The Blockade of Northern Cuba
On 18 April, before war was officially declared, Commo. William T. Sampson, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, issued instructions for a blockade of the northern coast of Cuba. Included were detailed orders relating to ship placement and cruising. According to Sampson’s plan, the bulk of the squadron, including Sampson’s flagship New York, were to blockade Havana. Other urban centers on the northern coast: Mariel, Matanzas, and Cardenas, were to be blockaded by smaller flotillas, and Indiana, Marblehead, and Detroit were to form a special mobile “flying” flotilla. Ships off Havana and Mariel composed the First Division and those off Matanzas and Cardenas were the Second Division. The fleet also included six torpedo boats which were to deliver dispatches.
The blockade was designed to force the Spanish to give up Cuba. American planners assumed that given the ravaged condition of the island, if the Spanish troops holding Cuba were effectively blockaded they could be starved into surrendering. Moreover, the blockade, coupled with military assistance to Cuban insurgent forces in the form of arms and munitions, would make the Spanish position untenable. If the Spanish held on the plan was to land a trained Army in Cuba after the rainy season passed. This force, planners believed, would quickly and easily overwhelm whatever weakened, starving, and ill-supplied Spanish troops remained. Spain only chance to avert the American capture of Cuba was to send supplies and reinforcements to Cuba. To do that, the Spanish would have to contend with the United States Navy’s North Atlantic Fleet. The blockade of Northern Cuba became the early lynchpin of the American strategy.
On 22 April, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long sent Sampson orders to initiate the blockade. Sampson moved to invest Havana, Mariel, Matanzas, and Cardenas, but until he received more colliers, he believed it impossible to blockade the ports on the southern coast of Cuba. Long accepted Sampson’s reasoning but requested that Cienfuegos, on the southeastern coast, be added to list, as it was connected to Havana by a railroad.
President William McKinley’s official proclamation of the blockade described the purpose and extent of the American blockade. Ships traveling in and out of ports under the blockade were given 30 days to depart without challenge, but any attempt to return and land in Cuba would subject them to seizure. When war was officially declared by the United States on 25 April, McKinley’s blockade order was backdated to April 20 to further legitimize the blockade.
From this time forward the coast of northern Cuba remained continuously, though at times loosely, blockaded until the protocol of peace was agreed to on 12 August 1898. The first shot of the blockade and of the Spanish-American War occurred later in the day on 22 April, when Patrick Walton on Nashville fired across the bow of the steamer Buena Ventura to force it to stop and receive an American boarding party.
Early action on the blockade line took place at Havana where the Spanish were in the process of reinforcing their costal defenses. Sampson ordered the fortifications protecting Havana to be bombarded on 27 April. Havana was identified by American planners as the key to capturing Cuba and Sampson wanted to weaken it as much as possible. Little was gained from the bombardment and the batteries surrounding the Cuban capitol continued to harass the weary blockaders if they approached too near the shore. By 1 May, Sampson’s force had grown to twenty-five vessels.
When the Americans captured an enemy vessel or a neutral vessel attempting to run the blockade, they followed a highly prescribed routine. First, they determined if, in the estimation of the capturing ship’s commander, the prize was legitimate. If it was so determined, a prize crews was put aboard. They took the captured vessel to an American port, usually Key West. There the lawfulness of the capture was determined by a court of law and if judged a lawful prize, the vessel and its cargo was sold and the proceeds distributed to the officers and crew of the capturing ship or ships and to the fleet commander. The Spanish-American War was the last war in which American Navy personnel were permitted to profit from the capture of enemy vessels.
At the beginning of May, Sampson was replaced as commander of the Northern Blockading Squadron by Commo. John C. Watson. This was because Sampson in early May decided to take the bulk of his fleet and sortie against San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Sampson believed he would find a Spanish squadron reportedly on its way to the Cuba from Spain. Sampson also ordered Marblehead, Nashville, and Eagle to blockade Cienfuegos, the first southern Cuban port to be subjected to blockade further thinning Watson’s force.
In Sampson’s absence, the First Division continued its blockade. Ships from the division also assisted in landing of small groups of Americans and Cubans on the coast. These parties were sent to reconnoiter and to make contact with insurgent forces operating in the area. The first weeks of the Second Division’s existence were also uneventful save for serving notice to neutrals approaching Cuban ports and capturing blockade runners. Capt. Purnell F. Harrington, of the Puritan and senior officer in charge of the Second Division, exchanged fire with Spanish shore batteries at Matanzas. Capt. NicollLudlow in command of the American blockade force at Cardenas experienced a little more excitement when one of the gunboats in the harbor exchanged fire with the American torpedo boat Foote, part of Ludlow’s command. May continued in a similar manner. A few American vessels continued to lay off the northern Cuban coast chasing merchantmen. Most of the American Navy moved to the waters off southern Cuba hunting for the Spanish fleet commanded by Adm. PascualCervera y Topete.
June was the most challenging month for the blockaders on Cuba’s northern coast. Cervera’s fleet was finally located at Santiago de Cuba, a port in the southeastern part of the island. Sampson was ordered there to take command there after Commo. Winfield S. Schley failed to set up an effective blockade around. With Sampson went the great majority of American naval assets. After his departure the Northern Blockade force suffered from a lack of capital warships and focus. The blockading force was further denuded of its best ships as they were needed to convoy the Army forces from Tampa to Santiago de Cuba. Replacing them were smaller, slower, and lesser-armed vessels from the Northern Patrol Squadron and the Auxiliary Naval Force, then performing coastal defense duties. Watson reorganized his small force—twenty vessels—in order to maintain at least a minimal blockade from Bahia Honda and Cardenas to Havana. Most of the force, twelve vessels including Watson’s flagship Nashville, were stationed off Havana while the remainder were assigned singly or in pairs to patrol off the smaller Cuban ports along the northern coast. Ships new to the blockade were sent first to Havana for seasoning.
In late June, the squadron received a new name and a new commander. The Northern Blockading Squadron became the First Blockading Squadron and Commo. John A. Howell replaced Watson, who took command of the newly-formed Eastern Squadron. Maintaining an effective blockade of northern Cuba during the succeeding months June and July was a difficult task for Howell, who struggled to get clarification as to what areas his command included and to intercept vessels with his stunted force.
On 9 July, Howell was specifically ordered by Sampson to capture the Bay of Nipe on the northeastern coast, far from Havana, while at the same time maintaining the blockade of Havana and nearby ports. Making his job even more difficult was the fact that his small force of vessels was continually being reduced by the need to send ships northward for repair and for convoy duties. He complained to Secretary Long:
The July Naval Register states I am “commanding First Squadron, North Atlantic Fleet,” but I have never received any orders in regard to the matter. . . What are the limits of my command? . . . What portion of the Cuban coast is supposed to be blockaded?
The greatly taxed blockading force did experience some success. On 5 July off Mariel, for example, Hawk, Castine and Prairie destroyed a blockade runner without loss despite being under fire from shore batteries and a gunboat.
The capture of Nipe occurred on 18 July by a small force commanded by Comdr. John J. Hunker. Hunker steamed with his ship Annapolis, and Wasp and Leyden to the Bay of Nipe where he found Topeka. At the time, Nipe was guarded by 200 troops, a battery, a string of mines, and three Spanish naval vessels. The key moment came when Annapolis met and sunk the Spanish cruiser Jorge Juan just outside Nipe. Hunker’s vessels then forced the retreat of the dispirited Spanish garrison and the town surrendered to his force. This was all accomplished with only one American casualty.
The capture of Santiago de Cuba on 13 July, further complicated matters for Howell. His forces were told to oversee and maintain order in all the ports east of Holguín that had been surrendered to the United States as part of the agreement at Santiago de Cuba. The situation was dire at some of these ports. At one, Gibara, Comdr. Charles J. Train was forced on 21 July to assume civil authority for fear that the city would fall into chaos after the Spanish garrison retreated leaving behind wounded soldiers and a starving populace.
Spanish forces were becoming increasingly desperate to escape Cuban insurgents by eluding the blockade. Cmdr. Albert S. Snow, on Badger, intercepted a motley convoy carrying Spanish soldiers trying to flee to Havana by claiming to be infirm. Badger’s surgeon, Maxwell S. Simpson, quickly determined that the entire operation was a ruse and the Spanish troops were taken prisoner. There were even rumors that the Governor-General of Cuba, Ramón Blanco Erenas Riera y Polo, was preparing to flee using a similar ruse so Howell ordered all ships flying the “Geneva” (Red) Cross to be searched. Hoping to exploit Spanish weakness and bring a quick end to the war, the Navy continued to deliver supplies and reinforcements for the Cuban insurgency on the northern coast.
By August the blockading force for northern Cuba reached its lowest strength. The Navy was focused on capturing Puerto Rico and launching an attack on Spain itself. By this time, most of Howell’s force was auxiliary cruisers, Revenue Cutters, light houses tenders, and armed tugs transferred from the Auxiliary Naval Force. Howell wrote repeated letters to both Sampson and Secretary Long bemoaning his inability to maintain an effective blockade without reinforcements. As he wrote to Long:
I desire to call your attention to the small number of ships with which I am supposed to keep up and efficient blockade of over four-hundred miles of coast, and also to the fact that most of these ships are of low speed, light gun fire, and would be entirely at the mercy of a hurricane.
In his reply, Long informed Howell that he would be given command of the entire North Atlantic Fleet when Sampson left to attack Spain and disposition of the Navy’s resources would be at Howell’s discretion, though Long indicated that emphasis should continue to be placed off southern Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the end Howell was never able to implement his own plans for the blockade because Spain agreed to a Peace Protocol on 12 August 1898.