Under Fire In Cuba


Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders after the Battle of San Juan Hill, July 1898.

US Army victors on Kettle Hill about July 3, 1898 after the battle of San Juan Hill

From the Revolution at least through World War II, American boys hurrying off to war calmed their fears by believing that their country’s cause wan just and right and would surely prevail.

Young William Ransom Roberts of Traverse City, Michigan, was no exception. Barely nineteen in mid-May of 1898 when President William McKinley called for volunteers to fight against Spain, he rushed to enlist in Hannah‘s Rifles, a unit named for its organizer, a local lumber baron, which was soon mustered into service as part of the Thirty-fourth Michigan Regiment.

Like most of his fellow volunteers, Roberts believed he was embarking on a glorious adventure—to help liberate the brave Cubans from the tyranny of Spain, just as the French had come to the aid of his own embattled ancestors during the Revolution.

Roberts was eager for the fray. “Hurrah!”he wrote when the Thirty-fourth was sent to Fort Alger, Virginia, for training as part of General William R. Shafter’s Fifth Army Corps. And he was equally exultant when, after less than three weeks of desultory drill, his regiment was ordered to Newport News to join the all-Irish Ninth Massachusetts aboard the troopship Harvard, a converted liner.

The glory went out of the war quickly. Within days, Roberts would find himself plunged into the midst of a dirty jungle struggle for which he and his comrades were woefully unprepared.

Through it all, he kept a vivid journal, “Sketches of My Army Life, “which was recently made available to AMERICAN HERITAGE by his niece, Virginia Stevens of New York.

We begin our excerpts from this previously unpublished soldier’s account as Roberts’ troopship passed the battleship Minneapolis on her way out to sea, her destination Cuba.

June 26th

… we were abreast of the Minneapolis. The “Jackies” were all on deck to see us off; three hundred of them all in white duck suits and as we steamed slowly by, three hundred lusty voices sang out to us across the water “Remember the Maine!” There was a seconds stillness before we realized that we were charged by one crew of American sailors to avenge the death of their brothers and then—there was such a roar of two thousand voices that it seemed to come from the bottom of the sea. It came from our hearts and as it went out to them it said “We will.” Did they hear it? Well by their actions I should guess yes: they threw their hats and themselves in the air; they turned hand spring, air springs and cart-wheels; they shouted and we shouted and during the confusion those bad irishmen over our heads called out—Remember the Maine—Remember the Maine—the Irish say to h—l with Spain!!! We watched them until they were out of sight when our attention was called to Fortress Monroe which loomed up in the distance and by night we were out in the ocean.


We thought we were in luck to be given the steerage passengers berths to sleep in as the rest of the regiment and the 9th had to sleep on the decks but after we were out two days we saw that we had the worst of it for we had no regular place on the decks and it was so hot that to sleep was impossible. The government was paying $3000 a day for the use of that boat. There were enough good berths to accomodate every soldier on board and yet to please the whim of the boats captain we were made to sleep on deck.

The first morning out we had a good stiff breeze and as the old boat rose and fell, a good many of us laid on our backs as if to sleep while others unconsciously nibbled hardtack. A feeling of goneness had attacked us.…

It was noon, June 30th, that we first saw Cuba. She stands very prettily in that southern sea her banks of dark green shrubs and trees rising from fifty to two hundred feet, nearly straight up from the ocean. How good land looked to us and that night when we sailed along the coast, the moon came out and as its rays struck the island and jumped the black shadow caused by the dark green banks, it turned the ocean into a path of silver and gold. A peaceful scene it was. One could hardly imagine that a cruel war had been waged there for so long.…

July 1st

By daylight every one was up. It was very warm at this early hour. As we were steaming up toward the flag ship again we were warned to keep clear of the guns in Moro Castle. Receiving more orders by signal we then headed for Siboney. The coast from Santiago to Siboney was lined with reporters boats, transports, torpedo boats, armoured cruisers and battle ships.

Anchor was dropped a half mile from shore at Siboney. A large boat was just pulling out from the harbor: a big “red cross” was painted on her bow and a flag of that nature was floating from her stearn: neatly dressed women walked her decks: we knew their significance and cheered until we were hoarse. When the nurses answered us by waving their handkerchiefs we went wild for we had not seen a woman in five days.