Skip to main content

Rear Admiral William T. Sampson to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long

“H O T E L  T R O T C H A”,

Vedado,1 Havana, Cuba,           

October 22, 1898.      

My dear Mr. Secretary:--

          The progress made by the Commission since our arrival here has neither been as great as desired, nor is it as promising as we could wish.2

          Not a single leading question with regard to the evacuation of this Island has been finally agreed upon. To what extent the first ideas about the evacuation may be modified is impossible to say. It is the decided inclinations of the Spanish Commission to retain the Civil control of the Island, even after the Military evacuation has been completed, basing this conclusion upon the belief that the Paris Commission will have something to say about the final turning over of this Island to the United States Military authorities.3 Of course, if the President will send a sufficient force to sustain the demands of the Commission, he has only to say when it should be put under the military control of the United States, and it will be done, no matter what the Spanish views on the subject may be. Probably an agreement between the Commissioners can be reached with regard to the time of the evacuation for the first of January. In my opinion, however, if the control of the Island is to be put under the control of the Military Authorities of the United States on the first of December, it is not an important matter when the final evacuation is completed, because the Spanish soldiers have been for a long time without pay that probably a large number, possibly the majority of them, may decide to remain in the Island of Cuba instead of returning to Spain.4 Probably all the Spanish soldiers now in the Island will be required to cultivate the soil, and, as they are the best laborers to be found in the Island, they would certainly be welcome to remain in the Island, and the prosperity of the Island would much sooner be developed.

          If it is the President’s intention to take charge of the Government of the Island, steps should be taken for doing it by the first of December, or even earlier.5 All trade and importation are at such an exceedingly low ebb at the present time, and will continue so until a new tarif is adopted, that no more opportune time could be had for taking control of the depressed condition in every branch of trade.

          One of the differences upon which we cannot agree with the Spanish Commissioners is the removal of public property. The President has given very peremptory orders upon this subject, but a radical difference exists between us and the Spaniards, as they hold that all public property belongs to them, as it is within unconquered territory. They seem to be incapable of comprehending that the public property has passed to our control in virtue of the agreement made in the Protocol, so that, in realty, the public property belonging to the Province of Santiago is virtually in the same category as other public property not in such unconquered province.

          They have, within the past few days, sold ninety-thousand dollars worth od [of] cannon from the defenses ofthe Coast of Havana---such guns being more or less obsolete. While these guns may not be of great value, they belong to the country, and should not be removed from it. At the same time they claim the right to remove all guns, and they will do it unless active steps are taken to prevent it; and the amount of ordnance which they might remove in this way would be very great. It can be done without our knowledge or permission, and notwithstanding our protestations.

          The Commission has expressed through the President, their desire to have the support of troops and ships, and we have reached the conclusion that such force is necessary if we are to retain on the Island the public property belonging to it.

          For some time past I have concluded that decided action should be taken by stationing a number of our ships within the harbor of Havana. While the Island is not in any condition to make further resistance should they be disappointed in the outcome of the negotiations now going on, in my mind it seems prudent to forestal[l] and prevent any further outbreak by Spain.

          Cuba is still strongly fortified from the water, and capable of prolonged resistance; but, if we take the precaution to station vessels in the harbor, it would not be possible for the City to continue the resistance, because we would have our ships so situated that they could destroy the batteries, or a good portion of them, without great resistance; and while Spain may not be considering the possibility of opening the war again, I submit to you, Sir, whether it would not be the part of caution to render it impossible for Spain to do so.

          Therefore, Mr. Secretary, if consistent with your views, which I do not claim to fully understand, I recommend that, as soon as our important fleet is prepared for sea, that the ships be sent to anchor in the harbor of Havana. The length of time that they should remain to depend upon the outlook at any time. I think that the negotiations have progressed so far that it cannot be claimed that sending the fleet to Havana would be a violation of the negotiations; but it will have the double effect of preventing the possibility of any further hostilities, and at the same time to give weight and authority in the further steps taken by the United States Government in settling for the final evacuation of the Island. The danger from yellow fever, especially against our ships, can hardly be considered important after this time.6

          Remembering your kind permission to return to New York about the first of December, I will take advantage of it, and will leave Havana about the 15th of November. When in the United States I will be glad to call upon you in Washington for the purpose of discussing the questions which constantly arise.

          I write this letter to give you my opinion on the occupation of our large ships, and I will be very glad to hear your opinion on this subject.

Yours sincerely,

W. T. Sampson

Source Note: TLS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 464, box 661. Addressed below close: “The Secretary of the Navy,/Na[v]y Department,/Washington, D.C.” Throughout the document there were random spaces between and after words commas. They have been silently corrected.

Footnote 1: Vedado was the central business district of Havana.

Footnote 2: Shortly after the Peace Protocol was signed on 12 August, a commission was appointed by both governments to agree on arrangements for the Spanish military evacuation of Cuba and Puerto Rico. For Cuba, the American commissioners were Sampson, Maj. Gen. James F. Wade, and Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler. Their first meeting with the Spanish representatives was on 10 September. Pres. William McKinley’s instructions to the American commissioners were to oversee the “taking possession, holding, and preserving all the immovable property therein heretofore belonging to the government of Spain.” This included “all public buildings and grounds, forts, fortifications, arsenals, depots, docks, wharves, piers, and other fixed property.” Spain was allowed to reclaim and remove “small arms and accoutrements, batteries of field artillery, supply and baggage wagons, ambulances, and other impedimenta of the Spanish army” but “armament of forts, fortifications, and fixed batteries” were to remain. Chadwick, Spanish-American War, 442-43.

Footnote 3: On 5 October, and again on 11 October, the United States government had rejected the contention of the Spanish evacuation commissioners that Spanish sovereignty should remain paramount in Cuba until the treaty of peace should be ratified and proclaimed. The United States also contended that it was beyond the powers of the evacuation commission to even discuss the matter. Ibid., 442-43.

Footnote 4: Contrary to Sampson’s expectation, the great majority of expatriated Spanish soldiers returned to Spain. Joseph Harrison, An Economic History of Modern Spain, (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1978), 78.

Footnote 5: Starting on 1 January 1899, and lasting until 20 May 1902, the United States militarily occupied Cuba. Sampson was a strong advocate of occupation arguing that politically the Cubans were not ready for self-rule. Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American War, vol. 1, 151.

Footnote 6: Although a peace treaty was not agreed to until 10 December, the Navy did not station a squadron in Havana harbor.

Related Content