Spanish-American War: Battle of Santiago de Cuba

Battle of Santiago de Cuba
Spanish armored cruiser Vizcaya explodes during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.

Library of Congress

 

The climatic naval battle of the Spanish-American War, the Battle of Santiago de Cuba resulted in a decisive victory for the US Navy and the complete destruction of the Spanish squadron. Anchored in Santiago harbor in southern Cuba, Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera's six ships found themselves blockaded by the US Navy in the late spring of 1898. With the advance of American forces ashore, Cervera's position became untenable and on July 3 he attempted to escape with his squadron.

Cervera was soon intercepted by American battleships and cruisers under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore William S. Schley. In a running battle, the superior American firepower reduced Cervera's ships to burning wrecks. The loss of Cervera's squadron effectively cut off Spanish forces in Cuba.

Situation Prior to July 3

Following sinking of USS Maine and the outbreak of war between Spain and the United States on April 25, 1898, the Spanish government dispatched a fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera to defend Cuba. Though Cervera was against such a move, preferring to engage the Americans near the Canary Islands, he obeyed and after evading the US Navy arrived at Santiago de Cuba in late May. On May 29, Cervera's fleet was spotted in the harbor by Commodore Winfield S. Schley's "Flying Squadron." Two days later, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson arrived with the US North Atlantic Squadron and after taking overall command began a blockade of the harbor.

William T. Sampson
Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, USN. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Commanders & Fleets

US North Atlantic Squadron - Rear Admiral William T. Sampson

  • Armored Cruiser USS New York (flagship)
  • Battleship USS Iowa (BB-4)
  • Battleship USS Indiana (BB-1)
  • Battleship USS Oregon (BB-3)
  • Armed Yacht Gloucester

US "Flying Squadron" - Commodore Winfield Scott Schley

  • Armored Cruiser USS Brooklyn (flagship)
  • Battleship USS Texas
  • Battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-2)
  • Armed Yacht USS Vixen

Spanish Caribbean Squadron - Admiral Pascual Cervera

  • Armored Cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa (flagship)
  • Armored Cruiser Almirante Oquendo
  • Armored Cruiser Vizcaya
  • Armored Cruiser Cristobal Colon
  • Torpedo Boat Destroyer Pluton
  • Torpedo Boat Destroyer Furor

Cervera Decides to Break Out

While at anchor in Santiago, Cervera's fleet was protected by the heavy guns of the harbor defenses. In June, his situation became more tenuous following the landing of American troops up the coast at Guantánamo Bay. As the days passed, Cervera waited for inclement weather to scatter the blockade so that he could escape the harbor. Following the American victories at El Caney and San Juan Hill on July 1, the admiral concluded that he would have to fight his way out before the city fell. He decided to wait until 9:00 AM on Sunday July 3, hoping to catch the American fleet while it conducting church services (Map).

Cristobal Colon and Vizcaya
Spanish Navy armored cruisers Cristóbal Colón (left) and Vizcaya. US Naval History and Heritage Command

The Fleets Meet

On the morning of July 3, as Cervera was preparing to break out, Adm. Sampson pulled his flagship, the armored cruiser USS New York, out of line to meet with ground commanders at Siboney leaving Schley in command. The blockade was further weakened by the departure of the battleship USS Massachusetts which had retired to coal. Emerging from Santiago Bay at 9:45, Cervera's four armored cruisers steered southwest, while his two torpedo boats turned southeast. Aboard the armored cruiser USS Brooklyn, Schley signaled the four battleships still on the blockade to intercept.

A Running Fight

Cervera began the fight from his flagship, Infanta Maria Teresa, by opening fire on the approaching Brooklyn. Schley led the American fleet towards the enemy with the battleships Texas, Indiana, Iowa, and Oregon in line behind. As the Spaniards steamed by, Iowa hit Maria Teresa with two 12" shells. Not wishing to expose his fleet to fire from the entire American line, Cervera turned his flagship to cover their withdrawal and directly engaged Brooklyn. Taken under heavy fire by Schley's ship, Maria Teresa began to burn and Cervera ordered it run aground.

The remainder of Cervera's fleet raced for open water but was slowed by inferior coal and fouled bottoms. As the American battleships bore down, Iowa opened fire on Almirante Oquendo, ultimately causing a boiler explosion that forced the crew to scuttle the ship. The two Spanish torpedo boats, Furor and Pluton, were put out of action by fire from Iowa, Indiana, and the returning New York, with one sinking and the other running aground before exploding.

End of Vizcaya

At the head of the line, Brooklyn engaged the armored cruiser Vizcaya in an hour-long duel at approximately 1,200 yards. Despite firing over three hundred rounds, Vizcaya failed to inflict significant damage on its adversary. Subsequent studies have suggested that as much as eighty-five percent of the Spanish ammunition used during the battle may have been defective. In response, Brooklyn bludgeoned Vizcaya and was joined by Texas. Moving closer, Brooklyn struck Vizcaya with an 8" shell that caused an explosion setting the ship on fire. Turning for shore, Vizcaya ran aground where the ship continued to burn.

Oregon Runs Down Cristobal Colon

After more than an hour's fighting, Schley's fleet had destroyed all but one of Cervera's ships. The survivor, the new armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, continued fleeing along the coast. Recently purchased, the Spanish Navy did not have time to install the ship's primary armament of 10" guns before sailing. Slowed due to engine trouble, Brooklyn was unable to catch the retreating cruiser. This allowed the battleship Oregon, which had recently completed a remarkable voyage from San Francisco in the war's early days, to move forward. Following an hour-long chase Oregon opened fire and forced Colon to run aground.

USS Oregon
USS Oregon (BB-3). US Naval History and Heritage Command

Aftermath

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba marked the end of large-scale naval operations in the Spanish-American War. In course of the fighting, Sampson and Schley's fleet lost a miraculous 1 killed (Yeoman George H. Ellis, USS Brooklyn) and 10 wounded. Cervera lost all six of his ships, as well as 323 killed and 151 wounded. In addition, approximately 70 officers, including the admiral, and 1,500 men were taken prisoner. With the Spanish Navy unwilling to risk any additional ships in Cuban waters, the island's garrison was effectively cut off, ultimately dooming them to surrender.