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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

The Battle of Santiago Bay

By late June it seemed almost certain that Santiago de Cuba, and the Spanish squadron of Adm. PascualCervera y Topete, would be captured. The North Atlantic Fleet instituted a rigorous and effective round-the-clock blockade of the harbor and in late June the United States Army landed east of Santiago and with support from Cuban insurrection forces moved into a position to invest and threaten the city.1

From Havana, Governor-General Ramón Blanco y Erenas ordered Cervera to break through the blockade and save his ships. In reality, the sortie was intended to preserve the honor of the Spanish navy by having the flotilla go down fighting rather than surrender while anchored in Santiago harbor.2 Cervera knew he was vastly outgunned and, with limited coal stores, had virtually no chance of making it to a friendly port even if his vessels escaped destruction during the breakout attempt. Several times he protested Blanco’s orders lamenting his terrible tactical situation and the almost certain slaughter of his command’s personnel and arguing that his sailors, serving with the army, were vital to the defense of Santiago de Cuba, but was repeatedly overruled.3 After the U.S. Army captured the San Juan Heights, Blanco refused to let Cervera delay any longer. On 2 July, Blanco ordered Cervera to depart immediately.4 Cervera decided to attempt the breakout at first light on 3 July for three reasons: first, it was difficult to navigate the narrow entrance to Santiago de Cuba harbor at night; second, the American fleet was spread over a wider area during the day; and third, Cervera believed it would be easier to rescue his sailors in the event of disaster.5

     Cervera’s flotilla was challenging the strongest fleet in the United States Navy, including nearly all of its first-class battleships. This fleet was arranged according to a blockade plan devised by RAdm. William T. Sampson, which mandated constant vigilance, including the use of searchlights to scan the entrance to Santiago harbor at night. In the event that the Spanish ships sortied, the American capitol vessels were to close in and destroy Cervera’s larger vessels while the smaller auxiliaries, positioned closer to the shore, were to engage the Spanish torpedo destroyers thus preventing them from attacking the American battleships.6

Blockading was an exhausting experience and after a month some fatigue had set in among American seamen. However, on the morning of 3 July that all changed.7 At 9 a.m., when Cervera’s squadron steamed out of Santiago the blockaders were formed in a semicircle around of the mouth of the harbor.  Nearest the eastern shore was the auxiliary Gloucester. To the west were the battleships Indiana, Iowa, Texas, Brooklyn, Oregon and auxiliary Vixen. Adm. Sampson and his flagship, the armored cruiser New York, as well as the battleship Massachusetts and the cruisers Newark, New Orleans, and Suwanee, were not on the blockade that morning. New York was carrying Sampson to a meeting with Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter at Siboney, Cuba, to discuss the joint campaign; Massachusetts and the cruisers were at Guantánamo Bay coaling.8 His absence made Commo. Winfield S. Schley the senior officer in charge, a situation that created controversy when credit for the victory was accorded officially and in the press.9

     Cervera’s plan for the battle was based on the observation that only a converted yacht, Vixen, lay close to shore on the western end of the arc of American blockaders and that Brooklyn, the ship that was to support Vixen, lay farther out to sea than the other American capital ships. Cervera planned to use his flagship, the cruiser InfantaMaria Teresa, to ram and disable Brooklyn, the fastest American ship, and to occupy the attention of the rest of the American fleet while the remaining ships of the Spanish squadron: Viscaya, CristóbolColón, and Almirante Oquendo, and the torpedo destroyers Furor and Plutón escaped to the westward.10

However, Cervera was not optimistic that his battle plan would succeed. The Spanish ships were outgunned and the narrow channel required them to exit Santiago Bay one ship at a time, inviting concentrated American fire with little room to maneuver. He wrote to Governor General Blanco after the battle: “The result was not doubtful to me, although I at times had thought that our destruction would not be so rapid.”11

     At 9:35 a.m., several American ships simultaneously signaled that the Spanish squadron was steaming out. It took twelve minutes for all the Spanish ships to pass through the narrow channel, during which time they were under fire with little opportunity to reply.12

The American ships closed in rapidly, but could not sink Infanta Maria Teresa before Cervera made his diversionary run at Commo. Schley’s flagship, Brooklyn. As Infanta Maria Teresa approached, Schley approved Capt. Francis Cook’s suggestion that Brooklyn turn northeastward into a cloud of gun smoke to avoid Teresa. As it emerged from the smoke, Brooklyn nearly collided with Texas, which had to back its engines to avoid hitting Brooklyn. The Americans quickly recovered and initiated a rapid pursuit of the Spanish. However, this near collision became a point of contention with some of Schley’s critics used this incident to argue that Schley should receive no credit for the victory and leading some to accuse him of cowardice.13 

     With Brooklyn and Texas in pursuit, both Viscaya and Colón broke through the American blockade and headed west. Infanta Maria Teresa and Almirante Oquendo were not so fortunate; both of which had been subject to the combined fire of the American force longer than any of the other ships in the Spanish squadron. Soon after the failed attempt to ram Brooklyn, Teresa caught fire. That fire quickly became an inferno and Cervera ran the vessel aground in order to save what remained of the crew. A few miles to the westward of Teresa, Oquendo suffered a similar fate and, like Cervera, Capt. Juan B. Lazaga y Garay ordered his burning ship beached in order to save as many of his men as he could.14

     Plutón and Furor fared even worse. Both ships came out of the harbor and were immediately set upon by the secondary batteries of the battleships Indiana and Iowa.15 Far more devastating, however, was fire from Gloucester. Gloucester, a fast, heavily armed converted pleasure yacht commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright, the former executive officer of Maine when it blew up in Havana harbor, lay in wait for the torpedo destroyers, even subjecting itself to fire from the shore batteries to do so. When Plutón and Furor emerged, Wainwright and Gloucester attacked “with a vengeance.” Under Gloucester’s relentless pounding, Plutón caught fire, ran onto the rocks, and exploded; minutes later, Furor caught fire and ran aground.16

     Brooklyn, Texas, Iowa, and Oregon were all now in pursuit of the two remaining Spanish cruisers—Viscaya and Cristóbol Colón. Viscaya lasted another forty minutes. Being the slower of the two Spanish vessels, it was subjected to the fire of all the American pursuers. This concentrated fire eventually caused it to catch fire, whereupon its captain decided to save what was left of his crew and ran it aground.

Seeing the plight of the crew of Viscaya, Robley D. Evans of the Iowa ordered his ship to drop out of the chase of Colón and concentrate on rescuing the crew of the Viscaya. Fortunately, the Iowans were able to rescue many of the crew of Viscaya, including its commander, Capt. Antonio Eulate y Fery. It was lucky that they did because soon shortly after the crew was removed, the forward magazine on Viscaya exploded, destroying the ship entirely.17      

Further west Brooklyn and Oregon were gaining on Colón. Oregon showed impressive speed during the chase but the two American ships only overtook Colón when the Spanish vessel used up its supply of better-quality coal and was forced to burn coal of an inferior grade. Seeing his ship bracketed by American salvos and knowing his prospects were hopeless, Capt. Emilio Díaz-Moreu y Quintana ordered the ship to be beached. He then struck his colors and, in an act of illegal sabotage, flooded his ship.18

Upon arriving on the scene, men from New York and Oregon attempted to save the flooding Colón. New York attempted to nudge the ship further ashore, but only succeeded in unseating it from the reef it was resting on, thus causing it to list even further. Despite American efforts to save it, Colón continued to fill with water and eventually tipped over.19

     After the battle, American sailors demonstrated both courage and chivalry, risking their own lives to rescue Spanish sailors from Furor and Oquendo, both of which were on fire and subject to intermittent magazine explosions. Lt. George H. Norman Jr., of Gloucester, was in charge of the rescue operations near Santiago. He ran a line from Colón to the shore for Spanish sailors to climb out on and drop into whale boats and steam launches manned by sailors from Gloucester and Indiana. The wounded and prisoners were placed about the auxiliary Harvard where they received medical care and clothing and provisions.20  The wounded were treated by American ship surgeons and eventually placed aboard the hospital ship Solace.21

     The battle was a complete American victory.  The Spanish lost every vessel in the flotilla and had 323 men killed, 151 wounded, and 1,720 captured.22 Only one American seaman was killed, Chief Yeoman George H. Ellis of the Brooklyn, and none of the American vessels suffered significant damage.23 The battle was a mortal blow to the Spanish Navy and to its war effort. Adm.  Manuel de la Cámara y Libermoore’s Squadron, which had been sent to try and recover Manila, was recalled to protect Spain from a possible American attack. Moreover, Cuba was completely isolated with no possibility of relief.24 Thus, ended any attempt by Spain to recapture or even to protect its colonies.

     The American victory, complete as it was, became mired in controversy. An aide to Sampson sent a cable in the rear admiral’s name claiming credit for destroying the Spanish squadron even though the New York did not participate in the battle.25 Newspapermen embedded with the fleet, outraged by this cable, began attributing the victory solely to Schley, refusing to acknowledge Sampson’s role. Schley made sure to issue a cable to both Sampson and Secretary of the Navy John D. Long stating that he wanted no part into the debate and that it was the product of the press trying to concoct a controversy.26 Schley’s words did not abate the animosity. Residual resentment over Schley’s failures in May lingered and Sampson was adverse to issuing any credit to the former commander of the Flying Squadron.27 The Sampson camp used Schley’s turn at the beginning of the battle as evidence that he was craven, even though none of the reports after the battle make mention of the near miss with Texas and Capt. John W. Philip, later a Sampson supporter, praises Schley in his post battle letter home to his wife.28 In the end a court martial determined that Schley was remiss in chasing down the Spanish fleet and that it was Sampson’s plan, and not Schley who won the battle of Santiago Bay.29

Footnote 3: See, for example, Cervera to Blanco, 25 June 1898; Proceedings of a Council of War, 1 July 1898; Blanco to Cervera, 2 July 1898, Squadron Operations, 110-11, 117, 119.

Footnote 4: Squadron Operations, 119.

Footnote 5: War with Spain, 258-60.

Footnote 8: Chadwick, The Spanish-American War, 2: 129-30.

Footnote 10: Concas, The Squadron of Admiral Cervera, 68-9.

Footnote 13: See: Philip to Sampson, 4 July 1898; and Trask, War with Spain, 267. Interestingly, in his account of the battle, Francis Cook does not discuss Brooklyn’s maneuver. See: Cook to Schley, 7 July 1898.

Footnote 17: See: Evans to Sampson, 4 July 1898. On meeting Evans, Eulate offered the American captain his sword in surrender, but Evans, in a magnanimous gesture, declined to take it. On other efforts by the Americans to assist Spanish seamen during and after the battle, see: Cassard to Taylor, 1 February 1902.

Footnote 20: See: Norman to Wainwright 4 July 1898. For information of on the accidental shooting of Spanish prisoners on Harvard, see: Capt. Charles. S. Cotton to Long, 20 July 1898.

Footnote 22: Ibid.; Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American War, 576.

Footnote 24: Trask, War with Spain, 269.

Footnote 25: See: Sampson to Long 3 July 1898. 

Footnote 27: Trask, War with Spain, 268.

Footnote 29: See, Schley Court Martial; and Trask, War with Spain, 267-68.

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