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Profile - The Merrimac Affair

After the U.S. Navy blockaded the Spanish fleet in Santiago Harbor in May of 1898, some thought was given to permanently sealing the channel by sinking a block ship.

Richmond Pearson Hobson, a 27-year old Assistant Naval Constructor, ranking as a lieutenant, j.g., was entrusted with the task, using the collier Merrimac. Hobson rigged the ship for demolition. Anchors were set at her bow and stern so that they could be dropped in an instant with one or two blows from an axe, while explosive charges were affixed at intervals along her port side, below the waterline. Hobson planned to take the ship into the channel by moonlight with a running tide. At the narrowest point, about 350 feet, he would cut loose the bow anchor and stop the engines. This would cause the ship's stern to swing around until her 322¾ foot hull was athwart the channel, whereupon the stern anchor would be dropped and the charges exploded electrically, ripping opening the ship's side. Then, as the ship settled to the bottom the crew would make its getaway in small boats or by swimming to shore.

Some 200 sailors worked for nearly two days to prepare the ship. But Hobson now had to address the delicate question of who could go along. Everyone in the U.S. Navy wanted to go. All 690 officers and men aboard the battleship Iowa volunteered; one was chosen, ultimately by a coin toss, and he refused an offer of $50.00 – an enormous sum at the time – to let someone take his place. Six men were chosen to go with Hobson: Daniel Montague and George Charette, petty officers off the armored cruiser New York; Osborn Deignan, coxswain, John F. Philips, machinist, and Francis Kelly, water tender, all off the Merrimac, and J.C. Murphy, coxswain, from the Iowa, to whom was added a seventh, Coxswain Rudolph Clausen of the New York, who stowed away in order to join the party.

On June 3rd, at just about 3:00 am, Merrimac began her run into the channel, from about 2000 yards off the entrance, at her maximum speed, nine knots. At about 500 yards from the entrance a Spanish picket boat opened fire, trying to hit the ship's rudder. Closing on the channel entrance, Hobson ordered the engines stopped. Gliding on, Merrimac was subject to increasing light artillery and machine gun fire. With shells and bullets hitting the ship, she glided past the cliffs, passng beneath the Morro Castle by just 30 feet. Hobson ordered the bow anchor dropped. As Coxswain Murphy chopped through the line to drop the bow anchor, Hobson ordered the first charge detonated, then the second, and ordered the wheel put hard over to port. But the wheel failed to respond, the rudder having been shot away. Then the stern anchor was shot away, and the bow anchor line parted. Hobson ordered the other charges detonated, but they failed to go off, Spanish fire apparently having cut the wires. The ship was sinking, but too slowly and at too poor an angle to block the channel.

Merrimac drifted on, the target of numerous bullets and shells. Then, quite suddenly, she fell off to port, and her bow angled downwards as she took her final plunge. Hobson and his men abandoned ship, jumping overboard and swimming to floating debris. Within minutes Merrimac had settled on the bottom, her upper works just above water. Although in the center of the channel, she offered only a minor hazard to navigation. From the start to finish, Hobson's mission had taken little more than half an hour.

The Spanish began searching for the crew. Hobson gathered his men around a raft. They drifted quietly for more than an hour, until dawn. Then he hailed a passing Spanish launch. In a coincidence so remarkable a novelist would be embarrassed to use it, the launch was that of Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, the Spanish commander, and the old man himself helped Hobson and his men out of the water, all the while complimenting them on their courage. Cervera promptly informed the American ships offshore that Hobson and his men were all safe and uninjured, and announced that he would return them after they had rested.

True to his word, the following day Cervera dispatched Hobson and his men in a small boat. But as they were being transferred, some of the American sailors present noticed that Daniel Montague wore a bandage on his head and was bruised about the face. Knowing that Cervera had said all the men were uninjured, the Americans immediately assumed that the Spanish had beaten the prisoners. But all was soon cleared up; Montague had imbibed so much at a party the Spanish had thrown for the men that he had gotten drunk, lost his footing, and given himself a nasty cut to the head.

Each of the enlisted men who took part in the operation was awarded the Medal of Honor. Since at the time naval regulations barred officers from receiving that decoration, Hobson was advanced ten numbers in grade, and promoted to Naval Constructor, ranking as a full lieutenant. In 1933, by which time award regulations had been changed, Hobson – long retired – was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the following year advanced to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list by special Act of Congress.

Hobson was the only naval officer to receive the Medal of Honor for the Spanish-American War.

 


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