Naval Operations at Manzanillo
A history of the Spanish-American War written in 1900 called the naval operations at Manzanillo the “third” most important of the war. The author contended that it had been largely ignored because it “followed so closely upon the heels of more important events.” But the fact that on 18 July 1898 “seven light-draught American gunboats” were able to enter Manzanillo harbor and destroy ten Spanish vessels in less than four hours without significant damage was, according to this author, a notable accomplishment that should be celebrated.
Manzanillo, a port on the Southern coast of Cuba, was a haven for blockade runners and home to small Spanish gunboats (under 250 tons) before the battle. Strong defenses and a natural harbor, the result of islands protecting the bay, made Manzanillo difficult to enter, for American vessels to attack shipping in the port. One attempt by Hist, Hornet, and Wompatuck, was repulsed on 30 June. A day, later, a foray by Scorpion and Osceola was similarly turned away. On both occasions the American vessels sustained hits, damage, and casualties. Hornet was so badly mauled that it was temporarily disabled.
A third attack on the morning of 18 July, finally succeeded where the previous two failed. The seven vessel attack force, including two gunboats of shallow draft—Wilmington and Helena; two armed tugs—Osceola and Wompatuck; and three converted yachts—Scorpion, Hist, and Hornet allowed the American commander, Capt. Chapman C. Todd, to divide his forces and attack the port from three directions. Todd gave orders to destroy enemy shipping but to avoid, if possible, an engagement with the shore batteries. His flotilla concentrated their fire on Spanish ships, though Scorpion and Osceola did fire at the batteries to silence coastal artillery directed at the American ships. Wilmington and Helena attacked the two Spanish merchant steamers and the blockade runner—PurisimaConcepción--in the harbor. Hist, Hornet, and Wompatuck concentrated their fire on the Spanish gunboats, which sallied to oppose the American flotilla but were repulsed. The Americans pursued those gunboats, four in number, to their moorings and there, when joined by the armored Helena, raked them with fire and systematically destroyed them. Wilmington, after attacking the merchant shipping, concentrated its fire upon several pontoons, armed immobile hulks that had been transformed into floating batteries and sank one, the Maria. Having successfully destroyed five gunboats, three merchant vessels, and one pontoon without suffering any losses, the Americans broke off the engagement leaving the city still under Spanish control.
The last American attack on Manzanillo took place just as the war was ending. Lt. Lucien Young of Hist, then blockading the port, sent a report that the Spanish commander at Manzanillo, Col. Sanchez Pieron, was prepared to surrender the city unconditionally if “the American fleet will make a demonstration before the city in such force as to save him from being court-martialed for surrendering.” Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich, at the time leading an expedition intended for the Isle of Pines, met Young, and learned of the situation at Manzanillo. Goodrich decided to divert his forces to Manzanillo and force the ports surrender.
After making a token bombardment, Goodrich sent in the gunboat Alvarado under a flag of truce with a demand for surrender. On approaching the town, Alvarado was fired upon. Goodrich’s flotilla responded by bombarding the town and Goodrich’s flagship, the battleship Newark, continued firing through the night. At daylight, Goodrich saw a multiple white flags over the town’s blockhouses and batteries and when he sent a boat in he was informed that the peace protocols had been signed and an armistice was in effect.
A disappointed Goodrich, who had hoped the Navy might garner “one more laurel and gained one more important victory before the conclusion of peace,” called off the attack and arranged for the safety of the city. When the war ended, and despite enduring repeated American attacks, Manzanillo remained in Spanish hands, making it a scene of both an American victory and a Spanish triumph.