July 1, 1898 ~ The South Carolinian Who Led the Assault on San Juan Hill
In the spring and summer of 1898 the United States thrust itself into the global power game with a 10-week victory over the crumbing Spanish Empire in the in the Spanish-American War.
Secretary of State John Hay would later call the It a splendid little war, which began with the highest motives, was carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, and favored by that Fortune that loves the brave.
Future President Theodore Roosevelt would end the war universally heralded for the actions of his volunteer 1st U.S. Cavalry: the Rough Riders at the pivotal battle of the San Juan Heights.
The Spanish American War began in the aftermath of the internal explosion of USS Maine in Havana harbor in Cuba in 1898 and led to U.S. intervention in the Cuban War of Independence
Almost immediately, leaders in Washington, DC began planning for the invasion of Cuba.
In late spring 1898, American forces landed in the southern part of Cuba near the city of Santiago. Advancing west, the plan was made to capture the San Juan Heights which overlooked the city and harbor.
On the morning of July 1, 1898, units under the command of then Brigadier General Hamilton S. Hawkins, a 62-year old South Carolina Native who served in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War converged at the San Juan heights.
Hawkins, a brigadier general in the volunteer army, had fought at Gettysburg 35-years to the day that he would spearheaded the assault at the Battle of San Juan Hill.
Hawkins believed his brigade could ascend the hill, storm the blockhouse and then turn the Spanish flank. His commanders were not as confident, but gave him permission to prepare for the assault.
Hawkins’ forces got into position to attack, but did not advance because they did not have orders. Suffering through intense tropical heat, the Americans were taking casualties from Spanish fire. As men were hit, parts of the San Juan River valley were dubbed “Hell’s Pocket” and “Bloody Ford.”
After absorbing enemy fire for some time, Lieutenant Jules G. Ord of Hawkins’ staff asked his commander for permission to lead the men forward.
Only storming the heights would silence the Spanish guns and finally end the killing.
At first Hawkins hesitated, but he then permitted Lieutenant Ord to begin an attack.
Ord led the brigade into the attack supported by a battery of Gatling guns commanded by Lieutenant John H. Parker.
The Rough Riders were in position to support Ord’s assault.
MG Joseph Wheeler, the former Confederate Cavalry leader from Alabama, officially gave Roosevelt’s commanders orders to attack.
Several officers, including Roosevelt surged forward, and overran the positions on Kettle Hill. Consolidating their position, the cavalry provided supporting fire to Hawkins’ infantry which was moving up the heights towards the blockhouse on San Juan Hill. The Spaniards increased their fire, and with each advance more men fell.
LT Parker was able to get his Gatling guns into the fight and began leveling the Spanish defenses.
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 3rd and 10th U.S. Cavalry surged up the hill directly into Spanish fire.
The standard bearer of the 3rd Cavalry fell during the onslaught and Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry grabbed both standards raced to the top of the hill with colors in each hand, “Rally on the flags, boys!”
Future General of the Armies, John J Pershing was a 2LT with the 10th and would testify later that it had been Berry who reached the top of the hill first.
Hawkins rushed to the front of the main body of his brigade yelling “Come on! Come on!” and led his troops up the hill where he was severely wounded in the foot near the crest.
LT Ord was reportedly the first officer to reach the top and began directing supporting fire when he was hit in the throat, mortally wounded.
Roosevelt and his Rough Riders would cross over from Kettle Hill and join the fight with the Buffalo soldiers in the final assault on San Juan Hill.
The Spanish continued their fight until their ammunition ran out and their commander, Vara de Rey, was killed at El Caney.
The city of Santiago would ultimately fall on July 17th. Spain would quit the war on August 13th and the map of the world would once again be altered.
The fight at San Juan heights was the bloodiest and most famous battle of the war. The “splendid little war” would propel Theodore Roosevelt into the national spotlight and eventually the Presidency.
It all happened on July 1, 1898.