Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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

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

Key West,Florida,                    

March 29th,1898.       

My dear Mr.Secretary:-

     1.   Referring again to the Spanish Flotilla now on its way to Havana.1 A telegram received in Havana addressed to the Admiral in command at that place2 states that the flotilla will be at Longitude 53-30,Latitude 18-30 between the 5th and 7th of April. This telegram sent from the Cannaries was taken in the Havana office by a man in the employ of General Lee.3 I send you a copy of the telegram which has not been entirely deciphered. You may be able to find some expert who can complete it. As read in Havana the officer in command of the flotilla4 requests that he be met at the above rendezvous and escorted to San Juan.

     2.   Permit me,Mr. Secretary,to again strongly urge that a sufficient force be sent to intercept this flotilla and any vessels sent to their assistance. I understand that such an act is war. But if the President5 is convinced that war cannot be avoided this is the place to commence it with the greatest advantage to ourselves[.] If the three ships,BROOKLYN, COLUMBIA, and MINNEAPOLIS having great coal capacity,with possibility of smaller vessels,to assist in keeping lookout near San Juan,were sent from here,I think it would be easy work. This Flotilla is bound for Porto Rico beyond any doubt and it might be well to take possession of the Ports of the Island without further delay and instead of giving time to watching for these vessels. The only two ships on this side of the Atlantic which would have any chance against these three ships above named are now in Havana. The VISCAYIA and OQUENDO,6and I hope they cannot get to sea without my knowledge. It is 1300 miles from Havana to the rendezvous and a less distance from Hampton Roads to Porto Rico. Our vessels sent there should not leave too much in advance for fear that if their destination were known the flotilla might receive warning and change its destination,although it would be difficult for them to do so.

     3.   These suggestions are made in case war is imminent and the President is willing to take such a step. If these torpedo boats are permitted to reach Havana without hindrance,they will cause us much more trouble than if stopped on the way.

     4.   I trust,Mr. Secretary,that you will give me several hours notice if war is declared. If I could have twelve of more hours I can be at Havana prepared to attack the place as soon as the declaration be comes public. I would expect to find Havana unprepared and not able to resist the three ships here. Should it prove otherwise I would not7 make a point of its immediate capture;but would be ready to capture Matanzas and other less important ports which we could hold without any assistance from the Army. I could blockade Havana and if the two armored cruisers were still there destroy them by torpedoes. I do not think you need fear any raid up the coast,either from vessels now on this side of the Atlantic or that may come from the other side. I consider it my first duty to destroy the two armored cruisers and treat all others which come in the same manner.

Very sincerely,                  

W.T. Sampson                

Captain, Comdr.-in-Chief,        

U.S. Naval Forces on North Atlantic Station

Source Note: CbCyS, DNA, RG 313, Entry 32, vol. 9, pp. 362-63. Addressed below close: “The Secretary of the Navy.” There is a document reference on the top of the first page: ”No. 7.”

Footnote 1: The “Spanish Flotilla” was the fleet commanded by RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete. At the time of this letter, it had not yet sailed from Spain. Concas, The Squadron of Admiral Cervera, 47.

Footnote 3: United States General Consul at Havana Fitzhugh Lee. The identity of his spy is not known nor is it known who sent the telegram from the Canary Islands, a colony of Spain off the coast of Africa.

Footnote 4: Cervera did not leave Cadiz until 8 April; his fleet then steamed to the Cape Verde Islands and was nowhere near the rendezvous point, which was just east of Puerto Rico, on 5 to 7 April. Moreover, while at the Canaries, Cervera held a Council of War with the captains of his fleet who unanimously agreed to Cervera’s proposal that the fleet go to the Canary Islands and remain there to protect them and Spain itself. Ibid., 47-51.

Footnote 5: President William McKinley.

Footnote 6: Vizcaya and Almirante Oquendo, two of Spain’s most modern cruisers, were then in Havana harbor. They departed before war was declared and on 19 April joined Cervera’s fleet at Cape Verde. Ibid., 48.

Footnote 7: This word is a handwritten interlineation.

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