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Historical Overview

"Assembling of the Fleet at Key West: Sunday Service on the Battleship Texas." Painting by Howard C. Christy, 1898. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
Caption: "Assembling of the Fleet at Key West: Sunday Service on the Battleship Texas." Painting by Howard C. Christy, 1898. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

Background and Preparation

The war that erupted in 1898 with Spain had its origins in the First Cuban Insurrection (1868-1878). The Cuban rebels had formed relationships with small groups of Americans committed to their cause. Many of these Americans supported the filibusters who attempted to run military supplies to the insurrectionists on the island. War had nearly erupted between the United States and Spain in 1873 when the Spanish captured the filibuster ship Virginius and executed most of the crew, including many American citizens. The Treaty of Zanjón signaled a temporary peace, but American sympathies remained with the Cubans desiring independence. When the reforms promised by the treaty proved illusory, the insurrectionists and their American supporters prepared for a new round.

The Trochas of Cuba. The Spanish used lines of defensive barriers known as trochas to restrict the movement of Cuban insurgents. Pen and ink drawing by John Charles Roach.
Caption: The Trochas of Cuba. The Spanish used lines of defensive barriers known as trochas to restrict the movement of Cuban insurgents. Pen and ink drawing by John Charles Roach.

Cuban emigrés in the United States formed clubs, raised money, and gained support from labor unions and the press. The movement also gained support in the Cuban business community following the depression of 1893 in the United States. The U.S. Congress responded to the economic crisis in part by raising tariffs on sugar imports from Cuba, plunging the island's export-dependent economy into a deep depression. Many Cuban businessmen blamed Spanish-American competition for their woes, and they thought that autonomy from Spain and closer economic ties with the United States would bring a return to prosperity. The military leaders of the new revolutionary army, José Martí, Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo, began offensive operations on the island in April 1895. Martí announced that the war would be conducted by conventional means. However, when Martí died in an ambush soon after landing in Cuba, Gómez assumed command and decided to target the already battered sugar industry. Gómez believed that only an economic catastrophe would involve the whole island and force the Spanish to grant independence, as the cost of maintaining control became too great.

The Spanish government reacted by sending General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau with orders to pacify the island. The "Butcher," as he became know in the United States, determined to deprive the rebels of support by forcibly re-concentrating the civilian population in the troublesome districts to areas near military headquarters. Nevertheless, military efforts alone were not enough to end the insurrection, and in Spain the Conservative government of Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was too weak to bring about meaningful reforms. Political opposition from Liberals, Carlists, and republicans, as well as the political influence of the Spanish army, severely limited Cánovas's freedom of action. Any conciliatory moves toward Cuban independence, or even home rule, would likely give the Conservative government's various opponents an issue around which they all could rally.

Upon taking office in 1897, President William McKinley hoped to avoid entanglement in the problems in Cuba so that he could pursue his domestic agenda of continuing the U.S. economy's recovery from the depression. Although some individuals pushed for overseas economic and territorial expansion, they were in the minority and did not reflect the general mood of the country at the beginning of McKinley's term. During the first year of his presidency, most of the American public was content to passively support the cause of Cuban independence. Public opinion in the United States dramatically changed by his second year, influencing the president to reorder his priorities.

To challenge Spain effectively on the issue of Cuba, McKinley needed a strong Navy. The service that the new administration inherited in 1897 was in the midst of sustained growth and reform following twenty years of purposeful neglect. At the close of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy had in commission more than 600 vessels. Nearly all of the new ships were wartime purchases, hastily constructed, or made from unseasoned timber. After the war, most were sold off or destroyed. In spite of international crises such as the Virginius Affair, contention with Great Britain over the Alabama Claims, and problems with France over a projected canal in Panama, the strength of the Navy continued to decline. By 1879, only 48 of the Navy's 142 vessels were available for immediate service, and these were obsolete wooden or old ironclad ships. Naval technology had stagnated in the United States, illustrated by the fact that there was not a single high-power, long-range rifled gun in the entire fleet. In 1884 the U.S. Navy's newest ships were wooden-hulled steam sloops built in the previous decade.

Modernization began in the early 1880s during the administration of President Chester A. Arthur. Rapid growth in overseas markets and a foreign policy aimed at U.S. control of communications across the isthmus of Central America drove the country toward naval expansion. Two years of debate on the nature of this expansion culminated with the Navy Act of 1883, authorizing the construction of the steel cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch vessel Dolphin. The American fleet that began with these greatly superior vessels came to be known as the New Navy. Congress continued the process by approving additional steel warships, including the New Navy's first armored ships, USS Texas and USS Maine.

It was during the administration of Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) that the Navy's strategy began to change from defense and commerce protection to offensive fleet action. President Harrison called for the continued and rapid construction of modern warships and the acquisition of bases to maintain the U.S. fleet in foreign seas. He later urged Congress to authorize construction of battleships, giving support to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy's goal of making the U.S. fleet strong enough "to be able to divert an enemy's force from our coast by threatening his own, for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations."

Tracy proved to be an excellent administrator, and he marshaled allies for his expansionist policies in both Congress and the Navy, including Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan's involvement stemmed from his strong belief that government leaders played a crucial role in determining the growth or decay of a nation's sea power. Navalists around the world used his 1890 publication, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, to promote naval expansion in their own countries. American navalists' work bore fruit with the Navy Bill of 30 June 1890, authorizing construction of three battleships later named Indiana, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Along with the battleship Iowa, authorized in 1892, this force formed the core of a new fleet willing to challenge European navies for control of the waters in the Western Hemisphere.

While civilian leadership and U.S. industry prepared the Navy materially for an offensive war, a new institution, the Naval War College, prepared the service intellectually. Founded in 1884 and placed under the direction of Commodore Stephen B. Luce, the War College contributed greatly to the professionalization of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps at the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s the curriculum at the War College featured training problems in which students drafted plans for operations in the event of war with specific countries under particular circumstances. Beginning in 1894 the War College under the direction of its president, Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, and later special boards convened by the Secretary of the Navy, examined the possibility of war with Spain over trouble in Cuba. When such a conflict appeared unavoidable in early 1898, the Navy Department had a solid body of planning studies honed by four years of debate among its leading officers. Although the realities of war would force several modifications, many of the concepts laid out in the naval plans were implemented: a strong blockade of Cuba, support for the insurgents, operations against Spanish forces in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and the formation of a squadron to operate in Spanish waters. Perhaps more important, nearly every plan called for the purchase or charter of merchant vessels to serve as auxiliary cruisers, colliers, and transports. Data on these vessels furnished in lists appended to the plans served as a basis for decision making in those crucial weeks before war.

By contrast, the Spanish were ill prepared to defend their overseas possessions from outside intervention. Their vessels stationed in Cuba and the Philippines were obsolete and intended only to help the colonial government put down insurrection. They were unable to defend themselves against the modern steel ships of the U.S. Navy. Spain possessed only one battleship, Pelayo, and this was an older vessel that had just been modernized. This ship and the armored cruiser Carlos V were not ready for action until after the war began. Only four armored cruisers were available to steam across the Atlantic, and these suffered severe material deficiencies. The 10-inch guns were missing from Cristobal Colon, and there was a shortage of ammunition for the already defective 5.5-inch guns on the Spanish cruisers.

The Spanish Minister of Marine, Segismundo Bermejo y Merelo, revealed a lack of strategic planning in the vague orders given to Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete in command of a squadron of four armored cruisers and three torpedo boats. Bermejo simply instructed Cervera to proceed to Caribbean waters and defend Spanish possessions against American attack. The Spanish also lacked enough colliers properly positioned to help their ships replenish once they were across the Atlantic. In addition, inadequate stockpiles of coal and coaling facilities at the ports in Cuba and Puerto Rico severely limited Cervera's options and ability to operate in the Caribbean. In short, the Spanish did not adequately prepare their forces and bases to defend their overseas possessions in the face of a challenge at sea. Once war began with a well-prepared naval power, such as the United States, Spain's possessions were almost certain to be cut off from the home country.

Destruction of USS Maine and the Rush Toward War

The assassination of Prime Minister Cánovas on 8 August 1897 led to the return of the Liberals to power in Spain, the recall of General Weyler, and a promise to grant autonomy to Cuba. Nevertheless, the insurgent leadership, sensing victory, refused to accept anything less than independence, and the government's many political opponents made it impossible for reforms to go far enough to win over the Cuban people. When pro-Weyler forces in Havana instigated riots in January 1898, Washington became greatly concerned for the safety of Americans in the country. The administration believed that some means of protecting U.S. citizens should be on hand, and the Spanish government should be reminded of America's serious interest in seeing an end to the Cuban conflict. As a result, on 24 January, after clearing the visit with a reluctant government in Madrid, President McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine from Key West to Havana.

The battleship arrived on 25 January. Spanish authorities in Havana were wary of American intentions, but they afforded Captain Charles D. Sigsbee and the officers of Maine every courtesy. In order to avoid the possibility of trouble, the U.S. Navy captain did not allow his enlisted men to go on shore. Sigsbee and the consul at Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, reported that the Navy's presence appeared to have a calming effect on the situation, and both recommended that the Navy Department send another battleship to Havana when it came time to relieve Maine.

At 9:40 on the evening of 15 February, a terrible explosion on board the U.S. warship shattered the stillness in Havana harbor. Later investigations revealed that more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel's 6- and 10-inch guns had ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship. The remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor. Most of Maine's crew were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Two hundred and sixty-six American sailors lost their lives as a result of the disaster. Captain Sigsbee and most of the officers survived because their quarters were in the after portion of the ship.

Spanish officials and the crew of the civilian steamer City of Washington acted quickly in rescuing survivors and caring for the wounded. The attitude and actions of the Spanish allayed initial suspicions that hostile action caused the explosion, and led Sigsbee to include at the bottom of his initial telegram the cautionary phrase, "Public opinion should be suspended until further report."

The U.S. Navy Department immediately formed a board of inquiry under Captain William T. Sampson to determine the cause of Maine's destruction. The board met in Havana on 21 February, and their investigation lasted four weeks. The condition of the submerged wreck and a lack of technical expertise prevented the board from being as thorough as later investigating groups would be. In the end, they concluded that a mine had detonated under the ship. The board did not attempt to fix blame for the placement of the device.

When the naval court's verdict was announced, the American public reacted with predictable outrage. Fed by inflammatory articles in the "Yellow Press" blaming Spain for the disaster, the public had already placed guilt on the Iberian government and called for the liberation of Cuba. Destruction of Maine did not cause the United States to declare war on Spain, but it served as a catalyst, accelerating the approach to a diplomatic impasse. The sinking of the ship and death of U.S. sailors rallied American opinion behind armed intervention. With the threat of war larger than ever, the United States government stepped up preparations.

At the beginning of March 1898 the fleet of the United States Navy consisted of five battleships, two armored cruisers, thirteen protected cruisers, six steel monitors, eight old iron monitors, thirty-three unprotected cruisers and gunboats, six torpedo boats, and twelve tugs. Noticeably absent from this list, however, were colliers, supply vessels, transports, hospital ships, repair ships, and the large number of small vessels necessary for maintaining an effective blockade of Cuba's numerous ports. As the Navy Department's war plans clearly indicated, the government needed to purchase or contract for scores of these auxiliary ships. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt organized a Board of Auxiliary Vessels that used information in the department's war plans to prepare a list of suitable private craft which would meet the Navy's expanded needs. On 9 March, Congress passed a $50 million emergency defense appropriation bill, and the Navy Department began to acquire vessels. By the end of the war, the Navy had purchased or leased 103 warships and auxiliaries. Another twenty-eight ships, including lighthouse tenders and the vessels of the Fish Commission and Revenue Cutter Service, had been added from existing government organizations. After the war auxiliary vessels such as colliers, refrigerator ships, and distilling ships became a permanent part of the fleet.

Secretary Long formally organized the Naval War Board in March 1898 to advise him on strategy and operations. Initial members were Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard (who had just arrived from command of the North Atlantic Station), Captain Arent S. Crowninshield, and Captain Albert S. Barker. By May, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan joined the organization. This body was soon reduced in size, though, since Roosevelt left to become a lieutenant colonel in the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, and the Navy Department reassigned Captain Barker to command USS Newark. Although it had no executive authority, the board exerted considerable influence on operations through its advisory capacity. In particular, Mahan's views often dominated. Following earlier war plans, the board recommended concentrating on Spain's outlying possessions with a close blockade of Cuba, giving the U.S. Army time to mobilize sufficient strength for land campaigns in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

While the Navy Department worked with the President and the War Department in developing strategy, Secretary Long began positioning naval units for the opening of hostilities. Much of the North Atlantic Squadron was already concentrated for winter exercises at Key West, Florida. The first colliers did not reach the fleet until 3 May, nearly two weeks after the blockade began. On 17 March the battleships Massachusetts and Texas were ordered to join the armored cruiser Brooklyn at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to form the Flying Squadron under Commodore Winfield Scott Schley. The protected cruisers Minneapolis and Columbia joined Schley's force before the war started. The squadron was organized to protect the U.S. coast against a sudden attack by the Spanish armored cruisers of Pascual Cervera's squadron, known to be concentrating in the Cape Verde Islands. The Navy Department recalled the protected cruiser USS San Francisco and Commodore John A. Howell from Europe. On 20 April, Howell assumed command of the newly formed Northern Patrol Squadron, which was responsible for the protection of the coast and coastal trade from the Delaware capes to Bar Harbor, Maine. Rear Admiral Henry Erben commanded the Auxiliary Naval Force with his headquarters on shore at New York City. This command consisted primarily of eight old iron monitors stationed at several U.S. ports.

On 25 February, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt sent a telegram to Commodore George Dewey commanding him to concentrate the ships of the Asiatic Station at Hong Kong. In the event of war he was to take his squadron and destroy the Spanish ships in Philippine waters. Dewey's command at Hong Kong consisted of the protected cruisers Olympia, Boston, and Raleigh and the gunboats Concord and Petrel. The Revenue Cutter McCulloch joined the force on 17 April, and the protected cruiser Baltimore arrived on 22 April. Dewey also prepared for future operations in a region without friendly bases by purchasing the British steamers Nanshan and Zafiro to carry coal and supplies for his squadron.

Anticipating a showdown with the Spanish fleet in the Atlantic theater, Secretary Long ordered the battleship USS Oregon to depart from its home port at Bremerton, Washington, on 7 March, to begin the first leg of a 14,700-nautical-mile journey to Key West. The gunboat USS Marietta made the battleship's voyage quicker and easier by arranging for coal and supplies in the South American ports along the way. Oregon arrived at her destination on 26 May fully ready for operations against the Spanish fleet.

Although President McKinley continued to press for a diplomatic settlement to the Cuban problem, he accelerated military preparations begun in January when an impasse appeared likely. The Spanish position on Cuban independence hardened, and McKinley asked Congress on 11 April for permission to intervene. On 21 April, the President ordered the Navy to begin a blockade of Cuba, and Spain followed with a declaration of war on 23 April. Congress responded with a formal declaration of war on 25 April, made retroactive to the start of the blockade.

Opening Moves

International law required that a blockade had to be effective to be legal. With the absence of colliers and the Atlantic Fleet divided between Key West and Hampton Roads, the American effort was initially limited to the north coast of Cuba between Cardenas and Bahia Honda, and Cienfuegos on the south coast. In the early light of 22 April, Sampson's fleet steamed from Key West across the Florida Straits and began the blockade. Sampson believed he could reduce the defenses of Havana by bombarding the Spanish fortifications one at a time, beginning from the west. However, Secretary Long, following the advice of the Naval War Board, which expected Cervera's fleet to deploy to the Caribbean, ordered him not to risk his armored ships unnecessarily against land fortifications. The Navy Department was considering occupying the port of Matanzas, garrisoning it with a large military force, and opening communications with the insurgents. Long wanted Sampson to keep his most powerful ships ready to escort the transports if McKinley should decide on an early army landing in Cuba.

By the morning of 23 April, the advance ships of the blockading fleet were off their assigned ports. Additional vessels reinforced them over the next several days. The U.S. Navy struggled during the first weeks of the war to assemble the logistical apparatus necessary to support the blockade. Ships had to keep steam up in their boilers to pursue unknown vessels as they came into sight. Until colliers were fitted out and sent south, most of the blockading ships were forced to return to Key West to coal. Fresh water and food were also in short supply during the early days of the war.

The blockade was monotonous duty broken only by the rare capture of a Spanish vessel or an exchange of gunfire with gunboats and shore batteries. A few actions were intense, such as the one at Cardenas on 11 May when Spanish gunboats drew the U.S. Navy gunboat Wilmington, the torpedo boat Winslow, and the Revenue Cutter Hudson deep into the harbor. Hidden Spanish batteries ambushed Winslow, severely damaging her, killing ten and wounding twenty-one of her crew. While under heavy fire, Hudson towed the torpedo boat out of the harbor as Wilmington covered the withdrawal with rapid fire against the Spanish guns.

The U.S. blockading forces also undertook operations to isolate Cuba from telegraphic communications to Madrid via Cienfuegos, Santiago, and Guantánamo. The most celebrated action of this type occurred on 11 May off Cienfuegos. Commander Bowman H. McCalla of the cruiser Marblehead organized a party and planned an operation to cut the underwater communication cables. Marine sharpshooters and machine gun crews in steam cutters poured a continuous fire into Spanish positions on shore, along with gunfire support from Marblehead and the gunboat Nashville, while sailors in launches dragged the sea floor with grappling hooks for the cables. The launch and cutter crews endured heavy Spanish fire for three hours and cut the two main telegraph cables (leaving a third, local line), and dragged the ends out to sea. Every member of this expedition was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Battle of Manila Bay

Secretary Long telegraphed Commodore Dewey at Hong Kong on 21 April informing him that the U.S. blockade of Cuba had begun and that war was expected at any moment. On 24 April, British authorities informed the commodore that war had been declared and he must leave the neutral port within twenty-four hours, since the United States was now a belligerent. Dewey also received a telegram from the Navy Department instructing him to proceed immediately to the Philippine Islands and begin operations against the Spanish fleet. The American squadron moved to Mirs Bay on the Chinese coast thirty miles east of Hong Kong to await a circulating pump for Raleigh and the arrival of Oscar Williams, the American consul at Manila, who would have the latest intelligence on the Spanish military forces. They spent two days drilling, distributing ammunition, and stripping the ships of all wooden articles (which could add to fire damage on board ship caused by enemy gunfire). Almost immediately after Williams arrived on 27 April, the American ships departed for the Philippines in search of the Spanish squadron.

In a meeting called by the governor general of the Philippines on 15 March, Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron, in command of Spanish naval forces in the colony, concluded that his squadron would be destroyed by the onslaught of the American ships. The Spanish squadron consisted of seven unarmored ships carrying thirty-seven heavy guns and weighing a total of 11,328 tons. Montojo's largest ship was made of wood. Dewey's command was much stronger, consisting of six steel vessels mounting fifty-three guns and displacing 19,098 tons. Four of these had armored decks. Montojo recommended fortifying the entrances to Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, and moving his ships there to await Dewey's attack. If the Americans bypassed Subic and anchored in Manila Bay, Montojo believed his ships could sneak up on them during the night and inflict some damage. The governor general agreed. However, Montojo did not track the progress of the work in Subic Bay.

With the declaration of war the Spanish admiral took his squadron into Subic Bay only to discover that the commander there still needed another six weeks to mount his guns on Isla Grande at the bay's entrance. On 28 April, Montojo learned that the Americans had left Mirs Bay bound for the Philippines. After calling a council of his captains, he returned with his ships to Manila. Seventeen guns, including nine obsolete muzzleloaders, guarded the two passages into the Manila Bay. The Spanish attempted to mine the main channel, but the water was so deep and the entrance so wide that neither mines nor shore batteries were an effective barrier to enemy ships passing through during the night. Of the more than 200 guns near the city of Manila, only twelve were breech-loaders positioned to fire out to sea. Montojo rejected the idea of fighting under the guns of the city because civilian structures would likely be hit by American fire. The Spanish decided to anchor their ships in the shallow waters under the guns of the Cavite arsenal, on a small peninsula seven miles southwest of Manila. Deeply pessimistic about his fleet's chances of survival, Montojo believed the position gave his men the best chance to escape from their vessels should they be sunk in the upcoming battle.

Boat party from USS Petrel sets fire to abandoned Spanish gunboats during the Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898. Drawings by C. T. Smith. Deeds of Valor. Vol. 2. Detroit: Perrien-Keydel Co.
Caption: Boat party from USS Petrel sets fire to abandoned Spanish gunboats during the Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898. Drawings by C. T. Smith. Deeds of Valor. Vol. 2. Detroit: Perrien-Keydel Co.

Consul Williams accurately reported that Montojo intended to fight his squadron while under the guns in Subic Bay, and Dewey sent two of his cruisers ahead to reconnoiter. Finding Subic Bay empty, and in defiance of the reports of mines in the chan-nel, the Americans pressed on into Manila Bay during the night of 30 April. In the early morning hours of 1 May, the U.S. warships discovered the Spanish squadron near Cavite. Leaving his two auxiliaries in the bay guarded by McCulloch, Dewey formed his remaining ships into a line and steamed for the enemy force. The Spanish opened the battle at 5:15 a.m., firing at the oncoming American ships. Dewey steamed his squadron in an oval pattern along the five-fathom curve, pouring a heavy fire into the outgunned and obsolete Spanish force. The enemy replied with wildly inaccurate gunfire from their ships and two 5.9-inch guns at Sangley Point. The Americans scored critical hits on the larger Spanish warships, setting them ablaze. After nearly two hours of fire, Dewey ordered his captains to withdraw, acting on reports from the crew that his ships were running low on ammunition.

Dewey took his squadron five miles off Sangley Point and signaled his captains to come on board to report the condition of their ships. The commodore discovered that his squadron had sustained very little damage and that it had plenty of ammunition to continue the battle. After allowing the crewmen to enjoy a light meal, Dewey ordered his ships to re-engage the remnants of Montojo's shattered squadron. The Spanish admiral had pulled his surviving vessels into the shallow waters of Bacoor Bay behind Cavite to make a final stand. Hitting the Spanish ships in their new anchorage proved difficult for the larger warships, so Dewey ordered the gunboats Concord and Petrel, with their shallow draft, to finish off the enemy at close range. The garrison at Cavite raised a white flag at about 12:15, and the firing ended shortly thereafter.

Montojo's fleet was destroyed, suffering 371 casualties compared to only 9 Americans wounded. When official word of the magnitude of the U.S. Navy's victory reached the United States, nearly a week later, the American public heaped enthusiastic praises on Dewey and jubilant celebrations erupted throughout the country. However, 26,000 Spanish regulars and 14,000 militia garrisoned various points in the Philippine Islands, including 9,000 men at Manila. The U.S. squadron took control of the arsenal and navy yard at Cavite, and Dewey cabled Washington stating that, although he controlled Manila Bay and could probably induce the city to surrender, he needed 5,000 men to seize and hold Manila.

The Hunt for Cervera

Admiral Cervera had repeatedly warned the Spanish Ministry of Marine that his squadron would face certain destruction if sent to the Caribbean. Under orders, on 29 April he departed the Cape Verde Islands with his squadron of four armored cruisers, towing three torpedo-boat destroyers, intending to steam for Puerto Rico. To search for the Spanish squadron, the U.S. Navy Department dispatched three fast former mail steamers, Harvard, Yale, and St. Louis, to the Caribbean. The vessels established a patrol line stretching from Puerto Rico and along the Leeward and Windward Islands. As long as Cervera's location remained uncertain, the U.S. fleet would be divided between Rear Admiral Sampson's North Atlantic Fleet based in Key West and Commodore Schley's Flying Squadron based in Hampton Roads; the former maintained the blockade of Cuba and the latter guarded the East Coast of the United States from a sudden descent by the Spanish cruisers.

Sampson correctly deduced that Cervera intended to make for San Juan, Puerto Rico, and determined to deprive the Spanish fleet of the defensive advantages of that port. Leaving his smaller ships to maintain the blockade of Cuba's northern ports, the American admiral embarked on an eight-day journey, plagued by the slow speed and mechanical unreliability of his two monitors. The American force arrived off San Juan early on 12 May. After a nearly four-hour bombardment of the Spanish works, Sampson broke off the engagement and returned to Key West, satisfied that Cervera's ships were not in San Juan.

The need to tow their fragile destroyers slowed the Spanish squadron's crossing of the Atlantic. As he approached the West Indies, the Spanish admiral dispatched two of these vessels to the French island of Martinique to gain information on American movements and check on the availability of coal. On 12 May, Cervera learned that Sampson was at San Juan. The Spanish admiral also discovered that the French would not sell him any coal. Driven by the need to refuel his ships and the desire to avoid combat with a superior American force, Cervera steamed for the Dutch harbor of Curaçao. He arrived there on 14 May only to be further disappointed when the expected Spanish collier failed to arrive, and the Dutch governor authorized the purchase of only 600 tons of coal. After considering his options, Cervera chose to sail his fleet to Santiago de Cuba where he arrived on the morning of 19 May.

With Sampson out of touch for long periods during his return from Puerto Rico, Secretary Long on 13 May ordered Commodore Schley's Flying Squadron to Charleston, South Carolina, in preparation to intercept the Spanish fleet. Further orders directed Schley to Key West and a meeting with Rear Admiral Sampson. The Navy Department believed that Cervera's most likely objective was Cienfuegos because of its rail connection to Havana. Therefore, after arriving in Key West on 18 May, Schley received orders to take his squadron, reinforced by the battleship Iowa and several smaller vessels, to Cienfuegos. On 19 May, after Schley's departure, the White House received an unconfirmed report that the Spanish ships had run into Santiago de Cuba. Upon receiving this information, Sampson instructed Schley to proceed to Santiago if he was satisfied that Cervera was not at Cienfuegos. Uncertainty over the Spanish squadron's whereabouts, the difficulty of observing ships in the harbor at Cienfuegos, concerns over coaling in open waters, and perhaps Schley's own ego led to erratic movements by the Flying Squadron not in keeping with Sampson's or the Navy Department's expectations. After numerous delays, Commodore Schley established a blockade off Santiago de Cuba on 29 May.

When Cervera arrived at Santiago de Cuba he discovered that the port had neither enough coal nor supplies to provision his ships for a long voyage. Armed with reports that the American fleet was closing in on his location, the admiral called a council of his captains on 24 May to consider taking the squadron to San Juan. The council decided that it was best to remain where they were, refitting the ships as much as possible and hope for a later favorable opportunity to leave. Cervera seemed to believe that the only function his squadron could now serve was that of a "fleet in being," and therefore that one harbor was as good as another to occupy while under blockade. He briefly reconsidered his decision on 26 May, but reports of American ships off the coast persuaded him to stay in Santiago de Cuba. With the arrival of the Flying Squadron on 29 May, the opportunity for an uncontested departure disappeared.

The Navy in the Campaign for Santiago de Cuba

McKinley and his advisors had originally intended to wait until the end of the rainy season to send a major land expedition to Cuba. But, with the Spanish squadron bottled up at Santiago, U.S. leaders saw an opportunity to strike a damaging blow to the enemy's military capability in the Caribbean. On 1 June, Secretary Long informed Sampson that 25,000 men under Major General William Shafter were preparing to embark for Cuba from Tampa, Florida, and that the North Atlantic Fleet should convoy the troops and assist a landing near Santiago. Meanwhile, Sampson took steps to tighten the blockade of Cervera's squadron.

At the onset of the campaign Sampson seized on the idea of sinking a vessel in the narrow channel leading to the harbor of Santiago. He intended to keep the Spanish ships from escaping until the Army could capture the city or assist the Navy in passing the forts and mines at the harbor entrance. The Naval War Board in Washington approved, and Sampson selected the collier Merrimac, commanded during the operation by naval constructor Richard Pearson Hobson. Hobson and seven volunteers took the ship into the channel during the early morning hours of 3 June. Gunfire from Spanish shore batteries shot away the vessel's steering gear and anchor chains, making it impossible for the Americans to sink the vessel in the proper location. Only two of the ten prepared scuttling charges went off, and Merrimac came to rest too far up the channel to pose a serious obstacle. The Spanish captured Hobson and his brave men.

This failure forced Sampson to rely on a close blockade to keep the Spanish squadron in port. The American ships would need a safe place to refuel much closer to Santiago than either Haiti or Key West. Coaling at sea was a difficult and lengthy process. As a result, Sampson sent Commander McCalla and USS Marblehead to reconnoiter Guantánamo Bay as a possible anchorage. McCalla's report was favorable, and on 10 June the First Marine Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Huntington landed and established a position on the east side of the outer harbor. This unit defeated Spanish troops in the area and held the site for coaling operations throughout the campaign.

Major General Shafter's troop transports departed Tampa on 14 June, rendezvousing with their Navy escorts the following day. The expedition arrived off Santiago on 20 June and began to disembark at Daiquiri, east of the city, two days later. In addition to providing escort for the convoy, Sampson's ships furnished fifty-two steam launches, sailing launches, whaleboats, lifeboats, and cutters to help move the soldiers and their equipment ashore. Shafter expressed deep appreciation for the Navy's assistance because there were too few boats on the Army's transports to disembark the expedition in a reasonable length of time.

Sampson's armored ships maintained a tight blockade of Santiago de Cuba, coaling from colliers in open water when the seas were calm and from colliers at Guantánamo Bay when the weather required it. On the morning of 3 July, Admiral Cervera attempted to break out of the American blockade, thus precipitating the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. Near the entrance to the bay that morning were the battleships Texas, Oregon, Iowa, and Indiana, the armored cruiser Brooklyn, and the armed yachts Vixen and Gloucester. Most of the battle was a running fight as the blockading vessels attempted to get up enough steam to stay with their quarry. Foul bottoms and poor-quality coal reduced the speeds of the usually swift Spanish cruisers. Ranges between the combatants were often in excess of 4,000 yards, greater than the American crews had trained for and longer than their new range finders could handle. In addition, radical turns in the early stages of the battle complicated the U.S. Navy's gunnery problem. Smoke from the weapons' brown powder and frequent mechanical failures further reduced the effectiveness of its gunfire. The battleships and Brooklyn generally registered hits when they were able to maintain a parallel or near parallel course with the Spanish cruisers for several minutes. Although only 1.29 percent of American shots hit their targets, the volume of fire proved sufficient to destroy or run aground all of Cervera's vessels. The destruction of the Spanish cruiser squadron at Santiago de Cuba freed President McKinley and the Navy Department to pursue other strategic options.

Global Strategy

In the years prior to the war, U.S. planners had never reached a consensus on the issue of deploying a squadron of warships to European waters. Although the Naval War Board had not originally planned such a deployment, the formation of the Spanish navy's Reserve Squadron resurrected the debate. Following the departure of Cervera's squadron to the Caribbean, the Spanish Ministry of Marine began to organize a second squadron under Rear Admiral Manuel de la Cámara y Libermoore, centered around the battleship Pelayo and the armored cruiser Emperator Carlos V. Although U.S. Navy leaders believed that this force would reinforce Cervera, they had considered it possible that the Spanish ships would head for the Philippines. Consequently, Secretary Long dispatched the monitors Monterey and Monadnock on a slow and hazardous voyage across the Pacific to reinforce Dewey's command at Manila. Long's actions were vindicated when Spain's Reserve Squadron departed Cadiz on 16 June and steamed into the Mediterranean bound for the Philippine Islands.

The Navy Department responded to the news of Cámara's deployment by ordering Rear Admiral Sampson to detail two battleships, an armored cruiser, and three auxiliary cruisers for departure to Europe if the strong Spanish force passed into the Red Sea. When the Reserve Squadron arrived at Port Said on 26 June, Washington decided to organize formally a force entitled the Eastern Squadron. The command, which was activated on 7 July under the leadership of Commodore John C. Watson, consisted of the battleship Oregon, the protected cruiser Newark, and the auxiliary cruisers Yosemite and Dixie. The Navy Department added the battleship Massachusetts on 9 July, the auxiliary cruiser Badger on 12 July, and the protected cruiser New Orleans on 17 July. The Navy also assembled six colliers and a refrigerator ship at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to support the Eastern Squadron's deployment. The Navy Department allowed news of the squadron's formation and its intended target to be widely circulated, hoping that such news would force Spain to recall the Reserve Squadron to Spanish waters.

Cámara ran into difficulty attempting to refuel his ships at Port Said. The Egyptian government refused to sell him coal or to allow the Spanish squadron to take on coal from its own colliers while in port. Forced out to sea, where bad weather prevented coaling, the Spanish admiral took his squadron through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and began refueling on 7 July. This delay allowed the Spanish government an opportunity to reconsider Cámara's mission in light of the near certainty that American ships would enter Spanish waters. The Sagasta government recalled the Reserve Squadron to Cadiz, and Watson's deployment was held in abeyance for the time being.

Even though Spain no longer threatened Dewey's forces at Manila, the Navy Department was concerned that Germany might try to take advantage of the situation to increase her colonial possessions in the Pacific. Rear Admiral Sicard and Captain Crowninshield of the Naval War Board still wanted to send Watson to reinforce Dewey, but Captain Mahan dissented from this view. Meanwhile, Watson's ships were needed to support the expedition to Puerto Rico. By the time the Eastern Squadron was free to depart the Caribbean, peace negotiations were under way, and Watson's deployment was held back for good.

Closing Campaigns

The U.S. Navy provided escort and support for the Army's final two campaigns of the war. On the afternoon of 21 July, the lead forces for the invasion of Puerto Rico got under way from Guantánamo Bay. The battleship Massachusetts as well as Dixie, Gloucester, Columbia, and Yale, all under the command of Captain Francis J. Higginson, steamed for Puerto Rico with nine transports loaded with 3,500 U.S. Army troops. Originally planning to land east of San Juan at Playa de Fajardo, the expedition's commander, Major General Nelson A. Miles, instead directed the Navy to land his force on the island's south coast. The expedition arrived off Port Guanica on the morning of 25 July. Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright of Gloucester requested and received permission to send a landing party ashore. The men soon came under fire from the small Spanish garrison but held their position until the first Army troops secured the landing place. Wainwright also assisted the amphibious landing at Port Ponce on the 28th when he stole into the inner harbor the night before and gathered up a number of enemy barges for the Army to use.

In the Pacific, Dewey's success at Manila Bay prompted the McKinley administration to take several important steps to support his squadron. Besides the two monitors previously mentioned, Secretary Long dispatched the protected cruiser Charleston from San Francisco on 22 May, with orders to seize the strategically located Spanish island of Guam on the way to Manila. The authorities on Guam, unaware until the American warship arrived on 20 June that the war had even started, surrendered the island without a fight. The first troops intended for the Philippines, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas M. Anderson, departed from San Francisco three days after Charleston and arrived at Manila on 30 June. Two more groups, one with the expedition's commander, Major General Wesley Merritt, left for the Philippines during June. Before the end of the war, 10,844 U.S. Army officers and men had deployed to the Philippines. In July the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands, completing the path of U.S. controlled territories to the western Pacific.

Meanwhile, Dewey brought the Filipino insurgent Emilio Aguinaldo to Cavite, hoping to learn more about the Spanish garrison and welcoming any support the Filipino rebels might provide by their operations against Spanish forces. However, Dewey and the American consuls in the Far East overestimated their ability to control the consequences of this action, which was complicated by Aguinaldo's expectation that the United States would support his demand for the colony's independence. By the time American forces were prepared to assault Manila in August, the potential problems of cooperating with the rebels had become apparent to Dewey and Merritt. The American commanders reached an oral agreement with the governor-general at Manila to surrender the city after a brief naval bombardment and infantry assault. On the morning of 13 August, the guns from the U.S. squadron opened fire and Merritt's troops went forward. After sharp fighting in some quarters the Spanish surrendered, allowing the Americans to occupy Manila; thus keeping the Filipino insurgents out of most sections of the city. The peace protocol had been signed between the United States and Spain on 12 August, but word of this did not reach Manila until four days later.

Lessons and Legacies of the War with Spain

The Spanish-American War proved to be an important learning experience for the U.S. Navy. When detailed official reports of the Battles of Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba were analyzed, American naval leadership slowly accepted that its naval gunfire had performed badly. The practice of firing too quickly, the use of brown powder that created increasing clouds of smoke with every shot, and long and rapidly changing ranges all contributed to American hit rates of less than 3 percent. This performance inspired naval officers, like Lieutenant William S. Sims, to search vigorously for new techniques and technology to improve U.S. naval gunnery. The war demonstrated the need for large numbers of auxiliary craft, especially colliers. Despite the advocacy of the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Naval War College, and the U.S. Naval Institute for these types of craft, it was not until coaling problems were revealed in the cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1908-1909 that the Navy Department requested appropriations for Navy colliers.

Alfred Thayer Mahan concluded that it was difficult for a representative government like that of the United States to adhere to sound military principles if there was not an appreciation for them among the people or their leaders. Mahan therefore examined the war in his writings and sought to educate the American public and its leaders about the basic principles of strategic naval warfare. Nothing illustrates better Mahan's concerns than his discussion of the formation of the Flying Squadron to protect the Atlantic coast of the United States just prior to the start of the war. He was convinced that dividing the fleet was strategically unsound since it weakened the blockade of Cuba and reduced Sampson's margin of superiority over Cervera. Nonetheless, it was politically necessary since American businessmen and inhabitants along the coast demanded protection from a sudden attack by Spanish warships. After the war, Mahan worked to widen the influence of his ideas, even supporting the strengthening of coastal fortifications so that the growing battle fleet would be free to operate in accordance with his ideas.

Mahan also believed that the war demonstrated that the number of ships was just as important as the size of individual vessels in determining the composition of the main battle line. Mechanical problems, the need to refuel, and the friction of war often affected the American fleet operating in the Caribbean. Mahan wrote that naval planners should consider these factors rather than simply advocating the construction of a few very large battleships. Mahan further argued that the war demonstrated that monitors had no place in an offensive-oriented fleet. They were too unseaworthy to steam great distances under their own power, and their slow speed served to limit the mobility of the entire fleet.

The U.S. Navy's contribution to victory over Spain was tarnished by at least one postwar examination. The nature of the running fight at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on 3 July made it difficult to apportion credit for the lop-sided victory. Sampson had been on his way to confer with Shafter when the battle began, leaving Schley in charge of the ships maintaining the blockade. While Sampson's initial report did not mention Schley, some journalists took the opportunity to exaggerate the latter's role in the battle. Upset by the growing controversy, Sampson formally complained in writing to Secretary Long that Schley's conduct while hunting Cervera's squadron in May was "reprehensible." Sampson's letter became public during debate that followed President McKinley's proposal to make permanent Sampson's and Schley's promotions to rear admiral. Naval officers, congressmen, and newspaper editors lined up behind either Sampson or Schley as the controversy continued to grow. Neither the passage of the promotions on 3 March 1899 nor Secretary Long's circular the following November prohibiting officers from discussing the matter in public ended the damaging debate.

Hoping to put the issue to rest, Long eventually ordered Admiral of the Navy George Dewey to convene a court of inquiry to investigate the charges related to Schley's conduct. The court met for forty days beginning on 12 September 1901. In the final report a majority of court members were critical of Schley, but Dewey issued a separate opinion supportive of Schley's conduct. Neither Sampson nor Schley was satisfied by this turn of events, and both sides filed appeals as the public debate continued. When the judge advocate upheld the court's findings, Schley appealed directly to President Roosevelt in January 1902. Roosevelt, who saw the issue as a review of McKinley's decision to promote Sampson over Schley in 1899, supported the action of his predecessor, and the advocates now continued their fight through memoirs and historical narratives. The Sampson-Schley controversy discredited the otherwise excellent reputation of the U.S. Navy during the war and probably obstructed attempts to record an objective view of events. Participants who wrote accounts of the campaign and Battle of Santiago de Cuba in the years following the war could not help but be influenced by the controversy raging around them.


Although the Spanish-American War lasted fewer than five months, it had a lasting influence on the United States and signaled a dramatic change in its position in the world. It also marked the emergence on the global stage of the U. S. Navy.

The United States went to war with Spain in April 1898 to secure Cuban independence and end the revolutionary war that was killing thousands of Cuban civilians and damaging U.S. economic interests. As a result of the war, the United States became a world power by acquiring the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico from a defeated Spain. Recognizing the need to support its new overseas interests, the country acquired through purchase or treaty the Hawaiian Islands, Guantánamo Bay, the Virgin Islands, and part of the Samoan archipelago.

Ironically, in winning a war against European colonialism, the United States became a colonial power itself and ended up suppressing, by force, a bitter insurrection in the Philippines. A major departure from American tradition, the acquisition of overseas colonies (especially the Philippines) stimulated a great national debate. Those opposed saw colonialism as a denial of America's high moral position in entering the war to win Cuba's freedom. They feared the consequences of an enlarged military establishment and foreign entanglements. Expansionists, on the other hand, saw the Philippines as a base for American trade in the Far East and as part of a campaign to ensure national greatness. The domestic market could not absorb all the output of American factories, and American farmers sought new markets for their agricultural surpluses. Protestant churches saw an opportunity to send missionaries to the Philippines to work among the population. Social Darwinists believed the United States had a duty to bring civilization, and what they considered to be a superior culture, to the native populations of the newly occupied territories. Navalists held that the United States could only hold its place and advance its interests in the world if the country had a strong navy; and a strong navy required a healthy merchant marine, overseas commerce, and naval bases and coaling facilities throughout the world.

The acquisition of overseas territories, along with memory of the Navy's victories in the Spanish-American War, led to the realization of Mahan's goals of a larger and more powerful fleet. The American people then viewed the Navy with greater understanding and even affection. Pictures of ships on stereo cards and sailor-suits for children became an indelible part of popular culture at the turn of the century. The Navy also benefited from the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and an accomplished naval historian. Congressional appropriations in the next two decades provided for an unprecedented level of new construction, not only of warships, but also of auxiliary vessels necessary to maintain a fleet on deployments throughout the world.

Institutional changes also helped keep the Navy efficient. Naval administrators sought to make conditions of service attractive to young, native-born, American men. The amalgamation of the Engineer Corps with the Line in 1899 resolved a long-standing cause of dissension. Establishment of the Chief of Naval Operations in 1915 prepared the Navy Department to direct naval operations in the coming world war.

In short, the Spanish-American War was primarily a naval war, and the U.S. Navy was dramatically affected by the experience. Following the war, naval expansion continued at such a high rate that the Navy went from ranking sixth in the world in 1897 to being afforded equal status with Great Britain by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. The Spanish-American War served as a catalyst propelling the New Navy forward, preparing it to fulfill the country's added responsibilities as a major world power in the twentieth century.

Needs and Opportunities for Research and Writing

The large number of books published on Spanish-American War topics illustrates that, even though it was one of America's shortest wars, it played a major role in the history of the United States. Many works have focused on the diplomatic aspects of the conflict, and much of the scholarship on the period has been directed at explaining the transition of the United States from a continental to a world power. General histories of the war are plentiful, and works by and about journalists abound. Naval operations seem to be well covered, but nearly all accounts lack the depth and analysis found in operational histories of other periods. The historiography of the war needs a modern history of naval operations that incorporates the impact of such issues as logistics, naval engineering, gunfire technology, mechanical unreliability, and crew training.

Perhaps the largest gap in the historiography of the early years of the New Navy is a study of the enlisted force. The period is known for the growing professionalization of the officer corps, but often overlooked is the Navy's development of a body of skilled, experienced petty officers in a service increasingly dominated by rapidly growing technology. Frederick Harrod in his excellent book, Manning the New Navy: The Development of a Modern Naval Enlisted Force, 1899-1940, provides a sketch of the early years as a context for his larger study. His focus is on the period following the Spanish-American War, when the sudden growth of the Navy demanded major changes in recruiting, organizing, and training the service's enlisted force. Many issues remain largely unexplored, such as how men, recruited under the system and standards of the days of wooden warships, trained and coped with the complex machines of the New Navy. A significant source of trained manpower during the war was the state naval militias, organizations similar to the National Guard. Many of these men were distributed throughout the fleet at the start of the war. However, four auxiliary cruisers were, with the exception of the captain, executive officer, and navigator, entirely manned by the naval militias of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Michigan. The stories of these unique organizations and their men need telling.

Other subjects are also open to further research. William T. Sampson and Winfield Scott Schley, for example, stand among a number of naval personalities from the war who await full-length biographies. A detailed modern assessment of the Sampson-Schley controversy, including the role played by the American media and how the controversy affected the Navy is also needed. The historiography of the war needs a detailed examination of the administration of the Navy and its bureau system and an assessment of Secretary Long's leadership. The acquisition and role of hospital ships, colliers, transports, and other auxiliary vessels also deserve closer examination by historians.

The naval history of the Spanish-American War could serve as the basis for several comparative studies. For example, a deeper understanding of the development of naval gunfire technology and techniques could be achieved by a comparative analysis of this issue in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Another topic would be a comparison of American public reaction to the Virginius affair in 1873 to that of the sinking of Maine in 1898. How and why did the reactions differ? Other topics might involve comparing the value of naval superiority, amphibious landings, or Army-Navy cooperation in American wars between 1846 and 1898.

American historians often overlook Spanish perspectives on the war. Most accounts rely on the Spanish reports translated by the Office of Naval Intelligence. Valuable as this material may be, the documentary sources on the period in Spanish archives located at Segovia, northwest of Madrid, have been ignored by all but a few American historians. Details concerning Spanish naval operations, technological problems, crew training, and strategic decision making would greatly enhance our understanding of the war.

Published: Mon Mar 16 16:50:45 EDT 2020