American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 23

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Looking for Cervera's Fleet—The War Room at Washington—The President's Undesirable Visitors—Laying out Campaigns on Land and Sea

It must not be supposed that matters were allowed to remain at a standstill in and around Cuba during the time that Dewey was preparing to find the Spanish fleet in Philippine waters and engage it. While our army was being placed on a war footing with all possible speed, the North Atlantic Squadron of the navy, under the command of Commodore Sampson, was ordered south, to blockade Havana and other important ports to the east and west of that capital city.

The squadron left Key West on the 22d of April, and before many days had elapsed the warships lay in a grand semicircle outside of Havana, Matanzas, Mariel, Cardenas, Bahia Honda, Cabanas, and other ports in that vicinity, thus cutting off this portion of Cuba from the entire outside world. Of course the blockading of so many ports necessitated the use of many vessels, and the government was forced to purchase ships wherever they could be had. A great number of ocean steamers were thus taken into the service and converted into warships of considerable importance.

At this time Spain had a fleet of warships in European waters, and it soon became known that this fleet was bound westward. Where the fleet intended to strike, if at all, along our Atlantic coast was not known, and much anxiety was experienced in consequence.

"They'll come in and bombard New York or Boston," said some, while others were equally sure they would attack Atlantic City or Asbury Park, or some other coast resort. As a matter of precaution all harbor lights were left unlit at night, and some of the channels were mined with explosives. At the same time Commodore Schley, commanding what was known as the Flying Squadron, containing some of the fastest war vessels afloat, was stationed at Hampton Roads, near Fortress Monroe, ready to engage the enemy the moment he should appear, or equally ready to go after him as soon as his destination became known.

One of the first demonstrations made in Cuban waters was at Matanzas. Commodore Sampson's flagship, the New York, the cruiser Cincinnati, and the monitor Puritan sailed close in and bombarded the fortifications with such effect that a large portion of the works were completely destroyed. This bombardment speedily showed that our gunners in Atlantic waters were the equal of those in Asiatic waters, and consequently the equal of any gunners in the world.

The bombardment of Matanzas was followed by the bombardment of Cardenas, Mariel, Cienfuegos, and other points in that vicinity, and also the bombardment of San Juan, the capital city of Porto Rico. In the fight at Cardenas three warships, the Wilmington, Hudson, and Winslow, took part in the onslaught, which lasted over an hour. The Winslow was a torpedo boat, and while trying to effect a landing, a shot or shell exploded her boilers and magazine, and several men were killed and wounded, including Ensign Worth Bagley, who was thus the first American officer to fall in the war.

As the blockade of the ports went on, many Spanish ships tried to steal in or out on the sly, and this led to a number of exciting chases and also a little fighting. But our warships were not damaged to any extent by these happenings, and in the end captured over thirty ships, which meant prize money to our officers and jackies amounting to nearly $5,000,000.

At Washington President McKinley was as busy as ever. The War Room of the chief magistrate became the centre of attraction for army and navy men, as well as of Cabinet officers, and nothing was talked of but what was doing and what was to be done. On the walls hung great maps and charts, and side tables were piled high with books, atlases, and other works of reference. Here every detail of the contest was discussed from every possible point of view, and from this room came many of the orders which resulted in such a speedy and complete overthrow of the power of Spain in Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines. Of those times one who was close at hand said:—

"It seemed to me the President hardly allowed himself time to eat or sleep in those exciting days. He was up by sunrise, and I know he was often up still after midnight. He had a wonderful memory for facts and figures, and whenever anything was told to him about army or navy affairs he never forgot it. I remember once something was said about supplies at a certain fort along the coast. Nobody seemed to be able to tell what the fort had, and they were going to consult some papers, when the President spoke up and told exactly what the fort had to draw on. Afterward the figures were verified by the Secretary of War."

This shows well how thoroughly in earnest McKinley was in what he had undertaken to do. At the start he had hoped that war would be avoided, but now that it was thrust upon him he was resolved to bring it to as speedy a termination as possible, and to accomplish this result without injury to private business. As a matter of fact, business in this country was hardly affected from the opening to the closing of the war, while throughout Spain everything was completely upset.

There was but one thing which President McKinley had to protect himself against during the beginning of the war, and that was the great army of cranks who wished to interview him with a view to protecting our coast, or bringing quick annihilation to the enemy. One man wished to manufacture war balloons carrying a regular battery of guns; another wished to send out balloons carrying oil which should be dropped, while ablaze, on the decks of the enemy's ships, or inside the enemy's forts; another wished to manufacture poisonous bullets and shells, totally unaware that the use of such is against the law of civilized nations; another wished to use powerful drugs in bombshells, which, when they exploded, would put the enemy to sleep; another wanted to supply the soldiers and sailors with suits of clothing which he promised to make bullet-proof; another wished to supply our fighters with food in highly concentrated form, so that several days' rations could be carried in a pill box in one's pocket; one man was sure he could end the war by "buying up" all the Spanish state officials, and he wished McKinley to appropriate $100,000,000 for that purpose; another man wanted to sell the government a lot of mirrors.

"This is a sure thing," said the mirror man. "The best thing ever offered to any army, sir."

"But what in the world do you expect the army to do with your mirrors?" questioned the President.

"It is very simple, sir. Every soldier will be given a mirror, and the general in command will be ordered not to fight unless the sun is shining brightly. Then, when the enemy advances, our soldiers can throw the reflection of the sunlight directly into their eyes, thus blinding them, and the rest will be very easy."

It is needless to say that the President declined the suggestion, as he declined the others previously mentioned. The mirror man went off feeling highly indignant, and afterward said he felt sure our country would be defeated, owing to its lack of progressiveness!

Early in the war President McKinley received news from Cuba which was very disappointing. For years the Cubans had claimed that if the United States would only furnish them witli arms and ammunition they could easily fight off the Spanish soldiers located in the islands. The Cubans were brave,—of this there can be no doubt,—but an examination proved that their socalled army was sadly lacking in military organization and was so scattered that to bring it together without outside aid would be next to impossible. Consequently any campaign in the island would have to be fought mainly by our own soldier boys, with the Cubans as a secondary aid.

"Never mind, we'll fight it out for them," said our soldiers. "Only give us the chance." And fight it out they did, as we shall see later.

From Hampton Roads the Flying Squadron under Commodore Schley went to Key West and then to Cienfuegos. It was now felt by all that the Spanish fleet, which was known to have sailed westward, must be somewhere in the vicinity of the West Indies. A close watch was kept by every warship in Cuban waters; and learning that the enemy was not at Cienfuegos, the Flying Squadron sailed for Santiago Bay, on the south side of Cuba. At the upper part of this bay is located the city of Santiago, a place next in importance to Havana. Hardly was the Flying Squadron in sight of the bay when the discovery was made that the Spanish fleet, under Admiral Cervera, was within.

"Now we'll do them up as Dewey did at Manila!" cried some of the jackies, but this was, just then, impossible, for the entrance to Santiago harbor is very narrow, and strong fortifications flanked it upon either side. Moreover, the Spaniards had powerful search-lights which they could use at will, so running the batteries at night became out of the question. Accordingly a blockade of the harbor was set by Commodore Schley, which was afterward increased by Commodore Sampson, so that soon the Spanish warships found themselves "bottled up" as tightly as any one could desire.