The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was the largest and most decisive naval engagement of the Spanish-American War. Two days after the capture of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, remembered by Theodore Roosevelt as his “crowded hour,” the Spanish fleet sought their escape from the blockade of Santiago Bay. The six Spanish ships, slower and outgunned by their American opponents, were rapidly sunk, scuttled, or grounded. At this point, with the American navy in total control of the sea and the army besieging Santiago, the war was essentially won, although negotiations for a peace protocol were not concluded until August 12, 1898.
The American commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, Admiral William Thomas Sampson, telegraphed the Navy Department of the victory and began a controversy that would divide the Navy. Sampson’s telegram noted the fleet’s victory but failed to mention that he was absent for almost the entire battle and that his subordinate, Admiral Winfield Scott Schley, was the senior officer present during the fight. Credit for the victory quickly entered the realm of public opinion with various newspapers and naval officers taking sides.
A political game, August 21, 1901. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.
Admiral Sampson was technically in command, but that morning he had left aboard USS New York to confer with General William Rufus Shafter, the commander of American ground operations. An interim commander was not named, and New York was only able to lob a few shots at a rapidly disintegrating enemy. However, Sampson had organized the North Atlantic Squadron and conceived of the blockade. Most importantly, Sampson was the commanding naval officer, a nearly unassailable position from a military standpoint. Admiral Schley was present during the battle, which aided his war hero status. His claim for recognition was generally favored by the press and public.
After the war, Sampson was promoted one place ahead of Schley on the seniority list. The promotions needed to be approved by Congress, which provided another opportunity to argue about which admiral deserved the most credit. In September 1901, Schley requested a court of inquiry into his own conduct during the war, possibly with the hope that a favorable verdict would strengthen his claims on the Santiago victory. The court praised Schley’s prowess in the battle, but criticized several of his decisions leading up to the blockade and faulted him for a dangerous maneuver his ship performed at the outset of the battle. To add to the confusion, Admiral George Dewey, the court’s president, filed an unexpected minority report supporting Schley that gave him full credit for the victory. Schley then appealed the court’s decision to President Roosevelt.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Benjamin F. Tracy, February 7, 1902. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.
Roosevelt and Navy leadership sought an end to the awkward dispute. The court’s decision would stand, but events prior to the battle, which would be unfavorable to Schley, were no longer referenced in the report. In Roosevelt’s conclusion, Sampson remained in technical command and the individual captains of each ship determined the course and outcome of the battle, thus removing Schley’s claim of commanding the battle and simply making him the captain of his ship, USS Brooklyn.
A selection of documents in the digital library that relate to this controversy can be found here.
Graybar, Lloyd J. “Sampson, William Thomas.” American National Biography. 1999. Print.
Graybar, Lloyd J. “Schley, Winfield Scott.” American National Biography. 1999. Print.
Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: H. Holt, 1998. Print.
Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Print.