Report on the Battle of Santiago Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba represents a pivotal point in US history, as the newly modernized US Navy engaged Spain, one of the world’s preeminent naval powers, off the coast of Cuba. The battle itself was relatively one-sided, as American warships quickly captured or destroyed the ships of the Spanish naval squadron as they attempted to escape from Santiago Bay. The commanding officer at the battle, Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, issued a report to his superior officer, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, summarizing the day’s events.

Summary Overview

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba represents a pivotal point in US history, as the newly modernized US Navy engaged Spain, one of the world’s preeminent naval powers, off the coast of Cuba. The battle itself was relatively one-sided, as American warships quickly captured or destroyed the ships of the Spanish naval squadron as they attempted to escape from Santiago Bay. The commanding officer at the battle, Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, issued a report to his superior officer, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, summarizing the day’s events.

Defining Moment

In the years prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the American public was strongly in support of the Cuban independence movement, and many Americans called for war against Spain, although President William McKinley repeatedly sought a diplomatic solution to the tensions. After riots broke out in Havana in January 1898, the US government sent an American warship, the USS Maine, to Havana Harbor to protect US citizens in Cuba. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, setting off a chain of events that led to an American declaration of war against Spain in April. The Spanish Navy sent a flotilla of ships, led by Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, to Cuba to defend its interests in the Caribbean.

Rear Admiral William T. Sampson was the commander of the US Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron and took orders to intercept Cervera’s fleet. The Flying Squadron, led by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, joined the North Atlantic Squadron in the search for Cervera’s fleet. Although Schley had been slightly senior in rank before the conflict, he was placed under Sampson’s command, leading to some friction between the two officers. After Cervera’s fleet was spotted in Santiago Harbor in late May, Schley initially delayed following Sampson’s orders to join the blockade at the harbor’s entrance, which lasted more than a month. Cervera’s fleet was well protected within the harbor, and he hoped to wait out the US Navy; however, American ground forces were approaching Santiago de Cuba on land, prompting Cervera to attempt an escape from the harbor.

On the morning of July 3, Sampson was called away to the mainland for a conference with Major General William Shafter of the US Army. Shortly after Sampson’s flagship, the New York, left its position in the blockade with the USS Ericsson, Cervera’s ships made their move to escape the harbor. At the sound of gunfire, Sampson turned his ship around to rejoin his fleet, but he did not return until after the end of the battle. As the Spanish ships emerged from the harbor, Schley quickly maneuvered to catch up with them, nearly causing a collision between his flagship, the Brooklyn, and the USS Texas. Poor-quality coal slowed the Spanish ships, and the Americans destroyed or ran aground five of Cervera’s six ships, effectively destroying the Spanish Navy’s Caribbean squadron. Cervera surrendered and the battle came to an end after a few hours.

Within the story of the battle is the rivalry between Schley and Sampson. The public and the press largely credited Schley with the victory, although Schley had issued no special orders during the battle and had followed Sampson’s standing orders to run down the Spanish fleet. Following the battle, Schley issued a report to Sampson, offering his perspective on the battle’s events, using language that seems intended to remind Sampson of his absence from the battle. Sampson later sent a report to the secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, criticizing Schley’s actions. Afterward, Schley was promoted to rear admiral, but Sampson was advanced ahead of Schley on the Navy List (the official list of naval officers), generating a controversy over whether Sampson or Schley deserved credit for the victory at Santiago de Cuba.

Author Biography

Winfield Scott Schley was born on October 9, 1839, near Frederick City, Maryland. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1860 and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant just two years later. During the Civil War, Schley fought with the Union against many of his Annapolis classmates who had joined the Confederacy. After the war, he joined the faculty at the US Naval Academy.

Schley continued to gain recognition as a naval officer. In 1888, he was promoted to the rank of captain and placed in command of the cruiser Baltimore. In 1898, Schley was promoted to commodore and given command of the Flying Squadron, which was assigned to patrol the Atlantic coast at the outset of the Spanish-American War. Schley retired in 1901 and died on October 2, 1909.

Document Analysis

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was the largest naval engagement in the Spanish-American War. When Rear Admiral Sampson, the commander of the American blockade, was called back to the mainland, no particular officer was named to take his place. Commodore Schley, however, was the ranking officer in Sampson’s absence and was responsible for directing the actions of two of the key ships involved in the battle, the Texas and the Brooklyn. After the engagement, Schley issued his report in the form of a letter to Sampson.

Sampson’s absence is a recurring theme in Schley’s report. For example, Schley begins his letter by writing, “I have the honor to make the following report of that part of the squadron under your command which came under my observation during the engagement with the Spanish fleet on July 3, 1898.” Schley recounts the action of the battle, describing how Sampson’s ships fired upon the two Spanish torpedo boat destroyers, destroying both. Schley admits that he has been unable to determine which vessel deserves credit for disabling the destroyers due to thick smoke of the battle, adding, “This, doubtless, was better seen from your flagship.”

Following his comments on the battle, Schley next turns his attention to the valor of the ships’ crews. Sampson, who was the commander-in-chief of all ships involved (including Schley’s), normally would have been the officer to hand out such accolades on sight. With Sampson absent from the battle itself, Schley took it upon himself to commend the noteworthy performances of the American forces (including those aboard Sampson’s individual fleet).

Finally, while turning to damage reports and information gleaned from captured Spanish officers, Schley again highlights his role in the victory, writing, “I congratulate you most sincerely upon this great victory to the squadron under your command, and I am glad that I had an opportunity to contribute in the least to a victory that seems big enough for all of us.” He comments on the Spanish plan to shower the Brooklyn with fire and then to ram it with the Vizcaya. This claim seems to validate Schley’s assertion that he made the unusual move of turning away when the other US ships were turning toward the fleeing Spanish fleet; a few days earlier, Schley had told his commanding officer that he disobeyed orders to turn with the other US ships because he believed the Brooklyn was being directly targeted for ramming by Vizcaya. At the time, naval commanders often made adjustments on the open sea if conditions suddenly arose that required defying orders; however, by disobeying Sampson’s general orders, Schley had seemingly endangered another US ship. In his report, Schley suggests that his on-site decision was warranted and ultimately correct.

Essential Themes

The controversy over whether Schley or Sampson deserved credit for the victory at Santiago de Cuba continued for many years, prompting the secretary of the Navy to issue an order forbidding all naval officers on active duty from discussing the controversy in 1899 and leading to a court of inquiry into Schley’s actions before and during the battle in 1901. According to accounts, Schley took umbrage that Sampson was his superior officer at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, despite his absence from the battle and his slightly junior rank.

Prior to the battle, Schley and Sampson had already had some friction, as Schley insisted upon looking for Admiral Cereva in Cienfuego, staying there even after he was ordered by Sampson to come to Santiago. Although Schley’s report on the subsequent Battle of Santiago de Cuba credits Sampson with the victory, it nevertheless reflects Schley’s apparent disapproval of being commanded by Sampson by repeatedly underscoring Sampson’s absence during the battle itself. In 1901, a court of inquiry mildly censored Schley for failing to follow Sampson’s orders to proceed to Santiago with due dispatch and for nearly causing a collision between his flagship and the Texas; however, Admiral George Dewey, the president of the court, issued a dissenting opinion commending Schley’s actions during the battle and crediting him with the victory.

Schley’s report provides a detailed eyewitness account of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, which was critical in bringing an end to the Spanish Navy’s dominance of the Caribbean, and offers insight into the ongoing rivalry between Schley and Sampson. The Sampson-Schley controversy created a minor schism within the US Navy, as officers sided with either man, and it damaged the reputations of both men, as well as of the Navy itself.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ashbury, John W. Frederick County Characters: Innovators, Pioneers and Patriots of Western Maryland. Gloucestershire: History, 2013. Print.
  • Graham, George Edward. Schley and Santiago. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1902. Print.
  • Halstead, Murat. The Story of the Philippines and Our New Possessions: Including the Ladrones, Hawaii, Cuba and Porto Rico the Eldorado of the Orient. 1898. Alexandria: Library of Alexandria, 2006. Print.
  • Hendrickson, Kenneth E. The Spanish-American War. Westport: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
  • Howarth, Stephen. To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775–1998. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999. Print.
  • Parker, James. Rear-Admirals Schley, Sampson and Cervera: A Review of the Naval Campaign of 1898. New York: Neale, 1910. Print.
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