Richmond Pearson Hobson.

The sinking of the Merrimac online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryRichmond Pearson HobsonThe sinking of the Merrimac → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook





This series makes available new editions of classic works of naval
history, biography, and fiction. Each volume is complete and
unabridged and includes an authoritative introduction written
specifically for Classics of Naval Literature. A list of titles pub-
lished or currently in preparation appears at the end of this volume.

The Sinking of the

By Naval Constructor
Richmond Pearson Hobson

With an Introduction and Notes by
Richard W. Turk

Naval Institute Press
Annapolis, Maryland



This book was originally published in

1899 by The Century Co. , New York, New York

Copyright © 1987 on the introduction and notes
by the U.S. Naval Institute

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Hobson, Richmond Pearson, 1870-1937

The sinking of the Merrimac / by Richmond Pearson Hobson; with an
introduction and notes by Richard W. Turk,
p. cm. — (Classics of naval literature)

Reprint. Originally published: New York, N.Y.: Century Co. , 1899.

Includes index.

1 . Merrimac (Steamer) 2. United States — History — War of
1898 — Naval operations. 3. Hobson, Richmond Pearson, 1870-1937.

4. United States — History — War of 1898 — Personal narratives.

5. United States — History — War of 1898 — Prisoners and prisons.
I. Title. II. Series.

973.89— dcl9

ISBN: 0-87021-632-5

Frmtcd m the United States of America


Introduction vii

The Sinking of the "Merrimac" xxviii

Index 191


RICHMOND Pearson Hobson was born 17 August 1870, in
Greensboro, Alabama. His father, James Marcellus Hobson,
a planter's son and graduate of the University of North Carolina,
enlisted in the Confederate army at the outbreak of the Civil
War. He was wounded three times — at Malvern Hill,
Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania. Captured during the last-
named engagement, he spent the remainder of the war as a pris-
oner. Returning to North Carolina after his release, he read law
under State Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson and in 1867 was
admitted to the bar.

He married Sarah Croom Pearson, the judge's daughter, that
same year. The couple inherited the Croom plantation, "Magno-
lia Grove," in Greensboro, and moved there soon after the mar-
riage. James Hobson embarked upon a career as a lawyer, state
legislator, and probate judge. Sarah could trace her ancestry back
to the Mayflower. Her brother, Richmond Pearson, was to serve
as a Republican member of Congress from 1895 to 1901. His
nephew, Richmond Pearson Hobson, was the second child — and
second son — in a family of seven; there were to be in all four sons
and three daughters.


In Buck Jones at Annapolis, an autobiographical novel written
some years later, Richmond Pearson Hobson described Greens-
boro as a "typical old Southern town," much the same as it was
before the war. It was a college town "of unusual culture." Cotton
planters from the surrounding area

make their homes in [Greensboro], and the people of the town are
like one big family. Many had left to go to other cities with a
wider business horizon, particularly the young men, but no one
had ever thought of starting a cotton mill or other industry in
[Greensboro] itself. The old families that had produced great
statesmen, jurists, generals, were rearing a new brood amid less
wealth but under the same old traditions.

Magnolia Grove [built in 1838] was one of the few Southern
homes that had escaped the ravages of the Civil War. The old
mansion, with its white columns, stood majestic in a vast grove of
magnolia trees, and, from its elevation, dominated the surround-
ing country. '

Hobson's parents fostered a desire in their offspring to suc-
ceed. Richmond and his older brother "came to be noted in all
the country around. They stood at the head of their classes in
school and in Sunday school, they were heroes in athletic sports,
were the greatest in hunting and fishing and swimming." It is
necessary to be careful at this point, since many of the descrip-
tions of his childhood achievements and characteristics were
made when he was at the height of his fame. Without doubt, he
was an excellent student both at private school and subsequently
at Southern University, a Methodist institution in Greensboro,
which he attended from 1882 to 1885. This at any rate seems
clear: though Hobson "was just like other boys in most
respects, ... in two things he was different. He had to be first
and he had to carry out his resolves."^

Given his southern heritage, his choice of a military career is

1. Richmond P. Hobson, Buck Jones at Annapolis (New York, 1907), pp.

2. Ibid., pp. 4, 11.


not surprising, although perhaps his choice of AnnapoHs is. As
Hobson related the story, his father and another Civil War vet-
eran were reminiscing about the war in front of the two oldest
boys. Hobson's brother announced that he would attend West
Point, whereupon Richmond, nine years old at the time, said:
"Then it is my duty to go to Annapolis." Another version has it
that his interest was spurred following a visit to New Orleans,
during which he saw and toured the USS Tennessee. Nomination
to Annapolis from his congressional district at that time was by
competitive exam. Not surprisingly, he placed first, and received
the appointment in May 1885. He was not yet 15.

Pictures of Hobson from his academy days show a handsome,
regular-featured young man. In appearance he resembled his fa-
ther. He gazes steadily at the photographer, unsmiling, serious,
and above all with a look that bespeaks determination. "He had
to be first. . . ."As the youngest member of his class, and hold-
ing strong religious and moral views, it was inevitable that he
would come in for his share of hazing. In his second-class year he
was put "in Coventry" by his classmates for placing some of them
on report. Hobson carried on. His classmates "were surprised to
see him go his way, holding his head and eyes erect, as he carried
out a routine." He took walks, he worked out in the gymnasium,
he swam, he rode horseback.

. . . during other spare hours, especially between supper and
taps, he studied and read some interesting books, notably the
classics and the standard novels he had never had time to read
before. He began to delve into the theory of the steam engine,
and to take up theoretical naval architecture and nautical astron-
omy. The subjects came to have a fascination for him.

In his novel, he was joined in Coventry by his classmates, one by
one, until it was the opposing group that was isolated. In actual-
ity, he spent his second- and first-class years under the ban. He
never stood lower than third academically (even that was a "bitter
experience"), and graduated in 1889 first in his class. He had
achieved the respect, if not the love, of his classmates. Hobson


seemed in retrospect to find the whole experience worthwhile.
"We unconsciously come to love a place in proportion to our
character growth while there. . . . The dear old Naval Academy!"^

The navy that Hobson joined was entering an era of both
strategic and technological change. For much of the nineteenth
century, both the country and its navy, consisting primarily of
cruising vessels, had found it satisfactory to adopt a strategy that
emphasized coastal defense and protection of commerce. Should
the United States find herself at war with a maritime power,
these cruisers could prey upon enemy merchant ships in much the
same way as the CSS Alabama and her sisters had operated during
the Civil War. Technological developments such as the steam
engine, the telegraph, the rifled gun, and armor-clad, steel-
hulled warships slowly eroded American confidence in the effi-
cacy of this guerre de course. In 1883 Congress authorized funds for
the first modern naval vessels: one 4,300-ton and two 3,000-ton
steel cruisers and a dispatch vessel, called the ABCDs because of
their names: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin. Nor did it
seem to some progressives in the navy that we could, as hereto-
fore, remain ignorant of what the other powers were doing. The
Office of Naval Intelligence was established in 1881, the first
naval attache sent abroad the following year, and, most impor-
tantly, the Naval War College was established in 1884. In the
eyes of its founder. Commodore Stephen B. Luce, it would be an
institution where officers could go to study tactics, strategy,
naval history, and international law. It also inadvertently was to
serve as a pulpit for its second president. Captain Alfred Thayer

Mahan published his influential book, The Influence of Sea Power
Upon History, in 1890. In it, he demonstrated how in the seven-
teenth and eighteenth centuries England, with her geographical
position, physical conformation, national character, seafaring
population, and governmental institutions, was able to acquire
and maintain command of the sea. Her naval forces sought to

3. Ihid.. pp. 353-54, 369-70.


blockade the principal enemy bases; if an opposing fleet emerged,
it would be engaged and destroyed, or driven back to port.
Command of the sea enabled England to carry on seaborne com-
merce while disrupting that of her enemies. Never, he said, could
commerce raiding alone prove decisive in war. The United States,
too, stood on the verge of maritime greatness if she could enlarge
her merchant marine, complete the proposed isthmian canal,
acquire suitable bases, and build an adequate navy.

In his first annual report (1890), Secretary of the Navy Benja-
min F. Tracy called for the immediate construction of eight
battleships and, over a twelve- to fifteen-year period, a fleet
consisting of twenty battleships, twenty coast-defense vessels,
and sixty cruisers. Congress authorized three "sea-going coast line
battleships" and during the next seven years six additional capital
ships. Modernization of the navy was well and truly under way,
and Hobson, who was to find himself in the field of marine
architecture, was to be at the cutting edge."*

Following his midshipman's cruise aboard the USS Chicago in
the Mediterranean and South Atlantic (July 1889-October
1890), Hobson was offered the opportunity to study naval archi-
tecture abroad. This was a staff position offered to the Academy's
highest-ranking graduates. He spent the next three years in
Paris, France, first attending the Ecole National Superieur des Mines
(1890-1891), and then for two years the Ecole d' Application du
Genie Maritime (1891—1893), graduating from the latter "with
distinction." He had the opportunity to visit shipyards both in
France and Great Britain before returning to the United States in
December 1893.

Hobson was to serve in the Navy Department in Washington
with the Bureau of Construction and Repair for the next eighteen
months. In October 1894 he asked Secretary of the Navy Hilary
A. Herbert to send him to Asia as official observer during the
Sino-Japanese War. Receiving no answer, he went to see the

4. See Kenneth J. Hagan, ed., In Peace and War: Interpretations of American
Naval History , 1773-1978 (Westport, Connecticut, 1978), chapters 8 and 9.


secretary in person several days later, and was told by his fellow
Alabamian that he could go if the Japanese and Chinese legations
expressed no objection. Hobson obtained the necessary permis-
sions, but in the meantime his initial request had reached the
head of the Bureau of Navigation, Francis M. Ramsey, who
turned him down on the grounds that the "Department deems it
unnecessary to send a Naval Constructor to the Asiatic Station."
Ramsey, who took a dim view of anyone who went out of chan-
nels, had been instrumental in sending Mahan off to sea the year
before because it was not the business of naval officers to write
books. In the fall of the following year (1895), Hobson requested
a European posting from the secretary, and again was turned
down. His readiness to go straight to the top was making him
enemies within the service.

In the summer of 1895 Hobson was detailed to the armored
cruiser New York, flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, fol-
lowing his suggestion (presumably made through channels) that
naval constructors be permitted sea duty, the better to observe
vessel performance while the ship was under way. He served at
the Brooklyn Navy Yard (1895-96) and subsequently at New-
port News ( 1896-97). In the spring of 1897 he again ran afoul of
a superior officer. Naval Constructor Joseph J. Woodward, who
accused him of neglect of duty because some defective metal
castings had passed his inspection. Hobson defended himself in a
forty-seven-page memorandum addressed to Secretary of the
Navy John Davis Long, and received vindication at the hands of
Acting Secretary Theodore Roosevelt.^

Hobson's suggestion that a three-year, postgraduate course in
naval construction be established at Annapolis was approved in
the summer of 1897. Hobson himself designed the program and
was selected to run it. He earlier had let it be known that he
wanted to transfer to the line and be assigned duty afloat should

5. Richard Neal Sheldon, "Richmond Pearson Hobson: The Military Hero
as Reformer During the Progressive Era," unpublished doctoral dissertation,
University of Arizona, 1970, pp. 9, 11, 16-17.


war loom, as it did with Spain following the destruction of the
USS Maine in Havana Harbor early in 1898. Hobson was permit-
ted to take his students to join the North Atlantic Squadron at
Key West, Florida, to continue their studies at sea. Both he and
the navy were about to undergo the ultimate test of war.

Hobson was aboard Rear Admiral William T. Sampson's flag-
ship, the USS New York, when war was declared 21 April 1898.
Sampson's squadron left next day to establish the blockade of
Havana and lesser ports to the east and west of the capital. One of
these ports to the east, Matanzas, was shelled 27 April by the
New York, the Puritan, and the Amphitrite — the first occasion in
the war for American vessels to come under fire. Meanwhile,
Admiral Pascual Cervera's Spanish squadron, composed of four
armored cruisers and three torpedo-boat destroyers, had left the
Cape Verde Islands 29 April bound for the Caribbean. Upon
receipt of this news. Admiral Sampson decided to move eastward
to Puerto Rico, which he believed might be Cervera's destina-
tion. His force consisted of the battleships Iowa and Indiana, the
New York, the monitors Amphitrite and Terror, the unprotected
cruisers Detroit and Montgomery , the torpedo boat Porter, the col-
lier Niagara, and the armored tug Wompatuck. It took eight days
for the squadron to reach San Juan, because the monitors and the
torpedo boat had to be taken in tow.

Cervera's fleet, meanwhile, had reached the vicinity of Marti-
nique. Two destroyers were sent in to Fort-de-France 10 May.
One of the captains reported back two days later that the Ameri-
can squadron was off San Juan (Cervera's original destination),
and they would not be able to obtain coal at Martinique. Cervera
decided to proceed to Curasao, arriving there 14 May. After
obtaining some coal — not nearly enough — Cervera decided to
head directly for Santiago de Cuba, the one port not already
blocked by the Americans. He arrived there on the morning of 19

Sampson, meanwhile, had arrived off San Juan 12 May, bom-
barded the harbor to get some idea of the state of Spanish de-
fenses, and ascertained that Cervera's squadron was not there. On


his return voyage, he received word on 16 May at Cap Haitien
that Cervera had been located at Curasao. He himself was ordered
to return to Key West. He arrived there 18 May to find the
Flying Squadron, commanded by Winfield Scott Schley, also in
port. Sampson ordered Schley to leave for Cienfuegos, one of the
possible destinations of Cervera's squadron. Schley left 19 May.
That same day a Cuban telegraph operator had reported Cervera's
arrival at Santiago. Several auxiliary cruisers were ordered to
Santiago to check this report, and Sampson ordered Schley 22
May (the orders reached him on the morning of 23 May) to
proceed to Santiago. On the 23rd Sampson himself headed for
Cay Frances in the Bahama Channel to guard the eastern ap-
proaches to Havana.

Schley did not leave Cienfuegos until late 24 May, arriving off
Santiago on 26 May. The three auxiliary cruisers already there,
the Yale, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, joined his squadron. Neither
they nor, incredibly, Schley made any effort to reconnoiter the
harbor to see if Cervera's squadron was in fact there. Instead,
Schley decided to return to Key West to coal, steamed westward
for a day, then spent the better part of another day idling with
the squadron. Sampson, en route back to Key West (where he
arrived 28 May), had cabled Schley 27 May urging him to block-
ade Santiago. After consulting with several of his commanders,
Sampson also instructed Schley to sink a collier in the mouth of
Santiago Harbor (the Merrimac was specifically mentioned), but
the details of the operation were to be left up to Schley. On 28
May a cable to Schley from Secretary of the Navy John D. Long
ordered him to remain at Santiago and authorized him to sink a
coUier in the entrance to the harbor. Had Schley been where he
was supposed to be, it is conceivable that he, rather than Samp-
son, would have mounted this operation. Schley finally did re-
verse course, arriving back at Santiago on the 28th, and finally
the next day observed Spanish warships in the mouth of Santiago
Harbor. Sampson left Key West 30 May with the New York and
the battleship Oregon, which had completed her epic voyage from


the West Coast. He arrived off Santiago on the morning of 1

What of Hobson all this time? There are a few hints contained
in his sequel to Buck Jones at Annapolis, called In Line of Duty.
Buck had been assigned to the USS Oregon, accompanied her from
the West Coast to the Caribbean, and was present at the Battle of
Santiago on 3 July. Shortly before, Buck received a batch of
letters from his mother. In one, written the day war had been
declared, she said: "It is a holy war, my son. Go forth and do your
duty. God will take care of you." In another, she noted proudly
that Buck's father had organized and equipped a company of
Confederate veterans and placed them at the government's dis-
posal. "They are camped on the tournament grounds, and are
showing the town company what war discipline is like. You
ought to see how proud they are to wear the blue. They are
hoping soon to face the enemy and show how they love the old


Sampson wasted no time in his effort to bottle up Cervera's
fleet. His preference was to storm the harbor, but he suspected
(correctly) that there were electric mines in the channel that could
be detonated from shore. His plan to sink the collier Merrimac in
the entrance was a temporary measure designed to contain
Cervera — who otherwise might attempt to escape altogether —
until the arrival of the army. The army then could capture the
fortifications at the mouth of Santiago Harbor, the threat of the
mines would be eliminated, the sunken collier could be removed
from the channel, and the fleet then could enter to come to grips
with Cervera. The operation, under Hobson's direction, was to
go in on the night of 1-2 June, but did not actually get under
way until the following evening (0300 3 June).

Its failure, followed by the capture of Hobson and his crew, led

6. See David F. Trask, The War With Spain in 1898 (New York, 1981),
chapter 6.

7. Richmond P. Hobson, In Line of Duty (New York, 1910), p. 306.


Admiral Sampson to devise measures for the close blockade of the
harbor entrance. On 7 June he arranged for the stationing at
night of three picket launches one mile out, three additional
vessels (the Vixen, Suwanee, and Dolphin) two miles out, and the
balance of the fleet disposed in an arc about four miles from the
entrance. The next day, he improved on even this disposition,
moving the battleships Iowa, Oregon, and Massachusetts on a rotat-
ing basis, to within two miles of the entrance to train their
searchlights on the channel. Other vessels took turns sweeping
the coastline to the west and east. The efficacy of these arrange-
ments was attested to by Cervera, who made no serious effort to
consider a sortie after 8 June. He feared that his vessels, emerging
one by one, and in the glare of the searchlights, would be in
danger of running aground in the narrow passage or even collid-
ing with one another. With the blockade operating effectively,
and Guantanamo Bay to the east occupied as a coaling station and
fleet anchorage, the navy awaited the arrival of the expeditionary
force. As Hobson wrote succinctly years later,

Finally, the army came. Sampson sent Buck to the commanding
general with dispatches, to recommend the cooperation of the
Army with the Navy, and the taking of the forts at che entrance
by an attack from the rear, and then the taking of the city by an
advance from the south, the entrance side, the fleet to enter when
the mmes were removed. Buck was going to point out the advan-
tage of hitting Punta Gorda, but the general gave him scant
attention, and the army tumbled ashore and stumbled into the
battles of Las Guasimas, El Caney, and San Juan Hill. Only then
after serious losses did the general consent to have a conference
with Sampson. . . .^

It was not Buck Jones, of course, but Sampson's chief of staff,
Captain French Ensor Chadwick, who visited General Shafter 20
June after his arrival off Santiago. Chadwick thought that Shafter
had agreed to an attack on the Morro and Socapa batteries at the
mouth of the harbor, whereas in fact Shafter decided — as his

8. IbtJ.. pp. 331-32.


orders permitted — to mount a campaign by land against the
eastern defenses of the city of Santiago. The decision to proceed in
this fashion did little for interservice relations. Defenders of
Shafter argue that the navy underestimated the difficulty of seiz-
ing the heights from the land, the difficulty of removing the
mines unless the batteries at Estrella Point, Socapa Point, and
Punta Gorda also were silenced, and finally the danger posed by
the vessels of Cervera's squadron, which could fire on the Ameri-
can warships one by one as they entered.^ Following the battles of
El Caney and San Juan heights 1 July, where the army suffered
approximately 1,000 casualties, Shafter again asked Sampson to
run in past the forts, and Sampson again refused. He was under
orders from Washington not to risk his battleships needlessly.
The guns he was willing to face; the mines he was not.

The captain-general of Cuba, Don Ramon y Erenas, mean-
while on 1 July ordered Admiral Cervera to sortie. Cervera re-
embarked those of his sailors who had been fighting with the
defenders ashore, and steamed out to destruction 3 July, as he
had feared and expected. On the following evening, near mid-
night, the Spanish attempted a venture similar to Hobson's with
the Merrimac, hoping to blockade the channel with the old cruiser
Reina Mercedes. Picked out as she came down the channel by the
searchlights of the Texas and Massachusetts, the Spanish vessel was
hit by gunfire from both ships. Although sunk in the intended
location by her crew, the vessel lay too far to the east of the main
channel, near Estrella Cove, to obstruct the entrance. Efforts
meanwhile had continued to effect the release of Hobson and his
men; on 6 July they were exchanged for an equal number of
Spanish prisoners.

Unbeknownst to Hobson, as a result of his exploits he had
become a national hero. His picture appeared in virtually every
paper and magazine; reporters vied with each other to find new
adjectives to describe the act of "splendid daring and magnificent
courage" he and his men had performed. His family and former

9. Trask, The War With Spain, pp. 203-4.


associates were sought out for interviews. He even had a cigar
named after him — "Hobson's Choice" — though he didn't smoke.
On his return to the United States later in July, Hobson himself
did his best to avoid the publicity and the numerous requests for
speeches or articles. He did, however, agree to speak at the New

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryRichmond Pearson HobsonThe sinking of the Merrimac → online text (page 1 of 16)