Santiago, Cuba (1898 AD)
The Battle of San Juan Heights, or San Juan Hill, was the most storied battle of the Spanish-American War. Famous for the participation of future presidence Teddy Roosevelt, his Rough Riders and several regiments of the fabled African American troops known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the Battle of San Juan Hill was the decisive engagement of the war in Cuba. The hard-won American victory left the strategically vital city of Santiago vulnerable, and ultimately helped lead to the loss of the Spanish island-colony altogether, and ultimately resulted in Cuban independence. Because of this, despite years of poor American-Cuban relations, the battle site is still commemorated by both Americans and Cubans alike.
Over the course of the 19th century, Spain’s once great, sprawling empire in the Americas was lost to various independence movements until the Spanish were completely driven from the continental areas. Only in the Caribbean islands did Spain manage to maintain a few surviving colonies, and the largest of these by far was Cuba. However, beginning in 1868, the Cubans too began their struggle for independence, a struggle that continued on and off for three decades.
In 1898, the United States naval battleship Maine sank in Havana harbor under mysterious circumstances. The American government used this as an excuse to declare war on Spain, and subsequently began a campaign to pilfer Spain’s last remaining colonies around the world. Not surprisingly, the prime target was Cuba, where America wanted to see the rebels drive the Spanish from the island.
At the outset of the war, Teddy Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and set about creating a volunteer fighting force nicknamed the Rough Riders. This volunteer regiment was among the first American fighting forces to be deployed in Cuba. By late June, an army of about twenty thousand had been assembled near the key port city of Santiago at the eastern end of Cuba, including the Rough Riders, several of the now-famous African American regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers, as well as thousands of Cuban guerilla fighters.
The primary objective were the San Juan Heights which protected the approach to Santiago. Defended by less than a thousand Spanish soldiers, these were nevertheless well-entrenched and put up a ferocious defense. The American and Cuban forces assaulted the hill on July 1, and casualties on both sides were high. In the end, the overwhelming American forces carried the day. The Spanish suffered nearly one hundred percent casualties, though they killed or wounded over three thousand Americans in the defense. The battle left Santiago completely exposed, led to the collapse of the Spanish government in Cuba and helped to propel Teddy Roosevelt into the presidency.
The Battle of San Juan Hill actually took place on a small series of hills (the use of the singular was due to a journalistic typo). Much of the battlefield has been preserved, including the American trenches, artillery pieces, and monuments to both the American and Cuban soldiers who participated in the battle.
San Juan Hill is located a few miles east of the city of Santiago, approximately 220 miles southeast of Havana. The battlefield is an open site, and there is no charge for admission. Web: www.santiago-de-cuba.net (official tourism website of Santiago).