Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Ensign Henry Williams to His Father

U.S.S. Massachusetts

Off Santiago de Cuba,

June 3, 1898.

My dear Father,

     Since my letter last Tuesday describing the first firing that we have had, things have been in a continual flurry. The very next day the New York came in with Admiral Sampson1 on board. He started thing to going at once and all has been bullets since. The first thing that was done was a scheme to block the harbor so as to effectually and finally block the Spanish fleet in th the entrance Bay. The collier Merrimac which had twenty five hundred tons of coal on board was selected as the means and she was to be run in there at night and put across the entrance and sunk by means of a number of powder casks of dynamite and powder which were to be strung along the outer side of the vessel below the waterline and exploded at the proper time by means of electric wires. The first scheme was to send it in Wednesday night but every thing was not ready so they put it off until last night (or rather this morning). Naval Constructor Hobson2 got the scheme up so he had the honor of having it in charge, beside him were the Boatswain of the New York and Assistant Engineer Crank.3 These were the officers; there were a number of men I don’t know what were their names or what their number.4 But it is my honest opinion, and the opinion of every one on the ship, that without exception, it was without exception the most daring and heroic things that has ever been seen in modern times. When the expedition went into Tripoli Bay to burn the Philadelphia, it was pronounced by Lord Nelson as the most heroic act of the age.5 When Cushing made his dash at the Albemarle, the same was said.6 But I think that this will easily bear comparison with the best of them. These men undertook [to] run an unwieldy coal steamer under and among the guns of the enemy and sink her and then to make their escape in a small boat. They ran between two points 100 yards apart and literally covered with batteries, and under the guns of two ships, of course there was no possibility of the ship not being seen and the only chance was of her not being hit soon enough or often enough so as to disable her before she got to the right place for sinking, and their chance of escape depended as well as I can make out upon the merest chance, nothing more. And I don’t think anyone had the slightest idea of ever seeing any of the men again. Indeed they had no idea of ever getting back.

It was a bright moon light night and the moon set a little after four, about daylight. The instructions were to go in when it became dark, but they waited until half past three with the moon as bright as ever, so in they started. I was on watch and saw them start and set sent down to call all the officers. She steamed close along the shore, in the shadow to the eastward, and the Spaniards didnt see her until she was almost to the entrance. Then a big 6” gun on the bluff to the left blazed away and that started the most violent cannonade that you can imagine. It was almost one continual flash, and the Merrimac steamed right along without ever stopping with shells bursting on all hands and shots going through her in every direction. The cannonade kept up fully ten minutes and she steamed along through it all and then they had nerve and coolness enough to carry out the very difficult feat of putting her bow aground, letting go an anchor and then swinging across the channel and letting go the other anchor and then blowing up the ship. If you can imagine anything more brave or cool, I should like to know of it.

The New York’s steam launch was in there lying off the entrance ready to pick up the survivors. She stayed there until daylight and then they sighted her and opened fire, so she had to get out as quickly as possible. No sign of any survivors, but we could see the mast and funnel of the collier right where they should be. Of course we thought the poor fellows done for, and after looking at the firing on that she got I cant understand how any did escape. But this afternoon a flag of truce tug came out and went to the flag ship, and they had a long palaver. Then the flag ship signaled “Coal vessels crew prisoners of war. Two slightly wounded all’s well.” Later the “Iowa” came alongside and Captain Evans7 sed hailed and said that the expedition was a success, that the Spaniards were loud in their praise of a “daring deed most gallantly performed.”

If the papers dont give this affair a proper blow up, it will certainly be a mistake and I hope that the brave fellows may receive full credit for their daring. Please save some of the accounts of it for me.

We have been alongside the collier all day with the New Orleans on the other side. We all got a good look at her [i.e. New Orleans] and approve of her highly. She is a splendid fighting ship, with good modern guns. Her internal arrangements are very poor. The wardroom officers are well provided for but that is all. The steerage quarters are worse than ours. They have no ice machine and are very poorly fired. All the arms in the ship are kept in the wardroom, and everything has some miserable Brazilian emblem on it.8

     We have on board an “Acting Assistant Engineer,” who has been taken from civil life and raised to a pinnacle, put above all of us and given precedence over all of us. And all on the strength of his being a very mediocre engineer, uneducated but practical. The Engineers all say he is on a par with our Chief Machinist, and I can vouch for his not being able to use good English or knowing anything about theoretical Engineering. His education stopped at the 8th grade, and he is a very good example of the “Acting” appointments that are being made. We dont understand why they cant give us, who have been in and will remain in the Navy, the advantage of the acting appointments. For instance numbers of persons who have failed out of the academy are given appointments which place them above those who graduated. For instance a man who bilged on his plebe semi annuals out of ’97, and failed to pass the entrance examination for our class is now an Acting Ensign and ranks both classes and receives more say. This is only one out of dozens. Lots of political appointments are made of course, and lots of them will stay in the Navy over us. Now in the Army, secon Lieutenants are given leave of absences and then given the advantage of volunteer appointments, which they can fill better than civilians. Doubtless if we were on hand to look out for our interests we would get the same consideration. If you happen to be in Washington, go to the Department and sound them on the subject, because if we get these appointments now they will not only hold during the war, but put us above all these fellows who would otherwise be ahead of us after the war. Please agitate the matter, and see what you can do. Tell them what an advantage to the service to give us the experience, instead of giving it to the civilians who will leave the service etc., etc. We feel very strongly about it because we have just had to move down to poorer rooms for one of them and it goes very hard to have a man who never heard of the Navy a short while ago giving us, who have four and five more years, f orders.

     The papers you send are very acceptable, and please keep it up. And write me the news.

With much love to all the family

I remain your affectionate son

              Henry Williams

Source Note: ALS, DLC-MSS, Papers of Henry Williams.

Footnote 1: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 2: Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond P. Hobson.

Footnote 3: Asst. Eng. Robert K. Crank helped select crew for the Merrimac, but was not on the ship. Williams probably mistook Crank for Boatswains Mate John E. Murphy.

Footnote 5: The famed British Admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson. There is no evidence that Nelson ever said this, but there is documentary evidence that Nelson knew of the operation to blow up the American frigate Philadelphia. The quote from Nelson has been repeated in biographies of Commo. Stephen Decatur since the 1850s, and is believed to have originated from hearsay after the event. Frederick C. Leiner, “Searching For Nelson’s Quote,” United States Naval Intelligence News, February 5, 2013, Accessed 19 November 2014, http://news.usni.org/2012/07/22/searching-nelsons-quote.

Footnote 6: Commander William Barker Cushing (1842 - 1874), an officer in the United States Navy during the American Civil War, was revered for his daring exploits in a raid on Norfolk that included the sinking of the Confederate ironclad Albemarle. Charles Van Doran, ed., Webster’s American Biographies (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1974), 244-245.

Footnote 7: Capt. Robly D. Evans.

Footnote 8: New Orleans was originally the Brazilian cruiser Amazonas. It was commissioned by the Brazilian government and built in England, where the United States purchased the ship on 18 March 1898. It set sail shortly after and joined the Flying Squadron in the Caribbean on 30 May 1898. During her rapid deployment the ornamental Brazilian National embellishments were never removed. DANFS.

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