Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Sketches from the Spanish-American War, by Commmder Hermann Jacobsen of the Imperial German Navy

In the evening the whole population [of San Juan de Puerto Rico] would usually repair to the plaza; several times during the week there was music there. The theater also remained open and enjoyed pretty good audiences.

     . . . This peaceful situation was suddenly changed when, on May 12, 1898, a part of the fleet commanded by Admiral Sampson appeared at 5 o’clock in the morning in front of San Juan, and without any further notification opened the bombardment. The Spanish complained bitterly of this surprise, which did not give them a chance to remove the sick and the women and children to places of safety, and did not give foreign representatives and warships time to leave the city or the harbor. “There are no international agreements, it is true, as to previous notice of a bombardment, says the Puerto Rico Gazette, “but in practice the custom prevails among all civilized nations to give notice of the bombardment of a city or fortification. For no Christian solider, no civilized nation, will want to take the terrible responsibility of butchering defenseless women and children. The soldier fights against those who carry weapons, but not against the weak and the sick.”1 The Spanish are not entirely wrong in this. A real surprise could have been of advantage to Admiral Sampson only in case it had reconnaissance, he might have granted a delay of two or three hours without in any manner prejudicing the result of the bombardment. As it was, the inhabitants were rudely awakened from their sleep. The troops and volunteers at once hurried to their posts; but old men, women, and children sought their safety in the fields and roads outside of the city. A veritable emigration of fleeing people was moving along the road to Cangrejos, but all were quiet and orderly. Meanwhile the American projectiles wee steadily falling upon the city and its vicinity; some passed over the city and fell into the bay.

Source Note Print: Translation. Commander J…, Sketches from the Spanish-American War, Office of Naval Intelligence, War Notes No. III, Information from Abroad (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1899), p. 13.

Footnote 1: Under international law of the day, only unfortified and unresisting cities were entitled to absolute notice before naval bombardment. San Juan was protected by armed coastal fortifications, guns boats, and opened fire on RAdm. William T. Sampson’s forces as soon as the squadron was sighted. Sampson believed that RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete’s squadron was in the harbor and his intention was to surprise any Spanish vessels at San Juan. Sampson pointed out in an essay he wrote on this very topic that Art. 16 of the 1874 Brussels Conference states:

If a town, etc., be defended, the commander of the attacking force should, before commencing a bombardment, and except in the case of a surprise, do all in his power to warn the authorities.” “The Bombardment of Unfortinified, Unresisting Cities,” Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 15, 1889, 595.

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