Winfield Scott Schley: The Vilified Victor


The jaunty message had its implications: Schley was not mentioned and, after all, he and not Sampson had been there from the outset. But nothing might have come of it had not the press wanted a single hero. Schley was hearty, cheerful, and approachable. Sampson was aloof. The papers began to suggest that Schley had been scanted in the official praise. With neither man really initiating it, there arose a controversy between the two commanders. The nation backed Schley; the Navy, Sampson. Both men were made rear admirals in 1899, but the bickering continued, one faction claiming the victory was entirely Schley’s, the other that Schley had dawdled throughout the campaign and had cravenly sheered away from Cervera’s flagship when it made an attempt to ram the Brooklyn .

Schley, who was moving affably through an endless succession of celebratory banquets, ignored the struggle until the brutal book appeared; then he requested a court of inquiry.

The issue was bitter enough now for the proceedings to take three months and generate two thousand pages of printed testimony. The court held that, although Schley had behaved properly in action, his early behavior had been marked “by vacillation, dilatoriness, and lack of enterprise.”

It was a terrific blow, but in the end Schley fared better than his rival. Sampson’s mind failed, and he died in 1902. Schley survived him by nearly a decade. He lived to see his son recover from his blood poisoning, and he wrote an evenhanded autobiography. Throughout, the old sailor had been buoyed by the basic generosity of spirit that had prompted him to say, right after his great battle, “I am glad that I had an opportunity to contribute in the least to a victory that seems big enough for all of us.”