A war correspondent with camera ready to go, John C. Hemment (at left, working the flagship Olympia) was familiar with many facets of the American war effort in Cuba, photographing everything from portraits of the top brass to conditions in camp to amputation surgery in a field hospital. Before the crucial Naval Battle of Santiago, Hemment's boss, William Randolph Hearst, turned up in a chartered steamer, the Sylvia. On board were a darkroom and an ample supply of photographic plates and chemistry, allowing the team to review their results almost like a film crew watching the rushes. Hearst and Hemment were hovering three miles offshore when the Spanish broke out of Santiago at 9:30 on July 3, 1898 and the Sylvia followed along (well out of range) as the far superior U.S. forces shot them to bits. The shooting was all but over by noon; by two the last Spanish cruiser hauled down her flag.
At first light the following morning, pockets stuffed with gadgets and camera gear, Hemment toured the smoldering wrecks of the Spanish squadron run aground along the lush coast of southeast Cuba. While reporting on the carnage, the party temporarily took prisoner 29 Spanish crewmen who had gained the shore (later in the day, Hearst got a receipt for the prisoners when he turned them over to the USS St. Paul). Under the tireless direction of Hearst, Hemment left us this searing record of the aftermath of battle: graphic evidence of Spain's complete defeat. This type of photo provided the "red meat" for Hearst's "yellow press." Photo portfolios were sold to the public through the New-York Journal American and San Francisco Examiner, Hearst's papers. Hemment also published a short book, Cannon and Camera (Appleton, 1898), illustrated with halftones of these photos, and sold different pictures to illustrate the torrent of books seeking to cash in on the war. Excerpts from Hemment's writing are presented below. Much as Spain's defeat measured the global reach of U.S. military power, it also marked the ascendancy of press barons like Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Both men were prominent war hawks during the lead-up to war and unrepentant imperialists through the decades to come, when their influence peaked in the U.S.
Almirante Oquendo, bow section in the surf. The jungle foliage is intermittently visible (right margin) through the thick fume issuing from the hulk.
Quarter view of Oquendo, still smoldering the day after battle. The stern of this wreck still remains on site in Cuba; the aft barbette emerges from the waves at low tide; the 11" gun points defiantly at the sky (top). Hit repeatedly by the Iowa, the Oquendo endured premature explosion of one of her own 11" shells, wrecking her forward turret, followed shortly by a boiler explosion disabling her port engine. The ship barely made it ten miles west of Santiago before driving aground in flames, the second Spanish cruiser forced off the main. Hemment noted, "the sponsons of the [port side] rapid-fire guns were completely demolished, and the guns were hanging down over the side ready to drop at any moment. As we were hovering around the Oquendo an explosion occurred from one of her guns." The wreck was deemed too hot to board. Video
Cervera's flagship Infanta Maria Teresa was first out of the harbor and first forced onto the rocks. Here she sizzles still as morning breaks over the scene; a jet of steam puffs from her prow. Multiple 8", 4" and 5" hits sufficed to turn Cervera's cruisers into ovens, though no recorded shots pierced the ship's foot-thick armor belt. On boarding, Hemment and Hearst found a gruesome scene: "Charred bodies of many of the sailors were plainly visible on all parts of the gun deck. No matter where you went, there you would find them." The Maria Teresa was name ship of the three-ship class of armored cruisers in the squadron, the entire class perishing that morning. An enlarged version of the British Orlandos, built in Spain and commissioned 1891, they were considered "pocket battleships" in their day. The fortunes of war did not smile upon them in their hour of need. Burdened by foul hulls and the low quality of their coal, they lacked the legs that might well have let them escape in ideal condition. Faulty ammunition and at least one turret mishap played their part in the defeat; but their worst enemy proved to be fire. Inexplicably, Cervera did not order all the ships' paneling and small boats to be torn out and landed as a fire precaution. Later when his ships' water mains were disabled by American fire, it became impossible to fight the bonfire of decking, boats, and paneling that enveloped their topsides.
Vizcaya, sister to Oquendo and Maria Teresa, was the third Spanish cruiser forced onto the shore, though only after an hour's running chase in which she suffered some 200 hits of all calibres, including at least one that pierced her armor belt. As she was maneuvering to fire torpedoes at her pursuers, an 8" shell from the Brooklyn ripped into the forward torpedo room, exploding one of Vizcaya's own torpedoes as it was being loaded, blowing out the starboard bow as seen here. Capt. Eulate turned her bows into the breakers and ran her onshore in flames, completing the work of scuttling so effectively begun by Yankee shellfire.
This view of the Oquendo's wreck amidships has a touch of the surreal about it. Everything is knocked about and stripped to the essentials. Every surface is peppered with shot holes. Early visitors counted evidence of 68 hits on this one ship.
Vizcaya's aft mount narrowly escaped being poleaxed when her mainmast crashed down. Sightseeing U.S. sailors hop around in a moonscape of utter devastation: they were making a survey of the ship with an eye to eventual salvage. This is a good view of the unique 11" turrets in the class, known as 'observatory style' mounts in naval circles. In naval evolution they appear partway between overhead shields fitted on barbettes and the frankly squarish gunhouses ("turrets") which appeared in the mid-1890s; in the Spanish navy 'observatory' turrets were used only on these three ships and the slightly larger Carlos Quinto, although the Russian and Austro-Hungarian fleets each had similar models in the 1880s. Evidently the gun captain sighted from the protruding 'pillbox' directly behind and above the gun-breech. Barbettes and turrets bore 12" nickel-steel armor.
Everywhere on the wreck decks were burnt through. Only cracked scabs of paint remained on funnels and vents after a blazing bonfire of boats and deck planks exhausted its fuel. Hemment again: "We boarded her and saw the terrible havoc that fire and shell had wrought. The girders which supported the main deck were twisted into every conceivable grotesque shape. The gun deck and the superstructure were totally demolished; all the woodwork, which had been so beautifully cleaned and polished, was destroyed. Nothing combustible could be found. The charred remains of many of the sailors were strewn around, some hanging from the iron girders and beams in all sorts of positions. Carcasses of animals were also to be found."
Notwithstanding the hopeless condition of the wrecks, the U.S. Navy tried to salvage the Maria Teresa which, with only 48 shot-holes (none below the waterline), was considered the best candidate. She was refloated and towed to Guantánamo for patching, then partway to the Gulf coast for refit. Bad idea. Ships sometimes have their own say in such things; the Maria Teresa's hulk hung up on a reef and would not be coaxed off.
Slipping out of harbor, the armored cruiser Cristóbal Colón ran from the Americans largely unharmed because she chose a route inshore of the Maria Teresa; the flagship masked the American shellfire. The Colón hit Iowa at the waterline with 5" projectiles as she moved out. With the American ships at her heels in a stern chase after the other Spanish cruisers were destroyed, Colón was gaining until her small allotment of good Cardiff steam coal ran out; her speed fell directly after she switched to the low-grade coal which comprised her remaining stock. Then the battleship Oregon bustled up under forced draft and straddled her with two 13" shots. The remaining American ships were circling around from the sea to head her off. At that the Colón's captain gave up, but ordered the ship scuttled. Down her colours as she halted off the mouth of the Río Tarquiño. When the Americans boarded around 2:00 to take the surrender, the jovial Spaniards plied them with wine to play for time. The scuttling was well along before the tolerant Americans caught on.
Appearing on the scene, the New York locked bows with Colón just as she was about to slip into deeper water and founder. The flagship nudged the Italian cruiser inshore and she sat up on her bottom at first, but as the tide receded, the ship rolled onto her beam-ends. At high tide she would be two-thirds submerged, with her guns impotently tracking the sky. Eager to bring home a "trophy ship," U.S. Navy engineers righted the hulk and pumped it out. On the way across the Caribbean for refit, the ship broke tow. Colón too foundered rather than endure such indignity. The Americans had to be content with the old, auxiliary-sail cruiser Reina Mercedes, scuttled by the Spaniards in the mouth of Santiago harbor. Refitted, the Mercedes served as an accommodation ship at Annapolis through 1957.
Stern view of the Vizcaya's wreck aground at Aserradero, still fuming the day after the battle. The fallen mast and elevated gun loom forth from the hellish aftermath of defeat.
Closeup of Vizcaya's battered bow, still venting hot gases as the sun peeped over the ridges of the Sierra Maestra on the day after the slaughter. Joyous celebration swept the U.S. that day, appropriately enough Independence Day 1898. 104 years later, this model of a quick, relatively painless victory was conflated with the 1991 'Highway of Death' episode to sell the American public on the merits of the Iraq invasion. Bad idea.
Santiago was a sweeping victory, celebrated boisterously across the United States on the Fourth of July. Fireworks, ice cream and sasparilla, and marching bands provided the festive background to orators extolling America's new naval heroes. Gaining impetus from the trend, Teddy Roosevelt based his meteoric political rise on his chumminess with the news media and his well-publicized bravery with the Rough Riders; TR bribed their way aboard a transport in Florida while other units waited; the horses were left in the U.S. but the newsreel camera had a priority space on board with the Rough Riders. Within months after the armistice TR was governor of New York; within two years, vice president; within three years, president. Dewey, too, was a presidential contender in 1900, though that was to be his last fling in electoral politics. But the smooth, independently wealthy Dewey became a political heavyweight in Washington without shedding the uniform. Dewey was elevated by order of Congress to Admiral of the Fleet, a lifelong post from which he exerted his bedrock faith in the big battleship fleet until his death in 1917. Across the nation and especially in his native Montpelier, Vermont, Dewey remained a huge American hero throughout his life. He is remembered in Montpelier with a town festival known as Dewey Days.
Culturally, Tin Pan Alley churned out a veritable tsunami of naval and military-themed tunes, embarrasingly often with Admiral Dewey's likeness on the cover of the sheet music. But the cashing in on war-hero popularity was well advanced in the burgeoning color graphics industry, especially when their boys went into national politics. At the low end, pulp fiction exploded with dime novels featuring 'swarthy Spaniards' as the villains, playing up the worst stereotypes of the day. In fact, as Cervera attempted his breakout, the Spanish crews were well aware of their hopeless position. Many were driven to duty at gun point. Stokers were reported deserting their furnaces and seeking to escape exactly when steam pressure was most urgently required; gunners refused to operate their guns. Survivors later claimed at least 19 crewmen were shot by officers for refusing orders. After the defeat, much camaraderie existed between the victorious American sailors and their captives, who sang American songs and cheered George Washington and Independence Day without much prompting. Somehow these historical facts got left out of the jingoistic narrative that has become the consensus account of the war in the United States.
Photos assembled from: Harvard University Libraries, OASIS / VIA; Library of Congress; John R. Spears, The History of Our Navy, 1775-1898, vol. V. Bibliography
Dive the Santiago wrecks today with Shipwreck Central. (3 videos available)
John C. Hemment, Cannon and Camera: Sea and Land Battles of the Spanish-American War in Cuba, Camp Life and the Return of the Soldiers (New York: D. Appleton, 1898), 282 pp., illus. with halftone photos.
John C. Hemment Photographs Taken in 1898 (Roosevelt R560.3.H37s). Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.
Our thanks to Harvard for making this outstanding collection available.
John R. Spears, The History of Our Navy, 1775-1898 (New York: Scribners, 1899), vol. V.