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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

The Command Journals of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet

     Throughout most of his tenure as commander-in-chief of the North Atlantic Fleet, RAdm. William T. Sampson kept a command journal. The journal covers the entire naval campaign of the North Atlantic Fleet, beginning with the blockade of Havana, and including: the bombardment of the fortifications protecting San Juan, Puerto Rico, the search for the Spanish squadron commanded by Adm. Pascual Cervera y Topete, the blockading of the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, the destruction of Cervera’s fleet at the battle of Santiago de Cuba, and finally the surrender and occupation of the city. The journal is formatted as a chronological collection of Sampson’s correspondences, both received and sent, with details including time stamps, and select annotation.

In the command journal Sampson detailed the activities and movements of the ships under his command, including: supply ships, colliers, and transports. These correspondences provide perspective on Sampson’s responsibilities and management of subordinates, operations, and logistics. Particularly important are the decisions Sampson made to initiate, maintain, and support the blockade of Cuba, and explore tactics for attacking the Spanish fleet shelter in Santiago Harbor. In addition to the management of Naval affairs, Sampson also worked in conjunction with the United States Army before and after the battle. In the end the joint forces were able to take the city, but only after repeated conflicts between Sampson and the Army Commander, Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter.

While these topics have been addressed in other sections of the edition, the command journals provide an overarching portrait from Sampson’s viewpoint and give the reader a day-to-day view of the activities of the fleet and its commander.

Just as importantly, Sampson’s journals indicate the “key” orders he issued to the fleet, his correspondence with his fellow officers serving under him, and most importantly, and most fully, the letters he exchanged with the Secretary of the Navy. He provides abstracts of these letters, most of which are not published elsewhere in this edition. He also records when these letters were received so the reader can trace exchanges on key topics such as joint operations at Santiago de Cuba and the conduct of the blockade of Cuba. While some of the correspondence that Sampson included in these journals seems trivial, each provides a valuable insight into the issues faced by the executive Flag Officer of this era.

While some of these journals are very long and may appear unwieldy, the editors believe they will provide valuable insights that far outweigh any inconvenience and provide a framework through which the war in the Caribbean can be understood in totality.