The destruction of Admiral Cervera's fleet

The blockade of Cuba was enlivened by captures of Spanish merchantmen and several minor fights, but was wearisome to the splendid fellows on the United States ships, who were pining for a chance to show their quality. It came in due course. The bombardment of Matanzas opened the ball. The first American officer to sacrifice his life for his country was Ensign Bagley, who, with four of his men, met death in the engagement of Cardenas bay. Other sailors lost their lives in destroying the Spanish cables. There was peril in this coast-service all along the line, as the enemy had fortified the important points with rapid-fire guns.

The supposedly formidable Spanish fleet that had sailed from Cadiz as far back as March was causing our navy no little worry. It was deemed necessary to establish a complete patrol of our coast in case of isolated attempts to damage our great cities. Others suspected that Cervera's mysterious voyage was towards Manila, to overcome Dewey before his reinforcements could arrive, or to intercept the Oregon in its memorable rush from San Francisco round Cape Horn to Cuba. Admiral Sampson scoured the seas in search of his invisible foe, ending with his bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, by way of leaving his official message for the Spaniard who had not as yet arrived.

Cervera was actually wandering vaguely in search of coal, and had got to Martinique, where, to his sorrow, he learned that the neutrality of France prevented the local authorities from according him that favor. From the 12th until the 19th of May the Spanish fleet defied the vigilant efforts of Sampson's captains to locate, much more to capture, it. When at last Cervera was discovered he was in the snug harbor of Santiago, into which he had quietly sailed, with a cleverness worthy -- as a feat of seamanship -- of a happier ending than was in store for him. It was not until ten days later that Commodore Schley was able to certify the fact from personal investigation. He at once commenced a bombardment of the land forts, as a challenge, but a few saucy shots from the safe retreat was all the reply. When Admiral Sampson brought up his squadron all that was possible was to secure the enemy in his water-prison and await the results of other forces. No American ship could enter the well-mined narrow neck of Cervera's fatal "bottle."

Those other measures included the sending of a land-force to co-operate with the navy. Major-General Shafter received orders, on the day that Schley reported his discovery of Cervera, to prepare some 20,000 troops for transport to Santiago. On June 1, Admiral Sampson arrived, took command of the whole fleet, and instituted a close blockade. Sampson now resolved to execute his plan for blockading the harbor with a collier, and asked Naval Constructor Richmond P. Hobson to draw up the plan. This he did, and received permission to execute it. This plan was simply to take in the collier Merrimac, until he reached a narrow place in the channel, anchor one end of the vessel, let the other swing with the tide, and, just as the collier was lengthwise across the channel, sink her with small torpedoes controlled by electricity. This was one of the most hazardous enterprises ever undertaken, yet when volunteers were called for nearly every man in the fleet wanted to go, and there were many heart-burnings over the refusals. Hobson chose only six men, picked for courage, physical and technical skill. They were Osborn Deignan, George F. Phillips, Francis Kelly, George Charette, Daniel Montague and J. C. Murphy. Randolph Clausen, a coxswain of the New York, determined to share in the work, concealed himself in the Merrimac, and when discovered at the last moment, refused to leave his self-chosen post, making the eighth man of the party.

The first attempt was made June 2, but it was getting light, and the enterprise was postponed until the next night, when it was carried out, but not to a complete success. The Spanish batteries opened on the Merrimac, and the crew escaped death by a miracle. Unfortunately, the rudder chains were shot away, part of the torpedo wires cut, and when the collier sank it did not close the channel. Hobson and his men sank with the vessel and swam to a catamaran, from which they were taken at daylight by Admiral Cervera, who was out looking for an American war-ship he supposed he had sunk. On hearing Hobson's story Cervera was so impressed with his bravery that he sent an officer to Admiral Sampson under a flag of truce, to allow clothes and money to be sent to the American prisoners, who were the only ones captured by Spain during the war. This touch of kindness pleased the American people so much that, later, the Spanish Admiral received many attentions in this country.

The Morro Castle and batteries along the mouth of the harbor were repeatedly bombarded, and the men driven from the guns, but the permanent damage was small. A part of the fleet attacked the batteries at Guantanamo Harbor, east of Santiago, and on June 10, 600 marines landed and made a camp. They were attached by Spaniards for two days, and lost four men. The navy shelled the hills, and the marines held their ground. Admiral Sampson now believed that an army could capture the batteries at the mouth of the harbor, and wired the President that with 10,000 men he could take Santiago in twenty-four hours. An army, principally of regulars, had been collected at Tampa under General Shafter, and this was hastily embarked on a fleet of transports. There were two divisions of infantry under Generals Lawton and Kent and one of cavalry under General Wheeler, but the latter left their horses behind and fought as infantry. The only volunteers were two squadrons of First Cavalry (Rough Riders), the Seventy-first New York and the Eighth Massachusetts. Owing to a false alarm, raised by the report of Spanish cruisers in the Nicholas Channel, the sailing was delayed several days for more war-ships as convoys, but on June 13 the expedition sailed, about 16,000 strong, and was off Santiago on the 20th.

There was a difference of opinion between Admiral Sampson and General Shafter over the order of procedure, the latter declining to sacrifice his men in an assault which, if successful, would give the fleet a safe path to victory, but if a failure, as was quite probable, owing to the terrible conditions of heat, disease, and peril, would be blamed on his generalship. The details of the land-war follow on another page. Recurring to the Spanish vessels in the harbor: Cervera might have strengthened his cause by remaining where he was until the climate had further weakened our forces on land and time had enabled the Spanish army to send reinforcements to the defenders of Santiago. Instead of this, orders had been given to the Spanish admiral to make his escape to the harbor of Havana. He knew it was a fatal blunder, in the condition of his ships and the impossibility of breaking through the cordon guarding the harbor mouth. Early on July 3 General Shafter sent a summons to General Toral, commanding at Santiago, to surrender.

On that morning occurred the second great naval event of the war. General Shafter desiring to consult with Admiral Sampson as to the shelling of Santiago by the navy, the latter left on his flag-ship, New York, to meet the General. Not long after he had left, Cervera's fleet made a sortie out of the harbor. It was a surprise to the Americans. Being Sunday, many of the vessels had steam under only a few boilers, and some had their engines uncoupled. Commodore Schley, the ranking officer, set the signal to close in and fight. The Maria Tercsa, Almirante Oquendo, and Vizcaya were soon riddled with shot, set on fire and beached, the officers and crew surrendering. The torpedo-boat destroyers Pluton, and Furor were quickly sunk, while the Cristobal Colon managed to get started well to the west, followed by the Brooklyn, Oregon, Texas, and Iowa. The last two were sent to look after the three beached cruisers, and the others kept up the chase for about forty miles. The large guns seem to have done little damage, but the havoc of the smaller calibres was frightful. The Colon was overtaken, and ran on the beach just as the New York was coming up with Admiral Sampson on board. Admiral Cervera and all his surviving crew, amounting to 1,300, surrendered. Several hundred were killed or drowned. The Americans lost but one man. The Spanish officers were sent to Annapolis, and afterwards paroled. The sailors were sent to Portsmouth, and were finally allowed to go home.

On July 5, Toral, who had declined the first summons, was again ordered to surrender, and refused; but a truce was agreed on to allow foreigners and women and children to leave the city. As it was rumored that Shafter was in a dangerous situation, reinforcements had been rushed to him, and on July 11 General Miles arrived. Hobson and his crew were exchanged for Spanish prisoners. The navy bombarded the city on the 10th and 11th, and was preparing to do more execution when negotiations were opened by which, on the 14th, General Toral surrendered not only Santiago but the entire eastern end of Cuba, and about 23,000 men, on condition that they be sent back to Spain at the expense of the United States. This was agreed to and the Santiago campaign was over.

Owing to a wide difference of opinion as to whether Admiral Schley or Sampson was entitled to the credit for the victory off Santiago, the Senate confirmed none of the President's naval promotions for gallantry during the war. This controversy aroused much feeling. Admiral Schley was the popular hero, but officially Sampson was given the chief credit. It is about the only controversy over naval matters during the whole war.

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