Classic History Books


The Path of Empire. A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power
by Carl Russell Fish

Both Spain and the United States hastily purchased, in the last days of peace, a few vessels, but not
enough seriously to affect their relative strength. Both also drew upon their own merchant marines. Spain

added 18 medium-sized vessels to her navy; the United States added in all 123, most of which were small

and used for scouting purposes. The largest and most efficient of these additional American ships were

the subsidized St. Paul, St. Louis, New York, and Paris of the American line, of which the last two,

renamed the Harvard and Yale, proved to be of great service. It was characteristic of American

conditions that 28 were private yachts, of which the Mayflower was the most notable. To man these new

ships, the personnel of the American Navy was increased from 13,750 to 24,123, of whom a large

number were men who had received some training in the naval reserves of the various States.

The first duty of the navy was to protect the American coast. In 1885 the War Department had planned
and Congress had sanctioned a system of coast defense. Up to 1898, however, only one quarter of the

sum considered necessary had been appropriated. Mines and torpedoes were laid at the entrances to

American harbors as soon as war broke out, but there was a lack of highpower guns. Rumors of a

projected raid by the fast Spanish armored cruisers kept the coast cities in a state of high excitement, and

many sought, by petition and political pressure, to compel the Navy Department to detach vessels for

their defense. The Naval War Board, however, had to remember that it must protect not only the coast

but commerce also, and that the United States was at war not to defend herself but to attack. Cuba was

the objective; and Cuba must be cut off from Spain by blockade, and the seas must be made safe for the

passage of the American Army. If the navy were to accomplish all these purposes, it must destroy the

Spanish Navy. To achieve this end, it would have to work upon the principle of concentration and not

dispersion.

For several months before the actual declaration of war with Spain, the Navy Department had been
effecting this concentration. On the 21st of April, Captain William T. Sampson was appointed to

command the forces on the North Atlantic station. This included practically the whole fleet, except the

Pacific squadron under Dewey, and the Oregon, a new battleship of unusual design, which was on the

Pacific coast. On the 1st of March she was ordered from the Bremerton Yard, in the State of Washington,

to San Francisco, and thence to report in the Atlantic. Her voyage was the longest emergency run

undertaken up to that time by a modern battleship. The outbreak of the war with Spain meant the sealing

of all ports in which she might have been repaired in case of emergency. Rumors were rife of Spanish

vessels ready to intercept her, and the eyes not only of the United States but of the world were upon the

Oregon. A feeling of relief and rejoicing therefore passed through the country when this American

warship arrived at Key West on the 26th of May, fit for immediate and efficient service.

The fleet, though concentrated in the Atlantic within the region of immediate hostility, was divided for
purposes of operation into a major division under the immediate command of Admiral Sampson and a

flying squadron under Commodore Schley.* The first undertook the enforcement of the blockade which

was declared on the 21st of April against Cuba, and patrolled the northern coast from Gardenas to Bahia.

Key West was soon filled with Spanish prizes. On the 27th of April a brush took place between batteries

at Matanzas and some of the American vessels, without loss of life on either side, except for a mule

which bids fair to become immortal in history through being reported by the Spanish as their only

casualty and the first of the war. Admiral Sampson, following the tradition of the American Navy of

aiming at a vital spot, wished to attack Havana; and a careful study of its fortifications seems to show

that he would have had a good chance of success. Chance, however, might have caused the loss of some

of his vessels, and, with the small margin of naval superiority at its disposal the Naval War Board was

probably wise in not allowing him to take the risk.

 

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