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Captain Charles S. Cotton to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long


Annapolis Roads,  

July 20, 1898.    


1.   I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt this afternoon of the Departments letter No. 127766 dated the 19 th. inst.,1 directing me to report immediately in writing all circumstances attending the shooting of some of the Spanish prisoners on board this vessel on the night of July 4, inst.

2.   I beg leave to express my regret that the Department is without official information, relative to the unfortunate affair.

3.   On the morning of the 5th., inst I submitted, in person to Rear Admiral Sampson,2 off Santiago de Cuba, a written report of the occurrence of the previous night on board this ship and I supposed that the Department would be apprised of the circumstances in relation thereto, by that Officer.

4.   I beg leave to submit herewith a copy of my report to Admiral Sampson, and of his action thereon.

5.   Since that report was written I have been unable to obtain any further information that would explain or account for the action of the Spanish prisoners. From the time they were brought on board, rescuedby this ship from the shore near were their ships were stranded, to the time of the shooting they had been treated with kindness and consideration, as they were subsequently, and fed and clothed. Whether their action was an impulse due to fear of violence towards them, due to inability to understand our language, or to their disapproval of the act of the sentry in trying to inforce obedience to his orders, I have been unable to determine, after discussing the affair with the third Commander Asnar,3 of the Maria Theresa, who was the senior Spanish Officer on board this ship. 6 At the time of the shooting the Officer of the guard, Lieut. Roach4 of the 34th. Michigan Regiment, was visiting sentries. Had he been present or had the sentinels been disciplined troops it is possible the occurrence might have been attended with a less grave result than followed, though as to that, there is no certainty, merely conjecture.

7.   All of the sentinels ten in number, posted over the prisoners at the time, made practically the same statement relative to the circumstances leading up to the shooting and 3rd. Commander A[z]nar informed me that some of his men had said that one of their number did climb up to the top of the after house, but only to find more room in which to lie down, and that man did not under stand the sentinels order to come down, as to that the same man had once before been on the after house, and had promptly obeyed the sentinels order to come down.

8.   The shooting was not done by order of any Officer, but by the sentinels themselves upon their own volition in the execution of what they conceived to be their duty, to quell, what there is not the least doubt, was an attempt on the part of the prisoners to break their bounds and the result, of which if successful might have been attended with the most serious consequences.

9.   After my report to Admiral Sampson had been delivered, I discovered an error in the number killed and wounded, Four were killed and nine wounded, two of whom died later.

Very respectfully,

sig. C.S.Cotton,

Captain U.S.N.Commanding.

The Secretary of the Navy,

Navy Department, Washington, D.C.

A true copy.

U.S.S. “Harvard,” 

at sea off Altares, Cuba,   

July 5, 1898.     


     I regret the to report the killing last night of 5, and the wounding of 8, of the Spanish prisoners on board this ship. The prisoners were confined on the after part of the promenade deck under the guard of sentries. Between 11.30 and 12 o’clock p.m. of the 4 th. inst. a movement was made by the prisoners to get forward on both sides of the deck. They were warned by the sentrysies to fall back, but persisted in pressing forward. The sentries in fear of being overwhelmed, and that the prisoners would escape, and being unable to stop the rush by them, fell back and opened fire upon the prisoners. I was called and repaired at once to the scene of the disturbance. The assembly was sounded and as soon as quiet and order were re-established I made such investigation as was practicable under the circumstances. From the statements made to me by the sentries and others it appears that one of the Spanish prisoners attempted to climb by a ladder to the top of the after house. He was hailed by a sentry and ordered down. Not heeding the order the latter went after him to get him down, whereupon signs of evident disorder arose among the Spanish prisoners, indicated by hissing and other signs of disapproval. The sentry forced his way back to his post through the prisoners. Meantime the disturbance had increased, the prisoners moving about and talking excitedly, and finally forcing their way past the sentries, some of them whom were knocked down in the melee. By this time the guard had come on deck and as soon as the situation was comprehended joined in the firing. A few of the prisoners jumped overboard during the excitement but were rescued by the gig, which was promptly lowered to save them. One of the men again jumped overboard. Search was made for him but they were unable to find him. This morning transport No. 16,5 reported she had picked up from the water a Spanish prisoner much exhausted and had put him on board the Solace. This may be the man above referred to.

2.   The Spanish officers being in the forward part of the ship and below did not, I believe, hear or know anything of the unfortunate affair until the two Spanish medical officers on board were sent for to assist our Surgeons in the care of the wounded. After everything was over I sent for the Senior Spanish officer on board, Senor Juan Aznar. the 3 rd. Commander of the late “Maria Theresa” and informed him of what had taken place. I have taken such precautions as will I hope, prevent a future similar occurrence. I transferred to the Solace this morning six of the wounded prisoners. Two of the eight wounded have since died, making a total of seven (7) dead and six (6) wounded.

3.   I respectfully request that you will order such investigation as you may deem proper to ascertain all of the facts and circumstances in connection with this lamentable affair.

Very respectfully,

sig. C.S.Cotton,       

Captain U.S.N., Commanding.          

The Commander in Chief,

U.S.Naval Force,

North Atlantic Station.

A true copy.

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, Papers of Charles Cotton. Document features endorsement: “1 st. Endorsement./U.S.Flagship New York,/off Santiago de Cuba,/July 5, 1898./Respectfully returned to the/Commanding Officer U.S.S.Harvard,/Your conduct in this matter is/approved, and no investigation is/deemed necessary./sig. W.T.Sampson,/Rear Admiral/Commander in Chief, U.S.Naval Force/North Atlantic Station.”

Footnote 1: Document has not been found.

Footnote 2: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 3: Lt. Cmdr. Juan Aznar y Cabanas.

Footnote 4: 1st Lt. Q.M. Henry C. Roach, 34th Michigan Vol. Reg.

Footnote 5: City of Washington.

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