Skip to main content

Captain Francis J. Higginson to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet

U. S. S. Massachusetts, 1st Rate,   

Copy.                            At Sea, Off South Coast,Haiti,

August 2, 1898.        


     1.  In obedience to your orders of July 21st, I left Guantanamo on the afternoon of the same day with the Massachusetts, Columbia, Yale, Dixie and Gloucester under my command to convoy General Miles1 and troops to Porto Rico.

     2.  While off Mole St.Nicholas, General Miles asked permission to send a telegram to Washington. The Columbia was ordered to deliver the dispatch and to rejoin the Squadron. She left the Squadron at 9.15 a.m., July 22nd, and rejoined at 2.00 p.m. the same day.

     3.  General Miles having expressed a desire for a consultation with me, I invited him aboard on the afternoon of Saturday the 23rd. He accepted the invitation and came aboard with his Adjutant-General, General Gilmore.2 During the interview he stated that he desired to land at Guanica on the south side of Porto Rico instead of at Cape San Juan as originally designed, giving as his reasons that the enemy were already well advised through the Public Press of the intended landing at the latter place and consequently that they would probably concentrate troops there to oppose him. He stated that, through information derived from Captain Whitney of the Army,3 there were no defenses or troops on the south side of the Island either at Guanica or Ponce; that we would find there a large amount of sugar lighters which would be invaluable for the landing of the Army; and that with the capture of the city of Ponce, the largest city on the Island, he would be in a position to operate along a fine military road built by the Spaniards,reaching across the Island from Ponce to San Juan. He also stated that in the southern portion of the Island the people were large[ly] disaffected and would in all likelyhood rally to our Flag. To this disposition I objected on the grounds that from a naval point of view I could not so effectually cover his landing or protect his base at Guanica as I could at San Juan; the depth of water in the harbor of Guanica did not permit of the Massachusetts, Columbia, or Dixie entering and in case of heavy weather I might not even be able to lie off the entrance; that the south coast of Porto Rico was imperfectly surveyed, and lined with reefs, whereas on the east coast from Cape San Juan to Point Algodon I could approach close to the shore and cover with the guns of the fleet any position he wished to occupy; and that, moreover, by placing a vessel on the north coast of Porto Rico just west of Cape San Juan I could obtain a cross fire over the land as far as Fajardo. I stated,moreover,that at Cape San Juan we were 30 miles from St. Thomas,where in the absence of colliers we could coal our ships and communicate with the Government.

     I recommended that we proceed to our destination at Cape San Juan and keep Guanica in reserve in case we found insurmountable obstacles at the former place. The General then took his departure and received a salute of fifteen guns.

     4.  On the morning of the 24th at 9.50 a.m. General Miles sent by wigwag the following message:--

“To Captain Higginson – General Miles desires,if possible,to send in advance any Naval vessels you can spare to Port Guanica and report quickly to us. It is supposed to be without fortifications or torpedoes. If strong,hold and report quickly to us at Cape San Juan. It is more important to land at Guanica than at San Juan. If we can land there he has troops enough to take the harbor of Ponce, and let your fleet in. This can be accomplished by landing by the south side. Can send Captain Whitney,who was at Ponce in June, to you if you desire.”

I then determined to waive my objections to landing at Guanica,to take the General to that place,and to cooperate with him in landing as far as the conditions would admit.4

5.  We were then off the Mona Passage,and detaching Commander Davis with the Dixie under orders,a copy of which is herewith attached, marked “ A ”,5I proceeded with the convoy through the Mona Psaage [i.e., Passage] and arrived off Port Guanica at 5.20 a.m., July 25th, and standing in with the Gloucester in advance,came to an anchor at 8.45 a.m.


     1.  Finding no batteries bearing upon the entrance,the Gloucester approached the mouth of the harbor and Lieut.Comdr.Wainwright6 asked permission to enter. This I granted with some hesitation not knowing of course what mines or torpedoes might be in the channel,or what batteries might be concealed inside the harbor out of sight from our view; and knowing that I would be powerless to render the Gloucester any assistance after she had penetrated the harbor and was lost to sight. The Gloucester as she entered fired several shots and soon disappeared from my view. I listened attentively however and found that she was not being opposed by any battery. Without waiting for her to return and report,I directed the transports to enter the harbor which they did,and,hoisting out all the boats and launches from the Massachusetts,I sent them in at about 10.00 a.m. in charge of Cadet Evans7 and the landing of the Army commenced immediately. I learned later,as will be seem from Lt.Comdr.Wainwright’s report/ herewith enclosed marked “B”,that he landed a company of sailors under the command of Lt.Huse and Lt.Wood,8and drove back a small force of Spanish troops,and hauled down the Spanish flag. In fact,the Gloucester captured the place single handed and I take pleasure in commending Lt.Comdr.Wainwright and his officers and men for their gallantry and daring. The troops on the Columbia were landed by her boats and those on the Yale were landed by transports which came alongside and took them on board.

     2.  At 12.30 a.m.,July 26th the Columbia was sent to St.Thomas with despatches and orders to fill up with coal. The Yale left at noon,July 26th,for Hampton Roads to fill up with coal,and the Dixie rejoined us at about 2.00 p.m. July 26th. A report of her voyage is herewith enclosed marked “C” and is accompanied by a letter relating to a prize which Commander Davis seized and sent in for adjudication. On July 27th,at 8:00 a.m.,the Wasp,and at 11:00 a.m.,the Annapolis joined the squadron[.]9 During the forenoon of the same day General Wilson on the transport Obdam and General Ernst10 on the Grand Duchesse arrived,but the troops were not disembarked at Guanica.


     1.  Having now a sufficient force at my command and General Miles being anxious to transfer the place of disembarkation to the harbor of Ponce,I directed Commander Davis of the Dixie,with the Annapolis,Wasp and Gloucester under his command,to proceed to the harbor of Ponce to reconnoitre,capture all the lighters that could be found at that place,and occupy such positions as he thought necessary for holding the port until the arrival of the Army. The Dixie left Guanica with the Annapolis and Wasp at 1.45 p.m.,July 27th,and the Gloucester followed at 4.30 p.m.

     2.  The report of Commander Davis is herewith enclosed marked “D”. He found no opposition,captured a large number of lighters,and received the surrender of the City of Ponce. I cannot too highly commend the very able and efficient manner in which Commander Davis executed his orders and cleared the way completely for an immediate peaceful possession of the City of Ponce by the Army. He was ably assisted by Commander Hunker,Lieut. Ward,11and Lt.Comdr.Wainwright. The latter officer during the night collected the lighters,and moored them alongside of his ship and,when the first transport anchored the next morning,the lighters were put alongside of her and an immediate disembarkation commenced. Commander Davis captured in the harbor 3 Spanish brigantines,a number of smaller sailing vessels and a large number of lighters. I placed a guard of men from the Massachusetts on board the Spanish brigantines,and it was my intention,as soon as they could have been gotten ready,to send them with prize crew to Charleston for condemnation,but as I came away before this could be accomplished I directed Captain Chester12 to carry out my intention. The sugar lighters and other vessels captured that could not be sent to the United States for condemnation,I directed to be appraised and sold at Ponce.

     3. – I left Guanica with the Massachusetts,General Miles, General Wilson, and transports at 4.00 a.m. on the 28th for Ponce and anchored there at 6.40 a.m. On our way to Ponce we met two more transports with troops,and the Cincinnati,Captain Chester,who entered Ponce with us. We found everything ready for the immediate disembarkation of the troops,and the Army landed and took possession. All the steam launches of the squadron were placed at the disposal of the Army. The harbor of Ponce is of ample dimension,good water,and a fine place for disembarkation of troops[.] At 4.30 p.m. on the 28th,the Annapolis returned to Guanica to guard that place until the arrival of the Terror, and at 4.50 p.m. of the same day the Dixie left for St.Thomas with dispatches. Captain Chester of the Cincinnati was appointed Captain of the Port,Lieutenant Hoogewerff was appointed Beachmaster,Lieut.Badger was appointed Harbor-master,and Surgeon Byrnes was appointed Quarantine Officer.13 The Annapolis returned from Guanica on the afternoon of the 29th and reported that the Terror had arrived at that port,the latter vessel having coaled at St.Thomas before leaving for Guanica. On the 30th the Annapolis was dispatched to Cape San Juan to remain there until further orders and to send to Ponce all vessels arriving. The lighthouse on Cardona Island was relighted on the evening of the 29th following.

     4.  The Columbia, returning on the 30th from coaling at St.Thomas,exchanged numbers with the Massachusetts at 6.30 p.m. At 7.30 p.m. the Columbia sent signal “we are aground”. I immediately ordered the Cincinnati to get under way to assist in hauling her off and sent the Navigator of the Massachusetts,Lieut. Potts14 to examine her position and see if we could safely render her any assistance with this vessel. It was found that she was grounded on the southern edge of a coral reef <projecting from Cardona Island and was lying broadside on the reef> heading eastward. She seemed to be aground on her port bilge, about abreast of her second smokestack,in 21 feet of water. At 12.30 <a.m.>, July 31st,I got underway with the Massachusetts,and went out and took a position on her starboard bow and ran hawsers to her. The Cincinnati took a position on her starboard quarter, but our endeavors to pull her off resulted only in parting all the hawsers. I then procured some lighters from the harbor and directed her Commanding Officer to hoist out ammunition and coal. General Miles kindle [i.e., kindly] offered to send me any of his vessels that could be of any use,and I am much indebted to the Master of the tug Hercules for assistance rendered in towing lighters. The Cincinnati then made fast again to the Columbia’s starboard quarter and at 6.55 p.m. of the 31st we succeeded in pulling her off the reef. Captain Sands15 was on the list at the time of the accident,but I was informed by Lieut.Comdr.J.H. Moore,her Executive officer,16that the ship was not making water and was not seriously damaged. I directed Captain Chester to order a Court of Inquiry upon her grounding.

     5. The Dixie arrived on the afternoon of the 31st and reported that the Montgomery and Puritan had arrived at San Juan and the New Orleans had gone to St.Thomas for coal. On the evening of the 31st the St.Louis and transport Cherokee arrived with troops. On the same evening General Miles informed me that he desired to land the troops on board the St.Louis and Cherokee at the Gulf of Jobos,30 miles east of Ponce,and requested that I send two vessels to recconoitre,capture lighters,and ascertain the depth of water,there being no charts of this place. I therefore directed the Gloucester and Wasp to leave at 5.30 a.m.,Aug. 1st,to reconnoitre the Gulf of Jobos,for the Gloucester to remain there in possession guarding any lighters they might capture,and for the Wasp to return and report. Captain Goodrich17 of the St.Louis accompanied the expedition to ascertain the soundings. At the time of my leaving Ponce,at 1.00 p.m. on the 1st,the Wasp had not returned. On the 1st the Prairie and St.Paul arrived.

     6.  Having received orders from you on the 31st to return to Guantanamo at once,I turned over as soon as possible all the business under my charge to Captain Chester,and left at 1.00 p.m. for Guantanamo.


     1. If the operations on the coast of Porto Rico are to be continued,I would recommend that two surveying vessels be sent to that Island as soon as possible and a survey of the coast and harbors on the south side be commenced. In the present uncharted condition of that coast the Government runs great risks of losing its vessels. In standing in to the port of Guanica the Massachusetts came near running upon an uncharted shoal upon which we found 19 feet in a spot where the chart shows 11 fathoms. This shoal bears S S W (mag) 1 mile from Mesita Point lighthouse. There is a passage on each side of it,although it is advisable to keep to the northward of it. A red and black horizontal striped buoy was placed on this shoal which is about 50 yards in extent.

     2.  There seemed to be no trouble at Ponce in relighting the lights as all the apparatus and oil were ready at hand,and the old lightkeepers were willing to resume work under the same terms as under the Spanish Government. I would also recommend that a buoy tender with a good supply of buoys be sent down in order that all the harbors used by the Army may be properly buoyed. A buoy is very much needed south of Cardona Island, outside the reef where the Columbia went ashore.

 ( 5 ) General Review of Plan of Operations of General Miles.

     1.  General Miles proposes to advance from Ponce to San Juan over a military road built by the Spaniards at a cost of $1,000,000. The road is good and can be traversed at all seasons,but it runs through a mountainous country. There are many strong positions that can be occupied by the enemy but, having command of the sea,these can all be flan[k]ed by making landings at ports on the right or left flanks,and the enemy made to evacuate any position by flanking rather than by direct assault. When I left Ponce the enemy were reported to be concentrating at Aibounito,which is a military sanitarium for the Spaniards; one of the objects of landing troops at port Jobos was to flank this position. If the Spaniards retreat to the northwest from Caey,landing troops on the east coast will flank any position which they may occupy. Along the south and west coasts there are a few troops and all we have to do is to appear there,and I have not the slightest doubt that it will be cordially welcomed.

     2.  General Miles offered to send 1000 troops with me to Mayagua and I intended to move on that place as soon as I conveniently could. I recommend that the port of Arec[i]bo be blockaded and captured as it is in direct railroad communication with San Juan and it is said to be a resort for blockade runners. The railroad from Ponce to Yauco is in possession of the Army,and a march of 18 miles through Sabana Grande and St.German brings you to the terminus of a railroad connecting with roads leading to Mayagua,Rincon, and Aguadilla on the west coast and connecting with roads leading into the interior. The whole Island except San Juan will be easy to capture, and I would respectfully recommend that a sufficient force be kept there to render an efficient and cooperation with the army wherever they wish to move. There is more reason to move quickly because as at Ponce the Spanish authorities had commenced a political persecution and had begun to imprison persons suspected of sympathizing with the United States, and will not doubt do it at other places the more their fortunes are on the wane. It would therefore be policy on our part to scour the coasts and drive away the Spanish authorities. The torpedo-boat destroyer Terror, I have been informed is so seriously damaged as to be unable to move about.

3.  From my experience in landing troops, I would respectfully recommend that on every transport at least one steam launch should be carried, with proper force to run her. Both at Guanica and at Ponce a constant demand by the army was for steam launches to tow boats or to carry officers from one ship to another. As long as they are afloat they require transportation by water, as many of our vessels like the Gloucester, Wasp and Dixie do not carry steam launches, our ability to supply this demand is limited, and therefore if every transport had its own launch the time occupied in landing an army and all its stores and ammunition would be very much diminished. I would recommend also that two small steam tugs accompany each expedition of the army, for the purpose of towing lighters. Probably this will be done in the future, as the army officers with whom I conversed on this matter seemed quite impressed with the necessity of it.

4.  The health at Ponce is good, there is no yellow fever; fresh water can be obtained from the boilers of vessels.

5.  I also recommend that the island of Celebra be taken by the Navy. I doubt if there is any defences there and it could be easily captured and held. The Marines now stationed at Camp McCalla might be transferred to this place to capture and hold it for the use of the Navy as a coaling station and dock yard. The harbor of Ponce is quite open and is not a safe anchorage during SouthWest gales, but the English Consul there informed me that they had not had a hurrycane since ’76. By building breakwaters I think the harbor could be rendered quite safe. Guanica harbor is good for vessels of 18 feet draught and is quite well protected. I think a survey of Jobos,however,will probably disclose a very valuable anchorage for Naval vessels.

     6. Commander Davis captured at Ponce about 70 tons of bituminous coal belonging to the Spanish Government,with which I was enabled to replenish the bunkers of the Wasp and the Gloucester.

Very respectfully,

Francis J. Higginson,

Captain, U.S.Navy, Commanding.

Source Note: TCy, DNA, AFNRC, RG 313, Entry 44. Addressed below close: “The Commander-in-Chief,/U.S.Naval Forces,/North Atlantic Station.” Attached to this letter are nine letters and reports. The most important are either printed as separate documents or discussed in the notes that follow. The typist of this letter consistently, though not always, left no space between a comma and the word following. Certain ranks are also run together, i.e., Lieut.Cmdr. Those have been rendered as they appear in the document.

Footnote 1: Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles.

Footnote 2: Brig. Gen. John C. Gilmore.

Footnote 3: Lt. Henry F. Whitney posed as an ordinary seaman on a British vessel to do reconnaissance of southern Puerto Rico in May 1898. He investigated Ponce for some ten days. Mills later credited Whitney’s report, which included information on troop locations, topography, attitudes of the populace, resources and supplies in the area, and the condition of the harbors, to have been “most important.” Trask, War With Spain, 340-41.

Footnote 4: Higginson was not the only one bemused by Miles’s decision to change the site of the landing. Secretary of War Russell A. Alger sent Miles a letter on 26 July that began: “Conflicting reports here as to your place of landing. Why did you change? Doraco, near Enseuada, about 15 miles west of San Juan, is reported and excellent place to land.” ARWD, 133. In a post-war letter to Secretary of the Navy Long, Capt. Alfred T. Mahan wrote that Miles’ decision to invade Puerto Rico at Guánica instead of Fajardo “appears to me a military stupidity so great, that I can account only by a kind of obsession of vanity, to do a singular and unexpected thing.” Long Papers, 208. In his history of the war, Capt. French E. Chadwick was equally critical of the decision, writing that Miles had “invested the Spaniards with a much greater activity and initiative than their methods in Cuba justified.” He added that Miles “would probably have found as little opposition at Fajardo as did the ships which arrived there a few days later.” Finally, he argued, Miles’ change in plans had “put between the American forces and the main Spanish position a much greater distance, and a mountain range which a determined enemy might have made impassable.” Chadwick, The Spanish American War, 2, 285-86.

Footnote 5: In the orders, which are attached as an appendix to Higginson’s letter, Higginson ordered Cmdr. Charles H. Davis to proceed to San Juan and order the New Orleans to join Higginson off Guánica (the other Navy ships thought to be at San Juan—Montgomery and Prairie—were to remain on station). Davis was then to proceed to Cape San Juan “and collect any naval force you may find there, and join me as early as possible.”

Footnote 6: Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright.

Footnote 7: Naval Cadet Herbert H. Evans.

Footnote 8: The enclosure is a report of the landing written by Lt. Harry P. Huse. The landing party consisted of twenty-eight men in addition to Lt. Thomas C. Wood. The landing party came under attack from the Spanish garrison stationed there, numbering some thirty men. Huse called their fire “well sustained but high and no casualties resulted from it.” In support of the landing party, Gloucester opened fire with three and six-pounders “and the enemy retreated.” Soon afterward, the first units of the army landed and assumed the defense of Guánica.

Footnote 9: In his report on the landing at Ponce, Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson wrote:

Had our ultimate success depended upon a prompt advance against the enemy, it would have been seriously endangered by the inadequate preparations to meet perfectly well-known conditions, such as shoal water, which prevented transports coming within half a mile of the beach, lack of wharf and landing facilities, and especially of steam launches for towing lighters backward and forward between the transports and the shore. The want of these launches had been foreseen before leaving Charleston, and requisition had been duly made therefore upon the quartermaster-general, but they had not been supplies. It would have been almost impossible to surmount the difficulties which were encountered at Port Ponce had it not been for the valuable assistance rendered by the navy. Annual Report of the War Department, 1899, 227.

Footnote 10: Maj. Gen. Oswald H. Ernst.

Footnote 11: Cmdr. John J. Hunker.

Footnote 12: Capt. Colby M. Chester.

Footnote 13: Lt. John A. Hoogewerff, Lt. Charles J. Badger, and Surgeon James C. Byrnes.

Footnote 14: Lt. Templin M. Potts.

Footnote 15: Capt. James H. Sands.

Footnote 16: Lt. Cmdr. Edwin K. Moore.

Footnote 17: Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich.

Related Content