Planning on the Fly: The Spanish-American War
Though the Spanish-American War was brief, lasting just over three and a half months, it was preceded by years of rising tension between the United States and Spain. The latter’s presence in the Caribbean made her a natural rival as the U.S. expanded its overseas reach and built a new navy to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. By the late nineteenth century, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the last remaining Caribbean colonies of the once-formidable Spanish empire. Beginning in the 1860s, armed revolutionary groups in Cuba fought with the colonial government as a response to widespread poverty and harsh Spanish rule. The threat of American intervention in the conflict became a continuing source of friction between the two countries. When the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, an outraged American government demanded action. Though the cause of the explosion was unclear, Congressional leaders blamed Spain and declared war on April 25.
Planning for the war preceded the outbreak of hostilities by at least four years. In that era, no centralized body existed to design and direct naval operations, so planning was done on an ad hoc basis. Though the Navy made the most of the tools available to it, the war demonstrated the need for a permanent organization devoted to war planning.
Lieutenant William Kimball of the Office of Naval Intelligence joined the discussion in 1896. His plan also called for a blockade of Cuba while adding more aggressive action against Spain. Kimball proposed sending the Asiatic Fleet to blockade the Philippines while the European Squadron attacked the Spanish coast. The staff of the Naval War College disliked this plan, feeling that it dispersed American naval power while also inviting harsh responses from other European naval powers. Still, Captain Taylor liked the idea of putting pressure on Spain’s colonial holdings and endorsed the proposed expedition to the Pacific.
Yet a fifth plan emerged the following year when a new Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, took over in 1897 and formed another board to study the issue. Led by Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, this board called for an early seizure of a base in Cuba to support operations against Havana and to arm rebels on the island. The blockade would be carried out by armed merchant steamers, freeing up the Navy’s warships to intercept the expected relief expedition from Spain. Key to this plan was the presence of colliers to refuel the blockading fleet so they would not have to leave their stations to take on coal. The board’s members agreed with past recommendations to blockade Puerto Rico and attack Spanish forces in the Philippines. They did not endorse the idea of an attack on the Canary Islands, but instead called for the formation of a “flying squadron” consisting of two armored cruisers and two destroyers that would prey on shipping off the coast of Spain.
|The collier USS Merrimac preparing to sail from Portsmouth VA on April 23, 1898|