The Conduct of the Black Soldier around El Caney

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When our magnificent battleship Maine was sunk in Havana harbor, February 15, 1898, the 25th U.S. Infantry was scattered in western Montana, doing garrison duty, with headquarters at Fort Missoula. This regiment had been stationed in the West since 1880, when it came up from Texas where it had been from its consolidation in 1869, fighting Indians, building roads, etc., for the pioneers of that state and New Mexico. In consequence of the regiment’s constant frontier service, very little was known of it outside of army circles. As a matter of course it was known that it was a colored regiment, but its praises had never been sung.

Strange to say, although the record of this regiment was equal to any in the service, it had always occupied remote stations, except a short period, from about May, 1880, to about August, 1885, when headquarters, band and a few companies were stationed at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, Minnesota.

Frank Pullen
Frank Pullen

Sergeant Frank W. Pullen, Who was in the Charge on El Caney, as a member of the Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry.
Since the days of reconstruction, when a great part of the country (the South especially) saw the regular soldier in a low state of discipline, and when the possession of a sound physique was the only requirement necessary for the recruit to enter the service of the United States, people in general had formed an opinion that the regular soldier, generally, and the Negro soldier in particular, was a most undesirable element to have in a community. Therefore, the Secretary of War, in ordering changes in stations of troops from time to time (as is customary to change troops from severe climates to mild ones and vice versa, that equal justice might be done all) had repeatedly overlooked the 25th Infantry; or had only ordered it from Minnesota to the Dakotas and Montana, in the same military department, and in a climate more severe for troops to serve in than any in the United States. This gallant regiment of colored soldiers served eighteen years in that climate, where, in winter, which lasts five months or more, the temperature falls as low as 55 degrees below zero, and in summer rises to over 100 degrees in the shade and where mosquitos rival the Jersey breed.

Before Congress had reached a conclusion as to what should be done in the Maine disaster, an order had been issued at headquarters of the army directing the removal of the regiment to the department of the South, one of the then recently organized departments.

At the time when the press of the country was urging a declaration of war, and when Minister Woodford, at Madrid, was exhausting all the arts of peace, in order that the United States might get prepared for war, the men of the 25th Infantry were sitting around red-hot stoves, in their comfortable quarters in Montana, discussing the doings of Congress, impatient for a move against Spain. After great excitement and what we looked upon as a long delay, a telegraphic order came. Not for us to leave for the Department of the South, but to go to that lonely sun-parched sandy island Dry Tortugas. In the face of the fact that the order was for us to go to that isolated spot, where rebel prisoners were carried and turned lose during the war of the rebellion, being left there without guard, there being absolutely no means of escape, and where it would have been necessary for our safety to have kept Sampson’s fleet in sight, the men received the news with gladness and cheered as the order was read to them. The destination was changed to Key West, Florida, then to Chickamauga Park, Georgia. It seemed that the war department did not know what to do with the soldiers at first.

Early Sunday morning, April 10, 1898, Easter Sunday, amidst tears of lovers and others endeared by long acquaintance and kindness, and the enthusiastic cheers of friends and well-wishers, the start was made for Cuba.

It is a fact worthy of note that Easter services in all the churches in Missoula, Montana, a town of over ten thousand inhabitants, was postponed the morning of the departure of the 25th Infantry, and the whole town turned out to bid us farewell. Never before were soldiers more encouraged to go to war than we. Being the first regiment to move, from the west, the papers had informed the people of our route. At every station there was a throng of people who cheered as we passed. Everywhere the Stars and Stripes could be seen. Everybody had caught the war fever. We arrived at Chickamauga Park about April 15, 1898, being the first regiment to arrive at that place. We were a curiosity. Thousands of people, both white and colored, from Chattanooga, Tenn., visited us daily. Many of them had never seen a colored soldier. The behavior of the men was such that even the most prejudiced could find no fault. We underwent a short period of acclimation at this place, then moved on to Tampa, Fla., where we spent a month more of acclimation. All along the route from Missoula, Montana, with the exception of one or two places in Georgia, we had been received most cordially. But in Georgia, outside of the Park, it mattered not if we were soldiers of the United States, and going to fight for the honor of our country and the freedom of an oppressed and starving people, we were “niggers,” as they called us, and treated us with contempt. There was no enthusiasm nor Stars and Stripes in Georgia. That is the kind of “united country” we saw in the South. I must pass over the events and incidents of camp life at Chickamauga and Tampa. Up to this time our trip had seemed more like a Sunday-school excursion than anything else. But when, on June 6th, we were ordered to divest ourselves of all clothing and equipage, except such as was necessary to campaigning in a tropical climate, for the first time the ghost of real warfare arose before us.

On Board The Transport
The regiment went aboard the Government transport, No. 14–Concho–June 7, 1898. On the same vessel were the 14th U.S. Infantry, a battalion of the 2d Massachusetts Volunteers and Brigade Headquarters, aggregating about 1,300 soldiers, exclusive of the officers. This was the beginning of real hardship. The transport had either been a common freighter or a cattle ship. Whatever had been its employment before being converted into a transport, I am sure of one thing, it was neither fit for man nor beast when soldiers were transported in it to Cuba. The actual carrying capacity of the vessel as a transport was, in my opinion, about 900 soldiers, exclusive of the officers, who, as a rule, surround themselves with every possible comfort, even in actual warfare. A good many times, as on this occasion, the desire and demand of the officers for comfort worked serious hardships for the enlisted men. The lower decks had been filled with bunks. Alas! the very thought of those things of torture makes me shudder even now. They were arranged in rows, lengthwise the ship, of course, with aisles only two feet wide between each row. The dimensions of a man’s bunk was 6 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet high, and they were arranged in tiers of four, with a four inch board on either side to keep one from rolling out. The Government had furnished no bedding at all. Our bedding consisted of one blanket as mattress and haversack for pillow. The 25th Infantry was assigned to the bottom deck, where there was no light, except the small port holes when the gang-plank was closed. So dark was it that candles were burned all day. There was no air except what came down the canvass air shafts when they were turned to the breeze. The heat of that place was almost unendurable. Still our Brigade Commander issued orders that no one would be allowed to sleep on the main deck. That order was the only one to my knowledge during the whole campaign that was not obeyed by the colored soldiers. It is an unreported fact that a portion of the deck upon which the 25th Infantry took passage to Cuba was flooded with water during the entire journey.

Before leaving Port Tampa the Chief Surgeon of the expedition came aboard and made an inspection, the result of which was the taking off of the ship the volunteer battalion, leaving still on board about a thousand men. Another noteworthy fact is that for seven days the boat was tied to the wharf at Port Tampa, and we were not allowed to go ashore, unless an officer would take a whole company off to bathe and exercise. This was done, too, in plain sight of other vessels, the commander of which gave their men the privilege of going ashore at will for any purpose whatever. It is very easy to imagine the hardship that was imposed upon us by withholding the privilege of going ashore, when it is understood that there were no seats on the vessel for a poor soldier. On the main deck there were a large number of seats, but they were all reserved for the officers. A sentinel was posted on either side of the ship near the middle hatch-way, and no soldier was allowed to go abaft for any purpose, except to report to his superior officer or on some other official duty.

Finally the 14th of June came. While bells were ringing, whistles blowing and bands playing cheering strains of music the transports formed “in fleet in column of twos,” and under convoy of some of the best war craft of our navy, and while the thousands on shore waved us godspeed, moved slowly down the bay on its mission to avenge the death of the heroes of our gallant Maine and to free suffering Cuba.

The transports were scarcely out of sight of land when an order was issued by our Brigade Commander directing that the two regiments on board should not intermingle, and actually drawing the “color line” by assigning the white regiment to the port and the 25th Infantry to the starboard side of the vessel. The men of the two regiments were on the best of terms, both having served together during mining troubles in Montana. Still greater was the surprise of everyone when another order was issued from the same source directing that the white regiment should make coffee first, all the time, and detailing a guard to see that the order was carried out. All of these things were done seemingly to humiliate us and without a word of protest from our officers. We suffered without complaint. God only knows how it was we lived through those fourteen days on that miserable vessel. We lived through those days and were fortunate enough not to have a burial at sea.

Operations Against Santiago
We landed in Cuba June 22, 1898. Our past hardships were soon forgotten. It was enough to stir the heart of any lover of liberty to witness that portion of Gomez’s ragged army, under command of General Castillo, lined up to welcome us to their beautiful island, and to guide and guard our way to the Spanish strongholds. To call it a ragged army is by no means a misnomer. The greater portion of those poor fellows were both coatless and shoeless, many of them being almost nude. They were by no means careful about their uniform. The thing every one seemed careful about was his munitions of war, for each man had his gun, ammunition and machete. Be it remembered that this portion of the Cuban army was almost entirely composed of black Cubans.

After landing we halted long enough to ascertain that all the men of the regiment were “present or accounted for,” then marched into the jungle of Cuba, following an old unused trail. General Shafter’s orders were to push forward without delay. And the 25th Infantry has the honor of leading the march from the landing at Baiquiri or Daiquiri (both names being used in official reports) the first day the army of invasion entered the island. I do not believe any newspaper has ever published this fact.

There was no time to be lost, and the advance of the American army of invasion in the direction of Santiago, the objective point, was rapid. Each day, as one regiment would halt for a rest or reach a suitable camping ground, another would pass. In this manner several regiments had succeeded in passing the 25th Infantry by the morning of June 24th. At that time the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) was leading the march.

The First Battle
On the morning of June 24th the Rough Riders struck camp early, and was marching along the trail at a rapid gait, at “route step,” in any order suitable to the size of the road. Having marched several miles through a well-wooded country, they came to an opening near where the road forked. They turned into the left fork; at that moment, without the least warning, the Cubans leading the march having passed on unmolested, a volley from the Spanish behind a stone fort on top of the hill on both sides of the road was fired into their ranks. They were at first disconcerted, but rallied at once and began firing in the direction from whence came the volleys. They could not advance, and dared not retreat, having been caught in a sunken place in the road, with a barbed-wire fence on one side and a precipitous hill on the other. They held their ground, but could do no more. The Spanish poured volley after volley into their ranks. At the moment when it looked as if the whole regiment would be swept down by the steel-jacketed bullets from the Mausers, four troops of the 10th U.S. Cavalry (colored) came up on “double time.” Little thought the Spaniards that these “smoked yankees” were so formidable. Perhaps they thought to stop those black boys by their relentless fire, but those boys knew no stop. They halted for a second, and having with them a Hotchkiss gun soon knocked down the Spanish improvised fort, cut the barb-wire, making an opening for the Rough Riders, started the charge, and, with the Rough Riders, routed the Spaniards, causing them to retreat in disorder, leaving their dead and some wounded behind. The Spaniards made a stubborn resistance. So hot was their fire directed at the men at the Hotchkiss gun that a head could not be raise, and men crawled on their stomachs like snakes loading and firing. It is an admitted fact that the Rough Riders could not have dislodged the Spanish by themselves without great loss, if at all.

The names of Captain A.M. Capron, Jr., and Sergeant Hamilton Fish, Jr., of the Rough Riders, who were killed in this battle, have been immortalized, while that of Corporal Brown, 10th Cavalry, who manned the Hotchkiss gun in this fight, without which the American loss in killed and wounded would no doubt have been counted by hundreds, and who was killed by the side of his gun, is unknown by the public.

At the time the battle of the Rough Riders was fought the 25th Infantry was within hearing distance of the battle and received orders to reinforce them, which they could have done in less than two hours, but our Brigade Commander in marching to the scene of battle took the wrong trail, seemingly on purpose, and when we arrived at the place of battle twilight was fading into darkness.

The march in the direction of Santiago continued, until the evening of June 30th found us bivouacked in the road less than two miles from El Caney. At the first glimpse of day on the first day of July word was passed along the line for the companies to “fall in.” No bugle call was sounded, no coffee was made, no noise allowed. We were nearing the enemy, and every effort was made to surprise him. We had been told that El Caney was well fortified, and so we found it.

The first warning the people had of a foe being near was the roar of our field artillery and the bursting of a shell in their midst. The battle was on. In many cases an invading army serves notice of a bombardment, but in this case it was incompatible with military strategy. Non-combatants, women and children all suffered, for to have warned them so they might have escaped would also have given warning to the Spanish forces of our approach. The battle opened at dawn and lasted until dark. When our troops reached the point from which they were to make the attack, the Spanish lines of entrenched soldiers could not be seen.

The only thing indicating their position was the block-house situated on the highest point of a very steep hill. The undergrowth was so dense that one could not see, on a line, more than fifty yards ahead. The Spaniards, from their advantageous position in the block-house and trenches on the hill top, had located the American forces in the bushes and opened a fusillade upon them. The Americans replied with great vigor, being ordered to fire at the block-house and to the right and left of it, steadily advancing as they fired. All of the regiments engaged in the battle of El Caney had not reached their positions when the battle was precipitated by the artillery firing on the block-house. The 25th Infantry was among that number. In marching to its position some companies of the 2d Massachusetts Volunteers were met retreating; they were completely whipped, and took occasion to warn us, saying: “Boys, there is no use to go up there, you cannot see a thing; they are slaughtering our men!” Such news made us feel “shaky,” not having, at the time, been initiated. We marched up, however, in order and were under fire for nine hours. Many barbed-wire obstructions were encountered, but the men never faltered. Finally, late in the afternoon, our brave Lieutenant Kinnison said to another officer: “We cannot take the trenches without charging them.” Just as he was about to give the order for the bugler to sound “the charge” he was wounded and carried to the rear. The men were then fighting like demons. Without a word of command, though led by that gallant and intrepid Second Lieutenant J.A. Moss, 25th Infantry, some one gave a yell and the 25th Infantry was off, alone, to the charge. The 4th U.S. Infantry, fighting on the left, halted when those dusky heroes made the dash with a yell which would have done credit to a Comanche Indian. No one knows who started the charge; one thing is certain, at the time it was made excitement was running high; each man was a captain for himself and fighting accordingly. Brigadier Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant-Colonels, Majors, etc., were not needed at the time the 25th Infantry made the charge on El Caney, and those officers simply watched the battle from convenient points, as Lieutenants and enlisted men made the charge alone. It has been reported that the 12th U.S. Infantry made the charge, assisted by the 25th Infantry, but it is a recorded fact that the 25th Infantry fought the battle alone, the 12th Infantry coming up after the firing had nearly ceased. Private T.C. Butler, Company H, 25th Infantry, was the first man to enter the block-house at El Caney, and took possession of the Spanish flag for his regiment. An officer of the 12th Infantry came up while Butler was in the house and ordered him to give up the flag, which he was compelled to do, but not until he had torn a piece off the flag to substantiate his report to his Colonel of the injustice which had been done to him. Thus, by using the authority given him by his shoulder-straps, this officer took for his regiment that which had been won by the hearts’ blood of some of the bravest, though black, soldiers of Shafter’s army.

The charge of El Caney has been little spoken of, but it was quite as great a show of bravery as the famous taking of San Juan Hill.

A word more in regard to the charge. It was not the glorious run from the edge of some nearby thicket to the top of a small hill, as many may imagine. This particular charge was a tough, hard climb, over sharp, rising ground, which, were a man in perfect physical strength he would climb slowly. Part of the charge was made over soft, plowed ground, a part through a lot of prickly pineapple plants and barbed-wire entanglements. It was slow, hard work, under a blazing July sun and a perfect hail-storm of bullets, which, thanks to the poor marksmanship of the Spaniards, “went high.”

It has been generally admitted, by all fair-minded writers, that the colored soldiers saved the day both at El Caney and San Juan Hill.

Notwithstanding their heroic services, they were still to be subjected, in many cases, to more hardships than their white brother in arms. When the flag of truce was, in the afternoon of July 3d, seen, each man breathed a sigh of relief, for the strain had been very great upon us. During the next eleven days men worked like ants, digging trenches, for they had learned a lesson of fighting in the open field. The work went on night and day. The 25th Infantry worked harder than any other regiment, for as soon as they would finish a trench they were ordered to move; in this manner they were kept moving and digging new trenches for eleven days. The trenches left were each time occupied by a white regiment.

On July 14th it was decided to make a demonstration in front of Santiago, to draw the fire of the enemy and locate his position. Two companies of colored soldiers (25th Infantry) were selected for this purpose, actually deployed as skirmishers and started in advance. General Shafter, watching the movement from a distant hill, saw that such a movement meant to sacrifice those men, without any or much good resulting, therefore had them recalled. Had the movement been completed it is probable that not a man would have escaped death or serious wounds. When the news came that General Toral had decided to surrender, the 25th Infantry was a thousand yards or more nearer the city of Santiago than any regiment in the army, having entrenched themselves along the railroad leading into the city.

The following enlisted men of the 25th Infantry were commissioned for their bravery at El Caney:

First Sergeant Andrew J. Smith
First Sergeant Wyatt Huffman
First Sergeant Macon Russell
Sergeant Wm. McBryar

Many more were recommended, but failed to receive commissions. It is a strange incident that all the above-named men are native North Carolinians, but First Sergeant Huffman, who is from Tennessee.

The Negro played a most important part in the Spanish-American war. He was the first to move from the west; first at Camp Thomas Chickamauga Park, Ga.; first in the jungle of Cuba; among the first killed in battle; first in the block-house at El Caney, and nearest to the enemy when he surrendered.Frank W. Pullen, Jr.,
Ex-Sergeant-Major 25th U.S. Infantry.
Enfield, N.C., March 23, 1899.

Buffalo Troopers, The Name By Which Negro Soldiers Are Known

They Comprise Several of the Crack Regiments in Our Army-The Indians Stand in Abject Terror of them-Their Awful Yells Won a Battle with the Redskins.

“It is not necessary to revert to the Civil war to prove that American Negroes are faithful, devoted wearers of uniforms,” says a Washington man, who has seen service in both the army and the navy. “There are at the present time four regiments of Negro soldiers in the regular army of the United States-two outfits of cavalry and two of infantry. All four of these regiments have been under fire in important Indian campaigns, and there is yet to be recorded a single instance of a man in any of the four layouts showing the white feather, and the two cavalry regiments of Negroes have, on several occasions, found themselves in very serious situations. While the fact is well known out on the frontier, I don’t remember ever having seen it mentioned back here that an American Indian has a deadly fear of an American Negro. The most utterly reckless, dare-devil savage of the copper hue stands literally in awe of a Negro, and the blacker the Negro the more the Indian quails. I can’t understand why this should be, for the Indians decline to give their reasons for fearing the black men, but the fact remains that even a very bad Indian will give the mildest-mannered Negro imaginable all the room he wants, and to spare, as any old regular army soldier who has frontiered will tell you. The Indians, I fancy, attribute uncanny and eerie qualities to the blacks.”

“The cavalry troop to which I belonged soldiered alongside a couple of troops of the 9th Cavalry, a black regiment, up in the Sioux country eight or nine years ago. We were performing chain guard, hemming-in duty, and it was our chief business to prevent the savages from straying from the reservation. We weren’t under instructions to riddle them if they attempted to pass our guard posts, but were authorized to tickle them up to any reasonable extent, short of maiming them, with our bayonets, if any of them attempted to bluff past us. Well, the men of my troop had all colors of trouble while on guard in holding the savages in. The Ogalalla would hardly pay any attention to the white sentries of the chain guard, and when they wanted to pass beyond the guard limits they would invariably pick out a spot for passage that was patrolled by a white ‘post-humper.’ But the guards of the two black troops didn’t have a single run-in with the savages. The Indians made it a point to remain strictly away from the Negro soldiers’ guard posts. Moreover, the black soldiers got ten times as much obedience from the Indians loafing around the tepees and wickleup as did we of the white outfit. The Indians would fairly jump to obey the uniformed Negroes. I remember seeing a black sergeant make a minor chief go down to a creek to get a pail of water–an unheard of thing, for the chiefs, and even the ordinary bucks among the Sioux, always make their squaws perform this sort of work. This chief was sunning himself, reclining, beside his tepee, when his squaw started with the bucket for the creek some distance away. The Negro sergeant saw the move. He walked up to the lazy, grunting savage.”

“‘Look a-yeah, yo’ spraddle-nosed, yalluh voodoo nigguh,’ said the black sergeant–he was as black as a stovepipe–to the blinking chief, ‘jes’ shake yo’ no-count bones an’ tote dat wattuh yo’se’f. Yo’ ain’ no bettuh to pack wattuh dan Ah am, yo’ heah me.'”

“The heap-much Indian chief didn’t understand a word of what the Negro sergeant said to him, but he understands pantomime all right, and when the black man in uniform grabbed the pail out of the squaw’s hand and thrust it into the dirty paw of the chief the chief went after that bucket of water, and he went a-loping, too.”

“The Sioux will hand down to their children’s children the story of a charge that a couple of Negro cavalry troops made during the Pine Ridge troubles. It was of the height of the fracas, and the bad Indians were regularly lined up for battle. Those two black troops were ordered to make the initial swoop upon them. You know the noise one black man can make when he gets right down to the business of yelling. Well, these two troops of blacks started their terrific whoop in unison when they were a mile away from the waiting Sioux, and they got warmed up and in better practice with every jump their horses made. I give you my solemn word that in the ears of us of the white outfit, stationed three miles away, the yelps those two Negro troops of cavalry gave sounded like the carnival whooping of ten thousand devils. The Sioux weren’t scared a little bit by the approaching clouds of alkali dust, but, all the same, when the two black troops were more than a quarter of a mile away the Indians broke and ran as if the old boy himself were after them, and it was then an easy matter to round them up and disarm them. The chiefs afterward confessed that they were scared out by the awful howling of the black soldiers.”

“Ever since the war the United States navy has had a fair representation of Negro bluejackets, and they make first-class naval tars. There is not a ship in the navy to-day that hasn’t from six to a dozen, anyhow, of Negroes on its muster rolls. The Negro sailors’ names very rarely get enrolled on the bad conduct lists. They are obedient, sober men and good seamen. There are many petty officers among them.”–The Planet.

[In the city of New Orleans, in 1866, two thousand two hundred and sixty-six ex-slaves were recruited for the service. None but the largest and blackest Negroes were accepted. From these were formed the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry, and the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. All four are famous fighting regiments, yet the two cavalry commands have earned the proudest distinction. While the record of the Ninth Cavalry, better known as the “Nigger Ninth,” in its thirty-two years of service in the Indian wars, in the military history of the border, stands without a peer; and is, without exception, the most famous fighting regiment in the United States service.]–Author.



MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Edward A. History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and other items of Interest. 1899. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 12 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/military/the-conduct-of-the-black-soldier-around-el-caney.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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