eight hours.

The battle's principal Spanish hero, Joaquín Vara de Rey y Rubio, had fought against revolts in Spain and the Philippines before being assigned to Cuba in 1895 and serving with distinction under Weyler as commandant of Bayamo. On July 1, 1898, Brig. Gen. Vara de Rey directed the defense of El Caney. After a 30-minute bombardment, Lawton's initial 5,400-man assault was pinned down, and he was forced to commit his reserves. The Spaniards only had 96,000 rounds of ammunition, however, and as a survivor, Lieutenant J. Dominguez, testified, "We had the advantage of position, but the Americans never retreated or fell back an inch." By the time they finally took El Caney, the Americans had suffered 81 dead and 360 wounded, while only about 80 of the stubborn defenders were still standing.

Among the Spanish casualties was their commander. Lieutenant Dominguez recalled: "General Vara de Rey was standing in the square opposite the church when word was brought to him, about three o'clock, that the last round had been distributed to our troops. The general reluctantly gave the order to withdraw and retreat to Santiago. A moment later, he was shot through both legs.

"I immediately found a stretcher and directed four men to carry the general to a place of safety. But bullets were whizzing through the air all around us, and General Vara de Rey was struck in the head and killed. The litter bearers were also shot. And the general's brother, Lieutenant Antonio Vara de Rey, was wounded."

The fights for San Juan and Kettle hills cost the Americans 25 officers and 77 troops killed and 335 wounded, while Spanish casualties totaled 235 dead and wounded. Although dismissed by the "yellow press," the Spanish forces earned the respect of those who had fought and ultimately defeated them--including Roosevelt. After Santiago's capitulation, the Americans exhumed Vara de Rey's body from its hasty grave and ceremonially reinterred him with full military honors. A monument to him stands in Madrid. Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, who survived the destruction of his cruiser squadron on July 3, was afforded similar honor and respect by his captors.

Even at the time, most Spanish senior officers knew that they would lose the war against the United States. Essentially, their army and naval forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were expected to sacrifice themselves in the name of national honor, putting up as good a fight as they could until the inevitable end, rather than subject Spain to the humiliation of ceding its overseas possessions without a fight. It must have been a demoralizing situation for them, but in the end most Spanish veterans returned home with the knowledge that they had done their best to uphold their country's honor amid an impossible situation.

An American soldier returning from Cuba in 1898 would have found it hard to understand such sentiments. An American returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971 would not.

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