Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Black Jack in Cuba: Part I

Black Jack in Cuba:
General John J. Pershing’s Experience in the Spanish-American War, Part I

by Kevin Hymel, National Museum of the U.S. Army

Lt. John J. Pershing, 10th Cavalry
To most Americans, San Juan Hill conjures up images of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders dashing up the hill to victory, but other soldiers also played an important role in driving the Spanish off the heights overlooking Santiago, Cuba. One such soldier was 1st Lieutenant John J. Pershing, the quartermaster of the 10th U.S. Cavalry, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers.” Pershing’s experiences in Cuba gave him important battlefield experience and showed him how an army at war behaves. This would pay off when Pershing led the United States Army into battle on the fields of France in World War I, less than 20 years later.

As tensions heated up between the United States and Spain, Pershing was teaching tactics at West Point. Desperate to join the action he foresaw as inevitable, he bombarded the Assistant Secretary of War, John Meiklejohn, with letters. Realizing the importance of combat duty, he wrote, “if I should accept any duty which would keep me from field service, indeed if I did not make every effort to obtain an opportunity for field service I should never forgive myself.”

Pershing was not totally unprepared for battle. An 1886 graduate of West Point, he had seen duty against the Plains Indians with both the 6th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The 10th was one of two black cavalry regiments commanded by white officers. Pershing was called “Black Jack” in reference to his service with the 10th, and the nickname stuck long after he left it. He later taught military tactics and mathematics at the University of Nebraska, where he also earned a law degree.

Unfortunately for Pershing, when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898, the Secretary of War froze all West Point instructors to their jobs for the duration of the war. Undaunted, Pershing realized the only way into combat was to be requested for duty by a line unit. He wrote to Col. Guy V. Henry, the commander of his old unit, the 10th Cavalry, requesting to rejoin the unit as regimental quartermaster. Henry sent a letter to Assistant Secretary of War Meiklejohn and Pershing soon showed up at Meiklejohn’s office to press for approval. When Pershing told Meiklejohn “I shall resign and join some National Guard or volunteer unit that stands a chance of being sent to Cuba,” Meiklejohn relented and approved orders for Pershing to rejoin the 10th.

Pershing found his unit in training at Chickamauga, Tennessee, and moved with it to Port Tampa, Florida, where it would sail for Cuba. The 10th was part of Brigadier General William R. Shafter’s Fifth Corps, whose mission was to capture Santiago, the Spanish capital of Cuba. Shafter, a veteran of the Civil War and Indian fighting, had grown soft and fat in his 63 years and was overwhelmed by the task of preparing his force. Confusion reigned in Port Tampa where thousands of regular Army and volunteer soldiers prepared to leave with little semblance of order. The 10th Cavalry drew space on the Leona, a coastal merchant ship pressed into military service. Loading the ship was conducted without incident and the Leona set sail with 37 other transports on 13 June 1898.

The trip went badly. In addition to the Leona becoming separated from its convoy, the men below decks became seasick and hungry. Their woolen army uniforms were ill suited for the tropic climate, much less existence in a hot, cramped ship’s hold, and there were no cooking facilities aboard ship. Unpalatable field rations were the only food available.

Finally, on 22 June, the 10th Cavalry disembarked at Daiquiri, 13 miles east of Santiago. There were no port facilities and small boats were used to move the men as close to shore as possible. Many men had to jump from the boats carrying their equipment and wade to shore. Two men drowned during the transfer. The next day, while Pershing stayed on board to supervise the landing, squadrons of the 10th and 1st Cavalry, and two from the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders), clashed with Spanish units at La Guarina then drove the Spanish from their defenses inflicting heavy casualties. The 10th lost one man killed and ten wounded.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry at the battle of La Guarina, supporting
the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders). (Library of Congress)

Pershing longed to be with his men, but the Leona was ordered west to pick up 1,000 ragged Cuban rebels of General Calixto Garcia’s command who had been fighting the Spanish. Pershing was not impressed with the insurgent fighters: “A miserable lot they are, in my opinion they will prove of little service to the Americans.”

The next day, leading a pack mule laden with supplies, Pershing caught up with his encamped regiment. To his chagrin, he found that the men had earlier thrown away all but their most essential gear, and they were now hungry and without shelter. He spent the next five days traveling the narrow jungle trails, bringing up supplies, no easy task considering the confusion on the beaches where only the efforts of individual officers had brought “at least the semblance of order.”

The confusion taxed many men’s patience but not Pershing’s. When one officer complained about the supply problem and that “fat old slob” Shafter, Pershing confronted the complainer and scolded “Why did you come to this war if you can’t stand the gaff? War has always been this way...That old man you talk about is going to win this campaign. When he does, these things will be forgotten. It’s the objective which counts, not the incidents.”

Part II will be posted tomorrow on Roads to the Great War

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