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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Telegraphy and Cable Cutting


Applied steam and telegraphy made the wonders and the pains of the Industrial Revolution a reality. Trains and ships conquered distance and the electric telegraph time, assuring speedier transportation and communication.1 With the completed stringing of coast-to-coast wires across America in 1861 and the first successful laying of the trans-Atlantic submarine cable in 1866 the world became smaller. By the turn of the twentieth century close to 200,000 nautical miles of submarine cables and over 3,000,000 miles of telegraph wires transmitted millions of messages yearly.2

Military and naval officers across the globe quickly realized the potential of the telegraph. The quicker means to send messages immeasurably improved the ability to adapt to changing strategic and logistical circumstances thus giving a marked advantage over the enemy. The Civil War was the first United States military testing ground for the telegraph.3

The nature of telegraphy also changed with more advanced techniques of transmission by the end of the nineteenth century, including the ability to send multiple messages simultaneously. Along with these improvements a greater awareness of telegraphic and cable issues was instilled in military and naval thinking. Even before the Spanish-American War, communication technology favored the United States. The distance from Madrid to Havana is about 4,600 miles in a straight line. From Manila in the Philippines to Madrid is 7,250 miles. The distance between the United States and the West Indies was only 80 miles.

United States Navy war planners realized the importance of communications between the Spain and its colonial possessions. In 1894 Lt. Cmdr. Charles J. Train produced a war plan under the auspices of Capt. Henry C. Taylor, the president of the Naval War College. Train observed the value of utilizing scouts and Caribbean telegraph stations to report Spanish naval movements to the American fleet.4 Two years later Lt. William W. Kimball recommended cable cutting on the northern and southern Cuban coasts.

Cable communication with the island should be promptly cut off at Guanabano and Santiago de Cuba. It would also be well to cut the cables entering Cienfuegos. For cutting operations any auxiliary or light cruiser fitted with a cutter of the regular jaw pattern or with a gun-cotton cutter would answer well. Although the cables could be quickly repaired, any repairing could be readily prevented by the cruising squadron.5


He also called for the establishment of cable communications between Cuban insurgents and Key West to manage joint operations against Havana.6

A cable laid between New York and Cape Haitien, Haiti, and thence to Santiago de Cuba in 1896 was the means by which the War Department and White House, managed the war, equipped with telegraphs, phones, and maps. The Navy and War Departments were able to communicate with American vessels in Haiti in as little as twelve minutes, a marvel for the time.7

When hostilities broke out with Spain in late April 1898 the U.S. Army and Navy also went to war with each other over cable and telegraph communications jurisdiction. The Signal Corps, under the command of Brig. Gen. Augustus W. Greely, regarded itself as the sole entity for the construction and operation of “all military telegraph and telephone lines, the manipulation of submarine cables, the operation of captive balloons, visual signaling, and telegraph censorship.”8 The Signal Corps scored a coup by first locating the presence of RAdm. PascualCervera y Topete’s squadron in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. Its subsequent track record, despite some brave but desultory efforts with cable cutting and establishing a communications link with Washington, however, were somewhat dismal.9

Although there was some initial debate over the value of cable cutting operations, Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla and other naval officers succeeded in cutting the submarine cables between the southern coast of Cuba and Madrid. This was a substantial achievement considering none of the American ships were adequately designed or equipped for the purpose. The Navy then established contact with Washington, instigating a jurisdictional dispute between the Navy and Army. McCalla charged the Signal Corps with interfering with their work and even reconnecting Cuba with Madrid,10 and complained that the Army mistranslated sensitive information and orders.11 President William McKinley eventually interceded and gave the Army command over the telegraphic lines and cables.12 Five years after the war Greely would later boast of the singular successes of his Signal Corps, neglecting to reflect on the controversy.13

In Manila the Navy held supreme authority over telegraphic communications, or lack thereof. RAdm. George Dewey was in complete control of operations in Manila Bay after his stunning May first victory and took it upon himself to cut the submarine cable from Manila to Hong Kong. He used the revenue cutter McCulloch to convey messages to the latter location to communicate with Washington.14 

In a speech at the Naval War College in 1900, Capt. George O. Squier of the U.S. Army Signal Corps exclaimed that it was coal and cables, for the most part, that won the war over Spain."15 That war, he insisted, “for the first time demonstrated the dominating influence of submarine cable communications in the conduct of a naval war.”16 He further stated that a viable communications network should be established linking Washington with the new overseas possessions, naval bases, and coaling stations.17

Footnote 1: Ken Beauchamp, History of Telegraphy (London: Institute of Electrical Engineers, 2001); and S.A. Garnham and Robert L. Hadfield, The Submarine Cable: The Story of the Submarine Telegraph Cable from its Invention Down to Modern Times (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1934).

Footnote 2: O.P. Austin, Submarine and Land Telegraph Systems of the World, extracted from The Summary of Commerce and Finance (Washington, DC: Bureau of Statistics, Treasury Dept., 1902), 19; and Edwin J. Houston and A.E. Kennelly, Electric Telegraphy (New York: McGraw Publishing Co., 1906), 6.

Footnote 3: Rebecca R. Raines, Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Army Historical Series (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1996), 8-31.

Footnote 7: For more, see, “President McKinley in War Times,” McClure’s Magazine, XI, 3 (July, 1898): 209-24.

Footnote 8: Howard A. Giddings, Exploits of the Signal Corps in the War with Spain (Kansas City, MO: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co., 1900), 10.

Footnote 9: The cable cutting work of Adria, an Army ship, under the overall command of Col. James Allen was apparently a failure. Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, 488.

Footnote 14: Trask, War with Spain, 369.

Footnote 15: Jonathan R. Winkler, Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 20.

Footnote 16: George O. Squier, “The Influence of Submarine Cables upon Military and Naval Strategy,” RNN, RG 8, XCOC, Box 81, 1900-1910.

Footnote 17: Ibid.

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