The primary source of naval intelligence before and during the Spanish-American War originated from Americans stationed in non-belligerent nations. These men kept track of Spanish activities and collected information from public sources. In addition, the Navy Department shared and received intelligence with the Army, State and Treasury Departments. Although some of the intelligence operations were makeshift, many used existing resources and channels of information. During the war, these were escalated and adapted. Despite the ad hoc nature of some of these efforts, they were surprisingly successful and contributed to American victory.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, U.S. naval officers had limited awareness of the technological advantages and disadvantages of foreign navies. To redress this imbalance, information gathering became vital. To that end, the Office of Naval Intelligence and a system of naval attachés were established in 1882. The information collected by these commands was utilized for war planning done at the Naval War College in the 1890’s, and demonstrates the early importance of this information.
When Theodore Roosevelt became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in April, 1897 the tempo in naval offices quickened, and since intelligence activity fell under his supervision, it too accelerated. During this period, Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright at the helm of ONI and Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich oversaw the Naval War College. President William McKinley chose Stewart Woodford as ambassador to Madrid. He was accompanied by Lt. George Dyer, the United States Naval Attaché in Spain. The two sent a regular reports back to Washington about the state of the Spanish and government before being forced to leave in late April. Beginning in early 1898 and the naval attachés in London, Berlin, and Paris were ordered to buy war materiel, including ships, and establish a network of spies in Spain and other points. On April 30, Ensigns William H. Buck and Henry H. Ward were directed to engage in secret missions in order to ascertain plans of the Spanish.
There was then a flurry of telegraphic cables to and from diverse international sources. For the first time in American history, naval Intelligence gathering could be described as utilized telegraphy. The State Department, with its network of consuls in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, was asked to cooperate by sending information, lodging protests about neutrality infractions, and even buying up coal supplies to thwart Spanish fleet movements. Individual reconnaissance missions staged by naval officers were made prior to major naval operations and independent of the Departments instructions. The U.S. Army contributed its share of expertise through the Signal Corps, tracking the Spanish fleet and intercepting Spanish communications. Even newspaper reporters, Americans living abroad, and the Cuban Junta in New York kept their ears to the ground and sent what they learned to the Navy. In spite of all this activity, the Naval War Board, “hounded ONI for fresh information from abroad and demanded daily intelligence summaries.” A testament to the need for importance, value of, and continued need for Naval Intelligence.