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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Blockade of Southern Cuba

     Portions of southern Cuba were subject to selective blockade from the beginning of the Spanish-American War. The major port on the southern coast, Cienfuegos, with its rail line to Havana, was a favorite landing place for blockade runners. Cienfuegos was also where American planners had believed RAdm. PascualCervera y Topete’s squadron would seek refuge. For this reason, it was the subject to intermittent blockade from the war’s outset.1 The blockade at Cienfuegos became less important after Cervera’s fleet was discovered at Santiago de Cuba in late May, when that port and nearby Guantánamo Bay were subject to close blockade by the United States Navy, tying up most American naval assets.2

While Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo Bay could technically be considered southern Cuba, they really were isolated on the southeastern part of the island and away from the key ports serving the western half of the island and Havana, Cuba’s capital and its most important city. Spain shipped provisions, supplies, and ammunition via Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula and landed it at ports in southern Cuba. Most of the provisions originated in American ports and the Navy considered instituting an embargo on food shipments from the United States to Jamaica, but the War Board, fearing this would upset the British, instead suggested a tight blockade of the entire coast of southern Cuba.

The official United States Navy blockade of this part of southern Cuba was not declared in earnest until 28 June. The Naval War Board suggested a full blockade as early as 16 June, but feared that the American naval commander at Cuba, RAdm. William T. Sampson, did not have enough ships to sustain it. The Navy was overextended at the time, having to patrol off Santiago, blockade Northern Cuba, and convoy the United States Army from Tampa.3 On 21 June, the Naval War Board sent notice that as soon as Sampson believed his forces to be capable to effect it, a blockade would be declared “between Cape Cruz and Cape Frances, including the Isle of Pines,”. President William McKinley then declared the blockade of this area officially on 28 June.4

     After this date, Sampson deployed cruisers, auxiliaries and gun boats to patrol the coast. From Kingston, Consul Louis A. Dent gathered intelligence that the Navy used to hunt blockade runners.5 After the surrender of Santiago de Cuba in mid-July, Sampson greatly expanded the number of ships on the blockade and gave command of the Second Blockading Squadron to Commo. Winfield S. Schley. The ships composing it included: Detroit, Helena, Wilmington, Scorpion, Wompatuck, Osceola, Yankton, Hornet, Eagle, Hist, and Manning. With these warships, Schley was ordered to closely blockade Cienfuegos and to set up strong patrols in the area of Cape Cruz and the Isle of Pine.6 The subsequent blockade had mixed success. At Cienfuegos and Manzanillo trade was all but cut off and those ports isolated; elsewhere, however, blockade runners continued to elude U.S. Navy patrols and slip into smaller ports that dotted the southern coast.7

     The Isle of Pines presented another challenge. Spanish troops occupied the island and it continued to serve as an entry way for supplies and contraband of war.8 In August, Sampson ordered Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich to capture the island, and sent the First Marine Battalion to execute this conquest.9 However, while en route to the island, Goodrich at the last minute decided to first attack Manzanillo. He failed to force Manzanillo’s surrender, but it made little difference, the war ended on 12 August, and, so too, the blockade of southern Cuba.10

Footnote 8: See: Brownson to Sampson, 27 June 1898. The Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos) is modern-day Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth).

Footnote 10: For Goodrich’s attack on Manzanillo, one of a series of operations against that city, see: Naval Operations at Manzanillo.

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