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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Pre-War Planning


An understanding of the Navy’s pre-war planning provides insight not only into the progress made by the United States Navy during the late nineteenth century, but into the global aspirations of American statesmen, naval theorists, and citizens. The successful planning for and execution of the war with Spain on the seas marks the evolution of the U.S. Navy into a mature and formidable naval service.

In the decades following the Civil War, public policy allowed the Navy to languish, so that by the mid-1880s the United States ranked conspicuously low as a naval power. There was a growing realization among the country’s political leaders and Navy officers that the world was in the midst of a revolution in naval technology that threatened to leave the United States defenseless on the seas. Growing American wealth and political willpower drove a large-scale naval building program. And so the “New Navy” with the ABCD fleet (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin) was born.1 At the same time, the training of the U.S. Navy’s officer corps was revised and improved so that the service enjoyed a generation of officers who boasted both technological and intellectual sophistication. Capt. William T. Sampson, for example, was a top-notch naval strategist, tactician, and ship commander who also displayed a deep knowledge of developments in metallurgy and armaments. At the same time, the Navy established an untried naval attaché service, the primary mission of which was to collect information about the latest advances in other nations and to collect intelligence.2

The new spirit that infused the navy, despite unhappiness among some of the “old salts,” echoed in the Department of the Navy, the halls of Annapolis, and in the classrooms of the Naval War College. The first inkling that we have of a war plan against Spain was in 1890. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy commissioned Capt. Alfred T. Mahan to write a number of plans in the eventuality of war with European powers. A detailed plan against Great Britain has been uncovered, but the one with Spain has not been found. There is, however, circumstantial evidence that a plan was created. In a letter to Capt. Charles H. Davis, Mahan wrote: “Lastly, as I know the Secy wishes us to consider the cases of other foreign nations, I would submit to you and Folger [Cmdr. William M. Folger], the advisability of our taking up next, and at once, Germany and Spain. I recommend them rather than France, because more nearly equal to ourselves, and because, with both, the ground of meeting would probably be the Gulf and Caribbean.”3  

The Naval War College was established in 1884 at Newport, Rhode Island, at the insistence of Commo. Stephen B. Luce. The German kriegspiel, or war gaming, was first employed there, soon to evolve into war planning. The War College became, to a great extent, a graduate school for the Naval Academy, and attracted an impressive coterie of naval theorists.4 While on the faculty, Mahan wrote his influential book, The Influence of Seapower upon History: 1660-1783. 

During the 1890s plans were developed at the War College for possible conflicts with various countries, including: Canada, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. It was Spain, however, that garnered the most attention. Spain, once a global empire, was beset by problems both at home and in its remaining colonies, as insurrections in the Philippines and Cuba challenged the mother country’s rule. The latter, a mere ninety miles from Key West, Florida, and the site of considerable US economic interests, became the main focus for the Naval War College planners. Moreover, theorists such as Mahan argued the importance of the United States being paramount in the Caribbean Sea (especially in light of a proposed isthmian canal) and likened it to British control of the English Channel.5

More concrete planning for war in Cuba began in 1894 when Capt. Henry C. Taylor presented the hypothetical problem of a war with Spain to three students at the War College who then drew up plans for a possible conflict. The most enduring of these plans, drawn up by Lt. Charles J. Train, is extracted here.6So important was the role of the Naval War College, that Taylor wrote to Luce in a confidential letter that the Secretary of the Navy “is now . . . using me and the College as General Staff and me as the Chief of same with considerable powers.”7

Two years later, Lt. William W. Kimball of the Office of Naval Intelligence, while stationed at the War College, composed another war plan, which is printed here.8 This plan served as the basis for all future discussion, with subsequent planners either refining what Kimball proposed or challenging elements of it. That “dialogue” has been recaptured here and some of the more important offerings have been presented. Among those are: Capt. Henry Taylor’s plan of 1896,9 which most directly challenged Kimball; the plan created by the planning board led by RAdm. Francis. M. Ramsay, also in 1896,10 which affirmed Kimball’s plan; and the plan developed by the board chaired by RAdm. Montgomery Sicard in June, 1897,11 that, while tweaking parts of Kimball’s plan, confirmed its primacy. The discussion of these plans suggests a thoughtful and sophisticated dialogue that well-prepared the United States Navy to fight its Spanish counterpart when war was declared.

Also contributing to this dialogue were officers in the Office of Naval Intelligence and the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, in particular, was a close student of the plans. He also played a vital role in disseminating them to important government officials, in particular to President William McKinley in the course of a carriage ride through Rock Creek Park in Washington in the fall of 1897.12

Each plan had its distinctive elements, such as whether there should be joint action with the United States Army; which Cuban and/or Spanish ports should be bombarded; the timing of different actions; whether a fleet should be sent to the Philippines or to Spain; if and how the American coast would be protected; and on the specifics of how a Cuban blockade would be established. The one constant was that the focus of American naval activity would be in Cuban waters. As a result, by the time that war was declared, naval leadership in Washington had agreed upon an overall plan of action and naval commanders at sea understood and were well-prepared to execute it. These plans served as guidelines that gave the American Navy the advantage in strategy and tactics. Capt. ArentS. Crowninshield could well remark that: “The preparations were taken in hand in such good time that the Navy itself might be said to have been ready in every respect at least four weeks before the war began . . . .”13

Finally, the section includes a plan created by the Army and Navy War Board. This became the “action plan” for United States forces in the West Indies.14

The government in Madrid, on the other hand, avoided decision making and conspicuously neglected making plans. Mired in prolonged political crises and facing burdensome insurrections in Cuba and the Philippines, it procrastinated. The correspondence between RAdm. PascualCervera y Topete, named to command the Spanish fleet sent to defend Cuba, and RAdm. SegismundoBermejo y Merelo, the Spanish Minister of Marine, a portion of which is printed in the section that follows, reveals the neglected condition of the Spanish navy and its supply services, as well as a political environment that sought to avoid making hard decisions. Spain seemed to value hope over reality.15

In stark contrast, American planning, and the dialogue that was part of the process, laid the foundation for a successful war effort and for a process of intellectual discourse and planning that shaped the twentieth-century United States Navy. As a New York Sun article of 23 Aug. 1897 reported: “The liveliest spot in Washington at present is the Navy Department. The decks are cleared for action. Acting Secretary Roosevelt, in the absence of Gov. Long,16 has the whole navy bordering on a war footing. It remains only to sand down the decks and pipe to quarters for action.”

Footnote 1: See, Renton, Home Squadron, 43.

Footnote 2: See, Joseph G. Dawson, III, “William T. Sampson and Santiago: Blockade, Victory, and Controversy,” James C. Bradford, ed., The Crucible of Empire, The Spanish American War and Its Aftermath (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 47-49.

Footnote 3: Capt. Alfred T. Mahan to Capt. Charles H. Davis, 23 Dec. 1890. Robert Seager, II and Doris D. Maguire, Letters and Papers of Alfred T. Mahan, 3 vols. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 2: 37. This quote is from a letter that was a response to Davis’s critique of the war plan against Great Britain. Eleven years later Mahan wrote to Luce, that “Mr. Tracy at one time, in 1890, directed Folger and me to draw up outline plans of operations necessary to be undertaken at once in case of war with foreign nations. I drew up two – that I remember – possibly more; in the case of Great Britain & of Spain. . . This employment was at the time secret.” Mahan to RAdm. Stephen B. Luce, 3 September 1901, DLC-MSS, Stephen B. Luce Papers.

Footnote 4: Renton, Home Squadron, 58.

Footnote 5: Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783, 12th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1947), 33-35.

Footnote 7: Capt. Henry C. Taylor to RAdm. Stephen B. Luce, 22 Jan. 1896, DLC-MSS, Stephen B. Luce Papers.

Footnote 13: See Arent S. Crowninshield to Henry Cabot Lodge, 24 Sep. 1898, MHi, Henry Cabot Lodge Papers.

Footnote 16: Secretary of the Navy John D. Long.

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