Naval Operations at Santiago de Cuba
In late May 1898, Commo. Winfield S. Schley and his Flying Squadron confirmed the presence of the Spanish squadron commanded by Adm. PascualCervera y Topete at Santiago de Cuba and set up a blockade to prevent its escape. The United States Navy believed that destroying Cervera’s fleet would bring about a rapid conclusion of the war, but a number of problems prevented an engagement with the Spanish fleet. Santiago harbor was well defended by costal fortifications on both the east and west banks and the harbor itself lay at the end of a long and narrow channel protected by mines. Any assault would place American ships at terrible risk. On 1 June, Schley’s squadron ran close in to the channel and fired at Cervera’s ships anchored in the harbor, but the Spanish fleet was out of range and their barrages fell short.
RAdm. William T. Sampson, with a larger fleet, arrived that same day and took charge of the blockade. Sampson believed that Cervera’s fleet might be trapped in Santiago de Cuba by sinking a vessel, in this case the collier Merrimac, in the narrowest point of the channel, near the entrance to the harbor. That effort was unsuccessful, because Merrimac’s steering mechanism was disabled by Spanish fire during the run into the harbor and the collier sank outside the main channel.
With no possibility of entering the harbor without risking an unacceptable loss of American ships, Sampson decided the best course of action was a strong blockade. Realizing that the neutralization or destruction of Cevera’s fleet would be so damaging to the Spanish government’s hopes for victory in Cuba as to force them to consider peace, Sampson committed the bulk of the North Atlantic Fleet to blockading Santiago de Cuba. His ships would wait to destroying the Spanish squadron if it everemerged from the harbor.
Sampson ordered the robust blockade of Santiago Harbor on 2 June. He split the blockaders into two squadrons. He commanded the first and Commo. Schley was assigned commanded of the second. The blockading ships were formed in a semi-circle around the entrance to Santiago Harbor with the First Squadron on the east side and Second Squadron on the west. The larger vessels occupied positions farthest from the shore; the smaller, faster vessels were ordered to patrol closer in. Sampson believed that the smaller, faster vessels would best be able to engage Spanish torpedo boat destroyers, which, he feared, might sink one of his capitol ships with a torpedo attack. During the day all of the ships were positioned six miles from shore, but during the night Sampson ordered the ships to position themselves closer to the harbor. He used spotlights at night to illuminate the narrow channel entrance. This use of spotlights—an innovative tactic-was instituted to insure that Cervera’s squadron did not “sneak out” of the harbor entrance undetected under cover of darkness. Later, American officers and even Cervera himself credited the blockade and the use of spotlights with keeping the Spanish fleet bottled up at Santiago de Cuba and preventing an escape. Some variation of this original blockading order remained in effect throughout the blockade.
To assist Sampson in capturing the Spanish fleet, the United States Army invasion force intended for Havana was instead directed to Santiago. Sampson wanted the Army to capture the forts protecting the entrance so that he could remove the mines protecting the entrance. Unfortunately for Sampson, the expedition was slow to get underway. In the meantime, Sampson ordered bombardments designed to weaken the forts protecting the harbor. The bombardments were spectacular, but of little real effect. On 6 June, Sampson’s entire fleet shelled the batteries at the mouth of the harbor. The attack was deemed a success because the Spanish put up no significant resistance and there were no American casualties, but the effect was negligible. The Spanish fortifications continued to command the entrance to the Harbor and Cervera remained out of reach. After learning the Spanish we retrying to improve their fortifications he ordered a second bombardment on 16 June. Again, Sampson was able to claim victory because the American shelling silenced the batteries, but, again, the bombardment failed to destroy the batteries.
While waiting for Army, Sampson contemplated alternatives to storming the harbor. One plan called for a single sailor to ride a torpedo to the harbor. Sampson also ordered that a naval officer be set ashore and reconnoiter Santiago de Cuba to get a better understanding of the layout of the harbor and to confirm that all of Cervera’s fleet was inside. Lt. Victor Blue of the Suwanee was selected for the mission. He landed on the western side of the harbor, made contact with Cuban forces and trekked more than 60 miles to view and report on the Spanish squadron’s strength and position.
Maintaining the blockade was hard and exhausting work and required ships to operate non-stop and, until an anchorage at Guantánamo Bay was set up, to coal in the open sea. Further complicating matters were the request by a neutral warship from Austria-Hungary to observe the blockade and the constant presence of American press vessels. These “interlopers” exhausted Sampson’s patience and kept the crews of the blockading vessels on edge. To alleviate some of these issues, Sampson ordered the capture of Guantánamo Bay, which functioned as a sheltered anchorage to coal and a place that supply ships could tranfer provisions, ammunition, and spare parts needed by the fleet.
On June 20, the Army convoy arrived at Santiago de Cuba. Sampson met with Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter and the work of the Navy transitioned from an independent blockade to a joint operation with the Army. To support Army operations, Sampson ordered intermittent bombardment of Spanish fortifications and of the city itself, but it was Shafter’s forces tightening their siege of the city that most threatened Cervera’s fleet. On 3 July, Cervera sortied. He did so reluctantly and only because he had received express orders to do so from the Captain-General of Cuba who was concerned that the fleet might be captured at anchor by the American Army. The resulting battle of Santiago Bay was a resounding victory for the Americans and a testament to Sampson’s strategy and the Navy’s thorough preparations over the course of the preceding month.