On 8 Jan., 19 Feb., 6 Mar., 7 Mar., 24 Apr., and 24 May I bought you stories of different events in the war involving Willard and Harry Miller, Thomas Cooney and John Everetts, all of Nova Scotia, George Phillips of NB, and Daniel Campbell of PEI. There was also a blog about a MOH recipient in one of the cable cutting boats who not only earned the Medal of Honor but later went off to fight in the Boer War and became one of only 8 in the world to be awarded the Queen's Scarf. Today should be the last on the Spanish American War and a Canadian by the name of Henry P Russell from Quebec.
The Island of Cuba was a Spanish possession. For years pre the war the island was at unrest with several revolutions and unrest resulting from treatment from Spain. The hot phrase of the day was Yellow Journalism and this referred to the then tainted stories in the press of both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Coverage of the events of the day were often slanted for their own purposes and as often would apparently carry stories with information they just plain made up.
Folks back in the US were getting very edgy about US interests on the island and were keeping a close eye on matters some 90 miles to the south of the tip of Florida. On 15 Feb., 1898 the USS Maine manned by 374 officers and men blew up in Cuban waters. It had been on site for only about three weeks. The journalists had a hay day with stories that were unsubstantiated and the public back in the US were livid over what they were reading and of course over the loss of 3/4's of the Maine's crew. Only 64 survived the massive explosion that sunk the war vessel, and only 16 of these remained uninjured.
Many accusations floated about the ship hitting enemy mines, a secret agent onboard lighting the flames and even a theory that it was a deliberate scuttling in order to get public support to declare war. A more plausible explanation, though still debated today, even after numerous investigations, was that the ship's gun powder simply ignited due to spontaneous combustion.
Arguments back and forth between the two nations dragged out for 2 months. "Remember the Maine, the Hell with Spain, was the phrase oft used in the press and being repeatedly daily by those reader the journals of the day. The US public demanded retaliation, and ultimately it was Spain that declared war on the US first and the US then responding in kind. Cuba would become the battle ground. The Asiatic Squadron of US navy ships immediately sailed off from Hong Kong to Manila Bay and destroyed the Spanish Navy there. And back at home, the Atlantic Fleet under Commander McCalla was dispatched to Cuba and arrived with 24 ships within hours.
The game plan was to blockade the entire island so that no help could come to the aid of the Spanish troops on Cuban soil. Nor could mail or supplies arrive or leave. But on arrival McCalla realized very quickly that word could get out to Spain with a cry for help by simply using their underwater cable system.
From the southern coast line harbour of Cienfuegos, marked with the "A" above, these cable ran underwater to the west and around the tip of Cuba and back east to Havana. They also ran east from Cienfuegos to the eastern tip of the island at Santiago. Commander McCalla, who's first job was to take control of the Cienfuegos harbour, quickly realized that if he took out the cables, it was have a most devastating effect on Spain and would have a major outcome of the war...from its very beginning. Thus that became his first target.
McCalla had two very powerful ships in the vicinity, the USS Marblehead and the USS Nashville.
The USS Marblehead is on the left and is stripped down and ready for action. The USS Nashville on the right is very pretty looking but has yet to be made ready for war a few months after this picture was taken in early 1898. Canadians were serving on both of these war ships during the Spanish American War and took part in the cable cutting incident and 4 of these sailors came home with the Medal of Honor.
Commander McCalla's plan called for each of these ships to supply one sailing launch and one motor launch. The motor launches would be manned by marine sharpshooters and sailors that would provide heavy gunfire with machine guns and rifles and even pistols if need be, while the motor launches were set up to actually do the work of locating, hauling up and cutting a length of cable out of the line on two separate cables. The sailing launches would hopefully keep the enemy at bay while the cutters did their work. The above ships would also shell the harbour to start things off and bring massive guns to action as needed throughout.
At the bottom of this sketch you can see the positions of the Marblehead and the Nashville. The vessel USS Windom was sent in towards the end to haul the four smaller boats out of harm's way. The two gun boats and 2 cable cutting boats each had about 16 men in them and can be seen in the sketch just off the coast doing their work. With some irony, the 4 Canadians earning medals in this event were each positioned in one of the four smaller craft.
Twenty year old Quebecer Henry P Russell was serving at the time as a Landsman (recruit) on the Marblehead, and as such he was assigned to either the motor launch or the sailing launch from that ship. Lists of all those involved are readily available on the net and to which ship they belonged, but the info on what smaller craft they were on has been most difficult to locate so far. Campbell and the Miller bothers noted in past blogs, were each in one the other 3 smaller craft.
At 0645 a.m. on 11 May the Marblehead opened up her cannons on the Cable House located at the Cienfuegos harbour. Within minutes it was a pile of rubble. Then both it and the Nashville spent about 15 minutes giving a heavy shelling along the coast line in this area were it was known that the Spaniards had been hiding under cover and in slit trenches along the coast line. Then the four boats got launched. The two motor boats pulling the two sailing launches to within about 400 ft of the shore line, where tow lines were cast off and the two then were under the steam off their own oars to move closer to their targets.
As they were moving in on their first target, on shore an officer was riding about on a white horse. He saw the boats and road off while being shot at by the motor launches and sharpshooters. But the waves were so high and waters so rough that it was difficult to take a good aim and the fellow escaped and no doubt rode off for reinforcements thinking an invasion was about to start. Little did he know that was not the plan at all.
Several hundred feet to the east of the destroyed cable-house, and out of the line of fire by most on shore, the Americans found the first cable... but they were quite close to shore... less than 100 feet away and in water only 20 feet deep when it was finally found. The coral that wrapped itself around the cable made it difficult to grab but once hooked it would take about 30 men on two boats that were constantly banging together, to muscle the very heavy 2 inch lead cable to the surface. They then moved father away from the shore, while manhandling the cable so as not to lose it. Finally when far enough away they tried to chisel away at it and take an axe to it and several other things before eventually sawing it through with a hacksaw. They then dropped the shore end, coiled up the ocean end and sailed yet further out to sea far enough that about 150 feet of cable had been coiled up. They then chopped it off and went hunting for the second cable.
This one was much more dangerous as now the men were not only within firing range... but also in the line of fire of the enemy. Worse yet, as some would later claim, they were as worried about being killed by their fellow sailors who were firing shell just over their head at the shoreline in support of the smaller craft. Those in it had to keep ducking in a panic not knowing if it would be friend or foe that killed them. Again with great difficulty the cable leading off to Havana was located and hauled aboard and moved out to sea to cut out about a 100 foot chuck. But all the time they were under heavy fire. In fact it got heavier due to the arrival of more reinforcements on the shoreline.
Then a third was discovered but this was a smaller gage line. Nevertheless, they attempted to haul it up as well but by now the firing was murderous and the enemy had also brought in a field piece to attempt to put a stop to the American activity. The officers then called off the mission as the last cable was thought to just go along the shore a few miles and was not of near the importance of the first two. All then headed off back to their respective ships and a heroes welcome.
A later account by one of the fellows was that the bullets were hitting the boats so fast that men were taking their own bullets and stuffing them into the holes of the boat. Several men were killed in the operation and others wounded, including some of the men on both mother-ships who were also receiving heavier small arms fire from the shoreline. one of the wounded was non other than Commander McCalla who found it necessary to temporarily assign his command to another officer.
Naval General Order # 521 on 7 July 1899 awarded 52 Medals of Honor for those involved in this attack.
After being requested to supply some details on these men and what they did to earn their medals the Ambassador agree to do this. But March 25th was not doable so he chose another day... I July... Canada's birthday. And the service was then performed there on the 1st at the grave site of each of these MOH recipients. Here is a picture of then serving Rear Admiral Mack, then current Ambassador Frank McKenna from New Brunswick, then serving Colonel Robertson and others. (Interesting that the Canadian army, navy and air-force are all represented in this picture.) The centre marker, whilst the rear markings seem odd, and being saluted by the Admiral, is that of Quebec born Henry Peter Russell. The third image is the front of that marker.
And Henry was born on 11 June... this past Monday... and 135 years ago.