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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay


     In his report on the war with Spain written soon after the American victory, the chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, wrote of the Navy’s mobilization process:

It was early seen that our relations with Spain might be strained to the point where a recourse to war would result. In January, 1898—before the MAINE was blown up in Havana harbor . . . the Department had issued the first of its important orders in preparation for possible war.1

Later in the same report Crowninshield discussed further the Navy’s preparedness. He wrote that there was a widespread “impression” by the American public that the Navy Department had sought and received advance notice of the Court findings regarding the destruction of the MAINE which all agreed would go far to determine whether this country would go to war—so it could prepare for conflict. Crowninshield contended that such was not the case. By the time the Court produced its report “the preparations of the Department had reached such a stage, every resource which could be availed of in peace times being strained to its utmost extent, that this step was not considered necessary.”2

     The United States Navy conducted a well-planned and rapid mobilization that started early in 1898, when the possibility of conflict was still uncertain. The document, “Precautionary Orders Issued by Navy Department because of Increasing Tensions with Spain, 1898,” details these steps. Moreover, the journal entry of Secretary of the Navy John D. Long of 21 April, the War Board, which ran the Navy’s war effort from Washington, had already formulated operational orders before the war began. Such foresight and strategic and tactical preparedness gave the United States Navy a decided advantage.

     The Spanish mobilization stands in stark contrast to American preparations. The Royal Spanish Navy was plagued with indecision and procrastination on the part of that {delete} by the country’s political and military leadership. The American naval attaché in Madrid, Lt. George Dyer, reported on 16 April, seven days before Spain declared war, that the Spanish Navy had only then dispatched a small and ill-equipped fleet to Cuba while the bulk of its naval forces were frantically scrounging for equipment to allow it to leave port. Moreover, Spain’s straitened economy and sizeable debt made it difficult for its leaders to find or borrow money to purchase what was necessary and to improve what was sub-standard. Finally, Spain was politically unstable, rife with rumors of an impending popular revolt, and many Spaniards, including its naval leaders, were gripped by defeatism.3

     Documents included in this section illustrate the Navy’s activity and preparation on a number of fronts, most notably, expansion of the fleet which was effected by transferring vessels from other services and purchasing vessels both domestically and abroad.4 In the case of acquisitions made abroad, the Navy had a second agenda: to thwart Spanish efforts to acquire additional naval resources. This they did successfully. Although the majority of the ships acquired by the American Navy in Europe were not ready for service and never saw action in the war, their acquisition demoralized Spanish authorities who saw how easily the United States could marshal resources to block similar Spanish efforts to do the same. For example, Rear Admiral PascualCervera y Topete, who commanded the main Spanish fleet, wrote to Spanish Minister of the Marine SegismundoBermejo on 7 March:

It would be foolish to deny that what we may reasonably expect is defeat, which may be glorious, but all the same defeat, which would cause us to lose the island [Cuba] in the worst possible manner. But even supposing an improbability—that is, that we should obtain a victory—that would not change the final result of the campaign. The enemy would not declare himself defeated, and it would be foolish for us to pretend to overcome the United States in wealth and production. The latter would recover easily, while we would die of exhaustion, although victorious, and the ultimate result would always be a disaster.5


In addition to acquiring ships, the United States Navy also prepared for war by acquiring ordnance, including guns, ammunition, and torpedoes; stockpiling supplies, such as coal; and installing new technology to make their warships more efficient. Experienced seamen and/or those with needed skills were obtained through liberalized recruitment policies or brought out of retirement. Finally, the infrastructure, such as a Naval Reserve and the Coast Signal Service, was established or expanded.6

     The leadership of the Navy forged a closer working relationship with the State Department. Together they acted to collect intelligence. American diplomats also strove to insure that international agreements, such as that concerning privateering, which benefitted the United States, were implemented.7

American naval leaders also took steps in the days leading to the war to: upgrade the base at Key West, which was the main staging area for operations against Cuba; position the American North Atlantic Fleet where it could best begin operations; and to defend it from Spanish attack.8

     In the Pacific, preparations for conflict with Spain began as early as 27 January 1898, when Secretary Long ordered Commo. George Dewey, the station commander, to retain enlisted men serving with him whose term of service had expired. Days after the MAINE explosion, Asst. Secretary Theodore Roosevelt put Dewey on a war footing when he ordered him to retain the cruiser Olympia, his flagship, and to consolidate the Asian squadron at Hong Kong, only 700 miles from Manila. At Hong Kong, Dewey diligently readied his fleet for war. When war was declared in April, Dewey was fully prepared and only awaited the arrival of the former American consul in Manila, Oscar F. Williams, with updated intelligence before setting out to “capture...or destroy” Spanish naval forces in the Philippines.9

     The loss of battleship MAINE created a concern among United States Navy leadership that they no longer had enough ships to both protect American port cities on the East Coast and to blockade Cuban ports. To guarantee American naval superiority, the lone United States Navy battleship on the Pacific Coast of the United States, Oregon, was ordered to steam from Bremerton, Washington, circumnavigate the continent of South American, and join the North Atlantic Fleet in the Caribbean.10

     The journey around South America was fraught with challenges, including replacing the Oregon’s ailing commander, protecting the cruiser from enemy attack, and supplying it on its voyage. The crews of Oregon and Marietta, a gunboat assigned to assist and scout for Oregon, brought those vessels through the dangerous Straits of Magellan, dealt with the mechanical failings of the poorly maintained Nictheroy (a newly purchased Brazilian cruiser that joined Oregon and Marietta at Rio de Janeiro), and served without leave from 7 March until Oregon arrived at Jupiter, Florida on 24 May 1898, then went immediately to war.11 This voyage of 14,500 miles demonstrated the resilience of the American-built Oregon and the need for a trans-Isthmian canal to reduce transit times from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States.12

     While Spain struggled to deploy even an inferior force, the United States Navy went into the war poised and ready. The American Navy won the conflict thanks to superior vessels and armament, better equipment, planning, intelligence, and communication. All were elements put into place during mobilization.

Footnote 1: Crowninshield report, undated, DNA, ARFY, RG 24, Entry 254.

Footnote 2: Ibid.

Footnote 5: Cervera, Squadron Operations, 34.

Footnote 9: See: Precautionary Orders, 1898; and Trask, The War With Spain, 91-93, 96.

Footnote 12: Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, 69-70. The Panama Canal was in 1904 and completed in 1914.

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