The Flying Squadron and the Search for the Spanish Fleet
On 28 April 1898, a Spanish fleet of four cruisers and three torpedo destroyers set out from the Cape Verde Islands for the Caribbean. RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete’s mission was to rendezvous with other Spanish ships, engage the American squadron blockading Cuba, and ultimately to attack the United States. Within hours American industrialist Charles R. Flint relayed word of Cervera’s departure to Navy Department. From this point forward, finding and destroying Cervera’s squadron became imperative.
The naval blockade was the first step to liberate Cuba. The next was to invest the major cities, particularly Havana. American military planners believed these tactics would bring the war to a swift conclusion. To that end, the American Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long had a dual responsibility-to maintain the blockade and to protect troop convoys bringing American soldiers to Cuba. Before any convoy could launch the Navy had to find and neutralize the Spanish fleet steaming toward Cuba.
Long acted quickly. On 29 April, he dispatched the lightly armed but fast auxiliary cruisers Harvard, Yale, and St. Louis, to patrol the waters off Cuba and Puerto Rico. They were instructed to locate the Spanish fleet. St. Louis was ordered to patrol the north coast of Cuba, Harvard the south coast, and Yale sent to steam around Puerto Rico.
Strategists at the Navy Department believed that Cervera would head for Puerto Rico, a Spanish possession believed to have stockpiles of coal and stores. To that end, the American naval commander in the Caribbean, RAdm. William T. Sampson, collected a squadron and set out for Puerto Rico intending to engage Cervera’s squadron, which he had been assured would be there. When he arrived off San Juan on 12 May, however, he found no Spanish fleet.
In the meantime, Cervera, who was off Martinique, was contemplating his next move. The Spanish squadron had been slowed by the need to preserve its remaining meager supply of coal, foul bottoms, and a broken boiler aboard the destroyer Terror. Cervera’s fleet, as a belligerent, could not enter the harbor of Fort-de-France under international law. The Spanish admiral had few options. After learning the whereabouts of Sampson’s ships from daily American newspaper reports, he steamed for Curaçao, in the hope that coal had been shipped there for him. After that, he decided to avoid American patrol ships by going to Santiago de Cuba.
Of the auxiliaries sent to track the Spanish fleet, none had success. Harvard sighted the enemy, but could not inform Washington as it was forced into Saint Pierre, Martinique, while Cervera’s fleet remained off Fort-de-France. The other scouts did not encounter the Spanish fleet. The State Department had more success tracking Cervera. The U.S Consul at Curaçao, Leonard B. Smith, reported the Spanish admiral’s failed attempt to obtain coal at the Dutch port on 14 May. Upon receiving the report, Long informed Sampson of the Spanish position and issued instructions to the American axillary cruisers to patrol the Venezuelan coast and to anticipate that the Spanish might make a run for Cuba.
The Flying Squadron, under the command of Commo. Winfield S. Schley, joined the search for the Spanish fleet after Sampson’s bombardment of San Juan. The Flying Squadron was initially formed at Hampton Roads under orders from Long on 17 March. The Navy Department intended to use the Squadron to protect the American coast or perhaps to attack the Spanish mainland, but reports of Cervera’s squadron being in the Caribbean altered that intention. Schley steamed from Norfolk to Key West on 13 May and arrived on the 17th. By that time both the Navy Department and Sampson had come to believe that Cervera’s fleet intended to relieve Havana.
In Sampson’s estimation there were only two ways for the Spanish fleet to assist Havana: Cervera could attempt to run the American blockade of northern Cuban or he could land the supplies he carried at Cienfuegos, and send them by rail to the capital. On 19 May, Schley was ordered to take the Flying Squadron to blockade Cienfuegos and cover the western approaches to Cuba. Sampson himself joined the Havana blockading force with the intention to engage Cervera if the Spaniard tried to get to Havana via Cuba’s northern coast.
On the same day, the president of Western Union Telegraph reported to the Navy Department that Martin L. Hellings, the superintendent of the company’s Cuban operations, had received notice from one of his agents in Havana that Cervera had made telegraphic contact with Governor-General Blanco, announcing his arrival at Santiago de Cuba.
Confirmation of Cervera’s position at Santiago came too late for Sampson to change his plans. On 20 May he reiterated his order that Schley should blockade Cienfuegos. Sampson believed that:
If the Spanish ships have put into Santiago, they must come either to Havana or Cienfuegos to deliver the munitions of war which they are said to bring for use in Cuba. I am therefore of the opinion that our best chance of success in capturing these ships will be to hold the two points--Cienfuegos and Havana--with all the force that we can muster.
Shortly after Schley’s departure for Cienfuegos, Sampson received instructions from Long that Schley should proceed directly to Santiago de Cuba:
The report of the Spanish fleet being at Santiago de Cuba might very well be correct so the Department strongly advises that you send immediately by the Iowa to Schley to proceed off Santiago de Cuba with his whole command, leaving one small vessel off Cienfuegos.
By then Schley was en route to Cienfuegos, which prevented him from going directly to Santiago de Cuba. Further delays plagued his squadron, some outside of Schley’s control, and others due to a number of questionable and controversial decisions.
The first of these decisions was made upon his arrival at Cienfuegos on 22 May. Schley failed to contact or consult with Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla, who had been the senior officer on the Cienfuegos blockade before the arrival of the Flying Squadron. Had Schley consulted McCalla, he would have learned that McCalla was in contact with Cuban insurgents, who had informed him that the Spanish fleet was not at Cienfuegos.
Schley spotted insurgent smoke signals off Cienfuegos, but decided that the smoke came from Cervera’s fleet. He also heard gunfire, but interpreted it as salutes fired to greet Cervera’s fleet. The Flying Squadron took up a position outside Cienfuegos harbor, but was unable to get into or see into the harbor. Schley, curiously, decided not to send a reconnaissance mission ashore to scout nor did he make contact with the Cuban insurgents.
Sampson’s orders of 20 May to steam for Santiago did not reach Schley until 23 May and left Schley a good deal of latitude because Sampson had instructed Schley to move to Santiago only “if satisfied that the enemy’s vessels were not in Cienfuegos.” Although most of his captains doubted that the Spanish were at Cienfuegos, Schley was not convinced. This belief was reinforced by a report he received from the captain of the British merchant steamer Adula who reported that Cervera had been at Santiago de Cuba but had left it. On 24 May, McCalla returned to Cienfuegos and made contact with the insurgents who again reported that Cervera was not in Cienfuegos. He was able to convince Schley that Cervera was not at Cienfuegos so the Flying Squadron began steaming to Santiago.
Schely’s delay at Cienfuegos should have allowed Cervera to escape, but he acted indecisively as well. Believing that Schley had started for Santiago de Cuba on 20 May and that Sampson would soon reinforce Schley and possibly fooled into believing that the scout ships Long had sent to investigate Santiago were elements of Schley’s squadron, a defeatist Cervera chose to remain where he was. As he cabled Madrid, “I cannot hope with this scant forces to attempt any definite operations, it will only be a matter of changing this harbor for another where we would also be blockaded.”
Angry at the delay in the Flying Squadron getting to Santiago de Cuba, Long directed Sampson to order Schley unconditionally to steam there immediately. The Flying Squadron, nonetheless, moved without urgency. Poor weather and heavy seas caused flooding issues for the damaged yacht Eagle and Schley ordered his squadron to steam at almost half speed to accommodate that vessel. Schley’s action mystified Long who later noted that Eagle would have had no value in a battle with Cervera’s fleet and that as soon as the weather moderated Schley sent it away to Jamaica. The result of Schley’s decision to cut speed, according to Long, was that a voyage that should have taken thirty-six hours instead took forty-five.
Once he arrived off Santiago, Schley continued to operate in a questionable manner. Instead of proceeding to the mouth of the harbor at Santiago de Cuba, Schley stopped about twenty-two miles south of the harbor entrance. The scout ships immediately joined him leaving the harbor entrance uncovered. After a few hours and without reconnoitering the harbor himself, Schley decided on 27 May to take his squadron to Key West to re-coal. However, after steaming westward for a day, Schley halted and re-coaled and then ordered the squadron to return to Santiago, where he arrived on the afternoon of the 28th. On the day of his return, Schley cabled Long that he intended to remain at Santiago until his coal stores were exhausted and then proceed to Haiti for a replenishment. The next morning vessels from his squadron spotted the ChristobólColón and two days later Sampson joined the blockade of Santiago with New York and the battleship Oregon, strengthening the blockade and insuring that the Spanish would have to “run the gauntlet” to escape.
The Americans had successfully bottled up Cervera’s fleet, but Schley’s waffling, errors, and delays had infuriated his superiors. Both Long and Sampson had suggested numerous solutions for the “coaling issues” of the Flying Squadron including sending ships one at a time to Haiti or blocking the channel by scuttling the Merrimac in it. An investigation conducted after the war indicated that the squadron’s battleships had coal enough for a week and that Schley’s flagship Brooklyn had nearly a month’s supply.
Long could not understand why he had never received a clear response to his reports that Cervera was at Santiago. He wrote in his journal that Schley showed “indecision and indications of inefficiency on his part.” The Secretary directly expressed his dissatisfaction to Schley on 29 May. He noted that failure to find the Spanish fleet would be “discreditable to the Navy.” Even after Schley confirmed that the Spanish were at Santiago, Long ordered Sampson there to take command of the blockade, a clear indication that Long had lost faith in the Schley.
A second mystery is how St. Paul, Yale, and Minneapolis, the scout ships that patrolled the waters off Santiago for five days before Schley arrived, never sighted Cervera’s squadron nor confirmed that the Spanish were in the harbor.
Schley’s actions in this instance and in the opening minutes of the battle at Santiago de Cuba on 3 July haunted Schley’s career. To clear his name, he requested a court of inquiry, but its findings were inconclusive To this day, Schley and his actions are controversial and still generate contention.