Amphibious Warfare: Nineteenth Century

1898 - U.S. landing at Guantanamo Bay during war with Spain

In April 1898, tense relations between the United States and Spain boiled over into war. Previously, there had been a loud public outcry in America over Spanish treatment of Cubans, who had been in revolt against their Spanish overlords since 1895. In addition, several influential newspapers declared that the February sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor was the result of Spanish action, and they clamored for war. On 20 April, the U.S. Congress obliged by declaring war on Spain.

In the Caribbean, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson's North Atlantic Squadron deployed off Cuba in an attempt to force the capitulation of the island. But as U.S. strategists were concentrating on the Cuban capital, Havana, a squadron of Spanish cruisers slipped into the harbor at Santiago on the southeastern Cuban coast. Redeploying his forces, Sampson found that his ships could not enter the four-mile inlet leading into the port due to heavy Spanish batteries, log barriers, and a field of electrically-activated mines. Until those defenses could be overcome, the squadron was forced to settle for an offshore blockade. With the Navy stymied, Army ground troops under Brigadier General William Shafter landed to capture the port. However, the ground offensive also bogged down after several battles in which U.S. troops had suffered heavier than expected casualties.

With his forces arrayed off Santiago, Rear Admiral Sampson needed a forward coaling station. He sent the protected cruiser Marblehead (C 11) under Commander Bowman McCalla to investigate Guantanamo Bay, forty miles east of Santiago. He also requested Marine Corps support in securing a temporary base.

Photo of Marblehead in Guantanamo Bay, June 1898

The protected cruiser Marblehead (C 11) in Guantanamo Bay, June 1898.  Naval Historical Center.

The Marines were ready when Sampson made his request. Even before war had been declared, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long had directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel Charles Heywood, to organize two provisional battalions (later reduced to one reinforced battalion) to support North Atlantic Squadron operations in the Caribbean. Heywood personally oversaw the formation of this unit in New York, beginning on 17 April. The battalion - commanded by a Civil War veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Huntington - consisted of six companies with 657 officers and men. It had three month of supplies, along with entrenching and other tools needed to fortify positions ashore. The Marines and their equipment embarked on board the newly acquired Navy transport Panther and sailed on 22 April.

The situation on the ground around Guantanamo Bay was unsettled. The body of water, which extends approximately 10 miles inland from the coast, is divided into an inner and outer bay. Spanish forces and supporting guerillas held the port of Caimenera on the western shore of the bay five miles inland. They also had established a series of fortifications to defend the railroad that ran from the port to Guantanamo City, 14 miles from the sea. That city, in turn, was garrisoned by 7,000 Spanish troops. In addition, Spanish commanders maintained positions scattered around the bay and its environs, including an earthwork fort at Cayo del Toro that overlooked the channel between the inner and outer bays and an outpost on the hill above Fisherman's Point on the eastern side of the bay's entrance. Meanwhile, Cuban insurgents held Leeward Point on the western side and operated from there westward toward Santiago.

Marblehead, accompanied by two auxiliaries and later joined by the battleship Oregon, made the first foray into Guantanamo Bay on 6 June. A few shells sent the Spanish outpost near Fisherman's Point packing, after which Commander McCalla sent Marines from his own and Oregon's ships' companies ashore to reconnoiter the location and cut telegraph cables. The landing party promptly did so, which severed communications between Spanish commanders in Guantanamo and the rest of Cuba. The Marines reported back that the area around the mouth of the bay could be defended.

That report set in motion a small operation to secure the lower bay and prevent Spanish forces from harassing U.S. ships anchored there. Huntington's battalion, which had disembarked in Key West, Florida on 24 May, reboarded Panther and steamed for Guantanamo. Arriving on 10 June, four of the six companies went ashore and established defensive positions on the hill overlooking Fisherman's Point. The remainder of the battalion came ashore the next day.

 

Photo of Marine Landing at Guantanamo Bay, 10 June 1898

Offshore view of Marine landing at Guantanamo Bay, 10 June 1898.  Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, local Spanish forces responded vigorously. On the night of 11 June, harassing rifle fire killed two Marines in a listening post 300 hundred yards in front of the battalion's main position. Huntington ordered his men forward to engage the enemy, but the U.S. troops bogged down in the thick underbrush. Spanish infiltrators again hit the camp later that night, killing two more Marines. Cuban troops reinforced the Marine position and taught their American partners how to clear fields of fire through the heavy brush, but that still did not prevent Spanish infantry from attacking in mass and inflicting more casualties the next night as well.

By 13 June, the Marine forces had been under sporadic attack - and awake - for more than 100 hours. The crew of Marblehead, which provided supporting gunfire to the Marines, had been at general quarters for three days and was also exhausted. Clearly, Guantanamo Bay was not yet the secure forward naval base that Sampson envisioned. Even the Marines were forced to move their tents from the hilltop back to the beach area on Fisherman's Point.

Photo of a Marine position at Guantanamo, June 1898

A Marine position at Guantanamo, June 1898. Library of Congress.

Ultimately, Huntington decided to act upon a suggestion from the Cuban troops - attack the Spanish positions at Cuzco Well, two miles east of the Marine positions. This was the only source of fresh water in the area. With the well destroyed, thirsty Spanish forces would be compelled to retreat to the next closest source of drinking water - Guantanamo City. Marblehead had already shelled Cuzco, with little lasting effect. Navy and Marine commanders agreed that ground action would be needed to permanently deny the water supplies to the enemy. McCalla ordered the dispatch ship Dolphin to support the Marine effort.

On the morning of 14 June, two companies of Marines and 50 Cubans advanced along the seaside cliffs toward Cuzco Wells, while a smaller Marine force covered their flank by moving through an inland valley. For several hours, the two groups painstakingly made their way through rough terrain toward a hill overlooking the well. As the main body neared the hill's base, it was spotted by pickets from the Cuzco garrison, which consisted of 500 Spaniards and 300 Cuban loyalists.

Realizing that Marines ensconced on the hill above them would make their position untenable, the Spanish set out to secure the hill first. The U.S. force reached the top before them, however, enduring heavy fire en route to the crest. The Spanish force was subsequently caught in a devastating cross-fire between the two wings of the U.S. force. Suffering heavy casualties, they were forced from their positions, at which time they came under shelling from Dolphin, whose gunfire was guided by a Marine with semaphore flags. By mid-afternoon, the Spanish and their allies - who had suffered more than 200 casualties - retreated from the area. With two Marines wounded and four Cubans killed or wounded, friendly casualties were relatively light.

The area secure, the Marines burned a Spanish headquarters building and filled in Cuzco Well. As the Cubans had predicted, this forced the demoralized Spanish forces to retreat from the area. There were no further attacks on the Marine positions on Fisherman's Point, which remained in place until August.

With the entrance to the bay secure, Navy commanders decided to remove the threat from the fort at Cayo del Toro. Marblehead, the battleship Texas, and the auxiliary cruiser Yankee joined in a bombardment of these fortifications on 16 June, dismounting several Spanish guns and driving enemy troops from the position. However, during this operation Marblehead fouled her anchor on the mooring line of a Spanish sea mine, which fortunately did not explode. Further exploration uncovered 14 additional contact mines. Though most of these weapons were in various states of disrepair, the mine threat could not be discounted, and Navy forces immediately launched a sweeping operation using steam launches and whale boats. When these boats were fired upon by Spanish troops, Huntington led an amphibious assault by two of his companies and a group of Cuban insurgents on the beach from where the fire had originated, but the perpetrators had already fled.

Overall, the Navy-Marine operations around Guantanamo Bay were a minor part of U.S. operations in Cuba. In Santiago, the Spanish fleet sortied and was destroyed by Sampson's ships on the morning of 3 July. Spanish resistance in the city ended twelve days later. However, Guantanamo Bay was already an increasingly important part of the U.S. base infrastructure in the Caribbean - a week after Santiago's surrender, U.S. forces assembled and sailed from the bay for the invasion of Puerto Rico.

For their part, Huntington's battalion embarked on the transport Resolute for another potential amphibious landing at Manzanillo, also on Cuba's southern coast, but Spain agreed to an armistice before the assault could take place. With hostilities over, Huntington's battalion returned home, where it received numerous accolades and took part in numerous parades.

The Guantanamo Bay operation raised the Marine Corps' profile within the United States. More significantly, operating as part of an integrated, Navy-Marine Corps force, the Marines had helped seize a forward base for naval operations. In the first decade and a half of the 20th century, this type of operation would figure prominently in U.S. Navy planning, and provide the small Marine Corps with a rationale for its existence. Longer term, the Guantanamo Bay effort foreshadowed the organized U.S. amphibious assaults of later years.

Sources:

Robert W. Love, History of the U.S. Navy, vol. 1 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992).

Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: A History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

Naval Base Guantanamo, The History of Guantanamo Bay: An Online Edition, undated, at http://www.nsgtmo.navy.mil.

Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776-1918 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967, reprint of 1939 edition).

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