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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cable-Cutting At Cienfuegos (May 11, 1898)
By Lieutenant Cameron McR. Winslow,
In Command of the Boat Expedition

Introduction: The cutting of the cables connecting Cuba to the rest of the world in May 1898 was of strategic importance in the Spanish-American war, as the article below describes.

Later in the course of the conflict, on July 3rd, 1898, the Maria Teresa, the flagship of the Spanish fleet, was set on fire at the battle of Santiago Bay. The captain ran her aground to save his crew, and the ship was then salvaged by the US Navy, patched up, and towed away for rebuilding. While under tow to Norfolk, Virginia, the Maria Teresa was caught in a storm and wrecked. The ship was declared a total loss.
[See the Spanish American War Centennial Website for more information]

Site visitor Rafael Fiol sends these photographs of a section of the shore end of the Cienfuegos cable. According to the engraved inscription, the cable is mounted in brass taken from the Maria Teresa.

Cienfuegos Cable Mounted With Maria Teresa's Brass
Images courtesy of and copyright © 2008 Rafael Fiol

From the article below:

The cable landing at Colorados Point had the usual central conductor, consisting of a strand of seven copper wires insulated by a coating of gutta-percha. These wires with their gutta-percha insulation were inclosed in a lead tube, the purpose of the lead tube being to protect the gutta-percha from the attacks of the teredo, a submarine boring animal. Outside this lead tube, and embedded in a fibrous water-excluding substance, were two layers of heavy iron wires, the inner layer consisting of twelve wires, each 7/32 inch in diameter, and the outer layer of fourteen wires, each 5/16 inch in diameter. Surrounding this outer layer of wires and forming the external surface of the cable was jute braiding. The whole cable thus made up was two inches in diameter and weighed six pounds to the linear foot. So far as the cutting of the cable was concerned, it was equivalent to cutting through a bar of iron about as thick as a man's wrist.

--Bill Burns

(MAY 11, 1898.)

In Command of the Boat Expedition.

To isolate Cuba from Spain and other countries of the world was the problem which, upon the breaking out of war between the United States and Spain, immediately engaged the attention of our fleet at Key West. The blockade became virtually effective along the entire coast-line of Cuba, preventing the landing of food-supplies and munitions of war, as well as cutting off communication by mail between the island and the outside world. This, however, was not enough. General Blanco at Havana was still in direct communication by ocean telegraph-cables with many of the islands of the West Indies, and thence with the home government at Madrid. To cut these cables and thus destroy the Spanish telegraphic lines of communication, preventing the authorities at Madrid and at Havana, and the ships of Admiral Cervera's fleet, from sending or receiving information, was of the utmost strategic importance.

No ocean cables are landed on the north coast of Cuba except those leading directly from Havana to Key West. The United States, holding the terminal at Key West, controlled these lines. On the south coast the telegraph-cables are looped along the shore from Batabano, a port about thirty miles nearly due south of Havana and connected with that city by railroad and overland telegraph, to the eastward as far as Guantanamo Bay; the northern loops of the cables touching at San Luis, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, and a point on the shore of Guantanamo Bay.

Santiago de Cuba is connected with Jamaica by cable, and Guantanamo with Haiti; and these islands with other islands of the West Indies and with the United States, Nova Scotia, and Europe. Could the insurgents have destroyed the overland telegraph lines, as it was reported that they had done, then the cutting of the ocean cables at Cienfuegos or at any one point to the eastward of that city would have shut off Havana from all telegraphic communication with the outside world. The isolation of Havana was, of course, of prime importance; the interruption of telegraphic communication by cable along the coast, wherever possible, was also very important.

The naval force operating on the south coast of Cuba in the early part of May, at the time of the cutting of the cables at Cienfuegos, was composed of the cruiser Marblehead, the gunboat Nashville, the converted yacht Eagle, the revenue cutter Windom, and the collier Saturn, at that time forming the fourth division of the fleet, under the immediate command of Commander B. H. McCalla, U. S. N., who flew the senior officer's pennant on board the Marblehead.

Cienfuegos is situated about six miles from the sea, and the bay or harbor is entered by a channel three miles in length. On the east of the entrance is Punta de la Colorados, where a lighthouse is situated. Overlooking this low strip of land and extending some miles to the eastward is a ridge or plateau, from two to three hundred feet in height, steeply sloping to the shoreline. Trees and the dense chaparral of Cuba cover the rocky and irregular surface of this hillside, the wild confusion of nature forming better rifle-pits here than the efforts of man could produce.

The lighthouse was situated close to the shore-line, perhaps twenty-five yards back, and was built of some species of white stone, the tower surmounting the light-keeper's dwelling-house. To the northward and eastward of the lighthouse, and at a distance of about fifty yards, was a signal-station, and close to the signal-pole was the hut used as barracks for the signalmen and soldiers. From in front of the lighthouse the shore-line runs nearly due east for a distance of about two hundred and fifty yards, then turns sharply to the northward, and extends in that direction about thirty yards.

Here was situated the cable-house, twenty or thirty feet back from the water's edge, and about three hundred yards from the lighthouse. From this point the shore again trends to the eastward, and from the narrow strip of sand forming the beach the land rises steeply to the top of the plateau. Off this part of the coast, to the eastward of the cable-house, are outlying rocks and coral reefs, rendering the navigation of the adjacent water dangerous even for small boats.

Photograph by Hollinger & Co.
Lieutenant Cameron
McR. Winslow

From the cable-house and extending along past the lighthouse to the westward, the formation is coral, the sea-waves breaking against it and wearing fissures and crevices in the vertical face of the brown, dirty-looking coral, which forms a shore-line four or five feet above the sea-level, jagged and rough, and perilous for a boat to approach even in a moderate sea. The low strip of land with the cable-house at its eastern end is overgrown with long grass, vine, and chaparral, and the surface is irregular. The lighthouse and signal-station were on land a little higher than that to the eastward.

The rifle-pits were situated between the cable-house and the lighthouse, the eastern end of the trenches being not more than fifty feet from the cable-house, and an equal distance back from the water's edge. In some places they were covered with a fiat canopy of reeds and leaves to protect the soldiers from sun and rain. The rifle-pits were so hidden by the tall grass and bushes that had we not seen the men digging in the trenches, we should not have known where the pits were located. The whole surrounding country formed excellent cover for infantry.

Shortly before sundown on May 10, signal was made directing the commanding officer of the Nashville and me to repair on board the Marblehead. On our arrival on board that vessel, we were informed by Commander McCalla that he intended to make an attempt at daylight the following morning to cut the ocean telegraph-cables; that an expedition of boats under my command would be sent in to endeavor to find and cut the cables landing near Colorados lighthouse, that the expedition would be opposed by a force of the enemy, and that the Marblehead and the Nashville would shell the country and attempt to dislodge the enemy or silence his fire. I was told that I could have the steam-cutter and the sailing-launch of the Marblehead and the steam-cutter and the sailing-launch of the Nashville, and that Lieutenant E. A. Anderson of the Marblehead would accompany the expedition as second in command. I had no further orders as regards the fitting out of the expedition, the details being left entirely to my own judgment.

Photograph by Hoffman, Savannah, Ga.
Half-tone plate engraved by T. Johnson
Lieutenant E.A. Anderson, U.S.N., Second in Command of the Expedition

Not wishing to endanger more lives than necessary, and knowing that no force in the boats, however large, could repulse the enemy, and that it would be impossible to fight and at the same time accomplish the laborious work of raising and cutting the cables, I decided, after conference with Lieutenant Anderson, to take no more men in the sailing-launches than just enough to do the work. Each sailing-launch pulled twelve oars; the crew, therefore, consisted of twelve men and a cockswain. The only men additional to the crew were to be the blacksmith and a carpenter's mate, making, with the officer in the boat, sixteen men in all. Half of the men were to be armed with revolvers and the other half with rifles. In the event of the boats stranding accidentally, more effective work could be done with revolvers than with rifles, at such close quarters. A few extra rifles were to be put in the boats, and an ample supply of ammunition.

The crew of each steam-cutter consisted of a cockswain, two seamen, a fireman, and a coal-passer. In addition to the crew, a sergeant of marines and half a dozen privates were to go as sharp-shooters. They were to be armed with rifles. In the Marblehead's steam-cutter a one-pounder Hotchkiss cannon was to be mounted on the forecastle. The Nashville's steam-cutter was to have two Colt machine-guns, one forward and the other aft. All boats were to be supplied with life-preservers. The tools for cutting the cables, to be carried in each sailing launch, consisted of cold-chisels, blacksmiths' hammers, a heavy maul, a block of hard wood with iron plate for its upper surface, an ax, wire-cutting pliers, and a hacksaw. Coils of stout rope and grapnels of different sizes were to be used in grappling the cables and bringing them to the surface. Having previously seen some service in connection with laying ocean cables, I was perfectly familiar with the character of the cable to be dealt with, and fully realized the difficulties to be encountered. Owing to the chafing on rocks and other irregularities of the bottom, due to the swaying of the cable with the motion of the waves and tides, it is customary to use very large and heavy-armored cable, specially protected, for the section reaching from the deep water to the shore. This is known as the "shore end." From a junction-box below low-water mark the shore end is generally carried through pipes laid underground to the interior of the cable-house, where the test-table, galvanometer block, and terminal board are located. The cable landing at Colorados Point had the usual central conductor, consisting of a strand of seven copper wires insulated by a coating of gutta-percha. These wires with their gutta-percha insulation were inclosed in a lead tube, the purpose of the lead tube being to protect the gutta-percha from the attacks of the teredo, a submarine boring animal. Outside this lead tube, and embedded in a fibrous water-excluding substance, were two layers of heavy iron wires, the inner layer consisting of twelve wires, each 7/32 inch in diameter, and the outer layer of fourteen wires, each 5/16 inch in diameter. Surrounding this outer layer of wires and forming the external surface of the cable was jute braiding. The whole cable thus made up was two inches in diameter and weighed six pounds to the linear foot. So far as the cutting of the cable was concerned, it was equivalent to cutting through a bar of iron about as thick as a man's wrist.

The cable-house which received the shore end of the cable was a small cubical box of a house, built of the same white stone which was used in the construction of the lighthouse.

Before leaving the Marblehead, I went on the bridge with Commander McCalla, and with our binocular glasses we carefully examined the shore-line and the country about the cable-house. We were near enough to the shore to see the rifle-pits and the soldiers working about them, as well as those on duty at the signal-station. Whether there were any field-pieces could not be determined. They would certainly have been masked had there been any. Leaving Lieutenant Anderson to select the crews and fit out the boats of the Marblehead, I returned to the Nashville, in company with Commander Maynard. In neither vessel was there any lack of volunteers among officers or men for the expedition. I believe that there could be no situation, however hazardous, where the enlisted men of our navy would not gladly accompany their officers. Later on, during the war, some of these men who helped to cut the cables volunteered to take the steam-cutter and destroy a new and powerful searchlight on Morro Castle at Havana. The idea was of course impracticable and not to be thought of, but as the proposition was made in good faith, it is indicative of the courage and spirit of the American man-of-war's-man.

On board the Nashville a few changes were made in the regular crews of the boats, such men as were physically unqualified for the work being replaced by others. That night the boats were equipped and all preparations made for the expedition. The following morning at early dawn, Commander Maynard and I were again signaled to repair on board the Marblehead, where we received the last instructions. The orders were, briefly, to cut the cables landing to the east of the lighthouse and drag them into deep water, cutting off as much as possible of the ends. The Nashville was to take post off the lighthouse point, so as to open fire on the cable-house and the bushes in the vicinity, and to fire also on the soldiers' hut to the eastward of the lighthouse, and on any forts or boats in the harbor which should interfere with the operations. The Marblehead was to take post between the points of the river entrance, with broadside facing the entrance. The disposition of the ships was admirable, giving them a fire crossed at a large angle on the rifle-pits, and at the same time the Marblehead commanded the entrance of the harbor, ready to give battle to any Spanish man-of-war that might attempt to come out. The ships were not to fire on the lighthouse unless absolutely necessary. The revenue cutter Windom was to lie a few miles offshore, within signal distance, convoying the collier.

My own individual orders were very brief. I was simply to cut the cables as directed above, and under no circumstances to land. The orders were quite sufficient, and I was glad to escape being hampered by more explicit instructions. Just before leaving the Marblehead, I went on the bridge with Commander McCalla, and as the ship steamed inshore to within a mile of the cable-house, we made a last examination of the enemy's position.

The soldiers about the signal-station were in plain sight, as well as the infantry in the rifle-pits near the cable-house, but in what numbers we could not tell, though I did not believe that they were in large force. It was also impossible to discover if there were any field-pieces masked or in the trenches. A few cavalrymen were in view in close proximity to the cable-house. We scrutinized carefully the surrounding country and realized what excellent cover the enemy would find there. Just back of the cable-house was a rocky bluff behind which one might find safety even from the shell fire of our ships. All over the slope of this part of the hill were rocks, trees, and chaparral, rendering an enemy invisible, as well as affording him good protection.

Having completed the examination of the enemy's position, Commander Maynard and I returned to the Nashville. The boats were then manned. The men were to dress as they pleased, except that they were not allowed to wear anything white, as we did not wish to present an unnecessarily easy target to the enemy. They were all required to wear shoes, to prevent their feet being cut by the sharp coral in the event of the boats being swamped and the men forced to land. The weather was hot, and the men were scantily and shabbily clothed.

At half-past six the Nashville's boats were ready, and after a careful inspection to see that they were properly equipped, the boats shoved off from the ship's side, and were soon joined by the Marblehead's boats.

At a quarter to seven the Nashville signaled, "Ready," and the Marblehead immediately answered, "Execute orders." The Nashville steamed slowly to the eastward until about fourteen hundred yards from the beach, the lighthouse bearing to the northward and westward, the boats holding their position under shelter of the Nashville and on her starboard beam. Almost immediately the Marblehead opened fire, and hardly had the boom of her first gun died away before the Nashville took up the firing, both ships firing deliberately with main and secondary batteries. As the Nashville neared her station, Lieutenant Anderson and I left the steam-cutters and joined the working parties in the sailing-launches, leaving Ensign T. P. Magruder in the Nashville's steam-cutter His orders were to take command of both steam-cutters, to keep his boats clear of the reefs, to fire on the rifle-pits and hills, and to protect the working launches as much as possible.

Photograph. Half-tone plate
engraved by T. Johnson
Ensign T.P. Magruder, U.S.N., in Command of the Steam-Cutters

At five minutes to seven, while the ships were still firing, the flotilla of boats steamed across the Nashville's bows and headed for the land, the Nashville's boats leading, the steam-cutters towing the launches. A moderate breeze was blowing on shore from the southward and eastward, and the long ocean swell rolling in from the Caribbean Sea broke heavily on the rocks and coral-lined shore, making a long ribbon of white foam and spray, which marked clearly the reefs awash and formed the dividing-line between land and sea.

The ships were now firing on the cable-house, and after a few shots found the range. Soon the shells were bursting all about the cable-house and the rocky bluff in its rear. In a few minutes the house was struck, the shells apparently piercing both the front and rear walls and bursting against the rocks of the bluff beyond. Again and again the shells found their mark, bursting and sending clouds of stone and mortar into the air, demolishing wall after wall, until one shot, striking the tottering structure, burst, and brought it down, leaving nothing but a disordered pile of masonry covering the wreck of electrical instruments. As the boats neared the land, the ships slackened their fire, and the steam-cutters began firing on the rifle-pits. When three or four hundred yards from the shore, fearing to ground the steam-cutters on the reefs, they were ordered to let go the tow-lines and take position in rear of the launches and on their starboard quarter. The oars were manned; and in column, with the Nashville's launch leading, the boats pulled directly for the cable-house, the steam-cutters still keeping up the fire and following the launches, about one hundred yards astern.

Site visitor Frances Doane has provided this photograph of the Cienfuegos cable house, which was found in her grandfather's papers. Names of the men are not known, but her grandfather and great-grandfather were Frederick and Herman Eickbusch of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The building was erected in 1888 when the Santiago-Guantanamo cable was laid, and was destroyed by Marblehead in 1898 as described above, so the photograph must have been taken in the intervening period. The cable house location relative to the ships of the American fleet can be seen on the map below.

From the article: “The cable-house which received the shore end of the cable was a small cubical box of a house, built of the same white stone which was used in the construction of the lighthouse.”

The New Cable House
Destroyed by Marblehead
May 11 1898 near Cienfuegos Cuba

The deep water off the coast made futile any effort to grapple the cables where the bottom could not be seen through the clear water. As we neared the land, a cavalryman on a white horse left the beach and galloped at top speed up a rugged path leading over the ridge. The sharp-shooters in the steam-cutters tried to stop him, but, from the uneasily tossing boats, their aim was inaccurate, and he disappeared. This man carried the news of our attack to Cienfuegos, and soon reinforcements were marching to the scene of action. He was the only cavalryman in view after the firing began; the others were, in all probability, killed by our shell fire in the early part of the bombardment. One Spanish officer or soldier left the trenches and stood boldly out in front of them, an act of bravado that cost him his life. Except a few soldiers about the barracks and lighthouse, no others were seen while the boats were pulling in. They were all under cover, intimidated by the fierce fire from our ships and steam-cutters, or else waiting to see what we in the boats would do.

Keeping a good lookout for rocks and reefs, the boats pulled steadily on, the inaccurate Cuban charts giving us little information as to the distance from the land at which we should find shoal water. As the boats neared the shore, the anxiety due to anticipated fire from the enemy increased. The launches were only a few lengths apart, and every man in the boats was exposed and plainly visible. The ships were firing slowly. One well-directed volley from the enemy at this time would have killed or wounded so many in the launches that the object of the expedition would at once have been frustrated. Why the Spaniards did not then open fire is inexplicable to the Anglo-Saxon mind.

Nearer and nearer the boats approached the land, and it seemed that we should not sight the bottom at all. We were now within about a hundred feet of the shore-line, and with the eastern end of the rifle-pits about fifty feet farther back. Suddenly the dark patches of coral cropping up from the white sand of the bottom were seen through the clear water, thirty or forty feet in depth. The grapnels were at once thrown overboard, and the dragging began. Hardly had the boats moved a length before the grapnels caught under the coral rocks, and it became evident that the cables would have to be sighted before they could be grappled. Then the boats pulled in close, the Nashville's launch nearest the rifle-pits, until the water shoaled to less than twenty feet, the steam-cutters, a couple of hundred yards outside the fire of the rifle-pits, holding the enemy down in the trenches.

Almost immediately the Marblehead's launch, a hundred yards to the eastward of the Nashville, hooked the cable leading to Santiago. At the same time a cable, probably the one already grappled, was sighted by the Nashville's boat. Without making any attempt to hook this cable, the Nashville's launch went to the assistance of the other boat.

Meanwhile the Marblehead was directing her fire against the signal-station and barracks, and in a short time the huts were in flames, and those of the enemy who had sought refuge there had ceased to live.

Both boats had now hooked the cable, and thirty strong men were laboriously lifting the dingy object from its bed twenty feet below. The heavy cable, laid taut along the bottom, seemed to weigh tons. As it was dragged to the surface, ropes were passed under it, and with heavers it was gradually worked over one corner of the stern of the boat, and then by sheer force was dragged into the boat and lifted over the rollers on the bow and the stern. The task of lifting it into the other boat was easier. After both boats were under the cable, one ahead of the other, the steam-cutters took tow-lines from the leading boat and went ahead at full speed. The men in the launches, by heavy hauling and the assistance of the steam-cutters, slowly underran the cable. This cable was laid in a southerly direction until a depth of about two fathoms was reached, then the direction was changed sharply to the eastward and followed the line of the reef. At this point the Nashville's launch stopped and began to cut the cable. Axes and cold-chisels were tried, but the hack-saw, a small hand-saw about nine inches in length used for cutting metals, was found to be the most effective. With this saw, by frequently changing the men using it, the cable was cut through in from twenty minutes to half an hour.

Cutting the Cables at Cienfuegos

While the cable was being cut at this point, the Marblehead's launch was working to the eastward, dragging it across the boat. Having made the first cut, the Nashville's launch, following the Marblehead's launch, underran the cable, bending it and coiling it down in the stern-sheets and across the gunwale of the boat, it being the intention to throw it overboard in deep water or carry it off to the ship. This cable was underrun until it was found to pass under a ledge from which it could not be disengaged. While attempting to drag it clear of this ledge, a heavy sea, rolling in, swept over the Marblehead's launch, which, being held down by the cable, was unable to rise to the sea. After this narrow escape from swamping, no further effort was made to underrun more of this cable, and it was again cut, this time by the men in the Marblehead's boat, the end being left in thirteen fathoms of water. The piece taken out was about one hundred and fifty feet in length.

Up to this time the firing from the enemy had been desultory and ineffective, and no attention whatever had been paid to it by the working parties in the boats.

After cutting the cable leading eastward to Santiago, and without waiting to rest the men, we proceeded to search for the cable leading westward to Batabano. In order not to make the mistake of picking up the cable which had already been cut, we pulled to the southward and westward of the cable-house, and approached the land to within sixty feet, as close as possible without wrecking the boats on the jagged shore.

We were now directly in front of the rifle-pits and hardly a hundred feet from them. The ships, realizing the danger of our position, increased their fire until it became a furious cannonade, the shells passing so close over our heads that the crews instinctively ducked as they went by and burst against the rocks beyond. The Marblehead was directing her fire particularly close to us, and her excellent gun practice, due to months of hard work before the war, excited our admiration, though our situation was uncomfortable. The shells could hardly have come closer to us without hitting the boats. We realized that we had to take the chance of an accidental hit from our ships or receive the fire of the enemy at pistol-range, and the men worked on in disregard of both.

We soon located the cable, but found it very difficult to hook it with the grapnels, as the sea, striking the coral shore, rolled back against the boats, disturbing the surface of the water, and making it hard to see the bottom. When finally hooked, this cable was harder to lift than the other, as it was laid even more taut along the bottom, and the rough water knocked the heavy boats together, breaking and almost crushing in their planking. The men were becoming very tired, and I continually urged them to increase their efforts, working with them myself, and telling them that we should soon be under heavy fire unless we finished and got away.

Whenever the ships slackened their fire, the enemy would begin firing, probably from the lighthouse, and then, as my attention was called by one of the men to the bullets dropping in the water about us, I would order the steam-cutters to open fire, the ships immediately resuming the bombardment on seeing our boats engaging the enemy. Occasionally, when the men could be spared for the work, a couple of them were directed to open fire from the launch with their rifles. This was all the fighting that we in the working boats did until after the second cable had been cut. This cable was lifted and handled just as the first one had been, the Marblehead's launch cutting the inshore end, and the Nashville's launch underrunning it to the westward and making the offshore cut. Out of this cable a piece about one hundred feet in length was taken and coiled down in the Marblehead's boat.

While lifting the second cable, a third, much smaller in diameter than the others, was discovered near by. Its appearance indicated that it was not an ocean cable, and I surmised that its purpose was to connect the cable-house with Cienfuegos, which we afterward learned to be true. Although the important part of the work had already been accomplished, I determined to make an effort to cut this small cable, knowing that it was of little importance, but believing that the work could be quickly done.

At this time the ships had almost ceased firing, and the enemy had apparently given up the attempt to drive the boats away. We could see nothing of the Spaniards either from the ships or from the boats. The reinforcements had, however, reached the enemy, and while the scene was one of tranquillity, the Spaniards were creeping through the chaparral, occupying the trenches and lighthouse, and extending their firing line along the ridge and down its slope. They took their position skilfully and with courage.

The Port of Cienfuegos

*The star represents the lighthouse at Punta de la Colorados. The Marblehead and the Nashville were continually changing position to keep their distance and to keep their guns bearing. Late in the action, the Windom left the collier and took position near the Marblehead.

The boats were now trying to hook the third cable, but the freshening breeze roughened the surface of the water, making it difficult to see the bottom and to keep the boats clear of the coral rocks. It was slow work, instead of being easy, as we had anticipated. Many times the boats crossed over the cable, failed to grapple it, and drifted away to within a boat's length of the shore, almost in the angry water of the seas rolling in and breaking on the rocky shore. After many efforts the cable was finally grappled, the Nashville's boat being not more than fifty feet from the shore and the Marblehead's a boat's length farther out, both boats being within two hundred feet of the trenches and directly in front of the demolished cable-house. In the Nashville's launch we were trying to bring the cable to the surface at the bow of the boat, and I was forward superintending the work. Suddenly the enemy opened fire with their Mauser rifles. We could not tell from what direction the fire came, as the smokeless powder gave no sign of their position, and the wind blowing in from the sea carried the sound away from us, or else it was drowned by the roar of the breakers. We saw the splash of the bullets in the water about us, and I ordered the steam-cutters to open fire again. Now the bullets began dropping so fast that the little sheets of spray where they struck the water could be plainly seen by the ships, and those on board realized that the enemy was in force, and began a terrific cannonade. Hoping that the ships would be able to check the enemy's fire, we worked on in the boats until we brought the cable to the surface. The ships were now searching out the country with shell and shrapnel. All along the ridge and down its sides our projectiles were falling, shattering the rocks, bursting, and sending the fragments into the air in clouds of dust. Over our heads the Nashville was throwing shrapnel about the trenches. Still the enemy's fire increased, most of the bullets falling between the launches and the steam-cutters, which lay a hundred and fifty yards to the eastward and outside the reefs. After getting a rope under the cable and securing it, I stood up in the boat and made a rapid survey of the situation. Anderson and his men were still working hard in their boat, a little to seaward of the Nashville's. Just then I saw a marine in the Marblehead's steam-cutter fall, shot through the head. Turning in the direction of Anderson's boat, I saw one of the men drop, struck by a Mauser bullet. As I faced the shore to look at the trenches, a seaman, Robert Volz, standing in the stern-sheets of my boat, collapsed, then struggled to his feet, and immediately after sank in the bottom of the boat, a gaping wound six inches long in his head, two bullet-holes through his body, and a bullet in his shoulder, probably the result of machine-gun fire. Had the gun been depressed a little more, hardly a man in the boat would have escaped being hit. This man lived, and ten days later, while the Nashville was at Key West, he ran away from the hospital on shore, came off to the ship in one of our boats, and reported.

The enemy's fire was now very hot; the Mauser bullets could be heard making a peculiar snapping noise as they struck the water all about the boats. The enemy was using a field-piece in the direction of the lighthouse, and also machine-guns. It was evident that we could do no work under such conditions, and I ordered the men in the launches to cease work and to open with their rifles. We directed our efforts against the trenches, hoping to demoralize the enemy located there. They were within easy pistol-range, and I began firing with my revolver. The ships were now at work furiously, but the Mauser bullets continued to hit the boats and the water about them in undiminished numbers. The ships could not check the enemy's fire.

As we had accomplished what we had gone in to do, and as the small cable was of little importance, I ordered the steam-cutters to stand by to take the launches in tow, and ordered the crews of the launches to man their oars to pull the boats clear of the breakers. The men were perfectly cool and showed no sign whatever of fear or uneasiness. The men not engaged in getting out the oars continued their fire. I myself had replaced my revolver by a rifle.

While standing in the boat and reaching for a rifle which one of the men had loaded for me, I was struck in the left hand by a Mauser bullet, which passed through the joint of one finger and scored two other fingers. The wounds were only momentarily painful, and after wrapping a handkerchief around my hand, I continued firing. The launches pulled slowly out against the sea, replying as they retreated. Ensign Magruder brought the steam-cutters in promptly and skilfully; his boat was struck, but fortunately none of the crew was injured. The Marblehead's launch, in tow of the steam-cutter, got away first, and turning to the westward, headed for that vessel, passing within easy range of the enemy occupying the lighthouse. The bullets could be seen plowing up the water about the Marblehead's boats, hitting the launch many times and badly wounding five of the crew. The Nashville's boats came out last and headed to the southward, making slow progress against the head sea, still engaged, and under hot fire from the enemy.

Commander Maynard had been struck by a piece of a Mauser bullet, and the Nashville, temporarily commanded by her executive officer, Lieutenant A.C. Dillingham, steamed from the eastward close along the reefs, giving shelter to the boats as she passed between them and the enemy, and receiving the fire to which they would otherwise have been subjected. After the Nashville had given the launch a line, she turned slowly to the southward, the launch towing on the port side. As she swung around, the launch again came under fire, and remained under fire until out of range, parting the tow-line twice as she plunged into the head sea while being towed out. After seeing the men out of the launch, I went to the bridge, expecting to steam in and open again on the enemy; but as we had begun to hoist our boats, we could not go, and I ordered the revenue cutter Windom, under Captain McGuire, a veteran of the Civil War, to report to the Marblehead. That vessel was still firing, and as the enemy had been seen sheltered behind the lighthouse, which, up to this time, had been spared, the Marblehead was compelled to make the lighthouse her target, the little Windom steaming in to close range and taking part in this bombardment.

From the bridge of the Nashville we watched the Marblehead's gun practice. The accuracy of her fire bore tribute to the untiring energy of Commander McCalla in bringing his crew to so high a state of efficiency and marksmanship. The dwelling-house of the lighthouse-keeper was riddled with shells, some of them bursting within and some beyond. It is probable that not a Spanish soldier there escaped. The tower of the lighthouse was cut through by shell after shell, almost with the accuracy of a saw. Falling, it demolished all that was left of the light-keeper's dwelling, leaving nothing but a heap of stone and mortar.

At twenty minutes past eleven the firing had ceased, and the ships stood offshore to the southward and westward. On board the Nashville, the captain, Ensign Snow, and Pay Clerk Southgate, and many of the men had been struck by spent bullets or fragments of bullets, but not one of them was seriously injured.

The boats went in a little before seven o'clock, and did not return to their ships until 10:13. They were exposed to the fire of the enemy for more than three hours, and were under very hot fire at close range for more than half an hour. It seems remarkable that there should have been so few casualties. One man was killed, one man mortally wounded, six men were severely wounded, and one officer was slightly wounded. The boats were frequently struck inside and out, and the Nashville had the marks of bullets from her water-line to the top of her smoke-pipes. The enemy suffered severely, for the bombardment by the ships was terrific.

A few days after the fight we communicated with the insurgents, who were in close touch with Cienfuegos, and from them we learned that the loss of the enemy had been three hundred killed and wounded. This estimate is probably fairly correct, as the Spaniards, believing that we were trying to effect a landing to capture Cienfuegos, had marched a regiment to the coast, and had fifteen hundred men in the engagement.

The ships had previously dragged for the cables, but could not find them. In my opinion, they might have dragged until the end of the war without finding them. The cables could not have been cut at night, for they could not have been seen on the bottom, and the ships in the darkness could not have protected the boats. Under the search-light, the boats would have been an easy target for the enemy. To cut the enemy's lines of communication is always important and, from a military point of view, worth the expenditure of life. This expedition, while dangerous, was by no means a forlorn hope, and the object to be accomplished warranted the risk to life. That more lives were not lost was due to a protection more potent than that afforded by man - the protection which God gives to those who fight in a righteous cause.

Source: The Century; a popular quarterly. Volume 57, Issue 5, March 1899

See also:

1888 Santiago-Guantanamo Cable, which includes details of the cutting of the cable.

The United States Naval History and Heritage Command has a section on its website on Telegraphy and Cable Cutting in the Spanish-American War.

Last revised: 22 July, 2017

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