The Battle of Santiago de Cuba, fought between Spain
and the United States on July 3, 1898, was the largest naval
engagement of the Spanish-American War and resulted in the destruction
of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron (also known as the Flota de
Ultramar). Contents [hide]
The Spanish realized that the war could be made or
broken by the campaign in Cuba. Even before the opening of
hostilities, Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete had been dispatched from
Spain with the ultimate destination of Cuba. At best, the Spanish
hoped to show the flag in their largest remaining New World colony; at
worst, the Spanish hoped to have a force prepared to meet the powerful
but relatively inexperienced U.S. Navy.
There were striking contrasts between Cervera's
squadron and the squadron lost by Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón
at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands on 1 May 1898.
Montojo's squadron had been composed largely of relics and cast-offs
meant for patrol and revenue collection; Cervera's squadron was
composed of some modern warships and other old ships. Montojo's
squadron had virtually no torpedo-launching capability; Cervera
brought with him the destroyers Pluton, Terror and Furor, three of the
most feared torpedo-armed warships in the world at the time. This
flotilla was commanded by capitán de navío Fernando Villaamil,
well-known by having been the destroyer concept designer. Montojo's
squadron was almost entirely unarmored; nearly all of Cervera's
vessels were protected by armor of some kind.
However, it is evident from the records of the time
and from Cervera's own writings that the Spanish admiral had the
feeling that he was sailing to his doom. The breech mechanisms in many
of the Spanish guns were dangerously faulty, causing jams and other
mishaps; many of the naval boilers were in desperate need of repair;
some ships, such as the respected armored cruiser Vizcaya, desperately
needed a bottom-cleaning and were suffering from extra drag. Worse
yet, some of the gunners were long out of practice, having little
experience with firing live rounds due to naval budgets cut since 1893
incidents in Spanish Rif and priority given to the Army. The most
well-protected ship in Cervera's fleet, the second generation armored
cruiser Cristóbal Colón, had not even had her main battery installed
and carried wooden dummy guns instead.
Early in the year, Cervera had attempted to convince
the Ministerio de Marina -- the bureaucratic body responsible for
governing Spain's admiralty -- that the best strategy lay in resisting
the Americans near the Canary Islands. Here, the fleet could be
repainted, recoaled, and overhauled. It would then lie within range of
the vast reserves of ammunition established in Spain and the firepower
of the Home Squadron. Cervera argued that he could then meet the U.S.
fleet, which would be exhausted from the trip across the Atlantic, and
destroy it. This strategy was endorsed by every officer under his
command, and many in the Home Squadron, but was rejected by the
Admiralty. Cervera's own misgivings reveal the seriousness of the
It is impossible for me to give you an idea of the
surprise and consternation experienced by all on the receipt of the
order to sail. Indeed, that surprise is well justified, for nothing
can be expected of this expedition except the total destruction of the
fleet or its hasty and demoralized return.
On April 30, 1898, Cervera set sail from Cape Verde,
and panic gripped the U.S. populace, who did not know what his ships
might do: attack the largely undefended East Coast while the fleet
sailed about in a vain effort to engage him, prey upon American
shipping, or perhaps sail up the Potomac and set fire to Washington,
Cervera managed to evade the U.S. fleet for several
weeks, confounding his American counterparts and managing to re-coal
in the process. Meanwhile Villaamil, who was in disagreement with both
the Spanish Government's shaky war direction and Cervera's rather
passive strategy, advocated trying to offset the superiority of the
American forces by scattering the fleet and taking the initiative
through quick and dispersed daring actions; he even volunteered to
lead an audacious diversionary attack to New York with his destroyers,
but his proposals were not accepted.
Finally, on May 29, 1898, after several
misadventures, Cristóbal Colón was spotted in the harbor at Santiago
de Cuba by a bewildered American squadron.
Standoff in Santiago Harbor
With the exception of Commodore George Dewey's
squadron in the Pacific, nearly every warship in the U.S. Navy was
near or on its way to Cuba. Only a handful of reactivated American
Civil War-vintage monitors and overworked cutters of the United States
Revenue Cutter Service remained to defend the U.S. coastline.
The primary elements of the U.S. force in Cuban
waters were divided between two men: Rear Admiral William T. Sampson
and his Atlantic Squadron, and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley and his
so-called "Flying Squadron". Sampson's orders were contradictory and
somewhat confusing; Schley often took unnecessary risks, something
which greatly offended the conservative Sampson.
On the morning of May 29, 1898, Cervera's squadron
was sighted inside the safety of Santiago Bay, Cuba, by elements of
the Flying Squadron. On May 31, 1898, Schley was joined by Sampson,
who took command of the situation and instructed a general blockade.
So long as Cervera remained within Santiago Harbor,
his fleet was relatively safe. The guns of the city were quite
sufficient to make up for deficiencies in his own, and the area was
well defended with mines and other obstructions. Nevertheless, Cervera
was terribly outmatched. Though his ships were excellent, they were
too few, and their technical problems compounded his worries. The
failure of Cuba's governor to assist with the repairs of the vessels
in Cervera's squadron made the situation all the more desperate.
For more than a month, the two fleets faced off,
with only a few inconclusive skirmishes resulting. For his part,
Cervera was content to wait, hoping for bad weather to scatter the
Americans so that he could make a run to a position more favorable for
engaging the enemy. However, U.S. land forces began to drive on
Santiago de Cuba, and by the end of June 1898, Cervera found himself
unable to remain safely in the harbor. He would have to break out
immediately if the fleet was to be saved.
The breakout was planned for 09:00 on Sunday, July
3, 1898. This seemed the most logical time: the Americans would be at
religious services, and waiting until night would only serve to make
the escape that much more treacherous. By noon on Saturday, July 2,
1898, the fleet had a full head of steam and had fallen into position
for the breakout.
At about 08:45, just as his ships had slipped their
moorings, Admiral Sampson and two ships of his command (his flagship,
the armored cruiser New York, and the torpedo boat Ericsson) had left
their positions for a trip to Siboney and a meeting with Major General
William Shafter of the U.S. Army. This opened a gap in the western
portion of the American blockade line, leaving a window for Cervera.
Sampson's New York was one of only two ships in the squadron fast
enough to catch Cervera if he managed to break through the blockade.
Further, the battleship Massachusetts had left that morning to coal.
With the departure of Admiral Sampson, who had signaled "Disregard
movements of flagship," immediate command devolved to Commodore Schley
in Brooklyn, which now became the de facto flagship of the U.S.
Thus, the American blockade formation that morning
consisted of Schley's Brooklyn, followed by battleships Texas, Oregon,
Iowa, and Indiana, and armed yachts Vixen and Gloucester.
At 09:35, the navigator of Commodore Shley's armored
cruiser Brooklyn sighted a plume of smoke coming from the mouth of the
port. He anxiously signaled the rest of the fleet:
The Enemy is coming out!
Cristobal Colon (left) and Vizcaya
The Spanish ships began their race from the mouth of
Santiago Bay at about 09:45, traveling in a rough line ahead
formation. In the lead was Cervera's flagship, the armored cruiser
Infanta Maria Teresa, followed by the armored cruisers Vizcaya,
Cristóbal Colón, and Almirante Oquendo, and finally the torpedo-boat
destroyers Furor and Pluton. The four cruisers immediately cut in a
southwest direction, attempting to break into the open sea before the
U.S. blockading force, weakened by Sampson's withdrawal, could
The battle commenced almost immediately, the first
shots being fired by Cervera's Infanta Maria Teresa as she strove to
gain the western gap in the blockade line before Brooklyn could close
it. While the Spanish had taken the initiative by beginning the
engagement and largely surprising the Americans, two factors slowed
their escape. The first was the continuing problem experienced in
maintaining proper speed by Vizcaya; the second was the poor quality
of most of the coal in the Spanish holds. An expected re-supply of
high-quality Cardiff coal from Britain had been captured, along with
its transport, by the American cruiser St. Paul on May 25, 1898.
Upon sighting the emerging Spanish ships, the
American blockaders had to turn to the south since they had all been
facing towards the harbor entrance. The Brooklyn headed nearly
straight for the Infanta Maria Teresa at first, but when it appeared
that she would be surrounded by all four of the Spanish cruisers,
Commodore Schley ordered a "retrograde loop" that pulled him away, and
then alongside, the line of Spanish ships fleeing southwest. This
maneuver has been controversial ever since, since it seemed to
threaten Texas with collision and forced her to stop engines for some
moments. The Texas then swung behind Brooklyn. Oregon, initially to
the rear of the action but the fastest ship in the U.S. fleet, soon
raced past the Indiana, which had an engine problem and could make
only 9 knots (17 km/h) at the time of the battle. Iowa had started
from a disadvantaged position and was passed by Infanta Maria Teresa
but hit her with two 12-inch (300 mm) rounds from 2,600 yards (2,400
m) and swung into the chase. As Iowa was passed in turn by Cristóbal
Colón, the Spanish ship hit her with two shots from her secondary
battery. One of these, striking near the waterline, caused Iowa to
slow, and she therefore engaged the Almirante Oquendo, bringing up the
rear of Cervera's four cruisers.
Rather than expose the entirety of his fleet to the
American battle line, Cervera had signaled his other ships to continue
to the southwest while he attempted to cover their escape, directly
engaging Brooklyn, his nearest enemy. Though Brooklyn was hit more
than twenty times in the battle, she suffered only two casualties,
while her return fire resulted in the deaths of most of Cervera's
bridge crew and grave damage to the ship generally. Under this brutal
punishment, Infanta Maria Teresa began to burn furiously. Cervera
ordered her aground in shallows along the Cuban coast, by which time
she was completely wrecked and aflame. Admiral Cervera survived and
was rescued, picked up near Punta Cabrera by the crew of the armed
The rest of the Spanish fleet continued its
desperate race for the open sea. Almirante Oquendo was hit repeatedly
by Iowa and driven out of the battle by the premature detonation of a
shell stuck in a defective breech-block mechanism of an 11-inch (280
mm) turret. A boiler explosion finished her, and she was ordered
scuttled and burned by her mortally wounded Captain Lazaga. The two
small torpedo boat destroyers, Pluton and Furor, made a dash in a
direction opposite the rest of the Spanish squadron. At first taken
under light fire by the Gloucester and then, fatally, by shelling from
the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and eventually New York (Sampson had
turned his flagship around and was racing to join the fight), Furor
was sunk before making the beach, with the lifeless body of Villaamil
and several of his sea-fellows; Pluton succeeded in grounding herself
but blew up. Furor chased by Iowa, Indiana and New York
Furor chased by Iowa, Indiana and New York
A valiant fight was put up by Vizcaya, locked in a
running gun duel for nearly an hour with Brooklyn. Despite steaming
side-by-side with Schley's flagship at about 1,200 yards (1,100 m),
and even with some good shooting which knocked out a secondary gun
aboard Brooklyn, almost none of the Spaniards' nearly three hundred
shots caused significant damage, while Brooklyn pounded Vizcaya with
horrific effect. Subsequent claims by Admiral Cervera, and later
research by historians, have suggested that nearly eighty-five percent
of the Spanish ammunition at Santiago was utterly useless, either
defective or simply filled with sawdust as a cost-saving measure for
practice firing. The American ammunition had no such issues of
lethality. Vizcaya continued the fight until overwhelmed, and by the
end of the engagement she had been struck as many as two hundred times
by the fire of the Brooklyn, joined by Texas. Brooklyn had closed to
within 950 yards (870 m) when she finally delivered an 8-inch (200 mm)
round which, according to witnesses, may have detonated a torpedo
being prepared for launch. A huge explosion ensued. Vizcaya ceased to
be militarily effective, and fires raged out of control. She hauled
down her flag and turned toward the beach to ground herself.
Within a little more than an hour, five of the six
ships of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron had been destroyed or forced
aground. Only one vessel, the speedy new armored cruiser Cristóbal
Colón, still survived, steaming as fast as she could for the west and
freedom. Though modern in every respect and possibly the fastest ship
in either fleet, Cristóbal Colón had one serious problem: She had been
only recently purchased from Italy, and her main 10-inch (250 mm)
armament was not installed because of a contractural issue with the
British firm of Armstrong. She therefore sailed with empty main
turrets, albeit retaining her ten 6-inch (150 mm) secondary battery.
This day, speed was her primary defense.
At her best rate of nearly 20 knots (37 km/h),
Cristóbal Colón slowly distanced herself from the pursuing U.S. fleet.
Her closest antagonist, USS Brooklyn, had begun the battle with just
two of her four engines coupled (because of her long stay on the
blockade line) and could manage barely 16 knots (30 km/h) while
building steam. As Brooklyn helplessly tossed 8-inch (200 mm) rounds
at the rapidly disappearing Cristóbal Colón, there was only one ship
in the U.S. fleet with a chance of maintaining the pursuit. Only the
Oregon, now inexorably moving up through the pack, had the speed to
overhaul Cristóbal Colón.
Wreck of the Vizcaya
At the start of the war, the Oregon was anchored in
San Francisco Bay. In this age before the Panama Canal, she had taken
67 days to come 15,000 miles (24,000 km) at maximum speed, all the way
around South America and through the violent Strait of Magellan, to
join the U.S. fleet off Santiago de Cuba. An epic journey in itself,
this voyage was now to be capped by a deadly race which no other
American warship in the fight could have won.
For sixty-five minutes, the Oregon dogged the
Cristóbal Colón. The Cristóbal Colón had to hug the coast and was
unable to turn toward the open sea because the Oregon was standing out
about a mile and a half (2 km) from Cristóbal Colón's course and would
have been able to fatally close the gap had Cristóbal Colón turned to
a more southerly course.
Finally, three factors converged to end the chase:
First, Cristóbal Colón had run through her supply of high-quality
Cardiff coal and was forced to begin using an inferior grade obtained
from Spanish reserves in Cuba. Second, a peninsula jutting out from
the coastline would soon force her to turn south, across Oregon's
path. And third, on the flagship Brooklyn, Commodore Schley signaled
Oregon's Captain Charles Clark to open fire. Despite the immense range
still separating Oregon and Cristóbal Colón, Oregon's forward turret
launched a pair of 13-inch (330 mm) shells which bracketed Cristóbal
Colón's wake just astern of the ship. The end was now inevitable.
Captain Emilio Diaz Moreu, humanely declining to see
his crew killed to no purpose, abruptly turned the undamaged Cristóbal
Colón toward the mouth of the Tarquino River and ordered the scuttle
valves opened and the colors struck as she grounded. His descending
flag marked the end of Spain's naval power in the New World.
As the ships of the U.S. fleet pushed through the
carnage, rescuing as many Spanish survivors as possible, an officer
was fished out by sailors of the Iowa. At first unrecognizable under a
bloody bandage and covered in oil and soot, this man proved to be
Captain Don Antonio Eulate of the Vizcaya. Standing shakily on the
deck of the Iowa, he thanked his rescuers and gravely presented his
sword to Captain Robley Evans, who handed it back. Eulate then turned
to look out at the burning wreck of his ship and saluted her.
At his words, the fires raging onboard Vizcaya
reached her magazines, and she exploded.
The battle was the end of any noteworthy Spanish
naval presence in the New World. It forced Spain to re-assess her
strategy in Cuba and resulted in an ever-tightening blockade of the
island. While fighting continued until August, when a peace treaty was
signed, all surviving Spanish capital ships were now husbanded to
defend their homeland leaving only isolated units of auxiliary vessels
to defend the coast. Uncontested U.S. control of the seas around Cuba
made resupply of the Spanish garrison impossible and its surrender
Spanish Navy POWs at Seavey's Island
The U.S. ships at Santiago, for their part, suffered
numerous hits in the battle but very little serious damage. The small
armed yacht Vixen was nearly sunk, but casualties on the American side
of the affair were remarkably light; only one man was killed, Yeoman
George H. Ellis of the Brooklyn. Spanish casualties numbered nearly
500, including Captain Villaamil of the Furor, the highest-ranking
Spanish officer to lose his life in the battle. All six vessels of the
Spanish squadron were lost. The 1,612 Spanish sailors rescued,
including Admiral Cervera, were sent to Seavey's Island at the
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, where they were confined
at Camp Long from July 11, 1898 until mid-September 1898.
Two of the Spanish ships, Infanta Maria Teresa and
Cristóbal Colón, were later re-floated and taken over by the United
States. Both eventually foundered and were lost. The Reina Mercedes,
abandoned in Santiago Bay because of engine troubles, was the
unprotected cruiser captured by the U.S. and used as a receiving ship
until 1957 as the USS Reina Mercedes.
* Most of the details were taken with the permission
of the author from A Dirty Little War by A. Bagosy.
Nofi, Albert A. The Spanish American War, 1898.
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Combined Books, 1996. ISBN 0938289578
Works by Mahan and Cervera were also referenced.