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War with the Spanish


The sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 precipitated the crisis. When Spain failed to respond to diplomatic pressure, Congress declared war in April of that year. While it proved to be a "little" war, lasting only a few months, the nation emerged from the conflict as a world power. The war also provided a glimpse of the impact that the technological innovations of the era would have on the nature of warfare. Before the fighting was over, the Signal Corps demonstrated that it could link the Army electrically with its commander in chief thousands of miles away.


In the beginning the United States Army and the Signal Corps in particular found themselves unprepared for war. Since the massive demobilization after the Civil War, Congress had limited the Army's strength to an average of 26,000 officers and men; in April 1898 it stood at slightly over 28,000. The tiny Signal Corps of eight officers and fifty enlisted men comprised a minuscule percentage of this total. Moreover, the Corps counted just $800 in its war chest. Greely had to obtain additional money from Congress, amounting to $609,000 through December 1898.


To provide the needed manpower for wartime operations, Congress authorized the formation of a Volunteer Signal Corps which, as in the Civil War, was authorized only "for service during the existing war." Congress set its strength at 1 colonel, 1 lieutenant colonel, 1 major as disbursing officer, and other officers as required, not to exceed 1 major for each army corps. Each division was allotted 2 captains, 2 first lieutenants, and 2 second lieutenants, as well as an enlisted force of 15 sergeants, 10 corporals, and 30 privates. Significantly, the legislation specified that two-thirds of the officers below the rank of major and the same proportion of enlisted men be skilled electricians or telegraph operators.


Upon the declaration of war on 25 April, President William McKinley ordered Chief Signal Officer Greely to take possession of the nation's telegraph system, both cable and land lines. The Signal Corps particularly exercised its jurisdiction over those lines with termini in New York City, Key West, and Tampa. The commercial companies, including those owned by foreign firms, censored themselves under the supervision of a signal officer. The censors prohibited the transmission of information regarding military movements and of any messages between Spain and its colonies except for personal and commercial messages in plain text that were deemed not to contain sensitive information. The Corps also disallowed messages in cipher to foreign nations except those between the diplomatic and consular representatives of neutral governments.


Through its perusal of telegraphic traffic the Signal Corps derived much valuable information. One of the most critical items concerned the arrival in Santiago harbor on 19 May of a Spanish squadron under Admiral Pascual Cervera. Americans feared an attack on the East Coast by Cervera's ships. The Navy had last sighted the squadron on 13 May west of Martinique, and three days later the American consul at Curagao reported Cervera's arrival there. Then Cervera disappeared from sight once more, his destination unknown. On the morning of the 19th, James Allen, who was monitoring telegraphic traffic at Key West, received news of the squadron's entrance into Santiago from a special agent in the Havana telegraph office. Allen, then a captain, immediately sent the news on to Greely, who relayed it in person to McKinley. The Navy Department, while unable to confirm Cervera's arrival for another ten days, took the Signal Corps' report seriously and initiated action to close the port of Santiago.


Among the Signal Corps' first operations was the outfitting of an expedition to cut the underwater telegraph cables that connected Cuba with Spain and to establish cable communication between American forces arriving in Cuba and the United States. The Corps, however, had no ships in its inventory, and the Navy had purchased all the submarine cable available in the United States. With the help of officials of the Western Union and Mexican Telegraph companies, Greely chartered the Norwegian ship Adria, outfitted it, and secured a small amount of cable. The Mexican Telegraph Company provided the necessary cable gear. When ready, the Adria sailed from New York to Key West where it came under the command of Allen, by now a lieutenant colonel. A major problem arose, however, when the captain and crew of the private vessel balked at the hazardous nature of the mission. Eventually they agreed to sail, but the experienced cable handlers hired for the job refused. To replace these men, Allen received three Signal Corps sergeants and, at the last minute, ten privates from the 1st Artillery at Key West. Unfortunately, only one of these men had ever been to sea before, and none had ever seen a cable. Nevertheless, the Adria set sail on 29 May and arrived off Santiago on 1 June to begin destruction of the three cables believed to connect Cuba with the outside world.


The task proved to be a dangerous one. The crew worked within the range of Spanish guns, to which the unarmed Adria could not reply. Moreover, the job proved more difficult than anticipated because of the deep waters and the fact that the cable became caught up on the coral sea bottom. Allen and his men did succeed in twice severing a cable but, as luck would have it, both cuts were made in the same line. After being exposed to repeated shelling, the captain and crew refused to continue working, forcing the abandonment of the operation. The War Department later cited Allen in general orders for his meritorious service in raising and severing the cables, and in 1925 he received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions off Santiago.


Allen then turned his attention to the second portion of his mission: establishing cable communication with the War Department in Washington. First he made arrangements to repair and use a French cable running from Guantanamo to New York via Haiti, which had been cut by the Navy. On 20 June he reported from shipboard the arrival of Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter and his V Army Corps off Santiago. The next day Allen opened a cable office near Guantanamo. From this point he could communicate with the War Department within five minutes. After Shafter's troops landed signal soldiers constructed land lines to complete the circuit between the front and Washington. Somewhat later, in mid-July, the Signal Corps laid its own cable between Guantanamo and Daiquiri to establish a connection independent of the French cable.


Find out more in “Getting the Message Through”




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