Skip to main content

Captain Bowman H. McCalla’s Lessons of the Late War.

* * * * * *


Delivered at


Newport, R. I.,

Session of 1899,


Captain B. H. McCalla, U.S.N.

* * * * * *



Submarine Cables and the Army Signal Service.

    The importance of severing telegraphic communication between the Island of Cuba and Madrid was early appreciated by Admiral Sampson1 and before the declaration of war,2 the twin-screw lighthouse steamer “Mangrove3 had been turned over to the navy and fitted with the reeling-in apparatus, grapnels and hawsers belonging to the Western Union Telegraph Company.

    The “Indiana”, “Marblehead”, “Detroit”, “Algonquin” and “Mangrove” formed a division, under the command of Captain Taylor,4 to proceed to the vicinity of Santiago and cut the cables leading into the harbor, should war be declared. But this proposed expedition was not approved by the Navy Department and, eventually, the apparatus referred to above was turned over to the army.

    A foreign ship, under a foreign flag, was then chartered by the Chief of the Signal Service.5 The Manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company at Key West was appointed a captain in the Signal Service, the captain representing the Signal Service at Key West was promoted to be colonel,6 the apparatus installed in the chartered foreign ship and, with some sixty miles of new cable, this vessel, under command of the colonel, about June 5th, joined the blockade off Santiago.

      Off Cienfuegos, on the 11th of May, a boat expedition was fitted out with officers and men from the “Marblehead” and “Nashville” and one east-bound and one west-bound outside heavily armored cables were cut a few hundred feet from the cable house on the beach. One of the two smaller inside cables leading from the cable-house into the harbor was also found but it was not cut. This was of no consequence, as the section of perhaps fifteen or twenty fathoms had been cut out of each of the outside cables. I have since been told that, in addition, one cable direct from Santiago and another from Batabano led directly into the harbor without connection with the cable-house on the beach.

In order to make a destruction of communication complete, the “Eagle” was sent from the blockade off Cienfuegos during the night of the 10th of May, to search for the Batabano cable, where it was supposed to lead from deep water to the shoal water on the reef in the vicinity of the lighthouse near Diego Perez Island. The commander7 of the “Eagle” was also directed to burn the lightship off Diego Perez Island and this and to destroy the light apparatus on Cay Piedras, in order to make navigation at night into Batabano from the eastward more difficult. The lights were destroyed, but the cable could not be found. It was, no doubt, covered by the sand put in motion during heavy weather.

About the middle of May, the commanding officer8 of the ”St. Louis” cut one of three or four English cables leading from Santiago de Cuba to Jamaica, and after the bombardment of the batteries on the 6th of June, the foreign ship chartered by the Army Signal Service dragged for these cables about four or five miles off the entrance to that port. It was reported that one of the cables was found and cut during the afternoon, but this has since been denied, and as the crew of the foreign ship refused to go so near the batteries again, although they were not fired at, no further attempt was made by the Army Signal Service to cut cables, with one exception. After the occupation of Siboney, the one French cable leading east from Santiago was found, cut, and the ends taken ashore to the Army Headquarters, then near Siboney. In obedience to the commander-in-chief's orders,9 the colonel commanding the cable ship was notified by me later on, at Guantanamo, that if his crew refused to work, men from the navy would be substituted for them.

    The commanding officer of the “St. Louis” reported that he had cut one of the French cables off Mole St. Nicholas, outside the marine league,10 but as communication with the Island of Cuba was not then interrupted, it may have been an unused loop line connecting Mole St. Nicholas with Cape Haitien and not the main line.

    Early in July, the “St. Louis” was reported to have cut one or two cables leading out of Santiago, but communication between that port and Jamaica and Botabano was never entirely interrupted. This was fortunate, as it afterwards turned out, for it was through this line that Cervera11 was ordered by the Madrid government to leave the harbor.

    From Santiago, I believe, there were three or four cables leading to Jamaica; two leading west to Cuban ports and one French cable leading to Guantanamo, thence to St. Nicholas Mole. The French cable between Santiago and Nicholas Mole looped into a cable-house on Fisherman’s Point, Guantanamo Bay, and from this house two smaller cables led to Caimanera, four miles up the bay. From Caimanera, land lines connected with Guantanamo City, sixteen miles north and west of Caimanera.

    About half-past six o'clock of the morning of June 7th, two 6-pdr. shells from the “Marblehead” struck the cable-house on Fisherman's Point within a foot or so of each other, destroying the batteries and breaking the connection between the two large and the two small cables, completely severing, for the time being, communication at this point between Hayti and Cuba.12 I limit the destruction of communication at this time, because an interesting incident on the following day showed the necessity of doing the work thoroughly when cable cutting is undertaken.

      About half-past seven o'clock, the “St. Louis” found and cut the westbound French cable off the western point of Guantanamo Bay and, late in the afternoon of the same day, mutilated but did not cut the eastbound cable, one mile inside the eastern point of the bay. About noon of the 7th, a whaleboat from the “Marblehead” picked up and cut one of the inside cables leading from Fisherman's Point to Caimanera. The “Marblehead” also dragged for the other inside cable without success, but on the evening of the 7th of June it was believed that communication had been thoroughly destroyed between Hayti and Cuba, though the sequel proved that this was not the case. At the request of the colonel in the Signal Service commanding the chartered foreign cable steamer, Captain Goodrich of the “St. Louis” was ordered by the admiral13 not to cut the eastbound French cable but to mutilate it only and buoy it so that it could be easily picked up after Guantanamo Bay should be permanently occupied by the navy. I begged the commanding officer of the “St. Louis” to take a piece out of the cable, in spite of his instructions, believing that the army theory that “the only good Indian is a dead one” could be applied to cables also and that we should adopt the rule that, in war, the only good cable was one that had been cut, not mutilated. I also pointed out that to buoy the cable at the mutilated point, as suggested, might only assist the Spanish in raising and repairing the cable, if Guantanamo were not immediately occupied. But the eastbound cable was only mutilated, a small section of the core being cut out and sent to the commander-in-chief on the night of the 7th-8th of June.

    On the 8th of June, the “Marblehead”, with the collier “Sterling”, took permanent possession of Guantanamo Bay, arriving off the entrance about two o'clock in the afternoon. About noon of the same day, the manager the French Cable Company at Guantanamo City, the British Consular Agent and some Spanish officials came down the bay to Fisherman's Point, to endeavor to open communication with Santiago or Hayti. They found the cable-house with the connections broken and could get no signal through the cut cable leading to Santiago. A successful attempt was then made to call the office at St. Nicholas Mole over the mutilated cable. The operator at St. Nicholas Mole, in response to a request for news, replied that he would give it to them in a moment; but just then the “Marblehead” and “Sterling” were reported in sight, heading towards the bay, and the party in search of news hastily vacated Fisherman's Point before the operator at St. Nicholas Mole could reply; and from that time until July 16th, no news from the outer world reached Guantanamo City or Caimanera. The mutilation of the eastbound cable did not interrupt communication and it is fortunate for the navy that the request of the Army Signal Service to mutilate and not destroy this cable was complied with, for it proved the futility of such work, the current passing over the bridge formed by the steel wires of the armor as easily as though the core had not been injured.

    On the 10th of July, the commanding officer14 of the auxiliaries “Hist” and “Wompatuck” cut the cable which runs from Manzanillo inside the reef and connects the ports on the south side of Cuba so far west as Trinidad. This cable was cut east of Santa Cruz del Sur. I am not aware that any other cables were cut.

      Admiral Colomb,15 a distinguished authority on naval matters, suggests that the cutting of an ocean cable outside the marine league may be a violation of the rights of neutrals. As neutrals may not, according the practice of international law, supply belligerents with contraband of war, so they also may not, without risk, by the use of the wires give military information to belligerents. A belligerent must have the right to intercept and to prevent communication of all kinds, on the high seas, leading directly to and intended for the enemy's advantage, just as he has a right to capture supplies.16

    The two cables between Key West and Havana were never interfered with,17 though at the beginning of the war the Department suggested that one of these cable should be cut near its landing place east of Havana and the end be taken to one of our blockading ships, so that Washington should be in direct communication with the flagship. As the water is very deep off this part of the island, it cannot be determined how this arrangement would have worked, but as the weather remained good until the blockade was raised and as the cable would have answered as a deep sea anchor, it appears to have been practicable. But the objective of the campaign was quickly transferred to Santiago and the Western Union cables running out of Key West to Havana continued in use during the war for “commercial messages” only. That this kind of communication can and is readily used for cipher messages cannot be doubted and it goes without saying that the practice is dangerous, for it may furnish the enemy with information.

    In the late work, the fact that Havana and Santiago were in communication with Madrid turned out to be a distinctive advantage for us, so that we may congratulate ourselves that our attempts on the English cables leading into Santiago were never entirely successful.18 On the other hand, we have seen that the successful interruption of the French cable between Hayti and Cuba completed the isolation of Guantanamo and prevented 7000 Spanish troops from concentrating at Santiago.

      Early in the war, the control of the submarine cables on the coast of Cuba and Puerto Rico was given to the Army Signal Service, the chief of which, by law, has the management of military telegraphs in the United States. It would appear that this was a transfer of a branch of the purely naval profession to landsmen without experience and ignorant of the sea, and it would seem that, like the army transport service under the control of the Quartermaster's Department, it might lead, in future wars, to great confusion, unnecessary delay, and finally to disastrous loss and crushing defeat.

    The attempt of the Army Signal Service to repair cables was more successful than their efforts to cut them, but there was a week’s unnecessary delay in picking up and splicing the eastbound cable from Guantanamo Bay. As I have already said, this cable was mutilated one mile inside of the eastern point of the entrance to the bay and the distance and bearing of the position from the headland accurately given to the colonel commanding the cable steamer. After about a week’s work, this cable-ship, which began to search inside the entrance to the bay for the mutilation, succeeded in connecting with Nicholas Mole at a point six miles or more to the eastward and outside of the bay, just in time to send information from me to Washington giving the President the important information that eight hours previously that our army had reached Daiquiri and that the admiral and the general had been in conference.19

I understood afterwards that this early intelligence furnished by the Navy, having been sent through the War Department, served to show the superiority of the Army management of the cables! As soon as communication was established the Nicholas Mole, French operators came over from Hayti and the office at Fisherman's Point was opened. The army cable steamer then found and spliced the westbound cable, connecting Fisherman’s Point with Santiago, and on the same day the colonel commanding informed me, with modest satisfaction, that the French operators at Fisherman's Point had exchanged signals with their French colleagues in Santiago. It was at once pointed out that what he had really done, under the existing conditions, was to connect Madrid with Havana over a new line, the personnel of which was in sympathy with our enemies. He quickly realised the situation and (as he was told that it would be necessary to cut the cable again) he suggested that the same object could be attained by sealing the end. The recommendation was at once accepted and the end the wire leading to Santiago was sealed, after it had been withdrawn from the cable-house, and a sentry was stationed over it.

      The French operators recognised, of course, that sealing the end served to relieve them of a great responsibility and I felt relieved that no information could be given to Santiago, either intentionally or through inadvertence, over this line. I found later that there had been gossip between the operators at Santiago and Fisherman's Point, in addition to the exchange of signals. The colonel representing the Signal Service recognised the necessity of the precautions which were taken and I told him that so soon as he should cut the cable off Siboney, then occupied by our army, that the sealed end at Fisherman's Point would be connected and communication established between Washington and headquarters. The admiral approved of my action and the colonel further thanked me warmly for the assistance and encouragement I had given him.

    I mention these matters, for the stand which I took was misrepresented in Washington by the chief signal officer of the army, possibly through the error of his inexperienced operators at Fisherman's Point, and I was taken to task for interfering with the army and obstructing the signal service corps. Indeed, the chief signal officer of the army, in Washington,--twelve hundred miles away--was so outraged by what he chose to consider my want of patriotism and tactics of obstruction that he found it necessary, in a cablegram sent to me direct, to warn me that further interference with his work would be at my “peril”, at the same time pointing out that he was charged by the president with the control of the cables in Cuban waters.20 I assume that the irregular and insolently worded despatch, which contained misstatements, was sent to me direct to save time and I merely transmitted to the commander-in-chief as a “remarkable telegram”, taking it for granted that the admiral would point out to the Department the error into which the chief signal officer of the Army had fallen and the untenable position which he had taken.

    Closely following this cablegram came an order to the chief signal officer’s representative afloat that the French cable line between Santiago and Nicholas Mole was to be open for commercial purposes, but that only the United States and the French government officials would be permitted to use cipher. In short, the chief signal officer thus intended to open a line of communication from the enemy's capital, through our lines, to its representatives on the Island of Cuba. When such issues were involved, it seems incredible that such an order could have been issued, but as a message authorising the use of the line passed through my hands, its intention cannot be doubted. Why permission should have been given to the French to transmit cipher messages by this route and why other neutral governments were not given the same privilege is past finding out.

    After the end of the Santiago wire had been sealed at Fisherman's Point and the army cable steamer finally picked up the bight of the cable off Siboney, they cut it and took the end ashore to the army headquarters. The end of the line in Guantanamo Bay was unsealed and connected immediately upon the receipt of information that the wire had been broken off Siboney, and from that time, there was direct communication between Washington and General Shafter.

    As the line from Hayti to Fisherman’s Point was controlled by the operators of the French company, while our army signalmen operated the same company’s line from Guantanamo to Siboney, there was, naturally, some friction between the two corps of telegraphers. And the army signal operators being inexperienced in the use of cipher and having had no association before with foreign officials, our naval messages were delayed and some of them so badly mutilated by the signal men at Siboney that a despatch-boat from the admiral brought them to me at Guantanamo for correct copies from the French manager’s records.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the signal servicemen did good work for our army and, in July, their cable steamer laid an additional government cable between Siboney and Fisherman's Point. On the arrival of the steamer with the east end of the cable, the surgeon of the “Marblehead” believing her to be infected with yellow fever from the cases of fever then existing on board and from having been in contact with the army at Siboney, the vessel was placed in quarantine, the shore end of the wire being landed by boats from the “Marblehead”.

    The cable steamer then disappeared from Guantanamo Bay and afterwards sailed with General Miles’ expedition to Puerto Rico.21

      While the Army Signal Service between Guantanamo Bay and Siboney may have given satisfaction to the army, it was most unsatisfactory to the Navy Department, and in reply to an inquiry as to the best remedy for the existing conditions, I recommended that the control should be given entirely to the French management and the censorship restricted to the navy. This would have saved the delay in transmission at Fisherman's Point and also avoided the mutilation and loss of time and transmitting and receiving the navy cipher messages at Siboney, the French operators being familiar with its vocabulary, while the army operators were confused by the unusual character of the words. But the most glaring evidence of the inefficiency of the army telegraph service between the points referred to above occurred on the 3rd of July. Although Cervera appeared in the entrance to the harbor of Santiago at 9:35 A.M. on his way out, no report reached Guantanamo until two o'clock in the afternoon, though about ten o'clock in the morning, a personal message from the operator at Siboney was received, and read in substance “the rats are out of their hole”. Of course, at the time, this meant nothing to the operators at Fisherman's Point, who failed to comprehend its meaning until after the official despatch came, in the afternoon, to the effect that Cervera had “escaped”, which was sufficiently exciting.

    It seems difficult to impress upon the country the fact that if the best results are to be expected in connection with submarine cable cutting, laying and repairing, that kind of work should be left to seamen.

As an evidence of the excellent methods of information which the Spanish government had established in the United States, it is interesting to note that when the village on Fishermen's Point was examined before the landing of the marine battalion, a letter from Key West was found in one of the houses. This letter gave full information of the fitting out of the “Mangrove”, disclosed our attention to cut the cables in the vicinity of Santiago and Guantanamo Bay, and pointed out how weak the lighthouse steamer was and how easily she might be captured or destroyed.

Source Note: TD, RNN, Section 2, Envelope 2, No. 71.

Footnote 1: RAdm. William T. Sampson.

Footnote 2: War against Spain was formerly declared by Congress on 25 April 1898.

Footnote 3: The Maine Court of Inquiry met on Mangrove. See: Destruction of the Maine.

Footnote 4: Capt. Henry C. Taylor.

Footnote 5: Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely.

Footnote 6: Lt. Col. James Allen was in command of the leased Norwegian ship Adria.  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), 90.

Footnote 7: Lt. William H.H. Southerland.

Footnote 8: Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich.

Footnote 9: Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter.

Footnote 10: A “marine league” is equivalent to three nautical miles.

Footnote 11: RAdm. PascualCervera y Topete.

Footnote 13: RAdm. William T. Sampson.

Footnote 14: Lt. Lucien Young of Hist and Lt. Carl W. Jungen of Wompatuck.

Footnote 15: Vice Adm. Philip H. Colomb (1831-1899) of the Royal Navy.

Footnote 16: Apparently Capt. McCalla is justifying a fait accompli and proposing a precedent regarding submarine cables and international law. See, Benton, International Law, 211-14.

Footnote 17: Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898, 25.

Footnote 19: RAdm. William T. Sampson and Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter.

Related Content