Sometimes the least assuming and impressive ships are thrust to the fore and exhibit great heroics. Such is the case of the little 94-foot U.S. Revenue Cutter Hudson during one of the first battles of the Spanish-American War.
The tug Hudson had a number of firsts to her credit when she initially touched water. She was among the first cutters to be completely designed by the office of the superintendent of construction of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service—one of the two agencies that merged in 1915 to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Commandant Charles F. Shoemaker noted in the service’s 1897 annual report that the Hudson was “the first and only effort at modern cutter construction up to 1895.”
Built by John H. Dialogue & Son in Camden, New Jersey, she was completed and accepted by the service on 17 August 1893. At the time, the Dialogue shipyard was at the cutting edge of marine technology, having adopted both the Scotch boiler and compound engines. The Hudson incorporated both. In fact, she had the Revenue Cutter Service’s first triple-expansion engine and was its first cutter with a steel hull.
At the end of August 1893, the crew of the recently decommissioned tug USRC Peter G. Washington was assigned to the Hudson, and five days later she sailed to assume the duties of the older cutter in New York Harbor; customs and quarantine enforcement, verifying ship documentation, merchant ship assistance, and search and rescue were all part of her daily routine for nearly five years. Then, on 15 February 1898, the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor.
Five weeks later, on 24 March, as described in Coast Guard records, the Hudson was “ordered to cooperate with [the] Navy.” On 2 April, under command of First Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb, RCS, she left New York bound for the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, and preparation for war. Her usual complement of 11 was more than doubled to 23. Normally unarmed, she received two 6-pounder rapid-fire guns, mounted fore and aft, along with a Colt machine gun on the aft deckhouse. Five-eighths-inch-thick steel plates attached to her pilothouse and deckhouse provided some armor protection.
Three weeks after arriving, the Hudson set out for Key West, Florida, the U.S. staging area for Cuban operations. Shortly thereafter, off the Outer Banks, she ran into a storm of hurricane-force winds, huge seas, and torrential rain. But for the recently applied armor plating, her pilothouse would have been destroyed. After anchoring for repairs off Wilmington, North Carolina, the plucky tug arrived at Key West on 5 May. Four days later she was patrolling the Cuban coast between Cárdenas and Matanzas.
On 10 May, the Hudson probed the approaches to Cárdenas Bay, which was defended by three Spanish gunboats. Failing to draw the Spaniards outside the safety of their anchorage, Newcomb found the two main passages blocked with debris and possibly mined. A third approach between Romero and Blanco cays was unmined; however, it was shallow, and only low-draft ships could pass through at high tide. Charts showed a minimum depth of nine feet. That combined with a tidal surge of 1½ feet, would barely leave room for the Hudson (10-foot draft), Torpedo Boat No. 5 Winslow (5¾-foot), and Gunboat No. 8 Wilmington (9-foot) to scrape by. Newcomb proposed a plan to the Cuban Blockading Squadron commander, Commodore John C. Watson, to secure the harbor using the three small warships.
Before noon the next day, in company with the Winslow, the Hudson moved to sound the channel and sweep it of mines. The tug verified the depth by briefly grounding, with no damage, leaving the torpedo boat to drag the channel with grapnels searching for mines. After the two returned and reported to Commander Chapman C. Todd on board the Wilmington, the three vessels proceeded at high tide, 1230.
Newcomb described the subsequent action in a report two days later to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long. At about 1300, Commander Todd ordered the Hudson to “go out and look for small craft.” Skirting the western shore of the bay, while the Winslow tackled the eastern shore, she found nothing, and at 1335 moved at full speed to rendezvous with the other two U.S. vessels. Ten minutes later when about a mile from them, as noted by Winslow commanding officer Lieutenant John B. Bernadou to Secretary Long, the “clear puff of white smoke” fired from the bow of a moored Spanish gunboat marked the engagement’s first shot.
Constant rapid firing ensued from shore batteries “characterized primarily by a total absence of smoke,” which made it difficult to pinpoint their locations. Further compounding this was the smoke from the American black-powder ammunition. About five minutes later, the Hudson joined in the combat once she was within range of her two 6-pounders. Shortly thereafter, the Winslow, being closest to the enemy, took several hits. The first damaged beyond repair both her steam and hand-operated steering gear. She still could maneuver through differential use of propellers but only until a second shot rendered one engine “inoperative.” The Hudson rushed in to help the stricken torpedo boat.
Newcomb cryptically described the action for the Navy Secretary:
At 2.20 Comdg Officer “Winslow” reported his vessel totally disabled and requested to be towed out of range. Owing to the shoal water and the rapid drift toward shore of the “Winslow” (the wind was on shore) it was fully 30 minutes before the “Hudson” succeeded in making a line fast from the “Winslow,” and starting ahead with her. The enemy Kept up a constant fire during this time, which appeared to be especially directed toward the “Winslow,” which was returned at every opportunity by the Winslow and “Hudson.”
On board the tug, “Each and every member of Hudson’s crew . . . did his whole duty cheerfully and without the least hesitation.” To help navigate in the shallow waters and see above the smoke of the 6-pounders, Second Assistant Engineer Theodore G. Lewton stood atop the deckhouse amid the constant shelling. The aft gun was fed ammunition by the 16-year-old ship’s boy, Moses Jones, as Ship’s Steward Henry Savage passed shells from the magazine. As the tug neared the torpedo boat, a Spanish shell exploded among the Winslow crew preparing to heave the line. Two were killed, including the ship’s executive officer, Ensign Worth Bagley, the only Navy officer to be killed in the Spanish-American War. Three others were mortally wounded. This also was the heaviest loss of life in a Navy action during the war, with the exception of the Maine explosion.
The 3-inch towline, once made fast, soon parted. Newcomb wanted to make certain the second would hold. Driving his ship into the mud, using his screw to literally plow through to the Winslow, he maneuvered the tug alongside, and his crew lashed the stricken ship hull-to-hull and ran both vessels to safety. The trio steamed out of the bay by 1530. The Hudson’s 6-pounders had fired 135 shells.
The heroism of the crew did not go unnoticed. President William McKinley in a 27 June 1898 message to Congress stated:
In the face of a most galling fire from the enemy’s guns the revenue cutter Hudson, commanded by First Lieut. Frank H. Newcomb, United States Revenue Cutter Service, rescued the disabled Winslow, her wounded commander, and remaining crew. The commander . . . kept his vessel in the very hottest of fire of the action, although in constant danger of going ashore on account of the shallow water . . . a deed of special gallantry.
Yet while three of the Winslow’s crew received the Medal of Honor, none was awarded to men of the Hudson. Despite their transfer to Navy control, they were viewed as civilians. Newcomb, however, received a gold medal, called the “Cárdenas Medal of Honor,” from Congress; his officers received silver versions; and his crew bronze. The medal ranks below the Good Conduct Medal in order of precedence.
The Hudson continued service throughout the war, returning to Cárdenas Bay on blockade duty. She captured three stores ships and destroyed a fourth, and deployed two detachments of Cuban insurgents before being returned to the Treasury Department on 21 August. The combat veteran briefly rejoined the Navy for World War I, when she became the USCGC Hudson. The tug was decommissioned and sold for scrap on 3 May 1935.