It’s rare for midshipmen to add to the narrative of history during their time at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). Recently, six midshipmen, their history instructor, and an archaeologist set out on an adventure to a tropical savannah to do just that.
With support and funding from the USNA Museum, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB) Installation Environmental Office and in coordination with Naval Facilities and Engineering Command South East, Commander, Navy Region Southeast Historic Preservation Office; Capt. Marko J. Stawnyczyj, USNA History Instructor, United States Marine Corps, Hannah P. Smith, project archeologist, MIDN 1/C Emily Lamphere, MIDN 2/C Elyse MacIsaac, MIDN 2/C Daniel McDonald, MIDN 2/C Pedro P. Castillo Valdes, MIDN 2/C Joshua Walton and MIDN 2/C Alicia Zhou conducted an archaeological survey in a portion of the Cuzco Wells battlegrounds at NSGB, June 29 to July 9, 2018.
“The biggest thing I think that made things click for the midshipmen was being at the site of a major battle for the United States,” said Stawnyczyj. “They saw how discovering history can shape our interpretation of the future.”
Between 2002 and 2005, Stawnyczyj was stationed with the Marine Corps Security Force Company in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During his tour, he learned the significance of the battle of Cuzco Wells and its part in the Spanish-American War.
According to Stawnyczyj, the Marines landed in Guantanamo Bay on June 10, 1898, which was the first time Marines secured a forward Navy base in support of blockading operations. The ensuing Battle of Cuzco Wells, on June 14, 1898, pushed the Spanish out of the area, which allowed the Navy to use Guantanamo Bay as a coaling station for the blockade of Santiago. Guantanamo Bay was also used as a staging area for the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico.
After returning to the U.S. from his time at NSGB, Stawnyczyj visited museums and noticed this battle was often sparsely represented or omitted altogether. In 2016, Capt. Stawnyczyj spoke to Naval Academy Museum Director Claude Berube about funding a small survey to Cuzco Wells to teach midshipmen about archaeology, the tactical importance of terrain, and how past battles can be used to develop better tactics, techniques, and procedures. After years of coordination, their vision came to fruition.
“On a tactical level, I believe the midshipmen definitely got an appreciation for the principles of warfare we teach them,” said Stawnyczyj. “We talked about what the Marines carried at the time; how much water and how much ammunition they had. I think the midshipmen developed a huge appreciation for the effects of terrain, weather, and avenues of approach.”
Armed with maps and metal detectors, the project required midshipmen to ascend the hills of Cuzco Wells Battle site while surveying the land for artifacts, triangulating sites of interest and documenting and collecting artifacts.
“Foremost, with hopes of service-selecting Marine Corps ground, it allowed me to visualize and apply historical military theory,” said Walton. “In order to empathize with Marines in June 1898, I had to take a step back, look at the terrain, and try to imagine what I would have done if in command, considering that impact of factors such as shoe-sole technology and equipment of the era.”
The mission aimed to achieve five goals established from the research of previous surveys and historical first-hand accounts of the battle.
“In preparing for the project, I looked at the various other projects that had been done on the grounds there,” said Smith. “There’s only been five or six other surveys or archaeological investigations of any kind there, so it’s kind of new and unknown territory.”
Smith also stressed the importance of physically moving throughout the area and how it elevated their research.
“There’s definitely something to be said about the difference between looking at an account in a book and it’s another to be walking the area where the people were fighting the battle and finding items that they would have interacted with during that battle,” said Smith.
“We found a lot of evidence that can change history,” said McDonald. “Additionally, we brought back artifacts so that more people can see them and learn from the war like we did on those hills.”
In addition to steep terrain and high heat indices, the site’s isolated nature added to the quality of the learning experience.
“The definitive perk of working in relatively untouched Guantanamo, rather than a domestic battlefield or established Military Park, was that there were no marked firing lines or reconstructed positions to reveal answers or remove creative thinking from the process,” said Walton.
According to Stawnyczyj, of the first-hand accounts that influenced the project goals, was a report from Stephen Crane, author of Red Badge of Courage.
“We’re excited to be able to add to the history of the battle,” said Stawnyczyj.
Adding to the trip’s value, midshipmen had opportunity to interact with NSGB Security Forces and observe the surrounding area.
“I personally loved seeing Guantanamo Base and learning the history between the Cubans and Americans. Seeing the gate between the two countries was truly amazing and an experience I will never forget,” said MacIsaac.
A sampling of the artifacts recovered, along with artifacts from previous work on other parts of the battlefield, will be used to create a new exhibit for the Naval Academy Museum on the Battle of Cuzco Wells. The results of the investigation will be presented in a future article and as part of the Shifley lecture series at the Naval Academy Museum.