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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

The Bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico

     In early May 1898 RAdm. William T. Sampson diverted a considerable number of the U.S. Navy ships blockading Cuba to search for the Spanish fleet of RAdm. Pascual Cervera Y Topete. Sampson believed the Spanish would first land at San Juan, Puerto Rico to coal.

     San Juan was the natural first port of call for the Spanish fleet en route to Cuba from the Cape Verde Islands. International law dictated that a belligerent fleet could obtain only limited supplies of coal and other stores at the ports of neutral nations. Because San Juan was a Spanish possession it had none of those restrictions. It was also a fortified harbor were the Spanish could coal, re-supply, and make repairs after the arduous Atlantic crossing.

The United States consul in San Juan, Philip C. Hanna, reported in early April that Puerto Rico had amassed an abundant supply of coal after a series of recent deliveries and would thus be a logical stopover for Cervera’s fleet. He also stated that the city’s defenses were weak if attacked from both the sea and land.1 While a joint invasion was unlikely with the Spanish fleet at large, San Juan’s logistical importance did not pass unnoticed to American military planners.

     The Spanish fleet left the Cape Verde Islands on 28 April, and on 29 April the Navy Department dispatched the auxiliary cruiser Yale to patrol the waters off Puerto Rico. On 3 May, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long informed Sampson that the Spanish fleet might be headed to San Juan and,

If their objective is Porto Rico they should arrive about May 8, and immediate action against them and San Juan is then authorized.2

Sampson wasted no time. He sent orders to the captains of the monitors Terror, Amphitrite, and the unprotected cruiser Detroit, then blockading northern Cuba, to rendezvous off the Cruz de Padre light in northwestern Cuba where he intended to form a “Squadron to Operate East of Cuba,” and head to Puerto Rico.3

     Sampson added the battleships Iowa and Indiana, armored cruiser New York (Sampson’s flagship), protected cruiser Montgomery, torpedo boat Porter, armed tug Wompatuck, and supply ship Niagara to his new squadron and set out for for San Juan. From the outset, the voyage was difficult. The monitors were slow in the open sea, plagued with mechanical failures, and had to be towed much of the way.4

     At Cape Haitien (Cap-Haïtien), Haiti, Sampson on 6 May received a message from Long dated three days earlier. The latter reported that there had been no word from Yale concerning the Spanish fleet and cautioned against needlessly risking ships in an attack against the forts at San Juan. Still, Long deferred to Sampson’s judgment. By this time, Sampson had expanded his plan of operation to include the destruction of San Juan’s fortifications and setting up a base on Culebra Island. Long was skeptical, and expressed concern that the blockade would suffer if too many ships were drawn off, but refused to “hamper” the admiral. The Secretary insisted, however, only that Sampson act with dispatch.5 Sampson replied that he was intent on finding the Spanish fleet and on leaving the coastal fortification at San Juan in ruins.6

     At daybreak on 12 May, Sampson arrived at San Juan and ordered his ships to begin the attack. After the first pass of the harbor, Sampson discovered the Spanish Squadron was not there, but decided to bombard and destroy the fortifications at San Juan nonetheless. For three hours the American vessels and the San Juan forts exchanged fire. When the American guns went silent and the smoke cleared, San Juan’s fortifications remained intact and operational. In the action, the Americans had suffered two men killed (one to combat and the other to heat stroke) and minor damage to the squadron’s vessels.7 Later reports from San Juan revealed that the fortresses had suffered negligible damage and that Spanish casualties numbered ten soldiers. American shells fired into the harbor also struck the city causing civilian casualties.8 Having not found the Spanish, Sampson turned his ships around and steamed to Key West later that day.

     As it turned out the Spanish had taken more time to cross the Atlantic than Navy planners had anticipated. Cervera’s first stop was at Martinique on 12 May. There he received word that San Juan was under assault and that the auxiliary cruisers Yale and St. Louis were patrolling the waters around Puerto Rico in search of him. The Spanish admiral also found out that the coal supplies at San Juan were inadequate. Cervera instead set out for the Dutch island of Curaçao in hopes of eluding Sampson and filling his empty coal bunkers.9

     After the battle opinions were mixed regarding the San Juan raid. Long commended Sampson for his prudence in not losing any vessels, while lamenting that the attack had only inflicted negligible damage with expensive ammunition. In his diary, he noted, “the thing strikes me as rather a failure.”10 Consul Hanna agreed. He worried that retaliation would be directed at American and Cuban citizens and property. Hanna also wondered what the lasting effects would be for relations between Puerto Rico and the United States. He was, adamant that any future attack on Puerto Rico should be a full-scale invasion, while recognizing that such an invasion would have to wait until the Spanish fleet was blockaded or destroyed.11 Historians have also been critical, arguing that Sampson should have recognized that long-range naval bombardment of fixed fortifications rarely were effective and that there was a chance of civilian casualties.12 

Footnote 9: Cervera, Squadron Operations, 72-73.

Footnote 11: See: Hanna to Day, 13 May 1898. 

Footnote 12: The Spanish governor of Puerto Rico, Manuel Macías y Casado, claimed victory because the forts were not put out of action. See, “Governor General Manuel Macia’s Version (May 27, 1898) in Brad K. Berner, The Spanish-American War: A Documentary History with Commentaries (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014), 187. Some historical critics charged that Sampson violated international law because he did not warn the city’s non-combatants before opening fire. Nesky and Beach, “The Trouble with Admiral Sampson,” 10.

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