H-Gram 020, Attachment 6
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
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Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete was recalled to active duty upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and given command of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron (which was still in the eastern Atlantic). Despite his efforts to convince Spanish government leaders that the ships in his squadron were woefully unprepared to engage U.S. naval forces in battle, he was ordered to steam to the Caribbean anyway, leaving from the Cape Verde Islands on 29 April 1898. The biggest effect of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron was to sow panic up and down the U.S. East Coast, inflamed by hyped newspaper coverage. The United States expected the Spanish squadron to show up just about anywhere, including fears that the Spanish would sail up the Potomac and burn down Washington, DC . Instead, Cervera took a route intended to avoid contact with U.S. ships because the abysmal material condition of his ships precluded him from doing much of anything else. Cervera put in at the relatively undeveloped port of Santiago de Cuba instead of at Havana or Cienfuegoes, which the United States expected. By 29 May, however, Cervera’s squadron was bottled up in the Santiago harbor by a vastly superior U.S. naval force.
The Spanish squadron consisted of the cruisers Cristóbal Colón, Almirante Oquendo, Vizcaya, and Infanta Maria Teresa, and the new torpedo-boat destroyers Plutón and Furor. The cruisers were lightly armored and armed compared to U.S. cruisers, displacing about 7,000 tons and armed with two 11-inch and 10 5.5-inch guns each, except for Cristóbal Colón, which did not have her main battery installed. The ships were plagued by all manner of materiel and personnel deficiencies. The Plutón and Furor had recently been built in the United Kingdom and were advanced torpedo-boat destroyers for their day, but still suffered serious problems. Santiago de Cuba was well defended with shore batteries, including torpedoes and sea mines, so much so that the U.S. Navy would not risk warships trying to force the channel—to the eventual consternation of the U.S. Army commander charged with capturing Santiago.
At the start of the Spanish-American War, there were two primary U.S. Navy forces in the Atlantic: the North Atlantic Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, and the “Flying Squadron,” under the command of Commodore Winfield Scott Schley. The two forces were merged off Santiago with Rear Admiral Sampson in overall command. The combined force consisted of the battleships USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, USS Iowa, and the older USS Texas (a near-sister of the sunken USS Maine). The force was bolstered by the arrival of the West Coast battleship USS Oregon. With the exception of Texas, the other four battleships were of modern design, comparable to the best in the world. Sampson flew his flag in the armored cruiser USS New York and Schley flew his in the armored cruiser USS Brooklyn, both of which approached battleships in terms of capability, but were slightly faster. Other light cruisers, torpedo boats, and auxiliaries rounded out the U.S. force. The U.S. ships took station in a semi-circle off Santiago, with auxiliaries at the ready to be used to force the channel (i.e., one-time-use minesweepers) if that became necessary, and the brand-new torpedo boats stood by to guard the flagships.
When Spanish ground forces lost San Juan Hill to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders on 2 July 1898, the Spanish concluded that U.S. artillery would soon be in range of the Spanish ships in the harbor. Cervera’s ships began getting up steam on the afternoon of 2 July, with the breakout planned for 0900 on Sunday, 3 July, when the Spanish hoped the U.S. crews would be at church services. At 0845 on 3 July, Rear Admiral Sampson, embarked on New York, took her and the torpedo boat Ericsson (TB No. 2) out of the blockade to steam away to attend a meeting with Major General William Shafter (with whom Army-Navy relations were extremely poor, which was pretty much the case for the duration of the campaign in Cuba). New York was only one of two ships in the U.S. force fast enough to run down the Spanish cruisers if they got through the blockade. In addition, the battleship Massachusetts and cruisers Newark and New Orleans had detached to Guantanamo Bay for coaling. Thus, when the breakout occurred, U.S. forces were at their lowest ebb, consisting of the armored cruiser Brooklyn with Commodore Schley embarked (in tactical command with the departure of Sampson), the four battleships Texas, Oregon, Iowa, Indiana, and two armed yachts. The U.S. disposition showed weakness to the west, which the Spanish noted.
At 0930, the Spanish squadron was sighted exiting the channel and the battle commenced almost immediately as Iowa opened fire, followed shortly by Texas, Oregon, and Indiana. Cervera’s flagship, Infanta Maria Teresa, and the Vizcaya steamed toward Brooklyn under a storm of fire, while the two other cruisers broke for the west, followed by the two torpedo-boat destroyers. Brooklyn, with Schley embarked, headed directly for Cervera’s flagship and the two were on a collision course. Schley blinked first, and Brooklyn made a hard starboard “retrograde” turn of about 360 degrees, nearly colliding with Texas and forcing Texas to go to all stop. Infanta Maria Teresa then broke for the west, with the other three Spanish cruisers in trail, their speed suffering due to poor-quality coal (a shipment of high-quality coal had been intercepted by the U.S. auxiliary cruiser USS Saint Paul on 25 May). Nevertheless, the Spanish cruisers began to pull away from the U.S. battleships.
Oregon, which had been at the rear, began overtaking the other U.S. vessels, achieving unprecedented speeds approaching 20 knots. Although Oregon fouled Texas’s range, she gained on the Spanish, while Iowa was hit below the waterline by a Spanish shell and slowed. As the battle devolved into a chase, Cervera ordered his flagship to essentially sacrifice herself by turning toward the oncoming America battleships and engaging Brooklyn again in attempt to cover the escape of the other three cruisers. Brooklyn was hit over 20 times, mostly from Infanta Maria Teresa, but suffered only two casualties. Besides bad coal, the Spanish also had bad ammunition; many rounds had been apparently filled with sawdust at the factory, presumably to up the factory’s profit margin. However, Infanta Maria Teresa’s fire main had been severed by one of the first hits, most of her bridge crew were killed, and she soon caught fire under the hail of U.S. shells. Burning furiously, with her topsides mostly wrecked, Cervera ordered her run aground. Cervera survived and was rescued by the U.S. armed yacht Gloucester.
The other three Spanish cruisers continued their desperate attempt to escape. A defective breech-block mechanism caused a premature explosion, killing the entire gun crew in one of Almirante Oquendo’s 11-inch gun turrets, followed by the explosion of one of her own boilers. She was hit a total of 57 times by U.S. shells. Almirante Oquendo’s mortally wounded skipper ordered her scuttled, and she sank in shallow water not far from Infanta Maria Teresa.
Meanwhile, the two torpedo-boat destroyers, Plutón and Furor, were courageously engaged by the armed yacht Gloucester, which actually inflicted considerable damage on the two as they passed by at close range, slowing them enough that they were savaged by hits from U.S. battleships Iowa and Indiana and the armored cruiser New York—as Sampson aboard his flagship had reversed course and was trying to get into the fight from behind. In the end, Plutón was almost severed in two by a 13-inch shell from a U.S. battleship and sank, while the damaged Furor grounded with the loss of over two thirds of their crews.
To the west, Brooklyn and Vizcaya steamed side-by-side exchanging fire at range of 1,200 yards for almost an hour. Despite firing almost 300 shells at Brooklyn, almost none of Vizcaya’s rounds did any significant damage; only one of Brooklyn’s secondary armament guns was knocked out. Although many of Brooklyn’s shells missed, many hit—with serious results. In the end, Vizcaya was hit over 200 times, mostly by Brooklyn and some by Texas. As Brooklyn closed to within 1,000 yards, Vizcaya suffered a massive explosion, possibly from one of her own torpedoes being prepared for launch. The burning ship was then ordered to beach herself and she literally struck her colors (one of the last times that probably ever happened).
With fire concentrated on Vizcaya, the Cristóbal Colón continued her attempt to escape. She was probably the fastest ship in either fleet, aided by lacking her primary armament (due to a contracting dispute with the builder). As Brooklyn fell behind, there was only one U.S. ship with a chance of catching Cristóbal Colón—and that was Oregon. For over an hour, Oregon pursued the Cristóbal Colón along the coast, gaining on her slightly because of superior coal and her innovative engineering plant that made her the fastest U.S. battleship. The Spanish cruiser’s luck ran out when a point of land ahead would force her to turn seaward, enabling Oregon to cut her off. Oregon opened fire at extreme range, with her shells bracketing Cristóbal Colón just astern. Having seen Vizcaya explode, the skipper of Cristóbal Colón realized that escape was now impossible, so he turned the still mostly undamaged vessel to shore, ran her aground, scuttled the ship, and struck her colors. The skipper of Brooklyn, Captain Cook, went aboard Cristóbal Colón to accept her surrender, while U.S. Sailors went aboard in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her from sinking and to tend to Spanish wounded.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sailors from Iowa and Ericcson—which had returned with Samson’s flagship New York and the armed yacht Hist—went aboard the burning Vizcaya, while Sailors from Gloucester and the auxiliary cruiser Harvard did the same for the burning and beached Infanta Maria Teresa and Almirante Oquendo. In many cases, the U.S. Sailors displayed exceptional valor in rescuing Spanish sailors from fire and exploding ammunition. The Iowa rescued the captain of the Vizcaya from the water, who handed his sword over to Captain Robley Evans (who would later command the Great White Fleet). Robley accepted the sword and then handed it back out of respect for the valor of the Spanish.
Although less than 3 percent of U.S. shells fired actually hit a Spanish ship, the result was still the complete destruction of the entire Spanish squadron—of 1,200 major caliber rounds fired, only 42 hit their target, and the rate was not much better for smaller caliber weapons. Trying to find a solution to gunnery accuracy would result in considerable controversy, and eventual reforms, in the U.S. Navy. However, the accuracy problem was overshadowed by the squabble between Sampson and Schley over who deserved credit, which broke out almost immediately. Sampson was in overall command, but was absent for all but the very end of the battle. Sampson sent a message to Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long announcing that the fleet under his command had gained a great victory, without mentioning Schley’s role as being in tactical command during battle. To Schley’s dismay, the press initially gave all the credit to Sampson.
It wasn’t long before the press, the public, Congress, and even the Navy split into pro-Sampson and pro-Schley camps. Alfred Thayer Mahan sided with Sampson. The press soon found Sampson’s meticulous preparation of the fleet for battle to be boring compared to Schley on the bridge of Brooklyn under Spanish fire. Thomas Edison made one of his first movies about Schley and the sensationalist press played up Schley’s role even further. Others, however, then attempted to impugn Schley by claiming that Brooklyn’s “retrograde” turn to avoid collision with Infanta Maria Teresa was actually an act of cowardice on Schley’s part. Prior to the war, both Schley and Sampson had been captains, with Schley having a lineal number of eight and Sampson ten. Both were promoted to rear admiral during the war, and overall command of the blockade force had been given to Sampson, despite being technically slightly junior to Schley. After the battle, Secretary Long promoted both to vice admiral (and permanent rear admiral), moving Schley up six numbers and Sampson up eight numbers—one ahead of Schley. This leap-frog in seniority caused an uproar within Navy ranks (which today looks like ensigns squabbling over date of rank, but in 1898 was viewed as a big deal). The whole dispute, and the charge of cowardice against Schley, actually resulted in the Navy holding a court of inquiry in September 1901. The court of inquiry strongly criticized Schley’s actions, particularly the “retrograde” turn that endangered Texas and concluded that Schley “did not project the right image as a naval officer.” The president of the board, Admiral George Dewey, dissented. Schley appealed the court’s conclusion to President Theodore Roosevelt, who responded by ordering that all public discussion of the sorry spectacle cease.
The Spanish-American War formally ended with the Treaty of Paris in December 1898 and left the United States with an overseas empire that included the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and essentially in control of a nominally independent Cuba. The defeat eliminated Spain as a naval power in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish prisoners from the Battle of Santiago were treated very well. Admiral Cervera was taken to Annapolis, where he was warmly welcomed by the citizens of the city; his bravery under overwhelming U.S. fire had upheld Spanish honor and earned the respect of the U.S. Navy and the Spanish Navy, albeit at considerable cost.
Sources include, The Spanish American War by Al Nofi (1996), Sea Power by E. B. Potter (the classic United States Naval Academy “Z-power” textbook), and History of the U.S. Navy, Volume One 1775–1941 by my Naval Academy adviser, Professor Robert William Love, Jr.
Note: I write these H-grams under a significant time crunch, so I generally rely on secondary sources (that I have good reason to believe are accurate and credible), which is why I don’t claim H-grams to be “scholarly.” Nevertheless, many of these secondary sources would not exist were it not for the work of the NHHC Histories Branch’s Documentary Histories Section in compiling primary-source material in a manner easily accessible to scholars and other authors of popular history. For example, our website includes a documentary history of the Navy in the Spanish-American War, which makes available a plethora of transcribed primary sources along with short introductory essays and annotation. There are sections on recent topics, such as the Battle of Manila Bay, and forthcoming topics, such as the Naval War Board. So, if you are interested in a “deeper dive” on U.S. Naval History, try this link.
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