Hobson and the Merrimac
The War with Spain was undertaken for the purpose of delivering Cuba from the oppressive rule of Spain. It was therefore natural that the main object of the United States Government should be to drive the Spaniards from that island. When the war began, there was some uncertainty as to the size and strength of the Spanish navy. We knew that Spain had fine battleships, but we did not know how they were equipped and manned, or what training their gunners possessed. It was feared that the Spanish fleet might appear off the Atlantic Coast, and bombard New York or Boston. As it turned out, we can now afford to laugh at such foolish fears.
The Spanish navy was under command of Admiral Cervera. Our own fleet hunted for weeks, before it was discovered that the Spaniards had taken refuge in the harbor of Santiago. Immediately, the American fleet blockaded the harbor so that the Spanish boats could not get out. The Spanish admiral knew the weakness of his vessels. He had five ships, but his crews were not trained, and his gunners had but little practice; they were by no means the equal of the American marksmen.
Days and weeks passed in idleness. Cervera refused to come out, and the American Commanders guarded the mouth of the harbor day and night. It was feared that the Spanish ships would slip out under cover of darkness, and be free to inflict damage along the United States coast before they could be destroyed. But they did not attempt to offer battle to the American fleet.
To prevent their escape, a daring exploit was planned by Lieutenant Richard P. Hobson. He proposed to sink the collier, Merrimac, in the channel of the harbor so as, effectually, to prevent any ships from passing in or out. Lieutenant Hobson, with seven companions, started out on the collier, in the dead of night, and slowly steamed away.
When the Spaniards discovered the approach of the collier, they opened fire upon her from the shore batteries on both sides. It seemed that the shells must certainly pierce her through and through. Escape for the men aboard appeared impossible.
But they were cool-headed and kept on until they reached the desired position. Just before they were ready to sink the collier, and take to their boats, the rudder of the Merrimac was shot away. Hence, she sank diagonally instead of across the channel. The position of the wreck did not entirely block the entrance; it left a passage open for the unfortunate dash for liberty which was made later by the Spanish fleet.
When the Merrimac was sunk in the channel, Hobson and his men took to a raft, and there they clung till morning. It was impossible to escape the searching fire of the enemy, afloat as they were in the open harbor. But, when day came, and the Spaniards saw their helpless plight, they sent a boat out and took them prisoners. Admiral Cervera, himself, helped lift Hobson out of the water, and was so filled with admiration for his daring that he sent a flag of truce to the American fleet with the news that all the men were safe in his hands.
The prisoners were treated with great respect, and, later, were exchanged for a number of Spanish prisoners, held by our forces.