War with Spain - Charles Morris

Cuba Under Blockade

For three weary months the North Atlantic Squadron of the United States navy had lain in the waters south of Florida, lazily falling and lifting as the tide ebbed and flowed, while impatience for action on the part of the crews deepened until almost into a passion. Captain William T. Sampson, appointed acting rear-admiral, was in command, his flag-ship being the armored cruiser New York. The fleet included in addition the battleships Iowa  and Indiana, the double-turreted monitors Puritan, Terror, Miantonomah, and Amphitrite, the cruisers Montgomery, Marblehead, Cincinnati, and Detroit, and a considerable number of gunboats, torpedo-boats, and accessory craft. On the evening of April 21, 1898, the flag-ship swung at anchor about seven miles out from Key West, flanked by the two great battleships, while the inner harbor presented an animated picture with its throng of monitors, cruisers, and smaller craft, —the larger vessels at anchor, the smaller ones gliding about on various errands.

Dullness and calm rested upon the ships, as it had rested for weeks past. Men and officers lounged about the decks or sought relaxation in the neighboring town. But as the night wore on a change appeared. A special boat from the flag-ship called back to their ships all those on shore, and by midnight the show of gold braid and blue jackets, which had long been familiar sights in the streets of the Gull port, had disappeared. At the mast-heads of the New York and her consorts signal-lights flashed and flickered, their vari-colored gleams conveying significant orders to the ships in shore. From the latter flashed back replies, and during the night a conversation in points of fire was kept up through the air, telling but one thing to the interested observers, that the long wait was at an end and great events were in train.

Over the wires had come from Washington the startling words: "War is declared." With them came to the admiral of the fleet orders for an immediate blockade of the Cuban coast, and at break of day on the 22nd smoke was seen to pour densely from the black-mouthed stacks, anchors were cheerily drawn from their holding-ground, the lazy swinging of the ships was exchanged for active motion, and lively hope chased despondency from the faces of the crews. At the earliest hour of dawn the final signals burned in letters of light above the ships, and some of the vessels of the fleet were already gliding out of the harbor. Shortly before six o'clock the flag-ship was seen moving slowly outward, the Iowa  and Indiana  following on either side. In the harbor the remaining ships were all astir, with the exception of the Puritan, the Terror, and some smaller boats, which remained behind to take on water and coal.

Gradually the fleet grew smaller and less distinct, and one by one the vessels vanished in the blue distance. The time of expectation was over; that of action had begun. The ships were on their way to carry the message of war to Cuba's verdant shores. The first fruits of the new dispensation were seen when a flash broke from the side of the gunboat Nashville, and a cannon-ball ruffled the water in front of a passing steamer at whose mast-head flew the Spanish flag. A second shot was necessary before the Spanish captain took the hint and hove to his vessel. . In a brief time she had veered and was making her way to Key West in charge of a prize crew. The vessel proved to be the merchantman Buena Ventura, laden with lumber from Texas. The captain had hoisted his flag as a salute, not knowing that war was declared.

Before nightfall the blockade of the Cuban coast had begun, and Havana, at the bottom of whose harbor lay the sunken Maine, was feeling the stress of war. On the same day President McKinley announced to the powers of the world that Havana and the neighboring ports were under blockade, and that commercial intercourse with them must be suspended. The blockade, as proclaimed, extended from Cardenas to Bahia Honda on the north coast, a distance of about one hundred and sixty miles. On the south coast it was limited to the single port of Cienfuegos.

While these events were in progress, a note of alarm came from across the seas. The great steamer of the American Line, the Paris, which had been chosen as part of our auxiliary fleet, lay at Southampton, England, with orders to sail for the United States on the 22nd. Fears were entertained that this noble ship might be made a Spanish prize, and rumors were rife that cruisers from Spain were prowling about in her expected route. The anxiety did not subside until the Paris loomed up in American waters, safe from capture and without having seen a hostile sail

In Havana, on the same day, defiance was being cast in the face of the Americans. On the night before, the public buildings and many private residences bad been decorated with the national colors, and an illumination of the city followed, as though the occasion was one of festivity. The next morning the people, wearing ribbons of the Spanish colors, gathered densely in the square opposite the palace, sending a committee to the governor-general to tender their estates and their lives in aid of the national cause, for which they pledged themselves to fight to the bitter end. General Blanco thanked them in the name of the king and the governing powers, and made a speech to the people in which he assured them that he would lead them to victory.

"Otherwise I shall not live," he said. "Do you swear to follow me to the fight?"

"Yes, yes, we do!" shouted the throng.

"Do you swear to give the last drop of blood in your veins before letting a foreigner stamp his foot on the land we discovered and place his yoke on the people we civilized?"

"Yes, yes, we do!"

"The enemy's fleet is almost at Morro Castle, almost at the shores of Havana. We will throw them into the sea."

Just where the people whom Spain had civilized were to be found General Blanco, in his enthusiasm, neglected to state. But he sought to make his words good on the following day by opening fire from Morro Castle on the flag-ship of the American fleet. On the 24th Morro fired again on the American ships. It was a futile waste of powder and shot, which was not accorded the honor of a reply. The projectiles had sunk uselessly into the waves.

During this fusillade the fleet was engaged in making prizes. On the 23rd the New York  brought to bay, after an exciting chase, the Spanish freight-steamer Pedro, the Porter  captured the steamer Mathilde, and the Helena  made prize of the fine steamer Miguel Jover. Four more prizes were taken on the following day, and by the end of a week the number of prizes had more than doubled, their value aggregating upwards of $3,000,000. The mail-steamer Montserrat, laden with eighteen large guns and $800,000 in silver, and having on board one thousand Spanish troops, was fortunate in discovering the lion in her path, and doubled back when near Havana, landing her cargo and troops at the distant port of Santiago de Cuba.

The Cuban insurgents were not long in receiving the glad tidings that a powerful ally was coming to their aid. For three years they had kept the field with desperate determination, but almost hopeless of help from without. Now the long-prayed-for message of hope and success was brought to their camps, a gallant American soldier risking danger and death in the perilous enterprise.

Before war was declared, before the President's message had reached Congress, Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan, of the United States army, had left Washington on a mission to the Cubans in arms. Starting from the ca~ ital on April 9, he reached Kingston, Jamaica, on the 23rd, and crossed from that island to Cuba in a little sailing-boat, handled by a man whom the daring lieutenant familiarly designated his "pirate" and who was thoroughly familiar with the waters of those seas. The movements of the Spanish patrol-boats were well known to him, and he succeeded in landing Lieutenant Rowan while the coast was clear.

The danger of the enterprise was great, the coast being patrolled by land and sea, while if taken he would probably have been executed as a spy. But he was met by Cubans and escorted to the mountains in the vicinity of Santiago, making his way in a few days to General Garcia's camp, then at Bayamo, where he was greeted with the highest enthusiasm. This interior stronghold, which the Spanish troops had held against Cuban assault since the beginning of the war, had been evacuated by them on April 28. It was immediately occupied by the insurgents, who doubtless looked upon this withdrawal of their foe as the first signal of the good time coming.

Lieutenant Rowan had been charged by the President with a secret mission to General Garcia, with whom he had a long interview, laying plans for a future co-operation of the allied forces. On his return to the coast he was accompanied by General Collazo and Colonel Hernandez, of the Cuban army, as envoys to the United States. Three guides completed the party, which risked the perils of the sea in a small boat. The first morning out they came in sight of Admiral Sampson's squadron, but made no attempt to board the ships. The next day they were picked up by a sponging-sloop and carried to Nassau, New Providence, whence the adventurous party made its way to the United States.

Thus ended in success the first of those daring enterprises through which Americans won reputation for boldness and courage during the war. Through it the President received valuable information concerning the numbers and condition of the Cuban army and the state of affairs in the interior. Major-General Miles gave the following tribute to Rowan's courage: "This was a most perilous undertaking, and in my judgment Lieutenant Rowan performed an act of heroism and cool daring that has rarely been excelled in the annals of warfare."

The events described at the seat of war were paralleled by as active ones at the seat of the government. An army bill was passed by Congress on April 22 providing for a temporary increase of the army, in response to which, on the following day, the President issued a proclamation calling for one hundred and twenty-five thousand volunteers to serve for two years, and to be apportioned among the States and Territories in accordance with their populations.

The proclamation was enthusiastically responded to from all parts of the country, the National Guards of the several States hastening to offer their services, where there were thousands ready to fill up vacancies and to swell out the depleted columns of the regular army, so as to bring every regiment up to its full official strength. Far more offered, indeed, than the government was ready to accept, and a most rigid system of health inspection was inaugurated, in order that none but those in a state of full health and capable of enduring the hardships of campaigning in a tropical island should be enrolled. The result was to give the government one of the most physically perfect armies that had ever been put in the field.

A question of world-wide importance had meanwhile arisen, that concerning privateering. Spain had not signed the Declaration of Paris abolishing privateering, and stood free to cover the ocean with swift vessels to prey on American commerce. In such an obsolete mode of warfare, even if the United States government had met Spain by issuing letters of marque, this country would have been at a serious disadvantage, on account of the vast preponderance of American commerce over that of Spain. But it had no such purpose in view, and Spain, while formally reserving the right to send out privateers, deemed it unwise to put it in exercise, in view of the irritation such a course would have caused in the nations whose friendship she desired to preserve. Her declaration of the existence of war therefore took the following form:

"CLAUS I. The state of war existing between Spain and the United States annuls the treaty of peace and amity of October 17, 1795, and the protocol of January 12, 1877, and all other agreements, treaties, or conventions in force between the two countries.

"CLAUS 2. From the publication of these presents, thirty days are granted to all vessels of the United States anchored in our harbors to take their departure free of hindrance .

"CLAUS 3. Notwithstanding that Spain has not adhered to the Declaration of Paris, the government, respecting the principles of the law of nations, proposes to observe, and hereby orders to be observed, the following regulations of maritime law:

"First.  Neutral flags cover the enemy's merchandise, except contraband of war.

"Second.   Neutral merchandise, except contraband of war, is not seizable under the enemy's flag.

"Third.   A blockade to be obligatory must be effective,—viz., it must be maintained with sufficient force to prevent access to the enemy's littoral.

"Fourth.   The Spanish government, upholding its right to grant letters of marque, will at present confine itself to organizing, with the vessels of the mercantile marine, a force of auxiliary cruisers which will co-operate with the navy, according to the needs of the campaign, and will be under naval control.

"Fifth.   In order to capture the enemy's ships and confiscate the enemy's merchandise and contraband of' war under whatever form, the auxiliary cruisers will exercise the right of search on the high seas and in the waters under the enemy's jurisdiction, in accordance with international law and the regulations which will be published.

"Sixth.   [Defines what is included in contraband of war, naming weapons, ammunition, equipments, engines, and, in general, all the appliances used in war.]

"Seventh.   To be regarded and judged as pirates, with all the rigor of the law, are captains, masters, officers, and two-thirds of the crew of vessels which, not being American, shall commit acts of war against Spain, even if provided with letters of marque issued by the United States."



Spain thus took the initiative in declaring war, this proclamation being issued on April 24, while the declaration of the United States, as already stated, was issued on the 25th. Both were merely formal declarations of the war which had existed since the 21St. On the day of the declaration, Secretary of State John Sherman retired from his post in the Cabinet, being incapacitated by age and feebleness to perform the onerous duties of the office in times of war. William R. Day, the assistant secretary, was appointed to the vacant post. The other Cabinet officers whose duties were specially affected by the declaration of war were Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War; John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy; and Lyman T. Gage, Secretary of the Treasury.



For five days the blockading fleet lay oft Havana, the great ships seven or eight miles from shore, the smaller ones occasionally venturing nearer, confining themselves strictly to blockading duties, and seizing all Spanish vessels that incautiously ventured within their reach. On shore the soldiers of Spain were kept busy in building and strengthening batteries, a form of activity of which Admiral Sampson did not approve, and with which he concluded to interfere. On the morning of the 27th the flag-ship steamed along the coast to Matanzas, a sea-port city some fifty miles to the east of Havana. Near the entrance to the harbor she was met by the Puritan  and the Cincinnati, on blockade duty at that Point. The wind blew freshly and the waves poured in sheets of green water over the low bow and stern of the monitor as she followed in the wake of the New York. Admiral Sampson stood on the bridge of the flag-ship carefully surveying the shore, where evidence appeared that the Spanish troops were actively engaged in building what seemed to be a sand battery, on which several guns had been mounted. The admiral thought that a lesson was needed. The signal call of "general quarters" was given, and with alacrity the men rushed to their guns. For more than thirty years the United States navy had not fired a hostile shot. Now a new record was to be made.

Reaching a situation about four thousand yards distant from Punta Gorda, where the new earthwork appeared, the helm of the flag-ship was put to starboard and the bugler sounded the signal, "Commence firing." Response was instant. From "Waist," the gunner's name for the eight-inch gun amidships on the port-side, came a loud roar and a shock that shook the great ship from stem to stern. The shell struck a little to the right of the earthwork, where a small cloud of dust testified to the fall of the first shot fired at an enemy from a ship of the new American navy. Two others followed, the third landing in the very centre of the earthwork, the dense cloud that rose being evidence of the perfect accuracy of the aim. These three shots were followed by a broadside from all the guns that could be brought to bear, eight-inch and four-inch guns hurling their projectiles together upon the obtrusive work.

So far the New York  had been engaged alone. But the Puritan  and the Cincinnati  were vigorously signalling for permission to fire. "All right; tell them to go ahead," said the admiral on learning their request. They lost no time in taking part in the work. The bombardment had not been without a return. At Quintas de Recreo, on the east of the harbor, seven thousand yards from the New York, was a fort armed with four 8-inch guns, whose shots were coming towards the flag-ship, though falling very short. Sampson  now directed his fire on this fort. The Puritan  did the same, while the Cincinnati  continued to attend to the earthwork. Five minutes sufficed to silence the fort, and the New York again turned her guns on the sand battery. At 1:15 P.M., nineteen minutes after the affair began, the admiral signalled to "cease firing," and the brief engagement came to an end.

About three hundred shots had been fired during this initial engagement, with few returns from the shore, no shot hitting any of the ships. The effect on shore was not apparent, other than that the forts were silenced and seemingly deserted. From Madrid came the report that the Spanish loss consisted of "one mule," a sarcastic tribute to American gunnery that elicited much mirth from our ill-wishers on the other side of the ocean. Leaving the Puritan  and the Cincinnati  to look after Matanzas, the New York  headed for Havana. The affair had amounted to little more than useful target-practice, its chief utility being its evidence of the accuracy of American gunnery. All that need further be said about it is to note the eagerness displayed by the sailors at the opportunity to fight, four sick men springing from their cots at the first shot and rushing to their stations at the guns. It was with bitter disappointment that they returned when ordered back to the sick-bay.

While the United States navy had thus actively engaged in hostilities, that of Spain was not quite idle. In number of ships that country fairly equaled the United States. It was inferior in strength, though it had a number of vessels of good fighting capacity. Several of the best of the Spanish ships, comprising four swift armored cruisers and a number of torpedo-boat destroyers, had assembled in the days preceding the declaration of war at St. Vincent harbor, Cape Verde Islands. A second fleet, of inferior strength, lay at Manila, in the Philippines; and a third, of considerable numerical strength, yet embracing few ships in good condition for duty, was at the port of Cadiz, Spain.

It was to the Cape Verde fleet that the principal attention was paid on the American side. There was much apprehension that the powerful ships of this fleet might make a sudden dash across the Atlantic and attack some of our seaport cities, few of which were well defended, while some were in serious need of forts and guns.

To guard against this possible danger, the "Flying Squadron," under Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, was held ready at Newport News. It included the battle-ships Massachusetts  and Texas, the armored cruiser Brooklyn, Commodore Schley's flag-ship, and the protected cruisers Minneapolis  and Columbia. The latter were kept patrolling the coast, in which duty was also engaged a "Northern Patrol Squadron," under Admiral Howell, consisting of the subsidized passenger-steamers renamed the Yankee, Dixie, Prairie, and Yosemite. The harbor-defence ram Katahdin was included in this squadron, while the thirteen old monitors, relics of the Civil War, were being hastily refitted for harbor duty. As fast as they could be made serviceable they were sent to various harbors to aid in their defence.

The Cape Verde Islands are a Portuguese colony, and the continuance of the Spanish fleet in the harbor of St. Vincent became inadmissible after Portugal had, following most of the nations of Europe, proclaimed neutrality between the combatants. Admiral Cervera, in command of the fleet, was warned to leave, and on April 29 the squadron set sail. It consisted of the first-class armored cruisers Cristobal Colon, Almirante Oquendo, Infanta Maria Teresa, and Vizcaya, and the three torpedo-boat destroyers Furor, Terror, and Pluton. The whole comprised a formidable fleet, which, if directed against some of the less protected American sea-board cities, might cause immense damage. The activity of the patrolling ships was in consequence redoubled; mines were laid in the various harbor approaches, and guns were mounted as rapidly as possible on sea-coast defences; and apprehension of possible danger threatened to interfere seriously with the business of sea-side resorts during the coming summer.

Apprehensions of this kind, however, had no effect on the activity of the blockading fleet. On the 29th of April the batteries at Cienfuegos, on the southern Cuban coast, were bombarded by the cruiser Marblehead, and on the same day the gunboat Nashville, which had made the first prize of the war, added to her record by the capture of the Spanish steamer Argonauta, laden with troops, arms, and ammunition and seeking an open port. The prizes made up to this time consisted of vessels that had left harbor before war was declared and whose captains were unaware of the state of affairs.

On the 30th the forts at Cabanas, near Havana, were attacked and demolished by the cruiser New York, and on the same day came the welcome tidings that the Oregon  and Marietta, which for weeks had been making their way along the many thousands of miles of South American coast, were in the harbor of Rio Janeiro, having progressed safely that far on their long route. Much the most dangerous stage of their journey lay before them still. Before the Oregon  could reach the North Atlantic Squadron, to which she was accredited, the Cape Verde squadron might be in her track, waylaying her on the open seas or in the West India channels. The Oregon  was more powerful than anyone of these ships, but four against one are frightful odds, and, though she might have given a good account of herself against the whole fleet, a lively degree of uneasiness concerning her prevailed. It could not then be conjectured that the Oregon  was thereafter to meet and fight this fleet under circumstances far different from those surmised.

The activity in the navy was paralleled by that in the army. A powerful force of United States regular troops began to assemble at Tampa, Florida, a point chosen for its nearness to Cuba. The purpose of this movement was believed to be an early descent upon Cuba, and expectation of stirring events in the near future was entertained. These troops, however, were ill-provided with military supplies, and the hoped-for invasion was necessarily deferred; the conditions being such as are apt to arise in the hasty mobilization of an army, particularly where large deficiencies in number have to be made up by raw recruits. The difficulties were in the main the results of a sudden change from a state of peace to one of war, and the necessity of making rapid provision for the requirements of a large army. Much fault was found with the government for alleged slowness of action and neglect of the troops, and bitter comments were made on the appointment of staff-officers through seeming political influence. These complaints were not without warrant, though• they were exaggerated, no allowance being made for the difficulty under which the War Department labored in the sudden necessity of obtaining and forwarding a vast quantity of supplies. In reality, no nation under similar circumstances could have made more rapid progress in preparing for war.

We have already spoken of the efforts of the powers of Europe to effect an accommodation between the United States and Spain. When war had actually begun, they quickly took sides with one or the other of the combatants. France and Germany became strong adherents of Spain, their newspapers vigorously denouncing the United States, though the governments remained passive. This attitude was supposed to be due, on the part of France, to the Spanish debt being largely owing to citizens of that country. With Germany it was ascribed to a commercial rather than a pecuniary cause, the United States tariff having aroused deep-seated hostility in the agrarian party of that country. Austria also favored Spain, though her press was less aggressive. In Italy the tide of public opinion seems to have run most strongly in favor of the United States; while Russia was non-committal, an occasional press utterance indicating some degree of animosity to the United States.

The remaining leading power, Great Britain, from the start took strong sides with the United States, evincing an unexpected warmth of friendliness and a strong desire to ally herself with this country. It was shrewdly held by many that sell-interest was at the bottom of this seemingly exaggerated show of amity; but such was hardly the case with the people, who were strongly pro-American. The press, with very few exceptions, sustained this country, and the opposing papers in a few months veered around, probably through the influence of public opinion.

Whatever the underlying motive in the British heart, this earnest display of friendliness was of much service to the United States. It tied the hands of our enemies on the Continent, who feared that any hostile act would result in an alliance between the two great Anglo-Saxon nations. Some active efforts at interference might have been made but for this haunting fear. Great Britain stood as a buffer between us and our opponents, she refusing to co-operate in any steps of interference. The union of the English-speaking peoples was a result which none of them wished to bring about.