The capture of Guantànamo Bay, Cuba, by U.S. Marines in 1898 was a brief but violent phase of the Spanish-American War. Overshadowed by the more publicized land and sea battles—and largely ignored by historians—the ramifications of this victory would have far-reaching consequences in future relationships between Cuba and the United States.
Bloody Conflict Between Insurgents & Spain
Guantànamo Bay was commercially important to the Cuban economy because of the sugar port of Caimanera on the western shore of the inner bay—about five miles from the open sea. At the entrance to the outer bay—Fisherman’s Point—a busy fishing village sprawled on a sandy beach beneath 30-foot cliffs. The Spaniards used the villagers to pilot ships entering the bay and bound for Caimanera.
The Cubans had been in revolt against their Spanish masters since 1895. But after three years of bloody fighting, the conflict was still unresolved. The Cuban insurgents controlled only two provinces on the island—while the rest of the country was under the heavy fist of the Spaniards.
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Spanish troops held Guantànamo City, Caimanera, and the railroad connecting the two cities. A line of blockhouses defended the rail line, and a blockhouse and rifle pits had been constructed on the cliffs overlooking Fisherman’s Point. A fort on South Toro Cay commanded the narrow channel leading from the outer to inner bay. Caimanera was also protected by a fort, and the Spanish gunboat Sandoval patrolled the inner bay.
Declaring War on Spain: The Blockade Begins
After the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898—and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States against Spain—a naval blockade of Cuba, under the direction of Adm. William T. Sampson, was put into effect. However, recoaling a hundred blockading ships became an immediate major problem. Only 13 coaling vessels were available to the blockade fleet, and the nearest coaling station was at Key West, Fla., a distance of 90 miles.
Military Eyes Guantànamo As A Coaling Station
A few weeks before war was officially declared, U.S. Navy Secretary John D. Long had visualized Guantànamo Bay as an ideal advance coaling station, and directed the U.S. Marine Corps to organize a battalion for service in Cuba.
On April 6, 1898, Col. Charles Heywood, commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered selected Marines from bases on the East Coast to assemble at the Brooklyn Barracks at the New York Navy Yard.
“Brooklyn Barracks Bustled With Wartime Activity”
A detachment of 60 Marines of D Company, under the command of Capt. William F. Spicer, departed Portsmouth, N.H., by train. Private John H. Clifford was one of the group. In his article, “My Memories of Cuba,” which appeared in the June 1929 issue of Leatherneck magazine, Clifford described the flurry of excitement upon reaching the Navy Yard: “Brooklyn Barracks bustled with wartime activity. Detachments were arriving from everywhere. The barracks were overcrowded and finding a place to sleep was a problem. Eventually a battalion, consisting of five rifle companies and one artillery company was formed. The battalion strength was comprised of 636 enlisted personnel—along with 24 officers—and was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington.”
The Marine rifle companies were issued Lee straight-pull rifles—a high-velocity, 6mm weapon that used smokeless powder. The artillery company, under Capt. F.H. Harrington—and battery commanders First Lts. C.G. Long and William N. McKelvy—was provided with three-inch rapid-fire guns and the Colt 1895 machine gun.
John Clifford continued: “On April 22, with the Navy Yard Band leading the way, we marched down three Brooklyn streets. Thousands of patriotic, cheering Americans lined the parade route as we headed back to the yard and went aboard the Kanapaha.”
On April 26, the Marine troopship, escorted by the Montgomery, sailed for Key West, Fla. During the voyage, the rifle companies were exercised in volley firing, and the three-inch guns fired one round each. In the late afternoon of the 29th, the Panther anchored at Key West. The Marines disembarked, and for the next month drilled and engaged in gunnery practice.
Marines Prepare For Landing At Guantànamo
About three o’clock on the morning of June 6, the Marines struck their tents, loaded their baggage, and once again marched aboard the Panther. The next day the battalion sailed for Cuba and an amphibious landing at Guantànamo Bay. Before any attack could be launched, however, the telegraph cables connecting Guantànamo with Caimanera and Haiti would have to be cut.
The Marblehead, St. Louis, Yankee, and the cable-steamer Panther were assigned the dangerous task. The flotilla was placed under the command of Cmdr. Bowman McCalla aboard the Marblehead. McCalla had orders to reconnoiter the bay while the St. Louis and Adria cut the cable at its source—Fisherman’s Point.