The Puerto-Rican Naval Campaign, 1898

Part 2

by Mark R. Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Archeologist, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office

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Loss of the MAINE and Preparations for War:

U.S. Consul and Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh LeeThe United States had encouraged Spain's granting of autonomy to its Caribbean possessions as a means of reestablishing stability to the Cuban situation.  However, the Cuban rebels rejected the offer of autonomy and conservative elements among the civilians and military in Havana had rioted against in early January of 1898.  The American consul in Havana, former Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee, telegraphed a request for an American naval vessel to protect American lives and properties.

As a physical form of demonstrating America's concern with protecting American business interests and lives in Cuba, the USS MAINE was sent to Havana for a "friendly visit" (Freidel 1958:8).  Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, captain of the MAINE, knew the visit was to be an exercise in diplomacy and psychology and planned accordingly to avoid any incidents that might trigger a conflict. In a reciprocal action, the Spanish Prime Minister Sagasta sent the Spanish armored cruiser VIZCAYA on a similar courtesy call to the harbor of New York (Millis 1931:95).  After almost a month without incident, the MAINE suddenly exploded on February 15, 1898 at 9:40 PM, killing over 260 of the crew.  While there was never any proof that the Spanish were involved in the sinking, the American government and public, stirred into a frenzy by the American "Yellow Press," became increasingly vocal in their distrust of the Spanish.

War is Declared, The First Movements:

Following the sinking of the MAINE, public opinion forced President McKinley to transmit an ultimatum to the Spanish government on March  29th, through the American Minister Woodford, in Madrid. McKinley demanded an end to the reconcentration policy, an immediate armistice on Cuba, and accession to Cuba's independence by arbitration (Nofi 1996:44).  The Spanish reply on March 31st was ambiguous, and further negotiations would proceed until April 11th, when an exasperated administration in Washington ordered Woodford to curtail discussions with the Spanish.  By April 13th the House of Representatives voted for war and were followed by the Senate on April 16th.   The Senate amended their action with the Teller Amendment disclaiming any intention by the United States to acquire Cuba, but "leave the government and control of the island to its people" (Millis 1931:143).  On April 20th, the President signed the war resolution of Congress and the next day the American minister Woodford departed Madrid (Millis 1931:144).  By April 22nd Admiral Sampson's American fleet left Key West, Florida and later that day began the first phase of the American plan for war with Spain - the blockade of Cuba and Puerto Rico (Millis 1931:145).

With the declaration of war, the American admirals and generals began reviewing their military capability in preparation for a war with Spain.  The United States Navy, after two decades of modernization, was in a position to take action outside the borders of the country almost immediately.

The army however, was another matter.  Commanding General of the Army Nelson A. Miles agreed with his predecessor General John M. Schofield that the war would evolve as a largely naval conflict.  The Regular Army of 1898 was very small (25,000 men) and it was anticipated that it would take some months of training to make the state army militias into an effective fighting force.

The use of the United States Navy as the primary military force in an overseas American war was unheard of until the Spanish-American War.  General Schofield's and Miles' views on the role of the navy were revolutionary.  The United States Navy was presented as the first line of offense in a military action as opposed to being relegated to a purely defensive role of protecting the coast.  The American Army would need time to congregate, integrate Regular army forces with State Militia (or National Guard) units, train and accustom themselves to military life and hold themselves in ready for overseas movement after the American navy had secured control of the seas by sinking the Spanish fleet.

Although all the states and territories had militia soldiers and much has been written about their participation in the Spanish-American War, it should be noted that by 1898, 15 states also had a naval militia.  As the Regular Navy modernized and increased the numbers of ships in its inventory in the two decades before the war, Congressional limits on the size of the naval forces caused the navy to institute the creation of naval militias.  More highly trained then their soldier counterparts, some 4,600 Naval Militiamen served in the war.  They often provided the bulk of the crews of auxiliary cruisers and troops transports.  For example, the auxiliary cruiser USS YOSEMITE that participated in the sinking of the SS ANTONIO LOPEZ, off San Juan, Puerto Rico was crewed by Naval Militia from Michigan.  While the USS DIXIE which moved troops to landing beaches in southern Puerto Rico and whose captain secured the surrender of Ponce was crewed by Naval Militia from Maryland (Nofi 1996:217-218).  This formed the basis for what later became known as the United States Naval Reserve.

Although there were concerns about the quality of American volunteer troops, the status and training of Spanish troops were unknown to the American army.  In a German report published by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence after the Spanish-American War, German Naval Commander Hermann Jacobsen reported that the Spanish volunteer troops of 1898 had been neither well trained nor equipped.

 . . it is questionable whether the [Cuban and Puerto Rican] volunteers, when it comes to actual fighting, will prove efficient.  In the first place, their equipment are very defective, and, besides, their training is not sufficient to fit them for war.  It may be stated as a general thing--and this applies to the regular troops as well--that the training is not adapted to war purposes.  I witnessed, for instance, a drill of coast artillery [at San Cristobal in San Juan on May 11, 1898] where the movements of loading and firing were practiced.  Projectiles, cartridges, etc., were lacking at the drill.  The guns were not aimed, there was no sighting.  That was one day before an actual bombardment occurred at that place [by American vessels commanded by Admiral Sampson].  It is very evident that such gun crews cannot do very efficient work.  In only a few of the coast towns did target practice take place, and then only to a very limited extent [Jacobsen 1899:10].
Angel Rivero, a Puerto Rican in the Spanish Army who served as a coastal artillery officer in San Juan, and fought against the American fleet during the bombardment of that city on May 12, 1898, noted the Spanish had concerns about the effectiveness of their coastal artillery defense for San Juan.  Artillery defense for San Juan consisted of weapons of medium caliber and none were of a modern rapid fire design.  These guns had only been in place since 1896 to replace artillery that dated from the eighteenth century.  As the government of Puerto Rico was required to pay Madrid for the cost of the ammunition for these guns there was no practice with live ammunition due to the cost involved (1972:44-45).

By the end of April 1898 the autonomous Puerto Rican government, as set up by Spain, was aware of the United States' determination to invade the island.  Governor-General Macias was loyal to Spain as the following proclamation shows.

 San Juan, April 23, 1898
 Inhabitants of Puerto Rico:

The day of trial, the hour of great decisions and great deeds of heroism has arrived.  The republic of the United States, trusting in her powerful resources and relying on the impunity with which she has so far been able to foster the insurrection of the Cubans, has resolved in her Congress upon armed intervention in the island of Cuba.  The Republic has opened hostilities and has trampled under foot the rights of Spain and the moral sentiment of the whole-civilized world.  This is a declaration of war, and in the same manner that the hostile squadrons have commenced their actions against the island of Cuba they will also direct them against Puerto Rico; but here they will surely be shattered against the loyalty and valor of the inhabitants, who would a thousand times rather die than surrender to the usurpers.

 Do not think that the mother country has abandoned us.  With enthusiasm she is following our movements and will come to our rescue.  The squadrons are ready for the fight.  All the troops have been armed, and the same waters over which Columbus sailed with his famous ships will witness our victories.  Providence will not permit that in these countries which were discovered by the Spanish nation the echo of our language should ever cease to be heard, nor that our flag should disappear from before the eye.

 Inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the time for heroic deeds has come.  Fight and stand firm in the consciousness of your right and of justice.  On to the war!  Long live Puerto Rico, always Spanish!  Long live Spain! Macias [Jacobsen 1899:11].

Empire in the Pacific and the Santiago Campaign:

The declared objective of the United States at the start of the war was to secure the Spanish withdrawal from Cuba.  To that end, by April 27th the American navy -- prepositioned at Key West, Florida -- had taken up stations around Cuba and Puerto Rico to enforce a naval blockade, and even exchanged a few long-distance shots with Cuban defenders (Nofi 1996:67).  The Regular army and State Militias had been given orders to congregate at points in the Southeastern United States convenient for training and transport to the Spanish Caribbean possessions once the Spanish fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, which had left St. Vincent, in the Cape Verde Islands (April 28, 1898) for San Juan, Puerto Rico had been destroyed.  However, concern over the Caribbean would be soon eclipse by events in the Philippines (Millis 1931:161-166).

On May 1, the U.S. Navy's Asiatic Squadron had followed through on its mission of engaging the Spanish Asiatic fleet to prevent it from attacking American commerce in the Pacific and threatening the West Coast of the United States.  Dewey's complete victory over the Spanish in Manila Bay, with the loss of only one man, would cause the President to direct the assemblage of troops for the occupation of the Philippines.  By May 25th, the first of part of an American army of occupation of the Philippines had departed San Francisco bound for Manila (Millis 1931:226).  On the way, the American fleet made stops to annex the Hawaiian Islands, Wake Island, and Guam, and it doing so creating America's colonial empire in the Pacific and Far East, which would have world wide implications for the United States in the next century.

Meanwhile, the man who had prepositioned Dewey's fleet, had resigned his office as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and was now in training in San Antonio as a Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, more popularly known as the "Rough Riders".  In a cable to his friend Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Theodore Roosevelt expressed his feelings about the United States acquisition of Spanish colonies.

Give my best love to Nannie [Lodge's wife] and do not make peace until we get Porto Rico while Cuba is made independent and the Philippines at any rate taken from the Spaniards [Millis 1931:224].
In response Lodge wrote,
Porto Rico is not forgotten and we mean to have it [Millis 1931:225].
Originally, the Commanding General of the Army, Nelson Miles had proposed the United States first invade Puerto Rico to serve as an advance Caribbean base from which to move on Cuba (Millis 1931:237).  However, all plans for landing an American army in the Caribbean had to wait until Admiral Cervera's fleet could be found and destroyed (Nofi 1996:82).  Sampson believed that Cervera might head for San Juan, Puerto Rico and sailed with the bulk of the Key West fleet to that city.  Upon arrival at San Juan on May 12th, Sampson could not locate Cervera's fleet and contented himself with a bombardment of the city.  Eventually, after much steaming about the Caribbean, Cervera was found on the southeast coast of Cuba in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, and a blockade established, on May 29th (Millis 1931:231-235).

The Puerto Rican Campaign:

Puerto Rico as a campaign scene did not offer the same conditions as Cuba to the  American forces.  There was not an organized active rebellion against Spanish authority, which would support American military intervention, as in Cuba.  And, as previously stated, the island was dotted with military outposts, unlike Cuba, potentially making it a difficult campaign.  In fact the Naval War College Plan for a war with Spain as late as 1896 did not even make mention of Puerto Rico.  According to Albert Nofi, the

 . . . first clearly stated suggestions that the United States invade Puerto Rico in the event of war with Spain came from Puerto Rican nationalists.  On 14 March 1898 - at a time when war seemed inevitable - Roberto Todd, head of the Club de Borinquen of New York, at the urging of such leading Puerto Rican exiles as Dr. Julio Jose Henna of the Seccion Puertoriqueño del Partido Revolucionario Cubano, which had been organized in New York in late 1896, wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.  In this letter, Todd urged an American invasion of the island in the event of war, promising that the people would rise in support of any American invasion [1996:228].
As an economic, political, and strategic stronghold for future American interests, Puerto Rico was too desirable to ignore.  Philip C. Hanna, American consul in San Juan, Puerto Rico, noted the island's relative prosperity, plus almost a third of the island's exports went to the United States (Nofi 1996:229).  However, like the Cuban campaign the Puerto Rican campaign would begin with naval encounters, commencing with the imposition of an American blockade -- primarily of San Juan -- in April.  All throughout April and into early May American warship would briefly appear and disappear on the horizon north of San Juan, and the locals began referring to them as tres chimeneas (three chimneys - a reference to the vessels three funnels) or fantasms, or ghost ships.  The American vessels YALE, ST. LOUIS, and ST. PAUL were the ships mainly employed in this blockade duty of Puerto Rico (Rivero 1972:65).  This benign form of warfare changed on May 12th.

The May 12th bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico by Admiral Sampson was one of the more controversial acts of the war.  The American press, being unable to report on the seemingly lost Spanish Admiral Cervera, widely reported every facet of the bombardment of San Juan.  At 5 AM, the heavy warships of Admiral Sampson's fleet began the bombardment of San Juan without alerting the civilian population (Jacobsen 1899:13).  The controversy of the bombardment stems from Admiral Sampson's lack of warning to the general population of San Juan.  The Spanish were quite taken aback by this want of protocol as women and children, foreign neutrals, and noncombatants were inside the old walled city.  As reported in the Puerto Rican Gazette, the bombardment of San Juan was not carried out in a manner befitting a professional soldier.

El Morro Castle under bombardment, 1898

Photo of El Morro, taken during the bombardment of San Juan

 "There are no international agreements, it is true, as to previous notice of a bombardment," says the Puerto Rico Gazette, "but in practice the custom prevails among all civilized nations to give notice of the bombardment of a city or fortification.  For no Christian soldier, no civilized nation, will want to take the terrible responsibility of butchering defenseless women and children.  The soldier fights against those who carry weapons, but not against the weak and the sick" [Jacobsen 1899:13].

According to this custom, the general population should have been warned when a bombardment was planned.  Admiral Sampson's infringement of this unwritten code of ethics did not elevate his standing with either the Puerto Rican or American populations.  Rather, this action led to the general impression that the Admiral was after a victory --similar to the one enjoyed by Admiral Dewey --  regardless of the cost in lives or public opinion.  Even the German captain Jacobsen's official report on the incident indicates a bewilderment at the Admiral's lack of professionalism by stating that Sampson did not gain any military advantage by not warning the population (Jacobsen 1899:13).

Sailors on the USS IOWA during the bombardment of San JuanThe American squadron composed of the battleships IOWA and INDIANA; the armored cruiser NEW YORK; the protected cruisers MONTGOMERY and DETROIT; the monitors AMPHITRITE and TERROR, and torpedo boat PORTER, and the gunboat WOMPATUCK. carried out the bombardment of San Juan.  The fire went on from 5 AM to 8:30 AM.  Morro and Cristobal Castles were the fortifications where the Americans concentrated their firepower.  The Ballaja Military Barracks, the Beneficencia, the insane asylum, the Intendencia, civilian residences, and San Jose, a 16th century church located, near Morro Castle were also hit.  Angel Rivero believes that rough seas off San Juan on May 12th made aiming the guns of the American fleet difficult resulting in a lack of accuracy against the forts (1972:97).  During the exchanges with the castles, the American fleet came close enough that the Spanish infantry joined the battle with rifle fire (Jacobsen 1899:13). The American ships continued firing while performing three circular movements in front of the city, making it almost impossible for the Spanish coastal artillery to inflict real damage due to the medium range of their guns on the moving targets (Jacobsen 1899:13-14).

The guns in the fortifications are all of medium caliber and their piercing power is not such that a single hit could be expected to cause serious injury to a modern ship.  The losses on the American side were one dead and seven wounded.  The number of American projectiles fired is out of proportion to the material damage caused by them.  A large number of shells are said not to have exploded.  Of course the fortification works were injured to some extent, but not one of the guns was put out of action.  A few of the buildings visible at a great distance, like the [Ballaja] barracks, the jail, the hotel Inglaterra, and few private residences, suffered from the bombardment.  A large number of projectiles fell into the harbor.  Some of them even reached the little town of Catano, on the other side of the harbor.  The French cruiser "AMIRAL RIGAULT DE GENOUILLY", which was lying in the harbor at the time, as were also three small Spanish gunboats, received a shot in the rigging and smokepipe. [Jacobsen 1899:14].

The Ballaja or Spanish Barracks after the bombardment, 1898

The Ballaja or Spanish Barracks in San Juan, showing the effects of Sampson's Bombardment
Sampson lost 1 man killed and 7 wounded, while inflicting between 6 to 20 dead and between 20 to 50 wounded on the defenders and civilians in San Juan (Nofi 1996:71).  Angel Rivero reports that the American fleet fired some 1,362 shells at San Juan and the Spanish replied with 441 (1972:105).  Throughout the bombardment there was a massive exodus of all kinds of civilians from Old San Juan eastward across the San Antonio Bridge to Santurce and Rio Piedras (Rivero 1972:108).

Rear Admiral William Sampson on the USS NEW YORKJacobsen's official report on the bombardment of San Juan stated that Admiral Sampson fired at the forts to make a determination of the strength of the Spanish resistance (Jacobsen 1899:14).  He believed the lack of training for the Spanish defense was also highlighted by the bombardment of San Juan.  The marksmanship of the Spanish forces was simply not up to the challenge of firing at the moving American ships (Brown 1967:243).

It was logical that if Cuba as the main prize were not effectively staffed for a defensive action, then Puerto Rico as the secondary consideration would also be under-staffed in direct proportion to its overall importance.  The following is an inventory of the troops in San Juan.

. . . 500 sailors from the fleet; 450 men of four companies of the Provincial Battalion of Puerto Rico, No. 1; 850 of the Talavera Battalion, No.4; 440 of the San Fernando Battalion, No. 11; 350 of three mobilized companies; 350 volunteers . . . These were the fighting forces.  Besides, there were in the city some cavalry of the Civil Guard and some soldiers who had been assigned to other duties.   Of these troops, two companies, one of the Provincial Battalion of Puerto Rico and one of the Talavera Battalion, in all not over 250 men, were defending the fortified position of San Juan [Jacobsen 1899:16].
The Secretary of the Navy, John Davis Long, did not view the bombardment of San Juan as a victory.  On May 13th, Long recorded his thoughts on the bombardment.
The crisis approaches, and the clouds thicken.  We get advice that the Spanish fleet are off Martinique, where they have got coal from lighters, forwarded to them there by their government.  One of our scouting boats, the Harvard, is blockaded by them in St. Pierre, Martinique.  Admiral Sampson has attacked San Juan and Porto Rico, and while he has fired a good many shells and done some damage to fortifications, he has not succeeded in silencing the fort, or destroying the coal pile there.  He has undoubtedly acted with great prudence, as he could not afford to have his ships crippled, in view of the possibility of an engagement with the Spanish fleet.  Still, the thing strikes me as rather a failure, and we await the results with deep concern [Long 1923:193].
The Spanish reports of Sampson's actions and intentions are similar to Long's.  The report prepared by Severo Gómez Nunez, a captain of artillery from Spain, gives the impression that Sampson was not as successful as he claimed with the bombardment of San Juan.
The admiral says that he could have taken the place, but when he found that our squadron was not there and that he would have to leave his ships there until the army of occupation arrived, he decided to return to Havana.  Our opinion does not coincide with his.  To bombard a fortified place is easy; to take it is quite a different matter.  It is reasonable to suppose that Sampson was very desirous to take San Juan and make himself popular, but he had not counted on the resistance he encountered, and that is what caused him to desist [Gómez Nunez 1899:60].
The American press was enthralled with the bombardment of San Juan and the event was widely reported, as Admiral Sampson saw fit to allow several newsmen to accompany and observe the bombardment.  Sampson provided a naval vessel for the convenience of the newsmen to transport them to St. Thomas, in the Danish Virgin Islands, where they could wire their stories to their papers by undersea telegraph cable.

While the news reports filed were often exaggerated for the American public and the nations that were watching, the press was instrumental in keeping the United States in a fevered pitch of nationalism (Brown 1967:244).  After the bombardment of San Juan Sampson also contributed to the nationalism of the event by speaking of it as punishment, presumably for the loss of the MAINE.

I am satisfied with the morning's work.  I could have taken San Juan but I have no force to hold it.  I only wanted to administer punishment. This has been done.  I came for the Spanish fleet and not for San Juan [Brown 1967:245].

The focus of the press on the bombardment of San Juan momentarily deflected attention from the search for Cervera's fleet.  Disappointed at not finding Cervera at San Juan, Sampson sailed west looking for the Spanish admiral (Brown 1967:250-251).

San Jose Cathedral in San Juan, P.R., after the bombardment, 1898

16th century San Jose cathedal showing the effects of the bombardment of San Juan



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