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   from the issue of January 5, 2006

  Project investigates Spanish-American War sites

Charging into history


What began as a conversation over cocktails about the archeology of San Juan Hill progressed to a weeklong trip to Cuba, and now holds the promise of addressing discrepancies in historical accounts of the Spanish-Cuban-American War.

SITE SURVEY - UNL professors (from left) Doug Scott and Peter Bleed join a colleague as they survey a Spanish-American War...
 SITE SURVEY - UNL professors (from left) Doug Scott and Peter Bleed join a colleague as they survey a Spanish-American War battle site in Cuba. Bleed and Scott visited Cuba in April and are planning a more extensive trip for 2007. Their goal is to address discrepancies in historical accounts from the war. Photo by Luis Peon-Casanova.

Peter Bleed, UNL professor of anthropology and geography, approached Cuban scholars, using what he terms his 40-year-old high school Spanish. Their enthusiastic response, permission from the Cuban government and findings during the trip in April were all pleasant surprises.

"The Cuban government honored us with scholar/research visas," Bleed said.

Bleed and Doug Scott, a 22-year adjunct professor with the department, dreamed of doing the archeology of San Juan Hill, and the April trip was the preliminary step.

"It set the stage," Scott said. "It gave us a set of working information on the ground and allows us to create a set of well-organized, well-structured questions."

Both men were pleased with findings that included preserved sites that include El Caney and El Viso, locations to the north of San Juan Hill that played significant roles in the battle. Although some areas, such as Kettle Kill, have had their archeological potential destroyed through urbanization, "the potential for discovery is great," Scott said.

Cuban colleagues turned out to be another plus.

"We didn't know what to expect," Bleed said. "What we found were solid, world-class scholars."

Now, the two are planning a second, more extensive trip in March or April 2007. Bleed is in conversation with the National Geographic Society, which supported the first trip with a travel grant. When he talked with society representatives about the first trip, they told him they were interested, but didn't believe the Cuban government would grant permission.

"I told them, 'We already have permission,' and fired off the information," he said.

The potential for discovery rests on a process invented by Scott and refined at the Little Big Horn in Montana.

"What we plan is a systematic metal detection survey of the hill," Bleed said.

Through the distribution of carbine casings and bullets, the survey could match specific locations to the three fighting forces - Spanish, Cuban and American - invovled in the battle.

The Spanish-Cuban-American war ended July 17, 1898, but significantly influenced warfare for the first half of the 20th century.

Scott said it is important to remember Spanish troops numbered 100,000. The Cubans had an army of 50,000, while America landed 13,000 troops. In addition, Cubans had been fighting the Spanish since 1895.

"We landed June 1898, and the war ended July 17, 1898," he said.

In addition, while the Cubans may not have been heavily involved in Santiago, they were tied up elsewhere, blocking the roads to hold off Spanish troops, Scott said.

"We believe American history is stilted," Scott said. "We're assuming it is based on American self-aggrandizement at the least and flat -out racism at the worst."

Through the discovery of the distribution of carbine casings and bullets, Bleed and Scott expect to have a clearer picture of events.

"Our data doesn't lie," Scott said. "It is not biased."

In addition to addressing the degree of Cuban involvement in the war, the battle is significant because it is the first where Americans encountered new technology - entrenchment and barbed wire. That technology would make a significant impact on warfare for the next 50 years, through both World War I and World War II, Bleed said.

The Spanish-Cuban-American War was also the first with cameras and the media playing significant roles.

"It was the first war really reported with cameras," Scott said. "There are rich visual records, yet there are many questions we cannot answer."

The photographic and journalistic aspects of the war drew Luis Peon-Casanova, lecturer, and Kristen Hansen, graduate student, from Journalism and Mass Communications, to the project. Hansen is creating a documentary of the trip as her master's thesis, and Peon-Casanova went in a supervisory capacity.

"The purpose was to create a documentary of the initial stages of research that may lead to larger excavation," Peon-Casanova said. "They discovered that, indeed, there was archeology to be conducted there."

According to Hansen, the documentary will be 15-20 minutes long and will come from the 15 hours of footage she shot in Cuba.

"What we saw was tremendous," Hansen said. "I have never really been interested in history and didn't know anything about the war, beyond the basics. Peter and Doug opened up a whole new world for me."

Now, Hansen plans to send the documentary to the National Geographic Society and hopes to obtain funding for a second trip.

"Reading about it is one thing," Hansen said, "but when you actually see it, can visualize it, the impact is significant."

Hansen was one of two students involved in the trip. Carl Drexler, a former UNL graduate student working on his doctorate at the College of William & Mary, also joined the group. Bleed was pleased students were involved.

"Students see projects like this, and the result is having top-quality students come to the university," he said, noting that a student has come to UNL to do graduate work in battlefield archeology.

Bleed also looks forward to working with Cuban scholars again.

"Cuba has a number of excellent archeologists and historians as anxious as we are for discovery; this is their war of independence," he said.



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