The Navy did its work in the late Spanish-American War quickly and effectively, thus proving itself better than the country thought it, and quite up to what its officers and men felt it able to accomplish. That it was a "crazy quilt" to begin with cannot be gainsaid, and will not be questioned by those who knew its condition. To say that it was prepared for the work it had to do would not be true; to say that it was in bad condition would be misleading. The enlisted force was all that could be asked-- superb fighting force, most thoroughly organized and drilled. The officers were far better than might have been expected, when it is recalled that they had lived thirty-five years under the worst system of promotion that could possibly be devised.
The ships were excellent--as single vessels-- but the desirable adjuncts of the fleet, such as fast cruisers, torpedo-boat destroyers, colliers, etc., were entirely lacking.
Congress had made a start at building a navy, but stopped long before its work was completed.
We had few battleships, as good as any that could be built anywhere, two armored cruisers, a good fleet of protected cruisers, a fair allowance of gunboats, and half a dozen experimental torpedo-boats. Congress, in its wisdom, had said how large the vessels should be, how much water they should draw, of what quality of steel they should be made, the number of guns they should carry, the amount of coal they should stow, and how fast they should steam. It is not, therefore, difficult to place the praise or blame for the condition in which we found ourselves. Such a building scheme would not, I imagine, be favorably considered in any other country.
Professional men had freely given their advice when asked for it, and in many cases had urged it without the asking. They felt keenly the position in which the Navy was, and did all they could to prepare for the war which they felt must come sooner or later.
When the Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, and war thereby assured, the squadron assembled at or near Key West was composed of the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and Massachusetts; the second-class battleship Texas; the armored cruiser New York; the protected cruisers Cincinnati, Marblehead, Montgomery, and Detroit; a number of gunboats of various sizes and rates of speed, and the torpedo boats Cushing, Ericsson, Porter, and Dupont.
No torpedo-boat destroyers to guard the battleships; no armored cruisers to do the scouting and meet the fast cruisers of the enemy; no colliers to supply the necessary fuel; no ordnance-supply vessle to give us ammunition; no repair-ship to make necessary repairs; and no supply-ship to carry fresh water and provisions.
With the Navy practically in the position above described, war was declared against us by a nation which had been carrying on war for three years, and should, therefore, have been better prepared than we.
Before the actual declaration of war a flying squadron was organized at Hampton Roads, which took from the squadron at Key West the battleships Massachusetts and Texas, and from other service the Brooklyn, the fastest armored cruiser we had. At the same time, the monitors Amphitrite, Terror, and Puritan were sent south as fast as their antiquated machinery could take them. They eventually arrived, all more or less broken down, and took their places as part of the fighting force.
Active steps were taken by the able heads of the Navy Department to prepare and forward such vessels as could be secured to take the places of the torpedo-boat destroyers which had not been built, and the absence of which might any night have caused the loss of our entire armored squadron.
Only those who were thee can know how glad we were at the arrival of even an ordinary New York tugboat with a few rapid-fire guns--anything to warn us of the approach of the vessels we knew the Spanish had on the coast of Cuba. We were sure of our officers and men, and if only we could get something to float them in, we felt more than hopeful of the result.
At ten oclock on the night of April 21st the commanding officers of the ships lying off the bar at Key West were assembled in the cabin of the flagship New York awaiting the word from Washington for which they had all hoped, and which would free the many hands that were eager to wipe out the insult to the Maine and avenge her murdered crew.
About midnight a torpedo boat came out bearing the message, "War declared; establish blockade," and the captains returned to their commands to work the rest of the night over such finishing touches as were still needed to prepare their ships for the crucial test of battle. An officer was sent into the harbor by the Admiral to get under way the fleet of monitors and gunboats, and by one oclock A.M. of the 22nd the long spidery legs of the searchlights could be seen feeling for the buoys as the vessels, one after another, went out in the black night to take their places ready for the start.
About 4 A.M. April 22nd, Admiral Sampson headed his fleet for the Morro of Havana--two columns of ships as ready and fit for their work as their officers and men could make them. Before 8 A.M. the first gun of the war had been fired by the gunboat Nashville, and the first prize of the war was on her way to Key west, eight hours, be it remembered, after the word had come to start.
Can anyone ask if we, the sea-going part of the service, were ready?
At sundown of April 22 this fleet of odd composition, led by the battleship Iowa, steamed across the entrance to Havana Harbor, and the five signal guns fired from the Morro battery announced to the cafes of the city that the last crate of Louisiana chickens had passed in for many a long day to come.
The first stage--that of preparation--had been passed, and the curtain was rung up on the second--blockade. The lessons of one war had been remembered at least by those in command. Chain-cables and sand-bags were freely used to protect ammunition hoists, where armor had been left off, and everything possible was done to strengthen the weak points and prepare for the ordeal we believed was near at hand. Twenty hours after the declaration of war an effective blockade was established, and thereafter maintained. I think we proved beyond a doubt that we were able and ready to use the tools the Government had put into our hands.
From the day it was established, the blockade of the Cuban coast was most effective, although maintained under the greatest difficulties. Coaling off Havana was impossible owing to the heavy trade-wind seas, and practically the same conditions held at Key West for vessels which could not enter the harbor. Yet we coaled the ships somehow, and without unnecessary delay. As time went on the blockade was extended until it embraced the entire coast of Cuba, with the exception of a short distance about Sagua la Grande, and the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The long list of Spanish vessels captured and the pitiful stories of starvation from the blockaded ports tell how vigilant was the watch and how unrelenting the grip of the improvised fleet.
During the early days of May, while Admiral Cervera with his fine squadron of cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers was crossing the Atlantic, we realized that we did not have a suitable force with which to meet and destroy him, as we should have done in the open sea. Our armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn were the only vessels which could hope to overtake such ships as the Vizcaya and Colon and have any chance of whipping them when caught. We felt that these two ships of ours with their splendid crews could be relied on to give a good account of themselves against three of the enemys ships, but the Spaniards, unfortunately for us, had four, as well as three of the finest torpedo craft in the world. As the Spanish squadron approached the West Indies, Admiral Sampson planned to draw from the blockading fleet such vessels as could be spared, and with them go forth to meet it.
On May 4th the New York steamed along the blockading line off Havana with the signal flying: "Iowa, Indiana, Detroit steer E. ½ N. speed eleven knots"-- this was the beginning of the San Juan expedition. Early that night off Cruz del Padre Light on the north coast of Cuba we found the remainder of the fleet, and all stood to the eastward at the best speed we could make--about eight and one-half knots. The squadron was composed of the following vessels: New York, Iowa, Indiana, Terror, Amphitrite, Detroit, Montgomery, and Porter. One steam collier was in company.
As the monitors could not carry coal enough to reach their destination, and it was doubtful whether they could coal at sea, the New York took in tow the Terror, and the Iowa towed the Amphitrite.
Thus our modern squadron stood on in search of fast, thoroughly found cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers. Surely we were again doing the best we could with the tools supplied by the Government, but this did not prevent us from wishing that the tools had been different and more in keeping with the age.
Admiral Sampson had every reason to believe that he would find Admiral Cerveras ships in the harbor of San Juan, so preparations were accordingly made to destroy them.
At early dawn of May 12 the American squadron, led by the Iowa, flying the Admirals flag, found themselves within easy range of the batteries at the entrance to the harbor. Not a light was to be seen, and not a sound came from the sleeping city. Slowly the ships stood in, and as daylight broke, the empty harbor revealed the fact that the Spanish ships were somewhere else.
To season our men and test our batteries thoroughly, as much as to harass the enemy, the Admiral opened on the forts. I shall never forget the first shot fired that morning. The sights of a six-pounder on the forward bridge were set at 2,700 yards and the gun fired at the Morro battery, the shell exploding just at the foot of the lighthouse tower.
As I saw the explosion I set all range indicators at 2,600 yards. The bugles sang "Commence firing," and the bombardment of San Juan was "on." For fully five minutes not a shot was fired in reply, and then the batteries, one after another, seemed to wake up and in a feeble way return fire. After two hours deliberate work Admiral Sampson drew off to the northwest, gave the men a chance for breakfast, and with the full approval of his commanding officers stood to the westward to seek Admiral Cervera in some other port.
Off the north coast of San Domingo news was received that Cervera had been sighted near the island of Curaçao; we knew then that he would make all speed for some Cuban port, the particular one depending on the quantity of coal he could get and the rapidity with which he could stow it. And so commenced a race for the Windward Passage, the point of strategic advantage which we must reach first, or Cervera would raise the blockade of Havana if he did not destroy in his course all the tugs and auxiliaries which then constituted the blockading fleet. We won the race, and as we steamed through the entrance of the Old Bahama Channel all hands felt that we had won the first hand in this game of war.
The New York was here detached from the squadron and hurried on with all possible speed to Key West, the command being left to the senior captain commanding the Iowa.
It was wearing work, as we tugged away at our monitor-tow, and the knowledge that scarcely a ship in the fleet had coal enough to reach her destination was not reassuring. We had the coal with us, but the movements of the enemy had been such that we could not spare the time to transfer it from vessel to vessel.
At 8 A.M. on May 17 a torpedo boat, the Dupont, spoke us, with orders to cast off the monitor and make all possible speed to Key West. We were certainly much in need of our base of supplies, but fortunately Admiral Cervera was as much in need of his.
In the meantime the fine flying squadron under Commodore Schley had been despatched to Key West, and was ready to go, with bunkers full of coal, to guard the west end of Cuba and prevent the Spanish fleet from passing, by the Yucatan Channel, either to the Gulf Coast of the United States or along the north coast of Cuba to the relief of Havana. From the moment that Admiral Sampsons fleet crossed the Windward Passage the Spanish fleet was powerless to do us harm. Admiral Cervera had lost the only opportunity he was ever to have.
Early on the 19th of May Commodore Schley with his squadron started for Cienfuegos, as it was thought that the Spanish fleet might possibly make for that port in order to transfer by rail to Havana some munitions of war which the ships were known to have loaded. Twenty hours later the Iowa was sent to join Schley, which she did off Cienfuegos, May 22d.
Admiral Sampson, with the New York, Oregon, and such other vessels as could be spared, proceeded to the Bahama Channel on the north side of Cuba; thus the net was swiftly drawn around Cervera, who was using all Spanish energy to coal his ships at Santiago, where he had arrived at 9:30 A.M. May 19th--almost the exact hour when Commodore Schley left Key West.
It was soon known that the Spanish ships were not in Cienfuegos, so the flying squadron hurried on to Santiago, where at daylight on May 29th the Colon was discovered moored opposite the Punta Gorda battery, and the other Spanish ships variously disposed in the harbor.
The fast auxiliary St. Paul was despatched to the north side, and on June 1st Admiral Sampson arrived with the New York and Oregon.
From the moment of his arrival the fate of the elusive and unfortunate Spanish Admiral was sealed beyond any hope. for the third time we had used the tools given s for all they were worth, but as our battleships went to the picket line night after night we could not help wishing that the tools had been a bit more suitable for the work they were called on to do.
The naval battle off Santiago, with all its details, is known to the world. If our fleet had been such a completed fleet as the country required, in the face of then existing circumstances, the Spanish squadron would have been found on the Atlantic and captured or sunk.
The country now realizes and understands what it needs in the way of a navy, and if we profit by the lesson we have had--if we have learned the lesson, in other words--then the money spent has been well spent, and we have no word of complaint for the brave lads who have gone aloft forever.
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