The Naval Action at Manzanillo

by Agustín R. Rodriguez González


The following account is a modern Spanish account of the action at Manzanillo between a small American flotilla and a small Spanish flotilla. The engagements at Manzanillo are typical of some of the many smaller naval action that occurred during the Cuban Campaign, with one notable exception. This was one of the few occasions where the American navy, in spite of its numerical superiority, and the better condition of its vessels, was not victorious.

This is a case of a great article of a notable action…but one where the author lost some of his objectivity in trying to belittle the actions of a foe in an action of a century ago between two nations that are now friends. Again, as we always do, we must emphasize that the men who fought on both sides were generally men of honor and courage. The fighting men of both sides treated their foe with respect, and even kindness, when circumstances permitted. Belittling either side now shows disrespect to the men of both sides who fought in this century-old conflict. For specific examples 

The article is historically correct. However, the conjectural opinions expressed by the author concerning what is included in the American reports are inaccurate, exaggerated, and not objective (for instance, author indicates that the Americans were apparently trying to hide their casualties, when, in fact, the American reports on casualties are quite specific. Also the author comments that the Americans seem to be lying in that the length of the engagement is different in one officer’s report. However one officer timed the action until the firing stopped, whereas the other two officers considered the action over earlier, but commented that firing continued. The confusion over the number of ships involved does show up in the one American report, which indicates more vessels docked “as pontoons”. As the Spanish officer comments, the day exhibited low visibility and the officer apparently was unable to make out the actual number of vessel docked. The reports do comment that one of the gunboats was larger than the others, but makes no claim that it was exceptionally large. As far as the six inch gun, as the Spanish author points out, the docked vessels had 13 cm (5.2 inch) guns. These are the guns the Americans specifically point out as 6 inch guns. The Americans oddly do mention 8 and 9 inch guns being involved, which was quite incorrect, but the author makes no mention of this).

The Article: The Manzanillo Campaign:

The naval action that was fought in this port make up the third most important naval campaign of this war, a distant third to the two most notable, and more significant actions [Manila Bay and Santiago]. This campaign can be explained as resulting from this port’s high strategic value and a serious error committed by the American command. Thinking that this port was of low value, they did not blockade it, and, for this reason several Spanish blockade runners managed to arrive in it fully loaded with supplies. The port was the “headquarters or main base” of one of the Spanish expeditionary divisions in Cuba. Since this port was not guarded or threatened by enemy forces, the Spanish managed to form a brigade of 4000 soldiers, also outfitted with several cannons, and led by Colonel Escario. This brigade was sent to help break the siege of Santiago de Cuba (this force had the potential to have changed the final result of the campaign, but because of other factors finally it was unable to do so). When it was already too late – Escario had departed on 22 June - on 27 June, McKinley ordered that the forgotten port of Manzanillo be attacked.

For this attack the Americans used a squadron of auxiliary gunboats: the HIST (ex “THESEPIA”) of 472 tons, armed with 1x47mm and 2x37mm guns and one Colt mg (machine gun), the HORNET” (ex “ALICIA”) of 425 tons with 2x57mm, 1x47mm and 2x 37 mm guns, and the tug “WOMPATUCK” (ex “ATLAS”) of 462 tons, with 3x47 mm guns and one Gatling gun. These ships were commanded by the Lieutenants Young (HIST), Helms (HORNET), and Jungen (WOMPATUCK), with the first being the ranking officer and leader of the expedition. As they had during the naval action at Cárdenas, they had the help of a Cuban pilot to guide them in the port.

Near their objective, at Niquero, the Americans found the small Spanish gunboat CENTINELA, a steam yacht of 30 tons, built in the U.S. and armed with 2x37mm guns. She was commanded by the teniente de navío Claudio Aldereguía. The results of this action was conclusive, with the gunboat, being hit more than 25 times,  resulting in a serious leak, the engine being damaged, one stoker dead, and several others wounded, was run aground to avoid her sinking. The Americans considered the gunboat sunk, and went on with their mission, but the hardworking crew managed to repair the ship with their own hands, and the gunboat was able, a few days later, to return to her base in Manzanillo, the base that the gunboat tried to alert with her resistence.

The news of the action was transmitted by heliograph, and arrived at Manzanillo with some delayed, but in time to provide an alert. The squadron detached there was composed of four gunboats: the GUANTANAMO of the VEA MURGUA gunboat type (these gunboats had a displacement of 42 tons more or less, a max. speed of 10 knots and were armed with one 42 mm gun on her bow and one 37 mm “Maxim” machine gun on the stern) commanded by the teniente de navío Bartolomé Morales; the ESTRELLA of the FORREST type (very similar to the VEA MURGUA type with the same specifications), leaded by the teniente de navío Sebastián Noval; the DELGADO PAREJO, the old American yacht DART that was given as a present to the navy by the Spanish community in New York, with a displacement of 85 tons, with 1x57 mm gun and one Maxim, commanded by Angel Ramos Izquierdo; and the GUARDIAN ex yacht AZTECA, given as present by her owner, the shipowner A. Menéndez, with a displacement of 65 tons. This last gunboat was immobile since she had a engine breakdown. For this reason her crew was reduced to 4 men that handled her only 42 mm gun. The previous hard campaign against the Cuban insurrection and the climate had taken a heavy toll, which is why the three gunboats had only 19 men per ship while  theoretically  they should have carried 25 men (more or less) per ship.

Also the Spanish had the old wooden gunboat CUBA ESPANOLA built in La Habana on 1870, but this ship was useless, and the old 255 ton hulk was fitted with one old 13 cm Parrott muzzle loading cannon and just 30 rounds of ammunition. Additionally, her crew was reduced to seven men. Also present was an old sailing ship aquired  a few years before to be employed as pontoon, store, and floating barrack, with the same armament  and renamed MARIA with a 39 man crew, including the doctor and medical assistant of the flotilla. These two pontoons and the useless GUARDIAN were commanded by the teniente de navío Ramón Navarro.

The 30 June afternoon was rainy and had a low visibility, however, the port watchman signaled at 15:30 that the intruders that were coming into the port. The Spanish commander was the teniente de navío de primera clase Joaquín Gómez de Barreda, commander of the port. This veteran of the war against the Cuban rebels, in which he earned the medal Cruz Roja del Mérito Militar, wasn´t  impressed with his weak forces. He raised his pennant on the DELGADO PAREJO and, followed by the GUANTANMO and ESTRELLA,” went in action against the enemy, while the two pontoons and the immovable GUARDIAN, gave weak, but wholehearted support from their berths.

The waters of Manzanillo were not defended with mines, and as far as land-based artillery, there were only three old campaign guns of 8 and 9 cm, mainly useless in a naval combat except for their moral effects. There were also some riflemen positioned on the wharfs. For all these reasons, the leading role of this combat would be played by the three gunboats that together had a displacement less than a half of each one of the enemy vessels, and carried only six guns against the 13 of the attackers.

At 15:45 both sides opened fire, closing the range between the two enemy flotillas to less than a nautical mile, and despite their inferiority, the luck shined on th Spanish veterans over the less experienced Americans. After one hour of combat the result no longer doubtful: the HIST had been received eleven direct hits and  several shrapnel and indirect hits. The HORNET had less luck, receiving six direct hits, one of which exploded an ammunition box, and another cut the main steam pipe, scalding three stokers and leaving the ship dead in the water and drifting dangerously towards a sandbank. She was taken under tow by the WOMPATUCK. This last ship had been hit three times also, receiving a hit in a whale boat, and also lost a gun to a mechanical breakdown. The American flotilla was forced to retreat hurriedly, followed by the acclamations and cheers from the Spanish defenders, who could not gain a complete victory because of a lack of ammunition, and the impossibility of receiving  new supplies in the future.

The Spanish vessels had suffered only minor damage, and the following losses: on the DELGADO PAREJO two men had been killed, two other slightly wounded. Her commander had been injured, and was replaced in the next combats by the an officer of the same rank, Joaquin Montagut. The MARIA suffered the heaviest damage with two men wounded and two suffering other injuries. Another man was injured aboard the GUARDIAN. On land two men were wounded in the garrison an another two civilians were injured.

The American reports are less detailed about the human losses. They state that there were only the three men scalded on the HORNET, but this information doesn´t seem reliable, and these three men didn´t even appear in the campaign general recount of casualties (and at least one of them died). This causes the author to believe that the Americans hid the real number of casualties.

Even the reports of the three Americans commanders differ and show not only contradictory versions but obviously are false. Young asserts that the action lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, Helm that it lasted 45 minutes and Jungen 55 minutes. Obviously impressed by their enemy, they told that fought against NINE vessels, some of them really big and armed with “even six inch guns”, they also told that one of the vessels was a torpedo boat (there weren´t any Spanish torpedo boats in Cuba) supported by “several and powerful coastal batteries” They claimed that they managed to sink several of these vessels included one “schooner fully loaded with very fierce Spanish troops prepared for boarding”.

The value of such reports was proved the next day, more or less within 16 hours. Another American formation was ready for a mission that was to “destroy the remnants of the Spanish ships that began the day before”. The attacking ships were now the “SCORPION,” basically an auxiliary cruiser with a 850 tons displacement and armed with 4x127 mm, and 6x57mm and the tug OSCEOLA (ex “WINTHROP”) with a 571 tons  displacement, with 2x57 mm, 1x47 mm, one Gatling and one Colt. They were commanded by the Lieutenant-Commander Marix (SCORPION) and Lieutenant Purcell (OSCEOLA).

This time the combat range was greater, about 2500 m, which was to make use of the greater range of their 5 inch guns, one shell from which would have been enough to sink or at least seriously damage seriously any of the Spanish gunboats. But the result of the combat after 25 minutes was similar to that of the day before, and the American ships must withdrew. The Spanish shells initially fell short, but improved eventually hitting the “SCORPION” with 12 shots. Of these 12 shots, only one perforated the side because of the great range and low power of the Spanish light guns, but the deck was covered with shrapnel. The OSCEOLA did not report any hits, but signaled that one of her guns was useless. Even though these ships received serious damage they made no report of casualties. Again they reported that their enemies were very powerful, speaking about one gunboat with a 1000 tons displacement and another two of 300 and 400 tons, and very powerful coastal batteries.

The Spanish only suffered one hit in the MARIA, where three sailors were wounded and a few more very slightly injured. Significantly, later they found on land 19 enemy shells that had not exploded. Many shells fell among the civilian population, killing two women  and wounding one additional civilian.

Barreda surprisingly had earned another, even more meritorious victory, making goof use of his poor flotilla. With his strong defence, the Americans thought that they were fighting against a stronger enemy. But he didn´t rest, however, and after this last combat he ordered the two pontoons moved to other locations where there were better angles of fire covering the entrance to the port, and also ordered the removal of the ammunition from the useless GUARDIAN to fill the nearly empty ammunition stores of the other ships. On 2 July the damaged CENTINELA was available for action. Thinking that the situation was indefensible against a new attack because of a lack of ammunition, Barreda told his commanders to that he intended to break out of the port and go to another port where his gunboats could be loaded with ammunition. This is a much different and obviously a much more positive attitude then was seen in Cervera at Santiago. Permission for the sortie was denied by several other reasons.

On 3 July Cervera’s squadron was destroyed, and on July 16 Santiago surrendered. Only then did the American command decide to neutralize the irritating small Spanish flotilla. The operation seems to be in revenge of the previous American failures, because would be commanded by Todd (who failed in Cardenas). For this action, the Americans brought in the five ships that previously had attacked Manzanillo, which had been repaired and which had seven more guns in the first three ships, and which were joined by the cruisers WILMINGTON, and her twin HELENA.

On 18 July at 7:45, the seven American ships entered the port simultaneously by way of the port’s three entrances. They did not any serious errors and used the superior range of their 4x5inch and 16x4inch guns. The attackers opened fire over the 3000 m (which was the Spanish guns maximum range).

Looking at such a powerful enemy, Barreda ordered his men to abandon their ships. Carrying their supplies and artillery, the Spanish sailors entrenched themselves, and began to fire against the American ships from their new positions when the American ships approached land. The Spanish gunboats were destroyed by the American fire and three steamers from the company Antinógenes Menéndez: “PURISIMA CONCEPCION" (until this moment a lucky blockade runner), and the old side wheel, wooden-hulled ships JOSE GARCIA and CLORIA. The casualties among the Spanish squadron was a wounded boatswain, and the garrison suffered two dead and five wounded, and one wounded civilian. The Americans did not suffer any damage from the from the Spanish flotilla or from the “several and powerful coastal batteries”.

Tormented by the lost of his flotilla, Barreda told Manterola that he was “more satisfied [with this loss] because we could save our crews from the disaster...” than from his previous victories. This statement tells us a lot about the man’s character.

The situation in the port began to worsen, as it was blockaded from the sea and menaced by the Cuban guerrillas. The garrison began to suffer seriously from illness and famine. After the departure of Escario’s column, the garrison was reduced to three weak battalions, two of the regiments “Vizcaya” and “Alava” and another provisional unit formed with detachments from other units, civilians, volunteers, etc. The garrison seemed like easy prey, and for this reason the American commanders decided to conquer the garrison in a combined operation with the Cuban guerrillas.

For the attack the Americans again began to gather a squadron, commanded by the Commodore Goodrich, whose flagship, the protected cruiser NEWARK, had 4,100 ton displacement, and was armed with 12x152mm and ten lighter guns. The squadron also included the well known HIST (reinforced with 2x37mm guns), OSCEOLA, the SUWANEE with 2x4inch and 4x57 mm, and the ex-Spanish gunboat ALVARADO, which had been surrendered in Santiago and which had a 100 tons displacement and was armed with 1x57 mm and one Maxim. This force was supported by the transport RESOLUTE that carried the marine battalion, led by the Colonel Huntington.

The bombardment began on 12 August at 15:40, while the Cuban forces attacked by land. At 16:15 Goodrich thought that the Spanish showed a white flag, and, for this reason, stopped fire and sent the ALVARADO with a negotiation flag, followed at a little distance by the remainder of his ships. Seeing this action, the Spanish thought it was a trick, and opened fire with their rifles, with two of the three guns that had been removed from the gunboats before their destruction, and with their available field guns. At this time the American ships were hit for the first time, among them the OSCEOLA which was hit by a shell that blew up an ammunition box, and the SUWANEE which was hit in her flag by three rifle bullets. After this the American ships withdrew to a range of 5,000 meters. At 17:30 only the NEWARK opened a sporadic fire to wear down the Spanish defenders (one of four shells on average did not explode due to failures with their fuses), at the same time the Cuban attack failed, and the “marines” were unable to disembark. The Spanish sailors do not suffer any casualties, but the port garrison had six dead (four of them while they were sleeping on their shelters) and nine wounded. Also, there were two civilians killed and 22 wounded. Also many buildings suffered serious damage. The American squadron’s casualties were unknown, while the Cuban forces, led by the rebel Rubí, had two dead and 11 wounded.

That night, the Spanish forces knew that Spain and the United States had signaled the armistice. Barreda had no doubts and embarked in a small boat that carried three red lights to show his pacific intentions to speak with the American flotilla, but the Americans thought that this boat was a torpedo boat and opened fire. The next morning the misunderstanding was cleared up, and the Spanish heroic resistance could end.

Joaquín Gómez Barreda was decorated with the Cruz de María Cristina for the naval actions, and the Cruz del Mérito Militar for his defense of the port until it was impossible to do so any longer. In spite of his actions, the Spanish defense had only a small impact on the war effort.


Excerpted  from:

Agustín R. Rodriguez González, Doctor of Contemporary History, “Los combates navales de cárdenas y manzanillo en 1898” (“The cárdenas and manzanillo naval combats during 1898”) Revista Española de Historia Militar nº 13/14 July-August 2001.

Dr. Agustín R. Rodriguez González's sources:

Dorwart, J.M. “A Mongrel fleet: America buys a navy for fight Spain,1898”, en warship International, nº 2  1980, pages 141-155.

Feuer, A.B. “A hot greeting for the attacking american flotilla was followed by a remarkable rescue off the Cuban coast”, in Military History, October 1995, pages 82-88

Llabrés, Juan, “Fin de nuestro Apostadero y Escuadra de las Antillas 1898”,en Revista General de Marina 1965 pages 70-93

Montesinos y Salas, Enrique, “Los Yankees en Manzanillo 1898”

Rodríguez Gonzalez, A.R. “Operaciones de la guerra de 1898. Una revisión crítica”, Actas, Madrid, 1998 y “Operaciones menores en Cuba 1898”, en Revista de Historia Naval, nº 9 de 1985, pages 125.145.

The American reports in Appendix to the report of the chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Navy department, Washington, 1898, los españoles en Operaciones Navales de la Guerra con los EE.UU, Imprenta de Infantería de Marina, Madrid, 1899.

Armada archive D. Alvaro de Bazán, Expediciones, Asuntos Particulares e Histórico, años 1898-1899, and Expediciones Personales, Cuerpo General, y Recompensas. Historiales buques “Antonio López”

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