Intriguingly, this is the third book I have read recently that has referred to Lord Nelson’s famous dictim that a ship’s a fool to fight a fortress, two of which referred to apparent exceptions to that rule in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and the other of which spoke in favor of the rule in its contemporary relevance for campaigns against nations with strong littoral defenses. Mercifully, this short book (about 160 pages in length) is more than merely a narrative battle study of the two battles of Manila Bay and Santiago, where the United States Navy proved its mettle and almost without a loss demolished the main Spanish fleets in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Indeed, the book includes a great deal of narrative history about many of the leaders of the American and Spanish fleets and some of the ship commanders as well, making it a history that includes elements of the Civil War, the long “doldrums” between 1865 and the 1880’s, and the Baltimore Incident in Valpariso in 1891, where the United States and Chile almost went to war, and which helped prompt a major increase in American naval strength. This not only fleshes out the book, but it makes the people involved in the battles much more human and therefore relatable.
To be sure, this war has a lot of poignant human interest. There is an American captain dying of liver cancer who nevertheless chooses to lead his ship into battle, knowing it would shorten his life. There is an American rear-admiral, who would not long live either, who commanded a fleet successfully and mostly ably despite the fact that he seemed in retrospect to be suffering from dementia or some related illness. It is also striking the degree of pessimism that the Americans would all die in battle, which in retrospect appears to be far too gloomy and pessimistic. Yet in the period before the Spanish-American War the American navy was underrated and the Spanish navy was overrated, a fact which become obvious after the fighting but was not obvious before. Among the few who was painfully aware of the Spanish position was the Spanish Admiral Cervera, uniformly praised for his courtesy and bravery, despite being of a melancholy and almost despairing attitude about Spanish odds because of his awareness of their weaknesses in key areas of logistics. Indeed, this book makes it clear that it was in logistics and gunnery that were the chief advantages of the United States in this conflict, and that it is fortunate for us that we were fighting against such an outmatched foe.
The way in which the book succeeds is such that a fair-minded reader feels a sense of compassion for the poor Spanish seamen doomed to death because of their nation’s stubborn pride. There appears to have been more hostility between officers like Schley and Sampson, who squabbled over how much credit each deserved for the victory in Santiago (the verdict then and now is that Sampson deserves more) than there was between the officers and sailors of the two respective navies, who seem to have operated under a gentleman’s code which praised brave acts and which sought to preserve life, even after shots fired in anger. The author makes a sound point that it was the navy which decisively won the Spanish-American war, both in absolutely destroying two Spanish squadrons, as well as in key support work in logistics and bombardment support. It appears, additionally, that the army was not particularly aware of or appreciative of the efforts of the navy. Again, fortunately for the United States, such inter-service rivalry was not ultimately hazardous to American success because the foe being fought was so outclassed. It feels bad, as an American and as a student of history, to see my nation be such a bully in its affairs, and to see such honor as the Spanish possessed ending in such pitiful results.