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Sealift in the Spanish American War

"A splendid little war!" That was how John Hay, the ambassador to Great Britain, described the Spanish-American War of 1898. During the Spanish-American War, the Army faced the entirely new challenge of transporting a force over a body of water, a challenge that was to come to define American military power projection during the following century. After spending the 19th century dealing with internal continental challenges - confirming its independence from Britain, civil war, and westward expansion - the United States mades its apperance on the world stage.

During the Revolutionary War General George Washington used animal-driven transportation to move American and French forces from the Hudson Valley to Yorktown, more than 450 miles away. So important was transportation in the American Revolution that Washington advised Congress to establish the position of Wagonmaster General to provide the Army's essential mobility. With the Civil War came the extensive use of the military railway service in moving troops to battle.

The Army's only previous large-scale ocean movement had been during the Mexican War in 1847. The decisive campaign of the Mexican War was Winfield Scott's overland offensive designed to capture Mexico City and end Mexican resistance. In one of the great achievements in US military history, Winfield Scott's forces staged an amphibious landing at Vera Cruz that captured the port on 9 March 1847. The Mexican commander chose not to oppose the landing, so over 8,600 men were landed without a single loss in just over 4 hours. This was an unprecedented military achievement for the time. Following a brief siege, Vera Cruz surrendered on 29 March 1847.

The importance of water transportation for the military increased rapidly during the Spanish American War, as the US Army Transport Service appeared. The Regular Army on the eve of the war had only 28,183 soldiers. Once war was declared, there was an enthusiastic rush of men to enlist. By the end of May 1898, 163,626 enlisted men had been mustered into service. By the end of the war in August 1898, the Army had 274,717 soldiers on duty, including 58,688 in the Regular Army and 216,029 volunteers. But no one in the Army was experienced in large overseas movements.

The military's lack of experience in this type of operation proved to be a more serious obstacle than the Spanish Army. Congress was opposed to granting U.S. registry to foreign vessels, so for the Cuba expedition the Army was limited to chartering U.S. vessels involved in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal trade. By 1 July, the Quartermaster Department had chartered 43 transports, 4 water boats, 3 steam lighters, 2 ocean tugs, and 3 decked barges for Cuba; another 14 transports were chartered on the Pacific coast for the Philippines expeditions. More were chartered in July and August. When enough vessels could not be chartered, the Army purchased 14 steamships and quickly outfitted them to carry troops to Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Even the relatively short move to Cuba required the creation of a port of embarkation, coordinated movements of troops and supplies to the port, and placement of units on ships. The War Department selected Tampa as the port of embarkation, despite limited rail lines. Failure to establish priorities on shipments or to ensure that shipments were labeled properly compounded the transportation problems. Unloaded rail cars filled the sidings from Tampa to Columbia, South Carolina, and important shipments were detained while unnecessary supplies were unloaded. Between 18 May and 31 August, the depot at Tampa handled 13,239 carloads of supplies and equipment, as well as railcars transporting 66,000 soldiers (with baggage) and over 15,000 animals.

Spanish Adm. Cervera's fleet had taken refuge (29 May 1898) in Santiago Bay, and the American Navy had asked the Army to reduce the defenses guarding the entrance. The War Department, eager to get the Army into action, directed Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter to embark his loosely organized V Corps, which had been assembled around Tampa, and sail for Cuba. The expedition for Cuba was reduced to utter chaos as uncontrolled units rolled down the single-track railway to become hopelessly entangled at the ill-equipped port of embarkation at Tampa.

After many delays, and in an atmosphere of the utmost confusion, the embarkation of some 17,000 men began on 11 June 1898, lasting four days. Those who remained on the ships that rode at anchor in the harbor until 13 June suffered because of the heat and poor ventilation, uniforms not designed for extremely hot weather, a monotonous travel ration, and an inadequate water supply. Although Shafter allowed the men off the ships in detachments for exercise, they were not permitted to remain on shore because no satisfactory campsite could be found near the harbor. By the time the Cuban expedition sailed from Tampa on 14 June, it was loaded aboard 38 vessels and accompanied by Navy ships. However, poor estimates of carrying capacity meant that the transports could move only about 17,000 soldiers, not the 25,000 originally planned.

The vessels upon which the V Corps embarked had been obtained under the assumption that the landing would be at Mariel, less than two days away, rather than at the southeastern tip of the island, 1,000 miles and almost a week's voyage from Tampa. Matters were further complicated when authorities adopted a British formula for space per man intended for troop transports rather than the converted freighters and passenger vessels available to Shafter's force. As a result, many more soldiers were placed aboard each vessel than it could carry without endangering their health, especially if they were on it for many days. Conditions on board were cramped, uncomfortable, and unsanitary, and the lack of cooking facilities led to the unfortunate overreliance on canned beef.

On 20 June 1898 the convoy reached a point off Santiago, but it was two days before Shafter could make up his mind where to land the troops. Rear Adm. William T. Sampson wanted them to land near the entrance of the bay, where a powerful fort dominated the area, and to storm the positions guarding the sea approaches. Shafter considered this plan too dangerous and followed the advice of Gen. Calixto Garcia, a Cuban insurgent leader, who recommended Daiquiri, 18 miles east of Santiago Bay, as a landing site.

Unloading the troops at Daiquiri was a fairly smooth operation. The Navy landed some men, but most came ashore on small boats (the transports' lifeboats) that they manned themselves. By contrast, landing supplies was a slow and laborious operation, mainly because there was only one small dock at Daiquiri and because only one of the expedition's lighters had reached Cuba. To relieve unloading problems in Cuba, the Army contracted with a New York firm to send workers to Cuba to build lighters, barges, and docks, as well as repair railroads and engines. These workers arrived on 23 July, after the surrender of Santiago.

On 1 May 1898 a small American squadron under Comdr. George Dewey completely destroyed a Spanish naval force in Manila Bay. The Manila campaign was a sequel to the first naval engagement of the war. Having won the Battle of Manila Bay, Commodore Dewey immediately recognized that, while he could now compel Manila's surrender, the city could not be occupied without a strong force of soldiers. He also soon became aware of the dual risks of a Spanish relief expedition and intervention by another power. Responding quickly to his cabled request for reinforcements, the U.S. Government made arrangements to dispatch Army forces and additional warships.

City of PekingBy this time Washington was planning to take control of the Philippines. The War Department responded eagerly to the request for ground forces, and sent about 11,300 troops to Manila under the command of Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt by 25 July 1898. Three groups of soldiers were sent as rapidly as they could be gathered and trained. The first contingentof 2,500 men left San Francisco in the transport City of Peking and two other transports on 25 May and arrived in Manila Bay at the end of June. Another four transports with 3,500 men steamed through the Golden Gate on 15 June, arriving on 17 July. The third group, with 4,800 men embarked in six ships, departed on 27 June and reached Manila Bay at the end of July. More soldiers and Marines were sent after the war's conclusion.

Managing the men and materiel converging on San Francisco was a smoother process than at Tampa. The numbers involved were smaller, but San Francisco also was a better embarkation site: it had better rail connections and harbor facilities. The San Francisco depot was able to expand quickly to accommodate over 30,000 soldiers. The only serious problem was obtaining enough transports to carry the Army to the Philippines, and the Quartermaster Department solved that by procuring (mostly by charter, in a few cases by purchase) all available vessels on the Pacific coast.

The transports bound for the Philippines were better fitted for a long voyage than those going to Cuba. The accommodations generally were more comfortable, and, most importantly, there were galleys for cooking. However, there were unloading problems in the Philippines and problems moving supplies between the two bases, Camp Dewey and Cavite. Many men and supplies went ashore on cascos-the native lighter of the Philippines-towed by captured Spanish tugs or Navy launches; each casco could carry 200 men with tents, packs, and 10 days of rations.

After the fall of Santiago General Miles took personal charge of an expedition to Puerto Rico. His force of about 3,000 men on 9 transports landed at Guanica on 25 July 1898, and an additional force under Maj. Gen. John R. Brooke landed at Guayama. Four columns of American troops quickly overran the island. There was some light skirmishing in which a few Americans were wounded, but the population as a whole received the Americans with enthusiasm.

The acquisition of island territories following the Spanish-American War prompted the Army to develop its own fleet of sea-going ships to support Army forces overseas. This operation became known as the Army Transport Service, and operated under the direction of the Quartermaster General. The ships operated a line from the Pacific Coast to the Philippines, an inter-island service in the Philippines, and other support to overseas stations. They maintained this fleet until World War II, except during World War I when the Navy Department assumed responsibility for water transportation.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:24 ZULU