From the very first, it was plain to all that our eastern coast was in the most danger, for besides her fleet in the Philippines and gunboats along the Cuban and Puerto Rican coasts, Spain had many war ships near home. Fearing lest some of these vessels should attack our towns, and knowing we had not enough ships to defend them properly, the President ordered the Oregon, a Western battleship, to come to the east coast as fast as it could. This journey of fifteen thousand miles was accomplished without accident in seventy–one days. But every one feared the Oregon might be attacked by Spanish vessels in the South American waters, and there were great rejoicings when we heard it had reached Florida safely.
While the Oregon was rushing eastward, harbors were mined, forts garrisoned, guns mounted, vessels bought and armed, volunteers called and drilled, and funds raised. In a wonderfully short time our President had all the money he needed, and was at the head of a fine navy and an army of about two hundred and forty thousand men. While this army was getting ready, the navy was busy guarding our coast, watching the movements of the Spanish vessels, blockading the Cuban ports, cutting cables, capturing vessels, and from time to time shelling the shore batteries.
All at once, the news came that a Spanish fleet had started to cross the Atlantic, and until it finally ran into the harbor of Santiago, on the southern coast of Cuba, great anxiety was felt lest it should attack some of our scouting ships or an ill–defended coast town. But as soon as we heard that the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera was in Santiago harbor, Commodore Schley’s squadron went there to prevent its escape.
Meanwhile, three of our ships, cutting cables near Cardenas, had been attacked; but although they soon silenced the Spanish batteries, it was with the loss of five of our brave men. Shortly after this engagement,—and before it was known where Admiral Cervera’s fleet was,—Rear Admiral Sampson bombarded the forts of San Juan in Puerto Rico, and did some damage to the enemy. The Spaniards bravely returned his fire, but their aim was so poor that most of their shots fell far from our ships. Soon after this,’ Sampson joined Schley near Santiago, and took command of the whole fleet.
The entrance to Santiago Bay is so long and narrow that, knowing it was mined, and protected by forts on either side, our government would not allow the American fleet to try to force an entrance. All our ships could do, therefore, was to shell the forts along the coast and keep watch day and night.
There was, however, great danger that if a hurricane arose, our ships would be obliged to run out to sea, or seek a safe port. The Americans knew Admiral Cervera would take advantage of such an event to run out of the harbor, and the navy was very anxious to find a way of blocking it so he could not get out.
Sampson therefore decided to run the Merrimac—a collier—into the channel at night, swing it directly across the narrowest part, and sink it there, thus making a barrier which could not easily be removed. The execution of this plan was entrusted to Naval Constructor Hobson, who, with seven brave volunteers, took the vessel into the channel one night.
Just as Hobson was about to swing the Merrimac around, he was seen by a Spanish patrol boat, and a shot disabled his rudder. It was followed by a deafening roar from the forts on shore; but although shells exploded all around him, and a mine went off under him, Hobson coolly gave his orders. The torpedoes were touched off, and as the Merrimac sank, he and his men were swept overboard into the seething waters. There, escaping death by miracle, they clung to the largest thing still afloat—an old raft or catamaran.
When the Merrimac went down, the Spaniards cheered wildly, thinking they had sunk an American war ship trying to steal into their harbor unseen. Many boats now put out from shore to examine the wreck, and Hobson, seeing no chance of escaping to the launch waiting for him at the mouth of the harbor, surrendered at dawn to the first officer he saw. This was Admiral Cervera, who, admiring his bold deed, sent word to our navy that the Americans were safe. But although our government took immediate steps to exchange prisoners, Hobson and his brave companions had to spend more than a month in Spanish prisons.