Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Redemptive Power of a Suicide Mission, Part 2

How an Unwanted Ship and an Unsuccessful Mission made Richmond Hobson the Youngest Captain in the U.S. Navy
The satirical magazine Puck, without a twinge of irony, elevated the exploits of Richmond Hobson and his seven-man crew to legendary status, despite the failure of their mission.  Hobson had intended to raise a large American flag during the operation but had thought better of it once Spanish fire raked their doomed collier. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)  
Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)  
Leading the United States Asiatic Squadron, Commodore George Dewey won theretofore the most resounding victory in American naval history on May 1, 1898, tearing the Spanish Pacific Squadron apart at Manila Bay. Three weeks later, however, a similar triumph in Cuba eluded Admiral William Thomas Sampson, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron. Spain’s Cape Verde Squadron under Contraalmirante (Rear Admiral) Pascual Cervera y Topete had crossed the Atlantic and slipped into the well-defended harbor at Santiago de Cuba on May 19.  For all the American Sailors who waited for Cervera’s squadron to come out and fight, there was a sense that even greater glory awaited. Foremost among them was Lieutenant Richmond Hobson.
Richmond Hobson. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Assigned as assistant naval constructor on Sampson’s staff, Hobson’s role was mainly that of an advisor. As a naval architect, his main duty was to estimate just how much punishment the squadron’s ships could take during their upcoming battles with the Spanish naval forces. He concluded that only three of Sampson’s ships could take more than one direct torpedo hit, telling the admiral that his ships could probably not draw close enough to do much damage to shore fortifications before being destroyed themselves.

Hobson expounded at length to the admiral on how he could pave the way for the powerful yet vulnerable capital ships by building “unsinkable” small steam launches that would ferry seaborne sappers to clear enemy harbors of mines, torpedoes, and other obstructions, making it possible for battleships to move in and destroy Spanish fortifications. Hobson volunteered to personally lead the effort, which he reckoned would take a few weeks of preparation.

The channel entrance leading to Santiago de Cuba, with Morro Castle guarding its entrance. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Sampson listened patiently, but replied that, in light of the enemy squadron holed up in Santiago harbor, it was “not a question of the unsinkable, but the sinkable.” It would be counterproductive to spend weeks building fortified boats to clear harbors when Cervera’s squadron could still attack them. He needed one big ship to seal them into Santiago Harbor. Immediately.

The prime candidate was the collier Merrimac, one of dozens of auxiliary ships purchased in a hurry for the Navy at the cusp of war. The British-built vessel was only four years old and had logged only a month in American service, yet her performance had been so abysmal that she was marked for the one-way mission.  And at roughly 333 feet long, she would be a prime candidate to block the neck of the channel, which ranged between 350 to 450 feet wide.
The collier Merrimac at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on April 28, 1898, shortly after her acquisition by the United States Navy. In a little over five weeks, she would be used as a blockship against the Spanish. (Bureau of Ships Collection, National Archives and Records Administration via NHHC/Flickr)

Sinking a perfectly good (or not-so-good) ship on purpose might seem counter-intuitive, yet the tactic has been effective in both defensive and offensive operations for centuries.  Blockships were used by Virginians during the defense of Norfolk against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, and the Russians used them against the Ukrainian navy during their annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ideally, sinking selected vessels in a controlled manner before or during the opening stages of a battle prevents having to sink other vessels (or be sunk) in a far less-controlled manner during the battle.

Hobson volunteered to lead the effort and began preparations on May 29, three days before the armored cruiser New York and the rest of Sampson's squadron arrived off the southeast coast of Cuba. He originally envisioned a false flag operation, with Merrimac pretending to be a Spanish collier being chased by American ships, which would presumably force the Spanish to hold their fire until the objective was within their grasp. Despite the Americans’ confidence, however, no one presumed the Spanish to be that gullible.  They finally settled upon a simpler plan to run past Morro Castle guarding the channel at the mouth of the bay far enough to come about, detonate explosive charges along the sides of the vessel, and sink her athwart, or perpendicular to, the channel entrance. 

Merrimac had no transverse watertight bulkheads, so it was hoped that it would only take a day to prepare the collier with explosive charges at strategic points along the port side below the waterline. It would take only seven men to execute Hobson’s carefully-choreographed plan. One man would be stationed at the fore and aft anchors, rigged to drop at the swing of an ax.  Two would be in the engine room and one in the boiler room. One man would keep the torpedoes ready to fire, and one would be at the wheel. Each man would have a communication line from the bridge tied to their wrists, literally lying in wait until signaled.  Only two messages would be conveyed: One tug for “stand by,” and three tugs signaled each man to carry out his assigned role. 

(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Hobson planned to drive Merrimac at full speed at the channel, then cut the throttle and throw the helm hard to port. After reaching the narrowest spot in the channel, a bow anchor would be cast off her starboard side to help swing the ship sideways. Once that was accomplished, another anchor would be cast off her stern to hold her in place. The first man to reach the lifeboat in tow behind the ship after he had completed his duty would then maneuver close by to pick up the other men as they jumped into the water. Hobson would be the last.  He and his skeleton crew would then escape in the lifeboat as Merrimac settled to the bottom, which Hobson estimated would only take one minute and 15 seconds. "Nothing on this side of New York City will be able to raise her after that," quipped the confident lieutenant.

Making such a plan happen in a day turned out to be a bit too optimistic. Hobson had trouble finding enough electrical wire to set off the charges, much less a hand generator needed to produce a sufficient spark. The battery cells he had to settle for were iffy at best.  Rear Adm. Sampson rejected a request to use two of New York’s torpedo warheads, intimating that he wanted to sink Merrimac, and not “blow everything to the devil.” Although materials were in short supply, there was no shortage of volunteers for the mission. More than 500 Sailors stepped forward, 300 from USS New York alone, including the ship’s band master, who volunteered with several of his musicians to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the doomed collier sank.

Ultimately, three of the seven were drawn from Merrimac’s crew, while three others were nominees from other vessels. Hobson ended up choosing only one of the men he would depend upon for this risky and exacting operation.  As they left on what most in the squadron believed would be a one-way mission, they changed out of their standard uniforms. They would be meeting the enemy–and presumably their maker–wearing only life preservers, woolen underwear, and two pairs of socks. Each man would also wear revolvers in a belt with a box of extra cartridges sealed in tallow.

The crew made an abortive approach to the channel entrance just after midnight on June 2, but the discovery of four stowaway Sailors and the capsizing of Merrimac’s lifeboat containing extra rifles and ammunition forced Rear Adm. Sampson to recall the men as dawn broke. He dispatched Lt. John C. Fremont Jr. in the swift torpedo boat Porter to alert Hobson to stand down, yet Fremont returned with word that Hobson still intended to make his run. Sampson dispatched Fremont yet again to reiterate his orders, and only then did Hobson rejoin the squadron.

“I can carry this thing through, but there must be no more recalls,” the dejected lieutenant reportedly told the admiral upon his return. “My men have been keyed up for 24 hours, and under tremendous pressure. Iron will break at last.” Sampson ordered him back to his quarters to rest, yet for the next few hours, most of them were unable to sleep. That evening, Hobson once again boarded Merrimac, having left several letters behind to be sent in the event he did not return. 

As they drew near the channel entrance early the following morning, it seemed as though providence had delivered them under the noses of sleeping Spanish sentries atop Morro’s ramparts until a picket boat emerged from the cove beyond.  It fired resolutely towards their steering gear as if aware of exactly what was afoot. The first volleys from Morro Castle as well as another fort across the channel seemed to miss their mark at first, but Hobson’s concentration on his position probably deprived his senses about just how badly the ship was being shot up. Just as he got into position, frantically shouting to his helmsman “Hard aport… “Hard aport, I say!,” he realized that either the Spanish picket boat had shot the rudder away, or one of the shore batteries had parted the chain connecting the wheel to the tiller.  In any case, it was now impossible to bring the ship about, and she was still making over four knots.  The incoming tide brought her velocity up to six knots. Meanwhile, none of the other parts of the plan had been put into action.

After making one long pull on the communication line, Hobson made three steady pulls. The bow anchor dropped successfully, then the first charge detonated, but he detected no further shudders. “Fire all torpedoes,” he shouted to no avail. “For noise, it was Niagara magnified,” wrote Hobson later of the intense fire that seemed to drown out every thought. Only one other charge detonated, the contents of the rest having been splayed across the decks by shell bursts. Then it became apparent that the stern anchor was already gone; possibly shot away by one of Cervera’s ships lying at anchor in the cove. They were adrift and out of control.

Suddenly, Spanish “torpedoes,” today known as sea mines, began detonating against Merrimac's hull as she drifted further northward through the channel towards the cove where Cervera’s fleet waited.  “It is remarkable, indeed, that some of those men did not see us,” wrote Hobson later, “for though the moon was low, it was bright, and there we were with white life preservers almost at the muzzles of their guns.” It was then that Hobson thought of a large American flag he had taken pains to bring, with plans to hoist it at the crescendo of battle, but he was dissuaded by an exhortation by one of his men; “If you go they will see you and will see us all.”

After being grounded under the Spanish guns, momentarily breaching the channel as intended, Merrimac proceeded onward towards the cove yet again with the flood tide.  The forward anchor chain, which had been the only equipage that had functioned exactly as intended, parted under the intense fire or the strain of the tide. There was nothing to do but huddle on the main deck as sparks and splinters flew around them with deafening blasts, waiting for any random shot to tear them asunder.  Finally, after the tide straightened them out once again, Merrimac finally settled to the bottom.  The men bobbed about with the flotsam that remained on the surface, finally finding shelter under an overturned raft.
After evading detection under the raft until after daybreak, a steam launch drew near.  Hobson could hear the orders, “load…ready…aim.” But no one fired. He called out to the Spanish, asking whether an officer was present, and announcing that an American officer and his crew intended to surrender.   

If Hobson was the greatest unsuccessful naval hero on the American side, it was only fitting that he and his men were rescued by the most unsuccessful hero on the Spanish side, Rear Admiral Pasquale Cervera, whose squadron Hobson had tried to bottle up. After personally rescuing the men, Cervera dispatched his chief of staff, Captain Bustamante y Oviedo, under a white flag to inform Rear Adm. Sampson that Hobson and his men had been captured and were being held within Morro Castle.  He added that he had been impressed with their bravery.

Hobson and his men were released following Cervera’s defeat on July 3, during which his squadron was virtually annihilated, with over 200 of his men killed and 1,700 made prisoners of war. Sampson, meanwhile, dedicated the burnt offering of the Cape Verde Squadron to America as a “Fourth of July present.”

"Remember the Merrimac" 

Cervera's chivalrous conduct and conciliatory demeanor in the face of overwhelming odds won him the grudging respect of American naval officers, but his treatment of Hobson and his men garnered adulation from the Yellow Press; the same entity that had managed to thoroughly demonize the Spanish and make an inescapable case for war to the American people.

“We may dispense with the cry, ‘Remember the Maine,’ which was the shriek of revenge and hate,” wrote a columnist with the New Haven Register, “and fix our eyes upon ‘Remember the Merrimac,’ which is the phrase of genuine patriotism and mutual gallantry.”
Merrimac as she appeared after American forces secured Santiago de Cuba (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Whether the mission was a success or a failure did not seem to matter as newspapers gushed with superlatives about the Merrimac mission. The Houston Daily Post called the exploit “the most daring expedition since the destruction of the ironclad Albemarle.”

Other publications went much further, engaging in a sort of literary one-upmanship. Before June ended, the satirical magazine Puck compared the eight intrepid Sailors who supposedly penetrated the Spanish defenses at Santiago de Cuba to the Greek soldiers who supposedly penetrated Troy’s defenses millennia before. In September, a writer for Boston Magazine gushed, “The Spartans who held the pass at Thermopylae may be forgotten, the 600 Englishman who made the charge at Balaklava may go unsung, but in this land under the Stars and Stripes forever will linger the memory of the gritty Christian gentleman, Richmond Pearson Hobson of Alabama.” 

Harper's Weekly, famous for its pictorial coverage of the Civil War, was no less invested in covering the Spanish-American War.  It also covered that conflict with varying degrees of accuracy.  Compare this illustration, published shortly after the operation, of Hobson and his men abandoning the sinking collier Merrimac with the illustration above, commissioned by Hobson himself later on, of Merrimac's sinking.  (Library of Congress)
This "Christian gentleman," a teetotaler largely shunned as a midshipman, became, according to the Alabama Historical Commission, “America’s Most Kissed Man” after he was sent on a national speaking tour following his release.  He reportedly endured the smooches and pecks of as many as 500 women at a stretch during stops on his national tour. Coincidentally or not, the tour ended with an extended stay at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Although he was on the verge of devolving from a national hero to a subject of nationwide consternation due to all the smooching, the Navy Department still took him seriously, advancing him ten numbers in rank. Even after the rapid naval expansion during the war, there were still only 17 naval constructors in active service. 
In January 1902, Hobson was promoted to captain, with his date of rank backdated to June 23, 1898. At the age of 32, he became the youngest captain serving in the Navy at that time.

Hobson doubtless outranked other officers who had been in the Navy longer than he had been alive and he could have easily rested upon his laurels, but the restless crusader could not be satiated. More campaigns and battles awaited him; not on the high seas, but in the very heart of our nation's capitol.

A portrait of Captain Richmond Pearson Hobson hangs at his family estate, Magnolia Grove, near Greensboro, Alabama. (Alabama Department of Archives and History via alabamapioneers.com)

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