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C H A P T E R X
Battle of El Caney
FROM the torn hammock on which I lay among my comrades, under a strip of rain-soaked canvas, the tall figure of General Lawton could be seen moving in the gray dawning light, toward the mud-clogged road along which the American forces had been marching all night, in the direction of Santiago de Cuba, where the Spaniards stood in the trenches and fortifications awaiting the attack. The battle which ended the rule of Spain in the western world, after four centuries of glory and shame, was about to begin.
A sturdy little New York war artist, clad in a red blanket, -- the only dry thing in our camp, -- made his way through the bushes to a neighboring stream and returned with our canteens filled.
"No time to lose," he said. "Lawton will open on El Caney at sunrise. His battery is in position now. Better not wait for breakfast. We have no fire, anyhow. Turn out, fellows -- you've been asleep three hours." And the damp and sleepy correspondents arose to face another day's work.
Presently we were trudging along in the mire, tortured by the sour smells of the trampled vegetation, which yesterday's fierce sun had fermented, and the tropical fever, from which few escaped.
Monstrous land-crabs, green and scarlet, with leprous blotches of white, writhed across our path. Birds sang softly in the tangled chaparral and tall grass. Crimson and yellow blossoms glowed in the dense green growths. Troops of vultures wheeled lazily against the dawn-tinged clouds, or sat in the tall cocoanut palms. As the sun rose, it struck sparkles from the dripping foliage. But hunger and fever and news-eager journalism had no eye for these things. Before us were thousands of men preparing to die; nine miles behind us were steam vessels ready to carry our despatches to the cable station in Jamaica; and in New York were great multitudes, waiting to know the result of the battle.
When we reached El Poso hill, with its crowded battalions creeping forward like thousand-footed brown caterpillars, I bade farewell to my companions, and, turning to the left, took the trail toward El Caney -- for at midnight a friendly general had whispered in my ear that the real fight of the day was to be there.
It boots not to tell of that five miles' journey in the withering heat, along paths choked up with stalwart negro troops, through thorny thickets that stung the flesh, across swamps knee deep in water, over jungly hills and slimy streams. The stone fort on the hill before El Caney was plain to be seen, and there was but one thing for a correspondent without a horse to do, -- make straight for it across the country, and let details take care of themselves; for the newspaper man must be in the very foreground of battle, if he would see with his own eyes the dread scenes that make war worth describing.
At last I reached the top of a little hill, so close to the gray fort, with its red and yellow flag streaming above its walls, that I could see the Spanish faces under the row of straw hats in the outlying trench on the slope, and the shining barrels of the Mauser rifles projecting over the earthworks. Capron's battery, a mile and a half away, was hurling shells at the fort; and as the projectiles screamed overhead, the men in the trench ducked their heads. They were young men -- not a beard among them; yet no Spaniard need hang his head for their conduct that terrible day.
It was a rumpled landscape of intense green, bounded by misty mountains on one side, and stretching toward a sea ridge on which could be discerned the ancient battlements of Morro Castle guarding the harbor of the city whose land approaches were obstructed by miles of intrenchments and barbed-wire fences. Nothing could surpass the beauty of that tangled scene, with its flowering hills, tall, tossing grasses, and groves of palm trees. And beyond the stretches of rolling country were the dim rooftops of Santiago.
El Caney was five miles to the right and slightly to the rear of our cavalry division, which was massed at El Poso in front of the intrenched slopes of San Juan. The generals had decided that the village and its stone fort must be captured by Lawton's division before the whole army could be joined for a united assault on the city. Chaffee's brigade was to make the frontal attack, while Ludlow's and Miles's brigades were to divert the enemy by an assault on the south side of El Caney.
A shell from Capron's distant battery tore a hole in the stone fort. The Spaniards in the trench fired volleys at imaginary enemies in the brush -- for the van of our army was far away.
The only sign of life about the fort itself was a black hen that ran out of an open door at the side and fluttered excitedly along the foot of the wall. There were men crouching with rifles behind the loopholed walls, but they kept out of sight.
From the boulder on which I sat under a sheltering bush I could see the tan-brown skirmish lines of Chaffee's brigade advancing over the hills, the sunlight flashing on their arms. And down in the valley to the left of the village, little brown squads and ranks stole from thicket to thicket, as Ludlow's and Miles's flanking regiments crept toward El Caney. Nearer, nearer, nearer, they moved, on the front and the side, emerging in quick dashes through open spaces or disappearing in the wild undergrowths, lying down, standing up, wheeling to the right or left, as the voice of the bugles commanded.
How strange it is to sit quietly, pencil in hand, and watch such a scene; to set down the sounds and colors as a matter of business -- to be in the midst of the movement, but not a part of it! -- but no stranger, surely, than to be moving on, rifle in hand, destined to kill some man against whom you have no personal grievance, some fellow-mortal with a home and kindred like your own.
As the infantry approached, the sound of volley-firing came from all sides, -- a sharp, ripping noise, like the tearing of canvas. But there was no smoke. Bullets came singing over the hills, and little puffs of dust around the fort showed where they struck. The Spaniards in the trench strained their eyes to catch a glimpse of the Americans. An officer stood on the breastworks and searched the scene through his field-glass. A soldier crawled along the wall of the fort and swept the field with a telescope. There was an element of mystery in smokeless fighting that puzzled the defenders of El Caney. Where was the enemy? On which side would the attack be made?
Suddenly line after line of dusty, brown skirmishers swept up to the ridges commanding the Spanish intrenchments and lay flat upon the ground. General Chaffee himself, with his hat on the back of his head, hurried up and down behind the prostrate Seventh and Seventeenth regiments of infantry, hoarsely urging his men to keep their ground and shoot straight, while the concentrated fire of all the intrenchments around El Caney tore up the grass.
"Keep her going, boys!" he shouted as his hat was shot from his head. "Don't mind their fire; that's what you're here for. Keep her going! Steady there -- ah! poor fellow!" A dead soldier rolled at his feet -- a mere youth, with yellow hair and staring blue eyes. "Here! some one! take this man's rifle and get in on the line!" And the general moved on, his harsh, quick commands being repeated by the officers kneeling along the lines.
Now the Twelfth Infantry began to press its brown ranks of cracking riflery into the sheltered gullies in front of the fort, and Company C, throwing itself face down on the hill where I sat, sent a steady fire into the Spanish trench. The Spaniards returned the volleys, but one by one we could see them fall behind the breastworks, here and there a leg or arm sticking up. The living men in the trench cowered down. But still the bullets came ting-ing, and the hilltop was strewn with our dead and dying. The garrison of the fort were using the loopholes.
Nothing moved at the fort but the black hen. As volley after volley swept the hill, she dashed to and fro, growing angrier every moment. Her feathers stood on end and she pecked savagely at the air. A more indignant fowl never trod the earth. She flapped her wings and hopped into fighting attitudes as the bullets spattered around her. I could hear the soldiers laughing as the hen ran from side to side, believing that the whole battle was directed against herself. Poor creature! She escaped ten thousand bullets only to have her neck wrung by a hungry soldier that night.
Leaving the hill on which I had watched the fight for hours, -- with occasional efforts to bandage the wounded or drag the dead off the firing line, -- I went to the next ridge, where Chaffee and his two regiments were facing the main intrenchments of the village. By this time the infantry volleying was terrific. Dead and dying men and officers could be seen everywhere. The Spaniards were selling their sovereignty dearly.
And Chaffee! He raged up and down behind his men, the soul of war incarnate. His eyes seemed to flash fire. There never was a finer soldier nor a sterner face.
"For your country, boys! for your country!" he cried. "Here! get back on the line, damn you," -- a white-faced, exhausted soldier was crawling backwards in the grass, -- "and do your duty. You'll have the rest of your life to loaf in when you get home." A moment later the soldier rolled over on his side, and lay still. A few drops of blood stained his jacket.
While I talked with the general, a bullet clipped a button from his breast. He smiled in a half-startled, half-amused way. It had begun to rain. A bullet tore the cape from my raincoat.
"Looks better without it," said the general, smilingly.
What with heat, hunger, fever, and fatigue I could hardly stand. We sat down under a tree, and I told the general how close I had been to the fort and how long I had watched its defenders. Then I suggested a bayonet charge, and offered to lead the way, if he would send troops to a wrinkle in the hill which would partly shelter them until they were within close rushing distance. This was hardly the business of a correspondent; but whatever of patriotism or excitement was stirring others in that place of carnage had got into my blood too.
The general said that he would send men to investigate, and presently he ordered Company F of the Twelfth Infantry to make a reconnaissance. Making my way to a mango grove at the foot of the hill, I saw Company F start up the wrong side -- that is, the side toward the village and not the side our troops had silenced. A few moments later the company was driven back by volleys from the Spanish intrenchments in the village, many of the men wounded. The soldiers crowded behind the mango trees in the very vortex of a cross-fire. The leaves and bark were clipped from the trees by that appalling storm of bullets. Yet I could see some of them eating mangoes, and patting their stomachs, half-indifferent to their surroundings, in the fierce pleasure of that unexpected meal.
After a while, Captain Haskell, the acting adjutant of the battalion to which Company F belonged, a fine old, white-bearded veteran, came to where I was. He listened to the plan for the charge, and nodded his head approvingly. Gathering his men together, he indicated that he was ready.
We pushed our way through a line of low bushes and started up the hill to the fort. The only weapon I had was a revolver, and the holster was slung around to the back, so that I should not be tempted to draw.
When I found myself out on the clear escarped slope, in front of the fort and its deadly trench, walking at the head of a storming party, I began to realize that I had ceased to be a journalist and was now -- foolishly or wisely, recklessly, meddlesomely, or patriotically -- a part of the army, a soldier without warrant to kill.
It is only three hundred feet to the top of the hill, and yet the slope looked a mile long.
Who will judge a man in such a moment? Who can analyze his motives? Can he do it himself, with his heart leaping wildly and his imagination on fire? There was the Spanish flag, a glorious prize for my newspaper. There was the trench and the dark loopholes and death. On all the hills were the onlooking troops, stirring the soul to patriotism. And away back in the past were scenes of Spanish cruelty and the wolfish Captain-general in Havana, telling me that I could never return to Cuba without forgiveness from Spain. Behind me I could hear the tread of the soldiers as we crept, crept, crept -- and then I lost courage and ran straight toward the trench, eager to have it over.
There was a barbed wire fence in front of the trench, a barrier to prevent charges. But it had never occurred to the minds of the Spanish engineers that the accursed Yankees -- unsoldierly shopkeepers! -- would think of carrying wire nippers in their pockets.
When I reached the fence I was within ten feet of the trench and could see dead hands and faces and the hats of the living soldiers crouching there. A scissors-like motion of the fingers indicated to Captain Haskell that men with wire nippers were needed. Two soldiers ran up and began to sever the wires.
As I stood there I could hear my heart beating. There was something terrifying in the silence of the fort. At what moment would the volley come? Were the Spaniards even now taking aim in those deep loopholes? Not a shot had been fired. It would come at once, and my body would go rolling down, down into the bushes at the bottom of the hill. No one spoke. Snip! snip! went the nippers. A Spaniard in the trench thrust his face up for a moment and instantly shrank down again. Blood dripped from his mouth. I shall never, to my dying day, forget the look of agony and entreaty in that countenance.
It took but a few seconds to cut a hole in the fence and reach the edge of the trench. It was crowded with dead and dying men. Those who were unhurt were crouching down waiting for the end. A deep groan came from the bottom of the bloody pit.
A silent signal, and one of the soldiers who had cut the wire fence advanced and covered the men in the trench with his rifle. A spoken word and the cowering Spaniards leaped up, dropped their rifles and raised their hands in token of surrender. There was a pleased look on their haggard faces that took a little of the glory out of the situation.
In less time than it takes to write it, the trench was crossed and the open door at the end of the fort was reached. The scene inside was too horrible for description. Our fire had killed most of the garrison, and the dead and wounded lay on the floor in every conceivable attitude. A wail of terror went up from helpless men writhing in their own blood. Just inside of the door stood a young Spanish officer, surrounded by his men. His face was bloodless, and his lips were drawn away from his teeth in a ghastly way. Beside him was a soldier holding a ramrod, to which was fastened a white handkerchief, -- a mute appeal for life.
The officer threw his hands up. He could speak French. Would he surrender? Yes, yes, yes! -- do with him what we pleased. Did he understand that if his men fired another shot his safety could not be assured? Yes, yes, yes! and every Spaniard dropped his weapon.
I looked above the roofless walls for the flag. It was gone. A lump came in my throat. The prize had disappeared.
"A shell carried the flag away," said the Spanish officer. "It is lying outside."
Dashing through the door and running around to the side facing El Caney, I saw the red and yellow flag lying in the dust, a fragment of the staff still attached to it. I picked it up and wagged it at the intrenched village. A wiser man would have refrained from that challenge; but I was not wise that day. Instantly the Spanish intrenchments on the village slopes replied with volleys, and I ran, in a cloud of dust, to the other side of the fort, where our soldiers seized the captured flag, waved it and cheered like madmen. From every hillside came the sound of shouting troops as the torn symbol of victory was tossed from hand to hand.
Although bullets were beating around the door of the fort, Captain Haskell -- who, with Captain Clarke, had kept the rifles of Company F busily employed -- agreed to enter and assure the prisoners of their safety. We went in and, while we stood talking to the Spanish officer, I felt a stinging pain in the upper part of the left arm, as though a blow had been struck with a shut fist. The sensation was no more and no less than that which might have come from a rough punch by some too hilarious friend. It whirled me half around but did not knock me down. The next moment there was a numbness in the arm, a darting pain in the hand and a sharp sensation in the back -- the arm hung loose as though it did not belong to me. A Mauser bullet, entering one of the loopholes, had smashed the arm and torn a hole in my back.
It is not necessary to describe how I staggered to a hammock in a compartment of the fort and lay there, hearing my own blood drip, how Major John A. Logan and five of his gallant men passed me out of the fort through a hole made by our artillery, and how I was carried down the hill and laid on the roadside among the wounded, with the captured Spanish colors thrown over me. After all, it was a mere personal incident in a well-fought battle, and hundreds of other men had suffered more.
Our troops were still fighting their way into the village, and we could hear the savage rip-rip-ripping of the rifles in the distance and hear the calling of the bugles.
Then an American flag was carried past us on its way to the fort and brave old Colonel Haskell, with bullet holes in his neck and leg, lifted himself painfully on one elbow to greet it. A wounded negro soldier, lying flat on his back, raised his bloody hand to his head in salute. Bullets sang above the heads of the surgeons as they bent over the victims.
The heat was terrific. Things swam in the air. There was a strange yellow glare on everything. Voices of thunder seemed to come from the blurred figures moving to and fro. A horse twenty feet high stamped the earth with his feet and made the distant mountain tops rock. Little fiery blobs kept dropping down from somewhere and the world was whirling upside down. Some one was being killed? Who was being killed? Whose sword was lost? Why was that general standing on one leg and having all his buttons shot off? Copy! copy! an hour to spare before the paper goes to press!
Some one knelt in the grass beside me and put his hand on my fevered head. Opening my eyes, I saw Mr. Hearst, the proprietor of the New York Journal, a straw hat with a bright ribbon on his head, a revolver at his belt, and a pencil and note-book in his hand. The man who had provoked the war had come to see the result with his own eyes and, finding one of his correspondents prostrate, was doing the work himself. Slowly he took down my story of the fight. Again and again the ting-ing of Mauser bullets interrupted. But he seemed unmoved. That battle had to be reported somehow.
"I'm sorry you're hurt, but" -- and his face was radiant with enthusiasm -- "wasn't it a splendid fight? We must beat every paper in the world."
After doing what he could to make me comfortable, Mr. Hearst mounted his horse and dashed away for the seacoast, where a fast steamer was waiting to carry him across the sea to a cable station.
Before the sun went down the wounded men of Chaffee's brigade and a few from the other brigades were carried on litters to a sloping field beside a stream, and there we lay all night under the stars, while Lawton's division -- having taken El Caney -- moved on to join the rest of the army.
How peaceful the spangled blue sky seemed, so far above the blood-stained earth! Its quiet beauty reproached us. There all was order and harmony.
"So cloudless, clear, and purely beautiful,
What was the power that brought so many men together bent on mutual slaughter? Was it all foreordained in the law of the universe? and had we all been moving helplessly through countless ages, since the first impulse stirred primordial life in Eden, to meet at last as Spaniards and Americans, tearing each other's flesh and turning the fair green fields into graveyards?
Who that was there can forget the next day, when the Spanish sharpshooters who had escaped from the village tried for hours to kill the defenceless soldiers lying in our camp? Graves were dug and the dead buried before our eyes. And although the field was strewn with torn and shattered men, no sound of complaining was heard. There was something extraordinary in the stoicism of that place. The profound excitement seemed to lift the sufferers out of themselves, above the power of pain to unman. Not a groan. Not a whimper. The rain beat upon them. The terrible tropical sun made the fever leap in their veins and dazzled their eyes. Again the rain soaked their blankets and again the sun tormented them. The bullets of skulking assassins hummed over them. Men gave last messages for their families. Men died. But not a sound of protest broke the silence. I saw more real heroism in that scene of pain than ever I saw in battle.
Vultures gathered around the camp and waited in the wet grass. Nearer they came, with hesitating, grotesque hops, watching, watching, watching. There was a horrible humor in the way they hovered near a splendid negro soldier who lay on the outer edge of the field, perking their ugly heads from side to side impatiently.
The wounded man slowly raised himself on his elbows and flinging a stone at the nearest vulture, he cried: "Gwan away. You're not goin' to git me. Wastin' yo' time, suh."
Then he rolled back and chuckled. Even in that place the deathless American sense of humor found its voice.
Late in the second night we heard the sudden sound of infantry volleying in the distance, and from our litters we could see the flashing of cannons in the direction of the San Juan slopes. Louder and louder the roar of battle swelled. It was the attempt of the Spaniards to dislodge the centre of our army from its position. But no one in the camp knew what was going on. Then the tumult died out, and silence followed. What had happened? Had our lines been broken? Were the Spaniards advancing upon us? Would they spare wounded men? Sick called to sick in the darkness. The sense of terror grew. All night we waited for news; all night in fever and silence.
At daybreak a messenger arrived, and a few minutes later the surgeon in charge of the camp went from litter to litter, announcing that he had been ordered to abandon the place at once and get to the rear. Any man who could stand on his legs must walk; there were only enough well men to carry the most desperately wounded.
"Have we been defeated, Doctor?"
"I don't know. All I know is that we must move instantly."
Alas! I cannot tell the story of that fearful journey. It can be better imagined. Some lived, some died. Looking back at that stumbling, fainting procession in the sour roads, the thing that stands out most distinctly in my memory is the pluck and patience of the wounded negroes.
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