CHAPTER IX. The Blockade Of Cuba
While the first victory of the war was in the Far East and the possibility of events of world-wide significance hung upon the level-headedness of Commodore Dewey at Manila, it was realized that the war must really be fought in the West. Both President McKinley and the Queen Regent of Spain had issued proclamations stating that they would adhere to the rules of the Declaration of Paris and not resort to the use of privateers. The naval contest, therefore, was confined to the regular navies. Actually the American fleet was superior in battleships, monitors, and protected cruisers; the Spanish was the better equipped in armored cruisers, gunboats, and destroyers.
Both Spain and the United States hastily purchased, in the last days of peace, a few vessels, but not enough seriously to affect their relative strength. Both also drew upon their own merchant marines. Spain added 18 medium-sized vessels to her navy; the United States added in all 123, most of which were small and used for scouting purposes. The largest and most efficient of these additional American ships were the subsidized St. Paul, St. Louis, New York, and Paris of the American line, of which the last two, renamed the Harvard and Yale, proved to be of great service. It was characteristic of American conditions that 28 were private yachts, of which the Mayflower was the most notable. To man these new ships, the personnel of the American Navy was increased from 13,750 to 24,123, of whom a large number were men who had received some training in the naval reserves of the various States.
The first duty of the navy was to protect the American coast. In 1885 the War Department had planned and Congress had sanctioned a system of coast defense. Up to 1898, however, only one quarter of the sum considered necessary had been appropriated. Mines and torpedoes were laid at the entrances to American harbors as soon as war broke out, but there was a lack of highpower guns. Rumors of a projected raid by the fast Spanish armored cruisers kept the coast cities in a state of high excitement, and many sought, by petition and political pressure, to compel the Navy Department to detach vessels for their defense. The Naval War Board, however, had to remember that it must protect not only the coast but commerce also, and that the United States was at war not to defend herself but to attack. Cuba was the objective; and Cuba must be cut off from Spain by blockade, and the seas must be made safe for the passage of the American Army. If the navy were to accomplish all these purposes, it must destroy the Spanish Navy. To achieve this end, it would have to work upon the principle of concentration and not dispersion.
For several months before the actual declaration of war with Spain, the Navy Department had been effecting this concentration. On the 21st of April, Captain William T. Sampson was appointed to command the forces on the North Atlantic station. This included practically the whole fleet, except the Pacific squadron under Dewey, and the Oregon, a new battleship of unusual design, which was on the Pacific coast. On the 1st of March she was ordered from the Bremerton Yard, in the State of Washington, to San Francisco, and thence to report in the Atlantic. Her voyage was the longest emergency run undertaken up to that time by a modern battleship. The outbreak of the war with Spain meant the sealing of all ports in which she might have been repaired in case of emergency. Rumors were rife of Spanish vessels ready to intercept her, and the eyes not only of the United States but of the world were upon the Oregon. A feeling of relief and rejoicing therefore passed through the country when this American warship arrived at Key West on the 26th of May, fit for immediate and efficient service.
The fleet, though concentrated in the Atlantic within the region of immediate hostility, was divided for purposes of operation into a major division under the immediate command of Admiral Sampson and a flying squadron under Commodore Schley.* The first undertook the enforcement of the blockade which was declared on the 21st of April against Cuba, and patrolled the northern coast from Gardenas to Bahia. Key West was soon filled with Spanish prizes. On the 27th of April a brush took place between batteries at Matanzas and some of the American vessels, without loss of life on either side, except for a mule which bids fair to become immortal in history through being reported by the Spanish as their only casualty and the first of the war. Admiral Sampson, following the tradition of the American Navy of aiming at a vital spot, wished to attack Havana; and a careful study of its fortifications seems to show that he would have had a good chance of success. Chance, however, might have caused the loss of some of his vessels, and, with the small margin of naval superiority at its disposal the Naval War Board was probably wise in not allowing him to take the risk.
* A patrol squadron of cruisers under Commodore Howell was also established to protect the coast from the Delaware capes to eastern Maine. "It can scarcely be supposed," writes Admiral Chadwick, "that such action was taken but in deference to the unreasoning fear of dwellers on the coast."