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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Coastal Defense

In the 1880s President Grover Cleveland created a joint Navy, Army, and civilian board chaired by Secretary of War William C. Endicott, to investigate the nation’s coastal defenses. The commission’s report lamented defenses so weak that they invited foreign attack. It recommended a vigorous program of armament and construction, but that program was not instituted because subsequent Congresses refused to appropriate necessary funds. Real improvements in coastal defense did not come until the Spanish-American War.1

At the beginning of the war Americans on both coasts feared the possibility of Spanish naval attacks on shipping and coastal cities. Sen. William Frye of Maine, speaking for the citizens and businessmen of his home state, wrote Secretary of the Navy John D. Long to request that a front-line battleship be dispatched to protect its coasts and commerce.2 It fell to the Navy, work with the Army, to defend American shores and to allay the fears of American citizens.    

     For the most part, United States Naval leadership was unconcerned with the prospect of a Spanish attack on the East Coast and believed a Spanish attack on the Pacific coast to be almost impossible.  They more worried that popular demands for protection would compromise the Navy’s ability to go on the offensive. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt wrote to future, future Naval War Board member, Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, on 14 March 1898:

I further agree with you with all my heart about local coast defense. I shall urge, and have urged, the President and the Secretary to pay absolutely no heed to the outcries for protection from Spanish raids. Take the worst--a bombardment of New York. It would amount to absolutely nothing, as affecting the course of a war, or damaging permanently the prosperity of the country.3

The strategic imperative amongst Naval leadership, was to concentrate its resources to attack and defeat the main Spanish fleet, bringing about a swift end to the war.4 Despite the demands of a concerned citizenry, the Navy never veered from this strategy. Ships earmarked for costal defense were never held when they might augment fleets operating offensively in East Asia and the Caribbean.5

Although the protection of American shores was not a strategic prerogative, the Navy could not ignore initial public outcry. Plans were prepared and measures implemented to protect the coasts. At the outbreak of war, Secretary Long ordered the cruisers Minneapolis and Columbia to make public calls at cities along the New England coast.6 Off Virginia, the Flying Squadron, commanded by Commo. Winfield S. Schley, was positioned to protect Chesapeake Bay, the gateway to the nation’s capital.7 The Navy also formed the Atlantic Torpedo-Boat Fleet under the command of Lt. William W. Kimball at Key West.8 Once the initial furor subsided, almost all of these units were shifted to operations in the offensive operations in the Caribbean.

On the Atlantic Coast the North Patrol Squadron and Auxiliary Naval Fleet were the two primary defensive operations. That Northern Patrol Squadron, under the command of Commo. John A. Howell, was established to defend the waters off the northeastern United States.9 The Auxiliary Naval Force, referred to as “the Mosquito Fleet,” was given the responsibility of defending coastal cities. It was initially under the command Cmdr. Horace Elmer who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Command then passed to RAdm. Henry Erben.10

The Auxiliary Naval Force consisted of a number of monitors and converted ships at individuals port cities on the Atlantic Ocean.11 All these vessels, with the exception of revenue cutters, were manned by the state Naval Militias. There were myriad problems associated with this hastily organized fleet, including defunct ships and poorly trained crews. In one instance, Lt. Lazarus L. Reamey reported that the men of the Naval Militia who manned the monitor Montauk at Portland, Maine, lacked the training even to row out to the monitor, let alone navigate it.12 

For communication the Navy Department set up the Coast Signal Service. The Coast Signal Service was established on 15 March, by order of Secretary of the Navy John D. Long and Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich was given the task of organizing it. Under Goodrich’s plan, there were eight districts and dozens of stations along the Atlantic and Gulf seaboards. These stations each consisted of a 90 foot tall signal tower designed to relay information to naval vessels patrolling offshore. It was a sophisticated system that functioned throughout the war. To augment the resources of the signal service, the U.S. Life Saving Service, the U.S. Lighthouse Service (both under the U.S. Department of the Treasury), and observers from the Weather Bureau were temporarily assigned to assist the signal service and were connected by telegraph and telephone lines. The result was a formidable defense warning system. 13

     The third element of coastal defense were fixed fortifications. The United States Army built, manned, and operated a series of forts, gun emplacements, and harbor minefields. Inter-service rivalry resulted in confusion, infighting, and occasionally serious breaches in the country’s coastal defenses.14

A plan for the defense of the Pacific coast was prepared by Lt. Cmdr. Jefferson F. Moser and implemented by RAdm. Joseph N. Miller, the Commander-in-Chief on the Pacific Station. Miller was recalled from Honolulu to San Francisco where he took command of the recently decommissioned Philadelphia. The distance to the Pacific coast from Spain, the paucity of Spanish Navy resources, and Commo. George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay on 1 May, made a Spanish attack on the American Pacific coast highly improbable. Miller’s most powerful vessels, the monitors Monterey and Monadnock, were dispatched soon after the war’s outbreak to assist Dewey in the Philippines. The only threat to the safety of the Pacific coast turned out to be a hoax orchestrated by Spanish agents, who stoked fear of a privateering gunboat off the coast of British Columbia. The rumored threat to gold convoys from the Yukon to Seattle forced the Navy to devote a small amount of resources to confirm the gunboat was a phantom.15

     The preferences of United States naval leaders notwithstanding, the country inaugurated a number of measures that for the first time linked the country into a national system of coastal defense.

Footnote 1: Cosmas, Army for Empire, 7.

Footnote 2: See: Evan Thomas, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898. (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2010), 242; and Montgomery Sicard to Charles B. Church, 4 May 1898.

Footnote 4: The Navy’s plans envisioned an aggressive, offensive war. See: Plan of Operations Against Spain Prepared by Captain Henry C. Taylor (1896).

Footnote 7: See: Long to Cmdr. Horace Elmer, 23 March 1898; and Taylor to Long, 21 March 1898; and Roosevelt to Long, 18 February 1898, DLC-MSS, PTR;

Footnote 9: Commo. John A. Howell to Long, 8 May 1898; Howell to Richard P. Leary, 15 May 1898; and Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, 38.

Footnote 12: See: Allen to Howell, 6 June 1898; Crowninshield to Erben, 11 May 1898; Lt. Lazarus L. Reamey to Crowninshield, 13 May 1898; and Gardner W. Allen, ed., Papers of John Davis Long (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1939), 93.

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