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“A Perfect Hailstorm of Bullets”: A Black Sergeant Remembers the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1899

by Frank Pullen

The best-known image of the Spanish-American War is that of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback charging with his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. But not only was the role of the Rough Riders exaggerated, it also displaced attention from the black soldiers who made up almost 25 percent of the U. S. force in Cuba. Indeed, the Spanish troops, who called the black soldiers “smoked Yankees,” were often more respectful of the black troops than were the white officers who commanded them. Here Sergeant-Major Frank W. Pullen, Jr. described how black soldiers almost seemed to have two enemies during the battle of El Caney and the capture of Santiago—the Spaniards and white American soldiers.

Finally, late in the afternoon, our brave Lieutenant Kinnison said to another officer: “We cannot take the trenches without charging them.” Just as he was about to give the order for the bugler to sound “the charge,” he was wounded and carried to the rear. The men were then fighting like demons. Without a word of command, though led by that gallant and intrepid Second Lieutenant J. A. Moss, 25th Infantry, some one gave a yell and the 25th Infantry was off, alone to the charge. The 4th U.S. Infantry, fighting on the left, halted when those dusky heroes made the dash with a yell which would have done credit to a Comanche Indian. No one knows who started the charge; one thing is certain, at the time it was made excitement was running high; each man was a captain for himself and fighting accordingly. Brigadier Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant-Colonels, Majors, etc., were not needed at the time the 25th Infantry made the charge on El Caney, and those officers simply watched the battle from convenient points, as Lieutenants and enlisted men made the charge alone. It has been reported that the 12th U.S. Infantry made the charge, assisted by the 25th Infantry, but it is a recorded fact that the 25th Infantry fought the battle alone, the 12th Infantry coming up after the firing had nearly ceased. Private T. C. Butler, Company H, 25th Infantry, was the first man to enter the blockhouse at El Caney, and took possession of the Spanish flag for his regiment. An officer of the 12th Infantry came up while Butler was in the house and ordered him to give up the flag, which he was compelled to do, but not until he had torn a piece off the flag to substantiate his report to his Colonel of the injustice which had been done to him. Thus, by using the authority given him by his shoulder-straps, this officer took for his regiment that which had been won by the hearts' blood of some of the bravest, though black, soldiers of Shafter’s army.

A word more in regard to the charge. It was not the glorious run from the edge of some nearby thicket to the top of a

small hill, as many may imagine. This particular charge was a tough, hard climb, over sharp, rising ground, which, were a man in perfect physical strength, he would climb slowly. Part of the charge was made over soft, plowed ground, a part through a lot of prickly pineapple plants and barbed-wire entanglements. It was slow, hard work, under a blazing July sun and a perfect hailstorm of bullets, which, thanks to the poor marksmanship of the Spaniards, “went high.”

On July 14th it was decided to make a demonstration in front of Santiago, to draw the fire of the enemy and locate his position. Two companies of colored soldiers (25th Infantry) were selected for this purpose, actually deployed as skirmishers and started in advance. General Shafter, watching the movement from a distant hill, saw that such a movement meant to sacrifice those men, without any or much good resulting, therefore had them recalled. Had the movement been completed it is probable that not a man would have escaped death or serious wounds. When the news came that General Toral had decided to surrender, the 25th Infantry was a thousand yards or more nearer the city of Santiago than any regiment in the army, having entrenched themselves along the railroad leading into the city...

Frank W. Pullen, Jr.

Ex-Sergeant-Major 25th U.S. Infantry. Enfield, N.C., March 23,1899

Source: Edward A. Johnson, History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War (Raleigh, 1899), 29–32. Reprinted in William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History (New York: Pittman Publishing, 1967), 383–384.