July 3, 1898 - In the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Squadron destroys the small, under-fueled, ill-repaired Atlantic Squadron of the Spanish Navy off Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. It is the key naval battle in the American attempt to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule.
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The USS Maine had exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15. By early March, tensions between the U.S. and Spain were running very high, and both nations were leaning toward a declaration of war in the long-running dispute over Cuban independence.
In early March, the U.S. Navy became worried that its North Atlantic and European Squadrons were too big and unwieldy to act with dispatch during any coming war. On March 7, the Navy began assembling a small group, the Flying Squadron, in Norfolk. This unit would eventually consist of the the armored cruiser USS Brooklyn (the flagship); battleships USS Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas; the protected cruise USS Marblehead; and the cruisers Columbia and Minneapolis.
On March 9, after learning that Spain was attempting to buy Brazilian warships under construction in the United Kingdom, U.S. President William McKinley asked Congress for $50 million for national defense. Congress approved the request in a single day. The U.S. Navy purchased the Brazilian ships instead. The U.S. Navy's European Squadron escorted the newly purchased ships -- now named the USS New Orleans (formerly the Amazonas) and the USS Albany (formerly the Almirante Abreu) -- to the United States on march 12.
On March 14, the Spanish Navy's Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, left the Spanish port of Cadiz for the Canary Islands and then the Portuguese-held Cape Verde Islands to position itself for a dash to the West Indies in the event of war. Admiral Cervera was ordered to destroy Key West and blockade the East Coast of the United States, but knew that his navy was in disrepair, had no ship repair facilities in the Americas, was ill-trained, and was significantly weaker than the U.S. Navy. He advocated a defensive strategy, but over-confident Spanish officials overruled him. His small fleet consisted of the armored cruisers Infanta Maria Teresa (the flagship), Vizcaya, Cristóbal Colón, and Almirante Oquendo; and the torpedo-boat destroyers Furor and Pluton.
On March 26, a full month before war broke out, William T. Sampson was brevetted to Rear Admiral and ordered to take command of the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Squadron at Key West. This fleet consisted of the armored cruiser USS New York (the flagship), the battleships USS Indiana, Iowa, and Oregon; the cruisers Marblehead, Newark, and New Orleans; the gunboat USS Nashville; the torpedo boat USS Ericsson; and the armed yachts USS Vixen and Gloucester.
War was declared on April 21. Between April 24 and April 30 (the date is unclear), the Flying Squadron was formally organized.
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On May 11, Spanish shore guns repulsed a U.S. Navy effort to seize the harbor at Cárdenas, Cuba. Ensign Worth Bagley was killed; he was the only U.S. Navy officer killed in combat during the entire war. U.S. Marines, however, managed to cut two of the three the transatlantic telegraph cables with Spain, significantly impairing the Cuban colonial government's communication with the home nation.
Admiral Sampson was convinced that the Spanish Navy was sailing to Puerto Rico. The American public was near-panicked over the possibility that the Spanish might bombard New York City, Boston, or other ports, or even sail up the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River and attack Washington, D.C.
On May 12, Sampson's North Atlantic Squadron sailed into the harbor at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish were not there, but Sampson incomprehensibly ordered the city bombed anyway. Numerous civilians died.
On May 19, desperately low on fuel, Admiral Cervera's Spanish Atlantic Squadron sailed unopposed into the harbor at Santiago de Cuba. Ten days later, the U.S. Navy Flying Squadron, commanded by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, arrived off Santiago de Cuba with orders to blockade the city and harbor. Schley had arrived off Cuba on May 24, but futilely awaited the Spanish Atlantic Squadron off Cienfuegos first.
On May 31, the Flying Squadron exchanged fire with the Spanish Cristobal Colon and shore batteries at Santiago de Cuba. There was little effect on either side.
On June 3, the Flying Squadron attempted to block the entrance to the harbor at Santiago de Cuba by sinking the collier USS Merrimac in the main channel. Small Spanish gunboats and mines prevented the ship's proper positioning, and the harbor remained open. Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond P. Hobson and his crew of seven are captured.
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The U.S. Army -- woefully untrained, unprovisioned, pooly armed, and poorly led -- then engaged in two battles on land, the Battle of Las Guasimas on June 24 and the Battle of the Aguadores (during which the Charge Up San Juan Hill occurred) on July 1. In both cases, the better-armed and -trained Spanish held off the Americans for hours until retreating. American losses were so heavy, the War Department became deeply alarmed.
"Appalled" was the reaction of Admiral Sampson, when he learned of the Army's huge losses.
On July 2, U.S. Major General William Rufus Shafter, head of the Fifth Army Corps, asked Admiral Sampson to order the Navy to force its way into the harbor at Santiago de Cuba and destroy the shore batteries and artillery there. The implications of Shafter's request were clear to Sampson: He realized the U.S. Army had suffered such grievous losses from combat and disease that it needed the U.S. Navy to capture the city for it.
The Spanish forced the Americans' hand. On July 1, the Spanish Governor of Cuba, General Ramón Blanco y Erenas, ordered Admiral Cervera to run the blockade and escape the harbor at Santiago de Cuba. Cervera told him it was suicide, but Blanco refused to reconsider the order. It would be better to die in combat than to be sunk at anchor, he told Cervera.
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At about 6:00 AM on July 3, Admiral Sampson went ashore for a conference with General Shafter. Commodore Schley was left in command of both the Flying Squadron and North Atlantic Squadron (whihc had by now left Puerto Rico and come to Cuba). About the same time, the battleship USS Massachusetts and the cruisers Newark and New Orleans left for Guantanamo Bay to refuel.
At 9:00 AM, Cervera's fleet surprised the Americans by sortying during daylight. As Cervera left the harbor, he was astonished to see a gap in the American line. Sampson had taken the armored cruiser USS New York and the torpedo boat USS Ericsson with him, and Schley had failed to adjust the position of the remaining ships to plug the hole.
This left the cruiser USS Brooklyn; the battleships USS Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, and Texas; and the armed yachts USS Vixen and Gloucester on the blockade line. Cervera's ships were modern and three times smaller than the American vessels. Schley had no ship which was fast enough to catch Cervera if he managed to break through the blockade.
The well-trained American crews responded with gunfire before the Spanish cleared the harbor mouth. The low-quality Spanish coal made it difficult for the Spanish to get up speed quickly, so Cerveza decided on a head-on attack.
Brooklyn turned starboard to avoid a collision with the Infanta Maria Teresa, which forced the Texas to come to a standstill in order to avoid a collision with Brooklyn. Infanta Maria Teresa, Vizcaya, Colon, and Almirante Oquendo then veered west. Brooklyn, completing a loop, pursued with Indiana, Oregon, and Texas close behind. Oregon then foolishly passed Texas inboard, forcing Texas to withhold fire. Indiana fell back with an engine problem. As the Spanish passed the startled Iowa, the American battleship hit Infanta Maria Teresa with two 12-inch rounds, but in turn was hit by two rounds from the Cristóbal Colón. Iowa, too, began to fall back.
Cervera now attempted to use Infanta Maria Theresa to cover his fleet's esape. He slowed and engaged the Brooklyn, hitting her more than 20 times. But Brooklyn's guns were heavier and her fire more accurate, and soon most of Cervera's bridge crew were dead. The Infanta Maria Teresa began to burn, and Cervera ordered her aground.
The slowing Iowa's big guns had the range and managed to hit the Almirante Oquendo repeatedly. The Almirante Oquendo then was struck down by bad luck, when a shell, stuck in a defective breech-block, exploded. A boiler explosion finished her, and she was ordered scuttled by her mortally wounded captain.
Pluton and Furor had made a dash southeast. The long-range guns of the Indiana, Iowa, and eventually New York (Sampson had raced back to sea and was trying to join the fight) heavily damaged both ships, and both were run aground on the beach.
Vizcaya and Brooklyn remained locked in side-by-side running gun duel for nearly an hour. The Spanish hit Brooklyn 300 times -- but only one shot did any appreciable damage. The astonished Spanish gunners discovered that their shells were either defective or loaded with sawdust (not gunpowder), as they had been designed for training and not live fire. Brooklyn finally delivered an 8-inch round into the Vizcaya which hit a torpedo being readied for launch. A huge explosion occurred, and Vizcaya began to burn. She turned toward the beach and grounded herself.
Only the speedy new armored cruiser Cristóbal Colón still survived. But her guns were disarmed, their installation having never been completed. The USS Oregon pursued. Its long-range guns forced the Cristóbal Colón to hug the coast, unable to turn toward the open sea. Then bad luck hit again: The Cristóbal Colón began to run out of fuel, just as a peninsula jutting from the coastline forced her to turn toward the Oregon. The ship had a great deal of high-sulfur coal on board, but this burned so poorly that the Spanish were sure to be caught by the Americans. Captain Jose de Paredes turned the undamaged Cristóbal Colón toward the mouth of the Tarquino River and scuttled his vessel.
The Spanish Navy lost all six of its ships. Among its sailors, 323 Spanish sailors were wounded, 151 killed, and 1,720 captured. Just one American sailor was killed and one was wounded.