San Juan Hill: The Legend Lives On

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The defining battle of the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fought in the San Juan Heights hill area, east of Santiago de Cuba on July 1, 1898. The battle was the stuff of legends but included a good deal of hyperbole fabricated by American press to increase the popularity of Theodore Roosevelt who would later go on to serve as Vice-President and President of the United States.

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Today, San Juan Hills are part of an area known as Lomas de San Juan. It is a busy tourist area with hotel, several monuments and many landmarks. Cubans assisted the American cause and tend to describe the war as the Spanish-Cuban-American War.

The Rough Riders

The Rough Riders

The name San Juan Hill was actually a typographical error that was intended to set the location as San Juan Hills, a common name for the San Juan Heights hills, but the name caught the public’s imagination and stuck. The two key hills in the battle were dubbed San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill by American troops after the battle. Historian purists might easily refer to the battle as the Battle of San Juan Heights.

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The battle for the Heights was the bloodiest of the War that was sparked by the sinking of the USS Maine. The commander of the Rough Riders, Teddy Roosevelt, was vaulted to national prominence for his leadership role in the battle. In 2001, 103 years after the battle, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in San Juan Hills.

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Yet, the American public only knew what the press reported. In truth, the heaviest fighting was not done by the Rough Riders but by the troops in the 10th and 24th Infantry Regiments. These Buffalo Soldiers carried the fight and suffered significant losses in their efforts to take the hills.

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The battle could easily have been lost were it not for strategic failures by Spanish Commander General Arsenio Linares who only dispatched 760 regular Spanish troops to defend the hills. For unknown reasons, the General held back almost his entire legion of 10,000 strong Spanish troops in Santiago de Cuba.

San Juan Heights 1898

San Juan Heights 1898

Also serving the Americans well were the position of the Spanish fortifications on the hilltops. They were well concealed but had poor firing positions to defend the hills against a foot assault. Firing positions did not have good vision to detect the oncoming force.

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As the American soldiers came into view, they fell under heavy rifle fire and artillery. But, time and numbers were against the Spanish. Despite better artillery, they were simply outmanned.

San Juan Hotel

San Juan Hotel

The 15,000 strong 5th Corps under command of General William Rufus Shafter contained three divisions; the 1st Division led by Jacob F. Kent, the 2nd Division led by Henry W, Lawton and the Cavalry led by Joseph Wheeler.

The Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill by Frederic Remington 1898

The Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill by Frederic Remington 1898

Shafter fell ill before the battle and was forced to relinquish command in the field to General Samuel S. Sumner. The plan involved coordinated actions by the Cavalry which was supposed to soften the Spanish position by attacking El Caney and then apply pressure to Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. The Cavalry met a bit more resistance than anticipated and though not fully supported, the Spanish forces were able to inflict serious casualties upon the American forces.

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Shafter was forced to coordinate his troops from his headquarters at El Pozo, located about 2 miles from the heights. At one point, Roosevelt mounted a charge only to find that his troops had not heard his attack cry. He was forced to return and muster additional support as only about 6 soldiers followed him on his initial rally.

Teddy's colts at the top of the hill

Teddy’s colts at the top of the hill

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