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Spanish-American War, Navy in


SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, NAVY IN. Shortly before the Spanish-American War, growing American interest in a modern, powerful navy had resulted in increased appropriations and a vigorous program of ship construction, especially of battleships and cruisers. The Spanish-American War (1898) lasted only about ninety days, yet it marked the generally successful combat trial of the then new American navy. Following by eight years the appearance of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History, the conflict illustrated principles and techniques of war that were sometimes adhered to, sometimes violated.

The main combat areas of the war were Spanish possessions in the Philippines and the Caribbean. In both theaters, American naval ascendancy was first established, although by different means, to assure sea control before undertaking amphibious and military operations. On 1 May 1898, in the Battle of Manila Bay, which involved secondary cruiser forces in a secondary area, Commodore George Dewey easily defeated an antiquated Spanish squadron acting as a fixed fortress fleet. In the Atlantic-Caribbean areas, war strategy and command decisions proved more complex and difficult.

In late April the Navy Department unwisely yielded to the clamor of influential, but ill-informed, East Coast citizens for coastal protection and subsequently divided naval objectives and forces. Rear Adm. William T. Sampson, with new battleships, established a blockade off Havana, the assumed Cuban strategic center. At Norfolk, Virginia, an intended mobile fortress fleet under Commodore Winfield Scott Schley was readied to defend against almost impossible coastal raids by the main Spanish fleet.

In early May, on learning that Spanish Adm. Pascual Cervera had left the Cape Verde Islands, Sampson lifted most of his blockade and steamed eastward on the erroneous assumption that his opponent would first make port at San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then continue to his assumed ultimate destination, Havana. But Cervera, given freedom of command decision, chose a different route and ultimate port than he would have in peacetime. Thus, there was no confrontation of naval forces off Puerto Rico. Cervera slipped into the nearest Cuban port, Santiago, which was then not under American surveillance. Ten days later, after confusion and delay, Schley located Cervera and established a blockade, later joined by Sampson. Soon the Americans landed marines and soldiers and began their military campaign against Santiago. As the city's fall became imminent, Cervera was directed to sortie, if possible, to Havana. However, in the naval battle of 3 July, his fleet was overwhelmed and beached, a significant prelude to further successful American operations against Cuba and, later, Puerto Rico.

There were many important naval lessons learned in the war, from which the Americans profited. Their gunnery required swift technological improvement, which Lt. Comdr. William S. Sims soon provided. Engineering research and development were stimulated by the establishment of the Naval Engineering Experiment Station. Because it took sixty-six days for the Oregon to sail from San Francisco around Cape Horn to Key West, Florida, and join the fleet, pressure was exerted for a canal route through Central America. The necessity for overseas bases for logistic support became evident. The Spanish-American War also added strong impetus to the growing demand for an American navy second to none.


Marolda, Edward J., ed. Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. Navy, and the Spanish-American War. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Wilson, Herbert W. The Downfall of Spain: Naval History of the Spanish-American War. New York: B. Franklin, 1971.

Ellery H.ClarkJr./a. g.

See alsoManila Bay, Battle of ; Navy, Department of the ; Paris, Treaty of (1898) .

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