War with Spain - Charles Morris

The Heroes of the Merrimac

About the hour of three in the morning of June 3, a craft that loomed large through the darkness left the side of the flag-ship of the American squadron before Santiago and sailed straight for the throat of the narrow channel leading to the beleaguered city. On board were eight men, apparently devoted to death, yet all of them eager volunteers. Below decks a series of torpedoes were ranged along the sides of the ship, prepared to blow it into an utter wreck when the proper moment came. As for the safety of the crew, that had been a secondary consideration. Death was likely to be their lot, but they offered their lives in their country's service when they went on that perilous enterprise, and were ready to do and dare all that might be demanded of them. The vessel was the collier Merrimac; her crew consisted of Richmond P. Hobson, Assistant Naval Constructor, and seven volunteer seamen; their purpose was to seal up the Spanish fleet effectually in Santiago harbor.

How best to deal with Cervera and his ships had been a matter of much concern. Commodore Schley had drawn the fire of the Spanish forts and discovered that an attempt to take his fleet into the harbor over the mines and in face of the batteries was likely to prove ruinous. There was some thought of attempting to explode the mines by the use of the dynamite projectiles of the Vesuvius, but the result of this was doubtful. The ships would have to enter single file, and the sinking of one of them would block the channel to the others. At this juncture Lieutenant Hobson suggested that it would be better to sink a useless hulk than a battle-ship. If the Spanish ships could not be reached, they might be kept where they were. With the fleet was the large collier Merrimac, bought by the government at a high price, yet practically worthless. She could be put to no better service than to block up the channel. The Spanish fleet was "bottled up" in Santiago harbor. The Merrimac could be placed as a "cork in the neck of the bottle," and Hobson volunteered to be the man for the work.

Admiral Sampson hesitated to send men to what seemed likely to be certain death, but the brave lieutenant's enthusiasm finally won his consent, and the daring enterprise was determined upon. The Merrimac  was brought from the side of the Massachusetts, to which she had been delivering coal, and on the day and night of June 1 crews from the New York  and Brooklyn  were kept busy in preparing her for her final service. A heavy weight in coal was still on board, but that was left to aid in her speedy sinking, after her sides had been tom open by the torpedoes arranged for that purpose. The night was well advanced towards morning before the work was completed and the Merrimac  ready for her task.

When the news of the intended expedition passed through the fleet, with word that volunteers were wanted for the desperate enterprise, it seemed as if half the men in service were eager to take part. The six men asked for could easily have been extended into a ship's crew. More than two hundred men on the New York  offered their services. The Iowa signaled that she had one hundred and forty volunteers. Similar responses came from the other ships. The junior officers were wildly eager to take part. There was bitter disappointment in many faces when Hobson announced his choice, consisting of Daniel Montague, chief master-at-arms of the New York; George Charette, gunner's mate of the same vessel; J. C. Murphy, a coxswain of the Iowa, and three of the crew of the Merrimac, Oscar Deignan, John P. Phillips, and John Kelly. When the expedition finally started, there was another man on board, H. Clausen, a coxswain of the New York, a stowaway for the perilous enterprise.

It was 4:30 A.M. when Admiral Sampson finally left the Merrimac, after a final inspection of the work done. Day was already dawning in the eastern sky, and to most of those within view the hour seemed too late. It certainly seemed so to the admiral; yet to the general surprise the collier was seen to be in motion, and a cry arose, "She is going in!"

At this cry, Admiral Sampson seized the megaphone, and hailed the torpedo-boat Porter, which lay near at hand. "Porter, there! Tell the Merrimac to return immediately."

The Merrimac  was headed directly towards the throat of the channel. The Porter  darted after her, smoke pouring from her stacks. Darkness had vanished, and all eyes watched the swift little craft as she flew in the wake of the big collier. They were both within range of the Spanish guns when the Porter  darted across the bows of the Merrimac, heading her off. A sigh of relief went up; to venture under the Spanish guns in full day-light seemed fatal temerity. Yet the Porter  was seen returning, while the Merrimac  held her place, Hobson signalling for permission to go on. He thought he could do it. The admiral displayed a peremptory order to return, and the lumbering collier slowly came back.

The 2nd of June passed wearily for the men, whose nerves were strung to high tension for the perilous task, and at about three o'clock in the morning of the 3rd the devoted vessel again got under weigh, heading through the darkness for the harbor and hoping to get well in before being seen. Not a light was shown, and it needed no small skill to hit the narrow channel squarely in the gloom. Clouds covered the moon as the dark vessel stole in towards the coast, heading eastward, while in the rear followed a steam launch from the New York, manned by Cadet J. W. Powell and four men, ready to pick up any member of the Merrimac's  crew who should escape.

Lieutenant Hobson


From the deck of the New York  nothing could be seen of the collier after she passed under the shadow of the hills. All eyes were anxiously peering into the gloom and all ears were alert for a sound, but for a time silence and darkness prevailed. Then the gloom was broken by a flash from Morro Castle, and the sound of a distant gun boomed across the waves. Other flashes followed from the battery opposite, and for about twenty minutes flash succeeded flash rapidly in the narrow space. The Merrimac  was meeting her doom. At 6:15 A.M. Powell and the launch returned, followed by spiteful but ill-aimed shots from the Spanish guns. The brave cadet had gone directly under the batteries in the hope of picking up some of the Merrimac's  men, but returned disappointed. Hobson and his brave crew had gone to the depths in their sinking ship or were prisoners in Spanish hands. The launch had followed the Merrimac  until it had seen her headed squarely in for the harbor, the first shot being fired when the collier was about two hundred yards from the entrance. After that the firing rapidly increased, and the smoke, which hung heavily, hid the vessel from view. Then came the explosion of the torpedoes. Powell waited till full day under the cliffs, and before leaving saw a spar of the Merrimac  rising out of the water of the channel. The sinking had been a success, whatever the fate of the men.

For the rest of the story we must turn to Lieutenant Hobson's narrative, given a month later. His purpose had been to take the Merrimac  into the channel past the Estrella battery and sink her in the narrowest part of the passage, dropping the anchor and handling the rudder so as to turn her athwart the stream. She was longer than the channel's breadth, and it was hoped to close it up completely. When the proper point was reached, Hobson proposed to stop the engines, drop the anchors, put the helm hard aport, open the sea connections, and touch off the torpedoes, of which ten lay on the port-side of the ship, each containing eighty-two pounds of gunpowder, and the whole so connected that they could be fired in train. Two men were below, one to reverse the engines, the other to break open the sea connections with a sledge-hammer. The men on deck were to drop the anchor and set the helm. Then Hobson would touch the button setting off the torpedoes, and all were to leap overboard and swim to the dingy that was towed astern, and in which they hoped to escape.

This plan worked fairly well, and would have been completely successful but for one or two contingencies which seriously affected the result. The narrow channel was entered at about the hour of three, the Merrimac  steaming in under the guns of the Morro through a dense darkness and a stillness like that of death. Silently on ward she moved, but the Spanish were on the alert. The stillness was broken by the wash of a small picket boat that approached from the shore and ran under the Merrimac's  stern, firing several shots at the suspicious craft. One of these carried away the rudder, and put an end to the project of steering the ship athwart the channel. Another perhaps wrecked the dingy in tow.

The remainder of the adventure was highly exciting. The picket-boat hastened to give the alarm, and in a brief time the guns of the shore batteries, followed by those of the ships in the harbor, were pouring their fire upon the dark hulk. The Spaniards thought that an American battle-ship was trying to force its way into the port, and did not know but that the whole fleet was following in its train. The Merrimac  drove onward at her full speed, trembling violently as a submarine mine went oft harmlessly in her wake. The deep gloom and her rapid motion saved her from destruction.

At length the desired position was reached. At Hobson's signal the engines were reversed, the anchor was dropped, and the helm set. To his disappointment, the ship refused to answer her helm. Only then did he learn that the rudder had been lost. The plan of setting her lengthwise across the channel had failed and the final task remained. Hobson touched the electric button connected with the torpedoes, and, as a sullen roar broke out beneath them and the ship heavily lurched and rolled, the men, who bad stripped to their under-clothing to facilitate swimming, leaped over the side. Some of them were thrown over the rail by the shock and the lurching of the ship. Down she went with a surge at the bow, loud cheers from the forts and ships greeting her as she sank. The defenders thought they had sent to the depths one of the American ships-of-war.

The dingy being wrecked, the only resource of the fugitives was an old catamaran which at the last moment had been placed on the collier's deck. This float lay on the roof of the mid-ship house, and, that it should not be lost in the suction made by the sinking ship, it bad been tied to the taffrail, giving it slack line enough to let it float loose after the ship had sunk into her resting-place.

In continuation of our narrative, we cannot do better than quote from Lieutenant Hobson, giving his graphic account of the thrilling experiences of himself and men after their plunge into the waters of the channel:

"I swam away from the ship as soon as I struck the water, but I could feel the eddies drawing me backward in spite of all could do. That did not last very long, however, and, as soon as I felt the tugging cease, I turned and struck out for the float, which I could see dimly bobbing up and down over the sunken hull.

"The Merrimac's  masts were plainly visible, and I could see the heads of my seven men as they followed my example and made for the float also. We had expected, of course, that the Spaniards would Investigate the wreck, but we had no idea that they would be at it as quickly as they were. Before we could get to the float, several row-boats and launches came around the bluff from inside the harbor. They had officers on board and armed marines as well, and they searched that passage, rowing backward and forward, until the next morning. It was only by good luck that we got to the float at all, for they were upon us so quickly that we had barely concealed ourselves when a boat with quite a large party on board was right beside us.

"Unfortunately, we thought then, but it turned out afterwards that nothing more fortunate than that could have happened to us, the rope with which we had secured the float to the ship was too short to allow it to swing free, and when we reached it we found that one of the pontoons was entirely out of the water and the other one was submerged. Had the raft lain flat on the water we could not have got under it, and would have had to climb up on it, to be an excellent target for the first party of marines that arrived. As it was, we could get under the raft, and, by putting our hands through the crevices between the slats which formed its deck, we could hold our heads out of water and still be unseen. That is what we did, and all night long we stayed there with our noses and mouths barely out of the water.

"None of us expected to get out of the affair alive, but luckily the Spaniards did not think of the apparently damaged, half-sunken raft floating about beside the wreck. They came to within a cable's length of us at intervals of only a few minutes all night. We could hear their words distinctly, and even in the darkness could distinguish an occasional glint of light on the rifle-barrels of the marines and on the lace of the officers' uniforms. We were afraid to speak above a whisper, and for a good while, in fact whenever they were near us, we breathed as easily as we could. I ordered my men not to speak unless to address me, and with one exception they obeyed.

"After we had been there an hour or two the water, which we found rather warm at first, began to get cold, and my fingers ached where the wood was pressing into them. The clouds, which were running before a pretty stiff breeze when we went in, blew over, and then by the starlight we could see the boats when they came out of the shadows of the cliffs on either side, and even when we could not see them we knew that they were still near, because we could hear very plainly the splash of the oars and the grinding of the oarlocks.

"Our teeth began to chatter before very long, and I was in constant fear that the Spaniards would hear us when they came close. It was so still that the chattering sound seemed to us as loud as a hammer, but the Spaniards' ears were not sharp enough to hear it. We could hear sounds from the shore almost as distinctly as if we had been there, we were so close to the surface of the water, which is an excellent conductor, and the voices of the men in the boats sounded as clear as a bell. My men tried to keep their teeth still, but it was hard work, and not attended with any great success at the best.

"We all knew that we would be shot if discovered by an ordinary seaman or a marine, and I ordered my men not to stir, as the boats having officers on board kept well in the distance. One of my men disobeyed orders and started to swim ashore, and I had to call him back. He obeyed at once, but my voice seemed to create some commotion among the boats, and several of them appeared close beside us before the disturbance in the water made by the man swimming had disappeared. We thought it was all up with us then, but the boats went away into the shadows again.

"There was much speculation among the Spaniards as to what the ship was and what we intended to do next. I could understand many of the words, and gathered from what I heard that the officers had taken in the situation at once, but were astounded at the audacity of the thing. The boats, I also learned, were from the fleet, and I felt better, because I had more faith in a Spanish sailor than I had in a Spanish soldier.

"When daylight came a steam launch full of officers and marines came out from behind the cliff that hid the fleet and harbor and advanced towards us. All the men on board were looking curiously in our direction. They did not see us. Knowing that some one of rank must be on board, I waited until the launch was quite close and hailed her.

"My voice produced the utmost consternation on board. Every one sprang up, the marines crowded to the bow, and the launch's engines were reversed. She not only stopped, but she backed off until nearly a quarter of a mile away, where she stayed The marines stood ready to fire at the word of command when we clambered out from under the float. There were ten of the marines, and they would have fired in a minute had they not been restrained.

"I swam towards the launch and then she started towards me. I called out in Spanish: 'Is there an officer on board?' An officer answered in the affirmative, and then I shouted in Spanish again: 'I have seven men to surrender.' I continued swimming, and was seized and pulled out of the water.

"As I looked up when they were dragging me into the launch, I saw that it was Admiral Cervera himself who had hold of me. He looked at me rather dubiously at first, because I had been down in the engine-room of the Merrimac, where I got covered with oil, and that, with the soot and coal-dust, made my appearance most disreputable. I had put on my officer's belt before sinking the Merrimac, as a means of identification, no matter what happened to me, and when I pointed to it in the launch the admiral understood and seemed satisfied. The first words he said to me when he learned who I was were 'Bienvenido sea usted,' which means 'You are welcome.' My treatment by the naval officers and that of my men also was courteous all the time that I was a prisoner. They heard my story, as much of it as I could tell, but sought to learn nothing more.

"Sharks? No, we did not have time to think of them that night," said Lieutenant Hobson in reply to a question. "We saw a great many things, though, and went through a great many experiences. When we started out from the fleet I tied to my belt a flask of medicated water, supplied to me by my ship's surgeon. The frequency with which we all felt thirsty on the short run into the passage and the dryness of my mouth and lips made me believe that I was frightened. The men felt the same, and all the way the flask went from hand to hand. Once I felt my pulse to see if I was frightened, but to my surprise I found it normal. Later we forgot all about it, and when we got into the water there was no need for the flask."

The prisoners were taken ashore and placed in a cell in Morro Castle, the solid doors of the cell being kept closed for an hour or two, but afterwards left open by order of the admiral. This gave them a view of the harbor, the city, and the Spanish fleet, while from the windows they could see and hear the shells during the bombardment that took place some days afterwards. Hobson's description of the sounds made by these shells is well worth quoting.

"The windows in the side of our cell," he says, "opened west across the harbor entrance, and we could hear and see the shells as they struck. We knew that we would not be fired upon, as word had gone out as to where we were, so we sat at the windows and watched the shells. Each one sang a different tune as it went by. The smaller shells moaned or screeched as they passed, but the 13-inch shells left a sound behind them like that of the sudden and continued smashing of a huge pane of glass. The crackling was sharp and metallic, something like sharp thunder without the roar, and the sound continued, but decreased, after the shell had gone. In many instances the shells struck projecting points of rock, and ricocheting, spun end over end across the hills. The sound they made as they struck again and again was like the short, sharp puffs of a locomotive starting with a heavy train."

Meanwhile, on board the fleet the escape of the adventurers was unknown, and dread of their destruction prevailed. This feeling of depression was put an end to by the chivalry of Admiral Cervera, who sent Captain Ovideo, his chief of staff, to the fleet under a flag of truce to acquaint the American admiral with their safety and to make an offer for their exchange. Captain Ovideo was received by Admiral Sampson on the New York, and, after salutes had been exchanged, delivered the following message:

"Admiral Cervera, the commander of the Spanish" fleet, is most profoundly impressed with the brilliant courage shown by the men who sank the steamer Merrimac  in our harbor, and in admiration of their courage he has directed me to say to their countrymen that they are alive, and, with the exception of two of the men who were slightly hurt, they are uninjured. They are now prisoners of war, and are being well cared for, and will be treated with every consideration."

The captain was given a courteous reception in the cabin of the New York, and, after an interview on the subject of exchanging the prisoners, returned with money and clothing sent them by Admiral Sampson. The courtesy of the Spanish admiral sent a thrill of admiration throughout the fleet, and throughout the country when it became known, and insured the gallant Spaniard a kind reception if the fortune of war should deliver him into American hands.



The brave Cervera estimated the boldness of the exploit at its full value, and treated the captives with great consideration while they remained in his hands. For some time the fleet desisted from firing on the Morro, fearing that the prisoners might be injured. They were kept there, however, but four days, when Cervera turned them over to General Linares, commander of the Spanish forces in the city, who was much less favorably disposed towards them.

In regard to the estimation in the navy of this most daring deed, we may quote from a remark of Commodore Schley to a correspondent of the Associated Press. Pointing towards the gray walls of Morro Castle, where Lieutenant Hobson and his brave men were said to be incarcerated, the commodore spoke as follows: "History does not record an act of finer heroism than that of the gallant men who are prisoners over there. I watched the Merrimac  as she made her way to the entrance of the harbor, and my heart sank as I saw the perfect hell of fire that fell on the devoted men. I did not think it was possible one of them could have gone through it alive. They went into the jaws of death. It was Balaklava over again without the means of defence which the Light Brigade had. Hobson led a forlorn hope, without the power to cut his way out. But fortune once more favored the brave, and I hope he will have the recognition and promotion he deserves. His name will live as long as the heroes of the world are remembered."

This feeling of the people was shared by the government, and steps were at once taken to reward the gallant lieutenant and his men by promotion. Efforts were made for their speedy release and to learn what treatment they were receiving. Anxiety on this last point was set at rest by a telegram from Mr. W. F. Ramsden, the British consul at Santiago, dated June 10, in reply to one from the New York Herald. It said:

"Replying to your telegram, Hobson and men well cared for by authorities. Have myself just seen him. —"RAMSDEN."

Mr. Ramsden, in fact, was very kind to the prisoners, visiting them on several occasions and supplying them with food of a superior kind to that provided by the authorities. Cervera also visited them, and, aside from the discomfort of being held as prisoners in a half-starved city, they received very considerate treatment.

The story of their release comes later in point of time. It may, however, be properly given here as a close to the narrative of their adventure. Cervera's promise of a speedy exchange was not concurred in by the Spanish authorities; difficulties were thrown in the way, and it was not until after July 1, when the situation had materially changed at Santiago, that a consent to the exchange was given. A Spanish lieutenant and fourteen privates were offered on the American side in exchange for Hobson and his seven men.

On July 7 the exchange took place. At that date Santiago was beleaguered by an American army and Admiral Cervera a prisoner on the American fleet, his proud squadron being laid in ruin on the Cuban coast. Leaving the Reina Mercedes  hospital, on the outskirts of Santiago, where they had been confined, in charge of Major Irles, a Spanish staff-officer, the captives were conducted to a meeting-place between the lines, Hobson on horseback, his men, in new uniforms, following on foot. Colonel John Jacob Astor and Lieutenant Miloy conducted the Spanish prisoners. The choice of two lieutenants was offered, and Adolfo Aries, of the aristocratic First Provisional Regiment of Barcelona, was chosen in exchange for Lieutenant Hobson.

As the gallant eight came up the trail leading to the American lines through an avenue of palms that arched from the high banks across the road, the soldiers stood in reverent silence, baring their heads as the hero approached, while the band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then came a cry for cheers and a welcoming roar from all the men in sight, the Rough Riders breaking into a cowboy yell. The men were past restraint, and as Hobson rode slowly through the lines, the ranks were everywhere broken, and men rushed eagerly to grasp him and his men by the hand.

It was the same all the way to Siboney,—men shouting, cheering, rushing to shake hands, fairly wild with excitement. A short distance from the shore lay the New York, waiting to take them on board. There the enthusiasm was equally great, the men growing delirious with delight when Hobson set foot on deck. Captain Chadwick had escorted him to his vessel, and there Admiral Sampson was one of the first to welcome him, almost embracing him in the warmth of his greeting, while the officers of the ship were no less earnest and ardent in their reception of their gallant comrade.

The returning hero seemed astonished at this tumultuous applause. Locked in a Spanish prison, he knew nothing of how his fellow-countrymen regarded his exploit, which, as he modestly remarked, "was not much of a feat." In this he did not find many to agree with him. People thought it very much of a feat, and days passed before Hobson was allowed to sink quietly back into the duties of his office, his heroic deed having passed into history.