Commander William T. Swinburne to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet
U. S. S. Helena, 3rd Rate,
Off Trinidad Cuba,
July 4, 1898.
I have the honor to report as follows on the operations of this vessel during the past three or four days.
While cruising off the chain of Cays to the Southward of Trinidad on the night of June 30, a search-light was observed playing throughout the night in the direction of [Zaza] or Port Tunas.
As this place is mentioned particularly by Consul Dent in connection with blockade running, I decided to go in and find out the source of the light.
On the morning of July 1st as soon as the sun was high enough to show the signal shots, I moved in and soon discovered a steamers smoke which later proved to be the U.S.S.Peoria with two steamers in convoy, close in shore a little to the Westward of the town of Tunas.
Lieut. Ryan, in command of the Peoria, came within hail and reported that the larger transport (the Florida) was aground and that an attempted landing the night before by a small force of Americans and Cubans from the transports had been repulsed by the Spaniards with some loss, the brother of General Nunez commanding the Cuban force being killed and Mr. Winthrop Chanler in charge of the American contingent being among the wounded. Luckily they had been able to bring off their wounded, and owing to Lieut Ryan’s constant patrol during the night, the transport had so far been unmolested, but that they were greatly in need of assistance. I moved in at once up to a large Block-House, with intrenchments on either side, to Westward of transports and fired a few well directed shots, to deter the enemy from attempting any further attack, and then anchored astern of the Florida and took a line from her by which at high water (5:46 P.M.) she came off quite easily.
We then moved down about four miles and anchored for the night , as the Florida had to restore many weights which had been removed to the Fanita, the mail transport.
The next morning, July 2nd, Lieutenant Johnston 10th Cavalry who is in charge of the expedition came on board in consultation. He reported that they had decided to attempt another landing at Palo Alto about forty seven miles to the Eastward, and desired that I would make a demonstration on the town of Tunas to deceive the enemy.
At 7:30 A.M. I started in (the Peoria following shortly after to help me off in case of grounding) and moved in slowly until I got the ship broadside to the town at 1,800 yards. I was able to make out a small earthworks with the emplacements for four guns close to the Western dock, and a section of field artillery to the Eastward near the R.R. Dock. After careful study of the place I opened fire on the earthworks with the forward 4” which was replied instantly by the enemy, so that I am now satisfied that they were waiting to get us in line of range flag planted in the channel, which my want of knowledge of the deep water kept me clear of. The projectiles from the earthwork battery appeared to be shell and all went over, landing from two to three hundred yards beyond. The projectiles from the field battery appeared to be mostly shrapnel and the range better. One burst in the water just under the starboard 4” gun throwing water over the forecastle and bridge, several hemispherical lead balls from shrapnel were picked up on board, one passing through the bridge screen, and one striking a musket case on the forecastle, no damage to crew or ship.
After twenty eight minutes of excellent firing from our battery, the enemy’s fire ceased and I gave the order to cease firing and signaled same to Peoria. The earthworks were a shapeless wreck, one building near was in flames and the enemy appeared to be engaged in removing their dead and wounded. After waiting fifteen minutes with no return of fire, I moved back to my anchorage.
At the request of Lieut’s Johnston and Ryan, the Peoria and Helena made a short demonstration against the block-house at 5 P.M. and the transports moved off under convoy of Peoria at 10 P.M.
During the evening and night an extensive conflagration was seen in Tunas in what appeared to be the R.R.Wharf.
Sunday July 3rd at 1 P.M. I decided to run in near enough to the town to ascertain what the conflagration of the night before meant, and incidentally help the Cuban Expedition by keeping up the idea of activity here.
As I stood in I soon saw that whatever had been burned had been sacrificed to clear away the wharf for fire from troops and battery, that the batteries (field) had been increased in number, new entrenchments for troops built and guns remounted in the earthworks we knocked down. What appeared to be new range flags had been put in the channel and the force of men in the town largely increased.
A Cuban Pilot, who came off from the town on the Peoria the night they arrived, with a message from General Gomez stated that there were 2500 troops in the town and block-house. Lieut. Johnson, who was a Cavalry Officer should be an authority, reported to me that, during the absence of the Peoria to communicate with me, the cavalry at block-house took advantage of the chance to bathe their horses, and he counted what appeared to him eight troops as they lined up. If these numbers are at all correct I believe there were not more than 4000 troops of all kinds in the town and vicinity on Sunday.
When I arrived within two miles I stopped and backed to turn the ship in the narrow channel, thinking I was out of range, but no sooner was our broadside presented than the enemy opened on us with more rapid and rather more accurate fire than the day before, though still shooting high even at this range. Having accomplished my purpose I turned the ship and stood back for my anchorage, firing as I went.
I regret exceedingly that I should have drawn their fire on this occasion as I feel that I could ill afford the ammunition, and there was nothing to be gained. Shell fell quite near us as we came out, but no damage was done. I returned to my anchorage, (about 6 miles South of Tunas) again for the night and am now on my way to report to Commander Dayton off Cienfuegos for orders.
In the engagement with the batteries on Saturday, Lieutenant Ryan followed me in with the Peoria at his own request to assist me in case of grounding, and rendered very effective service with his 3 pdr battery.
Commander, U. S. N. Commanding.