“Gatling Gun Parker” and the Battle of San Juan Hill

John Henry Parker, also known as "Gatling Gun Parker" | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

General John Henry Parker is best known for his role as the commander of the Gatling Gun detachment during the Spanish-American War. In early 1898, then Lieutenant Parker, a recent graduate of the United States Military Academy, was placed in charge of training soldiers in the use of machine guns. His detachment was a dumping ground for soldiers not fit to serve in other areas, and at that time, the idea of using machine guns in battle was of little value to the US Army.  However, Parker believed machine guns could play a vital role in battle.1

In this time period, large artillery had to be transported by draft animals. This was not always a feasible possibility given the terrain, the time frame, and the fact that animals could be killed by enemy fire. Lt. Parker was able to see the purpose of machine guns as a replacement for artillery in battle, especially at ranges closer than 1500 yards.2  He petitioned the US Army for a chance to build a machine gun detachment that could be used for offensive battle tactics, and was granted permission to put a unit together shortly before being sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Gatling Guns deployed outside Santiago, Cuba, 1898 | Courtesy of Warfare History Network

Lt. Parker was given four brand new 1895 Gatling guns of .30 caliber. The Gatling gun works by gravity feeding bullets into the top and dropping shells out the bottom, while the shaft was turned by a hand-crank. The gun’s swivel mount and rapid fire allowed the shooter to aim and shoot over long distances of up to 2000 yards, protecting the shooter from enemy fire by artillery. The only disadvantage of the Gatling gun, aside from a lack of training on the weapon, was that it was prone to jamming.3

At the start of the Spanish-American War, Lt. Parker and his Gatling Gun Detachment were assigned to the 5th Army Corps. It would be the first time the US Army would use machine guns as an offensive weapon during battle. On July 1, 1898, the Battle of San Juan Hill began early in the morning. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Calvary and the 24th Infantry Regiments were attempting to take San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill. The US Army was off to an early loss on that first day of the battle. It was not until the afternoon, when Lt. Parker positioned his Gatling guns and opened fire, that the battle went in favor of the US Army.4  The US artillery used black powder and the Spanish Army used smokeless powder, allowing the Spanish Army to see and fire upon the US artillery. The Gatling guns, however, were smokeless.5

Lt. Parker was ordered to move his guns as close to the battle as he could. He moved them to El Poso, the southern end of the area, where they could attack a blockhouse, the trenches, and the barbed wire entanglements of the Spanish Army. For eight-and-a-half minutes the Gatling guns fired continuously upon the Spanish, causing the soldiers to flee the trenches in an attempt to reach safety. Teddy Roosevelt is known to have said that the sound of the Gatling guns “was most inspiring” to the US soldiers. The Gatling guns were re-positioned, and they fended off the Spanish counterattack.6 Parker’s soldiers and the Gatling guns were with the US soldiers during the entire siege, even down in the trenches.7

American Gatling gunners atop San Juan Hill | Courtesy of Warfare History network

Although the US lost three times the number of soldiers as the Spanish, supporting fire from the Gatling guns was crucial to the success of the Battle of San Juan.  The artillery were only able to shoot about 270 fragments, while the Gatling guns were able to shoot with precision about 1000 shots.8  For the first time in history, machine guns were used offensively in a battle and were able to successfully disable an opposing army’s artillery. Spanish Army General Jose Toral said in his official report that the Gatling guns and their fire power was a major reason for the Spanish surrender.9

Lt. Parker was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action and was eventually promoted to general. He continued his military career by training other armies in Europe in the use of machine guns in warfare. Prior to the Spanish-American War, Parker believed that using machine guns in close battle would allow troops to advance under the protection of the machine guns, harming the enemy and improving the morale of US soldiers. This value of the machine gun had been proven.10

  1. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 14, 18-25.
  2. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 62.
  3. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 18-19, 27-28.
  4. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 11.
  5. Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2012, s.v. “Machine Gun.”
  6. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 72-93.
  7. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 11-12.
  8. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 103.
  9. “Old Glory to Wave over Santiago Today,” Chicago Tribune, (Chicago, IL), Jul. 17, 1898.
  10. John H. Parker, History of the Gatling Gun Detachment Fifth Army Corps, at Santiago (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co, 1898), 12.

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27 Responses

  1. Although I am against gun usage, Lt. Parker had a goal, and wouldn’t stop until he saw fit. It amazes that after graduating he taught classes, about machine guns. It also amazes me that he petitioned the U.S. I am shocked that I had never heard of that before this article. Neither did I know that the first machine gun was used in the Spanish-American War, which isn’t that long ago.

  2. I found it super interesting how war technology was improved! I didn’t know much about John Henry Parker and his involvement in the Spanish American War either. Learning about the Gatling gun demonstrated how different weapons were back then. The advantages and disadvantages of them really illustrates an image of the progression in weapons throughout time. It was an article I enjoyed reading, especially because I’ll be joining the army soon.

  3. Many of my friends attend Westpoint, and I always find it fascinating to read stories about U.S. troops from the academy. Many of our historic leaders were graduates from the academy so it holds nothing less than the title of a prestige military academy. Machine guns today are used for covering fire, so that troops can advance to certain battle positions in order to gain an advantage over the enemy. An interesting article I must say.

  4. I had very little knowledge of the use of a Gatling guns/machine guns, so I was very intrigued to learn about the first instances of the utilization of this weapon in a battle. Your article was very informative when it came to the knowledge and use of the machine guns, and I was very interested in how it aided in the victory of the Battle of San Juan Hill.

  5. For starters General John Henry Parker was a very smart man to see the potential in Gatling Guns during the war. I’m sure that once the military was able to see the true potential of the firepower it provided, his detachment became a much more respected part of the army. The only thing that bothered me is that if the US could have seen the power of the Gatling gun, we would not have lost three times more lives than the Spanish. Overall, I liked to story this article and how it recognized the wins that the US had during the Spanish-American War.

  6. Hello Tyler, The story of Lt Parker the Gatling Gun and the soldiers who they were seen as failures it is an inspiring one as it shows that those things that are seen not to be worthy they are what saves the day most times as shown by this gun. If the U.S. side did not have LT. Parker and his two Gatlin guns they would surely have lost more men than they had at the Battle of San Juan Hill this is admitted even by the Spanish Army General when he points to the gun as a reason for their surrender. Lieutenant John Henry Parker is one of those forgotten souls whose accomplishments are appreciated long after they have done their service and left us. Thank you for honoring this great soldier and his contribution through the Gaitlin gun. Good job on this article.

  7. I know that variations of the Gatling gun have been around since the Civil War, but I never knew that it was not until the Spanish-American War that these guns became appreciated. I found it interesting how these Gatling guns were smokeless because I always imagined these guns producing lots of smoke. Nice to hear that General Parker got a promotion from training unfit soldiers to traveling to Europe to train armies about these heavy guns. I enjoyed reading the article, great job!

  8. John Henry Parker seems to have impacted U.S. military history. I am sure if I were more attuned in this realm I would have been more familiarized with him and his influence on Gatling guns. It is risky business when a man has trained well with his machinery, as Parker has done, because it is expected of you to drive out the force the weapons possess such as those Gatling guns. Lt. Parker was a clever and I am glad you chose this topic to resurface his accomplishments. Well done!

  9. I’ve never really been a history buff so to say that I didn’t have much knowledge when it comes to the Spanish-American war is an understatement. I came into this article expecting to just read over something I didn’t really care for but there was so much information I couldn’t stop reading till the end! Learning about the machine gun detachment that was deployed during the battle of San Juan Hill was great. Understanding how much trouble they once had to go through to obtain it really put everything in a new perspective for me. Overall this was a great article!

  10. Excellent article! It was interesting to learn about John Henry Parker and what he did in the Spanish American War. This is a topic that I do not know a lot about so it was cool to learn about it while reading your article. It was genius for him to realize how a machine gun unit could be a benefit and I’m glad he thought so. This is a great, well written, well researched article! Great Job.

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