Battle of Santiago de Cuba

The naval battle of Santiago de Cuba was the greatest naval action of the Spanish-American War, fought in 1898. Here the naval forces of the United States, under the joint command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley fought the Spanish naval forces under the command of Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete. The American victory, coupled with the victory at Manila Bay, propelled the United States Navy to worldwide prominence.

The Spanish-American War was long in the wings. Spain had once ruled the greatest colonial empire that was ever seen. By the late 19th Century most of that empire had rotted away, inspired to revolt and create nations of their own by the success of the United States. Only a few colonies remained in Spanish hands, much to the chagrin of the native populace, and the United States. Cuba and the Philippines were the most important of these colonies, and the cause of the greatest grief. In 1895, another Cuban revolt against Spanish rule gained widespread coverage in the American press. When the situation escalated due to the refusal of the Conservative controlled Spanish government to let go of even one inch of land, US President Grover Cleveland intervened politically. However, the Spanish Prime Minister, Antonio Canovas del Castillo, refused to listen at all. Instead, he sent General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau to assume the captaincy general of Cuba. Weyler’s brutal methods (among them relocating entire towns of people by force), born more of frustration than cruelty, made him despised by the American press.

In 1897, William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as President, and he brought more pressure to bear on Spain. To make matters worse a rebellion broke out in the Philippines and in June Prime Minister Canovas was assassinated by an anarchist. His successor, the Progressive Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, took a different stance to the situation. He offered the rebels autonomy and self-governance, a wildly unpopular move in Spain. It was for moot for the rebels felt that only bloodshed would earn their independence. Meanwhile the American press, outright lying about the situation in Cuba to sell newspapers, had only inflamed the national sentiment against Spain. Cries for intervention soon began to drown out all attempts at moderation in the crises and President McKinley, by nature a peaceful man, was besieged on all sides by the jingoists in Congress and the greater public. In February 1898, the Spanish Ambassador, Enrique Dupuy de Lome, wrote a critical letter about the President, which the Cubans leaked. Public outcry resulted in Prime Minister Sagasta sacking de Lome, hoping to calm American ire. Then on February 15th the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Why the Maine blew up remains a mystery, but to the press it was clear who was responsible. Headlines across the nation blared the news that the Maine had struck a Spanish mine and sunk. Demand for a war against Spain now reached a fever pitch with the cry of “Remember the Maine!” President McKinley tried his best to calm things down by ordering an investigation into the matter. Prime Minister Sagasta and his Progressive government were anxious to avoid war, making vague promises to help the Cubans.

No one in the United States believed these promises, and the climate within Congress grew increasing hostile. By early April McKinley knew he could no longer stem the tide of public opinion away from war. On April 11th, he asked Congress for authorization to send the Army in to enforce a peace settlement in Cuba. He received this on April 19th and a Three-Point Resolution detailing the following: That Cuba was now a free and independent nation, that America had no designs on Cuba, and that all Spanish forces must withdraw. A fourth resolution was added later giving the President the authority to use as much force as necessary to aid the freedom fighters in Cuba. Spain then cut off all diplomatic ties with the United States. On April 25th, Congress retaliated with a formal Declaration of War. The Spanish-American War had begun.

With the beginning of hostilities, the navies of both nations started to prepare for a great clash. In the United States, the Navy Department had been planning for a war since 1897, specifically for a war in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, while he was still Under-Secretary of the Navy had been the most vocal proponent of the need for the Navy to prove itself. When the age of the steel battleship had begun, the United States Navy was forced to undergo a transformation. The so-called ‘New Navy’ was untried and unsure of itself. There was also a great deal of mistrust over the need to even have battleships, many believing that the United States had little need for such status symbols. The Navy Department knew the ‘New Navy’ needed to prove itself not only to the American people but the world at large.

In Spain, they had also been preparing for war. Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, world renowned and a legend even then, was Spain’s greatest naval leader and had seen that a war with the United States was inevitable. At the urging of Maria Christina, Queen Regent of Spain, he had returned from self-imposed exile to prepare the Spanish Navy for war. Unfortunately the Ministerio de Marina, the Spanish Admiralty, was hostile to Cervera’s ideas due to political differences. For this reason, the well-prepared plan to fight the naval war from the Canary Islands was brushed aside. Many within the Ministerio felt that the United States Navy did not pose a threat to Spain’s naval forces. On April 30th, Cervera’s squadron left the port of Cape Verde with orders to proceed west to protect Cuba.

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Rear Admiral Cervera. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States, a plan had been laid for the naval war in the Caribbean. US naval planners realized early that Key West, part of an island chain within the area between Florida and Cuba, would make the perfect place for a base of operations in that theater. The first force sent there, the Atlantic Squadron, was placed under the command of Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. Sampson was subsequently chosen to be overall commander for Navy affairs in the area. During this time the battleship, USS Oregon proceeded to make an incredible journey to join Sampson’s squadron at Key West from Puget Sound, Washington. The 67-day voyage of the Oregon was a major morale lifter for the sailors of the ‘New Navy’ and also the public. While the Oregon was making her journey, more news arrived. A group of mysterious ships had been spotted off the Eastern Seaboard. These strange ships were none other then the Flota del Ultramar, the squadron under Cervera’s command. A public panic ensued as the people wondered as Cervera’s intention. Would he shell the coast? Would he burn Washington D.C. as the British had done in 1812? Would he prey on the merchants? No one knew and Congress, to assuage the public, ordered the formation of a ‘Flying Squadron’ to be based at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This squadron was put under the command of Winfield Scott Schley, and ordered to protect the East Coast from enemy attack.

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Rear Admiral Sampson (top) and Commodore Schley (bottom). Sampson: By [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Schley: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the offices of the Navy Department, there was some concern that Cervera would attack the Oregon, which had no escort and would be vulnerable. The knowledge that Spanish destroyers Pluton and Furor carried torpedos, the most feared weapon of the day, only increased those concerns.  So on May 4th the Navy sent out Sampson with a mission to intercept Cervera at Puerto Rico. The Navy guessed that Cervera would need to make a stop at Puerto Rico to re-coal. On May 11th, Sampson arrived at the island and shelled the harbor of San Juan. After two hours, Sampson realized that Cervera was not there and returned to Key West. On May 15th, Sampson received word that Cervera was at the French island of Martinique. By the time he got there, the Flota del Ultramar had already vanished. Sampson then followed Cervera to the Dutch island of Curacao, but once again the wily Spaniard had escaped. Sampson returned to Key West once again. The Navy Department, frustrated by the lack of progress ordered all major warships, save those serving with Rear Admiral George Dewey in the Pacific, to converge on Cuba.

On May 18th, Sampson met with Schley, commander of the ‘Flying Squadron’ and now his second in command to discuss how to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the Navy could not have picked a worse pair of men to put together. Schley was brash and took unnecessary risks. Sampson was reserved and taciturn. It was exactly the kind of thing Cervera could take advantage of, and he did. On the 22nd Schley and his ‘Flying Squadron’ blockaded the port of Cienfuegos near Havana, sure that Cervera was there. Over the course of the next several weeks, Schley would disobey several direct orders from Sampson to move out from Cienfuegos. Finally, he left the port, but instead of proceeding to Santiago de Cuba to investigate a sighting there Schley made for Key West. To this day, no one knows why Schley decided just to get up and leave the area against orders to stay in Cuban waters. After many arguments, some of which with the Secretary of the Navy himself, Schley finally made for Santiago de Cuba. On the morning of May 29th, they found the Cristobal Colon, a key vessel in the Flota del Ultramar, lying moored in the harbor. Finally, after weeks of playing cat-and-mouse they had found Cervera.

The two United States Navy squadrons may have been slow, but they were powerful. Of the ships present in the combined fleet at Santiago de Cuba there was: five battleships, (USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, USS Oregon, USS Iowa, and the USS Texas). They were accompanied by two armored cruisers, (USS Brooklyn and the USS New York) several armed yachts that carried about the pestering newspapermen, the coal ship Merrimac and with other supply vessels. Finally was the mine layer Resolute.

The Spanish Flota del Ultramar was smaller than the American ships but faster. The ships that were with Cervera at Santiago de Cuba were not the full number of vessels in the Flota del Ultramar. Most notably missing was the battleship Pelayo, which was, along with the armored cruisers Princesa de Asturias and Emperador Carlos V, left behind to join the Home Squadron to defend Spain itself. Because of this Cervera only brought four armored cruisers (Almirante Oquendo, Viscaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, and the Cristobal Colon) and two destroyers (Pluton and the Furor) with him to Cuba.

  On May 31st, ecstatic over finally cornering Cervera, Rear Admiral Sampson arrived with the Atlantic Squadron to join Commodore Schley’s ‘Flying Squadron’ in the blockade of Santiago Bay. A new problem soon presented itself. As long as Cervera remained in the bay the American ships could not touch him. The entire harbor area was covered by Spanish coastal batteries that could tear Sampson and Schley’s ships to shreds. Unsurprisingly Cervera had no intention of coming out. Besides that, a variety of technical problems plagued his command. The breech-loading mechanisms were faulty, the boilers were in bad need of repair. Additionally, Viscaya‘s keel in severe need of a scrubbing, and on the Cristobal Colon the ship had been rushed out of the docks before its main gun could even be installed. Complicating matters further, the gunnery crews had little experience in firing live ammunition. Most of those problems could have been fixed within the harbor, but for some reason never explained the Captain-General of Cuba, Ramon Blanco y Erenas, refused to be of help. So with both fleets not moving the situation turned into a stalemate.

On June 2nd, Admiral Sampson decided to make a move to break the impasse by blocking the harbor mouth. For this purpose, he decided to scuttle the troublesome coal ship Merrimac. The attempt failed, and the Spaniards were able to capture the Merrimac‘s crew. Nevertheless the American press made a great deal of fanfare about the whole event, blowing everything out of proportion. Meanwhile, the 5th Corps of the United States Army commanded by Major General William Shafter had begun an overland campaign against Santiago de Cuba. On July 1st, the Americans won a great victory over the Spanish defending the San Juan Heights overlooking the city. Later in the day Captain-General Blanco ordered Cervera to get underway and to leave the harbor as soon as possible.

Spain could not afford to let the Flota del Ultramar fall into enemy hands while in port. Cervera knew he could not just steam straight out of the harbor in broad daylight (his ships would get blasted to bits). Nor could he do it at night (there was a danger of collision). Instead, the crafty admiral cooked up a plan. July 3rd fell on a Sunday, and the United States Navy held mandatory church services at 9:00 in the morning. Therefore, the Flota del Ultramar could make a breakout while the Americans went to church. To prepare for this Cervera ordered all his ships to begin storing up a full head of steam (steam power took quite a while to build up) on the morning of July 2nd. By noon lookouts onboard the USS Brooklyn, Commodore Schley’s flagship, noticed increased steam smoke rising from Santiago Bay. Schley immediately knew something up and had the armed yacht Vixen send word of what was happening up and down the blockade. Sampson, onboard the USS New York, ordered the blockade tightened on Schley’s advice. However despite the order the blockade was in some disarray the following morning Sunday, July 3rd, 1898. At 8:45 the New York suddenly began to move off from the line. It had raised the signal flag meaning ‘Disregard the movements of the Commander-in-Chief’ and steamed out of view. As it turned out, Rear Admiral Sampson was due to meet Major General Shafter for a strategic conference. Meanwhile, Admiral Cervera noticed the sudden gap in the western portion of the blockade line. Knowing he would not have a second opportunity like this again he prepared to move out at 9:00 as planned. At the appointed time, the Flota del Ultramar, already in position from the previous day, begun moving. At 9:35 the navigator of the Brooklyn spotted the Spanish flagship, Infanta Maria Teresa, exit the harbor. He immediately sounded the alarm with the signal ‘The Enemy is coming out!’ The Battle of Santiago de Cuba had begun.

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By U.S. Naval Historical Center photo.Mdnavman at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Cervera’s plan for the battle was to steam out as fast as possible through the gap created by the absence of the New York. Schley noticed immediately and knew he had to cut off the Flota del Ultramar by cutting in front of them. Taking quick action Schley signaled for the closest ships, the battleships Texas, Oregon, Iowa, and Indiana as well as the yachts Vixen and Gloucester. The firing commenced when the Teresa opened fire with her forward guns, sounding a response the Iowa returned fire and it was soon joined by the rest of the fleet. Soon a dark fog of thick smoke covered the whole area, and no one was quite aware of what was going on.

Meanwhile Rear Admiral Sampson, having just disembarked from the New York, noticed the smoke from the battle. Quickly realizing what was happening Sampson got back on board and ordered the crew to take him back to the Bay as quick as they could. However, the New York would not arrive until the battle was over. On the Spanish side, Cervera had signaled his ships to begin to make the turn to the southwest, to the gap. Schley noticed this and made a move that to this day bewilders naval historians. Instead of keeping on the intercept course he had started Schley had the Brooklyn make a sudden, unwarned of, turn to the northeast. This threw the American fleet into confusion as suddenly the crew of the USS Texas noticed the flagship seemed to be steaming toward them on a ramming course. On the Brooklyn, the navigator tried to warn Schley that he was about to hit the Texas. Schley did not heed the warning, and the crew of the Texas had to back the engines into reverse, just barely missing what would have been a disaster. However crazy and dangerous the move had been Schley had accomplished something. He had cut off Cervera and the Infanta Maria Teresa from the rest of the Flota del Ultramar. However, it was in the end a hollow victory for Schley.

Cervera had noticed the move as his American opponent had made it and knew that if the rest of the squadron was to survive he would have to sacrifice himself. So he ordered the Teresa to steam straight ahead into the trap while signaling for the rest of ships to continue steaming along the preplanned course, which was now almost open. When the Teresa steamed into Schley’s trap, nearly all of the American ships had arranged themselves in a semicircle. The Spanish flagship was hit on all sides by withering fire and soon the ship was alight. Admiral Cervera, unwilling to doom his men to die a grisly death ordered the vessel to be beached, which signaled that the ship was surrendering. Meanwhile the remaining vessels of the Flota del Ultramar, now led by the Almirante Oquendo were beginning to get out of range. Schley now realized that it was he that had been tricked, not Cervera. However, there was a problem. To get going a ship needed a full head of steam, and only the USS Oregon had built one up.

The rest of the US fleet was running only on half power, and by the time the boilers had been brought back up it would be too late. So Schley ordered the fleet to pursue the best they could, guns blazing. The first Spanish ship to go down would be the new leader, Almirante Oquendo. Damaged badly by a combination of enemy fire and its own guns’ bursting that the vessel broke in two shortly after beaching. The feared destroyers Pluton and Furor went next, with the Pluton beaching itself after suffering a direct hit from a battleship and the Furor blowing up before reaching shore, the only Spanish ship not to do so. Despite all of these victories that the US fleet was making against the Spaniards, Schley was convinced that his casualties would run so high that it would be a Pyrrhic victory. In fact despite the heavy amount of fire that the Flota del Ultramar had been putting out much of it was useless, and the Americans suffered only two dead.

As all of this was happening the remaining two Spanish ships, Viscaya and Cristobal Colon, were steaming ahead. Schley decided to take off after the Viscaya with his ship the Brooklyn as well the battleships Texas and Oregon. The rest of the fleet was ordered to stay behind and help any Spanish survivors to best of their ability, as according to the Rules of Engagement of the time. Quickly it became apparent that only the Brooklyn was going to be able to keep up with the Viscaya. For over an hour, the two ships blasted away at one another, due to both the heavy armor of the Viscaya and the ineffectiveness of the Spanish shells. According to later reports, the running duel between the Viscaya and the USS Brooklyn was the most savage of the entire battle. The contest ended when a shell fired from the Oregon took off the bow of the Viscaya. The ship then ran aground, and Commodore Schley ordered a cease-fire. The Texas then moved in to help survivors. Pulling in close the captain of the Texas noticed how bad the fires aboard the Viscaya were and ordered his crew to stop cheering. A little later the Iowa pulled up to aid in the rescue effort. When the captain of that ship noticed that the Cuban rebels were taking pot-shots at the Spanish wounded he turned his guns on the rebels and told them to stand down.

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USS Brooklyn in 1898. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


The last remaining Spanish vessel, the Cristobal Colon, continued to make good her escape. For two hours the Brooklyn, Oregon, and Texas tried in vain to catch up to the Cristobal Colon, but the Spanish cruiser had a six mile lead on them and faster besides. Schley knew he could not let the Colon go, but neither could he catch it. So instead Schley decided to try to catch the ship when she made a turn to the south to follow the Cuban coastline. However, as it turns out Schley would not have to spring his trap. At about 12:15 the Cristobal Colon had run out of good coal and was forced to switch to inferior Santiago coal. This switch allowed for the USS Oregon to finally catch up with the Spanish ship. The Oregon fired seven times at the Colon, but only the last two shots hit. In any case the crew of the Spanish ship knew the jig was up and struck her colors, signifying surrender, much to Schley’s surprise. At this point, as the battleships closed in to claim the Cristobal Colon as a prize Rear Admiral Sampson and the New York finally arrived.

Sampson was furious that the battle had already been fought and won without him; he blamed Schley for this loss of martial glory. With the surrender of the Cristobal Colon, the battle of Santiago de Cuba was over, and the United States’ ‘New Navy’ had admirably proved herself in battle beyond all doubt. However, no account of the battle can be complete without the mention of this one last bizarre incident. As the Iowa steamed about the area rescuing survivors they came across the captain of the Viscaya. After his wounds were treated, the captain turned to the flaming hulk of what was once his ship and tearfully saluted it farewell. Almost as in reply the Viscaya suddenly blew up, the explosion noticeable for miles.

In conclusion, the naval battle of Santiago de Cuba was one of the most decisive battles of the war. With the destruction of the Flota del Ultramar Spanish naval power ceased to exist, the only other squadron of importance having been destroyed by Commodore George Dewey and the Asiatic Squadron at Manila Bay. The Spanish-American War ended not long afterward on August 12th, 1898, having not even lasted a year. In the aftermath of the war the United States annexed what remained of Spain’s colonial empire, and became a world power.