Sinking the Merrimac
On 1 June, RAdm. William T. Sampson arrived at the entrance to the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. His arrival added to the already considerable forces of Commo. Winfield S. Schley’s Flying Squadron, and the combined fleet set about blockading the harbor. Adm. Pascal Cervera y Topete was anchored well out of range and safe behind the harbor’s fortifications and its narrow entrance, but chances of escape were small, but still a possibility. Cervera could slip out at night or pass the blockading fleet during bad weather. Moreover, every day the bulk of American naval forces were concentrated outside a single harbor gave blockade runners a chance to land arms and supplies for the Spanish Army elsewhere, prolonging the war and the suffering of the Cuban people.
Days before Sampson’s arrival at Santiago de Cuba, he sent a message to Schley suggesting that the commodore sink a collier in the narrow channel at the entrance of the harbor and thereby trap Cervera’s squadron inside. Schley ignored the suggestion so Sampson took his own advice and on 29 May assigned New York’s Assistant Naval Constructor, Richmond P. Hobson, to plan such an operation. Hobson drew up a number of plans, including one that involved a faked midnight chase, but determined that the best possibility of success was to rig 10 torpedoes outside the collier Merrimac’s bulkheads, steam into the narrow passage in the early hours of the morning, turn the ship 90 degrees, set off the torpedoes, and sink the ship thus blocking the channel.
The plan was bold and complicated, but it had the prospect of trapping the Spanish at the expense of a single expendable vessel. Furthermore, the plan contained a heroic dynamism that the Navy Department craved. Even before the war began, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long had made it clear to Sampson that acts of daring, provided they did not endanger the Navy’s capital ships, were to be encouraged. Long pointed to the attack on the Confederate ironclad Albemarle by Lt. William B. Cushing as a model. The Secretary wrote:
Each man engaged in the work of the inshore squadron should have in him the stuff out of which to make a possible Cushing; and if the man wins the recognition given him shall be as great as that given to Cushing, so far as the department can bring this about.
The Navy Department desired that young officers be given an opportunity to demonstrate their daring and mettle. Sampson approved Hobson’s plan and then, in keeping with Long’s directive, allowed him to lead the operation. While some historians have criticized Sampson for not choosing the captain of Merrimac, Capt. James M. Miller, to command the enterprise, he was acting in the spirit of Secretary Long’s directive.
Preparations began immediately after Sampson’s arrival at Santiago. Hobson worked tirelessly but was unable to finish before the early hours of 3 June. Hundreds of men volunteered for the mission and Hobson selected a crew of seven. The plan called for Merrimac to steam slowly through a minefield and an expected hail of fire from shore batteries on both sides of the channel. Hobson also expected a barrage from Spanish ships guarding the entranceway. If Merrimac made it to the planed spot, the crew was to drop the collier’s anchor, turn the ship using that anchor, then detonate the explosives that packed the ship. Merrimac’s crew were to board a life boat as the ship was going down, evade the Spanish, and then return to the harbors entrance, where Sampson stationed a steam launch to pick them up. All involved accepted that the eight men might very well be going to their death.
At four A.M. Merrimac steamed into the channel leading to Santiago de Cuba. As Hobson cut the engines to slow the ship, gunfire rained down on the nearly-stationary collier from the Spanish shore batteries. As it had passed the Spanish Morro Castle, gunfire from the castle severed the ship’s steering mechanism. Hobson still tried to make the 90 degree turn by dropping the bow anchor, but the speed of the Merrimac and the channel tide dragged the ship too far north and away from the center of the channel. Merrimac sank close to ChuraccaPoint, well out of position. All the while, the crew was subjected to punishing fire from shore guns and from fire from the ReineMercedes and Plutón, positioned on the other side of the channel.
The mission was a failure and the channel remained open. Hobson and the crew made it off the ship safely with only minor wounds, but they were captured by the crew of Adm. Cervera’s own steam launch. Outside the harbor, the men of the American fleet watched with concern, excitement, and envy. All were overjoyed when Cervera’s Chief of Staff, Capt. JoaquínBustamente y Quevedi, met with Sampson under a flag of truce later that morning to announce Merrimac’s crew were alive and that Cervera commended their gallant deed. Hobson and his men became instant heroes as reporters, men, and officers in Sampson’s fleet wrote home describing the daring operation.
Sampson, however, could take little time to celebrate. His blockade would have to remain. The Army’s plan to attack Havana was now changed and instead a force was sent to assist in the capture of the Spanish squadron at Santiago de Cuba. Sampson reported the mission’s failure and requested troops in the very same cable to Long on 4 June. Hobson and his crew remained prisoners in Morro Castle and then in Santiago until 6 July, when they were exchanged. Merrimac remained on the channel bottom in the entrance to Santiago Harbor, the only American ship sunk during the entire war.
Hobson’s operation was a practical failure, but an enormous public relations success. Merrimac’s crew were feted, promoted, and publicly commended by President William McKinley (all of them received the Medal of Honor). Hobson, too, became a national hero, a major celebrity, and, later, a congressman.