Read CHAPTER VIII - HOBSON AND THE MERRIMAC of The Boys of 98, free online book, by James Otis, on

May 29. The blockading fleet, under command of Commodore Schley, off Santiago de Cuba, was composed of the Brooklyn, Iowa, Massachusetts, Texas, New Orleans, Marblehead, and Vixen.

At about midnight on May 29th the officer of the deck on board the Texas saw, by aid of his night-glass, two low-lying, swiftly-running steamers stealing out of Santiago Harbour, and keeping well within the shadows of the land.

As soon as might be thereafter the war-vessel’s search-lights were turned full on, and at the same moment the sleeping crew were awakened.

It was known beyond a question that the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera was hidden within the harbour, not daring to come boldly out while the blockading squadron was so strong, and the first thought of men as well as officers, when these stealthily moving vessels were sighted, was that the Spaniards were making a desperate effort to escape from the trap they had voluntarily entered.

The search-lights of the Texas revealed the fact that the two strangers were torpedo-boats, and a heavy fire was opened upon them instantly.

With the report of the first gun the call to quarters was sounded on all the other ships, and a dozen rays of blinding light flashed here and there across the entrance to the harbour, until the waters were so brilliantly illumined that the smallest craft in which mariner ever set sail could not have come out unobserved.

The same report which aroused the squadron told the Spaniards that their purpose was no longer a secret, and the two torpedo-boats were headed for the Brooklyn and the Texas, running at full speed in the hope of discharging their tubes before the fire should become too heavy.

The enemy had not calculated, however, upon such a warm and immediate reception.  It was as if every gun on board both the Brooklyn and Texas was in action within sixty seconds after the Spaniards were sighted, and there remained nothing for the venturesome craft save to seek the shelter of the harbour again, fortunate indeed if such opportunity was allowed them.

May 31. The U. S. S. Marblehead, cruising inshore to relieve the monotony of blockading duties, discovered that lying behind the batteries at the mouth of Santiago Harbour were four Spanish cruisers and two torpedo-boat destroyers.

When this fact was reported to the commodore he decided to tempt the Spanish fleet into a fight, and at the same time discover the location of the masked batteries.  In pursuance of this plan he transferred his flag from the Brooklyn to the more heavily armed Massachusetts.

Two hours after noon the Massachusetts, New Orleans, and Iowa, in the order named, and not more than a cable length apart, steamed up to the harbour mouth to within four thousand yards of Morro Castle.

Two miles out to sea lay the Brooklyn, Texas, and other ships of the blockading fleet awaiting the summons which should bring them into the fight; but none came.

The Massachusetts opened fire first, taking the Spanish flag-ship for its target.  An 8-inch shell was the missile, and it fell far short of its mark.  Then the big machine tried her 13-inch guns.

The Cristobal Colon and four batteries - two on the east side, one on the west, and one on an island in the middle of the channel, replied.  Their 10 and 12-inch Krupps spoke shot for shot with our sixes, eights and thirteens.  It was noisy and spectacular, but not effective on either side.

The American fleet steamed across before the batteries at full speed; circled, and passed again.  Both sides had found the range by the time of the second passing, and began to shoot close.  Several shots burst directly over the Iowa, three fell dangerously near the New Orleans, and one sprayed the bow of the Massachusetts.

After half an hour both forts on the east and the one on the island were silenced.  Five minutes later our ships ceased firing.  The western battery and the Spanish flag-ship kept up the din fifteen minutes longer, but their work was ineffective.

June 1. Rear-Admiral Sampson, with the New York as his flag-ship, and accompanied by the Oregon, the Mayflower, and the torpedo-boat Porter, joined Commodore Schley’s squadron off Santiago on the first of June.

A naval officer with the squadron summed up the situation in a communication to his friend at home: 

“Pending the execution of Admiral Sampson’s plan of campaign, our ships form a cordon about the entrance of Santiago Harbour to prevent the possible egress of the Spaniards, should Admiral Cervera be foolhardy enough to attempt to cut his way out.”

The officers of the blockading squadron were well informed as to the situation ashore.  Communication with the Cubans had been established, and it was known that a line of insurgents had been drawn around Santiago, in order that they might be of assistance when the big war-vessels had struck the first blow.

The defences of the harbour were fairly well-known despite the vigilance of the enemy, and it was no secret that within the narrow neck of the channel, which at the entrance is hardly more than three hundred feet wide, eighteen or twenty mines had been planted.

A report from one of the newspaper correspondents, under date of June 1st, was as follows: 

“So far as has been ascertained, there are three new batteries on the west side of the entrance.  These appear to be formed entirely of earthworks.

“The embrasures for the guns can easily be discerned with the glasses.  Cayo Smith, a small island which lies directly beyond the entrance, is fortified, and back of Morro, which sits on the rocky éminences at the right of the entrance, are Estrella battery and St. Carolina fort.  Further up the bay, guarding the last approach to the city of Santiago, is Blanco battery.

“The first are of stone, and were constructed in the early sixties.  St. Carolina fort is partially in ruins.  The guns in Morro Castle and Estrella are of old pattern, 18 and 24-pounders, and would not even be considered were it not for the great height of the fortifications, which would enable these weapons to deliver a plunging fire.

“Modern guns are mounted on the batteries to the left of the entrance.  On Cayo Smith and at Blanco battery there are also four modern guns.  The mines in the narrow, tortuous channel, and the elevation of the forts and batteries, which must increase the effectiveness of the enemy’s fire, and at the same time decrease that of our own, reinforced by the guns of the Spanish fleet inside, make the harbour, as it now appears, almost impregnable.  Unless the entrance is countermined it would be folly to attempt to force its passage with our ships.

“But the Spanish fleet is bottled up, and a plan is being considered to drive in the cork.  If that is done, the next news may be a thrilling story of closing the harbour.  It would release a part of our fleet, and leave the Spaniards to starve and rot until they were ready to hoist the white flag.”

“To drive in the cork,” was the subject nearest Rear-Admiral Sampson’s heart, and he at once went into consultation with his officers as to how it could best be done.  One plan after another was discussed and rejected, and then Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson proposed that the big collier Merrimac, which then had on board about six hundred tons of coal, be sunk across the channel in such a manner as to completely block it.

The plan was a good one; but yet it seemed certain death for those who should attempt to carry it out as proposed.  Lieutenant Hobson, however, claimed that, if the scheme was accepted, he should by right be allowed to take command of the enterprise.

The end to be attained was so great that Admiral Sampson decided that the lives of six or seven men could not be allowed to outweigh the advantage to be gained, and Lieutenant Hobson was notified that his services were accepted; the big steamer was at his disposal to do with as he saw fit.

June 11. The preliminary work of this desperate undertaking was a strain upon the officers and men.  On Wednesday morning the preparations to scuttle the Merrimac in the channel were commenced.  All day long crews from the New York and Brooklyn were on board the collier, never resting in their efforts to prepare her.  She lay alongside the Massachusetts, discharging coal, when the work was first begun.

The news of the intended expedition travelled quickly through the fleet, and it soon became known that volunteers were needed for a desperate undertaking.  From the Iowa’s signal-yard quickly fluttered the announcement that she had 140 volunteers, and the other ships were not far behind.  On the New York the enthusiasm was intense.  Over two hundred members of the crew volunteered to go into that narrow harbour and face death.  The junior officers literally tumbled over each other in their eagerness to get their names on the volunteer list.

When it was learned that only six men and Lieutenant Hobson were to go, there was much disappointment on all sides.  All Wednesday night the crews worked on board the Merrimac; and the other ships, as they passed the collier, before sundown, cheered her.  Lieutenant Hobson paid a brief visit to the flag-ship shortly before midnight, and then returned to the Merrimac.

While on board the flag-ship Lieutenant Hobson thus detailed his plan of action: 

“I shall go right into the harbour until about four hundred yards past the Estrella battery, which is behind Morro Castle.  I do not think they can sink me before I reach somewhere near that point.  The Merrimac has seven thousand tons buoyancy, and I shall keep her full speed ahead.  She can make about ten knots.  When the narrowest part of the channel is reached I shall put her helm hard aport, stop the engines, drop the anchors, open the sea connections, touch off the torpedoes, and leave the Merrimac a wreck, lying athwart the channel, which is not as broad as the Merrimac is long.  There are ten 8-inch improvised torpedoes below the water-line, on the Merrimac’s port-side.  They are placed on her side against the bulk-heads and vital spots, connected with each other by a wire under the ship’s keel.  Each torpedo contains eighty-two pounds of gunpowder.  Each torpedo is also connected with the bridge; they should do their work in a minute, and it will be quick work even if done in a minute and a quarter.

“On deck there will be four men and myself.  In the engine-room there will be two other men.  This is the total crew, and all of us will be in our underclothing, with revolvers and ammunition in water-tight packing strapped around our waists.  Forward there will be a man on deck, and around his waist will be a line, the other end of the line being made fast to the bridge, where I will stand.  By that man’s side will be an axe.  When I stop the engines I shall jerk this cord, and he will thus get the signal to cut the lashing which will be holding the forward anchor.  He will then jump overboard and swim to the four-oared dingy, which we shall tow astern.  The dingy is full of life-buoys, and is unsinkable.  In it are rifles.  It is to be held by two ropes, one made fast at her bow and one at her stern.  The first man to reach her will haul in the tow-line and pull the dingy to starboard.  The next to leave the ship are the rest of the crew.  The quartermaster at the wheel will not leave until after having put it hard aport, and lashed it so; he will then jump overboard.

“Down below, the man at the reversing gear will stop the engines, scramble up on deck, and get over the side as quickly as he is able.  The man in the engine-room will break open the sea connections with a sledge-hammer, and will follow his leader into the water.  This last step ensures the sinking of the Merrimac whether the torpedoes work or not.  By this time I calculate the six men will be in the dingy and the Merrimac will have swung athwart the channel, to the full length of her three hundred yards of cable, which will have been paid out before the anchors are cut loose.  Then, all that is left for me is to touch the button.  I shall stand on the starboard side of the bridge.  The explosion will throw the Merrimac on her starboard side.  Nothing on this side of New York City will be able to raise her after that.”

In reply to frequent questions, Hobson said: 

“I suppose the Estrella battery will fire down on us a bit, but the ships will throw their search-lights in the gunners’ faces, and they won’t see much of us.  If we are torpedoed we should even then be able to make the desired position in the channel.  It won’t be easy to hit us, and I think the men should be able to swim to the dingy.  I may jump before I am blown up.  But I don’t see that it makes much difference what I do.  I have a fair chance of life either way.  If our dingy gets shot to pieces we shall then try to swim for the beach right under Morro Castle.  We shall keep together at all hazards.  Then we may be able to make our way alongside, and perhaps get back to the ship.  We shall fight the sentries or a squad until the last, and shall only surrender to overwhelming numbers, and our surrender will only take place as a last and almost uncontemplated emergency.”

The volunteers accepted for this most hazardous enterprise were, after Lieutenant Hobson:  George F. Phillips, machinist on the Merrimac; Francis Kelly, water tender on the Merrimac; Randolph Clausen, coxswain on the New York; George Charette, first-class gunner’s mate on the New York; Daniel Montague, first-class machinist on the New York; Osburn Deignan, coxswain on the Merrimac; J. C. Murphy, coxswain on the Iowa.

June 21. At three o’clock in the morning the admiral and Flag Lieutenant Staunton got into the launch to make an inspection of the Merrimac.  The working gangs were still on board of her, and the officers of the flag-ship stood with their glasses focused on the big black hull that was to form an impassable obstacle for Spain’s best ships.

The minutes slipped by, the crews had not completed their work on the Merrimac, but at last a boatload of men, black and tired out, came over to the flag-ship.  Last of all, at 4.30, came the admiral.  He had been delayed by a breakdown of the steam launch.

Dawn was breaking over Santiago de Cuba, and nearly everybody thought it was too late for the attempt to be made that morning.  Then somebody cried: 

“She is going in.”

Surely enough, the seemingly deserted collier was seen heading straight for Morro Castle.  A few moments later, however, she was recalled by Admiral Sampson, who thought it sure death for Hobson to venture in at that hour.  The Merrimac did not return at once.  Word came back: 

“Lieutenant Hobson asks permission to continue on his course.  He thinks he can make it.”

The admiral sent Hobson a message to the effect that the Merrimac must return at once, and in due course of time the doomed collier slowly steamed back, her commander evidently disappointed with the order.  All day Thursday the collier lay near the flag-ship, and more elaborate preparations were made to carry out the mission of the Merrimac successfully.  During these preparations Hobson was cool and confident, supervising personally every little detail.

When, finally, he went on board the Merrimac Thursday night, he had been without sleep since Wednesday morning.  His uniform was begrimed, his hands were black, and he looked like a man who had been hard at work in and about an engine-room for a long time.  As he said good-bye, the lieutenant remarked that his only regret was that all of the New York’s volunteers could not go with him.

June 3. The hazardous voyage was begun at three o’clock Friday morning.  The Merrimac was lying to the westward.  Under cover of the clouds over the moon, she stole in toward the coast and made her way to the eastward, followed by a steam launch from the New York, with the following crew on board:  Naval Cadet J. W. Powell, of Oswego, N. Y.; P. K. Peterson, coxswain; H. Handford, apprentice of the first class; J. Mullings, coal passer; G. L. Russell, machinist of the second class.  In the launch were bandages and appliances for the wounded.

From the crowded decks of the New York nothing could be seen of the Merrimac after she got under the shadow of the hills.  For half an hour officers and men strained their eyes peering into the gloom, when, suddenly, the flash of a gun streamed out from Morro Castle, and then all on board the New York knew the Merrimac was nearing her end.

The guns from the Spanish battery opposite Morro Castle answered quickly with more flashes, and for about twenty minutes tongues of fire seemed to leap across the harbour entrance.  The flag-ship was too far away to hear the reports, and when the firing ceased it was judged that Hobson had blown up the Merrimac.

During an hour the anxious watchers waited for daylight.  Rear-Admiral Sampson and Captain Chadwick were on the bridge of the New York during the entire time.  At five o’clock thin streams of smoke were seen against the western shore, quite close to the Spanish batteries, and strong glasses made out the launch of the New York returning to the flag-ship.

Scarcely had the small craft been sighted before a puff of smoke issued from a battery on the western arm of the harbour, and a shot plunged far over the launch.  Then for fifteen minutes the big guns ashore kept up an irregular fire on the little craft.  As the shells fell without hitting the object for which they were intended, the men on board the New York jeered at the Spanish marksmanship, and cheered their shipmates.

At 6.15 the launch came alongside the flag-ship, but she did not have on board any of the Merrimac’s crew.  Cadet Powell reported that he had been unable to see any of the men.  It was learned that the cadet had gone directly under the batteries, and only returned when he found his efforts were useless.

He also reported that he had clearly seen the Merrimac’s masts sticking up just where Hobson hoped to sink her, north of the Estrella battery, and well past the guns of Morro Castle.

Cadet Powell thus related the last interview he had with the officer whom it seemed certain had voluntarily gone to his death: 

“Lieutenant Hobson took a short sleep for a few hours, which was often interrupted.  At a quarter before two he came on deck and made a final inspection, giving his last instructions.  Then we had a little lunch.  Hobson was as cool as a cucumber.  At about half past two I took the men who were not going on the trip into the launch, and started for the Texas, the nearest ship, but had to go back for one of the assistant engineers, whom Hobson finally compelled to leave.  I shook hands with Hobson last of all.  He said: 

“’Powell, watch the boat’s crew when we pull out of the harbour.  We will be cracks, pulling thirty strokes to the minute.’

“After leaving the Texas I saw the Merrimac steaming slowly in.

“It was only fairly dark then, and the shore was quite visible.  We followed about three-quarters of a mile astern.  The Merrimac stood about a mile to the westward of the harbour, and seemed a bit mixed, turning completely around, and finally heading to the east, she ran down and then turned in.  We were then chasing him because I thought Hobson had lost his bearings.

“When Hobson was about two hundred yards from the harbour the first gun was fired, from the eastern bluff.  We were then about half a mile offshore, and nearing the batteries.  The firing increased rapidly.  We steamed in slowly, and lost sight of the Merrimac in the smoke which the wind carried offshore.  It hung heavily.  Before Hobson could have blown up the Merrimac the western battery picked us up and commenced firing.  They shot wild, however, and we ran in still farther to the shore until the gunners lost sight of us.  Then we heard the explosion of the torpedoes on the Merrimac.

“Until daylight we waited just outside the breakers, half a mile to the westward of Morro, keeping a sharp lookout for the boat or for swimmers, but saw nothing.  Hobson had arranged to meet us at that point, but thinking that some one might have drifted out, we crossed in front of Morro and the mouth of the harbour, to the eastward.

“At about five o’clock we crossed the harbour again, and stood to the westward.  In passing we saw one spar of the Merrimac sticking out of the water.  We hugged the shore just outside of the breakers for a mile, and then turned toward the Texas, when the batteries saw us and opened fire.  It was then broad daylight.  The first shot dropped thirty yards astern, but the others went wild.  I drove the launch for all she was worth, finally making the New York.  The men behaved splendidly.”

June 3. Later in the day a boat with a white flag put out from the harbour, and Captain Oviedo, chief of staff of Admiral Cervera, boarded the New York, and informed Admiral Sampson that the whole party had been captured; that only two were injured.  Lieutenant Hobson was not hurt.  The Spanish admiral was so impressed with the courage of the Merrimac’s crew that he decided to inform Admiral Sampson of the fact that they had not lost their lives, but were prisoners of war and could be exchanged.

To a newspaper correspondent Commodore Schley said, as he stood on his flag-ship pointing towards Morro Castle: 

“History does not record an act of finer heroism than that of the gallant men who are prisoners over there.  I watched the Merrimac as she made her way to the entrance of the harbour, and my heart sank as I saw the perfect hell of fire that fell upon those devoted men.  I did not think it possible one of them could have gone through it alive.

“They went into the jaws of death.  It was Balaklava over again without the means of defence which the Light Brigade had.  Hobson led a forlorn hope without the power to cut his way out; but fortune once more favoured the brave, and I hope he will have the recognition and promotion he deserves.  His name will live as long as the heroes of the world are remembered.”

Admiral Sampson made the following report to the Navy Department: 

“Permit me to call your especial attention to Assistant Naval Constructor Hobson.

“As stated in a special telegram, before coming here I decided to make the harbour entrance secure against the possibility of egress by Spanish ships, by obstructing the narrow part of the entrance by sinking a collier at that point.

“Upon calling upon Mr. Hobson for his professional opinion as to a sure method of sinking the ship, he manifested the most lively interest in the problem.  After several days’ consideration, he presented a solution which he considered would ensure the immediate sinking of the ship when she reached the desired point in the channel.  This plan we prepared for execution when we reached Santiago.

“The plan contemplated a crew of only seven men and Mr. Hobson, who begged that it might be entrusted to him.  The anchor chains were arranged on deck for both the anchors, forward and aft, the plan including the anchoring of the ship automatically.  As soon as I reached Santiago, and I had the collier to work upon, the details were completed and diligently prosecuted, hoping to complete them in one day, as the moon and tide served best the first night after our arrival.

“Notwithstanding every effort the hour of four o’clock arrived, and the preparation was scarcely completed.  After a careful inspection of the final preparations, I was forced to relinquish the plan for that morning, as dawn was breaking.  Mr. Hobson begged to try it at all hazards.

“This morning proved more propitious, as a prompt start could be made.  Nothing could have been more gallantly executed.

“We waited impatiently after the firing by the Spaniards had ceased.  When they did not reappear from the harbour at six o’clock, I feared that they had all perished.  A steam launch, which had been sent in charge of Naval Cadet Powell to rescue the men, appeared at this time, coming out under a persistent fire of the batteries, but brought none of the crew.

“A careful inspection of the harbour from this ship showed that the vessel Merrimac had been sunk in the channel.

“This afternoon the chief of staff of Admiral Cervera came out under a flag of truce, with a letter from the admiral, extolling the bravery of the crew in an unusual manner.

“I cannot myself too earnestly express my appreciation of the conduct of Mr. Hobson and his gallant crew.  I venture to say that a more brave or daring thing has not been done since Cushing blew up the Albemarle.

“Referring to the inspiring letter which you addressed to the officers at the beginning of the war, I am sure you will offer a suitable professional reward to Mr. Hobson and his companions.  I must add that Commander J. M. Miller relinquished his command with the very greatest reluctance, believing he should retain his command under all circumstances.

“He was, however, finally convinced that the attempt of another person to carry out the multitude of details which had been in preparation by Mr. Hobson might endanger its proper execution.  I therefore took the liberty to relieve him, for this reason only.

“There were hundreds of volunteers who were anxious to participate.  There were a hundred and fifty men from the Iowa, nearly as many from this ship, and large numbers from all the other ships, officers and men alike.


Not until the sixth of July were Hobson and his brave comrades exchanged, and then to his messmates the gallant lieutenant told the story of his perilous voyage on that morning of June 4th: 

“I did not miss the entrance to the harbour,” he said, “as Cadet Powell in the launch supposed.  I headed east until I got my bearings, and then made for it straight in.  Then came the firing.  It was grand, flashing out first from one side of the harbour and then from the other, from those big guns on the hill, the Vizcaya, lying inside the harbour, joining in.

“Troops from Santiago had rushed down when the news of the Merrimac’s coming was telegraphed, and soldiers lined the foot of the cliffs, firing wildly across, and killing each other with the cross-fire.

“The Merrimac’s steering-gear broke as she got to Estrella Point.  Only three of the torpedoes on her side exploded when I touched the button.  A huge submarine mine caught her full amidships, hurling the water high in the air, and tearing a great rent in her side.

“Her stern ran upon Estrella Point.  Chiefly owing to the work done by the mine, she began to sink slowly.  At that time she was across the channel, but before she settled the tide drifted her around.  We were all aft, lying on the deck.  Shells and bullets whistled around.  Six-inch shells from the Vizcaya came tearing into the Merrimac, crashing into wood and iron, and passing clear through, while the plunging shots from the forts broke through her deck.

“‘Not a man must move,’ I said, and it was only owing to the splendid discipline of the men that we all were not killed, as the shells rained over us, and the minutes became hours of suspense.  The men’s mouths became parched, but we must lie there till daylight, I told them.  Now and again, one or the other of the men, lying with his face glued to the deck and wondering whether the next shell might not come our way, would say, ‘Hadn’t we better drop off now, sir?’ But I said, ‘Wait till daylight.’

“It would have been impossible to get the catamaran anywhere but on to the shore, where the soldiers stood shooting, and I hoped that by daylight we might be recognised and saved.

“The grand old Merrimac kept sinking.  I wanted to go forward and see the damage done there, where nearly all the fire was directed.  One man said that if I rose it would draw all the fire on the rest.  So I lay motionless.  It was splendid the way these men behaved.

“The fire of the soldiers, the batteries and the Vizcaya was awful.  When the water came up on the Merrimac’s deck the catamaran floated amid the wreckage, but she was still made fast to the boom, and we caught hold of the edges and clung on, our heads only being above water.

“One man thought we were safer right there; it was quite light, the firing had ceased, except that on the New York’s launch, and I feared Cadet Powell and his men had been killed.

“A Spanish launch came toward the Merrimac.  We agreed to capture her and run.  Just as she came close the Spaniards saw us, and half a dozen marines jumped up and pointed their rifles at our heads sticking out of the water.

“’Is there any officer in that boat to receive a surrender of prisoners of war?’ I shouted.

“An old man leaned out under the awning and waved his hand.  It was Admiral Cervera.  The marines lowered their rifles and we were helped into the launch.

“Then we were put in cells in Morro Castle.  It was a grand sight a few days later to see the bombardment, the shells striking and bursting around El Morro.  Then we were taken into Santiago.  I had the court martial room in the barracks.  My men were kept prisoners in the hospital.

“From my window I could see the army moving, and it was terrible to watch those poor lads coming across the opening and being shot down by the Spaniards in the rifle-pits in front of me.

“Yesterday the Spaniards became as polite as could be.  I knew something was coming, and then I was exchanged.”