Dawn was just breaking on the morning of May 11, 1898, as the American cruiser Marblehead sailed near the entrance of the Spanish-held port of Cienfuegos, Cuba. And as the cruiser steamed to within a mile of the shore, 44-year-old U.S. Navy Lieutenant Cameron McR. Winslow stood on the bridge, carefully examining the area known as Punta de la Colorados through a pair of binoculars.
There was no doubt of the enemy’s presence in the area. Winslow could see the Spanish soldiers milling about the emplacements on shore — a lighthouse, a signaling station and adjacent rifle pits that had been dug along the beach.
Yet the small houselike structure on the beach about 30 feet from the water attracted most of Winslow’s attention. Spanish cavalrymen could be seen guarding the building. Winslow could see no artillery pieces, but a rocky bluff rising behind the house was covered with trees and chaparral that could provide excellent cover for the concealment of both Spanish guns and infantry.
The small building hardly seemed important enough to deserve his rapt attention. In fact, the insignificant-looking house, full of telegraphic equipment, was a key communications junction for the Spanish on the island of Cuba. Now, with the presence of the American warships, it was about to become the focal point for one of the U.S. Navy’s most daring and unusual operations during America’s 1898 conflict with Spain.
The war had come quickly between the two nations, although mutual animosity had been growing for years. During the late 1800s, the American public had watched with interest and concern as Cuban natives staged nearly constant rebellions and uprisings against the rule of Spain, the island’s colonial master. Over these years, stories of Spanish atrocities, told mostly in the greatly embellished and exaggerated style of ‘yellow journalism, were common fare in American newspapers. Mistrust led to a crisis on February 15, 1898, when the U.S. battleship Maine mysteriously blew up in Havana Harbor. Although the true causes of the tragedy remained debatable, the Spanish were nonetheless blamed and became the enemy in the eyes of most Americans. On April 21, 1898, after months of pressure from the American press and public, the United States government declared war on Spain.
The energy of a young assistant secretary of the Navy named Theodore Roosevelt assured that the U.S. Navy would be well prepared for the outbreak of war. Within days of the declaration, for instance, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, sailed from Hong Kong to destroy Spain’s Pacific Fleet in a stunning victory in the Battle of Manila Bay, thereby clearing the way for America’s occupation of the Philippines.
The U.S. Atlantic Fleet moved with equal speed to establish a naval blockade cutting off Cuba from Spain. At 6 o’clock on the night of April 21, only hours after the declaration of war had been passed by Congress, orders arrived at the American base at Key West, Fla., about 90 miles north of Havana. The ships immediately began leaving harbor, and by daybreak on the following morning, a fleet of 26 American warships under the command of Rear Adm. William T. Sampson was on its way to take up positions along the Cuban coast.
From the beginning, the Navy faced a daunting task. Twenty-six ships were not sufficient to guard Cuba’s 2,000-mile coast. By the end of the war, the size of the force had been increased to 124 vessels. Nonetheless, resources were always limited, considering the size of the task the Navy faced. With such meager forces, the Navy tended to concentrate its blockade along the island’s northern coast. In the early days of the war, the blockade of the island’s southern coast was assigned to a small force, the Atlantic Fleet’s 4th Division.
Under the command of Commander Bowman H. McCalla, the division consisted of only five ships. Fittingly, the flag-ship, the 2,072-ton cruiser Marblehead, was by far the flotilla’s most powerful warship. Laid down at Boston in 1890 and commissioned four years later, the unarmored cruiser measured only 269 feet long and 37 feet wide, and by modern standards the cruiser was frail and lightly armed. It carried six 5-inch guns, six 6-pound guns, two 1-pounders, and two machine guns. Nonetheless, the cruiser was a formidable, modern warship for its day, with a top speed of 18 knots and a complement of 274 men.
After Marblehead, however, the power of the 4th Division’s ships was slight. Apart from the cruiser, the division’s only purpose-built warship was the gunboat Nashville. Laid down at Norfolk in 1894 and commissioned in 1897, the 1,371-ton vessel, under the command of Commander Washburn Maynard, carried mixed armament of eight 4-inch guns, two 6-pounders, two 3-pounders and two 1-pounders. Nashville had a crew of approximately 180 men.
These two ships were the extent of the 4th Division’s real power. Beyond them, any resemblance to a modern naval force ended. The remainder of the division was an odd collection of hastily procured vessels that included a converted civilian yacht once named Almy and now called USS Eagle; the revenue cutter Windom, loaned to the Navy for the duration by the Treasury Department; and the collier Saturn, which was no warship at all and was only intended to supply coal for the remainder of the force.
The 4th Division’s primary duty was to blockade the Cuban seaport of Cienfuegos. As events dictated, how-ever, a nearby target warranted another operation altogether. In fact, that target was so important that its destruction could conceivably affect the outcome of the war.
In those days before radio transmissions, communications relied on telegraphic cables. Over the years, the Spanish on Cuba had developed an unusual system of telegraphic communications. Because the overland telegraphic cables were constantly being cut by the rebels, the Spanish developed a system of underwater cables that ran along the coast to provide communications both on the island and between Cuba and the outside world. The system worked well before the war with the United States because it was secure from the Cuban rebels, who lacked the equipment and expertise to disable such a cable under the sea. For the Americans, who could easily overcome such obstacles, however, the offshore cables provided an ideal opportunity to disrupt Spanish communications on the island without having to mount a full-scale landing.
The cable house on the shore near Cienfuegos was one of the vital links for this offshore communications system. To the northwest, the telegraph system ran to Havana, the island’s capital and largest city. To the east, it ran to the Cuban port of Santiago, and from there branches of the cable ran to Jamaica, Haiti and the outside world. If the key cable junction at Cienfuegos could be cut, the American command reasoned, Spanish communications within Cuba and even with the outside world could be severely disrupted.
On May 1, 1898, the Navy Department approved Commander McCalla’s plan to cut the Spanish cable at Cienfuegos as one of the first American naval operations of the new war. The cable junction was located some distance from the city — the port being about six miles from the sea. Access to the Cuban seaport’s nearly landlocked harbor was provided by a long channel. The object of American interest was located just east of where the channel emptied into the sea, on a low strip of land called Punta de la Colorados — or, as it was known in English, Colorado Point.
The dominant feature on the point was its small, white stone lighthouse. A small signaling station also on the point was located about 50 yards northeast of the lighthouse. It consisted of a signaling pole and a small hut that provided shelter for the signalman and the handful of Spanish troops that guarded the station.
The real objective, however, was the cable house about 300 yards northeast of the lighthouse. The insignificant-looking structure housed the apparatus that supported the operation of undersea telegraphic cables. In addition, it marked the point where the vital telegraphic cables left land. It was here, therefore, that the cable was most vulnerable to a naval raid. Navy guns could easily put the telegraph out of operation by destroying the house. But that would be damage the Spaniards could easily repair. Far better would be destruction of the cable at sea, damage the Spanish could not so easily repair.
McCalla was quick to move against such an inviting target. Just before dark on the evening of May 10, the day before the raid was to take place, McCalla signaled for Nashville‘s Commander Maynard and Lieutenant Winslow to report aboard the flagship. McCalla had chosen Winslow, Nashville‘s second officer, to command the raid.
Winslow, navigating officer aboard Nashville, was the product of a well-known naval family. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1854, he was the second cousin of John A. Winslow, the Civil War hero who had commanded Kearsarge during the famous battle in which the Union warship sank the dreaded Confederate commerce raider Alabama. The younger Winslow, though less well-known than his famous relative, nonetheless had built a long and honorable career of his own. Graduating from Annapolis in 1874, Winslow saw extensive sea duty in the years that followed, including an independent command aboard one of the Navy’s first steam torpedo boats, USS Cushing. Winslow had been assigned to duty aboard Nashville in October 1896.
For the raid now contemplated, Winslow organized a small flotilla consisting of the steam cutters and sailing launches from both Marblehead and Nashville. Winslow organized the sailing launches from the ships into makeshift work boats for the task of actually cutting the cables. To keep possible casualties to a minimum, the crews of the small boats would be as small as possible. A crew of 16, consisting of 12 oarsmen, one coxswain and one officer, along with a carpenter’s mate and a blacksmith, was assigned to each of the sailing launches. Half the men were armed with rifles, the other half with revolvers.
The two steam cutters were fitted out as mini-gunboats to provide the sailing launches with covering fire and pin down the Spanish soldiers firing from the rifle pits along the beach and from the surrounding hills. For this purpose, each of the steam cutters, in addition to its crew of five, carried a sergeant and six Marines to act as sharpshooters. To supplement the Marines and provide greater firepower, additional armaments were added. A one-pound Hotchkiss cannon was mounted aboard Marblehead‘s steam cutter, while Nashville‘s cutter was fitted out with two Colt machine guns. Together, the two cutters provided the operation with significant firepower.
Just after dawn on the morning of May 11, 1898, Nashville‘s cutter and launch pushed away from the gunboat. They were soon joined by the boats from Marblehead. Winslow was in command aboard Nashville‘s sailing launch; Lieutenant E.A. Anderson of Marblehead, the expedition’s second-in-command, was in charge of the flagship’s sailing launch. En-sign T.P. Magruder commanded both of the accompanying steam cutters.
The task of the supporting naval squadron during the operation was to draw the Spaniards’ fire away from the work boats. And the gunboats wasted no time in putting their part of the plan into operation. At 6:45 a.m. both ships got underway. Marblehead was the first to open fire upon the Spanish positions on shore. And no sooner had the sound of Marblehead‘s opening salvo faded than Nashville commenced firing as well. The ships soon found the range of their target, their shells falling regularly in the vicinity of the cable house.
There was no doubt about the effectiveness of the naval fire. The cable house on the beach was quickly destroyed.
Again and again the shells found their mark, bursting and sending clouds of stone and mortar into the air, Winslow would later write of the engagement, …until one shot, striking the tottering structure, burst, and brought it down, leaving nothing but a disordered pile of masonry covering the wreck of the electrical equipment.
At five minutes before 7 o’clock,, the second phase of the raid began when, with the bombardment continuing, the boat flotilla started moving toward its designated position offshore. The steam cutters led the way, each towing one of the sailing launches. When they were about 300 to 400 feet offshore, the steam launches threw off their tow lines, leaving the sailing launches to move in toward shore under their own oar power. The men in the sailing launches began throwing their grappling hooks overboard in order to locate the telegraphic cables.
The presence of coral, however, made the task of locating and raising the cable with grappling hooks particularly difficult. In order to grapple the cable, the men had first to be able to see it on the bottom through the clear Caribbean water. To do this, the launches were forced to move closer and closer to the shore — closer and closer to the source of enemy fire.
Almost from the beginning, the Americans had lost all hope of keeping their true intentions secret. A Spanish cavalryman astride a white horse spotted the boats as they moved toward the beach. The sharpshooters in the steam launches opened fire in an attempt to prevent him from escaping and raising the alarm among other Spanish troops in the area. The pitching of the boats in the Caribbean waves, however, made precise shooting impossible. The Spaniard was successful in his escape, and word of the American operation quickly spread among the Spanish troops.
The boats were about 100 feet from the shore when the sailors saw the first of the cables in about 20 feet of water. This particular cable ran east and connected Cienfuegos to Santiago.
The sailors aboard the launches wasted no time in trying to raise the cable, but pulling it up from the bottom and aboard the boats proved difficult. The heavy submarine cable, two inches in diameter, was shielded in so much lead and insulation that it weighed about 6 pounds per linear foot. The 30 men in both boats heaved and strained to pull the cable to the surface. The heavy cable, laid taut along the bottom, seemed to weigh tons, Winslow later wrote.
They finally did raise it, and now the steam cutters towed the launches to deeper water for the task of cutting the cable. Here inexperience at the task began to tell. The sailors aboard the launches at first tried to use axes to hack through the cable. Then, when this method proved unsatisfactory, they tried to cut through with cold chisels. They finally found, however, that hacksaws worked the best. All the experimentation took time. It took 20 to 30 minutes to complete the first cut, but the work went more quickly after that. The sailors finally managed to make two cuts in the cable, removing a section of about 150 feet to make it difficult for the Spanish to repair.
Despite the heavy labor, the first step of the operation had gone with surprising ease. The eastbound cable, though, had been out of the line of fire from the Spanish rifle pits on the beach. In addition, the task had been largely completed before reinforcements arrived from the town. All in all, the Spanish response so far had been weak and ineffective. Winslow later wrote that the Spanish fire was so desultory and ineffective that the working parties had paid no attention to it.
Such a lack of enemy resistance, however, was not to last for long. The search for the second cable took the boats farther and farther to the west, and when the American sailors discovered the second cable, their launches were directly in front of Spanish rifle pits on the shore. To make matters worse, the underwater coral again forced the boats to move closer to shore to search for cable. When the crews finally discovered it, the launches were within 100 feet of the shore — close to the Spanish rifle pits dug along the beach.
To ease the plight of the cable-cutting parties, the ships’ commanders increased their bombardment of the Spanish positions on shore. According to Winslow, the shells from the ships’ guns passed so close overhead that the crews instinctively ducked when the rounds passed. The shells could hardly have come closer to us without hitting the boats, Winslow said.
The close shelling was unnerving for friend and foe alike. We soon realized that we had to take the chance of an accidental hit from our ships or receive fire from the enemy at pistol range, Winslow wrote of the battle, and the men worked in disregard of both.
As if the location were not enough to contend with, the second cable proved to be even more difficult to snare than the first. The coral growth underwater made it hard for grappling hooks to reach the cable. Worse, rough water knocked the boats together and made it hard to see through the high waves.
Increasing fatigue also overtook the crews as they struggled to locate the second cable, which connected Cienfuegos with all-important Havana, and drag it to the surface. Nonetheless, the men persevered and eventually succeeded. As with the first cable, Marblehead‘s men made the cut in the inshore end while Nashville‘s men made the cut on the offshore end. A section of cable about 100 feet long was removed.
In lifting the second cable, Winslow and his party discovered a third, smaller telegraphic cable, too small to be an ocean cable. They assumed that it connected the cable house with the city of Cienfuegos, and before returning to the ships, Winslow and his men set about cutting it as well.
Under the intense naval bombardment that lasted throughout the morning, the Spanish small-arms fire from the shore had gradually faded. As the boat crews finished cutting the second cable, it almost seemed that the Spanish had given up the fight altogether. In response, the fire from the American warships had also nearly stopped.
The lag in Spanish gunfire, however, was only temporary. As work began on the third cable, the Spanish shore fire became stronger. By late morning, large numbers of Spanish reinforcements had made their way out from Cienfuegos and the surrounding area and taken up positions at Punta de la Colorados. Under cover of tall grass and bushes of the chaparral, the reinforcements were able to crawl unseen into the rifle pits and trenches, even into the lighthouse.
Locating and raising the third cable again took the boats perilously close to the Spanish positions. Both boats were within 100 feet of the shore and within 200 feet of the Spanish trenches. Because of the noise of sea and wind, the Americans at first did not notice the increase in fire. Moreover, the Spaniards’ Mauser rifles used smokeless gunpowder, so the men in the boats could not see the incoming fire. The only evidence of the gunfire for the men aboard the boats was the small splashes the bullets made as they struck the water.
Again the ships moved into position, firing their heavy guns upon the positions ashore in effort to quell the Spanish gunfire. And again the naval fire had its devastating effect. All along the ridge and down its sides our projectiles were falling, shattering the rocks, bursting, and sending fragments into the air, clouds of dust, Winslow later said.
Despite the shelling from the ships offshore, the Spanish fire remained concentrated on the launches and the cutters as their crewmen worked to destroy the enemy cable. The Spanish persistence led to the first American casualties of the Spanish-American War. Aboard Marblehead‘s cutter, one of the Marines, Patrick Regan, was killed when struck in the head by a bullet. Another man, also struck by a bullet, fell in Nashville‘s cutter as well. And in Winslow’s own boat, sailor Robert Volz was struck four times by Spanish bullets. Winslow himself was struck in the hand.
No longer using small arms only, the enemy now opened fire with a fieldpiece mounted in the vicinity of the lighthouse and with machine guns, as well. Clearly, the position of the men in the boats had become untenable. Winslow was forced to abandon the effort to destroy the third cable and ordered the boats back to the ships.
It was a fighting retreat. Some of the sailors took up their rifles to return the Spanish fire, while others bent over the oars. Ensign Magruder’s steam cutters quickly came up to take the launches in tow. They then all made their way back to the ships. Their ordeal, however, was far from over — the Spanish fire remained heavy. Especially hard hit were the boats from Marblehead, enveloped by shore fire as they passed in front of the lighthouse. Five of their men were badly wounded.
The heated Spanish fire also caused minor casualties aboard the gunboats. Spent bullets from the shore injured several men aboard Nashville. At one point during the action, a spent round struck a sailor, then hit Commander Maynard in the chest as he stood on the bridge of the gunboat. The impact was sufficient to put him out of action, and Nashville‘s executive officer, Lieutenant A.C. Dillingham, was forced to assume command. The brief interruption in command, however, did little to disrupt the gunboat’s covering fire. We had to clear away very large numbers of Spanish troops, and you can tell [the volume] of our firing when I say we each [Marblehead and Nashville] fired 400 shells, an officer aboard the Nashville wrote home after the battle.
By 10:15 that morning, the boats had finally pulled alongside the ships after being under enemy fire for three hours. For about 30 minutes, the fire had been galling. Nevertheless, Americans casualties were amazingly light. One Marine had been killed, one sailor would later die of wounds, and several men had been seriously wounded. Winslow’s bullet had passed through his left hand.
About an hour later, the American ships got underway and put back out to sea. The raid on Cienfuegos was over.
Only then did the enormity of the opposition become apparent to those who had taken part in the raid. Throughout the battle, the Spanish had misinterpreted the Americans’ objective. Convinced that the Americans were landing in force as part of an attempt to flank and capture Cienfuegos, the Spanish had strongly reinforced Punta de la Colorados. Sev-eral days later, Cuban insurgents in the area reported that an entire regiment, about 1,500 men, had marched to Punta de la Colorados to meet the supposed American threat.
The Spanish, in fact, had taken great pride in their ability to turn back the supposed American invasion. Since daybreak to-day [sic], five of the enemy’s ships have attempted to cover the landings at various points, but the Americans were repulsed and forced to re-embark their troops, boasted an official dispatch from Madrid regarding the battle. The conduct of the Spaniards is worthy of the highest praise, the communiqué went on to say.
Despite the heavy odds, the Americans’ limited attack actually had been a success. Two large ocean cables had been cut, and Spanish communications on the island had been dealt a serious blow.
The true number of casualties for the Spanish at Cienfuegos will probably never be known. Cuban insurgents in the area later reported the Spanish loss during the bombardment and raid at about 300 killed and wounded. Spanish sources, however, later claimed their losses were 2 killed and 14 wounded.
The cable raid at Cienfuegos, one of the first confrontations between the troops of both sides in Cuba during America’s 1898 war with Spain, was an example of daring, bravery and ingenuity as a small band of Americans challenged the sea and their enemy to make their vital mission a success.
This article was written by John D. Pelzer and originally appeared in the June 1993 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!