Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Winfield S. Schley to Senator Eugene Hale, Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs

Washington, D. C., February 18, 1899.

The Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs,

Senate Chambers.            

     Sir: Complying with the request of the committee, I beg to submit the following in reference to the communication of the honorable Secretary of the Navy,1 under date of February 6, to the Senate (Executive C),2 in “response to the Senate resolution of January 23, 1899, submitting facts and military records affecting the proposal that certain officers in the Navy be advanced according to the nominations sent to the Senate on December 7, 1898.”

     I wish, in the outset, to disclaim any purpose of controversy with the Navy Department. First, because my ideas of proper subordination of all officers of the Navy to its official head forbid; and, second, no officer can be upon such terms of equality with that head as will enable him to do so.

     The letter of the Department (so far as I am concerned) can be divided under these heads:

     First. The alleged delay off Cienfuegos, Cuba.

     Second. The alleged slow progress toward Santiago de Cuba from Cienfuegos.

     Third. The retrograde movements on the 26th and 27th of May.

     Fourth. The battle of Santiago and the destruction of Cervera’s fleet.

     As to the first: My orders from Rear-Admiral Sampson3 of May 294 (No. 5, p. 11) were to blockade Cienfuegos. Sampson says: “It is unnecessary for me to say to you that we should establish a blockade at Cienfuegos with the least possible delay, and that it should be maintained as close as possible.” This I proceeded immediately to do.

     I had no knowledge that there were any insurgents about Cienfuegos who were friendly to us until the Marblehead arrived on the 24th, when I learned from her commander5 for the first time, that there were such; and even had I known it on the 23rd of May the surf would have prevented communication. I immediately sent Commander McCalla to make such communication, the result of which was made known to me at 3.40 p. m. of May 24, and by which I learned definitely that the Spanish fleet was not at Cienfuegos. Within two hours--at 5.15--I started my fleet for Santiago de Cuba. What possible ground for criticism adverse to me there can be in all this I do not see. I was on the spot, acting under orders which gave me entire discretion, and yet clothed me with the responsibility of going to Santiago only after I was satisfied that the Spanish fleet was not at Cienfuegos.

     In addition to this, I desire to call special attention to a letter (No. 7) of Rear-Admiral Sampson to me, under date of May 20, in which he incloses telegram of 19th (p. 44, Ex. Doc., at top) from the Department and says:

     “After duly considering this telegram, I have decided to make no change in the present plan--that is, that you should hold your squadron off Cienfuegos. If the Spanish ships have put into Santiago, they must come either to Habana or Cienfuegos to deliver the munitions of war which they are said to bring for  use in Cuba. I am, therefore, of the opinion that our best chance of success in capturing these ships will be to hold the two points--Cienfuegos and Habana-- with all the force we can muster. If later it should develop that these vessels are at Santiago, we can then assemble off that port the ships best suited for the purpose and completely blockade it. Until we, then, receive more positive information, we shall continue to hold Habana and Cienfuegos.”

     This letter is not printed either in the Appendix6 or the Executive Document C, but I received it on the 23d, and, together with No. 8,7 received same day, it shows that at that time I was expected to “hold my squadron off Cienfuegos.”

     Second. The alleged slow progress towards Santiago de Cuba.

     The Secretary assumes that I was in fault for allowing the Eagle, which “was of small importance as a fighting force compared with the rest of the force,” to “reduce materially the speed of the squadron.”

     In respect to this, I have to say that she was a part of the force which Admiral Sampson had thought proper to send me, together with the Iowa and the collier.8 I had no right to abandon her without a necessity not then apparent to me. The speed of a fleet must necessarily be regulated by that of its slowest vessel. The Eagle was not the only slow vessel in the fleet; the Vixen and the collier were others. The weather at sea was such that much greater speed could not have been kept up. Captain Higginson,9 of the Massachusetts, reports (p. 15) “Weather rough and squally;” Captain Evans,10 of the Iowa (p. 26), says, “May 25, squally and rainy, long sea from ESE.” Captain McCalla, of the Marblehead (p. 18), says, “May 25, rough and moderate sea, fresh to stiff breezes, with wind from the ENE. To SE. by S.” (which were head winds), and my own report from the Brooklyn (p. 22) says, “The run to Santiago was marked by rain and rough weather.”

     I was ordered to proceed to Santiago “cautiously” (see above). If I had known that the Spanssh fleet was in the latter port I trust that it is not necessary for me to assure this honorable committee that no consideration of the Eagle or anything else would have prevented me from getting there at the earliest possible moment with the larger vessels, but the weather and sea and the slow-moving vessels made it impossible to do better than I did.

     Third. The retrograde movement of May 26 and 27.

     These are what the Honorable Secretary (adopting the language of the letter to him from Admiral Sampson, to be found on p. 35) characterizes as “reprehensible conduct.”

     In reply to this I can only say that never before in a professional life of more than forty-two years was any such language used to characterize conduct of mine, and I can see no reason for its use now.

     An officer’s conduct should be judged, first, in the light of his known character for professional zeal and ability. The honorable Secretary pays me a high tribute when he says (p. 6) that I was “selected for command of the ‘Flying Squadron’ without any solicitation or suggestion on my part, or that of anyone in my behalf, and solely with a view to the best interest of the public service.” I trust that there is no doubt in the mind of any member of your committee that in all I did while in command of the Flying Squadron I was animated by the sole desire to do my duty, fully and completely, to my country, and to deserve the high compliment that had been paid to me in assigning me to that command.

     Acting in accordance with my best judgment, in view of the circumstances, without any certain knowledge of the whereabouts of the Spanish fleet; after having been informed by the “scouts,” commanded by such officers as Sigsbee, Jewell, and Wise,11 that although they had all been off Santiago de Cuba for a week they had seen nothing of it and knew nothing of its movements or its whereabouts since it had left Curaçao; after having been assured by Sigsbee that he did not believe it was in Santiago,12 and by the emphatic declaration of the pilot Nunez;13 and knowing that, as the sea and weather then were, it would be impossible to coal my squadron off the port, I deemed it best to take the action I did, the final result of which was the location of the enemy’s fleet in Santiago Harbor.

     The Department’s dispatch under consideration (p. 34, No. 27, Executive C) speaks of insurgent Cubans to be found “5 or 6 miles” from the mouth of the harbor. Through Pilot Nunez, whom I caused to be landed west of the harbor, I learned on June 2, of the presence of the entire Spanish fleet in the harbor, and he was directed by me promptly to report the fact to Rear-Admiral Sampson, who was then in command. I would call attention to the exploits of Lieutenant Blue,14 as reported by Commander Delehanty15 (see p. 333 of the appendix), wherein he says that on June 11 he received from Admiral Sampson an order to get in immediate communication with the insurgents and secure without delay reliable inrormation as to what ships, if any, of the Spanish navy were in Santiago Harbor. Delehanty says: “Believing that reliable information could not be secured through the insurgent forces, I detailed Lieutenant Blue for this duty, landing him in uniform at Aserraderos, and directing him to request Colonel Cebereco16 to furnish him with horses and guides in order to reach the hills near the harbor;” and Blue reports the difficulty he was under in getting a sight of Cervera’s17 fleet from those hilltops. From this it will be seen that it was not so easy to secure this information, even ten days after Admiral Sampson had arrived there, as the Cubans in Washington, of whom the Department speaks, thought it would be; and Aserraderos, where those insurgents were, was not “5 or 6 miles,” but 20 miles to the west of the Harbor, and it took Lieutenant Blue more than three days to do his work.

     Fourth. The Battle of Santiago and destruction of Cervera’s fleet.

     As to this, I have nothing to say here. The facts of that contest speak for themselves.18

     In my official report, made to Admiral Sampson July 6, of that battle (p. 98) I said: “I congratulate you most sincerely upon this great victory to the squadron under your command, and am glad that I had the opportunity to contribute in the least to a victory that seems big enough for all of us.”

     I have treated the subject of the battle more fully in the accompanying detailed statement.

     The Department has done me the great honor to refer to my dispatch of July 10 (p. 135), wherein I say: “Victory was secured by the force under command of the commander in chief North Atlantic Station, and to him the honor is due,” etc.

     I am quite willing, gentlemen of the committee, to have you contrast the spirit of this with the spirit that breaths through the letter beginning, “My Dear Mr. Secretary,“ at the close of the same page, wherein the commander in chief speaks of me.

     As to all this criticism of my course prior to the discovery by me on May 29 of Cervera’s fleet, whether from Admiral Sampson or the Department, none of it has ever been made by either to me; and I never heard a word of it from anyone until after the battle with the fleet, although more than five weeks had passed since the alleged “reprehensible conduct” had occurred. Although Rear-Admiral Sampson used this language to the Secretary concerning me on the 10th of July (just one week after the battle),19 he has never to this day, in any manner or to any extent, intimated to me any disapprobation or made to me any criticism of my conduct of the Flying Squadron.

     In conclusion, I ask the attention of your honorable committee to the detailed statement herewith submitted, and

          I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

     W. S. Schley,

Rear-Admiral, U. S. N.

Source Note Print: Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry in the Case of Rear-Admiral Winfield S. Schley, Vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), pp. 161-63.

Footnote 1: Secretary of the Navy John D. Long.

Footnote 2: All references to pages unless otherwise specified are from “Executive Document C.” This document was otherwise known as “A Letter from the Secretary of the Navy in Response to the Senate (55 Congress, 3rd Sess.), Submitting Facts and Military Records Affecting the Proposal that Certain officers be Advanced According to the Nominations Sent to the Senate on December 7, 1898.”

Footnote 3: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 5: Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla.

Footnote 6: Report of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898.

Footnote 8: Collier Merrimac.

Footnote 9: Capt. Francis J. Higginson.

Footnote 10: Capt. RobleyD. Evans.

Footnote 11: Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee, Cmdr. Theodore F. Jewell, and Capt. William C. Wise.

Footnote 13: Eduardo Nunez.

Footnote 14: Lt. Victor Blue.

Footnote 15: Cmdr. Daniel Delehanty.

Footnote 16: Col. José Candelario Cebreco.

Footnote 17: Adm. Pascual Cervera y Topete.

Footnote 18: The controversy between Sampson and Schley concerned who was to be credited with the victory over Cervera’s fleet at Santiago de Cuba on 3 July 1898. Sampson was responsible for the plan, but Schley was the highest ranking officer in command at the time of the battle. Sampson, on New York, was steaming towards Siboney to meet with Gen. William R. Shafter, commander of the United States Army forces around Santiago when the battle began, but after the battle an aide sent a boastful message claiming credit for the victory on Sampson’s behalf. Trask, War with Spain, 261-62, 266-67.

Footnote 19: Sampson suggested promotions for other officers involved in the battle but suggested that “any question of reward for Commodore Schley” be left “to the Department.” Ibid., 268.

Related Content