“After the torpedo boat—what?”—English newspaper, July 4, 1898.
“The Gloucester of course.”—New York newspaper, July 5, 1898
THIS summer will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the most smashing fight and extraordinary victory that has ever been won by a vessel of our Navy —the total destruction in a fair sea battle of two enemy torpedo-boat destroyers by an American armed yacht, the U.S.S. Gloucester. The deeds of the Gloucester on that Sunday afternoon, July 3, 1898, stand out truly gloriously; and fine as was the achievement of the American fleet in its annihilation of the squadron of Cervera off Santiago, the spectacle of the Gloucester in this battle thrilled her squadron mates so that they wildly cheered the dashing, reckless, slashing yacht.
A new generation of naval men has come to help man the ships of the Navy, since the Gloucester’s day and deeds, and it is these officers and men who come to mind when her war record is recalled. With the hope that recital of her fight may be of some inspiration and interest to them, the story is set down here.
When Congress declared, in April, 1898, that a state of war existed between Spain and the United States, the Gloucester was a pleasure yacht. She had been well built and especially well engined, but her designers in laying down her plans naturally had no thought that she would ever be called on to fight against large protected cruisers and “deep” sea torpedo-boats which, at this time, were thought to be, and probably were, the latest and best products of English builders of war craft. Incidentally, there arose after the Battle of Santiago considerable doubt as to the fighting qualities of the Spanish ships, but naval intelligence of that day had it that Spain’s ships were good and such they were in the minds of the officers and crew of the Gloucester. It is easy enough now in the light of what we know of the lack of fighting qualities of the Spanish ships to evaluate the American victory accordingly, but everyone should keep in mind that in 1898 the naval world regarded Spain’s ships as formidable. With the declaration of war, the Gloucester was “taken over.”
Until then, she had been the Corsair, flying the colors of the New York Yacht Club. At a private shipyard magazines were bulkheaded off, and a very respectable battery was placed on board—a forecastle 3- pounder, four waist 6-pounders, and three 3-pounders abaft the deck house. There were also two Colt automatic rifles with “movable mounts.” None of these guns had any shields or other protection for the crew. The Gloucester had no fire control gear—the captain’s voice shouting from the bridge could be heard from bow to stern. There were no spotters, no telescopic sights, no splinter bulkheads—just eight guns and a good supply of ammunition. The conversion of the yacht Corsair to the gunboat Gloucester was a quick job and cost the United States but very little money.
The Gloucester was of the fourth rate according to the front page of her log, and her first and only captain was Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright, U. S. Navy. Lieutenant Harry McL. P. Huse was executive officer and navigator. Both of these officers later became rear admirals in the Navy. Past Assistant Engineer G. W. McElroy was chief engineer. The other officers, except Naval Cadet Andre M. Proctor, were volunteers, and conducted themselves right nobly throughout the Gloucester’s stirring career; later, we shall hear more of these fighting volunteers.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright brought to his first command a Navy record of high achievement and, incidentally, he was the only captain at Santiago who had a personal account to settle with the Spaniards. He had only a few months before, as executive officer of the Maine, seen his shipmates burned, mangled, and drowned in the black waters of Havana harbor. Captain Wainwright had reason to “Remember the Maine.”
Richard Wainwright came from fighting Marine Corps and Navy stock. His grandfather was a lieutenant colonel of marines and his father was Farragut’s flag captain in the Hartford at New Orleans and Vicksburg.
The Gloucester’s crew, numbering fewer than ninety men, came over the side and turned to just as they were, without training of any kind. They were in the main volunteers, this being the descriptive term in those days for those who “signed up” under the ardor of war. Among the ratings were some we never hear of nowadays —landsmen, coal passers, ordinary seamen, oilers, shipwrights, and baymen. The proportion of rated men to non-rated was very small, but Captain Wainwright promptly corrected this by jumping several men from seaman to chief petty officer. Seaman John Bond went to chief boatswain’s mate and became a tower of strength to his captain in the hour of battle; Seaman Bechthold jumped to chief quartermaster, and Seaman Patrick Meehan was promoted to chief master-at-arms, and like the capable sailorman that he was, his answer was, “Aye, aye, sir,” when called on by Lieutenant Huse to read the Catholic burial services, when a captured Spanish sailor who had died of wounds received in the battle, was lowered over the Gloucester’s side. One of the Gloucester’s signal quartermasters, who in the smoke of early firing, “rightly” guessed the historic signal,* “Gunboats will advance,” flying from the Indiana as the Spanish fleet emerged from Santiago harbor, was George (Charlie) Noble, six weeks before the battle a newspaper reporter in San Francisco.
* The signal actually hoisted by the Indiana was, “Enemy ships are coming out.” Charlie Noble’s mistake was to the Gloucester’s advantage since as read by him it meant that the Indiana saw and approved the Gloucester's dash at the enemy and would direct her own guns so as not to endanger the Gloucester.
Among the plans for converting the Gloucester to a regular gunboat was placing a fairly heavy layer of armor on her sides—good protection, no doubt, that would probably have rated her third class instead of fourth; but this project, so strongly urged, was successfully resisted by Captain Wainwright, and on his decision really rested the Gloucester’s fame in the fight that was to come. He chose to take her as she was— unprotected—but with her speed undiminished by the weight of the proposed armor. Had Captain Wainwright acted differently, the Gloucester would never have had the speed to overhaul the fleeing Spaniards. She would have been protected, but the mantle of glory would never have touched her. As it turned out she needed no protection, but she assuredly did need her speed and she had it in full measure.
It may be well to say right here that Captain Wainwright’s decision to ignore the question of protection and to think only of how much speed he could make if the chance to attack should be his lot, summed up in a few words his strategy and tactics: “Let’s get at them quickly.” No one on board the Gloucester before or during the fight had any idea of being hit, and when the time of battle came each man “made it so.”
Filling her bunkers with ninety-three tons of bituminous steaming coal, the Gloucester put to sea on May 29, 1898, and six days later she had reported to Rear Admiral Sampson, commander-in-chief of the naval forces in Cuban waters. From this time on, the- Gloucester was a busy gunboat, what with being fleet messenger boy, carrying dispatches, and standing blockade duty with the four battleships and the Brooklyn, much like a ratey midshipman given a regular deck watch with a lot of “bull” lieutenants.
When the great moment of the war came, the Gloucester was on watch and not on a mail and dispatch trip. Lucky Gloucester! Yes, and deserving Gloucester!
Although the blockade of the Spanish ships in Santiago harbor by Admiral Sampson’s fleet had been in effect only a little more than a month, the officers and crews of our ships had begun to tire of the inaction. There had been plenty of excitement when the bottling-up process started near the end of May, and there were at first numerous volunteer lookouts aloft day and night. Expectancy was high that the Spanish fleet would come out and fight. No one wanted to risk being below and asleep when the Spaniards made the dash. But as the days wore on and Santiago harbor continued as quiet as the grave, the blockade became dull work. Lookouts had to be jacked up. The Navy’s itch for a fight seemed less likely each day ever to be satisfied.
And so Sunday morning, July 3, 1898, dawned—a beautiful day, a tropical sun, and a calm, rolling sea. The Gloucester was under way as usual with steam on all boilers, full steaming watch below, and ammunition by the guns. She was on her station holding the easterly flank of the blockade line and lying about two miles south and east of the Morro, guarding the entrance to Santiago harbor. At 9:00 a.m. the word had been passed, “All hands to quarters; uniform white mustering; stand by for general muster.” Half an hour later while Captain Wainwright and the executive were in the act of inspecting the lower decks, they heard the well known pounding of sailormen’s feet tearing along the spar deck, followed by the barking of guns. That was the end of that Sunday inspection. When Captain Wainwright reached the bridge he saw the Spanish fleet standing out of the harbor, battle- flags streaming out astern, and bursts of flame coming from its guns. The Gloucester was cleared for action and the order to commence firing was instantly given. The flagship, Infanta Maria Teresa, with Admiral Pascual Cervera on board, led, followed by the Oquendo, Viscaya, and Colon. Strangest of all strange tales, the leading Spanish ships stopped when clear of Diamond shoal, just outside the harbor, to drop their civilian pilots! Two thousand yards astern of the Colon came the English- built destroyers Pluton and Furor under Flotilla Commander Captain Villaamil, Royal Spanish Navy.
Before the Spanish destroyers appeared in sight, the Gloucester opened fire with her 3-pounders and 6-pounders on the Spanish flagship and headed in towards the enemy column, but very soon Captain Wainwright decided that his particular business that day was the Spanish destroyers, and slowing his engines, he directed that a full head of steam be “bottled up” preparatory for the running dash that he meant to make at them, following the good old Navy primitive tactics, “Let’s get at them quick.” Immediately the Pluton and Furor showed themselves at the harbor mouth, Captain Wainwright rang full speed ahead, and porting his helm, he drove down upon them, his forward guns concentrating on the leading Pluton and the after 3-pounders on the Furor. The Gloucester was “traveling”— a good seventeen knots—a lot of speed in ’98. She was making a brave sight, too, with a bone in her teeth, and a constant sheet of flame, white-red in the Cuban sun, bursting from her spar deck guns. For a while, but for such a short while, the Spanish gunners on the Pluton and Furor returned the fire. The fire from their machine guns, while of good volume, constantly fell short. These weapons, properly handled, were capable of wiping out the Gloucester’s gun crews who were without the least protection. The Spaniards never were able to get the rapidly decreasing gun range before they were swept off their decks by the really accurate and overwhelming fire of the Gloucester’s gun crews. The Spaniards simply never could get started. In a very few minutes the Pluton was seen to be on fire, and with hard a-port helm, she was headed for the beach, where she grounded and promptly blew up. The Gloucester's gun crews now concentrated on the Furor and she too was seen to be in flames and with her steering gear completely smashed, she turned helplessly to port toward the Gloucester and surrendered through the medium of a white shirt waved by one of her crew.
This is what Admiral Sampson, the commander-in-chief, said in his report:
The skillful handling and gallant fighting of the Gloucester excited the admiration of every one who witnessed it, and merits the commendation of the Navy Department. She is a fast and entirely unprotected auxiliary vessel—the yacht Corsair—and has a good battery of light rapid-fire guns. She was lying about two miles from the harbor entrance, to the southward and eastward, and immediately steamed in, opening fire upon the large ships. Anticipating the appearance of the Pluton and Furor, the Gloucester was slowed, thereby gaining more rapidly a high pressure of steam, and when the destroyers came out she steamed for them at full speed, and was able to close to short range, where her fire was accurate, deadly, and of great volume.
During this fight the Gloucester was under the fire of the Socapa battery. Within twenty minutes from the time they emerged from Santiago harbor the careers of the Furor and Pluton were ended and two-thirds of their people killed. The Furor was beached and sunk in the surf; the Pluton sank in deep water a few minutes later. The destroyers probably suffered much injury from the fire of the secondary batteries of the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and Texas, yet I think a very considerable factor in their speedy destruction was the fire, at close range, of the Gloucester’s battery. After rescuing the survivors of the destroyers, the Gloucester did excellent service in landing and securing the crew of the Infanta Maria Teresa.
The following is Captain Wainwright’s modest report:
Report of Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright,
Captain U.S.S. Gloucester
Off Santiago de Cuba, Cuba,
July 6, 1898.
- I have the honor to report that at the Battle of Santiago on July 3 the officers and crew of the Gloucester were uninjured and the vessel was not injured in hull or machinery, the battery only requiring some slight overhauling. It is now in excellent condition.
- I enclose herewith a copy of the report of the executive officer, made in compliance with paragraph 525, page no, Naval Regulations, which report I believe to be correct in all particulars. I also enclose copies of the reports of the several officers which may prove valuable for future reference.
- It was the plain duty of the Gloucester to look after the destroyers, and she was held back, gaining steam, until they appeared at the entrance. The Indiana poured in a hot fire from all her secondary battery upon the destroyers, but Captain Taylor’s signal, “Gunboats close in,” gave security that we would not be fired on by our own ships. Until the leading destroyer was injured, our course was converging necessarily; but as soon as she slackened her speed, we headed directly for both vessels, firing both port and starboard batteries as the occasion offered.
- All the officers and nearly all the men deserve my highest praise during the action. The escape of the Gloucester was due mainly to the accuracy and rapidity of the fire. The efficiency of this fire, as well as that of the ship generally, was largely due to the intelligent and unremitting efforts of the executive officer, Lieutenant Harry P. Huse. The result is more to his credit when it is remembered that a large proportion of the officers and men were untrained when the Gloucester was commissioned. Throughout the action he was on the bridge and carried out my orders with great coolness. That we were able to close in with the destroyers, and until we did so they were not seriously injured, was largely due to the skill and constant attention of Passed Assistant Engineer George H. McElroy. The blowers were put on and the speed increased to seventeen knots without causing a tube to leak or a brass to heat. Lieutenant Thomas C. Wood, Lieutenant George H. Norman, Jr., and Ensign John T. Ed- son, not only controlled the fire of the guns in their divisions and prevented waste of ammunition, but they also did some excellent shooting themselves. Acting Assistant Surgeon J. F. Bransford took charge of one of the guns and fired it himself occasionally. Acting Assistant Paymaster Alexander H. Brown had charge of the two Colt guns, firing one himself, and they did excellent work. Assistant Engineer A. M. Procter carried my orders from the bridge and occasionally fired a gun when I found it was not being served quite satisfactorily. All were cool and active at a time when they could have had but little hope of escaping uninjured.
- Lieutenants Wood and Norman, Ensign Ed- son, and Assistant Engineer Procter were in charge of the boats engaged in saving life. They all risked their lives repeatedly in boarding and remaining near the two destroyers and the two armored cruisers when their guns were being discharged by the heat and their magazines and boilers were exploding. They also showed great skill in landing and taking off the prisoners through the surf.
- Of the men mentioned in the several reports I would call especial attention to John Bond, chief boatswain’s mate. He would have been recommended to the Department for promotion prior to his gallant conduct during the action of July 3. I would also recommend to your attention Robert P. Jennings, chief machinist, mentioned in the report of Mr. McElroy. I believe it would have a good effect to recognize the skill of the men and the danger incurred by the engineer’s force. I would also recommend that the acting appointments of those men mentioned by the officers in their reports be made permanent.
- The wounded and exhausted prisoners were well and skillfully tended by Assistant Surgeon Bransford, assisted by Ensign Edson, who is also a surgeon.
- The Admiral, his officers, and men, were treated with all consideration and care possible. They were fed and clothed as far as our limited means would permit.
Lieutenant Commander, U.S.N., Commanding.
To the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Naval Force, North Atlantic Station.
The battle was over—that is, the Gloucester’s own part of it was finished—although our other ships drove on at full speed, firing at the fleeing Spanish cruisers and finally ended by driving them ashore one by one in a battered and sinking condition. An armed yacht, a gunboat by courtesy, the Gloucester had destroyed in a fair fight two enemy torpedo boats in the almost unbelievable time of twenty minutes. The Pluton and Furor’s losses in killed and drowned were two-thirds the people on board. The Gloucester’s loss was exactly zero. No one was even wounded, that is, unless you can call Ensign Edson’s two broken ribs, caused by the kick of one of his 3-pounders, a wound. History records no victory like this.
The echoes of the Gloucester’s guns had not stopped returning from the mountainous shores of Santiago, when the word was passed, “Away all boats,” and the same officers and men who a few minutes before had the one thought of annihilating their enemy, shoved off. The dinghy under Lieutenant Thomas Wood and the whaleboat under Lieutenant George H. Norman headed for the Furor, now dangerously close to sinking, under orders from Captain Wainwright to rescue as many Spanish survivors as possible and to salvage the enemy ship if at all practicable. On boarding the Furor the Gloucester’s officers and men were met with scenes of death and destruction. Dead and mangled men lay about the decks. The Furor was riddled with 3-pounder and 6- pounder shell holes, but as Lieutenant Wood stated, “There was no evidence of shots of larger caliber.” The Furor was burning fiercely from stem to stern, her ammunition was exploding, and altogether she was a far more dangerous enemy after surrendering than she had been in battle. The rescuers barely had time to take off the survivors before she reared her bow in the air and sank. Lieutenant Wood captured her colors. One of the Gloucester’s boats, under Lieutenant Wood, then rowed to the beach to continue rescue work on the Pluton, now pounding on the rocks with flames bursting from every port and hatch. Rescue here was more difficult and dangerous even than in the case of the Furor. Meanwhile the gig, under Lieutenant Norman, and the cutter under Ensign Edson, proceeded to the burning Infanta Maria Teresa, pounding on the rocks a few hundred yards to the westward. She, too, was on fire and her survivors had crowded up together on the forecastle, unable to save themselves and afraid to jump overboard. Ensign Edson got a line ashore from the Teresa and with Lieutenant Norman’s boat, used this to haul their boats, loaded with Spaniards, through the surf to a point near the shore, and discharged their cargoes by throwing the enemy sailors overboard and returning for another load. In this way, 480 members of the Teresa’s crew were saved. Among them were Admiral Cervera and his son, Lieutenant Angel Cervera. All were in a wretched condition. The Admiral, wringing wet, clothed only in trousers and undershirt, and standing on the beach surrounded by his forlorn shipmates, formally (or as formally as he could under the circumstances) surrendered to Lieutenant Norman. The Admiral and his officers and many of his crew were rowed to the Gloucester, where Captain Wainwright gave them every honor and comfort.
Among others rescued by the Gloucester were Commander Carlier, the Furor’s captain, Commander Vasquez, captain of the Pluton, Lieutenant Arderious of the Furor, and Lieutenant Boardo of the Pluton. Flotilla Commander Captain Villaamil was struck by a shell from the Gloucester’s guns and was instantly killed.
With the completion of the rescue, the Gloucester’s work was done. Sunday, July 3, begun so peacefully with all hands in clean white mustering clothes, had changed swiftly into a day of battle. It ended peacefully too, and solemnly. The crew of the Gloucester were not to turn in their hammocks until they had looked on the most awe-inspiring scene that man-of- war’s men may ever see. The log of July 3 reads:
6-8 p.m. At 7:15 called “all hands to bury the dead’’ and consigned dead Spanish prisoner to his grave.
(Signed) Thomas C. Wood,
Lieutenant, U. S. Navy.
This unknown Spanish sailor of the Furor followed his ship to the bottom, but he was wrapped in a shroud of honor—the captured colors of the Furor. Gallant Gloucester!
The crew then turned in. They had nothing to worry about now—nothing except when they would get liberty in New York. The day ended as follows, according to the log:
8-12 p.m. Lying off Morro. Weather pleasant. Bright moonlight.
(Signed) G. H. Norman, Lieutenant, U. S. Navy.
Fine way for the Gloucester to end the day.