On 15 February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. The exact cause would remain unknown for decades and even now is subject to some debate. But an American public driven largely by yellow journalism and a government eager to flex its new maritime muscle were quick to blame Spain. On 25 April, President William McKinley asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.
The Senate and House promptly returned one, and in the process backdated the beginning of the Spanish-American War to 21 April, when Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron had been ordered to implement a blockade of Cuba. Earlier, some of the squadron’s strongest ships had been organized into the Flying Squadron, led by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley and tasked with defending the East Coast against possible attack. Across the Atlantic, on 29 April a Spanish squadron under Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete set out for the Caribbean to break the American blockade and defend Spain’s possessions there.
When these forces finally met off Cuba’s Santiago Bay, the American warships utterly destroyed their outgunned Spanish opponents. Cervera’s squadron was not the victim of any bold new tactic, technological development, or dramatic environmental factor. The Spanish government’s dilatory care of its navy had resulted in the squadron being woefully unprepared for battle. Moreover, its commander’s defeatist attitude had helped seal its fate.
Trapping the Spanish Squadron
U.S. commanders had realized that the presence of Spanish warships in the Caribbean would be an obstacle to American military operations on Cuba or Puerto Rico, especially because the exact location of the enemy ships would not likely be known. Maritime communication or supply lines would be vulnerable to Spanish attack. Furthermore, along the East Coast, the news that Cervera’s squadron had put to sea led to fears that the Spanish warships might raid coastal cities. The apprehension was alleviated only when the U.S. Navy stationed old, low-freeboard monitors in several port cities. However unrealistic the fear of Spanish attack may have been, it added emphasis to the necessity of eliminating Cervera’s force.
After setting out from the Cape Verde Islands, the Spanish squadron entered Santiago Bay on 19 May. Word of its arrival soon reached Admiral Sampson, who shortly before had ordered Commodore Schley to blockade Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s south coast. Off that port on the morning of 23 May, Schley received new orders from Sampson: Provided Cervera’s four armored cruisers and two destroyers were not at Cienfuegos, he was to quickly proceed to Santiago and, if the Spanish squadron was there, blockade it in port.
Schley and his Flying Squadron, however, did not take up station off Santiago for five days. Fortunately, Cervera had not attempted to leave during that time, and the commodore was able to blockade the bay’s narrow entrance. Sampson arrived with more warships shortly thereafter, and the admiral took command of the blockade; the Flying Squadron was subsequently reabsorbed into the North Atlantic Squadron.
Because the bay’s channel was heavily mined, Sampson ruled out a direct attack against the Spanish warships. Over the ensuing weeks he was content to prevent them from sortieing; a U.S. attempt to sink the collier Merrimac in the channel to close it off failed. The U.S. warships’ crews thereafter occupied themselves by occasionally shelling the fortifications at the bay’s entrance and the harbor.
Meanwhile, hurried efforts were under way to organize an Army expedition to help force the Spanish squadron’s surrender. American troops landed at Daiquiri on 22 June and at nearby Siboney the next day and soon began advancing on the city of Santiago. Costlier than initially expected, the land campaign, directed by Major General William R. Shafter, would eventually succeed. On 1 July, the American forces seized the San Juan heights overlooking Santiago and began a siege of the city.
The Spanish military governor of Cuba, Captain General Ramón Blanco y Erenas, reacted by ordering Admiral Cervera to lead his squadron out of Santiago Bay as soon as possible to prevent the warships’ capture. After some protest, the admiral agreed to do so and picked the morning of Sunday, 3 July, for his sortie attempt. He believed that because the Americans were accustomed to having large worship services on deck on Sundays, his ships might catch the blockading vessels off guard and escape to Cienfuegos or Havana.
As Cervera’s luck would have it, on Sunday morning the blockading force was depleted. The battleship Massachusetts, accompanied by the protected cruisers New Orleans and Newark, was away refueling, and Sampson’s flagship, the armored cruiser New York, was transporting the admiral up the coast for a meeting with General Shafter. The two commanders were to discuss ways of improving Army-Navy cooperation. That left the battleships Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, and Texas; Schley’s flagship the armored cruiser Brooklyn; and the unprotected yachts Gloucester and Vixen manning the blockade.
A Lopsided Fight
Cervera’s own flagship, the armored cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa, led the line of Spanish ships out of the bay. Emerging from the narrow channel at 0935, she caught the blockaders by surprise. The admiral had ordered the Maria Teresa’s captain to ram the fastest U.S. ship, the Brooklyn, to increase the rest of his squadron’s chances of outrunning the other American vessels and reaching Cienfuegos. But as the Spanish flagship approached her, the Brooklyn, with Commodore Schley on board, turned away and nearly collided with the Texas. Confusion ensued on board the American vessels; the Texas was forced to back her engines, and the Brooklyn completed a 360-degree turn before belatedly setting out after the fleeing Spanish warships.
Having lost her opportunity to ram the Brooklyn and under fire from the entire U.S. squadron, the Spanish flagship broke off her attack and headed westward along the coast. Cervera took personal command of the cruiser after her captain was wounded, ran the battered ship toward shore, and beached her.
Because the American ships were concentrating on the Maria Teresa, the next two vessels to emerge and set off westward, the armored cruisers Vizcaya and Cristóbal Colón, avoided their full fire. But the subsequent ship to leave the bay, the armored cruiser Almirante Oquendo, was soon heavily damaged and forced ashore. Then the Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, Texas, and Brooklyn concentrated their fire on the Vizcaya, which erupted into flames and struck a reef. Shell fire from the American battleships and the Gloucester severely damaged the final Spanish ships to sortie—the destroyers Furor and Plutón—sinking the former and forcing the latter ashore. The New York, which had finally joined the battle, got in a few shots at one of the destroyers.
The Cristóbal Colón, the fastest Spanish cruiser, continued to flee along the coast toward Cienfuegos. In outrunning her pursuers, she had managed to score two hits on the Iowa, but they did little damage. Several American ships fell so far behind they gave up the chase and began rescuing survivors from the wrecked Spanish ships.
Eventually, the Colón exhausted her supply of high-quality coal, and as she began burning inferior fuel her speed started dropping from a relatively impressive 14.5 knots. Once the Colón was within range of the Oregon’s 13-inch guns, the captain of the Spanish cruiser ran his ship aground and scuttled her. The battle was over.
The U.S. Navy had won a dramatic, decisive victory; Cervera’s entire squadron was destroyed, and 323 Spanish sailors were lost; the Americans suffered only light damage to three ships and one death. And yet no new weapons had been employed, no new tactics used, and no revolution in naval thinking put to the test. In fact, battle tactics largely had been ignored. The American warships simply pursued their fleeing opponents, picking them off one by one. So how did the U.S. Navy manage to pull off this overwhelming victory?
In truth, no one knowledgeable in naval affairs seemed surprised by the outcome. It was almost universally recognized that the U.S. Navy possessed more and better-equipped ships, superior guns, and higher morale than its Spanish opponent. Two of Cervera’s contemporaries, Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov of the Russian navy and Rear Admiral Max Plüddemann of the German navy, agreed that the principal reasons for the disproportionate Spanish losses at Santiago were the U.S. Navy’s superior guns being operated by better gunners. While the U.S. squadron only scored 122 hits of 9,433 shots fired, that was still far better than the Spaniards’ performance.
In fact Admiral Cervera’s squadron had sailed for the Caribbean fully expecting defeat. The outcome of the battle and the losses suffered by the two forces was simply the logical result of a meeting of such unequal fleets.
As early as 1896, Cervera had given serious consideration to the possibility of war between Spain and the United States. In letters to friends and relatives, he contrasted the rising naval strength and maritime industry of the United States to the poor state of the Spanish navy and its slow, corrupt procurement process. In January 1898, weeks before the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor and four months before war was declared, Cervera wrote to a relative that should the two nations go to war, as seemed increasingly likely, “we may and must expect a disaster.”
In other prewar writings, he complained about the poor condition of Spain’s warships, insufficient naval funding, and his lack of basic operational necessities, such as charts of North American waters. Cervera noted that the U.S. Navy outnumbered the Spanish navy almost 3-to-1 in number of modern, operational battleships and cruisers and 2-to-1 in tonnage, and U.S. ships carried more guns of greater caliber than did Spain’s vessels. Moreover, as the admiral continually pointed out, the Cristóbal Colón’s main armament of 10-inch guns had not been mounted, 5.5-inch guns on several of his armored cruisers had defective breech mechanisms, and much of his ammunition was bad. The admiral also complained that the Spanish battleships Carlos V and Pelayo were not yet operational.
Spain did hold a few small advantages, the main one being that many American warships were lightly armored. But the weaknesses of Spain’s navy were far more numerous. Years of mismanagement and poor funding had resulted in an air of defeatism among naval officers and must have had a detrimental effect on the morale of enlisted sailors. In addition to armament problems, many of the navy’s ships were not supplied sufficiently with such basic provisions as food and high-quality coal. Worse, the ships had gone so long without proper maintenance that their one remaining strength, speed, was negated by heavily fouled bottoms.
The Spanish navy’s lack of a specific war strategy, goals, and direction is another theme in Cervera’s letters. Days before the outbreak of hostilities, he wrote, “I regret very much to have to sail without having agreed upon some plan, even in general lines, for which purpose I repeatedly requested permission to go to Madrid.” The admiral’s warnings and requests to the navy had fallen on deaf ears. When ordered to the Caribbean in April, he wrote, “With an easy conscience I go to the sacrifice, but I cannot understand the decision of the navy general officers against my opinions.”
Lost Chances to Minimize Defeat
Despite the steep odds Cervera’s squadron faced, there was still some hope—not for victory but for survival. The fact that his ships would lose any pitched battle with American naval forces was a given. But the degree of their defeat and the overall effect of the loss on Spain’s war effort were not certain.
Once in Santiago Bay, Cervera hoped to sortie as soon as his ships could be refitted. But he wasted his chance to escape before the arrival of the American blockaders. To attempt to leave then, Cervera believed, would be suicidal. Later, Governor Blanco and the Ministry of the Marine urged the admiral to slip out of the harbor under cover of darkness. In fact the blockading Americans feared that the Spanish squadron might attempt such a run, so some of their warships moved closer to the harbor’s entrance at night and directed searchlights up the channel. Cervera thought that the lights would blind his ships’ pilots, resulting in collisions.
After American forces landed and began advancing on Santiago, many of the Spanish squadron’s sailors were disembarked to reinforce troops ashore. Nevertheless, the admiral came under increasing pressure to sortie, which he resisted. A frustrated Blanco eventually declared, “It appears to me that you have exaggerated, somewhat, the difficulties of leaving Santiago.” To Cervera’s complaints that leaving the bay would result in the destruction of his squadron, Blanco wrote: “There is no necessity for fighting. All that you are asked to do is escape.”
The governor was a pragmatist, and he had a point. If just one of Cervera’s ships managed to run the blockade, the Americans would be forced to divert resources to finding her. U.S. activities in the Caribbean would be disrupted or delayed for fear that the warship might raid lines of supply and communication. Cervera, however, firmly believed that his squadron would be annihilated. He had predicted that fate on 22 April, when before setting out from Cape Verde he wrote, “nothing can be expected of this expedition except the total destruction of the fleet or its hasty and demoralizing return.” In short, Cervera’s sense of defeatism had clouded his judgment.
Even after he decided to sortie from Santiago Bay during daylight hours, there was an opportunity for part of his squadron to escape destruction. American naval officers later speculated that Cervera’s ships, after emerging from the harbor, should have headed off in different directions at full speed. Such a move probably would have disrupted Admiral Sampson’s plan for his ships to converge on the mouth of the channel in the event of an escape attempt.
Instead, Cervera ordered his ships to keep near the shore as they steamed westward toward Cienfuegos. He reasoned that they could easily run themselves aground if they suffered heavy damage, affording their crews a better chance of surviving. However, steaming close to shore greatly restricted the ships’ maneuverability, making them easier targets.
Cervera’s defeat with the loss of his six warships at the Battle of Santiago ensured U.S. dominance in Caribbean waters and Spain’s eventual loss of Cuba and Puerto Rico. With American victories and territorial gains in the Philippines as well as the Caribbean, the Spanish-American War marked the rise of the United States as a global power as well as the effective end of the Spanish Empire.
In terms of naval warfare, though, the world saw nothing new at Santiago or Manila Bay. As Admiral Plüddemann wrote, “the events of this war . . . show nothing which might lead to a radical revolution of present ideas.” The Spaniards expected defeat before even entering the conflict and sacrificed the lives of thousands of men at sea and on land in a vain hope of victory and an attempt to maintain national honor. While Admiral Cervera’s superiors forced him and his outnumbered and underequipped forces into battle, the admiral failed his men and his country by letting his sense of impending doom make his squadron easier prey.
A. C. M. Azoy, Signal 250! The Sea Fight off Santiago (New York: David McKay, 1964).
“Comments of Rear Admiral Plüddemann, German Navy, on the Main Features of the War with Spain,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 24, no. 4 (1898).
Frank Freidel, The Splendid Little War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958).
Albert A. Nofi, The Spanish-American War, 1898 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996).
“Russian Views of Our War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 24, no. 4 (1898).
David F. Trask, “The Battle of Santiago,” in Jack Sweetman, ed., Great American Naval Battles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1981).
“Views of Admiral Cervera Regarding the Spanish Navy in the Late War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 24, no. 4 (1898).
William Thomas Sampson
Birthdate: 9 February 1840
War rank, assignment: acting rear admiral, North Atlantic Squadron commander
Prewar career highlight: Chaired the naval board that in late March 1898 determined the Spanish were responsible for the Maine’s destruction.
Postwar: After promotion to rear admiral, commanded the North Atlantic Squadron and then the Boston Navy Yard before retiring from the Navy in 1902; president of the U.S. Naval Institute from mid-1898 until 1902.
Winfield Scott Schley
Birthdate: 9 October 1839
War rank, assignment: commodore, Flying Squadron commander
Prewar career highlight: Commanded the three-ship expedition that rescued the survivors of Adolphus Greely’s Arctic exploring party.
Postwar: After promotion to rear admiral in 1899, commanded the South Atlantic Squadron before retiring from the Navy in 1901.
Pascual Cervera y Topete
Bithdate: 18 February 1839
War rank, assignment: rear admiral, Spanish navy squadron commander
Prewar career highlight: Became minister of the Marine in 1892 but resigned four years later when politicians overturned a number of his naval reform measures.
Postwar: Repatriated to Spain in September 1898 and absolved of any culpability for the Santiago defeat by a military tribunal.
Sampson vs. Schley
In the wake of the Battle of Santiago, a dispute between Admiral Sampson and his supporters and Commodore Schley and his backers erupted and would last for years over who deserved chief credit for the U.S. victory. Soon after battle, Sampson had rushed off a brief telegram that began, “The fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present the whole of Cervera’s fleet.”
Schley and his supporters vigorously objected to the message, which made no mention of the commodore’s role and implied Sampson was in command at the battle. As the senior U.S. officer on the scene during virtually the entire fight, Schley was mainly responsible for the victory, they claimed. Sampson’s backers responded by criticizing the commodore for failing to quickly blockade Santiago Bay early in the campaign and for mismanaging the beginning of the battle, when he had the Brooklyn make a 360-degreee turn. Schley’s attempt to counter by requesting that a court of inquiry investigate his actions backfired when the majority of the court supported many of his critics’ claims.
While Sampson, on board the New York, had only arrived at the tail end of the battle, his supporters claimed that he deserved chief credit for the victory because, in the words of Navy Secretary John D. Long, the battle “was the culmination of careful preparation on the part of Admiral Sampson.” In fact, neither Sampson nor Schley could claim full credit. Sampson’s original battle plan to converge on the bay’s entrance and disable the Spanish ships in the channel was not implemented, and Schley gave few orders to the squadron during the fight. The battle had largely been a chase, with every ship for herself.
Key Events in the Spanish-American War
In early 1895, fighting erupted in Cuba as revolutionaries launched an armed insurrection to gain the Caribbean island’s independence from Spain. The next year a similar uprising against Spanish colonial authorities broke out in the Philippines. Spain’s repressive wartime policies in Cuba—sensationalized in William Randolph Hearst’s and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers—strengthened American support for the rebels. In January 1898, with the U.S. consul general fearing for the safety of Americans in Havana, the battleship Maine was ordered to the port.
15 February 1898: A mysterious explosion sinks the Maine in Havana Harbor with the loss of 260 of the ship’s 354 officers and men.
28 March: A U.S. Navy court of inquiry finds that a mine explosion sank the Maine.
20 April: President William McKinley signs a joint congressional resolution calling for Cuban independence, Spanish withdrawal from Cuba, and, if necessary, U.S. military intervention on the island.
21 April: Spain considers the resolution a declaration of war and breaks off diplomatic relations with the United States. Meanwhile, Acting Rear Admiral William Sampson, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, gets orders to blockade Havana, other north Cuban ports, and the southern port of Cienfuegos to prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching Cuba’s Spanish garrison.
22 April: Sampson’s squadron sets out from Key West, Florida.
23 April: Spain declares war on the United States.
25 April: The United States declares war on Spain, with Congress specifying 21 April as the beginning of the conflict, a move that “legitimizes” the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
27 April: Commodore George Dewey’s U.S. Asiatic Squadron (four protected cruisers, two gunboats, one cruising cutter, and two supply ships) sets out from Chinese waters for the Philippines.
29 April: Spanish Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera’s squadron (four armored cruisers, three destroyers) leaves the Cape Verde Islands for the Caribbean to counter the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
1 May: Battle of Manila Bay. Having slipped into the bay the previous night, Dewey’s warships destroy the outgunned Spanish Philippine Squadron (four cruisers, two protected cruisers, one gunboat), winning an overwhelming victory.
4 May: Believing Cervera’s squadron is making for San Juan, the capital of Spain’s other Caribbean colony, Puerto Rico, Sampson sets out from the blockade off Havana with a force that includes two battleships and an armored cruiser.
10 May: Two of Cervera’s destroyers arrive at Martinique, but French authorities deny the Spanish squadron coal, and, minus the unseaworthy destroyer Terror, it proceeds southwestward.
12 May: Sampson arrives off San Juan to discover that the Spanish squadron is not there. After briefly bombarding the harbor and its defenses, he reverses course.
13 May: The U.S. Flying Squadron, commanded by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, is ordered from Norfolk, Virginia, to a point off Charleston, South Carolina, and then to Key West.
14 May: Low on fuel and in need of repair, Cervera’s squadron reaches the Dutch island of Curaçao but can obtain only 600 tons of coal for two cruisers. The next day it heads northwestward.
18 May: Sampson’s and Schley’s squadrons arrive at Key West.
19 May: In accordance with Sampson’s orders, Schley and the Flying Squadron set out to blockade Cienfuegos. Meanwhile, the Spanish squadron arrives at Santiago de Cuba, where there is little coal and inadequate repair facilities for the warships. The U.S. Navy soon receives intelligence reports of Cervera’s arrival there.
23 May: Schley, off Cienfuegos, receives orders from Sampson that if Cervera’s squadron is not at that port the Flying Squadron is to blockade Santiago.
28 May: Schley finally takes up station off the mouth of Santiago Bay.
1 June: Sampson arrives off Santiago with more warships and assumes command of the harbor blockade. The American force off the bay includes four battleships, two armored cruisers, and one protected and one unprotected cruiser.
3 June: An early-morning attempt by U.S. sailors to block Santiago Bay’s narrow channel by sinking the collier Merrimac across it fails.
10 June: To establish an American naval base and coaling station, U.S. Marines land at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and over the next several days fight off Spanish attacks.
14 June: More than 16,000 U.S. Regular Army and volunteer troops commanded by Major General William Shafter begin setting out on board transports from Tampa, Florida, for Cuba.
16 June: A squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Manuel de la Cámara, which includes one battleship, one armored cruiser, two auxiliary cruisers, and three destroyers, sets out eastward from Spain to relieve that country’s garrison in the Philippines.
20 June: A U.S. armored cruiser and three troop-laden transports arrive at the island of Guam, and the Spanish governor quickly surrenders the colony.
22-23 June: Shafter’s force makes unopposed landings at Daiquiri and Siboney, Cuba. While Sampson wanted the Army troops to capture the forts guarding entrance to Santiago Bay, so the Navy could clear mines in the channel and engage Cervera’s squadron, Shafter’s men soon begin a direct advance on Santiago.
30 June: The first contingent of 11,000 Army troops commanded by Major General Wesley Merritt arrives in Manila Bay. A month later, the U.S. force begins joining Filipino insurgents in the siege of Manila.
1 July: Battle of San Juan heights. In heavy fighting outside of Santiago, U.S. forces seize San Juan and Kettle hills. To the north, outnumbered Spanish forces make a valiant stand at El Caney before retreating. Shafter quickly besieges Santiago.
3 July: Battle of Santiago. Cervera’s squadron finally sorties from Santiago Bay, but in a lopsided running fight, the North Atlantic Squadron forces aground or sinks all six of the Spanish ships.
7 July: United States annexes Hawaii. With U.S. warships in the Caribbean freed up after Cervera’s defeat, Spanish authorities become increasingly fearful for the security of their own coast and recall Cámara’s squadron.
17 July: Spanish forces in Santiago capitulate to U.S. besiegers.
25 July: American troops commanded by Major General Nelson Miles land on Puerto Rico.
12 August: Armistice signed.
13 August: Manila’s besieged Spanish defenders surrender to U.S. forces.
18 October: United States annexes Puerto Rico.
10 December: In Paris a Spanish-American peace treaty is signed in which Spain renounces all rights to Cuba, cedes Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and sells the Philippines to America for $20 million.