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Battle of Santiago de Cuba

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba, fought 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 del Ultramar) and dashed the hopes of Spain for preventing a blockade of Cuba.

Table of contents
1 Historical Background
2 Operational Background
3 Battle is Commenced
4 Conclusion of the Engagement
5 See Also
6 Links
7 Sources

Historical Background

Cuba was the heart of the American campaign against Spain. It was in Cuba that USS Maine had met her untimely demise, in Cuba that the Americans had chosen to make their stand against Spanish “imperialism”.

The scope of the land war is beyond the range of this article, as is the questionable morality on both sides regarding the Cuban question. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that key fact - that Cuba was the heart of the American war effort, and it was in Cuba that the Americans sought to achieve most of their military aims against the Spanish.

The Spanish, too, realized that the war could be made or broken by the campaign in Cuba. Even before the opening of hostilities, Almirante 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 relatively inexperienced, but powerful, U.S. Navy.

Cervera’s squadron and the squadron lost by Patricio Montojo at the Battle of Manila Bay could not have been more different, statistically. Montojo’s squadron had been composed largely of relics and cast-offs meant for patrol and revenue collection; Cervera’s squadron was composed of modern warships, most of them less than a decade old. Montojo’s squadron had virtually no torpedo launching capability; Cervera brought with him destroyers Pluton and Furor, two of the most feared torpedo armed warships in the world at the time. 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. Worst yet, some of the gunners were long out of practice, having little experience with firing live rounds. The most well protected ship in Cervera’s fleet, Armored Cruiser Cristobal Colon, had not even had her main battery installed and carried wooden dummy guns instead.

Early in the year, Cervera had attempted to convince the Ministero de Marine - 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. The fleet could then lay within range of the vast reserves of ammunition established in Spain and the firepower of the Home Squadron. The fleet could then meet the Americans, he argued, still exhausted from their trip across the Atlantic, and destroy them. It was a strategy endorsed by every officer under his command, and many in the Home Squadron besides; it was a strategy utterly rejected by the Admiralty. Cervera's own misgivings belie the seriousness of the situation faced:

“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 30th, Cervera set sail from Cape Verde. Panic gripped the American populace - would he attack the largely undefended East Coast while the fleet sailed about in a vain effort to engage him? Would he prey upon American shipping? Would he sail up the Potomac and set fire to Washington, D.C?

Following was a classic game of cat and mouse. Cervera managed to evade the American fleet for several weeks, evading his bewildered American counterparts and managing to re-coal in the process. Finally, on May 29, after several misadventures, Cristobal Colon was spotted in the harbor at Santiago by a bewildered American squadron. Contact was now inevitable.

Operational Background

With the exception of Commodore George Dewey’s squadron in the Pacific, nearly every warship in the US Navy was on near or on its way to Cuba - only a handful of reactivated American Civil War vintage monitors and overworked Coast Guard cutters remained to defend the American coastline.

The primary elements of this deadly force were divided between two men - Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s Atlantic Squadron and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley’s so-called Flying Squadron All records seem to indicate that the marriage was not a match made in heaven. Sampson’s orders were contradictory and somewhat confusing; Schley often took unnecessary risks, something which greatly offended the taciturn Sampson.

On the morning of May 29, Cervera’s squadron was sited inside the safety of Santiago Bay, Cuba by elements of the Flying Squadron. On the 31st, Schley was joined by Sampson, who took control of the situation and instructed a general blockade.

So long as Cervera remained within Santiago, 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 technical problems discussed earlier compounded his worries; worst yet, an inexplicable failure on the part 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 a few inconclusive skirmishes as the only result. 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. As so often was the case during the Spanish-American War, fate intervened. American forces began to drive on Santiago, and by the end of June, 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 9:00 AM, Sunday Morning, July 3rd. This seemed the most logical time - the Americans would be at religious services, and an escape at night would only serve to make the escape that much more treacherous. By noon of Saturday, July 2nd, the fleet had a full head of steam, and had fallen into position for the breakout. The Americans sited the steam, and prepared for battle.

Fate further intervened, however, on Cervera’s behalf. About 8:45 in the morning, just as his ships had slipped their moorings, several ships of Sampson’s command, including Sampson and his flagship, left their positions with Schley, and opened a gap in the western portion of the American blockade line leaving a window for Cervera. Better yet, Sampson took with him armored cruiser USS New York, one of only two ships in the squadron fast enough to catch Cervera if he managed to break through.

At 9:35, the navigator of the Armored Cruiser USS Brooklyn sited a plume of smoke coming from the mouth of the port. He anxiously signaled the rest of the fleet.

"The Enemy is coming out""!

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba had begun.

Battle is Commenced

Spanish forces began pouring out of the mouth of Santiago Bay about 9:45 A.M., travelling in a roughly Line Ahead formation consisting of the flagship, armored cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa, followed by armored cruisers: Vizcaya, Cristobal Colon, Almirante Oquendo and finally the destroyers Terror and Pluton. They immediately cut in a southwest direction, attempting to break into the open sea before the American blockade, momentarily weakened by Sampson's withdrawal, could respond. All were travelling as fast as their boilers would allow, belching black smoke into the sky.

The Americans, for their part, were maintaining their own Line Ahead formation, cutting at roughly half speed toward the Spanish in an attempt to close the gap. The formation consisted of the flagship, the armored cruiser Brooklyn, followed by the battleship USS Texas, the armed yacht Vixen, the battleship USS Oregon, the battleship USS Iowa, the armed yacht Gloucester, and finally the battleship USS Indiana.

The battle commenced almost immediately and was a very confused affair. While the Spanish held the initiative in the beginning of the engagement, two factors slowed their escape. The first was the continuing problem experienced in maintaining proper speed by Vizcaya; the second was a sudden, unexpected and unexplained turn to the northeast by Schley's flagship, a maneuver that was apparently intended to pierce the Spanish line but which also nearly resulted in the collision of Texas with Brooklyn and the sinking of the two vessels.

The initial object of American firepower was Cervera onboard Maria Teresa; with the sudden swing to the northwest by the American line, Cervera found his vessel in the middle of the American position, bracketed on both sides by American battleships, and taking a withering punishment. Rather than allowing the rest of his line to be sacrificed, Cervera signalled the fleet to continue to the southwest, and himself plowed further into the American line. The maneuver, undoubtedly brave but also assuredly suicidal, resulted in the death of most of Cervera's bridge crew. After sustaining a withering bombardment, Maria Teresa soon began to burn, and grounded herself in the shallows along Cuba's coast.

The rest of the Spanish fleet continued to make good on its withdrawal efforts. Oquendo herself fought bravely, but was driven out of the battle by the sudden explosion in her primary 11" turret of a shell stuck in a defective breach-block mechanism. The two Spanish destroyers, for their part, were utterly savaged by the fire of the American fleet, and no survivors are known to have escaped.

Of particular note was the protected cruiser Vizcaya, who fought a running gun duel with the Brooklyn for nearly an hour, steaming side by side with the American flagship and giving as good as she received. Vizcaya's crew, however, was amazed to see the strange result of their effort - despite knocking out a secondary gun aboard Brooklyn, almost none of the nearly three hundred hits scored by Vizcaya aboard her adversary penetrated - the only penetrating hits apparently flew through the galley with little effect. Subsequent claims by Cervera and 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 another account of this occurrence, see the Battle of Yalu River. Vizcaya continued to fight, and by the end of the engagement had been struck as many as two hundred times by the fire of the Brooklyn. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the American shells themselves had no such issues.

Within a little more than one hour and one quarter, the Spanish Caribbean squadron had been completely destroyed, captured, or forced aground. Only one vessel, the quick new Cristobal Colon had survived, and continued steaming as fast as she could to the west, and freedom. The escape of Colon was briefly forstalled by the arrival of Sampson aboard USS New York; along with the battleship Massachusettes, Sampson attempted to pursue the Colon, but the Spanish ship was simply too fast. Suddenly, the Colon turned to the north - for reasons not quite clear - and her fate at the hands of the American guns, once again within range to punish her, was swift in coming. The Colon was forced aground, burning, and shortly struck her colors.

One last, bizarre incident occurred before the battle could truely be considered over. As the American fleet, mercifully attempting to rescue Spanish survivors, patrolled the carnage, they fished a young Spanish officer, half mad with third degree burns, covered in oil and blood. The officer, captain of the Vizcaya warmly thanked his rescuers. Shortly thereafter, the Spaniard turned his attention to the burning wreck that was Vizcaya and saluted her.

"Adios, Vizcaya.."

At his words, the fires raging onboard Vizcaya reached her magazine, and she exploded, throwing bodies and debris for miles.

It was a fitting end to a sad day.

Conclusion of the Engagement

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was the end of the Spanish naval presence in the New World, though this was generally not known at the time. It forced Spain to re-assess her strategy in Cuba, and resulted in an ever-tightening blockade of the island. While fighting continued until October, the great capital ships of Spain now rushed to defend their homeland.

The American fleet, for its part, suffered numerous hits, but very little serious damage. The yacht Vixen was nearly sunk, but casualties on the American side of the affair were remarkably light - only two dead, and about one hundred wounded. Spanish losses are unclear, but seem to have been in the hundreds, with the loss of all vessels.

Two of the Spanish vessels, Infanta Maria Teresa and Cristobal Colon were later refloated and captured by the Americans. They foundered in a storm early in the twentieth century, and played no further role. A third Spanish vessel, abandoned in Santiago Bay due to engine troubles, was the unprotected cruiser Reina Mercedes, captured by the United States and used as a training vessel until the 1950s as USS Reina Mercedes.

See Also