Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Commander William T. Swinburne to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet

Copy.                             U. S. S. Helena,

Navy Yard, Boston,       

October 30th, 1898.

Sir:-

     In order to complete the record of the U.S.S.Helena, I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by this vessel in the action at Manzanillo on July 18th,1898. The data is from notes made during the action under the direction of the Navigator of the vessel, the log-book and from my own observations. The accompanying sketch has been prepared by the Navigator assisted by officers of divisions and comparison with the chart.1

     On the afternoon of July 17th, the squadron consisting of the WILMINGTON, Helena, SCORPION, OSCEOLA, HIST, HORNET and WOMPATUCK anchored off Guayabal, Cuba, Commander Todd2 of the WILMINGTON, Senior Officer Present.

     At a meeting of commanding officers on board the WILMINGTON, the plan of attack was discussed and it was decided to start at 3 A.M. on the 18th in order to arrive off the town of Manzanillo as early in the day as possible, as the cable from Manzanillo to Santa Cruz del Sur had been cut the day before, it was believed the enemy would have no knowledge of our movements. Commander Todd’s instructions to the Commanding Officers were to use every endeavor to destroy the gunboats and transports, but to direct the fire so that the town should suffer as little aspossible.

     The plan of attack was for the WILMINGTON and Helena to take position off the northern entrance which would give them an enfilading fire along the water front, the OSCEOLA and SCORPION to enter by a passage through the Manzanillo Cays (as indicated in the accompanying sketch) which passage they used before, and the other three vessels to enter from the S’d between Manzanillo and Gua Cays.

     At 3.15 A.M., July o8th,3 the squadron started, the WILMINGTON leading with a Cuban pilot on board.

     Shortly after 6 A.M. the leading vessels slowed and the others were signalled to take their stations and all moved in slowly to arrive at the same time.

     At 6.52 went to general quarters, this ship being on the WILMINGTON’s starboard quarter, distant 400 yds./course E S E - 1/2 E.

     A few shots were noted from the battery to the N’d of the town as we approached, but it ceased before we were within range. The SCORPION and OSCEOLA opened fire to clear the Cays, as they passed through at 7.15, and the vessels to S’d a little later.

     A number of schooners were observed anchored to the N’d of town, three transports near the center of the town, then to S’d a white gunboat and the pontoon MARIA, as shown in sketch, with some small gunboats to S’d of the pontoon. The wind was light from E x N to E N E, slightly across the channel from the town.4

     At 7.39 the WILMINGTON and Helena being in position “a”,”b”, in sketch WILMINGTON opened fire on the shipping. A smoke obscured our range, the Helena moved in as shown in sketch, and at 7.52 stopped and opened fire on gunboats and pontoon with port battery.

     At 8.41 signalled to WILMINGTON that a Geneva cross5 was flying on hillside above burning transports. Turned and opened with starboard battery, sending cautionary orders to divisional officers to fire deliberately on white gunboat and pontoon MARIA, and note carefully the fall of shots. Finding that the ship maneuvered better stern to wind, as the ship’s head fell off, backed and brought port battery to bear.

     At 8.25 the transports were on fire and at 8.28 the white gunboat appeared to be settling in the water, no return fire from her. At 9.22 the pontoon MARIA was on fire and the gunboats to the S’d appeared to be on shore, one being on fire.

     During this time the Helena had gradually drifted in being occasionally backed astern to wing to bring battery to bear.

     At 9.38 ceased firing and overhauled electric firing gear and made adjustments to telescopic sights.

     At 9.56 the ship being about in the position “c” in sketch the WILMINGTON signalled to this vessel “Devote your attention to the gunboats to right of one burning”.

     In obedience to this signal I moved at once from “c” to “d” firing on gunboats from 1 pdrs. and starboard 6 pdrs. At this time, 10.13, the battery at water’s edge to right of transport opened fire which Ensign Davis6 replied to with starboard forward 4” across deck, the telescopic sights of the port gun being deranged.

     Turned, engines just turning over, and opened at battery on water’s edge and one on hill to right (which were both firing with starboard battery, at from 1500 to 1800 yards. Several projectiles from batteries fell short of us, but majority went over and appeared to be from smooth bore guns with a high trajectory.

     At 10.22 WILMINGTON signalled “Cease firing” which we were unable to obey on account of fire from batteries. WILMINGTON signalled “Repeat signal to cease firing” which was done. At 10.28 WILMINGTON made General Recall. Stood towards Northern entrance followed by WOMPATUCK firing at batteries as long as guns would bear. The other vessels moved out by the same channels as they entered.

     There were no casualties on board this vessel. The fire from the ship’s battery was well directed and the ranges well estimated by the divisional officers and the fire control excellent.

     The conduct of the officers and men merits my highest commendation.

     The following is a complete list of the officers of the vessel during the engagement.

          Commander W.T.Swinburne/commanding.

          Lieutenant C.E.Vreeland,executive officer.7

          Lieutenant Charles Laird,navigator.8

          Lieutenant (J.G.( J. W. Oman, powder division.9

          Ensign Cleland Davis, first division(forecastle).

          Ensign H.G.MacFarland,third division(quarter-deck).10

          Chief Engineer F.H.Eldridge.11

          Passed Assistant Engineer F.D.Terry.12

          Passed Assistant Surgeon M.S.Guest.13

          Assistant Paymaster J.H.Merriam(aid, upper bridge).14

          Pay Clerk A.H.Cathcart(junior officer,powder div.).15

          Very respectfully,

              W. T. Swinburne,

                   Commander,U.S.N.,Commanding.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 313 Entry 44. Addressed below close: “Commander-in-Chief,/U.S.Naval Force,/North Atlantic Station.”

Footnote 1: The referenced sketch has not been found.

Footnote 2: Cmdr. Charles C. Todd.

Footnote 3: Should be the “18th.”

Footnote 4: For a list of Spanish ships at Manzanillo, see: Lt. James M. Helm to Sampson, 18 July 1898.

Footnote 5: The red cross on a white flag indicated a hospital.

Footnote 6: Ens. Cleland Davis.

Footnote 7: Lt. Charles E. Vreeland.

Footnote 8: Lt. Charles Laird.

Footnote 9: Lt. Joseph W. Oman.

Footnote 10: Ens. Horace G. MacFarland.

Footnote 11: Chief Eng. Frank H. Eldridge.

Footnote 12: Passed Asst. Eng. Frank D. Terry.

Footnote 13: Passed Asst. Surgeon Middleton S. Guest.

Footnote 14: Asst. Paymaster John H. Merriam.

Footnote 15: Pay Clerk A. H. Cathcart.  

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