Prologue Magazine

“New Glory to Its Already Gallant Record”

The First Marine Battalion in the Spanish-American War

Spring 1998, Vol. 30, No. 1

By Trevor K. Plante

Marines with battalion standard Guantanamo Marine Corps officers 1st Lt. Herbert L. Draper, Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington (commander of the First Marine Battalion), and Capt. Charles L. McCawley. (NARA, 20M-514827)

On April 16, 1898, five days before war began between the United States and Spain, in preparation for what he believed was an inevitable conflict, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the commandant of the Marine Corps, Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron. By war's end, the First Marine Battalion could boast they had fought in the first land battle in Cuba and had been the first to raise the American flag on the island. They could also claim that of the six marines killed in action in the Spanish-American War, five were from their unit. The battalion yielded one Medal of Honor recipient, and two of the unit's officers would later serve as commandants of the Marine Corps.1 The First Marine Battalion's action in the Caribbean and its favorable press coverage gave the American public and the U.S. Navy a glimpse of the Marine Corps of the future.

At approximately 9:40 p.m. on the evening of February 15, 1898, an explosion sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The ship was manned by 290 sailors, 39 marines, and 26 officers. Of these officers and men, 253 were killed either by the explosion or drowning; seven more died later of wounds. Included in this number of killed were twenty-eight enlisted men from the Maine's marine detachment.2

The cause of the explosion was a source of contention between the United States and Spain. On March 21 a US naval court of inquiry called to investigate the Maine incident concluded that a mine in the harbor had caused the explosion. A Spanish naval court of inquiry reported the next day that the explosion had been due to internal causes.3 Although the cause was never established to either side's satisfaction, the event eventually led Congress to declare on April 25 that a state of war existed starting April 21, 1898.

The job of organizing the First Marine Battalion was assigned to Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington, who had just recently taken command of the Marine Barracks in Brooklyn, New York. Huntington was approaching almost forty years of service in the Marine Corps, having been commissioned soon after the start of the Civil War.4

On April 17, Lt. Colonel Huntington began organizing the battalion, initially formed into four companies. A proposed second battalion was never formed because a number of marines were still needed to protect navy yards and installations in the United States. Instead, the First Marine Battalion was enlarged to six companies— five companies of infantry and one artillery. Each company had a complement of 103 men: 1 first sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates. The battalion was also accorded a quartermaster, adjutant, and surgeon. The color guard comprised 1 sergeant and 2 corporals.5

Commandant Charles Heywood made mobilizing the battalion his highest priority. For this reason, both he and the Marine Corps quartermaster made sure that Charles McCawley, the battalion's quartermaster, had the supplies he needed or the funds to get them. On April 18 the commandant went to New York to personally observe preparations, staying until the twenty-third.6 The battalion quartermaster supplied the unit with ammunition, camp equipment, mosquito netting, woolen and linen clothing, wheelbarrows, pushcarts, pickaxes, shelter tents, and medical stores.7

On April 22 the marines were ready to sail. The men marched down the main street of the navy yard to the dock and at 5 p.m. boarded the recently purchased USS Panther. Lt. Colonel Huntington noted the "intense excitement manifested by people along the line of march, Navy Yard, docks, harbor front and shipping."8 At eight o'clock, as the ship pulled away from the dock, the naval band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me" to send off the marines.9

The men were overcrowded on the Panther because the vessel was too small to hold such a large unit. The ship's dining room accommodated only two hundred men, requiring three mess calls per meal.10 The ship, originally the Venezuela, had been recently purchased and converted to carry about 400 men, but after the additional companies were added, the battalion numbered close to 650 officers and men. The marines expected these crowded conditions to be temporary. At Key West, Florida, they were supposed to transfer to the Resolute, which was capable of carrying one thousand men and officers.11 Unfortunately, the marine battalion would not see the Resolute until after it arrived in Cuba in June. The battalion reached Fort Monroe off Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the evening of April 23 and waited for their convoy vessel to arrive. An escort was necessary, for the Panther was ill-equipped to defend itself should it encounter an enemy vessel. While at Hampton Roads, Maj. Percival C. Pope and 1st Lt. James E. Mahoney joined the battalion.12 On April 26 the Panther left Virginia accompanied by the cruiser Montgomery.

It was not long before tension developed on the Panther between the officers of the navy and the Marine Corps. Much of this strain was due to overcrowding, but some stemmed from questions regarding the men's required duty and who was responsible for discipline.13 Despite these problems, Huntington made the most of precious time. On the twenty-sixth the battalion began its first drills on board ship. The marine infantry companies were armed with Lee straight-pull 6mm rifles. The artillery company was equipped with four three-inch rapid-fire guns. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Companies A, B, C, D, and E (the infantry companies) drilled in volley and mass firing; each man using ten rounds each. Next, the artillery company fired one round from each of the four artillery pieces and then, like the infantry companies, drilled in volley and mass firing of the Lee rifles using ten rounds each.14

The Panther arrived at Key West, on April 29.15 On May 24 Comdr. George C. Reiter, commanding the Panther, ordered the battalion to disembark and set up camp. This action prompted the commandant of the Marine Corps to telegraph Key West inquiring why the battalion was unloaded when the Panther was the sole transport of the marine battalion and had no other duties.16 While the battalion remained in camp for two weeks, monotony was eased by the arrival of supplies that were more suited for tropical weather. The marines exchanged their heavier blue uniforms for new brown linen campaign suits. With the lighter, cooler uniforms came new-style shoes and lightweight underwear, all very popular items with the officers and men. Huntington continued drilling while at Key West, and the battalion received daily instruction and target practice with their rifles.17

The officers were watching the men's health very closely. Huntington was keenly aware of health dangers caused by bad water and exposure to disease. Orders outlined procedures pertaining to water, cooking, and clothing. Water was prepared on board ship and brought to the marines on shore. No one was to drink unboiled water. Cooks were told how to prepare food and water for cooking, and any marine struck by diarrhea was to report it immediately to the medical officer. The men were also ordered to change their clothing whenever it got wet.18

While in Key West the battalion sent small detachments to participate in several funeral services held for navy personnel. Colonel Huntington also detailed men to patrol the streets of Key West to guard against men causing trouble while on liberty. The unit received a number of Colt machine guns, and navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs also joined the battalion.19 On June 7 the naval base at Key West received a telegram from the acting secretary of the navy stressing, "Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army send Yosemite as convoy."20 The long wait was over, and that day the battalion finally sailed for Cuba, leaving behind Major Pope sick in the hospital.

On the voyage south, during the night of the ninth, the marines' transport collided with the Scorpion, causing damage to the converted yacht's stern rail.21 The Panther arrived off Santiago, Cuba, at 7 a.m. on June 10. Huntington reported to Adm. William T. Sampson, the commander in chief of the North Atlantic Fleet, on board the flagship New York and received orders to report to Comdr. Bowman H. McCalla of the Marblehead, commanding at Guantanamo Bay.22

Shortly after the war began, Admiral Sampson established a blockade of major Cuban ports. Guantanamo Bay was chosen as a good site for coaling navy vessels. Guantanamo has both an inner and outer bay, and the outer bay offered a good anchorage site for ships because of its depth. Sampson sent the marine battalion to protect any ships in the bay from being harassed from Spanish troops ashore.

McCalla had entered Guantanamo Bay on June 7 to clear the outer harbor. A battery near the telegraph station at Cayo del Toro on the western side of the bay fired on the US vessels Marblehead and Yankee. The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon came down the channel from Caimanera. The two US Navy ships opened fire, silencing the gun battery and forcing the Sandoval to return back up the channel. On the morning of June 10, McCalla ordered marines from the Marblehead and Oregon to conduct a reconnaissance of an area just inside Guantanamo Bay. Capt. M. D. Goodrell led forty marines from the Oregon and twenty marines from the Marblehead. Goodrell selected a site for the marine battalion to establish their camp, and McCalla then sent him to brief Huntington on his intended position.23

The scene outside Guantanamo Bay was an awesome sight on June 10, for the outer bay was dominated by ships. The US Navy vessels present were the cruisers Marblehead, Yankee, and Yosemite; the battleship Oregon; the torpedo boat Porter; the gunboat Dolphin; the collier Abarenda; the Vixen and Panther; and several private vessels carrying newspaper reporters. The battalion began landing at two o'clock. Four companies disembarked while the other two remained on board to help unload supplies.24 The marines were ordered to stack their rifles and begin unloading supplies from the Panther. Men from Company C, the first company ashore, were deployed up the top of the hill as skirmishers to protect the landing against enemy attack.25 Sgt. Richard Silvey, Company C, First Marine Battalion, planted the American flag for the first time on Cuban soil. One hundred and fifty feet below the hill where the American flag now flew, houses and huts were in flames, and smoke rose from the small fishing village. McCalla had ordered the marines to burn the village on Fisherman's Point for health reasons, and no one was allowed to enter into any buildings. The remaining two companies disembarked on June 11.26

Huntington believed the hill chosen for his camp to be a "faulty position." He did not want his men on top of a hill where "the ridge slopes downward and to the rear from the bay" and was "commanded by a mountain, the ridge of which is about 1,200 yards to the rear."27 The battalion's position was partially protected by the navy vessels in the bay. Several times the battalion commander requested McCalla's permission to move the marines from this site to a more defensible position, but these requests were repeatedly denied.28 Despite this difference, Huntington named the marines' position Camp McCalla. Lt. Herbert Draper raised the American flag on a flagpole for the first time in Cuba at Camp McCalla.29 Eleven days later, Huntington sent this same flag to the commandant of the Marine Corps:

Guantanamo Bay
June 22', 1898

My Dear Colonel:

I sent you by this mail in a starch box the first US flag hoisted in Cuba. This flag was hoisted on the 11th June and during the various attacks on our camp floated serene above us. At times, during the darkness, for a moment, it has been illumined by the search light from the ships. When bullets were flying, and the sight of the flag upon the midnight sky has thrilled our hearts.

I trust you may consider it worthy of preservation, with suitable inscription, at Headquarters. It was first lowered at sunset last evening.

I am very respectfully
R.W. Huntington
Lt Col Commd'g Bat'n

In an attack on the marine outposts, Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company D were both killed.30 The bodies were first mistakenly reported mutilated. It was hard to tell the two apart, for both men had received a number of bullet wounds to the face; McColgan suffered twenty-one shots to the head and Dumphy fifteen.31 Soon the enemy made five small separate attacks on the marines' camp. All of these were repulsed. At about 1 a.m. a superior number of Spanish forces made a more combined attack. In this assault Assistant Surgeon Gibbs was killed by a bullet to the head.32 Sporadic firing back and forth continued throughout the night. Using a lesson learned from the Cubans, the enemy was making good use of camouflage by covering their bodies with leaves and foliage from the jungle.33 The smokeless powder of the Spanish Mauser rifles also made the enemy harder to detect.

On the morning of the twelfth, Sgt. Charles H. Smith was killed. Colonel Huntington moved much of the camp down the hill closer to the beach to a place known as Playa del Este. Huntington had the marines entrench their positions on the crest of the hill. Eventually earthworks were constructed in the shape of a square, with the blockhouse in its center. The artillery pieces were placed in the corners of the square, and the Colt machine guns were along the sides. Several newspaper reporters came ashore at the lower camp and offered assistance. They helped the marines bring the artillery pieces and Colt machine guns up the hill. The earthworks were constructed about chest high. On the outside of the dirt walls, trenches were dug measuring about five feet deep and ten feet wide. Later on June 12, Pvt. Goode Taurman died during an engagement.34

Harry Jones, the chaplain from the USS Texas, conducted a funeral service for the slain marines. He had heard about the marine deaths, and after receiving permission from his ship's captain, offered his services to the battalion commander. A lieutenant and marine guards from the Texas provided the funeral escort. Colonel Huntington, the battalion's surgeon, and as many officers and men who could be spared from the trenches attended the ceremony. The camp was still being harassed by the enemy, and at one point Jones dove into a trench to escape enemy fire. When he got back to his feet, the chaplain found that the marines were still standing at parade rest awaiting the ceremony. The service was conducted almost entirely under enemy fire. The marines' Lee rifles and Colt machine guns returned fire. The chaplain was still being fired on when he returned to his launch with two reporters.35

McCalla ordered the captain of the Panther to unload fifty thousand rounds of 6mm ammunition. McCalla also cleared up some of the confusion regarding duties by stating in the same order, "In the future do not require Col. Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo. Use your own officers and crew."36

On the night of the twelfth, Sgt. Maj. Henry Good was killed. Another attack was made on the camp the next morning. After almost three days of constant harassment from the enemy either by attack or sniper fire, Huntington decided to take action. He issued an order to destroy a well used by Spanish troops. On the fourteenth, Capt. George F. Elliott set out with Companies C and D and approximately fifty Cubans to destroy the well at Cuzco, which was the only water supply for the enemy within twelve miles. The well, about six miles from the camp, was close to shore, and the USS Dolphin was sent to support the mission from sea.37

Upon leaving camp, Huntington asked Elliott if he would like to take an officer to act as adjutant. The captain declined, citing the shortage of officers present for duty as the reason. Instead, upon learning that a reporter was accompanying his force, Elliott requested Stephen Crane to act as an aide if needed. Crane's Red Badge of Courage had been published in 1895. The marine officer later reported that Crane carried messages to the company commanders while on this mission.38

The marines soon engaged in a terrific fight. Near the well they encountered great resistance from superior enemy forces. Lt. Louis Magill was sent with fifty marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott. He was to cut off the enemy's line of retreat but was blocked by the Dolphin's gunfire. To help direct the naval gunfire, Sgt. John Quick volunteered to signal the ship. Using a blue flag obtained from the Cubans, the sergeant began to signal the ship with his back to the enemy and bullets flying all around him.

Later, two lieutenants with fifty men each were also sent to help Elliott, but neither participated in the fight. The Spanish escaped, but not before the marines inflicted a crippling blow. Elliott's force had a remarkably low casualty rate. Only two Cubans had been killed, and two Cubans and three marine privates had been wounded. Lt. Wendell C. Neville had also been injured descending a mountainside during the engagement. Twenty-three marines suffered from heat exhaustion and had to be brought back to the Dolphin.39 McCalla offered his opinion stating, "I need hardly call attention to the fact that the marines would have suffered much less had their campaign hats not been on the Resolute" (the ship had not yet arrived at Guantanamo Bay).40 Overall, the mission was considered a success because the well had been destroyed. McCalla stated, "the expedition was most successful; and I can not say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it."41 In fact, after the action, enemy attacks and sniper fire on the marine camp became almost nonexistent.

The following day, naval gunfire from the Texas, Marblehead, and Suwanee destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the eastern side of the bay. The three ships were accompanied by two press boats.42 Three days later, Huntington received orders that no reporters or civilians were to be allowed to land near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla. Those who disobeyed this order were to be arrested and taken on board the Marblehead as prisoners.43

At 4:30 p.m. on June 20 the USS Resolute arrived and unloaded stores for the battalion. The next day the captain of the Panther received orders from Admiral Sampson to transfer all stores including ammunition and quartermaster stores to the Resolute.44 The marines had finally received their larger transport. On June 24 the battalion placed headstones over the graves of Gibbs, Good, McColgan, Dumphy, and Taurman. A detail was sent out to place a headstone over the remains of Sergeant Smith, whose body could not be brought back to camp.45

McCalla ordered a reconnaissance to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay. The enemy had been firing on American vessels from this point. At about 3 a.m. on the twenty-fifth, Huntington led a detail of 240 men encompassing Companies C and E of the First Marine Battalion and 60 Cubans under Colonel Thomas. The force used fifteen boats from the Helena, Annapolis, and Bancroft to travel to the other side of the bay. The landing was supported by the Marblehead and Helena, which took positions close to the beach south and west of the point. The landing force went ashore but made no contact with the enemy. They did, however, find signs that approximately one hundred men had been in the area and had left the previous day. The landing party withdrew at about 7:30 a.m.46

On July 3 the Spanish fleet was virtually annihilated during the naval battle of Santiago de Cuba, and the US Navy became responsible for a very large number of Spanish prisoners. It was decided to send the prisoners north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, along with marines to guard them. On July 4 and 5, McCalla detached sixty marines from the battalion, including Capt. Allen Kelton and 1st Lt. Franklin Moses to join the Harvard. Prisoners on the St. Louis would be guarded by Capt. Benjamin Russell commanding twenty-one marines from the Marblehead and twenty-nine marines and a lieutenant from the Brooklyn.47 On July 10 the Harvard sailed north for New Hampshire, arriving with the Spanish prisoners at Camp Long just outside Portsmouth.

On the twelfth, McCalla ordered the harbor at Guantanamo under quarantine, with Huntington in charge of enforcing this order. On July 23 a letter from the commandant was read at parade acknowledging receipt of the first flag raised over Camp McCalla and praising the officers and men of the battalion for their conduct. Three days later, a large force of about eighty Cubans left camp. These men had fought and patrolled with the marines since June 12.48

The inactivity of the battalion soon led some marines to create their own diversions. On June 29, two privates from Company E left camp without permission and boarded a schooner in the harbor. They remained on board for several hours and later were reported displaying "improper conduct." Both were disciplined with ten days at double irons. Another private was caught buying liquor using a Spanish dollar.49

Pvt. Robert Burns supplied some of the men with a good story to tell. One night while on guard duty, the private heard something moving in the bushes approximately one hundred yards ahead. Having orders to shoot anything that moved, the private gave three verbal warnings to halt. There being no response, and still hearing movement in the bushes, Burns fired his weapon into the bushes. In the morning, a sergeant took six men to investigate the situation and found that Burns had not fired on the enemy but rather had downed a very large black pig.50

On August 5 the battalion broke camp and embarked on the Resolute. The transport left Guantanamo Bay four days later for Manzanillo under convoy of USS Newark to assist in the capture of the town.51 The Resolute, Suwanee, Hist, Osceola, Alvarado, and Newark all approached Manzanillo and anchored three miles outside town on the twelfth. The Alvarado was sent under a flag of truce to demand a surrender from the military commander. The commander replied that Spanish military code would not allow him to surrender without being forced by a siege or military operation. Captain Goodrich allowed time for noncombatants to vacate the town before beginning the naval bombardment. Naval gunfire started at 3:40 and lasted until 4:15, when it appeared that flags of truce were flying over some of the town's buildings. Goodrich ordered a cease-fire, and the navy vessels flying flags of truce approached. The vessels were soon fired upon, and the Newark returned fire. The action was soon broken off, and all ships anchored for the night at 5:30 p.m. Naval gunfire resumed at 5:20 a.m. the next morning, and when daylight came, white flags were flying over many buildings in town. A small boat from Manzanillo approached the navy ships and brought word to Captain Goodrich that an armistice had been proclaimed: the war was over. The captain of the Newark, observing the disappointment of the battalion commander, reported, "As part of the contemplated plan of operations was the landing of some or all of the marines of Colonel Huntington's command. This officer's regret at the loss of an opportunity to win additional distinction for his corps and himself was only equaled by his careful study of the necessities of the case and his zealous entrance into the spirit of the enterprise."52

On the eighteenth, the Resolute took on board 275 men from four US Army light artillery battery detachments for transport to Montauk Point, Long Island. The next day, the ship encountered rough seas, and most of the army detachment and marines were sick.53 After leaving Long Island, Resolute headed for New Hampshire, arriving at Portsmouth on August 26. The commandant had personally chosen this location for the battalion to recover from the tropical heat of the Caribbean. Huntington named their new site Camp Heywood in honor of the commandant of the Marine Corps. Six of the battalion's officers received promotions for gallantry, and the commandant commended all the battalion's officers and men and noted the favorable press coverage of the battalion's first few days in Cuba. On September 19, Huntington received orders to disband the battalion.54

"New Glory to Its Already Gallant Record," Part 2

Trevor K. Plante is an archivist in the Old Military and Civil Records unit, National Archives and Records Administration. He specializes in military records prior to World War II.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.