Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Lieutenant Hobson and the Sinking of the Merrimac

About three o'clock of a dark morning, whose deep gloom shrouded alike the shores and waters of Cuba's tropic isle, a large craft left the side of the "New York," the flag-ship of Admiral Sampson's fleet off Santiago, and glided towards the throat of the narrow channel leading to its land-locked harbor. This mysterious craft was an old coal-carrier named the "Merrimac." On board were Richmond P. Hobson, Assistant Naval Constructor, and seven volunteer seamen. Their purpose was to sink the old hulk in the channel and thus to seal up the Spanish ships in Santiago harbor. The fact that there were ten chances to one that they would go to the bottom with their craft, or be riddled with Spanish bullets, did not trouble their daring souls. Their country called, and they obeyed.

Ranged along the sides of the ship, below decks, was a series of torpedoes, prepared to blow the vessel into a hopeless wreck when the proper moment came. A heavy weight in coal had been left on board, to carry her rapidly to the bottom, and there was strong hope that she could be dropped in the channel, "like a cork in the neck of a bottle," and "bottle" up Admiral Cervera and his cruisers. That it was an errand of imminent risk did not trouble the bold American tars. There were volunteers enough eager to undertake the perilous task to form a ship's crew, and to the six seamen chosen Coxswain Clausen added himself as a stowaway. The love of adventure was stronger than fear of death or captivity.

It was the morning of June 3, 1898. During the night before an attempt to go in had been made, but the hour was so late that the admiral called the vessel back. Now an earlier start was made, and there was no hinderance to the adventurous voyage. Heavy clouds hid the moon as the "Merrimac" glided in towards the dark line of coast. Not a light was shown, and great skill was needed to strike the narrow channel squarely in the gloom. From the "New York" eager eyes watched the collier until its outlines were lost beneath the shadow of the hills. Eyes continued to peer into the darkness and ears to listen intently, while a tense anxiety strained the nerves of the watching crew. Then came a booming roar from Morro Castle and the flash of a cannon lit up for an instant the gloom. Other flashes and booming sounds followed, and for twenty minutes there seemed a battle going on in the darkness. The "Merrimac" was under fire. She was meeting her doom. What was the fate of Hobson and his men?

Cadet J. W. Powell had followed the collier with a steam launch and four men, prepared to pick up any fugitives from the doomed ship. He went daringly under the batteries and hung about until daylight revealed his small craft, but not a man was seen in the ruffled waters, and he returned disappointed at 6:15 A.M., pestered by spiteful shots from the Spanish guns. He had followed the "Merrimac" until the low-lying smoke from the roaring guns hid her from view. Then came the explosion of the torpedoes. Hobson had done his work. Powell kept under the shelter of the cliffs until full day had dawned, and before leaving he saw a spar of the "Merrimac" rising out of the water of the channel. The sinking had been accomplished, but no one could say with what result to Hobson and his men.

Let us now leave the distant spectators and go on board the "Merrimac," seeking the company of her devoted crew. It was Hobson's purpose to sink her in the narrowest part of the channel, dropping the anchor and handling the rudder so as to turn her across the stream. Her length was sufficient to close up completely the deeper channel. He would stop the engines, let fall the anchor, open the traps made for the sea-water to flow in, and explode the torpedoes. Ten of these lay on the port side of the ship, each containing eighty-two pounds of powder, and they were connected so that they could be fired in train. There were two men below, one to reverse the engines, the other to break open the sea-traps with a sledge hammer. Those on deck were to let fall the anchor and set the helm. Then Hobson would touch the electric button and fire the torpedoes, and all would leap overboard and swim to the dingy towing astern, in which they hoped to escape. Such were their plans; but chance, as it so often does, set them sadly astray.

On through the darkness they went, hitting the channel squarely, and steaming in under the frowning walls of the Morro through gloom and death-like silence. But the Spaniards were not asleep. A small picket-boat came gliding out under the collier's stern and fired several shots at the suspicious craft. One of these carried away the rudder and spoiled one important item of the plans. The dingy, which was trusted to for escape, disappeared, perhaps hit by one of these shots. The picket-boat, having done this serious mischief, then hurried ashore and gave the alarm, and quickly the shore batteries were firing on the dark hull. The ships in the harbor echoed the shots with their guns. The Spaniards were alert. They thought that an American battle-ship was trying to force its way in, perhaps with the whole fleet in its wake, and were ready to give it a hard fight.

Through the rain of balls the "Merrimac" drove on, unhurt by the bombardment, and even by a submarine mine which exploded near her stern. The darkness and her rapid motion rendered her hard to hit, and she reached the desired spot, in the narrowest spot of the channel, none the worse for the shower of iron hail.

So far all had gone well. Now the critical moment had arrived. Hobson gave the signal fixed upon, and the men below reversed the engine and opened the sea connections. They then dashed for the deck. Those above dropped the anchor and set the helm. Only then did Hobson, to his bitter disappointment, discover that the rudder had been lost. The ship refused to answer her helm, and the plan of setting her lengthwise across the channel failed. The final task remained. Touching the electric button, the torpedoes went off with a sullen roar and the ship lurched heavily beneath their feet. The sharp roll threw some of the men over the rail. The others leaped into the sea. Down went the "Merrimac" with a surge at the bow, cheers from the forts and the ships greeting her as she sank. The gunners thought they had sent to the depths one of the hostile men-of-war.

At the last moment of leaving the "New York" an old catamaran had been thrown on the "Merrimac's" deck, as a possible aid to the crew in extremity. This float lay on the roof of the midship house, a rope fastening it to the taffrail, with enough slack to lot it float loose after the ship had sunk. It was a fortunate thought for the crew, as it afforded them a temporary refuge in place of the lost dingy.

We may let Lieutenant Hobson speak for himself at this point in our narrative. He says, "I swam away from the ship as soon as I struck the water, but I could feel the eddies drawing me backward in spite of all I could do. This did not last very long, however, and as soon as I felt the tugging cease I turned and struck out for the float, which I could see dimly bobbing up and down over the sunken hull.

"The 'Merrimac's' masts were plainly visible, and I could see the heads of my seven men as they followed my example and made for the float also. We had expected, of course, that the Spaniards would investigate the wreck, but we had no idea that they would be at it as quickly as they were. Before we could get to the float several row-boats and launches came around the bluff from inside the harbor. They had officers on board and armed marines as well, and they searched that passage, rowing backward and forward, until the next morning. It was only by good luck that we got to the float at all, for they were upon us so quickly that we had barely concealed ourselves when a boat with quite a large party on board was right beside us."

An event which they thought unlucky now proved to be the salvation of the fugitives, who very likely would have been shot on the spot by the marines if they had then been seen from the boats. The rope which fastened the float to the ship was too short to let it swing free, and one of the pontoons that sup-ported it was dragged partly under water, lifting the other above the surface. If the raft had lain flat on the water they would have had to climb on top and would have made an excellent mark for the marines. As it was they got under its lifted side, and by thrusting their hands through the slats that formed the deck they kept their heads above the water, and had a chance to breathe. Luckily for them the Spaniards paid no attention to the old, half-sunken raft that floated above the wreck. They came near it frequently, and the hidden sailors could hear their words, but no one seemed to suspect it. The fugitives spoke only in whispers and at times were almost afraid to breathe, lest they should be heard, but their hiding-place remained unsuspected.

The water, warm at first, grew cold as the hours went on, and their fingers ached as they clung desperately to the slats. As the night passed their teeth began to chatter with the cold till it seemed to them as if the Spaniards must hear the sound, so distinctly to their ears came the noises on the water and on shore. The situation, in fact, became at last so trying that one of the men let go and began to swim ashore. Hobson called him back, and he obeyed, but the call was heard by the men in the boats and created some commotion. They rowed up towards the float and looked sharply about, but no one thought of investigating the float itself, and soon they went off into the shadows again, letting the hidden men once more breathe freely.

The question that most interested the Spaniards was to learn what ship it was they had sunk. Hobson heard them talking and guessing about it and understood many of their words. He soon perceived that the officers had taken in the situation and were astonished at the boldness and audacity of the attempt. The boats appeared to be from the fleet, a fact to the lieutenant's satisfaction, as he felt more like trusting to the tender mercies of a Spanish sailor than of a soldier. At this point we let him take up the narrative again.

"When daylight came a steam-launch full of officers and marines came out from behind the cliff that hid the fleet and harbor and advanced towards us. All the men on board were looking curiously in our direction. They did not see us. Knowing that some one of rank must be on board, I waited till the launch was quite close and hailed her.

"My voice produced the utmost consternation on board. Every one sprang up, the marines now crowded to the bow, and the launch engines were reversed. She not only stopped, but she backed off until nearly a quarter of a mile away, where she stayed. The marines stood ready to fire at the word of command when we clambered out from under the float. There were ten of the marines, and they would have fired in a minute had they not been restrained.

"I swam towards the launch, and then she started towards me. I called out in Spanish, 'Is there an officer on board?' An officer answered in the affirmative, and then I shouted in Spanish again, 'I have seven men to surrender.' I continued swimming, and was seized and pulled out of the water.

"As I looked up when they were dragging me into the launch, I saw that it was Admiral Cervera himself who had hold of me. He looked at me rather dubiously at first, because I had been down in the engine-room of the 'Merrimac,' where I got covered with oil, and that, with the soot and coal-dust, made my appearance most disreputable. I had put on my officer's belt before sinking the 'Merrimac,' as a means of identification, no matter what happened to me, and when I pointed to it in the launch the admiral understood and seemed satisfied. The first words he said to me when he understood who I was were, 'Bienvenida sea usted,'  which means 'You are welcome.' My treatment by the naval officers, and that of my men also, was courteous all the time I was a prisoner. They heard my story, as much of it as I could tell, but sought to learn nothing more.

"Sharks? No, I did not have time to think of them that night," was Hobson's reply to a question. "We saw a great many things, though, and went through a great many experiences. When we started out from the fleet I tied to my belt a flask of medicated water, supplied to me by my ship's surgeon. The frequency with which we all felt thirsty on the short run into the passage and the dryness of my mouth and lips made me believe that I was frightened. The men felt the same, and all the way the flask went from hand to hand. Once I felt my pulse to see if I was frightened, but to my surprise I found it normal. Later we forgot all about it, and when we got into the water there was no need for the flask."

The remainder of this stirring adventure must be told more briefly. The prisoners were taken ashore and locked up in a cell in Morro Castle. Meanwhile, there was much anxiety on the fleet as to their fate, but this was relieved by the generous conduct of the Spanish admiral, who sent his chief-of-staff out the next morning under a flag of truce to report their safety and to make an offer for their exchange. Cervera's message was highly complimentary. It ran:

"Admiral Cervera, the commander of the Spanish fleet, is most profoundly impressed with the brilliant courage shown by the men who sank the steamer 'Merrimac' in our harbor, and in admiration of their courage he has directed me to say to their countrymen that they are alive, and, with the exception of two of the men who were slightly hurt, they are uninjured. They are now prisoners of war and are being well cared for, and will be treated with every consideration."

Cervera kept his word, though the captives found themselves in different hands later, when they were turned over to General Linares, commander of the troops in Santiago. They remained in captivity about five weeks, being exchanged on July 7, when a Spanish lieutenant and fourteen privates were offered in exchange for Hobson and his gallant seven. The story of their return to the American ranks is an exhilarating one. As the brave eight passed up the trail leading to the American lines through the avenue of palms that bordered the road, the soldiers stood in reverent silence, baring their heads as the band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." But as Hobson and his men swung onward cheers and a roar of welcome broke the silence, while a cowboy yell came from the Rough Riders. Breaking from all restraint, the men rushed in, eagerly grasping the hands of Hobson and his men. All the way to Siboney the cheers and excitement continued, and when Hobson set foot on the deck of the "New York" the crew grew wild with enthusiasm, while Admiral Sampson embraced him in the warmth of his greeting. As for his comrades, they were fairly swallowed up in the delirious delight of the men. Thus ended one of the most gallant deeds of that short war.

It must be said, however, that, skilfully as it had been managed, the effort to close the port proved a failure. Though the sunken ship closed part of the channel, there was room enough to pass beside her, this being strikingly proved on the morning of July 3, when the squadron which Hobson had sought to bottle up came steaming down the channel past the sunken "Merrimac" and put out to sea, where it started on a wild fight for freedom. The result of this venture does not need to be retold, and it must suffice to say that a few hours later all the Spanish ships were shell-riddled wrecks on the Cuban shore, and Cervera and all who survived of his men were prisoners in American hands. But the admiral was as much of a hero as a captive, for his captors could not soon forget his generous treatment of Hobson and his men.