First Marine Battalion, 1898

John Davis Long served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of William McKinley.  Long’s appointment was not without controversy.  Apparently, President McKinley made the appointment without a wink or a nod from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  The situation involved some political infighting, which is always the case in national politics.  However, to appease Lodge, McKinley appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Navy Department’s number-two position.  Roosevelt’s appointment satisfied Lodge because, given Long’s reputation as a hands-off manager, he could count on Roosevelt to “run the show.”

Theodore Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1898

Regarding increasing tensions with Spain, Secretary Long (and others) were doubtful these disagreements were likely to end in an armed conflict, but if it did, Secretary Long was confident that the United States would win it in short order.  Accordingly, Long took no actions to prepare for a state of war with Spain.  Long’s nonchalance was a source of irritation to Roosevelt.  In January 1898, out of concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba, Long ordered the USS Maine to Havana as a show of force.  Within a month, tensions between the US and Spain had reached the crisis stage; with Roosevelt’s insistence, Long finally began to prepare for war.  On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while at anchor, causing massive casualties.  Of the 26 officers, 290 sailors, and 39 Marines aboard the Maine, 260 men lost their lives, including 28 Marines.

The sinking of the Maine produced a public demand for satisfaction, sentiments echoed by Roosevelt.  Ten days later, Secretary Long took a day off from work.  His absence enabled Roosevelt to issue a series of directives designed to increase the Navy’s readiness for war, including an order to Commodore George Dewey to assume an aggressive posture in the Spanish Philippines.  When Long returned to work, he countermanded some of Roosevelt’s directives, but he did increase his interest in naval preparations for war.

On 16 April, five days before the war began, Secretary Long ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  Heywood’s battalion was named the First Marine Battalion.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, was appointed to command it.

Robert W. Huntington LtCol USMC Commanding Officer

The US Congress declared war on Spain on 25 April, effective retroactively from 21 April 1898.  Colonel Huntington had nearly 40 years of active duty service when he assumed command of the First Marine Battalion; he was a veteran of the American Civil War.  On 17 April, Huntington organized his battalion into four companies.  The Commandant’s earlier proposal for a second battalion was never implemented because, at the time, the Marine Corps did not have enough enlisted men to form another battalion while at the same time fulfilling its usual task guarding naval installations.  The First Marine Battalion was instead expanded to six companies: five rifle companies and one artillery company.  Each company had an authorized strength of 103 enlisted Marines, 1 First Sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates.  The battalion command element included the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant, Quartermaster, and a Navy surgeon.  The battalion color guard included one sergeant and two corporals.

The battalion quartermaster, Major Crawley, excelled in provisioning the Marines for combat duty, and the battalion was ready to deploy on 22 April.  On that date, the Marines marched down to the pier and boarded USS Panther.  Citizens observing the movement from the sidelines cheered their Marines; there was no lack of enthusiasm for a war with Spain.  Panther was underway by 20:00 that very night.  The battalion, numbering 650 officers and men, produced over-crowded conditions aboard a ship designed to carry 400 combatants.  Each meal required three separate servings.

Panther pulled into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to await its naval escort[1].  While in port, Major Percival C. Pope and First Lieutenant James E. Mahoney reported to LtCol Huntington for duty at sea and on foreign shore.  The ship continued her journey on 26 April with USS Montgomery as her escort.

The ship’s overcrowded conditions caused some tension and conflict between the ship’s captain and the Battalion commander.  At issue was the duties of Marines while embarked and the right of the navy to discipline Marines.  When Panther arrived in Key West, Florida, Commander George C. Reiter[2], Commanding Officer of Panther, ordered Huntington to disembark his Marines and set up a camp ashore.  Major General Commandant Heywood demanded to know why Reiter ordered the Marines ashore, particularly since Panther was the only troop carrier available to transport the Marines.  Reiter explained that sending the Marines ashore relieved the crowded conditions aboard ship.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion remained ashore for two weeks.  During that time, they exchanged their heavy winter uniforms for summer weight clothing.  Marines with too much leisure time always find ways of getting into mischief, so Huntington ordered a training program involving rifle marksmanship, field sanitation, and company, platoon, and squad tactics.  Marines who were not engaged in one form of training or another were assigned shore patrol duty to ensure that the Marines behaved themselves while on liberty.

With the receipt of new Colt model machine guns, Huntington ordered his machine gunners to attend instruction on crew-serve weapons’ care, maintenance, and employment.  He also provided instruction in fighting in the tropics, the importance of boiling water, and mess cooks learned how to create healthy menus and prepare nutritionally sound meals to help prevent dysentery and diarrhea.  Navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs[3] joined the battalion on 1 June 1898.

On 7 June 1898, the Navy Secretary ordered, “Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army.  Send Yosemite as a convoy escort.”  Huntington’s battalion re-embarked aboard ship and sailed for Cuba.  Major Pope, hospitalized with an illness, remained behind.

During the night of 9 June, Panther and Scorpion collided while at sea.  Scorpion suffered some damage to her fantail, but nothing critical.  Panther arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on the morning of 10 June, and Colonel Huntington reported to Admiral William T. Sampson, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, served as the overall naval force commander.  Sampson directed Huntington to report to Commander Bowman H. McCalla, USN[4] aboard USS Marblehead, who would serve as landing force commander.

Commander McCalla entered Guantanamo Bay on 7 June to clear the outer harbor.  A Spanish artillery battery near the telegraph station at Cayo de Toro (on the western side of the bay) fired on the Marblehead and Yankee.  The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon arrived down the channel from Caimanera to challenge the US presence there, but when Marblehead and Yankee opened fire, Sandoval withdrew.

The importance of Guantanamo Bay was its geography.  Guantanamo has an inner and outer bay, the latter offering good anchorage because of its depth.  The outer bay was an ideal location for coaling operations.  Because of its utility to the Navy, Admiral Sampson sent the Marines to protect ships at anchorage by denying Spanish troops the opportunity to fire at the ships from shore locations.

On 10 June, Commander McCalla ordered Marines from several ship’s detachments ashore to conduct reconnaissance missions inside Guantanamo Bay.  Captain M. D. Goodrell led forty Marines from USS Oregon and twenty additional Marines from USS Marblehead ashore.  Having completed his reconnaissance mission, Goodrell selected a bivouac site for the First Marine Battalion and afterward briefed Colonel Huntington on his designated position ashore.

By the end of the day on 10 June, U.S. Navy ships, including three cruisers (Marblehead, Yankee, Yosemite), the battleship Oregon, torpedo boat Porter, gunboat Dolphin, the collier Abarendo, transports Vixen and Panther and several privately-owned vessels containing journalists dominated Guantanamo’s outer bay.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion began its movement ashore at 1400 with four companies; two companies remained aboard ship to help with unloading supplies.  Company “C” was the first element ashore and assumed responsibility for area security as skirmishers at the top of a hill overlooking the bay.  Sergeant Richard Silvey planted the American flag on the hill, marking the first time the American flag ever flew over Cuba.  Two hundred feet below Company “C” was a small fishing village, which McCalla had ordered fired for health reasons.  The Commander prohibited everyone from entering these buildings.  The remainder of Huntington’s battalion went ashore on 11 June.

Colonel Huntington was not pleased with the bivouac site because it was vulnerable to attack from a ridgeline 1,200 yards to the rear of his position.  McCalla politely listened to Huntington’s complaint and then informed the colonel that he would remain where sited.  The navy needed the Marines to protect ships at anchor from enemy shore bombardment.

Spanish forces first attacked a Marine outpost late that night, killing Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company “D.”  Due to nasty post-mortem injuries, their remains were difficult to identify.  Contrary to reports in the press, the Marine’s remains were not mutilated, per se, but McColgan did suffer 21 shots to the head, and Dumphy fifteen.  Later in the night, Spanish troops initiated five separate attacks on Marine position, all repulsed.  At about 0100, a Spanish force launched a concerted attack against the Marine perimeter.  During the assault, Spanish riflemen killed Assistant Surgeon Gibbs.  Well-camouflaged Spaniards continued to direct sporadic fire into the Marine perimeter.  Spain’s use of smokeless gunpowder made it difficult for Marines to detect firing positions.

On the morning of 12 June, after the death of Sergeant Charles H. Smith, Huntington moved the camp further down the hill, closer to the beach, to a place known as Playa de Este.  The Marines prepared fighting holes on the hill’s crest and designed earthworks in the shape of a square with a blockhouse in the center, and artillery pieces placed at each corner of the square and mutually supporting machine guns were positioned along the sides.  The earthworks stood chest-high; on the outside of the dirt walls, the Marines dug trenches, measuring five feet deep and ten feet wide.  That afternoon, another Spanish assault killed Private Goode Taurman.

Navy Chaplain Harry Jones, serving aboard USS Texas, having heard of the Marine deaths, volunteered to go ashore and conduct funeral services.  Throughout the services, Spanish sharpshooters targeted Chaplain Jones and harassed the Marines by firing into the makeshift church.  The undaunted Jones nevertheless performed the funeral rites with dignity and aplomb.

Aboard Panther, Commander Reiter’s obstinance continued as he balked at having to unload Marine ammunition and stores.  This problem was solved when Commander McCalla directed that Panther unload 50,000 rounds of ammo with the further admonition, “Do not require Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo.  Use your own officers and crew.”

Ashore, Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed in a Spanish attack on the night of 12 June.  When the Spanish re-initiated their attack on the morning of 13 June, Colonel Huntington decided he’d had enough harassment by Spanish troops and ordered the destruction of a water-well in frequent use by the Spanish at Cuzco.  It was the only source of freshwater within twelve miles.  With two companies of Marines and fifty Cuban rebels, Captain George F. Elliott[5] proceeded to Cuzco with USS Dolphin providing naval gunfire support from the sea.  Journalist Stephen Crane[6] volunteered to act as Elliott’s adjutant if allowed to accompany the Marines; Huntington granted his request[7].

Sgt Quick in Cuba 1898 USMC Recruiting Poster

Approaching the Spanish defenses at Cuzco, the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  Lieutenant Magill led fifty additional Marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott.  Magill’s mission was to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat, but Dolphin’s naval artillery prevented his advance.  To redirect the ship’s fire, Sergeant John Quick volunteered to signal the ship and did so while exposing himself to intense enemy fire.  In recognition of his selfless devotion, Congress awarded Quick the Medal of Honor.

Ultimately, Spanish troops did escape the Marine assault, but not without incurring significant losses.  Elliott’s force suffered few casualties; two Cubans killed, and three Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville[8] was injured while descending the mountain during the engagement.  Twenty-three Marines suffered heat exhaustion and required medical evacuation.  Commander McCalla opined, “…the expedition was most successful, and I cannot say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it.”  Subsequently, Spanish probes and sniper attacks on Marine positions were rare.  On 15 June, naval gunfire destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the bay’s eastern side.

USS Resolute[9], loaded with stores for the Marines, arrived late in the day on 20 June.  Admiral Sampson ordered all stores located on the Panther transferred to Resolute.  On the 24th of June, McCalla ordered a reconnaissance in force to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal, on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay.  Early on the morning of 25 June, Huntington assembled 240 men and led them by boat across the bay.  Following the Marines were sixty Cubans under Colonel Thomas.  When the Marines went ashore, they discovered that the Spanish had already withdrawn.

On 3 July, during the naval battle of Santiago, the US Navy destroyed the Spanish navy.  With hundreds of Spanish seamen in the water, the American navy assumed responsibility for rescuing and caring for Spanish survivors.  Over the next several days, the Navy organized Marine guards to escort these prisoners to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Huntington was forced to give up sixty Marines for this duty, and additional Marines augmented them from ship’s detachments.

On 12 July, Commander McCalla ordered Huntington to quarantine the harbor at Guantanamo Bay.  It was more on the order of peacetime duty, which with time on their hands, the Marines began to create their own diversions.  Two Marines decided to raid stores aboard a privately-owned schooner in the harbor, and another was discovered buying liquor from a local source, which was prohibited.  Private Robert Burns, while on guard duty, shot and killed an enormous black pig.

USS Resolute

The First Marine Battalion broke camp on 5 August and boarded USS Resolute for operations at Manzanillo.  The Spanish commander was offered the opportunity to surrender but declined to do so as a point of honor.  Advised to evacuate the town of all civilians, the commander of USS Alvarado signaled that he intended to commence a bombardment at 1530 hours.  The shelling began in 1540 and lasted until 1615 when it appeared that flags of peace were flying over some of the town’s buildings.  Captain Goodrich, commanding Alvarado, sent a boat ashore flying a truce flag, but when the boat received enemy fire, the bombardments continued.  Gunfire terminated at 1730 for the night but resumed at 0520 the next morning.  After daylight, a boat from Manzanillo approached the fleet bringing word that officials had proclaimed a truce and the war was over.  Disappointment among the Marines was evident.

On 18 August, after taking aboard 275 men from an artillery battalion, Resolute embarked for Long Island, dropped off the soldiers, and then continued onward to New Hampshire … chosen by Commandant Heywood to provide the Marines some respite from the tropical heat.  General Heywood greeted his Marines as they came ashore, promoted six of the battalion’s officers for gallantry, and praised the men for their exceptional conduct.  On 19 September, Colonel Huntington received orders to disband the First Marine Battalion.

One remarkable aspect of the battalion’s experience in Cuba was the excellent health of the Marines.  There had not been a single case of yellow fever, dysentery, or diarrhea, which stood in contrast to other US troops’ experience, who were seriously affected by these illnesses.  Major Crowley reported that the use of distilled water for drinking and cooking, good field sanitation, and sufficient food and clothing enabled the Marines to return to the United States “fit for duty.”  Crawley was also insightful in purchasing empty wine casks for use as water containers, which increased the amount of water that could be kept on hand while encamped.

At a parade attended by President McKinley, Sergeant Quick received the medal of honor, and the president announced that a hospital in Kentucky would be named in his honor.

One aspect of the war that surprised Colonel Huntington and his Marines was the amount of favorable press coverage they had received during the conflict.  They were not only the first combat troops ashore, but they were also facing superior[10] numbers of the enemy in their engagements.  As a result of these press reports, the American public learned for the first time about the usefulness of the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighting force.  The press also praised the Marines for their general healthfulness and contrasted this result with the debilitating disease experienced by army units in the same conflict.

The Spanish-American War also demonstrated that the Marine Corps could play an essential role in future Naval operations and this was important because, as a result of the war with Spain, the United States had acquired Pacific bases that would require a military defense of the Philippines, Guam, and additional Pacific Ocean area advanced bases.  The war also illustrated how quickly a Marine Corps combat unit could be assembled and dispatched to foreign shore[11].  Subsequently, “combat readiness” became the hallmark of the United States Marines —and continues to this very day.

Sources:

  1. Clifford, J. H. History of the First Battalion of Marines.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1930.
  2. Collection of private papers, Colonel Robert Watkinson Huntington, USMC (Retired), Marine Corps University archives, and Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia.
  3. Documented histories, Spanish-American War, Naval History and Heritage Command, online.
  4. Feuer, A. B. The Spanish American War at Sea.  Greenwood Publishing, 1995.
  5. Stewart, R. W. The U. S. Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2005.
  6. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, Volume 1, 1997

Endnotes:

[1] Panther required an escort because the ship was unable to defend herself at sea.

[2] Reiter was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1905 and was detailed to Chair the Lighthouse Board until his retirement in 1907.

[3] The 40-year old Dr. John Gibbs was among the first medical doctors to receive an appointment as a surgeon in the US Navy Medical Corps.  He was instrumental in helping Colonel Huntington train his Marines in field sanitation, nutrition, and healthy cooking.  Within a few days, a Cuban sniper would kill Gibbs while he carried out his duties as a field surgeon.

[4] McCalla (1844-1910) was a Civil War veteran of the US Navy whose courage under fire and leadership earned him the respect and admiration of Navy and Marine Corps officers alike.  McCalla participated in the blockade of Cuba and was responsible for cutting submarine cables linking Cienfuegos with the outside world, thus isolating the Spanish garrison there, and led the invasion of Guantanamo Bay.  Advanced to Rear Admiral in 1903, McCalla retired from active duty service in 1906.

[5] Served as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1903-1910).

[6] Authored the Red Badge of Courage in 1895.

[7] On 18 June, Colonel Huntington received an order from McCalla not to allow any reporters near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla.  Any reporter attempting to do so was to be arrested as a POW and taken to the Marblehead.

[8] Awarded the Medal of Honor, served as fourteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1929-1930), died in office.

[9] Formerly, SS Yorktown, she was purchased by the US Navy on 21 April 1898 for service as an auxiliary cruiser/troop transport.

[10] Spanish forces outnumbered Americans 7 to 1.

[11] At the beginning of the war, the United States Armed Forces were unprepared for foreign conflict.  The Navy was barely adequate to its task, the Army was understaffed, underequipped, and under-trained.  The army’s only recent combat experience was the Indian wars in the American west.  What may have “saved” the Americans during this war was the fact that the Spanish were even less ready for war.  Thanks to the urgings of Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s Pacific Fleet was well positioned to strike the Spanish in Manilla Bay.  Operationally, it may have been one of the Navy’s greatest successes, although the Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet won the war in Cuba.