War with Spain - Charles Morris

Under Fire at Cardenas and Cienfuegos

On May 1, the date of Commodore Dewey's signal victory at Manila, preparations for active work were making in the Atlantic waters. The Spanish fleet at the Cape Verde Islands had been obliged to leave harbor there on April 29, in consequence of the proclamation of neutrality by Portugal. It was believed to have steamed westward, bound, so many thought, for Porto Rico, though others feared that its destination might be some point on the coast of the United States. The uncertainty as to its goal gave rise to much apprehension among the seaboard population of this country, and active measures were taken to meet it on land and water.

The defence of our seaports became of prime importance, and the whole coast was put under surveillance, a system of land patrol being organized which extended along the exposed seaboard of the country, and was alert to make instant report of the approach of suspicious vessels to any part of the coast. Harbor defence was similarly provided for, submarine mines being planted in all channels leading to commercial cities, and guns mounted on coast-defence fortifications as rapidly as they could be procured. The movements of merchant-vessels entering port were put under careful supervision, that there might be no interference by anchor or keel with the mines.

At sea the same alertness was shown as on land. The Flying Squadron at Hampton Roads was kept ready, like so many war-hounds in leash, to fly to the defence of any imperilled point. It was strengthened by the addition of other vessels, among them the fine purchased cruiser New Orleans. The swift Columbia  and Minneapolis, the greyhounds of the seas, were kept on scouting duty along the northern coast, in sharp lookout for the approach of hostile craft. The Northern Patrol Squadron was similarly on the qui vive, and it would have been next to impossible for an enemy to enter our waters without quick discovery and as quick preparation for his approach.

The probability that Porto Rico or some Cuban port might be the destination of the Spanish fleet gave rise to equal activity in the West India waters. The larger vessels of Admiral Sampson's squadron were withdrawn to Key West to coal and otherwise prepare for a long journey in the tropical seas, leaving the duty of the blockade to the minor vessels, the gunboats, torpedo-boats, and smaller cruisers. This squadron, under the familiar designation of the "mosquito fleet," from that time forward kept up the blockade, while the larger vessels were more actively employed

Life was not altogether monotonous on board the mosquito fleet. It had its adventures, some of them interesting and important. The Spaniards on shore were watchful and combative, and a brisk exchange of shots was no uncommon occurrence. Certain thrilling .experiences were gone through by members of the fleet in the effort to perform perilous duties assigned them. The present chapter will be devoted to an account of the more striking of these events.



On May 6 the bombardment of the Matanzas forts by Admiral Sampson on the New York was repeated by two of the smallest vessels in the navy,—the torpedo-boat Dupont  and the auxiliary cruiser Hornet. On the previous day the Dupont,  while cruising close to the shore, had observed a number of men raising a Spanish flag on a point near Matanzas light-house. It was suspected that a new battery was being constructed there, and on the following afternoon the Dupont, now accompanied by the Hornet, scouted close in shore. This temerity soon called forth a response.

When they were not more than six hundred yards distant a storm of rifle-bullets came whizzing towards them, lashing the water sharply about the boats, but not touching a man on board. The attack came from a body of Spanish cavalry ranged in groups along the shore. The little boats lost no time in replying, pouring a stream of projectiles from their quick-firing guns into the cavalry, which sought cover with all convenient speed. Their fire was next directed against three block-houses, which were quickly destroyed. The activity of the craft now drew an 8-inch shell from one of the Matanzas batteries. It fell short and was not repeated. On the following day the boats returned and fired on the forts, but no reply was drawn from them. Though no harm was done to the men on board, there were indications that the Spanish had suffered considerable loss.

The first engagements of the war in which the Americans suffered any loss of life occurred on May 11, at Cardenas and Cienfuegos. Cardenas, a seaport town on the north coast of Cuba, lies seventy-five miles to the eastward of Havana, and about twenty miles from Matanzas. Cardenas Bay, in which one of the engagements in question took place, is a picturesque harbor, broad and shallow, the channel, scarcely two fathoms deep, winding its way tortuously inward through clusters of verdant coral keys to the city, which spreads out on the sloping hills fully seven miles from the entrance.

The blockading squadron off this port consisted of the gunboats Wilmington  and Machias, the torpedo-boat Winslow, and the auxiliary tug Hudson. The Spaniards had withdrawn from the entrance to the bay, destroying the buoys and other aids to navigation as they went. On Sunday, the 8th, the Winslow, venturing into the harbor, was chased to its entrance by three small gunboats, one of which she disabled. It was to destroy these and the signal-station, and to make observations on the harbor, that Captain Todd, of the Wilmington, and Commander Merry, of the Machias, decided on Wednesday to run into the bay. In this movement the Winslow  led the way, closely followed by the Hudson. The Wilmington, which draws a little over nine feet of water, was obliged to stop at eighteen hundred yards from the city, while the Machias, which draws thirteen feet, was unable to enter the shallow harbor.

The Winslow  followed the eastern and the Hudson  the western shore of the bay. They had drawn close together at about one thousand yards from the waterfront of the city, when, just before two P.M., a puff of smoke was observed on shore at Cardenas and a shell whistled over the daring boats. This shot was quickly followed by others, and soon shells were bursting hotly about the little Winslow, which was firing rapidly in return. The Hudson  was also actively engaged, pouring projectiles from her two rapid-fire 6-pounder guns. What effect was produced could not easily be seen for the cloud of smoke; but it was perceived that the Spanish aim improved as the battle went on, two empty barks anchored oft shore being used as ranges. The garrison had evidently prepared for an attack. At about half-past two a 4-inch shell struck the Winslow  on the starboard beam, wrecking her forward boiler and starboard engine, and crippling her steam steering-gear. A minute later, while the quartermaster was hooking up the hand-gear, it also was shot away, he receiving a severe wound in the breast.

Lieutenant Bemadou, finding his vessel crippled beyond control, and that it had become the target for a stream of well-directed shot, hailed the Hudson, and asked her to take him in tow. A group of sailors on the Hudson  at once made ready to heave a line, Ensign Bagley, of the Winslow, hastening them with the exclamation, "Heave her! Let her come! It's getting pretty warm."

The line was flung and was grasped by the Winslow's  men, who vigorously drew it in, bringing their craft foot by foot towards the Hudson. The next instant a tragic event took place. A 4-inch shell from the shore battery burst among the crew, Ensign Bagley and Fireman Daniels being almost tom asunder by its explosion. Three others were struck by fragments of the shell, and died in a few minutes. A flying piece of shrapnel struck Lieutenant Bemadou in the thigh, cutting an ugly gash. The hawser parted and the torpedo-boat was left floundering helplessly in the water at the mercy of the enemy's fire, which never relaxed.

Meanwhile, the Wilmington  was hurling her 4-inch shells rapidly on shore, with an accuracy of aim that must have done deadly execution. The enemy seemed to have the exact range of the Winslow, not a shell reaching the Hudson. With all haste the men on the latter boat threw another line, which was made fast, and the torpedo-boat pulled out of the range of the Spanish guns. The Hudson  then towed her consort to Piedras Cay, a little island twelve miles off, where the Machias  lay. The Wilmington followed them out.

Little trace of the enemy's shot was visible on the Hudson  or the Wilmington, the Winslow  alone having suffered. What damage had been done to the gunboats and batteries of the enemy could not be told, though there was reason to believe that it had been considerable. After the battle, the signal-station on Diana Cay, whose destruction had been one of the purposes of the expedition, was laid in ruins by a force of marines from the Machias.

Lieutenant Bernadou had shown intrepid courage through the action, stopping the flow of blood in his wounded thigh with a tourniquet tightened by a I-pound shell, and remaining pluckily at his post, maneuvering his little craft as well as he could by means of her screw-propeller, and replying briskly to the enemy's fire from his 1-pounder rapid-fire gun.

The dead were brought to Key West, where four of them were interred with all the honors of war, side by side with the graves of the victims of the Maine. The body of Ensign Bagley was sent to his home for interment. As the first victims of the war, the death of these five men, and particularly of Ensign Bagley, a young man of much promise, sent a thrill of sympathy throughout the land. Many now first began to appreciate what war really is, and a shudder of dread filled thousands of hearts as they looked forward into the uncertain future, with its possible harvest of sanguinary events.

On the same day with this engagement an event of equal interest, and one that also had its victims, took place on the opposite coast of Cuba, in the bay of Cienfuegos, the only post then under blockade in the south.

The town of Cienfuegos, like that of Cardenas, lies some distance back from the sea, in a harbor whose channel winds and twists. It is bounded by high hills, which completely hide the town from ships at sea. Near the harbor's mouth the land is low for some distance back, then it rises into a sharp bluff covered with trees. The cable connecting Havana with Santiago de Cuba enters the water at this point, the cable-house standing on the shore close to the water's edge. Not far away, on one side of this, a light-house then stood, and opposite it an old block-house, one of the many established along the coast to intercept filibustering expeditions. There was another cable running to Batabano, and a small one extending to some local point eastward. These cables it was determined to cut.

The blockading squadron, consisting of the cruiser Marblehead, the gunboat Nashville, and the auxiliary cruiser Windom, was detailed to do the perilous work of cutting these cables; and in the early morning of Wednesday, May 11, those vessels steamed in close to the shore. It was evident that the Spanish had made preparations for such an attempt. Rifle-pits could be seen at the water's edge, rapid-fire guns were visible, and groups of cavalry and infantry were in motion upon the hill-side and the shore.

Yet, in defiance of this evident preparation, the boats assigned to the task were manned and set out on their perilous duty. They consisted of two steam launches, two launches of smaller size, and half a dozen row-boats. The launches were armed with machine-guns, their purpose being to protect the small boats as they worked, and tow them back to the ships if the men should be disabled.

The boats moved steadily inward until a point about one hundred feet from the cable-house and two hundred from the rifle-pits was reached. Lieutenant Winslow, of the Marblehead, was in command. Standing fearlessly upright in his launch as the boats drew near to the shore, he at length gave the word to anchor and grapple for the cable. Without delay the oars were shipped and the grappling-hooks thrown over the side, while the launches, and, farther out, the ships, stood ready to repel an assault. The work went on with all haste, but the cable was difficult to find and some time passed before it was drawn from the sands in which it lay embedded and lifted to the gunwales of the boats.

Until this moment the Spaniards had made no attack. Now there came a flash on shore, and a singing shot went over the heads of the men in the boats. It was the signal for a sharp fire from the shore, which was echoed in a moment by a volley from the machine-guns of the launches and by broadsides from the ships. The shells of the Marblehead, bursting in the rifle-pits, quickly put their defenders to flight. The Nashville followed, and the little Windom  opened briskly with her 4-pounders. Protected by this vigorous fire, the men continued their work, hacking away at the tough steel wires of the cable with axes, chisels, and saws. Severed at length, the cable was under-run and cut at another point, one hundred and fifty feet being taken out of its length. This was done to prevent its being lifted and spliced. The cable thus cut was supposed to be the one to Batabano.

A more important one, that to Santiago de Cuba, remained, and grappling for this at once began. It was soon found and dealt with in the same manner, eighty feet being cut out of its length. The other cable mentioned, of smaller calibre, was also cut. In the opinion of the daring workers, General Blanco's last channel of communication with the outside world was severed. This, as subsequent events proved, was an error, but the valor and energy of the workers was not the less commendable.

The work of cable-lifting and cutting took considerable time, during much of which the sailors were exposed to a sharp rifle-fire from the shore, though the activity of the attack was greatly diminished by the fierce return from the launches and the ships. A shell from the Nashville  tore the cable-house into fragments. One from the Marblehead  tumbled the block-house into a heap of ruins. The ships were rolling in a heavy sea, yet the marksmanship was superb,—the shots searching the rifle-pits, furrowing the sand of the beach, and sweeping the hill-side. But, despite this active bombardment, the rifle-bullets found their victims, eight men falling wounded, one of whom, Patrick Regan, died on the way back to the ships. Lieutenant Winslow was struck in the hand. All the ships bore marks of the fray, being struck many times by bullets from machineguns. But the only casualty on the ships was on the Nashville, where a bullet passed through the shoulder of an ensign and struck Captain Maynard on the chest near the heart. Fortunately, the wound was a slight one.

It had not been proposed to injure the light-house, but it was found that the Spaniards were using it as a fort, firing from its cover on the men in the boats. The guns of the Marblehead  were at once trained on it, and the commander, from the bridge, gave the order to "Cut it down!" At once fire was opened on it with remarkable accuracy, considering the rolling motion of the ships, which lay at a distance of one thousand yards. In a short time the tower was a ruin and the assailants were in hasty flight for new places of shelter.

The bold enterprise had occupied more than three hours, the boats leaving the ships at seven o'clock in the morning and returning at 10:15 A.M. During all that time they had been under fire within short rifle-range, and only the incessant work of the machine- and rapid-fire guns had saved their crews from annihilation. What loss the Spanish sustained was unknown. It was probably considerable, in view of their numbers and the torrent of fire that searched out their every lurking-place. This affair and that at Cardenas were of great moral value in showing the intrepidity of American sailors and their coolness and daring under fire. Like the battle at Manila, these smaller engagements served as valuable object lessons to America and the world.

It is not necessary to mention in detail the several later attempts that were made to cut the cables connecting Cuba with the outer world. Despite the success at Cienfuegos, Blanco at Havana kept in communication with Santiago and Spain, and, though other wires were cut at later dates, in front of Santiago, at Guantanamo Bay, and at the eastern end of Cuba, the governor-general kept in touch with the government at Madrid. Not untl1 after the capture of Santiago was he finally cut oft from communication with the world without. There was still a cable from Havana to Key West, but that, for obvious reasons, he did not care to use.