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The Skirmish at

Tayabacoa, Cuba

Contributed by Patrick McSherry

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During the Spanish American War, six American men of color received the Medal of Honor. Four of these men – Corporal William H. Thompkins, and Privates George H. Wanton, Fitz Lee and Dennis Bell -  received this honor for their actions at the same skirmish, an action near the mouth of the Tayabacoa River (often mistakenly listed as the Tayaboca River) on the southern coast of Cuba. This article will give the story of that skirmish and the actions that caused these men to receive the Medal of Honor."

The Skirmish at Tayabacoa:

Before the outbreak of the Spanish American War, American “filibusters – basically smugglers – landed arms and Cuban revolutionaries on the Cuban coast. With outbreak of the war, the U.S. military began to work directly with the Cuban revolutionary forces to accomplish these same goals. In June of 1898, a large expedition was planned and executed to land supplies and Cuban forces on Cuban shores. The expedition departed Key West, Florida on June 25, and consisted of the gunboat U.S.S. PEORIA, the steamship FANITA and the U.S. Army Transport FLORIDA.

The Gunboat U.S.S. PEORIA
The Gunboat U.S.S. PEORIA (photo courtesy of NAVSOURCE)

The U.S.S. PEORIA was not exactly a formidable warship. She had formerly been a pilot boat in Philadelphia and was only recently commissioned as a naval vessel. Under the command of Lieutenant T. W. Ryan, this was her first mission. She displaced 487 tons, and was one hundred thirty-one feet long. Her battery only mounted four 3-pounder Hotchkiss rapid-fire guns, two Hotchkiss revolving cannon and a Colt 6mm machine gun. He speed was only 9 knots, too slow to keep up with many of the warships, but just about right for escorting slower transports.

FLORIDA was a steamer that was under lease from the Plant Investment Company of Tampa Bay at a rate of six hundred dollars per day. She displaced 1,785 tons. The Steamer FANITA was the smallest of the three vessels, displacing only 289 tons. She was one hundred sixty feet in length. Until April, she had been used by the Clyde Line, but was purchased and then leased to the Army.

The two steamers
FLORIDA and FANITA were loaded with the troops and the supplies to sustain those troops. The troops included the following:

650 Cuban revolutionary troops under the command of General Emilio Nunez
50 members of Troop M of the 10th U.S. Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Carter P. Johnson
15 Americans serving as Cuban cavalry under the command of Winthrop Chanler, known as Chanler’s “Rough Riders.”
Lieutenant George Ahern, 25th U.S. Infantry on detached service.

In addition to the troops, arms and military supplies also filled the ships’ decks. These included:

2 Dudley-Sims dynamite guns
2 two batteries of light artillery
4,000 Springfield rifles
965,000 rifle cartridges,
1145 saddles
950 saddle cloths
7,663 uniforms
Blankets, shoes, hats etc. in large quantities.
U.S. military manuals reprinted in Spanish to aid in training the Cuban irregular forces.

Of course, such a substantial military force had to be fed. Foodstuffs were also part of the expedition’s cargo and the variety was quite extensive. The following gives a sample of some of the items carried:

67,275 pounds of bacon
31,250 pounds of corn meal
10,259 pounds of coffee

The expedition arrived at General Nunez’ preferred landing site on June 29 after four days at sea. The location was at the mouth of the San Juan River, between Cienfuegos and Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba. That such an expedition was planned should have been no surprise to the Spanish forces. A month earlier, newspapers in the U.S. contained accounts of the expedition, even listing the names of those involved, and the full organizational structure of the forces to be landed. At the initial landing site, the expedition met with immediate resistance. Men in small boats from the expedition attempted to make a landing to secure the beachhead, but were driven off by enemy fire and by the coral reef that made landing an extreme challenge. Between the coral and the enemy fire, the landing simply could not be made. To unload the supplies, a more secluded landing site was needed.

The new site chosen was about four miles west of Tunas near the mouth of the diminutive Tayabacoa River. Whether on purpose or by accident, the location was one that had been used by “filibusters” in the past. The expedition arrived at the new location on the last day of June. The site raised some concerns immediately. A Spanish fort or blockhouse – constructed from earth and “railroad iron” presented itself on shore. The U.S.S. PEORIA sent several rounds from its three-pounders at the fort, but received no response. In fact no life was spotted at all, so the fort was assumed to be abandoned. Otherwise the location provided what was needed – a sandy beach as opposed to a rocky coastline experienced at the San Juan River site, which would have hindered the landing.

A small force – between 23 and 30 men (sources do not agree) – consisting of Cubans under the command of Captain Jose Manuel Nunez, the son of General Emilio Nunez, and “Chanler’s Rough Riders” led by Lt. Winthrop Astor Chanler – were selected to secure the beachhead. As the two whaleboats made their way ashore, all was quiet. The boats landed on the sandy shore without issue, but at that moment, a Spanish force consisting of about one hundred entrenched men and some artillery, unleashed a storm of rifle and artillery fire. Capt. Nunez was stepping out of the boat when he was struck in the head and killed instantly. Lt. Chanler went down with an arm broken by a Spanish bullet. The men who survived ran to the bushes that lined the beach and returned fire. Two of Chanler's men - doctors
Maximilian Lund and William Louis Abbott - grabbed Chanler and carried him into the swamp, where the men sunk in into ther necks. The Spanish troops’ mauser rifles, firing smokeless powder helped to conceal their positions. Nunez’ and Chanler’s men found that the key to surviving was to give no evidence of their existence as every moving a bush brought on a fusillade of enemy fire. The fire from the small battery of the U.S.S. PEORIA was all that kept the Spanish at bay.

A retreat was ordered, but was an almost impossible task. Additional Spanish troops began to arrive on the scene. Of the landing force’s two whaleboats, one had been riddled with enough bullet and shell holes to sink it. The other had drifted, moving closer to the Spanish positions. By now, the men had been in the bushes for about five hours. Maximilian Lund, a hulking man and promient Heildelburg duelist, shed his uniform and swam to the U.S.S. PEORIA - no small task - to report that the landing party was in need of rescue. One of Chanler’s men, William T. Herrington, followed by another, named Lee, made break to secure the surviving whaleboat. Lee jumped into the boat and was shot in the leg. Herrington coolly pulled the boat closer allowing the survivors to get aboard or swim alongside and support themselves by grabbing on as needed. Enroute back to the safety of the ships, another of Chanler’s men, Ely Carpenter, was shot in the head and killed. Four of the Cubans were also wounded.

The return of the whaleboat revealed to those aboard the ships that Capt. Nunez had been killed and his body was left on the beach. The wounded Chanler was not among the boat’s occupants, nor were two doctors from Chanler’s command - Lund and Abbott.  Lt. Agramonte and two others of the Cuban force were also missing. Volunteers were sought to try to make a landing to rescue the wounded under cover of darkness. Three attempts were made, but met with Spanish fire and could not land. Lieutenant George Ahern of the 25th U.S. Infantry and four volunteers from the 10th U.S. Cavalry – Corporal George H. Wanton, and Privates Thomkpins, Fitz Lee and Dennis Bell - made another attempt.

The now-waterlogged whaleboat and its intrepid volunteers, undeterred by the previous three failed attempts, made for the beach. Against all odds, they found the remaining wounded and missing soldiers and ferried them back to the ships waiting off the coast. It was for this action that the four enlisted men received the Medal of Honor.

Dennis Bell, 10th U.S. Cavalry, Medal of Honor
An image of Dennis Bell. This appears to be a post-war photo.
Though he is wearing a suit, he appears to be wearing military
headgear - a kepi with some sort insignia on it (image
courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The expedition continued to have problems, however The
FLORIDA had run aground as she attempted to get closer to shore to land troops to aid the landing party. She was stuck for twenty hours, exposed to enemy fire as the U.S.S. PEORIA did not have the power to pull off the vessel which was four times its size. The U.S.S. HELENA, by chance, came on the scene about Noon on July 1. A tow rope from the U.S.S. HELENA, combined with the lightening of the FLORIDA by jettisoning some supplies or transferring them to the FANITA, allowed the FLORIDA to be pulled free. In spite of being exposed to enemy small arms and artillery fire for twenty hours, she suffered no significant damage.

A new plan was needed and one was suggested, possibly, by Lt. Carter of the
10th U.S. Cavalry. It was known from a captured waterman that the Spanish believed a major landing was in the offing and were sending in reinforcements. A cavalry regiment arrived as did five hundred infantrymen and several batteries of artillery. Carter’s plan was to deceive the Spanish and draw as many troops as possible into the area of the aborted landing. In keeping with the plan, the next morning the U.S.S. PEORIA and the U.S.S. HELENA both opened a vigorous fire on the Spanish forces disabling the artillery and damaging the fort.. As the darkness came on that evening, the U.S.S. HELENA continued to fire heavily at the Spanish forces, and used its searchlights to illuminate the shoreline. At the same time, the USS PEORIA, the FLORIDA and FANITA all went into blackout, and cruised away undetected.

U.S. Army Transport Florida
The Transport FLORIDA from the Chicago Tribune (May 24, 1898)

The expedition moved to Palo Alto where it was finally able to land its troops and supplies without issue. A juncture was successfully made with the forces of General Gomez, who personally came to Palo Alto on July 4 and commented very favorably on the troops and supplies landed.

On June 10, 1899, Wanton, Tomkins, Lee and Bell were awarded the Medal of Honor. The order cited the men “for distinguished gallantry at Tayabacoa, Cuba, where, after a force had succeeded in landing and had been compelled to withdraw to the boats, leaving a number of killed and wounded ashore, they voluntarily went ashore in the face of the enemy, and aided in the rescue of their wounded comrades, who would otherwise have fallen into the hands of the enemy; this after several previous attempts had been frustrated.

So, what else do we know about these four heroes? Sadly, not too much. Below is some of that data we do have (should you have more data, please consider contributing it by clicking here):

George H. Wanton - was born on May 15, 1868 in Paterson, New Jersey. After the war, in 1901 he found himself in police court on charges brought by his mother. The accounts state that she “began a great harangue against” him until quieted by the court. Asked for his response, he calmly indicated that that he chose not to testify against his mother, only asking that she leave him alone. This likely reflects his strength of character by reacting in this way in a very stressful situation. The court found in his favor. Wanton died on November 23, 1940 in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 4, Grave 2749.

William Thompkins - was also born in Paterson, New Jersey, being born on October 3, 1872. He was the son of William L. and Rebecca Tompkins. By 1880 the family had relocated to Newark, New Jersey where William’s father was in business as a harness manufacturer. William Tompkins died on September 24, 1916 in San Francisco. He was buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery in Section WS, Grave 1036-H.

Fitz Lee - was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. He left the Army after serving for fifteen years in the 10th U.S. Cavalry, and was living in Leavenworth, Kansas. Each of his Army discharges listed his character as “excellent.” He applied for a pension on July 13, 1899. He died on September 14, 1899 at the home of Charles Taylor at 127 Cheyenne Street. When he passed away he was indigent, and other ex-soldiers took it upon themselves to see that he was buried with honors at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Section G, Grave 3183.

Dennis Bell - was born in late December of 1866 or 1867 in Washington D.C. He enlisted in the Army on December 3, 1892. He married Rose Williams Bell and the couple are listed as having two children Leola, and Louis Williams. By 1930, Bell is listed as being employed as a “house man” or a servant in a private home. Dennis Bell died on September 25, 1953 in Washington D.C., and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 31, Grave 349.


1930 United States Census

"Honors for Colored Troops," The Butte Miner. (Butte, Montana), March 16, 1900, 4

"In The Police Court," The News. (Paterson, NJ), July 22, 1901, 7.

Johnson, C. P., Report Dated July 8, 1898, Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899, Vol. 3, 325.

"Lieut. Agramonte Missing," The Morning Journal-Courier. (New Haven, CT), July 15, 1898, 1, 7.

"Medals for Negro Heroes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Brooklyn, NY), June 11, 1899, 33.

"Native Cubans in the Invading Army," Chicago Tribune. (Chicago, IL), May 24, 1898, 1.

Ryan, T. W., Report of the actions of the U.S.S. PEORIA, Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899, Vol. 4, 690.

"Some Tight Times at Tayabacoa," The Leaf-Chronicle. (Clarksville, TN), December 28, 1898, 1.

“Steamer Fanita Sold,” The Evening Journal. (Wilmington, DE), April 28, 1898, 1.

U.S. Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861 - 1917

U.S. Veterans Administration Pension Payment cards 1907 - 1933.

U.S. War Veterans Administration Master Index 1917-1940.

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