Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet, to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long

U.S. Flagship New York,, 1st Rate,

Key West, Florida,          

May 18, 1898.     

S I R :--

          Supplementary to my telegram No. 73,1 of the twelfth instant, I have the honor to submit the following report, more in detail, of the attack on the defenses of Porto Rico, made by a portion of this Squadron on the twelfth instant.

     2.   Upon approaching San Juan it was seen that none of the Spanish vessels were in the harbor. I was therefore considerably in doubt whether they had reached San Juan and again departed for some unknown destination, or whether they had not arrived.2 As their capture was the object of expedition, and as it was essential that they should not pass to the west-ward, I determined to attack the batteries defending the port, in order to develop their positions and strength, and then, without waiting to reduce the City or subject it to a regular bombardment, --which would require due notice--, turn to the west-ward.

     3.   Our progress had been so much slower than I had reason to anticipate, from Key West to Porto Rico, owing to the frequent breakdowns of the two monitors,3 which made it necessary to tow them both the whole distance, and also to the disabled condition of the INDIANA, that eight days had been consumed instead of five, as I had estimated.

     4.   I commenced the attack as soon as it was good daylight. This lasted about three hours, when the signal was made to discontinue the firing and the Squadron stood to the north-east until out of sight of San Juan, when the course was laid for the west-ward, with the view of communicating with the Department at Port Plata, and learn if the Department had obtained information as to the movements of the Spanish vessels.

     5.   At Cape Haytien I received word from the Department that the Spanish vessels had been sighted off Curacao on the fourteenth instant, and directed me to return with all dispatch to Key West.

     6.   As stated in my telegram no serious injury was done any of the ships, and only one man was killed4 and seven wounded, slightly.

     7.   The following notes were taken during the attack:--

     Weather fair, very light breeze, long swell from north-ward and west-ward.

     3:30--Breakfast.

     4:00--Call “All hands” complete clearing for action. Squadrons standing in for San Juan, the lights of the town being plainly visible, DETROIT leading, WOMPATUCK on starboard bow to anchor boat for turning stake as provided in my “Order of Battle”--second plan of action--,5 the other ship in column as follows:-- IOWA, INDIANA, New York, AMPHITRITE, TERROR and MONTGOMERY. Speed: four knots.

     4:58--DETROIT inshore, standing across harbor entrance.6 In this passage across the front of the harbor, and very close to the town, the DETROIT received no fire at all. No Spanish flag was flying on the Morro or elsewhere. No Spanish vessels could be seen in the harbor. There was one merchant steamer in the inner harbor.

     5:00--Sounded “General Quarters”.

     5:16--IOWA began firing on the Morro with forward six-pounder, and then with all starboard battery. Smoke hanging over the ship made firing slow.

     5:24--First return shot from the shore batteries.

     5:30--IOWA turned from the batteries, circling to the West-ward.

     5:59--Made signal--“Form Column”.

     6:09--Made telegraphic signal--“Use only large guns”--. the smoke from the smaller guns had been interfering with the fire of the heavier guns. The column was headed in for the batteries in the same line of attack as in the first round.

     6:15--DETROIT seen standing away from the Morro, with the MONTGOMERY not far off her port beam. From the time when the shore batteries began firing--5:24--until this time--6:15--the DETROIT had been lying close in shore, between the line followed by the Squadron and the Morro, and she had been subjected to what seemed a concentrated fire of all the shore batteries for all this time, she, in the meanwhile, pouring in broadsides from her own rapid-fire battery.

     6:30--Made signal to DETROIT and MONTGOMERY not to follow battleships. By this time all the shore batteries had been developed and they were more numerous than the information received had led me to suspect.

     6:35--IOWA began firing at Morro on the second round, range 1500 yards.

     6:40--IOWA ceased firing.

Almost calm, smoke hanging over the shore fortifications pretty effectually screening them.

     7:12--AMPHITRITE signaled--“After turret disabled for to-day”.

     7:16--IOWA began firing on the third round.

     7:38--Signaled to DETROIT and MONTGOMERY--“Report casualties”--Received replies as follows:--DETROIT:-“0”, MONTGOMERY:--“0”.

     7:45--IOWA sounded--“Secure”

     7:45--Made signal--“Form Column, course north-west,” and hauled down the signal at 8:01.

     8:12--Made signal “Report casualties”.

     8:15--The TERROR, which had been lying close inshore engaged with the fortifications, ceased firing.7

     8:47--New York reports “one killed, four wounded”. All other ships reported no casualties, except the AMPHITRITE, which reported the death of one Gunner’s Mate from the effects of heat.8

     8.   I enclose copies of the reports of the Commanding Officers on the incidents of the bombardment, including ammunition expended, and behavior of the guns and ordnance material, etc.9

                        Very respectfully,

                                      WT Sampson

                                  Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy,

                        Commander in Chief, U. S. Naval Force

                             North Atlantic Station.

Source Note: TLS, DNA, AFNRC, M625 roll 229. Addressed below close: “The Secretary of the Navy,/Navy Department,/Washington, D.C.” Document reference: “No. 83.” Docketed: “U. S. Flagship New York,/(1st Rate)/Key West, Fla/May 19, ‘98/SAMPSON, W. T.,/Captain,/Commander-In-Chief, U.S. Naval Force,/North Atlantic Station./SUBJECT:/Report on action at San Juan Porto Rico” Stamp: Document features a stamp indicating it was received by the Bureau of Navigation. The Stamp features, “BUREAU OF NAVIGATION” along the top, “MAY 25”along the left side, “1898” along the right side, and “NAVY DEPARTMENT” along the bottom.

Footnote 1: See: Sampson to Long, 12 May 1898.

Footnote 2: Adm. Pascual Cervera y Topete’s fleet first reached Martinique on 12 May before moving onto Curacao, 14 May, and then to Santiago de Cuba on 19 May. Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, 428-429.

Footnote 3: Monitors Amphitrite and Terror

Footnote 4: Seaman Frank Widemark was struck in the neck and killed by shrapnel on the New York. W.A.M. Goode, With Sampson through the War (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899), 74.

Footnote 6: The Detroit was positioned near the harbor entrance to attack any Spanish torpedo boats that might try and attack the American battleships. W.A.M. Goode, With Sampson through the War (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899), 69-70.

Footnote 7: In the confusion of the bombardment, Terror lost track of the fleet and continued to fire on the shore batteries for another half an hour while the rest of the fleet positioned themselves out of range. See, Ibid., 75. 

Footnote 8: United States Navy monitors suffered from a severe lack of ventilation and the combination of heat from the guns, cramped conditions, and the tropical heath produced a deadly combination. As Captain of the Amphitrite, Charles J. Barclay explained:

A most important fact, and one to which I ask your attention, is the utter lack of any system of ventilation below, causing during action, when every thing must be closed, a heat so intense, as to render it almost impossible for men stationed there to remain at their posts... This is particularly the case in the after turret, the heat yester-day causing the death of a Gunner’s Mate on duty there. See, Barclay to Sampson, 13 May 1898, DNA, AFNRC, M625, roll 229.

Footnote 9: For copies of these reports on the bombardment of San Juan, see, DNA, AFNRC, M625, roll 229. In a later report, Sampson explained his decision to abandon operations at San Juan:

It was soon seen that Admiral Cervera’s squadron was not in the port. It was clear to my own mind that the squadron would not have any great difficulty in forcing the surrender of the place [San Juan], but the fact that we should be held several days in completing arrangements for holding it; that part of our force would have to be left to await the arrival of troops to garrison it; that the movement of the Spanish squadron,our main objective, were still unknown; that the Flying Squadron was still North and not in a position to render any aid,that Havana,Cervera’s natural objective,was thus open to entry by such a force as his while we were a thousand miles distant made our immediate movement towards Havana imperative.

I thus reluctantly gave up the project against San Juan and stood westward for Havana. Sampson, Report of Operations, DNA, RG 313, Entry 47.