She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks they gored her sides
Like the horns of an angry bull.
When the blowing up of the United States battleship Maine precipitated a declaration of war, on April 21st, 1898, between America and Spain, the Atlantic squadron, under Rear-Admiral Sampson, immediately proceeded to the island of Cuba and stretched a cordon of blockading ships around it. A little later it was heard that the Spanish admiral, Cervera, had sailed from Spain with a formidable fleet. Taking his vessels with him, Sampson went forth to meet the enemy, but failing, finally returned to Cuba after a long and baffling search. It was only to find that while he had been in the neighborhood of Key West, and Commodore Schley had been watching the southern coast of the Island, Cervera had very neatly slipped into Santiago harbor with his ships.
There was nothing for the Americans to do now but make the best of the disappointing situation, and proceed to close up the neck of the bottle into which the Spanish admiral had chosen to take his fleet. By the last week of May both American commanders were present. Schley's command embraced his flag-ship, the Brooklyn, the Massachusetts, the Texas, the Iowa, the Marblehead, the Minneapolis, the Castine—battleships and cruisers; and the torpedo-destroyer Dupont. He also had with him the auxiliary cruiser St. Paul, the coaling ship Merrimac, and several smaller craft. Sampson's flotilla comprised the flag ship New York, battleship Oregon, cruiser New Orleans, several auxiliary vessels and torpedo-destroyers.
To make certain that there had been no mistake, and that all the Spanish ships were really in the harbor, Lieutenant Victor Blue made a daring reconnaissance. Braving the threatening guns of the formidable fort of Morro Castle at the head of the harbor, and risking a sniper's shot, Blue climbed one of the hills and counted one by one the enemy's vessels as they lay in the sheltered waters behind the protecting mines, about half-way between the city of Santiago and the mouth of the bay. He presently returned in the small boat that had taken him, and reported five cruisers and two torpedo-destroyers.
The situation now was this: The Spanish fleet was indeed besieged; it might dash for liberty, but this was unlikely in view of the fact that the Yankee ships were more numerous and individually as powerful in armament. On the other hand the besiegers were unable to get in and force a quick conclusion, owing to the almost impregnable defenses of the enemy; there were the frowning battlements of Morro Castle, high on its cliff on the one side, and on the other the heavy battery of Socapa on lower ground; there were the deadly mines that stretched across the channel, just below the water level, which could not be threaded without disaster except by those who had the key to their location.
For several days the American ships bombarded the Spanish forts at the mouth of the harbor. But while Socapa was badly damaged, the elevation of Morro Castle was so great and its structure so massive that the hardest fire of the Yankees failed to destroy any of its protecting batteries.
Reluctantly the blockaders withdrew out of range, and Sampson and Schley held a consultation. They decided that the aid of the army was necessary; that a force by land was required to capture the fortifications before they could countermine the channel with mine-sweepers, steam in, and engage the timid Spanish fleet. As a result of this conference, General Shafter was ordered by the Government to land troops, and with the aid of the friendly Cubans, advance on the forts about the bay.
While this land operation was being put under way, it was decided by the naval commanders to attempt to make the blockade more effective by sinking in the channel the coal-ship Merrimac. The collier was nearly as long as the width of the watercourse at one point. If she could be successfully sent to the bottom here, laden with coal, there would be little probability of the enemy ships being able to get out if they wished. This would relieve in some measure the vigilance of the blockading squadrons, and allow some of the vessels to be withdrawn for needed service elsewhere. Who would volunteer? The mission not only required a cool head and stout heart, and high excellence in seamanship—for the whole operation would have to be performed directly under the guns of Socapa and Morro Castle—but there was not one chance in a thousand of the ones who undertook it ever returning. Volunteering, the officers frankly stated to their men when they assembled them, was almost equivalent to signing away one's life.
Yet there were more applicants for this desperate mission than could have been used on a dozen such undertakings! To Richmond P. Hobson, a young naval-constructor, was given the coveted position of leader. To assist him seven other young sailors were chosen.
Very early in the morning of June 3rd, just after the moon had set, and a good half-hour before dawn, the gallant little crew took their positions on the old collier. They had discarded all their outer garments, wearing only under-clothes. About his waist each man carried a belt containing a revolver and knife, while under his arms circled a life-preserver. Thousands of comrades' eyes, on the decks behind, peered anxiously through the gloom as the Merrimac slowly and quietly steamed toward the mouth of the harbor, so heavily burdened that the waters lapped almost to her deck. Not a light did she bear, and her dauntless little crew spoke only in whispers as they hovered in the deepest shadows of her structure that their tasks of guidance would permit.
All at once, from away up there on the dark cliff just ahead, a red flare bursts into the night—then another, and another. And accompanying each flash there comes a shattering roar, while demons of iron and steel that they cannot see screech overhead and plunge into the sea beyond. Rockets are now shooting up from both shores. From across the waters other big guns belch forth their charges, and the hail of life-taking missiles increases in their small area. Hundreds of jets, white and glistening, leap up from the channel all about them as the shrapnel strikes. Now a broad path of light stretches from Morro Castle across the inky heavens; it slowly drops, bathes the rugged hills on the other side of the harbor in its pallid glow, then, like a restless finger, swings lower still, creeping here and there over the waters of the channel, halting a moment searchingly, and going on till it finally rests its brilliant beams upon the moving shape of the old collier. It is war's latest weapon—the electric searchlight, the very thing the eight young Yankees on the Merrimac might have been hoping will not be used upon them.
Now they lie, vividly outlined, in a vortex of strong light. Involuntarily those on deck shrink closer to the protecting objects nearest them, for they know what is coming. But steadfast their hearts and hands hold to the purpose before them; there is not the slightest quaver in the voice of Hobson as he issues in low tones his orders; not the least nervousness in the hand of the pilot, nor the engineer and his helpers, nor the deckhands. Even as the big guns of the enemy begin to thunder faster—into an almost continuous crash—and the sprinkle of shot about them develops into a blinding cloudburst of shrapnel, ripping holes in hull and through smokestack, they keep on with set teeth, praying that they may be permitted to reach the narrows before death comes.
U.S. Cruiser New York.
Their prayer is granted. As by a miracle the Merrimac is steered, without a man perishing, to the appointed spot. But just as Hobson gives the order to swing her across the channel for sinking, an enemy shot tears away the rudder with a shuddering smash. At the same moment her stern anchor, cut clean, plunges to the bottom.
It is now impossible to hold the collier long enough to sink her just in the way intended. Instead of holding straight across the channel, the rudderless craft begins to swing back in line with the current, and to go drifting into wider waters. Like a mad antelope, young Hobson springs to the buttons which connect with the electric batteries that will explode the mines in the hold and send the collier to the bottom.
As he touches the buttons there are two muffled explosions on one side of the ship; but there are none on the other, and he realizes that the fire of the enemy has damaged the batteries on that side. Hobson is greatly disappointed; he is afraid that the Merrimac will not sink at once, as planned.
He is right. While the enemy shots have opened her up, and helped her to take in water quite rapidly, the side with the unexploded mines rides high, and she continues to drift into wider waters as she slowly settles. Hobson and his comrades know only too well that it will be death to spring overboard right now in that terrible rain of shot. Far better will it be to wait till the collier is on the very verge of going down; then perhaps the firing will cease, or they will be out of range, and their swim will have some chance of resulting in personal safety.
At last comes the end. Dipping her head deep beneath the waves, and throwing her stern high in the air, the collier suddenly dives for the bottom. Through the whirlpool of rushing waters, fearful of the final suction, the men fight their way to the raft which the ship has been towing, and which has been released at the final moment. Not a man is lost.
Dawn found them all huddled on the raft, where they had sought a compulsory rest of aching muscles. As the first rays of day swept away the night the vigilant Spaniards saw them. In a very short time a steam launch appeared filled with the dark faces of the foe. In the very front stood an officer of apparent high grade.
"Is there any officer on board that boat to receive the surrender of prisoners of war?" called Hobson, rising.
For answer a dozen Mausers were leveled at him and his comrades. Bravely they faced the rifles, expecting to see them spout out their death shots for them. But an angry command came from the man in the bow, and the rifles dropped.
It was Admiral Cervera, of the Spanish fleet. The little band of Americans were taken to his flag-ship, and in the afternoon Cervera sent an officer under a flag of truce to Admiral Sampson. The messenger gravely handed the American commander a note which apprised him of the safety of his eight men, then added: "Daring like theirs makes the bitterest enemy proud that his fellow men can be such heroes!" It was a wonderful tribute from the leader of the enemy to Richmond Hobson and his valiant companions.
For five weeks the combined squadrons of Admiral Sampson and Commodore Schley had been riding at the mouth of Santiago Bay—waiting, always waiting, and hoping, for the moment when the trying routine of watching would be dropped for the roar and dash of a great naval engagement with the choicest ships of Spain, bottled up in the harbor. In the meantime the American army under General Shafter had been slowing but surely working its way up behind the city of Santiago, and now—on Sunday morning of the 3rd of July—rested on their arms, for a brief moment before undertaking the difficult onslaught upon the city itself.
In the squadrons you would have found the armored-cruiser Brooklyn, capable of twenty-one knots an hour, and serving as the flag-ship of Commodore Schley, the same Schley who years before took out of the Arctic snows the dying survivors of the ill-fated Greely expedition and brought them home. There was the first class battleship Oregon, fresh from her long journey of fifteen thousand miles from Puget Sound, around Cape Horn; and her sister ship the Indiana—both with their eighteen-inch walls of steel plate and their heavy thirteen-inch guns which throw a projectile five miles, and require for it more than five hundred pounds of powder and three times that weight in metal, at a cost of close to six hundred dollars per discharge. There was the big battleship Iowa, with "Fighting Bob" Evans in command; and the Texas, called the "hoodoo ship" by her crew because of the many misfortunes befalling her. There was also the battleship Massachusetts, with her powerful twin screws and great speed, and crew of over four hundred men. Besides these greater ships, there were a number of sleek looking cruisers, torpedo-destroyers, and converted warships.
Admiral Sampson, first in command of all the flotilla, was absent for the first time during the blockade. Under the orders of President McKinley he had steamed a few miles east with the New York to confer with General Shafter upon a matter of importance. He had said just as he was leaving, "If I go away something will happen." Nor was he mistaken. Something did happen—something he would have given his right hand to have been present to meet!
This Sunday morning you are introduced to, opened up not unlike most of the others the fleet had experienced during the past month. The sun was brazen and hot; the water calm. Across on the high promontory at the entrance to the harbor stood Morro Castle, silent, mediaeval, grim. Over its battlements of gray masonry flew a couple of gulls, giving no indication of the noisome dungeons in which many an inhuman execution has taken place just below, nor telling of the ravenous sharks which inhabit the waters at the base of the cliff, ready to seize the first morsel of flesh that should come their way, be it animal or human—sharks which have been quick to destroy for an age the butchered evidence of Spanish cruelty. By nine o'clock the American sailors were rigged out in clean white middies and trousers, ready for inspection and religious service.
A half-hour later, just as the bugle on the Oregon sounded for chaplain's assembly, the officer on the forward bridge of the Brooklyn called out through his megaphone: "After bridge there! Report to the Commodore and the captain that the enemy's ships are coming out!"
Almost with his words the boom of a gun on the Iowa attracted attention to a string of little flags going up her mizzen-rigging, which said: "The enemy's ships are escaping to the westward."
Needless to say, in an instant everything on board the Yankee ships was in a commotion. The chaplain was forgotten, Sunday was forgotten—every sailor's ear was pricked to catch the first order of officer, and his feet and hands held poised to obey it like lightning. Every ship fairly pulsed with excitement as well as action. Yet, in spite of the suddenness of the long-hoped-for announcement, in spite of the hundreds of men that hurried here and there over the decks and in the rigging, there was no sign of disorder or confusion. With perfect precision and wonderful system the machinery of preparation for pursuit and battle was set in motion, and clicked swiftly and smoothly on.
In less than five minutes after the first word of the coming of Cervera's fleet every anchor was up, every gun manned, and the American ships began to move toward the enemy who could be seen coming out of the harbor at full speed, working off toward the westward as if to attempt escape into the sea in that direction.
Meanwhile the New York, which it will be remembered carried Admiral Sampson along the coast to the eastward, had just reached its destination, seven miles distant, and was about to land its commander, when the sound of the Iowa's heavy gun was heard. Then, as the American ships were seen to be getting under headway, Sampson surmised that the enemy had at last appeared, and ordered his flag-ship back under all speed.
To the men of the fleet the increasing clouds of black smoke in the harbor showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that every one of Admiral Cervera's vessels was with him in the desperate dash of the Spaniards for liberty. Soon the officers of the foremost Yankee ships could make out with their glasses the flag-ship of the enemy—the Maria Teresa—which was leading. She was the first of her flotilla to thrust her nose out of the opening into the sea. Following closely behind her, in good order, were the other armored-cruisers of Spain, consisting of the Viscaya, the Cristobal Colon, the Almirante Oquendo; and the torpedo-destroyers, the Pluton and the Furor. The foe craft were from eight hundred to twelve hundred yards apart, and it was fully fifteen minutes before the last of them had passed the cape at the harbor's mouth. As they did so, they turned squarely west.
They were now within good long range of the Americans, who were approaching as fast as steam could carry them. The Spaniards were first to fire. As they flew on they let go their near batteries of heavy guns, to which the Yankee fleet made instant reply. While practically all of the enemy's shots went wild, some of the shells of the Americans were seen to find marks. In a few minutes the Yankee gunners had obtained a still more accurate range, and the débris of the foe began to litter the water in their wake.
But not all of the shots of the Spaniards were thrown away. As the Americans began to over haul the enemy his own aim grew more accurate, and a number of the pursuers endured minor strikes. Among these was the Brooklyn, which, taking probably the most prominent and exposed part in the fight, suffered greatest. When the Americans had closed up rather well an enemy shell hurtled fairly against the muzzle of one of the Brooklyn's big guns on the engaged side, and wedged itself in the bore in such a manner that the weapon was temporarily rendered useless.
A few minutes later the flag at the masthead of the Brooklyn was carried away by a shot from the Viscaya. Without hesitation a sailor jumped overboard and rescued the emblem, risking shot and the sharks that infested the waters. When he was picked up he insisted on being allowed to replace the flag, which he did by nailing it to the spar after a perilous climb.
From the first the Brooklyn had realized that this was to be a fighting chase in which she must lead. She steamed at the Spanish flag-ship under full head. Perhaps her commander recalled that the Viscaya had been a rival of the Brooklyn's at the Jubilee of Queen Victoria the year before. Be that as it may, she soon overhauled the Spaniard, then sweeping by fired her port broadside into him; wheeled about, and coming back gave him the other broadside. The effect of these shots was most disastrous to the enemy. His hull was pierced in several places, his rigging torn away, some of his best guns dismantled, while many dead and wounded littered his deck, and fire began its consuming work in his hold.
While this was going on the two Spanish torpedo-destroyers, the Furor and the Pluton, bent on protecting their flag-ship, were making madly for the Brooklyn. The sharp eyes of Lieutenant-Commander Richard Wainwright were on them, however. He sped his little converted yacht Gloucester with rare and amazing courage straight into the breach, bent upon heading off the two enemy destroyers and diverting their attention till assistance should come.
Running in at close range, Wainwright, who had been a former officer of the ill-fated Maine, worked his small rapid-firing guns with a vigor and accuracy that confused the Pluton and Furor. In a very few minutes the three ships were enveloped in the clouds of their own gun smoke, at times completely hidden from friend and foe. As the curtain raised once, the American saw a signal from the Brooklyn for him to save himself and draw out of danger, but filled with the ardor of the fight—perhaps bent upon vengeance, with the Nation's rallying cry of "Remember the Maine!" ringing in his ears—Wainwright for once in his life ignored a superior's command, and continued to wage his relentless warfare with a fury that bewildered the Spaniards and amazed the Yankee fleet.
Finally a well placed shot was sent almost through the Pluton, crippling her so badly that she began to take in water at a terrifying rate. Noting the helplessness of her sister ship, the Furor now turned and made off. Several times she sought refuge behind the cruisers of her fleet, only to be driven forth by the insatiable little American ship which pounded shot into protector and protected indiscriminately until they were apart, when she would once more give her whole attention to the frightened destroyer. At length, looking more like a sieve than a respectable Spanish destroyer, the Furor plunged limpingly for shore. She soon struck a reef, and went under the rolling surf. Wainwright's crew managed to rescue most of the survivors, also those on board the other torpedo-destroyer. In all only twenty-four Spanish sailors were saved from the two ships, one hundred and twenty having perished.
Meanwhile the other American ships had not been idle. The Maria Teresa and the Oquendo were on fire, and, badly riddled, had run aground on the shore six miles west of the harbor. A later examination showed that one had been struck thirty-three times, and the other sixty-seven times. This speaks eloquently of the high quality of the American marksmanship.
By eleven o'clock the Viscaya, adopting the tactics of her other surrendered consorts, ran for land fifteen miles above the harbor and beached her scarred and shattered hulk upon the rocks. Like them she was on fire, and fearing an early explosion of her magazine, her crew had sought to get off before it came. Now scores of the sailors could be seen springing into the sea, and swimming and wading through the breakers, many being dashed to death against the rocks by the heavy surf.
As quickly as they could the American boats went to the rescue of the hapless enemy. As the Texas passed by one of the stranded Spanish ships, some of her crew started to cheer, but Captain Philip, with fine chivalry and compassion, told them not to cheer a victory when the vanquished were helplessly dying. The Iowa and the Ericsson now took off those who had remained aboard the Maria Teresa and the Oquendo, while the Gloucester received those on the Viscaya. Among the latter survivors was Admiral Cervera himself. He was naturally greatly crestfallen, but Lieutenant-Commander Wainwright treated him with every courtesy and did everything possible for his comfort, not forgetting how the gallant Spanish admiral had dealt with Hobson and his men when in his power.
While all this was transpiring, the Spanish ship Cristobal Colon had succeeded in pushing on out of the thickest of the fight, hoping to make good her own escape at least. She was the best and fastest of the enemy vessels. When the Viscaya went ashore, the fleetness of the Colon had placed her fully six miles ahead, and as soon as she realized the fate of the Viscaya she made greater efforts than ever to put a long distance between herself and the nearest American vessels.
The Brooklyn, the Oregon, the Texas, and the Vixen now started in pursuit. It was a wonderful race. Never will it be forgotten by any of the crews taking part in it. The powerful engines of the Brooklyn quickly made it possible for her to lead the way; but soon the Oregon, using choice Cardiff coal saved for just such an emergency, was puffing along a close second. It is doubtful if ever before the boilers of these two American warships had been so filled with glowing coals. In the boiler-rooms the heat was almost insufferable, soon mounting to a hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Stripped to the waist, with grimy, touseled hair, and faces like beets in their color, the stokers threw shovelful after shovelful of black diamonds into the fiery maws before them, getting little chance to rest, so fast was the fuel devoured in making that immense amount of steam under which the engines were throbbing till the very decks vibrated. It was no uncommon thing to see a fireman faint. At one time in the hold of the Oregon several of them were stretched out at once. It was then that the engineer called out to the captain, as attempts were made to revive them: "If these fellows can only hear a few guns they will come up smiling!" Really it was these sweaty, coal smeared stokers who won that race and the victory attending it. No hero ever worked harder, more valiantly for his country, than they.
As the Colon saw her pursuers gaining steadily, she began hugging in toward the shore, evidently with the intention of beaching herself if no other escape offered. At this the American ships made a shortcut on a diagonal course, aiming for a projecting headland some distance in front of the Spaniard and which he must pass if he continued onward. There was no firing yet. The Yankees were so confident now in overhauling the chased craft that it was thought best to get closer before sending in a shell. By this time the Brooklyn and the Oregon had pulled so far away from their consorts that they were often hidden from view by the heavy clouds of smoke curling in their wake. Presently a flash was seen at the stern of the enemy, and a shell screamed toward the Americans. A few moments later there was another. But both shots fell far short.
A little later, when Commodore Schley was told by his navigator that the distance between the Colon and the Oregon was but eight thousand five hundred yards, or five miles, he signaled to the Oregon, just behind him, to try a thirteen-inch shell on the enemy. Instantly the battle ship complied, the missile falling a little short. Again the order came. The muzzle was elevated a trifle more, and once more the big gun crashed. But this time the water spouted up beyond the Colon. The third shot was better. It was a fair strike, cutting off a portion of the Spaniard's rigging as clean as a sharp knife severs a pine stick. Now the Brooklyn sent in several shots, followed by more from the Oregon.
At this juncture the Colon was seen to be running for shore, with her colors struck. She had given up the fight. Forty-two miles from Santiago harbor this running fight had reached. As she drew in toward land and shallow water, her crew scuttled her and she began rapidly to fill and sink. But by this time the New York had come up, and pushed her in till she settled on the beach. Thus was the purpose of her crew to destroy her defeated by the quick action of their captors.
In all, four hundred Spaniards had lost their lives in this sea-fight, while about sixteen hundred had been taken prisoners. On the American side only one man had lost his life—a most remarkable result considering the great number of shots the enemy had fired and the fierceness of the combat for a time. In this respect it bore a striking resemblance to Dewey's recent naval engagement in Manila Bay.
The splendid victory of American sea arms opened the gates of Santiago from the front, and thereby saved thousands of lives in the thinned little American army which in its three-days' fighting back of the city had all but gained entrance. Threatened in front and behind Santiago soon after capitulated.