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.

The Naval War College first tackled the subject in 1894. Only a decade old and still fighting to gain acceptance within top leadership circles, the college’s mission was still being debated in this early period. Captain Henry C. Taylor, the President of the Naval War College, felt strongly that the school should help craft war plans and ensured that the curriculum supported this activity. He assigned three students to write a paper on “Strategy in the Event of War with Spain.” One of them, LCDR Charles J. Train, wrote that the destruction of the Spanish fleet should be the top priority. He advocated for seizing a base on Cuba’s northeast coast to support the imposition of a blockade and to allow the U.S. fleet to concentrate for the anticipated showdown with the Spanish Navy.

Members of the Naval War College Class of 1895 participating in a war game

The start of the Cuban Insurrection the following year led the Naval War College to undertake a more thorough examination of war plans. The Class of 1895 was directed to study a potential war against Spain with Cuban independence as the main objective. Students again devised a plan that featured an amphibious landing near Havana preceding the main encounter between the two battle fleets. The Navy’s job was to escort the troop ships to Cuba and intercept any Spanish relief expedition that attempted to reinforce the defenders.

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.

Not content with any of these plans, Secretary of the Navy Hilary Herbert convened his own board for the purposes of drafting a strategy to use against Spain. Named for its chairman, Admiral Francis M. Ramsay, this board advocated for a blockade of Cuba and Puerto Rico while sending the European Squadron to capture a base in the Canary Islands prior to staging attacks against the Spanish coast.

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 Naval War Board (Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan seated at far left)

Despite four years of discussions, none of these plans were implemented in their entirety during the actual war, though the Sicard board did see many of its ideas adopted by the Navy. The Naval War College, contributed much to these discussions and generated some of the ideas that were later endorsed by Sicard board. Having published his landmark study on naval history in 1890, The Influence of Seapower upon History, Alfred Thayer Mahan carried the torch for the college as its leading strategic thinker. Though he had retired in 1896, Mahan was called back to active duty during the war to serve on the Naval War Board, an advisory body for the Secretary of the Navy. Mahan’s ideas on naval warfare are often reduced to a single guiding principle: that the destruction of the enemy fleet must be the primary objective in any war. As the most influential member of the Naval War Board, one might assume that Mahan wanted a climactic battle with the Spanish fleet and that the board fell in line with his way of thinking. This was not the case. Though he recognized that the destruction of the Spanish fleet would free the U.S. Navy to conduct other operations in support of the ground campaign on Cuba, Mahan also understood that these secondary operations may in fact have to precede the main battle. Something was needed to entice the Spanish to sail across the Atlantic, and the blockade served that purpose well.

One aspect of U.S. naval operations that Mahan disliked was the establishment of the Flying Squadron. It did not adopt an offensive role as envisioned by the Sicard board, but rather remained on the east coast in case the Spanish attempted to attack the U.S. mainland. This was partly a concession to panicked business owners and local politicians who demanded action to protect their cities. The squadron remained at Hampton Roads until Spain’s battle fleet was located near Martinique, at which time it shifted operations south to participate in the Cuban blockade. Mahan did not like the idea of dividing the fleet and was disappointed that the Navy’s leadership bowed to public pressure rather than following what he believed was sound naval strategy.

The collier USS Merrimac preparing to sail from Portsmouth VA on April 23, 1898

The U.S. Navy struggled during the first weeks of the war to assemble the logistical apparatus necessary for a blockade. In its haste to begin operations, the Navy sent ships south to Cuba without colliers. The need to keep up steam in order to pursue unknown ships meant that the blockaders burned through coal at a high rate and had to make frequent trips to Key West, Florida to take on more coal. Only after colliers began arriving off Cuban waters was the Navy able to institute a tight blockade. The Sicard board’s recommendation to provide refueling ships for the fleet was prescient.

The overall success of U.S. naval operations during the Spanish-American War demonstrated the value of pre-war planning. In the absence of a central planning body, the Naval War College partially filled this role by studying a potential conflict with Spain and identifying objectives to be pursued. The planning process, as haphazard as it was and resulting in five different plans, nevertheless produced a rough blueprint for victory whose main ideas were adopted by the Navy once fighting began.

Despite the relatively easy victory over the resource-starved Spanish Navy, the Navy’s top leadership privately admitted that its informal planning process would likely have failed against a more capable opponent. The use of ad-hoc planning boards brought together on short notice simply would not do in an era when technological advancements gave potential adversaries the ability to build warships with higher speeds, greater cruising ranges, and more powerful weaponry. The Navy’s experience in the Spanish-American War showed the need for a permanent planning body, one that finally materialized with the creation of the General Board in 1900.

Rob Doane
Naval War College Museum


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