Lieutenant Charles H. Harlow to Lieutenant Alexander Sharp, Jr.
U.S.S. Vixen. (4th. Rate.)
Off Santiago de Cuba,
June 16, 1898.
I have the honor to report that the expedition under my command, consisting of a steam launch from the U.S.S. Massachusetts in charge of Naval Cadet Hart1 and one from the U.S.F.S. New York, in charge of Naval Cadet Powell,2 left the side of the Vixen at about 4.46 this A.M. and proceeded at slow speed towards the entrance of Cabanas Bay.3 I took passage in the Massachusetts launch to lead the way.
I had previously explained to the Junior Officers the object of the expedition and directed that they each take notes, concerning <the trend> of the valleys, the height of the hills, the density of the undergrowth[,] the evidence of roads, clearings, etc. I had a leadsman and recorder in the New York’s launch with directions to take as many soundings as possible and check them by their relation to objects on shore, changes and directions etc., so that we were prepared to make quite a thorough reconnaissance of the bay.
I had passed the old fort on the point at the Eastern entrance4 at a distance of about fifty yards and had s
c<cru> utinized it carefully with my glasses but saw no signs of the enemy. The pilot then called my attention to the fact that we were still going i <a>t slow speed and as it was my intention to pass around the bay at full speed, I gave the order “full speed” to the engineer. This had the effect of drawing us quickly away from the New York’s launch and opening up to our observation the first valley to the Eastward and I called Mr. Hart’s attention to this fact and told him to estimate in his mind the height of the bottom of the valley above the water, when a sudden fire of musketry and splashes in the water about me told me that we had been attacked. The <parapet> of the old fort was a mass of brown smoke and an incessant flashing and report led me to conclude that quite a force was there and that it would be unwise to proceed further. This conclusion seemed <proved> wise<,> as a few seconds a<f>terwards<,> fire was opened from many places i<o>n the hill side and from a mass of rocks on the West side. I saw that Mr. Powell had stopped and was turning and soon heard the report of his one pounder. The marines in my boat f<w>ere firing<,> but th is<e> one pounder could not be trained far enough around to permit of its use. I gave the order to the coxswain to turn around; he explained that he did not have room enough without backing, so I told him to starboard as far as he could <, then back> and then ahead full speed with starboard helm and stand out, I called the pilot to see if we were pointing out fairly<,> but found that we had to starboard to such a degree, that it brought us <again> directly under the parapet of the fort. I asked Mr. Hart what he considered the distance that we passed at, deciding in my own mind<,> at the same time<,> that it was about fifty yards. He replied 25 or 30 yards. I should say that twenty five men was a conservative estimate of the number on the parapet<;> of the number on the hillside and the western side, I have no idea.
As soon as the one pounder could bear<,> Mr. Hart opened fire, seating himself well out on the starboard bow to do so. While in this position, a bullet struck the box of ammunition and spent its force fairly on a projectile, denting it just at the junction of charge and shell and sufficiently to expose the base of the shell. Mr. Hart kept up a v[i]gorous fire until<
l> well over the reef, when I ported and stood to the westward so as to give the Vixen a chance to fire her battery. My launch was under a continuous and heavy fire for from seven to ten minutes and was struck seven times. There [w]as scarcely a second of this period that the whistle of a <b>ullet was not to be heard and beyond us the water was often white with the re<ir> splash. . . .
As to the reconnaissance of Cabanas Bay, nothing was learned, but at Guaya
naca<cabon> it was evident that a landing could be effected in ship’s boats. The shores were wooded to within a few feet of the water and any road must have led right through the forest. The small bay to the Eastward of Guay<a>C<a>bon, Rancho Cruz<,> presented much the same advangates<.> Each of these places would<,> in my opinion<,> be of value in conjunction with Cabanas<,> but useless without it.
To the North and West of Cabanas Bay<,> I am informed that there is a large clearing with good water and plenty of grass and it was my hope that it might prove practicable to send a large force to land on <the> Western shore <of Cabanas Bay> and meet two smaller bodies, that had been landed two or three hours before at the smaller places, at this clearing.
I am not so sure but what with the fleet to shell the sides of the entrance and a vessel like the Suwanee to pass within, that it could yet be done.
The well directed fire of the Vixen, supplemented later by the Texas, completely silenced and dispersed the enemy and from my observation of the placing of the Vixen’s shells, I do not see how they could have escaped without serious damage. That my party escaped unhurt seems miraculous, but the firing was all too high.
Source Note: TLS, DNA, RG 313, Entry 48. Addressed below close: “The Commanding Officer.” There is a stamp on the first page that reads: “RECEIVED/FLAG-SHIP N.A. STATION,/JUN 17 1898.” Someone went through the letter and handwrote corrections and filled in blanks in the text. What was added is indicated by angle brackets around the added text; when this editor wrote over material already in the letter, that material has been indicated by a strikethrough. On a separate sheet, the document is docketed: “U.S.S. Vixen, 4th Rate,/Off Santiago de Cuba,/Cuba/Jun 17th, 1898./Harlow, C.H.,/Lieutenant, U.S.N./Report of expedition/to reconnoitre Ca-/banas Bay, Cuba. On the middle third of this sheet is written: “1st Endorsement/U.S.S. Vixen/Off Santiago de Cuba/June 17, 1898/Respectfully forwarded to the/Commander-in-Chief approved/except the remarks on page 4,/paragraph 1, to the value of/Cabañas as a landing place/for the Army- In my opinion/Cabañas is too near the guns of/the forts of inner harbor & of those/on the Ships of the Fleet in the/harbor to be a Safe landing place./Mr. Harlow handled the boats/in a Seamanlike manner, turning/out, so as not to obstruct our/line of fire, as soon as he/could do so, after leaving the/Harbor channel-He was I/should judge cool + Kept his/Head- He mos[t] anxious to/Continue the reconnaissance/of the other two landings./Alex Sharp Jr./Lt Commanding.”
Footnote 1: Naval Cadet Thomas C. Hart.
Footnote 2: Naval Cadet Joseph W. Powell. “U.S.F.S.” stands for United States Flag-Ship.”
Footnote 3: Harlow served aboard Vixen; Sharp was the vessel’s commander.
Footnote 4: Probably Fort Toro.