Naval Operations in the Caribbean
The focus of the United States Navy’s operations in the Caribbean was to blockade the Spanish colonies and to destroy or repel any fleet sent from Spain to support Spanish forces in those colonies. Blockading Cuba and Puerto Rico was part of the American strategy to wear down the Spanish defenders on those islands and, in Cuba, to deny the Spanish military the means to wage war against Cuban insurrectionists. While these operations were the product of much study and advance planning, other U.S. Navy actions and movements were unplanned corollaries of the blockades or arose “spontaneously.” Documents in this section demonstrate that while grand strategy is important, operational concerns often dictate day-to-day tactics and war-fighting decisions.
In planning for naval operations in the Caribbean it was decided that the commander-in-chief on the North Atlantic Station would make the final determination concerning operations but that the Naval War Board and the Secretary of the Navy would determine strategy and on an operational level, would “lay before him certain suggestions for his consideration in connection with probable uses” of the fleet. Capt. William T. Sampson was assigned the position of commander-in-chief on 26 March 1898, in anticipation of a possible conflict with Spain. Sampson began issuing cruising orders to the vessels on the North Atlantic Station even while exchanging letters with Secretary of the Navy John D. Long and the Navy Department to establish his scope and authority, along with the expectations of the Navy Department for him and his fleet.
Sampson sent a letter to Long on 29 March. In it he asked that President William McKinley allow the Navy to move to a war footing in response to reports that a Spanish squadron under the command of Adm. PascualCervera y Topete was en route to the Caribbean. Sampson hoped to surprise the Spanish while they were at sea using his fastest cruisers; at the same time, he planned to send the fleet’s battleships to Havana to bombard the city. In the meantime, he planned to consolidate his forces at Key West and use his fastest ships to track, and eventually to harass, the best ships in Cervera’s fleet, the cruisers Viscaya and Almirante Oquendo.
Concerned by the aggressive nature of Sampson’s strategy, Long issued orders on 6 April, directing Sampson to focus on the blockade. The Board of War and the Secretary proposed sending a separate, “flying” squadron to intercept the Spanish fleet, ideally off Puerto Rico.
While Long and the Board of War dispatched many “suggestions” in the early days of Sampson’s command, the most important was their directive that American capital ships be utilized with extreme caution. The leaders in Washington were particularly concerned that an American battleship might be destroyed by a torpedo-boat attack or in a duel with shore fortifications.
Long’s early correspondence also makes clear that the American leadership did not intend to use American forces to capture Cuban territory during the rainy season, when disease was rampant. It is also clear that the hope was that the Navy would win the war using the blockade and the destruction of Spanish naval vessels and without having to send American troops to Cuba. Sampson’s initial plans were too ambitious for the strategy coming out of Washington.
Sampson disagreed with Long and made clear his desire to bombard and capture Havana immediately, but agreed to cancel this operation if the shore defenses protecting the Cuban capitol proved to be stronger than anticipated. In that case, he wrote, his forces would establish a close blockade but not pursue offensive operations.
On 21 April, Sampson was made a Rear Admiral, giving him authority over all other naval officers in the Caribbean theater, and was ordered to begin a close blockade of northern Cuba. This coincided with the formal declaration of war between the United States and Spain. Long encouraged Sampson to order his ships to scour the northern coast of Cuba, seek out Spanish vessels, and attack them while they were still in port. Sampson was also to order his ship captains to destroy shore batteries protecting those ports if he and they believed it would not expose their vessels. The North Atlantic Fleet commander was more than happy to comply. He also asked that his captains be allowed to capture Spanish fishing boats so they could not Supply Havana. Long approved.
To support Sampson’s operations Long dispatched Commodores John C. Watson and George C. Remey to the theater. Watson was to serve as a division commander and oversee the blockade of Havana so Sampson and his squadron might remain mobile and move to whatever part of the Caribbean required his presence. Remey was given command of the Naval Base at Key West. His responsibility was to oversee the Supply lines serving the American fleets off Cuba and to manage all American vessels coming in and out of the Key West Naval Base and the deeper port at Dry Tortugas. At the same time, Sampson was sent three colliers and the steamship Supply to support his movements. A fourth collier was assigned to Key West. In an act of subterfuge, Long ordered that the colliers be painted black, be supplied with foreign flags, and retain their civilian character so they might avoid capture.
To comply with international law, the blockading force had to follow a strict set of rules and procedures laid out for the entire North Atlantic Fleet in a directive of 2 May 1898. One of Sampson’s tools to motivate the captains and crews in his command was the incentive that any captured vessel, if declared a legitimate prize, could be condemned and sold at auction. The proceeds were then split between the United States Government and the captains and crews of the naval vessels involved in the capture. This holdover from the golden age of privateering ended up being highly contentious. President McKinley saw the practice as “unworthy of the dignity of American warships,” though he never revoked the orders or changed the terms under which American ships operated in the Caribbean.
The month of May was defined by three important operations in the Caribbean: the blockade of northern Cuba; Sampson’s attack on San Juan, Puerto Rico, on 13 May; and the search for Cervera’s fleet by the Flying Squadron commanded by Commo. Winfield S. Schley.
Outside of these primary operations, the fleet executed smaller missions that advanced American strategy. These included landing Cuban and United States Army agents on the coast of Cuba to gather intelligence and make contact with insurrectionist forces.
Sampson was also made aware of reports—untrue, as it turned out--that Spanish gunboats were hunting American merchantmen off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Uncertainty about the locations of Spanish ships was a genuine problem, and in at least one instance an American ship mistook a powerful British cruiser for a Spanish ship.
While Schley and the Flying Squadron worked their way south from Hampton Roads and Sampson sortied to Puerto Rico, command in the waters along the northern coast of Cuba fell to Watson and Remey, who both assumed command on 6 May. Watson wanted to strengthen the Havana blockade by adding the Flying Squadron, but Remey convinced him not to make the request and no serious changes were made before Sampson returned from San Juan on 16 May.
Sampson returned to find a bustling port at Key West. Midshipman William D. Leahy landed at Key West in late May and wrote in his Journal:
The inner harbor contained many prizes taken by Sampson’s Fleet, the docks were occupied by business like looking little torpedo boats, and the streets of the town were thoroughly patrolled by armed Marines. At the Key West Hotel where I dined there was a great gathering of officers and newspaper correspondents and a great exchange of news, stories, and gossip.
The order witnessed by Leahy masked major issues at the port. The Army had mined the harbor unnecessarily. This monopolized berthing space and arriving naval vessels forced to moor perilously near the mines. Also taking up space at Key West was the American torpedo-boat flotilla. It was hoped that these small, fast boats might play a role in offensive operations, but they had problems operating in open seas. There small coal capacity further limited them to guarding the port of Key West.
Capt. RoblyD. Evans of the Iowa, complained about Remey’s inefficient management at Key West. Evans’ noted that coal and supplies for Iowa were late to arrive and that the ship never received sailors assigned to fill out its shorthanded crew. Cadet George Webber had similar complaints about Remey. After being sent to Key West with a prize crew, Remey “shanghaied” Webber into doing administrative work at the Base. Webber charged that he was forced to work “day and night,” was not given an opportunity to get a “change of clothes,” and was never paid. He could not even afford to pay the four dollars a night that was the charge for his “miserable quarters” at a Key West hotel. Problems at Key West continued throughout the war and Remey complained to Sampson in June, that:
I am almost constantly getting telegrams to do this and that, and am often forced to wish that I had the wherewith to do all. With the assistance of more Pay Officers I hope in a little time to straighten out the pay accounts of the small vessels and men in hospitals. It is not an easy thing to do, but will be accomplished in time.
In late May, Sampson was ordered to the southeastern coast of Cuba after Commo. Schley failed to establish an effective blockade to keep Adm. Cervera’s squadron bottled up in the harbor at Santiago de Cuba. In his absence, responsibility fell to Watson and Remey to manage logistical support for Sampson and to maintain the blockade of northern Cuba.
Watson organized the dispatch of monitors, colliers, and the dynamite gun cruiser Vesuvius to reinforce Sampson off Santiago. Unfortunately, the monitors continued to prove inadequate for service in the open sea because of operational issues and a string of mechanical failures. None of the monitors ever provided the assistance the commander-in-chief desired.
June was the most challenging month for the United States Navy in the Caribbean. Sampson and Schley remained with the bulk of the North Atlantic Fleet’s force off Santiago de Cuba blockading the Spanish fleet and preparing to do battle should it sally. Elsewhere ships were drawn from the blockade of northern Cuba to serve as escort vessels for Army convoys to Santiago, to support the Marine occupation of Guantánamo Bay, and to establish a blockade of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The end of the month also saw the creation of the Eastern Squadron, with Watson as commander. Its purpose was to pursue a Spanish squadron reported to be en route to the Philippines. And if American naval assets were not spread thin enough, a blockade of southern Cuba was initiated to prevent ships from Jamaica landing store for Spanish troops stationed in western Cuba.
To alleviate some of the strain the Navy dismantled its Auxiliary Naval Fleet, then patrolling the waters off the coast of New York, and sent it south. This hodgepodge squadron of revenue cutters, armed yachts, and armed tugs, were added to the fleet in the Caribbean to serve as dispatch vessels, to convoy supplies and arms for the Cuban insurgents, and to reinforce blockading vessels.
While the Army prepared to lay siege to Santiago de Cuba, the Navy dramatically increased the supplies going to the Cuban insurgents. Weaponry and supplies were obtained from the Army, brought to Cuba, and given to the insurgents. Sampson formalized the process by issuing a memorandum to captains in the fleet directing them to furnish supplies, arms, and equipment to the insurgents whenever possible.
The Supply ship Resolute was added to the fleet in June, and Resolute spent much of the month bringing new recruits, coal, and ammunition from Key West to Santiago and Guantánamo. The complicated logistical network proved problematic and Sampson struggled to use the Supply vessels efficiently. As a result food on board tended to spoil while the Supply vessels were held up in port.
On 3 July, Cervera’s squadron attempted to flee Santiago de Cuba and was destroyed by Sampson’s fleet. Less than two weeks later, the city surrendered to the United States Army. Immediately thereafter, the Army demanded and received a large naval escort for a force sent to invade of Puerto Rico. Elsewhere the focus of the Caribbean forces reverted to blockading northern and southern Cuba and preparing the Eastern Squadron for its voyage to attack ports in Spain.
The remaining vessels in the Caribbean were divided into the First Squadron, commanded by Commo. John A. Howell and tasked with blockading northern Cuba; the Second Squadron commanded by Commo. Winfield S. Schley and assigned to blockade southern Cuba; and the Eastern Squadron, now commanded by Sampson.
Before leaving for Europe, Sampson was ordered to hand over command of the North Atlantic Stations to Commo. Howell. Howell inherited a depleted force operating in the hurricane season. He did not hesitate to make his dissatisfaction known, sending “urgent request[s] for more vessels” to Remey throughout July and August. In the end, Howell never exercised command. The invasion of Puerto Rico delayed the departure of the Eastern Squadron indefinitely and the Spanish government surrendered on 12 August 1898.
Included in this section are detailed reference materials, including: a list of Spanish vessels sent to Sampson during the war; a list of United States Naval vessels with the date and place of engagements where they saw battle; a list of auxiliary vessels and their service during the war; and a full list of ships that served on the North Atlantic Station during the war.