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Ensign Worth Bagley


By Patrick McSherry

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Ensign Worth Bagley, first U.S. officer killed in Spanish American War
Ensign Worth Bagley


Ensign Worth Bagley has the distinction of being one of two naval officers killed in battle during the Spanish American War, and also the first American military officer from any service branch to be killed in action during the conflict, at Cardenas harbor, Cuba.

The Biography:

Born in 1874, Worth Bagley was the son of William H. Bagley, a former major in the Confederate Army, and Adelaide Worth. Adelaide named her son in honor of her father, Jonathan Worth, a former governor of North Carolina. Bagley was also a descendant of General John Worth of Mexican and Civil War fame.

In  1889, young Bagley was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis while still only fifteen years of age. The young man found the curriculum difficult at his young age. He was forced to leave the Academy, but returned in September of 1891.

While at the Academy, the midshipman became the leader of the Academy’s football team, playing in the first Army-Navy game, played in 1891 at West Point. It was at this game that the Navy acquired its ram mascot, a symbol which still takes the field with the Navy team. Later, Bagley led the Navy team to victory over the Army team on the Navy’s home turf in 1893. In an article, which added that the game was won “chiefly through the efforts of young Bagley” it was stated that:

“Both teams were well coached during the season of 1893, and faced each other at Annapolis under even conditions. West Point was a trifle the stronger, but excellent generalship at critical points gave the game to Annapolis by a score of 6 to 4. Annapolis was superior in the kicking game, which was just being introduced, and this helped her defeat the soldiers”

Unfortunately, the 1893 game was marked by “so many unpleasant features” that the government did not permit the two teams to meet for another six years. One of those unpleasant features was apparently an argument between a pair of senior officers at New York’s Army-Navy Club!

The glory of  being the leader of the football team did have its cost. Bagley developed a heart problem from the violent exercise and constant pounding in the days before padding and safety were a major concern to football teams. The apex of his heart was shifted two inches to the left!

While serving as a cadet, Worth Bagley made cruises on the INDIANA, TEXAS, MONTGOMERY and MAINE. Graduating in 1895, Ensign Bagley was first assigned to the INDIANA, but was soon transferred to the MAINE, in 1896. Fate intervened for Bagley and he was transferred off the vessel in July of 1897. MAINE was destined to explode in Havana harbor the following February.

Bagley’s transfer was precipitated by his being assigned to report to the Columbia Iron Works where a torpedo boat, the WINSLOW, was being constructed. This time, fate would be less kind. In December, WINSLOW was placed in commission, with Ensign Worth Bagley as its second in command under Lt. John Baptiste Beradou.

On May 11, 1898, the WINSLOW, in company with the Revenue Cutter HUDSON, and  the WILMINGTON, entered Cuba’s Cardenas harbor. In the ensuing action with Spanish gunboats and shore batteries the WINSLOW was badly damaged, losing steam and steering capability. At this time Bagley became involved in maneuvering the damaged vessel. With the single engine that was operational, he was alternately moving forward the vessel and then astern, slowly backing the vessel out of the line of fire, and keeping it a moving target. He had managed to move the vessel about four hundred toward the HUDSON.

While thus engaged, he was passing along the deck to speak with a report for Lt. Bernadou. At that moment, a shell hit the armored deck, sending a cloud of shrapnel. Bagley and four other crew fell to the deck suffering mortal wounds. Bagley’s torso was shattered and his face carried away. Bernadou, who had also been wounded during the action, had the bodies of the dead were covered with torpedo tube covers. Soon, the HUDSON was able to tow the stricken vessel to safety. The action, which was one of the few victories gained by Spanish naval forces during the war, was soon over.

Ensign Bagley’s body and the bodies of the other dead sailors were transported to Key West. From there Bagley’s remains were taken to Jacksonville, where the corpse was presented to one of his brothers, W. H. Bagley.  On May 16, the body arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, the home of Bagley’s mother who lived at 125 South Street.

The funeral for Ensign Bagley was a huge affair. The funeral cortege included three thousand people, including fifteen hundred soldiers, twelve hundred school children, two hundred college cadets, as well as state and city officials. Since no church was large enough for the cortege and onlookers, the services were held in the Capitol Square. On the day of he funeral, the coffin was escorted into the Capitol rounda by the Governor’s Guard, and allowed to lie in state. Schools and businesses were closed in honor of the event and flags placed at half-mast.

The young man who had escaped possible death on the MAINE through fate, met his fate in the waters of Cardenas harbor. Bagley was laid to rest on Oakwood Cemetery. The young man left behind at least two sisters, two brothers and a widowed mother.

Several ironies surround Bagley. First, the man who led the Army team in the first Army-Navy game, Bagley’s opposite number, was killed in the assault on San Juan Hill. His name was Dennis Michie. Bagley’s sister married Josephus Daniels, the future secretary of the Navy. The Ensign’s brother, Lt. Cmdr. David Bagley, commanded the first U.S. vessel sunk in World War One – The JACOB JONES.

In some circles it was later claimed that Ensign Bagley was the victim of friendly fire, and that the fatal shots were fired from the WILMINGTON.

Today, Ensign Bagley is remembered in Raleigh, North Carolina, through a bronze statue bearing his likeness. The statue, located near the state Capitol building was unveiled in 1907.  In addition, the U.S. Navy has named three vessels after the young ensign. The first was a torpedo boat built in 1900, the second a destroyer built in 1918, and the last, another destroyer built in 1937.


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Bernadou, Lt. J. B., “The Winslow at Cardenas,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. (New York: The Century Co., March, 1899) Vol. 57, No. 5, p 705-706.

Capcioppo, Nancy, “Army Navy football is a Hallowed Tradition,” The Journal, December 7, 2003. (

Cohen, Stan. Images of Spanish American War, April-August,1998.  (Missoula:Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc., 1997). 90-91.

“Dead Ensign’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Eagle. May 16, 1898, p. 1.

“Ensign Bagley’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Eagle. May 14, 1898,  p 13.

“Five Men Killed Off Cardenas,” Brooklyn Eagle. May 12, 1898, p. 3.

“Gallant Americans Who Fell in Battle,” Brooklyn Eagle. January 1, 1899, p 52.

Hall, Charles, “Nordenfeldt QF Gun 1.65 (42mm) caliber” Raleigh City Museum (

“Soldiers Versus Sailors,” Brooklyn Eagle. December 2, 1899, p 14.

“Shots That Hit the Winslow,” Brooklyn Eagle. April 13, 1899, p 1

“Taps for Ensign Bagley,” Brooklyn Eagle. May 15, 1898, p. 5.

Trailblazer Magazine (

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