Old Dominion Tory
(Many apologies - this was supposed to run last Friday)
On June 3, 1898, the U.S. Navy conducted an operation that would have quickened the hearts of Stephen Decatur and William Cushing.
In May 1898, the U.S. Navy had discovered that the Spanish fleet that had been dispatched from Spain in order to defend Cuba and Puerto Rico has taken refuge in Santiago de Cuba. The commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, Rear Admiral William Sampson, asked an officer on his staff, Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson, if it would be possible to trap the Spanish fleet—and, thus, neutralize it—in Santiago Harbor in one bold stroke: by sinking a blockship in the harbor’s channel.
Hobson returned with a plan. A ship would sail into the channel, put the helm hard to port, and then drop the bow anchor. Next, with the ship athwart the channel, the crew would drop the stern anchor. Then, the crew would detonate ten explosive charges, which he called “torpedoes,” placed along the ship’s port side. With her hull breached and all her seacocks, doors, and hatches open, the blockship would sink in less than two minutes.
Sampson agreed to the general plan, gave Hobson the responsibility to execute it, and selected the USS Merrimac, a collier prone to engine and steering problems, as the ship to be sacrificed.
Insofar as the survival of the eight-man, all-volunteer crew was concerned, Hobson addressed that by placing a catamaran on the Merrimac’s deck. As the ship was sinking, he and his men would board it and sail out of the harbor and to the U.S. fleet.
On the night of June 3, the Merrimac headed into Santiago Harbor at full speed. As she approached the channel entrance, the crew of a Spanish picket boat spied her, raised the alarm, and opened fire at point-blank range.
Roused by the picket boat’s warnings, Spanish shore batteries opened fire and soon shells of all sizes were hitting the Merrimac and whipping up the water around her. Hobson would later writer of the experience, “The striking of projectiles and flying fragments produced a grinding sound, with a fine ring in it of steel on steel. The deck vibrated heavily, and we felt the full effect, lying, as we were, full-length on our faces. At each instant it seemed that certainly the next would bring a projectile among us.”
One shot hit the Merrimac’s stern, knocking out the steering controls and shooting away the stern anchor. With control of the ship lost, Hobson could not place the ship in the position he had selected. Moreover, only two torpedoes were functioning; the other eight had failed, either because of bad electrical connections or enemy fire. Hoping that he still might succeed, he dropped the Merrimac’s bow anchor and fired the two remaining torpedoes.
By now burning intensely, the slowly sinking Merrimac was dragged by the current further down the channel where the fire of more shore batteries and, as she came closer to the harbor, a number of Spanish warships lashed her. Although the Spanish fire hastened the ship’s sinking somewhat, but the swift current also straightened out her path; therefore, when the Merrimac sank she was not blocking the channel.
Despite the ferocious fire, the Merrimac’s crew was relatively unhurt and able to abandon ship. However, the catamaran overturned when it was put over the side, and the current prevented them from paddling out of the harbor. So, under fire that slackened only when the Merrimac settled under the water, Hobson and his men floated on the catamaran until dawn.
A Spanish launch approached them in the early morning, and Hobson hailed it, asking if there was an officer on board who could accept their surrender. There was indeed: Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, commander of the Spanish fleet. After the brave Americans sailors were on board, Admiral Cervera turned them and spoke one word, “Valiente!”
The Americans were delivered to the Spanish cruiser, Riena Mercedes, where, as Hobson put it, “Special full dress . . . could not have brought out a whit more courteous and cordial treatment.” The cruiser’s executive officer, Emilio J. de Acosta y Eyermann, gave Hobson the use his cabin to bathe and presented him Hobson some civilian clothes to wear. Afterward, Hobson was invited to the officer’s mess for breakfast. The Spanish officers were exemplars of courtesy and chivalry. Capitan Acosta offered “a hearty hand-shake of congratulations and repeated kind words,” according to Hobson. He also “gallantly” said, “[T]here was no reason why officers engaged in honorable warfare, though opposing to their utmost in battle, might not be the best of friends.” Sadly, Acosta would be killed in action later in the campaign.
For their valor, all of his crew would receive the Medal of Honor. As, at the time, the Navy and Marines restricted the Medal of Honor to enlisted men, Hobson had to be content with public praise—of which there was much—and being moved ten numbers up on the Navy seniority list. In 1933, however, a special Act of Congress allowed the Medal to be presented to Hobson, and on April 29, 1933, he received it from President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House.
George Charette, Gunner’s Mate First Class, USS New York (Lowell, Massachusetts).
Randolph Clausen, Coxswain, USS New York (Boston, Massachusetts)
Osborn Warren Deignan, Coxswain, USS Merrimac (Stuart, Iowa)
Francis Kelly, Watertender, USS Merrimac (Boston, Massachusetts)
Daniel Montague, Chief Master at Arms, USS New York (Born in Ireland)
J. C. Murphy, Coxswain, USS Iowa
George F. Phillips, Machinist First Class, USS Merrimac (Boston, Massachusetts)