In war, sailors find themselves doing jobs they never would have expected to perform in normal circumstances. This was especially true in the Spanish-American War of 1898, as the Navy’s officers and men dealt with new technologies in America’s first conflict overseas since the Mexican-American War. The war gave plenty of opportunities for enterprising young Americans to make a name for themselves. For example, Ensign Irvin V. Gillis swam out to a pair of defunct Spanish torpedoes and hauled them back to Porter
Assistant Naval Constructor Richard Hobson scuttled a collier in an effort to block Santiago Harbor.
Other men mastered new weapon systems, piloted ships and launches in unfamiliar waters, or shoveled coal in the tropical heat. Lieutenant Victor Blue of the auxiliary cruiser Suwanee
learned how to be a scout on land with the help of Cuban guerrillas. On the way, he helped to pave the way for the U.S. victory at the Battle of Santiago Bay.
America’s stated objective for the Spanish-American War was to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. Prompted by Spain’s humanitarian abuses on the island and the loss of the battleship Maine
, the war also allowed the United States to greatly expand its influence in the Caribbean and Pacific. As operations started in April 1898, the Navy’s first job in the Atlantic theater was to blockade Cuba with the hope of forcing a settlement. Spain had one major challenge to the American blockade of the island—Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s squadron of four armored cruisers and three destroyers.
While Cervera’s squadron did not pose a serious threat to the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron, it could theoretically disrupt U.S. operations and posed a danger to any American invasion force headed to Cuba or Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, no one outside of Cervera’s squadron knew where it was. It left the Cape Verde Islands on 28 April, but for almost a month its location and intended destination remained a mystery to U.S. Naval intelligence. U.S. coastal cities, fearing raids by Cervera’s cruisers, absorbed a good deal of the Navy’s reserves as naval militias and even Civil War era monitors patrolled the East Coast on the lookout for Spanish ships.
In reality, Cervera’s ships were too slow and badly maintained to consider any raiding activity.
U.S. scout ships kept an eye out for the squadron, but were unable to find the Spanish as Cervera arrived at Martinique on 12 May and moved on to Santiago, Cuba by 19 May. Soon informed by a telegraph operator that Cervera was in Santiago, the Atlantic Squadron’s Rear Admiral William Sampson ordered Commodore Winfield Schley to blockade the harbor. It took Schley a curiously long time to obey this order, but his squadron arrived outside of Santiago on the night of 28-29 May.
Unfortunately for Sampson, Santiago Harbor was a well-protected facility with a narrow channel and high hills around it, preventing his forces from visually confirming that Cervera’s entire fleet was there. Worse, on 8 June, the converted yacht Eagle
reported a Spanish cruiser off of Key West. While this reported “ghost fleet” was a mistake, it halted the departure of Major General William Shafter’s Fifth Corps, bound for Cuba. The United States needed to confirm Cervera’s location and composition before risking a convoy at sea.
Fortunately, the United States had allies on the ground.
In addition to blockading Cuba and hunting the Spanish fleet, the Navy brought supplies to Cuban guerrillas throughout the war. Suwanee
, a lighthouse tender pressed into wartime service as an auxiliary cruiser, was one of the first official U.S. ships to bring aid to the Cubans. Lieutenant Victor Blue, under orders from Suwanee’s
Lieutenant Commander Daniel Delehanty, used a whaleboat to contact General Maximo Gomez’s guerrilla forces on the night of 31 May. Blue and his subordinates captured two Spanish patrol boats on the way back to their ship. Suwanee
delivered supplies over the next few days before joining Admiral Sampson’s forces outside of Santiago.
Sampson’s fleet bombarded Santiago on 6 June while Suwanee
continued its supply runs to the Cubans. After hearing of the “ghost fleet” spotted on 8 June, Sampson ordered Suwanee
to communicate with the insurgents to find out the makeup of the Spanish fleet. Believing that “reliable information could not be secured through the insurgent forces,” Delehanty sent Lieutenant Blue ashore to hike to the harbor and observe Cervera’s squadron.
Blue thought that the plan was a good one, “with little or no danger attached to the journey,” which may reflect a young officer’s bravado. Early on 11 June 1898, he left the Suwannee
“with a light heart” on Aserraderos Point and headed inland wearing his Navy uniform.
After hiking a mile, he linked up with Cuban insurgents commanded by General Jesús Rabí, and joined Cuban Major Francisco H. Masaby y Reyes. Blue and Reyes rode mules about 15 or 20 miles to another Cuban guerrilla outpost, where they picked up guides who led them through Spanish lines before camping out for the night. On the 12th, they traveled another 12 miles, finally getting to a hilltop that overlooked Santiago Bay. Blue’s observation point was a mere 1000 yards from a Spanish garrison. Despite the danger, he observed the harbor for an hour and a half and later reported that “from this point I had an almost unobstructed view of the entire bay [except the most southern part].” There he could clearly make out Cervera’s cruisers, as well as a few other ships large and small. With his mission accomplished, Blue and the guerrillas left, but had to avoid Spanish patrols on the way back.
In his report, Lieutenant Commander Delehanty wrote that he picked up Blue at Aserraderos Point on 13 June, “he having performed the duty assigned him most creditably. As it was connected with considerable personal danger, I would commend him to your favorable consideration.”
Blue’s recon mission ensured that all major Spanish vessels in the region were trapped, enabling the U.S. Fifth Corps to convoy from Tampa to Santiago safely and confidently. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long sent Blue a telegram thanking him for his service, especially commending his “coolness, nerve, and bravery,” and hoping that his “brother officers” would emulate his example.
Fifth Corps landed east of Santiago on 22 June in order to capture or flush out Cervera’s fleet and started to advance inland on 25 June. Meanwhile, Admiral Sampson wanted more detailed information on the disposition of the Spanish fleet within Santiago Harbor. Having found Cervera once, Blue was ordered ashore again.
Lieutenant Blue landed near Aserraderos at 6 pm on 25 June and immediately ran into General Calixto Ramón García Iñiguez’s chief of staff. He gave orders for Blue to be taken to the front lines of Cuban control and given guards to advance through Spanish lines. Blue and his guides traveled 24 miles on mules to Colonel Candelario Cebreco’s camp, arriving at midnight. Cebreco was unhappy to loan men to Blue, as he was actively fighting the Spanish, but provided the requested escort. The next morning, Blue and six Cubans headed out. The party had to leave their mules behind when they reached the Spanish lines. To get to a good observation point, Blue had to cross a mountain with Spanish entrenchments on it. Blue reported later, “in order to avoid the enemy’s pickets we had to proceed very cautiously, at one time creeping through long grass and at another climbing the steep side of a mountain.” Once behind enemy lines, Blue and his guides had to repeatedly cross major roads as they continued to climb for a view of the harbor. Blue estimated that it took four hours to go two miles, but since they weren’t spotted by the Spanish their patience paid off. Blue even had the chance for some local flavor. He reported that “we subsisted that day on sugar cane and mangoes, which I thought were very palatable indeed.” After climbing through thick foliage to the top of a mountain, Blue was able to observe eight Spanish ships and plotted their locations. He and his guides returned to Cuban lines “without incident.” Suwanee
picked Blue up on the morning of the 27th. On 3 July, Admiral Cervera’s fleet finally sortied out of the harbor and was quickly annihilated at the Battle of Santiago Bay. Blue’s intelligence reports helped to prepare the U.S. fleet for its victory.
Lieutenant Victor Blue was lauded as a hero for his scouting efforts both during and after the war.
His commanding officer, Delehanty, wrote to Admiral Sampson on 29 June that “this is the second time that Lieutenant Blue has successfully undertaken this hazardous duty, and while he has only done that which is expected of every officer, a due recognition of such valuable services is a great stimulant to the best efforts of both officers and men.”
Recognition came in the form of a Special Meritorious Medal for extraordinary heroism and advancement five numbers by President William McKinley. The South Carolina legislature congratulated him for increasing “the luster of his mother state” and presented him with an engraved sword.
The “Women of South Carolina” gave him a golden medal in 1900.
Secretary Long mentioned him repeatedly by name in The New American Navy
. Complementing the men of the fleet, Long wrote “It was pretty much an even level of courage, although above it rose some special instances of gallantry—special rather in the opportunities then in the men.” Long counted Blue as one of these special instances of gallantry.
After his scouting mission, Blue went on to a successful naval career. He commanded Alvarado,
a captured Spanish gunboat, in the Spanish-American War.
He then served in a variety of naval posts, including as flag-lieutenant for the U.S. Navy’s China Squadron under Rear Admiral Louis Kempff during the Boxer Rebellion (1900–1901), and at several naval postings in the Philippines.
In 1913, he became a temporary rear admiral and Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, an unusual post for someone of his rank and age. Blue later commanded Texas
(Battleship No. 35
) during World War I. In recognition of Blue’s contributions to the naval service, the Navy Department named two World War II era destroyers (DD-387
) and (DD-744
) in his honor.
War calls on officers and sailors to take many roles. Victor Blue was able to work well with local allies, learn new skills, and excel as a scout in support of the Navy’s successful operations off the port of Santiago. He is a fine example of a naval officer who courageously and skillfully adapts to the mission, getting the job done.
Bruce Swanson, A Plain Sailorman in China: The Life and Times of Cdr. I. V. Gillis, USN: 1875–1948
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 25–26.
Spain’s Pacific Squadron was busy being sunk in the Battle of Manila Bay, while Spain’s single battleship and a few other ships generally stayed close to the homeland. See A. B. Feuer, The Spanish-American War at Sea: Naval Action in the Atlantic
(Westport, CN: Praeger, 1995).
Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century
(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 297–99.
His newest ship, the Cristóbal Colón
, had not even had its main battery installed before leaving for the Caribbean.
had actually spotted the cruiser USS Yosemite
and some accompanying U.S. and U.K. ships. David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898
(New York: Macmillan, 1981), 186–88.
Feuer, Spanish-American War at Sea,
Feuer, Spanish-American War at Sea,
Delehanty to Sampson, 13 June 1898, Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Year 1898,
vol. 2, Appendix to the Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898), 443–44.
John D. Long, “Commended by Long: Lieut Victor Blue Thanked for His Trip Around Santiago to See if Cervera Was in the Harbor,” Boston Daily Globe
(25 June 1898), 3.
For an example, see “Lieutenant Victor Blue,” The Atlanta Constitution
(18 June 1898), 6.
“A Sword for Victor Blue,” The Sun
(11 January 1899), 2.
“Lieut Victor Blue Honored,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch
(14 January 1900), 13.
 The New American Navy
was Secretary Long’s description of the creation of the New Steel Navy and the Spanish-American War. It is one of the most widely read books on the conflict and turn of the century Navy. See John D. Long, The New American Navy
, vol. II (New York: Outlook, 1903), 70–71.
Navy Biographies Branch, Rear Admiral Victor Blue
(1928), Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.