During World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz famously kept his opinions of his fellow officers to himself. On one occasion in 1944, he revealed why. When a staff officer showed Nimitz a CINCPAC draft report critical of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s performance at the Battle of Leyte Gulf,
Nimitz sent it back with the following note: “What are you trying to do…start another Sampson-Schley controversy? Tone this down.”
While the Sampson-Schley controversy has mostly faded into obscurity now, it split the country and the Navy in the early twentieth century. Fundamentally a question of who deserved credit for the victory at the Battle of Santiago Bay in 1898, the dispute pitted supporters of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson against supporters of Rear Admiral Winfield S. Schley and led to public accusations of cowardice and calls for a court of inquiry. Nimitz was fourteen years old during the Spanish-American War and in his first semester at Annapolis when Schley faced a court of inquiry over his conduct at Santiago Bay. The image of Navy officers openly attacking each other in a naval court and in the press left a lasting impact on the young midshipman. Nimitz told a biographer that he had “made a vow then and there that, if ever he was in a position to prevent it, there would be no washing of the Navy’s dirty linen in public.”
Midshipman Nimitz’s reaction shows how wide an impact the Sampson-Schley controversy had on the Fleet and on the American public.
At its heart, the controversy raised questions about how to deal with difficult subordinates and differences of opinion within military operations.
The Spanish-American War began in April 1898 because of Spanish human rights abuses in Cuba, as well as the loss of USS Maine
in Havana Harbor.
Sampson and Schley were both ready for the conflict. Like most senior leaders in the Navy, both had served in the Civil War and had long careers in the underfunded Navy of the postwar era. They moved in different circles though.
Sampson and Schley knew each other but were not close at the start of the war. They both benefited from the relative age of the officer corps in 1898. Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, proved too old and ill to go to sea, so Secretary of the Navy John D. Long replaced him with Sampson. Sampson was thus promoted over several officers who had seniority, including Schley. Known as a competent and technologically capable officer, Sampson was also ill, having suffered occasional strokes from 1895 onwards.
Supported by French E. Chadwick, his flag captain, Sampson would command the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron through the Spanish-American War. To protect the East Coast from potential Spanish raids, Schley was temporarily promoted to commodore and appointed commander of the Flying Squadron, a powerful collection of two battleships and three cruisers designed to intercept any Spanish forces and reassure East Coast cities of their safety.
The war started in late April and immediately became a naval contest for control of the seas around Cuba. While Sampson’s forces quickly blockaded Cuba, Spanish Admiral Cervera and his squadron of four cruisers and three destroyers was assigned to challenge the Americans. His squadron left the Cape Verde Islands on 30 April. Cervera headed for the Caribbean, but American intelligence had no idea of the squadron’s intended destination. For the next few weeks, Schley’s Flying Squadron kept on the lookout for Cervera on the East Coast while Sampson’s forces blockaded Cuba.
Cervera arrived at the French colony of Martinique on 11 May, but could not stay long. He managed to evade U.S. scouts and made his way to Santiago, Cuba by 17 May.
By now, Schley’s Flying Squadron had been incorporated into the North Atlantic Squadron and placed under Sampson’s command.
On 19 May, still unsure of Cervera’s location and intentions, Sampson sent Schley’s squadron around the west and south of Cuba and towards the port of Cienfuegos, while remaining outside of Havana with the rest of the North Atlantic Squadron.
On 20 May, Secretary Long, having received a report from a telegraph operator that Cervera was in Santiago, told Sampson to send Schley to Santiago and trap Cervera’s fleet.
Schley, however, spent the next several days off of Cienfuegos, believing the Spanish were inside the harbor. He failed to contact Cuban insurgents who could have told him that the Spanish fleet had never been there. Lacking firm orders, Schley delayed moving on to Santiago, eventually leaving Cienfuegos on 24 May.
Schley then slowly proceeded to Santiago. On the 27th, Schley finally arrived but within a few hours decided to take his squadron to Key West, Florida, to re-coal his smaller vessels. This decision was prompted by a discussion with Captain Charles Sigsbee, formerly of Maine
, and a local pilot, who incorrectly told Schley that Cervera was not in Santiago.
Schley accordingly headed for Key West, but turned around mid-voyage on the 28th, and did not arrive at Santiago for good until the night of 28–29 May.
Sampson’s forces joined Schley on 1 June. It is only due to luck, and Cervera’s passivity, that the Spanish fleet did not escape. Much of later writers’ criticism of Schley comes from the long lapse of time between Cervera’s arrival at Santiago and Schley’s blockade.
Arriving outside Santiago on 1 June, Sampson quickly set up a clear order of battle and gave instructions for the blockade. His orders included instructions for using spotlights to illuminate the harbor channel at night. This was the first time such lights had ever been used by naval forces.
Through June, the North Atlantic Squadron maintained the blockade, captured Guantanamo Bay to create a coaling station, and assisted the U.S. Army’s Fifth Corps in landing outside of Santiago. As the Army advanced on Santiago, the Spanish government forced Cervera to run the blockade, reasoning that surrendering the fleet would be disastrous to morale.
Cervera’s ships started to exit Santiago harbor on 3 July at 9:30 a.m., and were immediately met with U.S. naval gunfire.
Admiral Sampson, onboard the cruiser New York
, was headed to the Fifth Corps beachhead to meet with General William T. Shafter and missed the battle. It hardly mattered. Cervera’s four cruisers and two destroyers were in poor condition.
They were no match for a single U.S. battleship let alone the four they faced, along with an assortment of cruisers, gunboats, and auxiliary ships. Cervera’s only hope was to run the blockade and make for another port. Accordingly, the Spanish ships turned west upon exiting the harbor but quickly withered under heavy American shelling. Schley was nominally in command of the fleet but the battle quickly turned into a disorganized “captain’s fight” with essentially no centralized direction. The American ships simply chased down and destroyed the fleeing Spanish.
Schley did make one extremely important decision. His flagship, the cruiser Brooklyn
, was the fastest U.S. ship in the battle and expected to chase down any escaping Spanish vessels. As Cervera exited the harbor, all American ships turned to the west to pursue the Spanish. Schley ordered Brooklyn
to the east instead, in order avoid being rammed by the Spanish cruiser Maria Teresa.
This turn would prove controversial. Brooklyn’s
navigator allegedly objected to the turn, fearing that Brooklyn
would collide with battleship Texas.
Though there doesn’t appear to have been any real danger of such a collision, Texas
did back its engines to avoid any risk.
Other officers and military historians subsequently charged Schley with turning to avoid enemy fire, and thus cowardice, though this is inconsistent with the findings of a later court of inquiry.
Regardless of the cause, Brooklyn
’s turn had little effect on the battle and the cruiser was able to join the battleship Oregon
in chasing down Spain’s last cruiser, which grounded itself 75 miles east of Santiago around 1:15 p.m. Sampson, still onboard New York
, caught up with the rest of the American fleet shortly thereafter. Schley signaled Sampson that “we have gained a great victory.” Rather than give congratulations, Sampson replied simply “report your casualties.” He then denied Schley’s request to take the surrender of the Cristóbal Colón
Given the circumstances, these messages from Sampson were curt to the point of rudeness. Later that day, one of Sampson’s aides sent a message to the secretary of the navy to report the battle. Deliberately echoing General William T. Sherman’s message to President Lincoln announcing the capture of Savanah, Georgia, it read “the fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present the whole of Cervera’s fleet.” It made no mention of Schley.
Newspapermen with the fleet complained about the omission and within days began to publicly credit Schley for the victory instead of Sampson. Schley did his best to defuse the situation, writing to Sampson and Long that he felt “some mortification that the newspaper accounts on July 6th have attributed the victory of July 3rd almost entirely to me. Victory was secured by the forces under the command of the Commander-in-Chief.”
Sampson appreciated this, but also recommended a court-martial for Schley due to his desultory arrival at Santiago in May. This is likely because Sampson’s flag captain, French Chadwick, disliked Schley.
Over the following months, the press and Navy refought the Battle of Santiago Bay in print.
While Sampson and Schley remained mostly silent, their partisans did not. Debate about the relative merits of the men came to a head as both were promoted to Vice Admiral, but Sampson was advanced more numbers in the Naval Registry than Schley. In addition, Brooklyn’s
navigator began to publicly criticize Schley. The last straw came in 1901, when Edgar Maclay published a new volume of A History of the United States Navy from 1775 to 1902
. Intended for use as the naval history textbook at the Naval Academy, Maclay’s work devoted several pages to Schley’s little maneuver at the Battle of Santiago Bay. He described the turn as a “shameful” example of an American warship “deliberately turning tail and running away.” He then labeled Schley as craven and unmanly, declaring that the admiral had fought the campaign on the principle, “avoid your enemy as long as possible, and if he makes for you, run.”
Admiral Schley was still in active service and naturally could not let this stand. He asked for the Navy to formally clear his name.
Secretary Long agreed to a court of inquiry and asked Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, victor of the Battle of Manila Bay and the Navy’s most distinguished officer, to head a panel of three judges. Schley’s trial took place at the Washington Navy Yard and stretched for 40 days in September and October 1901. Its published record is a staggering 1800 pages.
Schley’s legal team consisted of two former congressmen and a well-connected judge, but they had a difficult job as questions were framed to be harmful to him.
More significantly, the court refused to consider the role of Admiral Sampson, despite Sampson’s obvious influence on Schley’s actions. Sampson, sick and months away from death, did not testify.
The trial was closely watched by the public as officers rehashed the events of 1898. Briefly put, despite Schley’s vigorous defense, the majority of the court found that his behavior in the campaign “was characterized by vacillation, dilatoriness, and lack of enterprise.” Still, they reluctantly cleared Schley of any accusations of cowardice. Interestingly, Admiral Dewey dissented with the majority opinion and defended Schley from the worst charges. Dewey was popular enough that most of the public agreed with his assessment.
Though thankful for Dewey’s support, Schley appealed the Court’s decision to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was skeptical, thinking that Schley should have moved faster between ports and turned differently at Santiago. More importantly, the president just wanted the affair to end. He refused to overturn the Court, saying that “there is no excuse whatsoever from either side for any further agitation of this unhappy controversy. To keep it alive would merely do damage to the Navy and the country.”
Despite Roosevelt’s wishes, the controversy lingered on for years.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, Stephen Luce, Secretary Long, and most of the captains present at the battle weighed in over the next decade.
Sampson died in 1902, while Schley and Dewey passed away soon after in 1911 and 1917 respectively. Although the controversy has faded in memory, it still bears remembering. First, the fight sullied the record of the United States Navy. As Secretary Long wrote, this “unhappy controversy…is the only incident of any moment that mars the otherwise universally applauded record of the navy during the Spanish War.”
Second, and related, it illustrates the dangers of officers publicly fighting. It split the officers and men of the Navy into factions. Unnecessarily airing the Navy’s dirty linen only diminished the achievements of everyone involved. Dewey has remained the hero of 1898, while Sampson and Schley, who won an equally important, almost bloodless victory, have been forgotten for everything but their fight with each other. Nimitz was right to try to avoid a repeat.
During the battle, Halsey controversially used Third Fleet’s carriers to chase down a suspected Japanese force, leaving invasion transports unprotected. For a discussion of the long-lasting controversy over Halsey’s actions see Alan Rems, “Seven Decades of Debate,” Naval History Magazine
31, no. 5 (October 2017), 20–25.
E. B. Potter, Nimitz
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 344.
Craig L. Symonds, Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), 135.
Both Sampson and Schley still have their defenders. For example, historian Quintin Barry acknowledges Schley made mistakes, but calls any accusations of incompetence or cowardice slanderous. See Disputed Victory: Schley, Sampson and the Spanish-American War of 1898
(Solihul, UK: Helion, 2018). Historian David Trask, by way of contrast, wrote that Schley “manifested few of the qualities needed in an officer charged with important responsibilities in wartime” and should have been fired mid-campaign. See The War with Spain in 1898
(New York: Macmillan, 1981), 128.
was destroyed by an internal malfunction, probably due to a coal bunker fire, but most of the American public blamed the Spanish. Its destruction, combined with pre-existing tension with Spain over Cuba’s struggle for independence, made war all but inevitable. For a full history of the ship, see John E. Fahey, “Maine I (Second-class Battleship), 1895–1898,” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships,
Naval History and Heritage Command, 15 February 2023, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/m/maine-i.html
Sampson focused on technical issues, gunnery, industrial concerns, and science, and served as the head of the Physics and Chemistry Department at the United States Naval Academy, before becoming Superintendent. He was also involved with the design and development of the new steel ships that came on line in the 1880s and 1890s. See Joseph G. Dawson III, “William T. Sampson and Santiago: Blockade, Victory, and Controversy,” in James C. Bradford, ed., Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War & Its Aftermath
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 47–49. Schley was more of a man of action, known as a handsome sailor’s sailor. He became famous for rescuing the Greeley arctic expedition in 1884. Barry, Disputed Victory
Sampson was diagnosed in January 1898 with aphasia, a brain disorder that reduces one’s ability to communicate. He also suffered multiple strokes from 1895 to his death in 1902. A modern doctor has suggested that Sampson may have suffered from multiple infarct dementia. See Martin G. Netsky and Edward L. Beach, “The Trouble with Admiral Sampson,” Naval History Magazine
9, no. 6 (December 1995), 8–10. Another historian has suggested he suffered from Alzheimer’s. See Dawson, “William T. Sampson,” 49.
Harold D. Langley, “Winfield S. Schley and Santiago: A New Look at an Old Controversy,” in Bradford, Crucible of Empire
This was an awkward arrangement. Schley and Sampson both held the permanent rank of Captain, but Schley was slightly senior. Sampson held the temporary rank of rear admiral, and Schley was a temporary commodore. J. M. Caiella, “'How Perfectly Foolish . . .',” Naval History Magazine
31, no. 2 (April 2017), 12–13.
Langley, “Winfield Scott Schley,” 78. Schley’s decision to re-coal is odd, given that Iowa
had 820 tons of coal onboard—enough for ten days of full speed steaming, or a month of blockade duty. Brooklyn
could have remained on blockade for forty days. Schley’s ships were accompanied by the collier Merrimack,
though re-coaling in rough seas was essentially impossible. See “The Schley Inquiry—An Unbiased Statement,” Harper’s Weekly
(10 August 1901), 791.
The squadron was able to re-coal the protected cruiser Minneapolis
and auxiliary cruisers Harvard
at sea during the night of 27-28 May due to calm weather. Once this was accomplished, Schley decided to take his squadron back to Santiago. Barry, Disputed Victory
, 140–47; Langley, “Winfield S. Schley,” 79.
Netsky and Beach, “Trouble with Admiral Sampson,” 10–11.
Trask, War with Spain,
 Cristóbal Colón
actually set sail for Cuba without its main guns. All of Cervera’s fleet had fouled bottoms and were in generally bad shape and poorly maintained. Terror,
one of Cervera’s original three destroyers, turned out to be unseaworthy and had to stay at Martinique. See Trask, War with Spain
Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century
(New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 432–66.
Captain Francis Cook seems to have also given the order to turn a few seconds before Schley, but the event is almost always referred to as Schley’s turn. See Langley, “Winfield S. Schley,” 83.
Barry, Disputed Victory
While sharply critical of Schley, the Court of Inquiry found that “his conduct during the battle of 3 July was self-possessed, and he encouraged, in his own person, his subordinate officers and men to fight courageously.” Quoted in Brad K. Berner, ed., The Spanish-American War: A Documentary History with Commentaries
(Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2014), 250.
Barry, Disputed Victory
Netsky and Beach, “Trouble with Sampson,” 12–13. This was a difficult accusation for Sampson to make—if Schley had been negligent in May, Sampson should have removed or censured him then, but had not.
For a good summary, see Langley, “Winfield S. Schley,” 88–91.
One of the pages is titled “Schley’s lamentable conduct.” Maclay also attacked the idea that criticism of Schley only came from conspiring enemies, writing “Schley has no enemies in America excepting himself and a coterie of injudicious friends.” Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of the United States Navy from 1775 to 1902
, vol. 3 (New York: Appleton, 1901–2), 363–66. In his memoirs, Schley writes that he found out about Maclay’s book while Schley’s son was recovering from blood poisoning and an operation. He calls Maclay a “slanderous author” and “libelous,” and suspected that “he had assistance from a small coterie of official partisans” including Secretary Long. See Winfield Scott Schley, Forty-Five Years Under the Flag
(New York: D. Appleton, 1904), 408–9.
Barry, Disputed Victory,
Schley’s legal team was made up of former Indiana Representative Jeremiah M. Wilson, former Maryland Representative, and future Senator, Isidor Rayner, and James Parker, a retired Navy captain and President Cleveland’s 1896 nominee for United States District Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Parker’s nomination was defeated by a local New Jersey political boss. See Barry, Disputed Victory
Sampson’s doctor advised Secretary Long that “any exertion beyond routine duties is almost invariably followed by a mental depression, the most constant symptom of which is . . . aphasia, characterized by his mixing up words.” Quoted in Netsky and Beach, “Trouble with Sampson,” 15.
Langley, “Winfield S. Schley,” 69–101; Barry, Disputed Victory
Barry, Disputed Victory
For recent examples, see Barry’s Disputed Victory
, published in 2018 and Caelia’s “How Foolish” published in 2017.
Mahan even angrily canceled a newspaper subscription for pro-Schley coverage. Langely, “Winfield S. Schley,” 94–97.
John D. Long, The New American Navy
, vol. 2 (New York: Outlook, 1903), 44–45.