The Guns of Guantánamo Bay—1898

posted on March 16, 2024
Waterhouse Cuzco Wells
In this painting by the celebrated Marine Corps historical artist, Col. Charles H. Waterhouse, Marines and their Cuban Insurrecto allies are seen with their 6 mm M1895 Winchester-Lee straight-pull rifles at the conclusion of the pivotal battle of Cuzco Wells on June 14, 1898. The high rate of accurate fire from these rifles scattered several companies of Spanish regulars and Cuban loyalist guerillas and ensured a lopsided victory that marked the beginning of the modern Marine Corps.
Painting courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

From their perch on a hilltop overlooking the Spanish encampment at Cuzco Wells, the exhausted Marines under the command of Capt. George F. Elliott adjusted the sights on their M1895 Lee Navy rifles to 1,200 yards and, in the words of Marine Pvt. Frank Keeler, “fired volley after volley” at the Spanish “Dons” trying to escape the fusillade of accurate rifle fire. The Marines had been practicing long-range aimed volley fire, both on board the USS Panther while en route from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Key West, as well as during the weeks of training ashore at Camp Sampson on Key West—amidst the oppressive May heat and swarms of mosquitoes. Having landed at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on June 10, 1898, the Marines were finally getting a good shot back at the Spaniards who had been attacking their camp over the previous days and nights.

While generations of Americans have heard of Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” at the battle of San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) outside Santiago, Cuba, few are aware of the critical role that the U.S. Marine Corps played in making Roosevelt’s, and the rest of the Army’s, efforts a success during the Spanish-American War. When Spanish Adm. Cervera brought his fleet into Santiago Harbor in the spring of 1898, the focus of the war shifted from Havana (where the USS Maine had exploded and sunk in March) to southeastern Cuba, and American Adm. Sampson quickly established a blockade of the harbor. In order to keep his ships on station and under steam while bottling up the Spanish fleet, a nearby coaling station for the American fleet had to be established, because the nearest one at Key West—at the far western tip of the Florida Keys—was on the other side of Cuba. Guantánamo Bay, about fifty miles to the east of Santiago, appeared to be lightly defended, and its deep harbor could accommodate any of the ships in Sampson’s blockading fleet.

Sampson designated Capt. Bowman McCalla of the cruiser USS Marblehead as commodore, and gave him a small flotilla of ships to secure Guantánamo Bay. Prior to embarking on this enterprise, McCalla coordinated his efforts with Cuban insurrectos under the command of Lt. Col. Enrique Tomas of the 4th (Guantánamo) Regiment, army of the Cuban Republic. Sampson also assigned a battalion of Marines (that had hastily been formed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard a few weeks earlier, and was now at Key West) to McCalla’s command, in order to establish the new coaling station. This battalion, under the command of Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Robert W. Huntington, USMC, had been assembled from Marines stationed at naval installations on the East Coast, and its Marines were armed with the new M1895 Winchester-Lee “straight-pull” 6 mm Navy rifle that was now standard issue throughout the naval service.

Right side of the Winchester Model 1895 Lee Navy rifle, with cartridges inserted into the top of the action.After holding a design competition in the early 1890s, the U.S. Navy selected the clip-fed 6mm M1895 Lee rifle for both sailors and Marines, marking the end of each service having its own standard shoulder arm. Even before it saw action in Cuba, faults in the Lee rifle’s mechanism had become apparent. Photo courtesy of the NRA National Firearms Museum.

The rifle was designed by the Scottish-born Canadian émigré James Paris Lee. Most famous for his development of the famed British Lee-Enfield rifle, Lee had been designing bolt-action magazine-fed repeating rifles in .45-70 Gov't. for the U.S. Navy to replace its Winchester-Hotchkiss rifles. In 1892, the Navy held a competition and invited designers to develop a rifle around its recently adopted 6 mm cartridge, since, like most of the world’s militaries, the Navy was intent on replacing its blackpowder .45-70 Gov't. cartridge with a small-bore smokeless powder round. Lee won the competition, and Winchester was contracted to produce the straight-pull rifle for both sailors and Marines.

The straight-pull design was much like the Austrian “ruck-zuck” Mannlicher and the Canadian Ross rifles, in that the bolt moved backwards and forwards, instead of turning, as in a Mauser and most other bolt-action rifles. This feature increased the rifle’s rate of fire, but its mechanism was far more complicated than a Mauser’s action. Shortly after its issue to Marines, it was found that, if the upward protruding bolt stop was inadvertently pushed down during firing, the entire bolt would come out on the next pull, and the extractor and the extractor spring would often fall out—necessitating repair by a qualified specialist. This defect was being corrected while Huntington’s battalion was en route from New York to Florida. The extractor itself, and its spring, were also weak, and the Buffalo Evening News reported on June 13, 1898, that, during the big night battle at the Marines’ Camp McCalla (named, of course, for the naval commander), “the Lee guns caused several accidents in drawing cartridges.”

marine sentries with lee rifle vintage photograph tents sandbags war militaryMarines defended their small perimeter at Camp McCalla with their Lee rifles. Thanks to the long-range accuracy of the Winchester-Lee rifle and its 6 mm cartridge, Marines, and their Cuban allies, were able to defeat the Spanish garrison at Cuzco Wells at extreme distances. Although the Lee rifle had its problems, the leader of the Cuzco attack pronounced that it had performed “fairly well.” Image courtesy of Marine Corps History Division.

This night attack was the most intensive assault by the Spanish on the Marines’ small defensive perimeter since the landing, and it prompted Lt. Col. Tomas to suggest that a joint force of Marines and Cubans attack the Spanish garrison at Cuzco Wells, about six miles to the east. This well was the only water source in the area, and if the Spanish lost it, they could no longer operate effectively in the dry, desert-like region. While most of Cuba was a lush tropical jungle, grassland, small farms or sugar cane fields, the area around Guantánamo Bay was (and still is) home to a few stunted trees, patches of thorn bushes and cactus, and a lot of scrub brush. Huntington agreed, and with about 50 Cubans scouting ahead, two companies of Marines hiked through the searing heat to Cuzco Wells on June 14.

Beating the Spaniards to a dominating position overlooking the Spanish camp, the Marines and the Cubans opened rapid fire and drove the Spanish out, killing scores of them, compared with a loss of two Cuban allies killed in the subsequent mopping up actions, a few wounded and a lot of Marines down with heat exhaustion. Stephen Crane, the famed young author of The Red Badge of Courage, was among the group of newspaper journalists at Camp McCalla, and he had volunteered to act as a temporary “adjutant” for the force. While in the fight, Crane witnessed then-Sgt. John H. Quick and a Marine named Fitzgerald earn the Medal of Honor for signaling to an offshore ship to cease firing, after it had mistakenly fired its guns at another company of Marines trying to head off the retreating Spaniards. Crane also recorded a Cuban officer imploring his men to fire their Lee rifles faster—Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!

cubans with lee rifles and trapdoor springfieldsWhile, for the most part, the Marines’ Cuban allies were armed with 6 mm rifles from the USS Marblehead, others received Army “Trapdoor” Springfields from the small arms lockers of other ships under Commodore McCalla’s command. Most of the Cuban insurrectos seen here are armed with M1895 Lee rifles, but some are carrying Springfield “Trapdoor” rifles. Image courtesy of Marine Corps University Publications.

The Cubans’ experience with the Lee straight-pull rifle was mixed, indeed. Firstly, they received the rifles with little, if any, training on them. In a 1947 interview for an article in the Marine Corps Gazette, Tomas recalled that, prior to the issue of rifles to his men, few of them had ever even fired a rifle, and most of them had been doing all of their fighting over the past three years with their ever-present machetes. As the late John D. MacAulay stated in his recent (2017) book on 19th-century U.S. Navy rifles, the bolt-stop problem apparently reared its ugly head at Cuzco Wells, and several Cubans threw away their now useless Lee rifles, after the rifles’ bolts had come out and their extractors were lost. 

Some of the Cubans under Tomas’ command had been armed with Army .45-70 “Trapdoor” Springfield rifles from the small arms lockers of ships in McCalla’s small flotilla, when the Lee rifles were being distributed from the USS Marblehead to their compadres. Apparently, those Cubans who had been armed with the Trapdoors were left behind at Camp McCalla, as an archaeological study conducted in 1997 did not reveal any spent .45-70 cartridge cases on the Cuzco Wells battlefield. Indeed, a Trapdoor rifle would not have been very effective at those extreme ranges, anyway.

trapdoor springfield rifle action open cartridge ammo box marine medalAlthough the Navy embraced magazine-fed bolt-action rifles within a few years after adopting the M1870 Remington Rolling Block rifle, the Army and the Marine Corps continued to cling to their single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfields into the early 1890s. Image courtesy of author.

The Army began its association with this iconic rifle in 1865, when several thousand Civil War muzzleloading rifle-muskets were converted into single-shot breechloaders, using the system developed by Springfield Armory’s chief armorer, Erskine A. Allin. A very dependable, and foolproof, system, the Trapdoor Springfield, first in .58 rimfire, then in .50-70 centerfire, and finally in.45-70, had served the Army well into the early 1890s. However, the Navy, after abandoning its single-shot .50-70 M1870 Remington Rolling Block rifle in 1878, began rearming with bolt-action magazine-fed repeaters in .45-70, first the Winchester-Hotchkiss, and then the Remington-Lee. Conversely, the Marine Corps, having adopted the Trapdoor in 1874 (first the M1868 in .50-70, and then the .45-cal. M1873 in 1878) carried the Springfield until it was replaced by the 6 mm Winchester-Lee after 1895— but by then, Marines were using M1884 Trapdoors, for the most part.

With the rapid expansion of the Navy on the eve of the Spanish-American War, there was not enough new M1895 Lee 6 mm rifles to fill the small arms lockers aboard the new ships. Since the Navy would have to contract with Remington for additional obsolescent Remington-Lee Navy .45-70 breechloaders, it simply decided to request Army Trapdoors from Springfield Armory, as a stopgap measure. Hence, a number of ships (including several, like the USS Yankee, in McCalla’s flotilla) had Trapdoors on board, and the officers of the flotilla distributed some of these rifles to those Cubans who had not already received 6 mm Lees from the USS Marblehead. According to the records, while some of these guns were accompanied with socket bayonets, others—especially the rifles later sent out from the U.S. specifically to arm Cuban insurrectos—appear to have been M1888 Trapdoors, with their integral rod bayonets.

man dressed for successAfter serving very capably alongside Marines at Guantánamo Bay, Cuban insurrectos (as seen here in the recreated camp of the 71st New York National Guard during the 2023 observance of the Spanish-American War’s 125th anniversary at Fort Mott State Park in New Jersey) served as scouts and guides for the U.S. Army. The 71st NYNG also fought with M1888 “Trapdoors,” like the one being carried here by this grizzled insurrecto. Image courtesy of Meredith Barnes of Molly Picture Studio.

The Cubans, already wary of the M1895 Lee straight-pull, rejoiced at finding about two dozen M1893 Spanish 7 mm Mausers (and two obsolete Remington Rolling Blocks in .43 Spanish) on the battlefield at Cuzco Wells and eagerly used them to hunt down Cuban loyalists and Spanish regulars who were still lurking about in the scrub brush around Camp McCalla throughout the following weeks. When the Cubans left the Guantánamo area, on June 23, to assist the Army in its landings further up the coast at Daiquiri and Siboney and—after supporting Marines in two other nearby landings before they left—they carried a mixture of all three rifles (Trapdoors, Mausers and Rolling Blocks), having returned their 6 mm Lee rifles to the Navy.

The turn of the 20th century saw the demise of the use of the infantry officers’ sword on the battlefield. However, until replaced by canes, swagger sticks, and Haitian cocomacoque walking sticks in the Marine Corps, the M1875 "Mameluke" sword was still being carried by Marine officers on campaign into the first decade of the new century—and it was there at Guantánamo Bay. In battle, Marine officers also carried versions of the Army/Navy Colt .38 revolver in a variety of holsters and belt rigs. The Navy M1889 Colt, with its swing-out cylinder and strong frame (and the subsequent line of Colt .38 military revolvers), was a marked improvement over the handguns being used by Marine officers in the preceding years, and these revolvers were also distributed to the allied Cuban officers. It was reported that a “self-appointed” Cuban Col. Laborde (whom the Marines held in low regard) inadvertently killed one of his own men with his Colt .38 at Cuzco Wells.

Right side of Colt M1892 revolver copyright NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUMWhen on duty with troops at naval installations or on board ship, Marine officers carried “Mameluke” swords, but during active service in Cuba, they were also issued Navy and Army-Navy Colt .38 revolvers. Marine officers carried their revolvers in a variety of holsters that were slung—some with their butts to the front, and some to the rear—from different types of belts. Image courtesy of the National Firearms Museum.

Marine officers carried the Colt Army-Navy revolvers (in its successive models—they are outwardly almost indistinguishable from each other, except for the patent dates stamped on their barrels) for the next seven years, and used them in actions around the world—in places like Samoa, the Philippines, China, and Panama—until they were replaced with a Marine Corps-specific Colt .38 revolver in 1905. This new revolver was carried in a Marine Corps-marked tan leather holster, with “USMC” on its flap, that was worn on a simple “fair leather” tan waist belt.

One of the key ingredients in the Marines’ ability to stave off the Spanish attacks on Camp McCalla was the Navy’s newly adopted belt-fed M1895 Colt machine gun, again in 6 mm. Designed by the famed firearms inventor, John Moses Browning, the Colt gun tapped gas from its barrel and used the power to drive a heavy piston up and down, thus actuating the feed and firing mechanism. Observers joked that a later version of the gun could “dig potatoes,” when fired on a low tripod mount, hence its nickname—the “Potato Digger.”  

m1895 colt machine gun on displayThe Navy adopted the Browning-designed M1895 Colt machine gun in 6 mm and distributed them to battleships and cruisers for their landing parties. Carried on small, wheeled carts, or mounted in the bows of ships’ boats, the guns were later nicknamed “Potato Diggers” because of the large piston on the gas operating mechanism under the gun’s the barrel. Image courtesy of National Museum of the Marine Corps.

However, this early U.S. Navy version was mounted on a wheeled cart, but it could also be mounted in the bow of a navy launch or ships’ boats. According to his diary, Huntington acquired two Colt guns at Key West, and a reinforcing Marine detachment from the battleship USS Texas brought two additional guns to Camp McCalla. At least one machine gun from the USS Marblehead also found its way into the Marines’ defensive works. Nearly all of these 6 mm guns were later converted to .30 “Army” (or .30-40 “Krag”) after the Navy and the Marine Corps adopted the Army’s .30-cal. Krag rifle in 1900.

The formation of Huntington’s battalion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard marked a first in Marine Corps history, and it set the stage for the Corps’ future role in the centuries to follow. Prior to the hurried assembly of Marines from naval posts and stations from Virginia to New Hampshire, Marine battalions were formed in the field from whatever ships’ detachments that happened to be in the area, as had been done in South Carolina, at Fort Fisher during the Civil War and in Panama in 1885. This time, the necessary items, like tropical uniforms (although the enlisted Marines’ field hats were stowed on the wrong ship and did not arrive until weeks later), entrenching gear and artillery were quickly gathered for the Marines’ mission to seize an advanced base for the fleet.

Colt Machine gun on rampThe Marine Battalion at Guantánamo Bay acquired its Colt machine guns from several different sources, and the guns played a critical role in the defense of the perimeter against repeated Spanish attacks. Image courtesy of Marine Corps History Division.

Marine Corps Commandant Heywood personally supervised the organization of this battalion that had been requested by the secretary of the Navy, initially as a four-company battalion, but quickly enlarged to six. In order to field a sixth company of artillery (Co F), Heywood acquired four of the 3" Hotchkiss “mountain guns” that recently had been adopted by the Navy. These guns were mounted on a naval version of the mountain gun’s pack mule transportable carriage, and were known as the “R.F.G.” (“Rapid Fire Gun”) in the first navy manual published about them—in the month before the battalion was formed! When ashore, Marines and sailors used drag ropes to pull the R.F.G.s (like the Colt machine gun carts), and the guns’ trails also had a retractable rear wheel for use on board ship. 

Many of these Hotchkiss mountain guns (sometimes referred to as a “15-pounder”) had been sold by the firm’s plant in Bridgeport, Conn., to Cuban revolutionaries, and the story of the smuggling activities of “filibusters,” or arms smugglers, while getting guns to the “Army of the Cuban Republic” between 1895 and 1898 makes a great read. Ralph Paine’s account of “Dynamite Johnny” O’Brien’s artillery duel with Spanish patrol boats, using one of these cannon lashed to the deck of his sea-going tugboat, is quite a tale! Curiously, the Chinese government also bought the R.F.G. naval variants for its army. Shortly after the Spanish-American war, the Navy introduced its first naval landing gun with a recuperating mechanism under its barrel (the Mk I), since the recoil of the Hotchkiss R.F.G. was reported as being beyond wicked.

Company F in bunker with sandbags tent behind hotchkiss machine gun on wheels soldier guarding with riflesMarine Corps Commandant Heywood personally played a part in organizing the Battalion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and while there, he obtained four Hotchkiss 3” guns, known in the Navy as the “R.F.G” or “Rapid Fire Gun,” for Company F. Designed as a mountain gun, and transportable by pack mules, the naval version of this popular breechloader had provisions for ammunition chests on its axle (as seen here), as well as a retractable trail wheel. Image courtesy of Marine Corps History Division.

With the coaling station now secure, Sampson’s blockading fleet was able to refuel continually, enabling it not only to land the Army for its assault on Santiago, but also to destroy Cervera’s fleet in July when the Spanish ships tried to escape. This famous action effectively ended the “Splendid Little War,” but the end of the war marked the beginning of the modern Marine Corps. The ability of the Marine Corps to organize, equip and send a full six-company battalion of Marines to the theater of operations in a few short weeks proved that the Marine Corps, which had been under threat from several high-ranking naval officers, had a much-needed role in the new steel navy. No longer were Marines simply to be regarded as “the Navy’s policemen” on board ship, and available for ad hoc shore operations in concert with “bluejacket” landing parties, but they now were seen as playing a critical role in protecting America’s expanding overseas empire. 

The Marines at Guantánamo Bay fought as a combined arms (infantry, artillery and light crew-served weapons) team, with its own shore-to-ship communications (heliographs, signal lamps and semaphore and wig-wag flags) and with its own integral logistical (rations, clothing and ammunition) support. In the early years of the 20th century, the Marine Corps built upon this experience to develop its “Advanced Base Force” doctrine that paid such incredible dividends across the Pacific during World War II, and, indeed, still does today. Moreover, the Marines’ ability to establish an advanced base and successfully defend it—as they did at Camp McCalla and Cuzco Wells—guaranteed a place for the Corps in America’s military forces, thanks to the guns in the hands of Marines who knew how to use them at Guantánamo Bay in 1898.

Further Reading
Since 1967, the Marine Corps’ official historical program (in its several guises) has produced several monographs that give far more details on this topic than can be related here. These publications are all online, and readers are urged to read Frank Keeler’s Journal (1967), The Marines in the Spanish-American War, 1895-1898 (1998), and U.S. Marines in Battle: Guantanamo Bay (2020) online, as well as the late John D. MacAulay’s book, Rifles of the United States Navy & Marine Corps, 1866-1917 (2017) for additional information.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Bruce F. Hutchinson of Hamilton Township, New Jersey, who passed away in December 2023. Not only was Bruce a Life member of the NRA, he was also instrumental in preserving and fostering the history of the Spanish-American War through living history programs. The author thanks Mark Keefe IV, Phil Schreier and Evan Brune of the American Rifleman; Owen Conner and Joan Thomas of the National Museum of the Marine Corps; Alison Mazzone of the Marine Corps History Division; Angela Anderson of Marine Corps University Publications; Meredith Barnes of Molly Picture Studio; and Carl Rivas for their assistance in the preparation of this article. Special thanks to Mark Ragan and Les Albers for bringing this subject to the author’s attention.


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