wig wagging

1898 invasion of Guantánamo Bay

The 1898 invasion of Guantánamo Bay happened June 6June 10, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, when American and Cuban forces invaded the strategically and commercially important area of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and took control of it from Spanish forces. The invasion was instrumental in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba and the subsequent invasion of Puerto Rico.

The wresting of Guantanamo Bay from Spanish forces in 1898 was a brief but violent phase of the Spanish-American War. Overshadowed by the land and sea battles on a grander scale at Santiago, the establishment of a United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay and the rout of defending Spanish troops by combined U. S. and Cuban forces had an effect on the war which far transcended its local consequences.


Cuba was in turmoil in 1898. The Cubans had been in rebellion against the Spanish rulers since 1895. Two insurgent leaders, José Martí and General Máximo Gómez, had landed at the little beach of Cajobabo, which was between Guantanamo Bay and Cape Maisi, soon after the inception of the rebellion. Their return from exile fanned the flames of insurrection in Oriente Province but after three years of bloody but indecisive fighting throughout the island, the insurgents held the offensive in only two provinces — Oriente and its adjoining neighbor, Camagüey.

Relations between the United States and Spain had been strained by American public indignation over the oppression of the Cubans, and had progressed to the breaking-off of diplomatic relations after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February, and thence to a U. S. declaration of war. A U. S. blockade of Havana harbor, followed by a Caribbean pursuit of the elusive Spanish fleet had finally culminated at the end of May in the bottling-up of the Spanish fleet in Santiago Bay, 40 mi (64 km) west of Guantanamo Bay, by the U. S. fleet under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. In the United States an army expeditionary force was rapidly being readied at the same time for action in Cuba. Thus, America was allied with the Cuban insurgents. Guantanamo Bay had a measure of commercial importance because of the sugar port of Caimanera on the western shore of the inner bay, some five statute miles (8 km) from the sea.

Spanish positions

Despite the nominal offensive position of the insurgents in the vicinity of Guantanamo Bay, Spanish regulars and guerrillas held Guantanamo City, the port of Caimanera and the railroad connecting the two cities, the large sugar mills, and other outlying strong points. A Spanish blockhouse stood on the hill overlooking the village on Fisherman's Point near the entrance to the bay, and a fort on Cayo del Toro commanded the relatively narrow channel leading from outer to inner bay. The Spanish gunboat Sandoval was based at Caimanera on the inner bay, and a string of blockhouses defended the railroad to Guantanamo City, 14 mi (22 km) inland, where 7,000 Spanish troops under General Felix Pareja were stationed.

The Cuban insurgents maintained coastal outposts from the mouth of the Yateras River, east of the bay, to a point 15 mi (24 km) west of Santiago, and were in undisputed possession of the western (leeward) point at the entrance to the bay.


First U. S. attack

The first successful U. S. foray against Guantanamo Bay occurred on June 6, with the arrival of the cruiser USS Marblehead, captained by Commander Bowman H. McCalla, and the USS St. Louis. Commander McCalla had been detached by Admiral Sampson from the blockading fleet at Santiago and ordered to reconnoiter the bay for a naval base. The captain of the St. Louis was to cut the cables which had their terminus in a small station on Fisherman's Point, and connected Cuba with Haiti and the outside world.

On a previous occasion, the St. Louis, on a similar mission, had been driven from the bay by the Spanish gunboat Sandoval. As the two ships came into the bay at dawn, Spanish soldiers clustered about the blockhouse on the hill above Fisherman's Point which is today known as McCalla Hill. The blockhouse and the village were speedily cleared by fire from the Marblehead's six pounder (2.7 kg) and one five-inch (127 mm) shell. The Spanish gunboat Sandoval came down the channel from Caimanera to meet the attack but retired precipitately upon discovering the caliber of guns against her. The guns of the fort on Cayo del Toro also opened fire on the Marblehead, without effect.

The cables leading east to Cap-Haïtien, in Haiti, west to Santiago, and the small cable in the bay connecting Caimanera (and Guantanamo City) with Cap-Haïtien were all successfully cut, and from June 7 to July 5 the town of Guantanamo had no communication with the outside world.

Upon returning to the blockading fleet from the reconnaissance, the Marblehead carried two Cuban officers who had been brought off to the ship from Leeward Point (the western side) of Guantanamo Bay. They had been sent to Admiral Sampson by General Calixto Garcia (the same who figured with U. S. Lieutenant Rowan in the famous "A Message to Garcia") to report that the Cuban forces, whose outposts occupied positions on the coast from the mouth of the Yateras to a point fifteen miles (24 km) west of Santiago were at the disposition of the U. S. Commander-in-Chief. Commander McCalla thereafter maintained close liaison with General Pedro Pérez, commanding the Cuban forces around Guantanamo City, through the latter's Chief-of-Staff, Colonel Vieta, and thus received valuable advice and assistance.

Marines move in

With the decision to establish a base at Guantanamo Bay, a battalion of Marines which had been awaiting orders at Key West, was ordered to proceed to join the fleet off Santiago. On June 9, in advance of the arrival of the battalion, Commander McCalla approved a camp site selected for the Marines by Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington, who had been sent to Guantanamo Bay by Admiral Sampson for the purpose. The site selected was a flat ridge on top of a hill, above the village on Fisherman's Point.

The Marines arrived on June 10, and four of the six companies were immediately disembarked from their transport, the Panther. The crude huts of the village and the remains of the blockhouse were burned with all their contents in order to avoid the possibility of yellow fever. The Spanish had fled in such a hurry that clothing, money, jewelry and weapons had been left behind.

With the sea at their backs, and the thorny scrub and cacti of the arid hills stretching in a dense tangle before them, the Marines were in the best position available, but it was still not an enviable one. Shortly after sundown they had their first meal in camp-coffee and hardtack. Soon afterward came the first alarm. Voices were heard and lights were seen in the thicket, but no attack materialized during the night.

At daybreak, the Marines completed camp without molestation, and the remaining two companies of the battalion came ashore. The only sound in the thickets was the peaceful cooing of mourning doves, a serenade which it was learned later was partly made up of signals given by Spanish guerrillas.

Colonel Huntington was joined in the afternoon by Colonel Laborde of the Cuban army, who for several days had been with Commander McCalla as pilot on the Marblehead, and now had been sent ashore to assist the Marines and provide them with intelligence available concerning the enemy.

Colonel Laborde reported that the major Spanish force in the vicinity had its headquarters at the "Well of Cuzco," two miles (3 km) southeast of Fisherman's Point. The well provided the only fresh water nearer than Guantanamo City. It was this Spanish force of about 400 soldiers and guerrillas, augmented by the troops driven from the blockhouse on the bay, which would constitute the gravest threat to the new U. S. base of operations.

As the two conversed, firing broke out in the thicket in front of the position, and Colonel Huntington led most of his command toward the front. The thorny tangle of trees, underbrush, and cacti turned the larger force back however, and he was forced to proceed with only one company.

First casualties

It was quickly learned that two pickets who had been on outpost duty 300 yards in advance of the main position had been killed. Marine Privates William Dumphy and James McColgan were the first U. S. casualties of the war.

A fruitless pursuit of the enemy, in which shots were exchanged but no one was hit, was abandoned by the Marines at dark.

That night, bullets riddled the Marine camp as the enemy attacked in force. Acting Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs and Sergeant Charles H. Smith were killed.

On the following day, the Marines were reinforced by 50 Cuban officers and men under command of Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Thomas. Familiar with guerrilla tactics, they soon deployed in pairs in front of the camp, burning the brush and undergrowth as they advanced, denying to the enemy the cover which had been used to such advantage. In a supporting move, the Marblehead, which had provided shore bombardment on several occasions at the request of Colonel Huntington, steamed down the coast and shelled the well at Cuzco. Despite these precautions, the Spanish attack was resumed at dusk, and two more Marines—acting Sergeant Major Henry Good and Private Goode Taurman—were killed in the night.

By nightfall on June 13, the Marines were unbearably fatigued. They had not slept nor rested for 100 hours. Relief or reinforcements were out of the question, since U.S. Army troops had not yet left the United States.

Marines attack

In this desperate situation, Colonel Thomas advocated an attack in force on the Spanish headquarters at Cuzco. Defeat of the enemy there, and destruction of the fresh water well, would inevitably force a retreat and relieve the pressure on the Marine camp. Colonel Huntington agreed, and Commander McCalla approved the plan. Eight o'clock the next morning was set as the time for launching the attack.

Two companies of Marines (about 160 men) under Captain George F. Elliott, a future Commandant of the Marine Corps, with 50 Cubans under Colonel Thomas, would approach Cuzco along the cliffs by the sea, while a smaller Marine force would advance by an inland valley, holding a picket line for the main force, with men in reserve to go to its assistance if necessary. The USS Dolphin was assigned to support the attack from sea.

The sun was already bright and hot when the combined U.S.-Cuban force began its march. Colonel Laborde guided the main force, and a Cuban pilot named Polycarpio the smaller. Hampered by rough terrain, vicious undergrowth, and increasing heat, it was nearly 11 a.m. when the main force reached the steep, horse-shoe shaped hill which almost encircles Cuzco valley.

At about the same time, the Cubans in advance were discovered by the enemy. A mad race for the crest of the hill ensued, and the Marines and Cubans won, under heavy fire from the Spanish and guerrillas. The smaller Marine force came up on the double at the sound of firing, and poured a deadly crossfire on the enemy flank. During this portion of the fighting, Captain Elliott had requested that the Dolphin privide fire support to the Marines by shelling the Spanish positions with her long guns. Through a miscommuniction of signals, however, the Dolphin began unknowingly dropping shells on a Marine held position. Affixing his handkerchief to a long stick and braving the Spanish fire, Sergeant John H. Quick took up an exposed position on the ridge to immediately wigwag a flag signal to the Dolphin to adjust her gunfire. War Correspondant Stephen Crane, who had accompanied the Marines, later described the scene in his war tale "Marines Signaling Under Fire at Guantanamo":

"Sergeant Quick arose, and announced that he was a signalman. He produced from somewhere a blue polka-dot neckerchief as large as a quilt. He tied it on a long, crooked stick. Then he went to the top of the ridge, and turning his back to the Spanish fire, began to signal to the Dolphin. Again we gave a man sole possession of a particular part of the ridge. We didn't want it. He could have it and welcome. If the young sergeant had had the smallpox, the cholera, and the yellow fever, we could not have slid out with more celerity.

As men have said often, it seemed as if there was in this war a God of Battles who held His mighty hand before the Americans. As I looked at Sergeant Quick wig-wagging there against the sky, I would not have given a tin tobacco-tag for his life. Escape for him seemed impossible. It seemed absurd to hope that he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a little, in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.
I watched his face, and it was as grave and serene as that of a man writing in his own library. He was the very embodiment of tranquillity in occupation. He stood there amid the animal-like babble of the Cubans, the crack of rifles, and the whistling snarl of the bullets, and wig-wagged whatever he had to wig-wag without heeding anything but his business. There was not a single trace of nervousness or haste.
To say the least, a fight at close range is absorbing as a spectacle. No man wants to take his eyes from it until that time comes when he makes up his mind to run away. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle is in itself hard work. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle and hear immediate evidences of the boundless enthusiasm with which a large company of the enemy shoot at you from an adjacent thicket is, to my mind at least, a very great feat. One need not dwell upon the detail of keeping the mind carefully upon a slow spelling of an important code message.
I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung his clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it once caught on a cactus pillar, and he looked sharply over his shoulder to see what had it. He gave the flag an impatient jerk. He looked annoyed."
When Sergeant Quick finished this message, the ship answered. Quick then picked up his M1895 Lee Navy rifle and resumed his place on the firing line. The Dolphin shifted her fire and by 2:00 p.m., though the Spanish were well concealed in a dense cluster of sea grape trees, the volley firing of the Marines drove them from cover, and a straggling retreat began. For his gallant and selfless conduct during this action, Quick would later receive the Medal of Honor.

Spanish forces flee

By 3 p.m., the enemy fire had ceased. Most had escaped, but a lieutenant and 17 enlisted men were captured, along with 30 Mauser rifles and ammunition. The enemy had lost 58 men killed and 150 wounded. It was learned that 800 enemy troops had been engaged, of whom about 500 were regulars and 300 were guerrillas. Two Marines were wounded, two Cubans killed, and two wounded in the battle. The most serious casualties suffered by the Marines were from heat exhaustion, which disabled one officer and 22 men. The Dolphin took these aboard after the fighting was over. The Spanish headquarters building was burned, and the Well of Cuzco was filled up, thus ending its immediate usefulness.

Spanish forces were so demoralized that they retreated all the way to Guantanamo, via Cayo del Toro and Caimanera. Apparently expecting the U. S. forces to follow up the victory, they fortified Dos Caminos, a small settlement at the crossing of two roads, and added several blockhouses to the number already erected on the rail line.

The Marine camp was not further molested by Spanish or guerillas and remained on the hill over Fisherman's Point until disestablished on August 5 1898.

Meanwhile attention was soon focused on other areas of the bay. The Spanish were adding to their earthworks on Cayo del Toro, where they had three bronze 6.4 inch (163 mm) guns and a modern 3.5 inch (89 mm) Krupp gun. At Caimanera, on the bluff south of the village, were mounted three more of the 6.4 inch (163 mm) guns, and the small gunboat Sandoval had a battery of one six-pounder (2.7 kg) and an automatic one-pounder (454 g) Maxim.

Fort Toro shelled

Admiral Sampson decided to shell the fort of Cayo del Toro, and on June 16 he sent the USS Texas and USS Yankee to join with the USS Marblehead in this plan. Fire from the three ships temporarily dismounted two of the enemy's big guns, destroyed the buildings on the Cay, and drove the troops from all guns and trenches. Their combined firepower had reduced the Spanish fort to impotency within 15 minutes of initially engaging it. One enemy shell landed near the bow of the Marblehead, sinking within ten yards of the ship, but no hits were scored.

Disaster jostled the U.S. ships as they steamed up the bay past Caracoles Point. As they proceeded slowly, a lookout on the Marblehead reported that the starboard propeller was foul of a buoy. The engine was stopped, and the propeller was cleared of the "buoy", which turned out to be a contact mine. The mine was successfully disarmed. Afterward it was learned that the ships had passed through a field of eighteen such mines, or torpedoes, on the trip up the bay and through the same field on the return trip, without injury of any kind.

A few days after the attack on Cayo del Toro, the mine field was thoroughly explored, and fourteen mines were recovered. Their failure to explode on contact was attributed to mechanical faults, plus a healthy growth of barnacles on the contact levers.

The minesweeping operation, carried out without specialized equipment, involved two steam launches and two whaleboats from the Marblehead and the Dolphin. A launch and whaleboat side by side, connected to the other launch and whaleboat by a rope with a chain drag in the center, swept the channel. When the drag met an obstruction, the boats came together and crossed the ends of the drag. The boats were then hauled carefully up to the mine, which was brought to the surface and disarmed. Twice the drag brought up two mines together.

While sweeping for mines, the boats had been fired on from Hicacal Beach, where 250 Spanish infantry were posted to guard the mine field. It was determined to rout the last enemy force remaining in the vicinity of the bay, and on June 25 Colonel Huntington led two companies of Marines and 40 Cubans in an amphibious assault on Hicacal Beach. It proved to be a bloodless encounter since the Spanish had left a day or two earlier.

Santiago Campaign

With Guantanamo Bay successfully occupied, U.S. interest centered on operations at Santiago. An American expeditionary force of 17,000 officers and men under Major General William R. Shafter was landed east of the city at the small ports of Daiquiri and Siboney between June 22 and June 25, without opposition. A week later, on July 1, the historic battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill ended in victory for U.S. forces, opening up the approaches to Santiago itself. On the morning of July 3, a demand was sent to the Spanish Commander, General Arsenio Linares, to surrender or suffer bombardment of the city as an alternative.

On the same morning, the Spanish fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera sallied forth from Santiago Bay, only to meet with complete destruction at the hands of the U.S. fleet.

Major Spanish resistance at Santiago was at an end, although it was not until July 15 that a preliminary agreement was signed. U. S. forces occupied the city on July 17.

The 7,000 Spanish troops at Guantanamo City—only 40 miles (64 km) away—did not march to the aid of Linares' besieged army, because prior to the cutting of his communications, General Pareja had been directed by his superiors to hold Guantanamo City at all costs. This was so ordered because the Spanish feared that the Guantanamo valley might be used as an invasion route by U.S. forces, as the English had once used it to advance on Santiago. After the Navy cut the cables and established a base at Guantanamo Bay, General Pareja remained in complete ignorance concerning the course of the war because the Cuban insurgents maintained such a tight ring about the city that not one messenger got through their lines. Fifteen were caught and executed as spies. None of General Linares' frantic requests for aid reached Pareja.


The threat posed by U. S. Naval forces and a battalion of Marines at Guantanamo Bay, plus the stranglehold on land communications by 1,000 Cuban insurgents, effectively pinned down an army of 7,000 men which might have changed the outcome of the fighting at Santiago. Less than a week after the surrender of Santiago, the base at Guantanamo Bay was used to launch the invasion of Puerto Rico, 500 miles (800 km) to the east. Three thousand five hundred troops under General Miles sailed from the Bay on July 21. This was the last important event in the Spanish-American War phase of Guantanamo Bay; on August 12, the war ended with the signing of the peace protocol and an armistice.

The new U. S. Naval Base was not formalized by lease agreement between the United States and Cuba until five years later, when in 1903 it was acquired as a "coaling and Naval station", but its worth was already proven.

See also


  • Murphy, M. E. — Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, U. S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (January 5, 1953)

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