Spanish American War: why valor is colorless

Valor in the Spanish American War

The essence of patriotism for one’s country is valiantly displayed throughout the ages. A long-forgotten story about citizens who fought for freedom is the combined effort with the United States and Cuban soldiers in the Spanish American War. The battle occurred near the mouth of the Tallabacoa River, Cuba on June 30, 1898. The battle is known in the annals of American history as the Battle of Tayacoba (a mispronunciation by the Americans). The events that took place highlights the personal courage, self-determination and duty of men resulting in the award of our Nation’s highest medal, the Medal of Honor.

Duty calls warriors for the Spanish American War

The battle was an effort by the U.S. to land supplies and reinforcements to Cuban soldiers. Cuban soldiers fought for their independence from Spain during the Spanish American War. On June 25, 1898, two American steamships accompanied by the gunboat USS Peoria left Key West carrying a cargo of troops, ammunition, supplies and arms to aid the Cuban Army. On board were 650 Cubans commanded by General Emilio Núñez, fifty troopers of the 10th US Cavalry and twenty-five troopers from the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry (1st USVC).

The first attempt to land took place near the port of Cienfuegos, Cuba at the mouth of the San Juan River on June 29th. As a result of a prior assault that occurred six weeks earlier, the position was too heavily defended to land the troops and equipment. The force steamed east along the south coast of Cuba to a point near the town of Trinidad. The following day, a landing party went ashore just west of the town of Tunas de Zaza, near the mouth of the Tallabacoa River what is now known as the Zaza River today.

At the mouth of the river stood a large fort built of railroad iron supported by earthworks. It was defended by about 100 well-armed Spanish soldiers. The USS Peoria fired several shots with her three-pounder guns into the fort but there was no response by the Spaniards. Before offloading equipment, a scouting party of 30 Cubans and Americans went ashore to ensure the safety of the landing site.

Fire baptizes courage

Fifteen Cubans loaded themselves into one of the small boats led by Captain Jose Manuel Nunez, brother to the general. The second boat was led by Captain Winthrop Chanler with soldiers from the 1st USVC and the US 10th Cavalry. The boats were beached about five hundred yards from the fort. As the men moved inland, the Spaniards opened fire. Shot and shell tore into their ranks. Captain Nunez fell dead at the first volley of fire with a bullet between his eyes, and Captain Chanler was hit in the arm.

A hurried retreat was made while the gunboat provided fire upon the Spanish entrenchments. The fire was so heavy, when the party emerged from cover they threw themselves into the water rather than in the boats and swam alongside them while the USS Peoria directed its fire upon the fortifications until party reached safety.

Once on board, it was learned that five of the Cubans had been shot, and that Captain Chanler, Surgeons Lund and Abbott from the American Army, Lieutenant Agramonte, and two Cuban soldiers were missing. Those returning also reported a heavy fire from a grove of palms east of the fort threatening the men still on shore. The Peoria continued to shell the area to provide covering fire for the missing men. The vessels lay off the mouth of the river all night while a search for the missing was organized.

Leave no one behind

Lieutenant Carter P. Johnson from the 10th US Cavalry organized the rescue attempt composed of volunteers. Four attempts to locate the men were sent ashore during the night only to be fiercely beaten back by Spanish bullets and forced to retreat without being able to land. On shore, Captain Nunez’s body lay were he fell on the beach. Doctors Lund and Abbott kept Chanler alive while hidden in a mangrove swamp, while Lieutenant Agramonte and two Cubans soldiers found cover nearby.

Not wanting to order men to death but wanting to save those left behind, Lieutenant Johnson asked for more volunteers. A fifth rescue attempt was organized and led by Lieutenant Ahern from the 10th US Cavalry. While still under cover of darkness, the rescue party launched with a crew of five men. Spanish bullets clipped the water and beach while Lieutenant Ahern, Sergeant William H. Thompkins, Corporal George H. Wanton, Trooper Dennis Bell, and Trooper Fitz Lee successfully located Chanler and Abbott. Just before sunrise, Agramonte and his Cubans soldiers were discovered and brought back to the ship as well. The rescue was completed just before sunrise and the ships promptly left the bay.

A few days later on the afternoon of July 2, the USS Peoria returned to the mouth of the Tallacaboa River accompanied by the USS Helena and shelled the fort for 30 minutes, damaging the fort and the earthworks. The force then proceeded east to Palo Alto where the troops and supplies disembarked on July 3 and the much-needed supplies provided to the Cuban Army hastening the success of the Santiago Campaign that led to the end of the Spanish American War.

Tradition of valor

Nearly a year later on June 23, 1899 four of the five rescuers, Sergeant Thompkins, Corporal Wanton, Trooper Bell, and Trooper Lee, all of the 10th US Cavalry, were awarded Medals of Honor for their valor during the Spanish American War. The 10th US Cavalry is known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The Troopers that comprised the regiment were African-American Soldiers who volunteered for service to their Nation. A Nation that did not always universally offer the same freedoms to its non-white citizens.

These soldiers served as role models and a reminder for others that while African-Americans may have lacked opportunity, they had the skill and commitment to the Nation while keeping a tradition of courage under fire. The backgrounds of these men did not promise exceptional dedication or ability; however they exercised personal independence to make their lives better. It is remarkable, that four African-American soldiers volunteered twice- once for joining military service and a second time that fateful night off the coast of Cuba in the Spanish American War.

Virtue of self-dependence

I share a deep respect for these men who volunteered to serve their country while not always able to exercise freedoms enjoyed by white citizens. Their virtues in personal courage, self-reliance and duty are beacons for others to follow.

When I read this story, I could not help but recall a passage of a speech titled “Self-Made Men” by Frederick Douglass. “The lesson taught at this point by human experience is simply this, that the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos. Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within.” Wise words from a self-made man in his own right.

What are your thoughts in how to develop self-dependence?

If you want to learn more about the valor of Buffalo Soldiers, check out the book Black Valor by Frank N. Schubert.

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