Battle of Santiago de Cuba

This article is about the 1898 naval battle. For the 1898 land battle, see Siege of Santiago. For War of Jenkins' Ear battles, see Invasion of Cuba (1741) and Battle of Santiago de Cuba (1748). For other uses, see Battle of Santiago (disambiguation).
Battle of Santiago de Cuba
Part of the Spanish–American War

Illustration of the July 1898 battle
DateJuly 3, 1898
LocationNear Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
Result Decisive U.S. victory
United States Spain
Commanders and leaders
William T. Sampson
Winfield Schley
Pascual Cervera
5 battleships
1 armored cruiser
2 armed yachts[1]:174
4 armored cruisers
2 destroyers[1]:185
Casualties and losses
1 dead
1 wounded[1]:185
323 dead
151 wounded
1,720 captured
Spanish squadron destroyed[1]:185

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was a naval battle that occurred on July 3, 1898 in which the United States Navy decisively defeated Spanish forces, sealing American victory in the Spanish-American War and achieving nominal independence for Cuba from Spanish colonialism.


Preliminary context

The battle marked the culmination of a three-month war sparked by a series of conflicts waged by Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish imperial power in which the United States had political, economic, cultural, and ideological interests. Within this larger context, many American political leaders, pushed by interventionist public opinion, were outraged by the publication of a private letter by the Spanish Minister Enrique Dupuy de Lôme critical of President William McKinley and by the destruction of the American battleship USS Maine, for which a naval court of inquiry and American yellow journalism blamed Spain.[2]

Cuban revolutionaries had staged revolts against Spanish colonial authority in the Ten Years' War (1868–1878), the Little War (1879–1880), and the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898).[3] During the latter, Spanish General Valeriano Weyler established a policy called reconcentration, in which Spanish forces gathered Cubans who lived in the countryside and centralized them in camps where they could be monitored. As a consequence, many Cubans died of disease and malnutrition.

With outrage over Weyler’s seemingly brutal policy and sympathy with the Cubans’ struggle building, American public opinion pushed for war with Spain after the publication of the de Lȏme letter in February. Enrique Dupuy de Lȏme was appointed the Spanish Minister to the United States in 1892. In this capacity, it was his duty to refrain from allowing his personal beliefs to intervene with his public duty to support peaceful diplomatic relations between the United States and Spain. However, a letter that expressed his opposition to McKinley’s foreign policy decisions was exposed and the New York Journal translated and printed the letter.[4] Many Americans considered it an insult to the nation and to the president.

Although Spain apologized, on February 13, 1898, the Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, two days later, killing 266 American sailors. After a hasty naval court of inquiry, the American press blamed Spain and accused them of planting a mine that sank the battleship. The war with Spain became known as the “Correspondents’ War”. Journalists not only wrote stories about the conflict, but took part in the fight. In 1898, the prestige of the press ran high. American society was changing as literacy rates increased. There was a new revolution of readers. As war zones became more open to the press, journalists wrote eyewitness accounts of what was happening. In an era before radio and television, newspapers were the main source of information, opinion, and entertainment for the American public. "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war", newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst declared. In New York City, where the population was about 2,800,000, the combined circulation of daily papers was about 2,000,000.[5]

In response to the public’s outcry, McKinley took action against Spain. On April 25, the United States declared war. America claimed to have had no self-serving interest in Cuba, but some political and military leaders and imperialists did believe the war would be an opportunity for the United States to expand territories overseas and to demonstrate its increasing naval power against a weak foe. Moreover, the United States sought to expand economic ties with Cuba for its resources in sugar and tobacco, all of which influenced America’s decision to intervene. It was evident that gaining territories across the globe would increase the strength and influence of the United States and tap markets for the products of American industry.[6]

Spanish Prime Minister Práxedes Mateo Sagasta did not seek war with the United States. He did not expect victory, but he knew Spanish citizens would likely revolt if he conceded to American demands in Cuba. Meanwhile, Spanish naval leaders tried to employ a strategy where they would not win the war outright, but rather resist the US Navy as much as possible. On May 1, 1898, American and Spanish naval forces met in the Philippines at the Battle of Manila Bay, which resulted in a decisive victory for the United States. The Spanish government sent their fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete to defend Cuba and keep an open line of communication with the Spanish garrison there; Cervera opposed this strategy. He believed his squadron lacked the strength necessary to engage the American squadron, preferring instead to engage the Americans near the Canary Islands or to mount an attack against the American coast, but he was overruled by his superiors in Madrid.[7] Cervera's own misgivings reveal the seriousness of the situation faced:

It is impossible for me to give you an idea of the surprise and consternation experienced by all on the receipt of the order to sail. Indeed, that surprise is well justified, for nothing can be expected of this expedition except the total destruction of the fleet or its hasty and demoralized return.

Lacking a clear strategy, the Spanish may have hoped to end the war quickly in a "glorious defeat" against the more powerful U.S. Navy.[1]:79

Spanish Fleet

Before taking command of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron, Cervera had served a variety of military and political roles, retiring after a dispute with opposing politicians. However, when war with the United States broke, Cervera was recalled into the Spanish Navy and given command of the Caribbean Squadron. This squadron was to be dispatched from Spain with the ultimate destination of the Caribbean, initially Puerto Rico but then changed to Cuba, to reinforce the Spanish garrison, to defend the island from American invasion, and to break the American naval blockade.[1]:78–80 Before the outbreak of war, Cervera attempted in vain to inform Spanish officials of its weakness relative to the American navy.[8] Captain Fernando Villaamil, the Second Officer in the Ministry of the Navy and a pioneer in destroyer warfare, disagreed with Cervera's passivity, advocating instead that Spain offset American naval superiority by scattering the fleet and taking the initiative through quick and dispersed actions. A lack of consensus between Cervera, Villaamil, and the Spanish government put Spanish naval strategy in flux from the beginning.

Fernando Villaamil, c.1897

On April 29, Cervera steamed from Cape Verde. Panic gripped the U.S. populace, who did not know what his ships might do: attack the largely undefended East Coast while the fleet sailed about in an effort to engage him, prey upon American shipping, or perhaps sail up the Potomac and set fire to Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Cervera did none of these, managing to evade the U.S. fleet for several weeks, confounding his American counterparts, and re-coaling in the process before finally seeking refuge in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba.[1]:80 On May 29, 1898, an American squadron sighted Cervera's newest ship, the Cristobal Colon, and immediately established a blockade around the mouth of the harbor.[9] The Spanish soon found themselves "blockaded closely by an American semicircle of ships about six miles from the Morro by day, and moving discreetly closer after nightfall."[10] Moreover, by early July the Spanish were nearly surrounded at Santiago from the east by an advancing American army numbering some 16,000 soldiers, by 3,000 Cuban insurgents to the west, and by the American fleet to the south.[11]

The Spanish squadron consisted of the cruisers Almirante Oquendo, Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, and Cristóbal Colón in addition to Villaamil’s destroyers Pluton and Furor. The cruisers displaced approximately 7,000 tons each, but they were not heavily armored, nor did their armament match the Americans. With the exception of the |Colón|, which was more lightly armed, these cruisers main armament consisted of two 11-inch guns each and a secondary armament of ten 5.5 inch guns.[12] Cervera’s fleet was at a further disadvantage relative to the Americans because of the condition of its ships. The breech mechanisms in many of the Spanish guns were dangerously faulty, causing jams and other mishaps.[1]:78 Many of the ships' boilers were in need of repair; several ships, including the Viscaya, desperately needed bottom-cleaning as they were suffering from extra drag due to fouling;[1]:78 the most well-protected ship in Cervera's fleet, the second-generation armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, had not even had her main battery installed[1]:78 and carried wooden dummy guns instead. Finally, Cervera’s crews were poorly-trained. They lacked experience and practice in gunnery drills, and their training had emphasized rapid fire at regular intervals in contrast to the Americans who favored more deliberate aimed fire.[13][14] Relative to the Americans fleet, which consisted mainly of modern battleships, Cervera’s force was lightly armed, a result of recent budget cuts but also a naval policy that for many years favored the construction of light, swift ships to patrol their far-flung oceanic empire.

Cristóbal Colón

With Cervera’s fleet bottled in Santiago, Captain General Ramon Blanco y Erenas, the top military commander in Cuba, ordered it to sortie from the harbor along the coast westward to Cienfuegos. In Cervera's eyes, the escape from the bay seemed nearly impossible. He strongly considered fleeing under protection of night, but opted to sail by day instead to ensure the safe navigation of his ships through Santiago's narrow channel. On Sunday July 3, 1898, Cervera, aboard his flagship the Infanta Maria Teresa, led the Spanish fleet out of the safety of Santiago harbor at seven minute intervals.

American Fleet

The primary elements of the American forces in Cuban waters were initially divided between two commands: Rear Admiral William T. Sampson of the North Atlantic Squadron and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, commanding the "Flying Squadron".[1]:81 Although the two combined squadrons outnumbered the Spanish fleet, victory was not achieved solely by American numerical superiority. Rather, victory resulted from strategic and tactical decision-making in addition to the general superiority of the American forces. As historian James C. Rentfrow argues, the American victory at Santiago was, in many ways, the culmination of an "ongoing process towards [the North Atlantic Fleet’s] construction as a combat unit."[15]

The American fleet was composed of many different types of vessels. At the head of the fleet were Sampson’s armored cruiser USS New York and Schley’s armored cruiser USS Brooklyn. The New York and Brooklyn, although only armored cruisers, were well-armed for their class. The New York "verg[ed] on the battleship," according to historian Jim Leeke.[16] Schley's flagships were powerful cruisers, the primary firepower of the American fleet resided in its battleships USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, USS Iowa, and USS Texas. The American battleships were modern steam-powered and steel-hulled coast defense battleships all built within the decade. The oldest and least powerful of these was the Texas, a near-sister ship to the famous Maine that exploded in Havana Harbor in February. These ships were armed with thirteen inch guns and could steam at speeds up to seventeen knots.[16] Off Santiago, Schley's "Flying Squadron" was merged into the larger fleet under Sampson's overall command.

To bolster this force, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the battleship USS Oregon to sail from Mare Island, California to join the fleet in the Caribbean. The "West coast's lone battleship" steamed from San Francisco around Cape Horn to Key West to join the rest of Sampson's fleet in early May, a 14,500 nautical mile journey completed in 66 days.[17] The ship’s armament included four 13-inch cannons, eight 8-inch (30-cal.) cannons, and 18-inch-thick steel armor. With its 11,000-HP engines, it was propelled through the water at a rate upwards of 17 knots. Its combined speed and firepower gave the Oregon the nickname "bulldog of the Navy."[18] These "were clearly superior ships," observed W.J. Murphy, a sailor aboard the Iowa.[19] The United States' powerful battleships, at least according to Murphy, were what enabled the U.S. fleet to be victorious in battle.

USS Brooklyn

Battleships and cruisers, however, were not the only forces the Americans employed in this conflict. Other vessels included torpedo boats like the USS Porter, light cruisers such as the USS New Orleans, and even the collier USS Merrimac, which sank on June 3.[20] Sampson specifically approached Lieutenant Richmond P. Hobson, the commanding officer, charging him with the task to "sink the collier in the channel" in order to both blockade the Spanish fleet and to clear the narrow passage of any mines.

Stand-off at Santiago

Sampson structured the blockade as a semi-circle at the opening of the harbor. An auxiliary ship floated around the edges waiting to be used in case a forced entrance was necessary and a torpedo boat was stationed further off the front line. This newly developed torpedo boat was charged with guarding Sampson’s flagship when he broke the blockade to perform "frequent inspections, attacks, and pursuits," according to a correspondent aboard the New York.[21]

With the exception of the sinking of the Merrimac, this duty proved tedious. “Blockade duty off the Cuban coast was long, dull and unremitting,” writes historian Jim Leeke.[22] During the day, the blockade stationed constant lookouts. During the night, a battleship shone a searchlight on the entrance of the harbor in the event the Spanish fleet attempted an escape under the cover of darkness. This chore was repeated daily for nearly two months. As a sailor aboard the USS Gloucester put it, "what at first had been a pleasure had become a duty."[23]

As long as Cervera remained within Santiago Harbor, his fleet was relatively safe. The guns of the city were quite sufficient to make up for his fleet's deficiencies, and the area was well defended with sea mines, torpedoes and other obstructions.[1]:116–118 Nevertheless, Cervera was terribly outmatched. Though his ships were modern, they were too few, and their technical problems compounded his worries. The lack of refitting facilities in Santiago to assist with the repairs of the vessels in Cervera's squadron made the situation all the more desperate.[1]:169

For more than a month, the two fleets faced off, with only a few inconclusive skirmishes resulting. For his part, Cervera was content to wait, hoping for bad weather to scatter the Americans so that he could make a run to a position more favorable for engaging the enemy. However, U.S. land forces began to drive on Santiago de Cuba, and by the end of June 1898, Cervera found himself unable to remain safely in the harbor, and Governor-General Blanco y Erenas wanted a sortie, stating, "it is better for the honor of our arms that the squadron perish in battle ...".[1]:171

The breakout was planned for 09:00 on Sunday, July 3. This seemed the most logical time: the Americans would be at religious services, and waiting until night would only serve to make the escape that much more treacherous. By noon on Saturday, July 2, the fleet had a full head of steam and had fallen into position for the breakout.[1]:172

At about 08:45, just as his ships had slipped their moorings, Admiral Sampson and two ships of his command, his flagship, the armored cruiser USS New York, and the torpedo boat USS Ericsson had left their positions for a trip to Siboney and a meeting with Major General William Shafter of the U.S. Army.[1]:173 This opened a gap in the western portion of the American blockade line, leaving a window for Cervera.[1]:174 Sampson's New York was one of only two ships in the squadron fast enough to catch Cervera if he managed to break through the blockade. Further, the battleship USS Massachusetts, and the cruisers Newark and New Orleans had left that morning to coal at Guantanamo Bay.[1]:173 With the departure of Admiral Sampson, who had signaled "Disregard movements of flagship," immediate command devolved to Commodore Schley in armored cruiser USS Brooklyn, which now became the de facto flagship of the U.S. blockade.

Thus, the American blockade formation that morning consisted of Schley's Brooklyn, followed by the battleships Texas, Oregon, Iowa and Indiana and armed yachts USS Vixen and Gloucester.[1]:174

At 09:35, the navigator of Brooklyn sighted a plume of smoke coming from the mouth of the port and reported to Schley,

The enemy's ships are coming out![1]:175


Infanta Maria Teresa at São Vicente
Cristobal Colon (left) and Vizcaya
Almirante Oquendo at São Vicente in the latter half of April 1898.
Furor chased by Iowa, Indiana and New York

The Spanish column made its way around Cay Smith at around 9:31 am on July 3 and left the channel about five minutes later. In the lead was Cervera's flagship Infanta Maria Teresa, followed by Vizcaya, Cristóbal Colón, Almirante Oquendo, travelling at around 8-10 knots and 800 yards apart, followed by the torpedo-boat destroyers Pluton and Furor, respectively.[1]:174 They then formed three echelons, the destroyers heading eastward, followed by Colon and Oquendo while Maria Teresa and Vizcaya made for the Brooklyn.[1]:176

The battle commenced almost immediately. At the mouth of the harbor, the American vessels, Texas, Iowa, Oregon, and Indiana engulfed the Spanish fleet in a "hail of fire."[24] At 9:30am, the first shot was fired by Iowa and No. 250 was hoisted when the ships were seen in the channel. The Spanish responded, supported by the batteries on Morro and Upper Socapa.[1]:175–176 After leaving the channel, the Spanish vessels turned westward in column towards the American fleet.[25]

While the Spanish had taken the initiative by beginning the engagement, two factors slowed their escape. The first was the continuing problem experienced in maintaining proper speed by Vizcaya;[1]:169 the second was the poor quality of most of the coal in the Spanish holds. An expected re-supply of high-quality anthracite[1]:87 had been captured aboard the collier Restormel,[1]:89 by the American auxiliary cruiser USS Saint Paul on May 25.[1]:170

Brooklyn headed nearly straight for Infanta Maria Teresa at first, but by 10:05 it was apparent they were on a collision course and Commodore Schley ordered a sharp turn to starboard, the so-called "retrograde loop", when all of the other American ships had already turned to port.[1]:176 This threatened Texas with collision and Captain Philip of Texas ordered all engines back fullto, which brought Texas to a near standstill until Brooklyn passed across Texas's bow.[1]:176 Maria Teresa and Vizcaya then altered course to the west, the Colon and Oquendo falling in behind, and the two squadrons paralleled each other.[1]:176 Texas then swung behind Brooklyn but Oregon then ran up on the Texas and passed inboard, masking Texas's fire. Oregon, initially to the rear of the action but the fastest ship in the U.S. fleet, soon raced past Indiana, which had an engine problem and could make only 9 kn (10 mph; 17 km/h) at the time of the battle. Iowa had started from a disadvantaged position and was passed by Infanta Maria Teresa but hit her with two 12-inch (300-millimetre) rounds from 2,600 yd (2,400 m) and swung into the chase.[1]:176 As Iowa was passed in turn by Cristóbal Colón, the Spanish ship hit her with two shots from her secondary battery. One of these struck near the waterline and caused Iowa to slow[1]:176 and she therefore engaged Almirante Oquendo, bringing up the rear of Cervera's four cruisers. With the Spanish fleet past the American blockade, the battle became a chase.[26]

Rather than expose the entirety of his fleet to the American battle line, Cervera had signaled his other ships to continue to the southwest while he attempted to cover their escape, directly engaging Brooklyn, his nearest enemy. Though Brooklyn was hit more than 20 times during the battle, she suffered only two casualties, while her return fire resulted in the deaths of most of Cervera's bridge crew and grave damage to the ship generally. Under this brutal punishment, Infanta Maria Teresa began to burn furiously. According to Admiral Sampson’s battle report, “it was afterward learned that the Infanta Maria Teresa’s fire-main had been cut by one of [the] first shots.”[27] Cervera ordered her aground at 10:35 in shallows along the Cuban coast, by which time she was completely wrecked and aflame.[1]:178 Admiral Cervera survived and was rescued, picked up near Punta Cabrera by the crew of Gloucester.[1]:184

The rest of the Spanish fleet continued its race for the open sea. Oquendo was hit a total of fifty-seven times and was driven out of the battle by the premature detonation of a shell stuck in a defective breech-block mechanism of an 11-inch (280-millimetre) turret, which killed the entire gun crew.[1]:179 A boiler explosion finished her, and she was ordered scuttled by her mortally wounded Captain Lazaga. At 10:35 Oquendo ran aground, no more than a mile beyond Maria Teresa. MeanwhilePluton and Furor made a dash in a direction opposite the rest of the Spanish squadron. The Gloucester inflicted a considerable amount of damage by direct fire at close range to the destroyers. This eventually led to their destruction from the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and eventually New York. After receiving word of the battle, Sampson turned his flagship New York around and raced to join the fight. Furor was sunk at 10:50 before making the beach.[1]:180 Pluton succeeded in grounding herself at 10:45 near Cabanas Bay. In total, Furor and Pluton lost two-thirds of their men.[1]:180

Vizcaya was locked in a running gun duel for nearly an hour with Brooklyn. Despite steaming side-by-side with Schley's flagship at a range of about 1,200 yd (1,100 m) and even with some good shooting which knocked out a secondary gun aboard Brooklyn,[1]:180 almost none of the Spaniards' nearly 300 shots caused significant damage, while Brooklyn pounded Vizcaya with devastating fire. Subsequent claims by Admiral Cervera, and later research by historians, have suggested that nearly 85% of the Spanish ammunition at Santiago was utterly useless, either defective or simply filled with sawdust as a cost-saving measure for practice firing. The American ammunition had no such issues of lethality. Vizcaya continued the fight until overwhelmed, and by the end of the engagement she had been struck as many as 200 times by the fire from Brooklyn and Texas. Brooklyn had closed to within 950 yd (870 m) when she finally delivered an 8-inch (200-millimetre) round which, according to witnesses, may have detonated a torpedo being prepared for launch.[1]:181 A huge explosion ensued, Vizcaya was mortally wounded, and fires raged out of control, burning her reserves of ammunition that were on deck. She hauled down her flag and turned toward the Aserraderos beach to ground herself at 11:15.[1]:181[28]

Schley signaled the Indiana to go back to the harbor entrance and the Iowa was signaled to resume blockading station. The Iowa, Ericsson, and the Hist aided the crew of the burning Vizcaya. Meanwhile, the Harvard and the Gloucester rescued those of the Infanta Maria Teresa and the Almirante Oquendo. With flames and ready-to-explode ammunition on deck, the officers and sailors still ran into harm’s way to rescue the Spanish crews. These proved to be some of the most valiant actions performed that day.

While the Vizcaya was under fire, the Cristóbal Colón had drawn ahead.[27] Within a little more than an hour, five of the six ships of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron had been destroyed or forced aground. Only one vessel, the speedy new armored cruiser Cristóbal Colón, still survived, steaming as fast as she could for the west and freedom. Though modern in every respect and possibly the fastest ship in either fleet, Cristóbal Colón had one serious problem: She had been only recently purchased from Italy, and her main 10-inch (250-millimetre) armament[1]:169 was not yet installed because of a contractual issue with the British firm of Armstrong. She therefore sailed with empty main turrets, albeit retaining her ten 6-inch (150-millimetre) secondary battery. This day, speed was her primary defense.

By the time the Vizcaya was beached, the Cristóbal Colón was nearly six miles beyond the Brooklyn and the Oregon. At her best rate of nearly 15 knots, Cristóbal Colón slowly distanced herself from the pursuing U.S. fleet.[1]:181 Her closest antagonist, USS Brooklyn, had begun the battle with just two of her four engines coupled, because of her long stay on the blockade line, and could manage barely 16 kn (18 mph; 30 km/h) while building steam. As Brooklyn ineffectively fired 8-inch (200-millimetre) rounds at the rapidly disappearing Cristóbal Colón, there was only one ship in the U.S. fleet with a chance of maintaining the pursuit, the Oregon, burning Cardiff coal and New York, doing 20 knots.[1]:182

The wreck of Vizcaya after the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
Wreck of the Vizcaya

For 65 minutes, Oregon pursued Cristóbal Colón. which hugged the coast and was unable to turn toward the open sea because Oregon was standing out about 1.5 mi (1.3 nmi; 2.4 km) from Cristóbal Colón's course and would have been able to fatally close the gap had Cristóbal Colón turned to a more southerly course.

Finally, three factors converged to end the chase: First, Cristóbal Colón had run through her supply of high-quality Cardiff coal and was forced to begin using an inferior grade obtained from Spanish reserves in Cuba. Second, a peninsula jutting out from the coastline would soon force her to turn south, across Oregon's path. And third, on the flagship Brooklyn, Commodore Schley signaled Oregon's Captain Charles Edgar Clark to open fire. Despite the immense range still separating Oregon and Cristóbal Colón, Oregon's forward turret launched a pair of 13-inch (330-millimetre) shells which bracketed Cristóbal Colón's wake just astern of the ship.[1]:182

Vizcaya explodes

While Vizcaya exploded at 1:20pm, Captain Jose de Paredes, declining to see his crew needlessly killed, abruptly turned the undamaged Cristóbal Colón toward the mouth of the Turquino River and ordered the scuttle valves opened and the colors struck as she grounded.[1]:182[29] Captain Cook of the Brooklyn went on board to receive the surrender. The Oregon was in charge of the Colón’s wreck and ordered to save her if possible. All of the prisoners were to be transferred to the USS Resolute. Despite all efforts, the Colón was taken by the sea and sank in shoal water. As the ships of the U.S. fleet pushed through the carnage, rescuing as many Spanish survivors as possible, one officer was fished out by sailors of Iowa. This man proved to be Captain Don Antonio Eulate of Vizcaya. He thanked his rescuers and presented his sword to Captain Robley Evans, who handed it back as an act of chivalry.[1]:183

By the end of the battle, the Spanish fleet was completely destroyed. The Spanish lost more than 300 killed and 150 wounded out of 2,227 men, or approximately 22% of the fleet. 1,800 officers and men were taken prisoner by the Americans and roughly 150 returned to Santiago de Cuba. The American fleet lost only one killed and one wounded, the former Yeoman George Henry Ellis of Brooklyn.[1]:180[30] The Spanish ships were devastated by the overwhelming barrage of firepower by the Americans. Yet, according to historian David Trask, despite the overwhelming victory, only 1-3% of all rounds fired by the Americans found their mark.[31]

Sampson-Schley Controversy

The American victory bred controversy in the ranks of the naval officer corps over the question of which commanding officer deserved credit for the victory. Should it be Sampson who was in operational command of the fleet, but absent when Cervera’s force engaged the Americans, or Schley who remained in tactical command during Sampson’s absence and who saw the fight to a successful close from the bridge of the Brooklyn? The controversy between the two officers began almost immediately after the conclusion of the battle.

At the conclusion of the battle, Sampson’s flagship the New York approached the Brooklyn. Schley sent the message by signal flag: “The enemy has surrendered” and “We have gained a great victory.” Against common practice at the end of a victorious battle, Sampson did not respond with the expected congratulatory remark, but rather, according to historian Joseph G. Dawson, "the answering signal was terse and seemed needlessly brusque."[32] After these messages were exchanged, more tension grew between the two officers when Schley requested that he and his crew should "have the honor of the surrender of the Cristobal Colon." With disregard to Schley and the other commanding officers, Sampson cabled Secretary Long, "The fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present the whole of Cevera’s fleet," invoking General William T. Sherman's message to Abraham Lincoln after taking Atlanta in 1864, but making no reference to Schley.[33] A day after the news reached the United States, the New York Times published an article with the headline, "Sampson's Fourth of July Victory," expressing gratitude towards Sampson for his leadership during the Battle of Santiago.[34] In Sampson's hometown of Palmyra, New York, a respectful one hundred shots were fired for his victory. Following the newspaper headlines were interviews and telegraphs from Sampson's wife, sister, and two sons. Each message displayed praise and congratulations for his accomplishments in the battle.

Less than two weeks before Sampson’s battle report was due, reporters sensed that there was tension between the two officers. On July 5, Kentucky Congressman Albert S. Berry went on record in favor of Schley, declaring, "Schley is the real hero of the incident. Sampson commands the fleet in those waters, but it was Commodore Schley in command when Cervera and his fleet made the plucky attempt at escape and it was under Schley that every one of that Spanish fleet met its destruction." While Berry still did not impugn Sampson, he believed that Schley deserved much of the credit for the American victory. The next day, a news report from the Baltimore American declared that "Schley [was] the real hero."[35]

The controversy quickly became a public spectacle inflamed by journalistic sensationalism, popular interest in the recent war, and in the war's celebration of military heroism. On August 9, 1898, the Springfield Republic claimed the controversy was largely a product of writers determined "to get a brilliant hero out of the Santiago battle at any cost."[36] Many journalists felt that Sampson’s "careful, thorough and comprehensive leadership" did not fit the mold of the brash American hero in the era of Rooseveltian masculinity. Just as early motion picture-makers such as Thomas Edison made films celebrating Schley’s leadership at Santiago, journalists, by and large, placed Schley on a pedestal for winning the battle because he was the man standing on the bridge, leading the fleet towards the enemy and victory in combat.

The controversy also sharply divided the Navy’s officer corps. Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783, threw his considerable influence behind Sampson. He argued that it did not matter who was in command during the battle because the "stringent methods laid down" by Sampson brought about the ultimate victory.[37] In Mahan's eyes, the press and the public were robbing Sampson of the credit he deserved since it was through his overall command that Schley had the means to defeat the enemy.

Within the Navy, the controversy sharpened when Secretary Long proposed promotions for the two officers. Prior to the war, both men held the rank of captain, and both men were promoted to rear admiral to reflect their wartime commands. After the war, Long proposed that both officers would be promoted to vice admiral. Sampson previously ranked number ten in the Naval Register and Schley ranked number eight.[38] Upon promotion, Sampson would be moved eight numbers up and Schley only six, subsequently ranking Sampson higher in the register than Schley. Alexander McClure, editor of the Philadelphia Times, warned President McKinley that the promotion of Sampson over Schley would be a "great injustice" in the eyes of the public. His warning was ignored and the promotion of Sampson over Schley became permanent on March 3, 1899.[39]

Shortly thereafter, the New York Sun published an article that quoted Brooklyn’s navigator, Lieutenant Commander Albon C. Hodgson, saying that Schley gave orders to turn "hard aport" when first met by the Spanish fleet. This turn, in which Brooklyn had nearly collided with the battleship Texas, was a key critique of Schley's antagonist, one that Sampson and his supporters had been using to construct an argument of cowardice against Schley. Hodgson asked if he meant to starboard, to which Schley replied "no." According to this testimony, Schley apparently said "damn the Texas; let her look out for herself!" Schley, denying any such remark, requested that Hodgson write a formal statement retracting his accusations. He pointed out that such a statement would damage the reputation of not just Schley, but of Hodgson as well. The latter complied and retracted his statement, but requested Schley write a statement explaining why he retracted his claim. Schley did not answer this request.[40]

Secretary Long grew increasingly frustrated by the issue and its detrimental effects within the service. In November 1899, he ordered that all officers refrain from discussing the matter in public. However, debate continued in private, and those against Schley "were determined to destroy his reputation through a court of inquiry" that would investigate Schley’s actions and ultimately give credit to the appropriate officer. Schley had nothing to gain from a court of inquiry, but was forced to seek a hearing on his own accord in order to clear his name. Outraged by the publication of Edgar S. Maclay's History of the United States Navy, which Schley supporters deemed slanderous to the admiral's reputation, Schley sought and received the court of inquiry.[41]

A court of inquiry opened on September 12, 1901 at the Washington Navy Yard to investigate fourteen charges against Schley from his search for Cervera off Cienfuegos to the conclusion of the battle of Santiago de Cuba. Contrary to public opinion, the court concluded after forty days of deliberations closely followed by the public and the press that Schley did not "project the right image of a naval officer" due to his failure to act “decisively between his departure from Key West to the time of the battle." In the court’s findings, Schley was criticized for his route to the battle and for possibly endangering the Texas. It also referenced the “injustice to Lt. Cmdr. Hodgson when he published only a portion of the correspondence that passed between the officers about the matter.” Admiral George Dewey, president of the court of inquiry and a so-called Schley-ite, offered a dissenting opinion.[42]

Disappointed with the court's conclusions, Schley appealed his case to President Theodore Roosevelt. The president called for an end to all public disputes. Tensions died down temporarily, but arose after the publication of Secretary Long’s personal memoir, in which the former secretary of the navy credited Sampson fully and believed that Schley contributed little to the battle's outcome. Sampson died in 1902 and Schley, but the controversy left an internecine struggle within the Navy that, in some ways, tarnished the Navy’s image after what had otherwise seemed a glorious naval victory.


The end of the Spanish-American War was in many ways a new beginning for the U.S. Navy and marked a watershed moment in American and Spanish history. The defeat of the Spanish Navy gave the United States uncontested control of the seas surrounding Cuba. With resupply of the Spanish garrison nearly impossible, Spain ultimately sued for peace. Spain surrendered in August and the war was over. Some of the terms of surrender were as follows:

3. Que los Estados Unidos convienen en transportar todas las fuerzas españolas en dicho territorio al Reino de España con la menor demora posible… [That the United States agrees to carry all Spanish forces in that territory to the Kingdom of Spain with the least possible delay...]
5. Las autoridades españoles convienen en quitar, o ayudar a que sean quitadas por la Marina americana, todas las minas y demás entorpecimientos a la navegación que existen ahora en la bahía de Santiago de Cuba y su entrada. [The Spanish authorities agree to remove, or help remove with the U.S. Navy, all mines or other obstructions to navigation that now exist in the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and its entrance.]
9. Que las fuerzas españolas saldrán de Santiago de Cuba con honores de guerra, depositando después sus armas en un lugar mutuamente convenido… [That the Spanish forces will leave Santiago de Cuba with the honors of war, afterwards depositing their weapons in a mutually agreed-upon place...][43]

These terms, upon which both sides came to an agreement during the 1898 Treaty of Paris (1898) negotiations, decided the fate of the remaining Spanish troops, vessels, and the matter of Cuba’s sovereignty. Spanish prisoners of war that were not wounded were sent to Seavey’s Island at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, where they were confined at Camp Long from July to September 1898. The Americans treated Spain’s officers, soldiers, and sailors with great respect. Ultimately, Spanish prisoners were returned to Spain with their “honors of war” on American ships.

The battle was the end of any noteworthy Spanish naval presence in the New World. It forced Spain to re-assess its strategy in Cuba and resulted in an ever-tightening blockade of the island. While fighting continued until August, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, all surviving Spanish capital ships were now husbanded to defend their homeland leaving only isolated units of auxiliary vessels to defend the coast. Uncontested U.S. control of the seas around Cuba made resupply of the Spanish garrison impossible and its surrender inevitable.[1]:184 Admiral Cervera received different treatment than the sailors taken to Portsmouth. For a time, he was held at Annapolis, Maryland, where he was received with great enthusiasm by the people of that city.[44] The Battle of Santiago de Cuba brought Cervera peace of mind that he had fulfilled an officer’s duties and that his fleet had upheld Spanish honor. His bravery in the face of the enemy’s superiority garnered respect from Spanish and American sailors and officers alike. The Spanish prisoners of war were released upon the signing of the 1898 Treaty of Paris and the remaining Spanish forces left Cuba, leaving civil order to the military government that the United States established. The U.S. Army under the overall administration of General Leonard Wood governed the island for some time afterwards and, with help, removed many of the mines laid in the bay.The immediate effect of the Battle of Santiago and the larger Spanish-American War, then, was the end of any noteworthy Spanish naval presence in the New World. In the imperial vacuum left by Spain’s New World empire, the United States now exerted considerable influence both in annexing formal territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines and in subsequent American military interventions throughout the Caribbean over the next half century.

Spanish Navy POWs at Seavey's Island
The sunken Reina Mercedes in the channel at Santiago de Cuba.

The late nineteenth century was a transitional period for the U.S. Navy and for the growth of American power. The war and the conquest of territory seemed to validate American navalism and tipped the scale of U.S. naval policy towards the full embrace of Mahanian sea power. The Spanish-American War and subsequent interventions in Latin America known collectively as the Banana Wars were indicative of American commitment to the Monroe Doctrine articulated by the Roosevelt Corollary, which committed the United States, through the Navy and Marine Corps particularly, to be an international police force in the Western Hemisphere.

Imperialist sentiments followed the victory of the U.S. Navy and the newfound celebrity status of some of its commanders. Part of the impetus for new territorial expansion was the need for foreign naval bases and the need for a larger navy in order to take and maintain control of such bases. The Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and others had become locations for U.S. overseas naval bases and coaling stations, but native resistance remained high. The resistance in the Philippines developed into a colonial war between local guerrillas and U.S. forces under Major General Elwell S. Otis, who was appointed military governor of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. This territorial conflict was ironic because the roles of the Spanish-American War were now reversed. The U.S once fought to free Cuba from Spain’s colonial power, but now the United States aimed to colonize the Philippines. Ultimately, the Spanish-American War brought to light deeply rooted conflicts between the principles of democracy and the urges of budding imperialism.

Two of the Spanish ships, Infanta Maria Teresa and Cristóbal Colón, were later re-floated and taken over by the U.S. Both eventually foundered and were lost. The Reina Mercedes, abandoned in Santiago Bay because of engine troubles, was an unprotected cruiser captured by the U.S. Navy and used as a receiving ship until 1957 as the USS Reina Mercedes.

All of the various flags, warship pennants, national combat flags, the royal standard, admirals' flags and so on retrieved from the Spanish ships in the days following the battle, are part of the United States Navy Trophy Flag Collection at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. The collection was given to the care of the U.S. Naval Academy by an act of Congress in 1949.[45] In 1998, in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of the battle and the Spanish–American War, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy authorized the return of the National Combat Flag from the Spanish flagship Infanta Maria Teresa to the Spanish Navy via their Chief of Staff, who was to meet with the U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations in Newport, Rhode Island. However, the return of the flag was aborted when the curator of the Naval Academy Museum, citing the congressional language from 1949, refused to surrender the banner.[46]


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Coordinates: 20°01′11″N 75°48′50″W / 20.0198°N 75.8139°W / 20.0198; -75.8139

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