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."

It was, in fact, Spain which took the initiative and decided the matter. Her West India Squadron was weak, even on paper, and was in a condition which would have made it madness to attempt to meet the Americans without reenforcement. She therefore decided to dispatch a fighting fleet from her home forces. Accordingly on the 29th of April, Admiral Cervera left the Cape Verde Islands and sailed westward with one fast second-class battleship, the Cristobal Colon, three armored cruisers, and two torpedo boat destroyers. It was a reasonably powerful fleet as fleets went in the Spanish War, yet it is difficult to see just what good it could accomplish when it arrived on the scene of action. The naval superiority in the West Indies would still be in the hands of the concentrated American Navy, for the Spanish forces would still be divided, only more equally, between Spanish and Caribbean waters. The American vessels, moreover, would be within easy distance of their home stations, which could supply them with- every necessity. The islands belonging to Spain, on the other hand, were ill equipped to become the base of naval operations. Admiral Cervera realized to the full the difficulty of the situation and protested against an expedition which he feared would mean the fall of Spanish power, but public opinion forced the ministry, and he was obliged to put to sea.

For nearly a month the Spanish fleet was lost to sight, and dwellers on the American coast were in a panic of apprehension. Cervera's objective was guessed to be everything from a raid on Bar Harbor to an attack on the Oregon, then on its shrouded voyage from the Pacific coast. Cities on the Atlantic seaboard clamored for protection, and the Spanish fleet was magnified by the mist of uncertainty until it became a national terror. Sampson, rightly divining that Cervera would make for San Juan, the capital and chief seaport of Porto Rico, detached from his blockading force a fighting squadron with which he sailed east, but not finding the Spanish fleet he turned back to Key West. Schley, with the Flying Squadron, was then ordered to Cienfuegos. In the meantime Cervera was escaping detection by the American scouts by taking an extremely southerly course; and with the information that Sampson was off San Juan, the Spanish Admiral sailed for Santiago de Cuba, where he arrived on May 19, 1898.

Though Cervera was safe in harbor, the maneuver of the American fleet cannot be called unsuccessful. Cervera would have preferred to be at San Juan, where there was a navy yard and where his position would have obliged the American fleet either to split into two divisions separated by eight hundred miles or to leave him free range of action. Next to San Juan he would have preferred Havana or, Cienfuegos, which were connected by railroad and near which lay the bulk of the Spanish Army. He found himself instead at the extreme eastern end of Cuba in a port with no railroad connection with Havana, partly blocked by the insurgents, and totally unable to supply him with necessities.

Unless Cervera could leave Santiago, his expedition would obviously have been useless. Though it was the natural function of the American fleet to blockade him, for a week after his arrival there was an interesting game of hide and seek between the two fleets. The harbors of Cienfuegos and of Santiago are both landlocked by high hills, and Cervera had entered Santiago without being noticed by the Americans, as that part of the coast was not under blockade. Schley thought Cervera was at Cienfuegos; Sampson was of the opinion that he was at Santiago. When it became known that the enemy had taken refuge in Santiago, Schley began the blockade on the 28th of May, but stated that he could not continue long in position owing to lack of coal. On the 1st of June Sampson arrived and assumed command of the blockading squadron.

With the bottling up of Cervera, the first stage of the war passed. The navy had performed its primary function: it had established its superiority and had obtained the control of the seas. The American coast was safe; American commerce was safe except in the vicinity of Spain; and the sea was open for the passage of an American expeditionary force. Nearly the whole island of Cuba was now under blockade, and the insurgents were receiving supplies from the United States. It had been proved that the fairly even balance of the two fleets, so anxiously scanned when it was reported in the newspapers in April, was entirely deceptive when it came to real efficiency in action. Moreover, the skillful handling of the fleets by the Naval War Board as well as by the immediate commanders had redoubled the actual superiority of the American naval forces.

A fleet in being, even though inferior and immobilized, still counts as a factor in naval warfare, and Cervera, though immobilized by Sampson, himself immobilized the greater number of American vessels necessary to blockade him. The importance of this fact was evident to every one when, in the middle of June, the remainder of the Spanish home fleet, whipped hastily into a semblance of fighting condition, set out eastward under Admiral Camara to contest the Philippines with Dewey. It was impossible for the United States to detach a force sufficient to cross the Atlantic and, without a base, meet this fleet in its home waters. Even if a smaller squadron were dispatched from the Atlantic round Cape Horn, it would arrive in the Philippines too late to be of assistance to Dewey. The two monitors on the Pacific coast, the Monterey and the Monadnock, had already been ordered across the Pacific, a voyage perilous for vessels of their structure and agonizing to their crews; but it was doubtful whether they or Camara would arrive first in the Philippines.

The logic of the situation demanded that the main American fleet be released. Cervera must be destroyed or held in some other way than at the expense of inactivity on the part of the American warships. Santiago could not be forced by the navy. Two methods remained. The first and simpler expedient was to make the harbor mouth impassable and in this way to bottle up the Spanish fleet. It was decided to sink the collier Merrimac at a narrow point in the channel, where, lying full length, she would completely prevent egress. It was a delicate task and one of extraordinary danger. It was characteristic of the spirit of the fleet that, as Admiral Chadwick says, practically all the men were volunteers. The honor of the command was given to Lieutenant Richmond Pearson Hobson, Assistant Naval Constructor, who had been in charge of the preparations. With a crew of six men he entered the harbor mouth on the night of the 3d of June. A shell disabled the steering gear of the Merrimac, and the ship sank too far within the harbor to block the entrance entirely. Admiral Cervera himself rescued the crew, assured Sampson of their safety in an appreciative note; and one of the best designed and most heroic episodes in our history just missed success.

The failure of the Merrimac experiment left the situation as it had been and forced the American command to consider the second method which would release the American fleet. This new plan contemplated the reduction of Santiago by a combined military and naval attack. Cervera's choice of Santiago therefore practically determined the direction of the first American overseas military expedition, which had been in preparation since the war began.