This Day In History: The Battle of San Juan Hill (1898)

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In 1898 America and the Spanish Empire went to war. The Americans were angered by the way that Spain was treating Cuba and its other colonies and also wanted more influence in the world. When the USS Maine exploded in a Cuban harbor, it was used a pretext for Washington to declare war on Spain. The main battlefield in this war was Cuba. America sent land and naval forces to Cuba to help local nationalist rebels seeking independence from Spain. One of the most important battles of that campaign was the Battle of San Juan Hill.

The Americans had to capture  the strategic Spanish-held town of Santiago de Cuba on the south coast of Cuba. Santiago de Cuba was a major supply base for Spain and a large number of ships were stationed there. At this time, they had been blockaded in the harbour by a superior American naval force. The Americans sought to capture or destroy this Spanish flotilla. In order to clear the way to this town, the US Fifth Army corp attacked Spanish and pro-Spanish forced on San Juan Hill.

The US Fifth corps was joined by the legendary ‘rough riders’. This unit was a collection of cowboys and east coast aristocrats. They were voluntary cavalrymen and soon their exploits made them famous.

The US Fifth Army pressed on to the outskirts of Santiago but San Juan Hill had to be taken before they could properly assault the town. The corps commander General Shafter first captured the village of El Caney and then launched an attack in the Spanish on San Juan Hill. They had built strong defences on the heights. The Americans initial assault was beaten back. Although outnumbered almost ten to one, the Spanish fought fiercely.

1200px-The_Scream_of_Shrapnel_at_San_Juan_Hill_by_Frederic_Remington_1898
The Battle of San Juan Hill: a contemporary painting

Remington_At_the_Bloody_Ford_of_the_San_Juan8,000 Americans pressed forward toward San Juan Hill and hundreds fell under Spanish gunfire. The rough riders, attack San Juan Hill from the right flank, from an adjacent hill. The riders actually were on foot as their horses because of logistical problems were left behind. They charged up the Hill. They and a cavalry regiment managed to take first Kettle Hill and then San Juan Hill itself. The Americans managed to kill or capture most of the Spanish defenders on the hill.

The Battle of San Juan Hill was decisive and it opened the way to Santiago de Cuba. The next day the Americans besieged the town, from the landside. On July  the 3rd, the Spanish fleet attempted to leave its refuge but it was destroyed off Santiago by U.S. warships under Admiral William Sampson. Then on  July the 17th  the Spanish forces surrendered the city to the Americans. Later they surrendered the entire island to Cuba.

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