Chapter 14 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Life on the Transport—The Landing at Daiquiri—The March to Siboney—The Trail through the Jungle—The Skirmish at La Guasima

While the army was preparing to invade Cuba, matters so far as they concerned the navy had been moving along rapidly. Commodore Dewey had sunk the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay; Havana and the adjacent coasts were being blockaded, so no ships could pass in or out without running the risk of capture; and a large fleet of war-ships under Admiral Cervera, of the enemy's navy, had been "bottled up" in Santiago Harbor.

It had been decided that the United States troops should be landed on the southeast coast of Cuba, not far from the entrance to Santiago Bay, and from that point should make an advance on Santiago, which is the second city of importance in the island.

Day after day the flotilla of transports kept on its way, spread out in a broad column during the time it was light, and coming in close together during the night. The war-ships hovered near, and at night swept the ocean with their powerful search-lights, rendering a surprise by the enemy impossible.

The trip to the southeast coast of Cuba lasted seven days. It was very hot, even for this time of the year, and those who could, slept on deck during the voyage. There was but little to do, and when not drilling, the men took it easy in the shade,—sleeping, chatting, or playing games. Sometimes they would talk of the future and wonder how much of real fighting lay before them.

"We didn't know even then where we were going," said one, in speaking of the trip. "I don't believe Wood or Roosevelt knew either. First we thought it might be Havana, then we imagined it might be Porto Rico, but when we turned southward and ran around the eastern end of the island, we all knew we were bound for Santiago."

As the transports swept up toward the mouth of Santiago Bay, they came within sight of the American war-ships that were keeping Admiral Cervera's fleet "bottled up" in the harbor. A shout of recognition went up, and one of the bands struck up a patriotic air that was truly inspiring.

The landing of the Rough Riders and many other commands was made at Daiquiri, a small settlement on the coast east of Santiago Harbor. The Yucatan got closer to the shore than most of the other transports, and the men lost no time in disembarking, taking with them two Colt's automatic guns and a dynamite gun of which they had become possessed. As there had not been transports enough, only the officers' horses had been brought along. These were thrown into the water and made to swim ashore. Theodore Roosevelt had two horses, but one was drowned.

It was important that the landing should be guarded, and the war-ships sent in some shot and shell to dislodge any Spaniards who might be in the vicinity. But none showed themselves, and soon nearly all of the soldiers were ashore, either at Daiquiri or at a landing a short distance farther westward. No enemy was in sight, and the only persons who appeared were some Cubans, soldiers and civilians, who wanted but one thing, food.

The Rough Riders had been put into a brigade commanded by General S.B.M. Young. There were two of these brigades, and it is worth noting that they formed a division under the command of Major-General Joseph Wheeler, who had in years gone by fought so gallantly on the side of the Confederacy. Now, as brave as of old, he was fighting for Old Glory, the one banner of the North and the South alike.

As the Rough Riders landed, they were marched up the beach, and here they went into temporary camp,—an easy matter, since each soldier carried his outfit with him, or, at least, as much as he could get of what belonged to him. Theodore Roosevelt had his weapons and ammunition, a mackintosh and a toothbrush, certainly much less than he had carried even when roughing it in the Bad Lands of the West.

As soon as the larger portion of the army was landed, General Lawton—he who was afterward to give his life for his flag in the Philippines—threw out a strong detachment on the Santiago road to the westward, and also detachments on the roads to the north and east.

"On to Santiago!" was the cry. And many were for pushing forward without delay. But the transports had still to unload their baggage, and word did not reach the Rough Riders to move on until the afternoon of the day after landing.

It was a rocky, uneven country, with much brushwood and jungles of trees and vines. It had rained, but now the sun came out fiercely, and the Rough Riders (riders in name only, for only the officers were on horseback) suffered greatly through being clad in winter uniform.

"It was a tough and tiresome march," said one who was there. "The air just quivered with heat, and many of the boys felt like throwing half of their clothing away. Whenever we reached a drinking place, the crowd would swarm around for water like a lot of bees.

"General Lawton had his outposts pretty well advanced. Our commander, old General Wheeler, was just as anxious to make a showing, and he ordered General Young to push on with the Rough Riders and some other troops. So away we went, with Colonel Wood at our head, and Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt in command of one squadron and Major Brodie in command of the other. In some spots the road was frightful, full of mud-holes, with big land crabs crawling around in all directions, and with the trailing vines full of poisonous spiders. We didn't know but that the woods might be full of Spaniards, and we were on the alert to give the Dons as good as they sent, should they show themselves."

By nightfall the Rough Riders reached the little village of Siboney without having met the enemy. Here they went into camp in the midst of a heavy thunder-storm in which every soldier and officer was drenched to the skin. Fires could scarcely be lighted, and it was not until the storm had partly cleared away that the cooks could prepare anything to eat. Surely being a soldier was not all glory after all.

It had been learned that a portion of the Spanish army was less than four miles away, and General Young was ordered by General Wheeler to move forward at daybreak and engage the enemy. Colonel Wood received orders to move the Rough Riders by a trail over a hill, beyond which the country sloped toward the bay and the city of Santiago.

The first encounter with the enemy occurred at a place called La Guasima (or Las Guasimas), so called on account of trees of that name growing in the vicinity. Here the Spaniards had rifle-pits and mounds of earth to shelter them and had likewise the sugar-house of a plantation. They had been watching for the coming of the Americanos eagerly, and were determined to give our soldiers a lesson not to be forgotten. They knew that our army had not been in active warfare for years, and felt certain that they would soon be able to make the "paper" soldiers retreat.

The Rough Riders found the way led up a steep hill, and the pace was so fast that before the firing line was reached some men fell out from exhaustion. Theodore Roosevelt was at the head of the first squadron and did his best to urge those under him forward. There was an advance guard, led by some men under Sergeant Hamilton Fish, and Captain Capron's troop, and soon a crash of firearms notified all that a fight was on.

Orders were at once issued to fill the magazines of the guns, and this was done. Then, while some troops moved to the left of the trail, Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt was ordered to take three troops to the right. Here the jungle was heavy, and no sooner had the Rough Riders advanced than the Spaniards opened fire upon them. In speaking of the opening of this fight, Mr. Roosevelt himself writes:—

"The effect of the smokeless powder (used by the enemy) was remarkable. The air seemed full of the rustling sound of the Mauser bullets, for the Spaniards knew the trails by which we were advancing, and opened heavily on our position. But they themselves were entirely invisible. The jungle covered everything, and not the faintest trace of smoke was to be seen in any direction, to indicate from whence the bullets came."

It was certainly a trying time—to stand up and be shot at without being able to return the compliment. Roosevelt and all the other leaders knew that this would not do, and at a great risk they continued to advance, until some Spaniards were at last discovered across a valley to the right of where the troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt were located.

"There they are!" was the cry. "Forward and at 'em, boys! Down with the Dons!" Without delay some sharpshooters fired on the Spaniards, and then the regular troops opened up, and at last the Spaniards ran from cover.

Bullets were now flying in all directions, and both sides were making their shots tell. The Americans had but scant protection, and it was not long before a number of them fell. Some bullets came close to Theodore Roosevelt, and one hit a palm tree near where he was standing, filling his left eye and ear with the dust and splinters. Had that Mauser bullet come a few inches closer, the man who was destined to become the future President of our country might have been killed on the spot.

In the midst of the skirmish—for the conflict proved to be nothing more—there was a report that Colonel Wood was dead, and Theodore Roosevelt took it upon himself to restore the fighting line of Rough Riders to order. But happily the report proved false; and a little while after this the skirmish came to an end, and both Spaniards and Americans betook themselves to positions of greater safety. In this skirmish, brief as it was, the Rough Riders lost eight men killed and nearly forty wounded.