Coxswain Osborn Deignan was one of the crewmen who volunteered for the mission to sink the MERRIMAC in the channel entrance of Santiago Harbor.
Osborn Warren Deignan was born in or around Stuart Iowa on February 4, 1877. His father, John Deignan, was a conductor on the Rock Island Railway and a Civil War veteran who may have served in the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, Osborn’s father was killed when a tornado struck his train at Grinnel, Iowa in 1882. Osborn’s mother remarried a Mr. M. Grimm. The family which included Osborne’s brother and the two Grimm children moved into the town of Stuart, Iowa, living at North Tremont Street.
Osborn dropped out of school at age fourteen to go to sea. Osborne served with an English mail steamer on the Atlantic, a whaling boat in the Arctic, and on a number of leading ships of the day, including ALBATROSS, VERMONT, NEWARK, and LANCASTER. For seven years Osborne served as a sailor and sailed to Madeira, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.
On February 15 1898 the Battleship MAINE was destroyed in Havana harbor. This was thought to be a treacherous act by the Spanish government. With patriotism running high many able bodied Americans volunteered for service. Young Osborn enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Osborn was assigned to the collier MERRIMAC. MERRIMAC was a troublesome ship that had frequent engine breakdowns, steering breakdowns and was barely capable of achieving ten knots. It was described by Osborne as a cranky ship to steer. However Osborn was able to master the helm of MERRIMAC and was the preferred helmsman when the tricky work of coaling the ships of the fleet was done.
When Naval Constructor Richmond Hobson put out a call for volunteers for what was considered a suicide mission to sink the MERRIMAC in the entrance to Santiago harbor to block the channel, Deignan was selected as helmsman probably from his experience steering it while coaling the ships of the fleet. In Osborn Deignan’s own words “It was the first day of June 1898 that an officer from the flagship NEW YORK came aboard the MERRIMAC and informed our captain of the intention of the admiral to sink the MERRIMAC in the narrow channel at the entrance to the harbor of Santiago. Upon hearing that a volunteer crew was to be chosen, I immediately asked Captain Miller of the MERRIMAC to let me steer her in.”
The mission moved ahead on June 4, 1898, at 3 AM. When they were sighted, the firing began and the ship’s steering capability was destroyed by enemy fire. Deignan was ordered to touch off the “number 5 mine,” one of the explosive charges intended to sink the vessel. Osborn fumbled around the dark and ran into another crewman, Clausen, who was there for the same purpose after already setting off his mine elsewhere aboard ship. The men touched the wires together and they were lifted off the deck landing fifteen feet away. Following orders they met at a catamaran intended for use in an attempted escape. At four o clock the ship sank and Osborn Deignan found himself in the water with the other members of the crew.
Around 6 AM, the Spanish discovered the eight crewman clinging to the catamaran in the water. Admiral Cervera boarded a launch and personally accepted Hobson’s surrender which he presented in French. The men were plucked one by one from the water after their officer, Hobson. The launch then headed for the REINA MERCEDES. Upon arrival Hobson requested that the crewmen be given something to drink, dry clothing and a bath. The Spanish granted Hobson’s request and after the crew was finished they were assembled aft on the quarter deck where an officer began to question them. All questions were referred to Hobson. Hobson would only answer that they were under orders from Admiral Sampson. Two hours later Deignan and the men (who were held separately from Hobson) were taken to Morro Castle. Here, Deignan and the other six crewmen were confined for five days. The last day the fleet bombarded Morro Castle shaking it so hard Deignan thought it would tumble down. The next morning the crewmen were moved to a prison in town. Within a week their rations were cut where they had barely enough to live on. They complained to the English Consul. The English Consul then sent over biscuits and coffee with some fruit but informed them that food was very scarce and becoming very expensive. The city was suffering from a lack of food. The men stayed in the prison for twenty one days and were then transferred to a military hospital. Just before leaving the prison the men were allowed to visit with Hobson who had not been allowed to visit with the men since their capture. Hobson informed them that the Army would soon be in control of the city. The men saw the horrors of war watching Spanish casualties admitted to the same hospital and were concerned that angered soldiers might turn on them. On July 5, they were informed that negotiations were being made for their exchange. At one o clock on July 6, Deignan and the other crewmen were told to gather their belongings. They were then blindfolded and led to the American lines and exchanged.
Osborn and other crewmen celebrated and, shaking hands with the American troops before they were taken to General Shafter’s head quarters in an army cart drawn by mules, while Richmond Hobson led the way on horseback. General Shafter complimented the men and told them of the great naval victory at the battle of Santiago on July 3. The men left for El Caney at dusk. Again Hobson rode on ahead of the men still in the army cart, giving the crew of the NEW YORK time to prepare for them. An hour later they arrived at the pier and a steam launch from the NEW YORK took them aboard to the cheers of fellow sailors. Deignan was aboard the NEW YORK for several months. He learned he was promoted to chief petty officer but did not much care for it as he was going to leave the service after the war was over. Osborn planned to settle down and obtain a position in civil life.
By November 1898 Osborn Deignan requested leave to go home to see his family in Stuart. He was initially given ten days leave before an extension was granted by Navy Secretary Long. It would have taken three days to get home and three days to return leaving only four days at home. On November 12 1898 he arrived home by train. He was accompanied by his brother Frank, and step-brother conductor Ed Grimm. Two thousand people came out to great him and shake his hand. The Guthrie Center Military band commenced playing “Lo the Conquering Hero Comes” and the cannon commenced firing salutes. Osborn pushed his way through the crowd to his mother who embraced him. The family returned to their home led by the girls of the Loyal League of Girls (an organization of young ladies who extended aid and comfort to the soldiers and sailors at the front).The Girls then asked Osborn’s mother if they might kiss her heroic son to which she replied “yes certainly”. The Girls then broke rank and in an orderly manner presented themselves for a kiss from their schoolmate and friend. The band was then presented to Deignan and the crowd slowly dispersed. At six 6 o’clock that evening at the Bates Hall fourteen hundred people filed in to see their hero. Several dignitaries were present including Gov. Clay Shaw. Osborn was asked to make a speech to which he declined. The evening was wrapped up when a Miss Mollie Kennelley, president of the Loyal League of Girls aided by vice president Veronica Ryan buckled on the belt and presented the sheathed sword.
On May 14 1902 Deignan married Miss Maud Huntoon of Stuart. This was a result of the reception which the Loyal League of Girls gave Osborn in 1898. Osborn wore his full dress naval uniform with his Medal of Honor, inconspicuously displayed. The rooms in the Huntoon home were decorated with the national colors. The parlor where the marriage vows were said was very somber. This was an event which got national attention special congratulations were given by Richmond Hobson himself. Osborn and Maud would be blessed with a daughter .
Osborn Deignan passed away on April 16, 1916
at the young age of 39 years. His death was recorded at Cannon City Colorado.
Osborn was interned with full military honors in Glendale, California.
His wife, Maud Deignan (Tot,) passed away on September 3, 1954. On November
7, 1940, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #1842 was named in Osborn Deignan’s
(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)
Stuart Herald, Stuart, Iowa
The Stuart Locomotive, (1898- 1902)
Annual of the Office of Naval Intelligence (War notes NOS I-V 1899),
Blow, Michael, A Ship to Remember , (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).
History of Stuart Iowa 1870-1970
The Spanish American War - The Story and Photographs (Centenial Addition),
Dr. Cook of Stuart Ia