August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
At his reception in Chicago, he spotted two young female cousins of his whom he hadn’t seen in years, stepped forward, and kissed them. Other women immediately demanded the same privilege. He complied. It became a vogue, and by the time he reached Denver, five hundred girls crowded around for a kiss.
All this might seem a curious reward for heroism, but it was probably no more than was deserved by the man who, according to a contemporary correspondent, “had become the best known living exponent of personal intrepidity in the service of the nation.”
Richmond Pearson Hobson was a particularly unlikely choice to become known as “the most kissed man in America,” for by all accounts he was chilly and reserved. Someone who knew him as a boy in the Alabama cotton country, where Hobson had been born in 1870, remembered him as “gravefaced. His manner was stiff and formal; his conversation, almost comically stilted.” When he entered the United States Naval Academy, he quickly became a pariah by conscientiously reporting the misdemeanors of his classmates. Only one man is said to have spoken with him for two entire years. But when his fellow midshipmen offered to make it up, Hobson refused; he had, he said, gotten along perfectly well without them. This was apparently true enough, for he graduated at the head of his class in 1889.
He chose the Construction Corps rather than line duty, and studied architecture for a year in Paris. When he returned to the States he lectured at Annapolis and worked in navy yards until he managed to get himself posted for sea duty. Shortly before America prodded Spain into war in 1898, he was ordered to the cruiser New York . There, Rear Admiral William T. Sampson took a liking to the cool young lieutenant who knew so much about naval engineering, and eventually Sampson gave him his chance to become the salient hero of the war.
In May the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera eluded a haphazard blockade to slip into Santiago harbor, where a narrow and well-defended channel prevented the American fleet from following. Worried that the Spanish might run the blockade—they had done it before—Sampson proposed to bottle them up by sinking a ship across the harbor mouth. He asked Hobson how best to go about it.
The lieutenant favored a suicidal scheme. He would take the weary old collier Merrimac , load her with explosives, steer her into the channel, and sink her beneath his feet. The spirit of the fleet was such that, when Hobson asked for a few volunteers, the captain of the Iowa signaled back, “Every man on the ship wants to go.”
Hobson chose seven sailors and set about stripping the Merrimac for her last voyage. His men lashed seven torpedoes to the hull and ran wires to the batteries that would detonate them, pulled every hatch and door off the ship, and pumped seven hundred tons of water into her so that she would sink quickly when the time came.
After one false start, Hobson and his tiny crew ghosted away from the American fleet on the moonlit early morning of June 3. They stood in toward the harbor at nine knots, Hobson exulting that the old ship was handling like a yacht. They had made it to within five hundred yards of the channel when the Spanish batteries opened up on them. Hobson ordered, “Stop engines,” and the Merrimac drifted through a storm of shelling and the pelting rifle fire of two full regiments posted on the heights.
As he passed under Morro Castle, Hobson ordered the helm put over. There was no response. “Oh, heaven!” he wrote later. “Our steering-gear was gone, shot away at the last moment, and we were charging forward straight down the channel!”
He ordered the torpedoes fired. Two went off, but the Spanish gunnery had wrecked the detonators on the others. The two were not enough; the Merrimac lumbered forward through the roaring morning, and Hobson and his men could only lie helplessly on the deck, listening as “striking projectiles and flying fragments produced a grinding sound, with a fine ring in it of steel on steel.”
Tense and thirsty under the lashing fire, Hobson “waited to see one man’s leg, another man’s shoulder, the top of another man’s head, taken off. I looked for my own body to be cut in two diagonally, from the left hip upward, and wondered for a moment what the sensation would be.” But the crew had, miraculously, survived to a man when the Merrimac finally settled uselessly to the bottom west of the channel. A Spanish launch then approached the scene, and Admiral Cervera himself pulled Hobson out of the water, and told him the foray had been “ valiente .”
The American press thought so, too. “This was not the Latin bravery that dares for the sake of daring,” ran one typical account of the action. “The deed was essentially English, essentially American. It was planned and done in the calm northern mood that belongs to men of clear eyes and quiet speech, and is commonest among men who pray.”
When Hobson got home, he found himself the object of a national hysteria not to be equaled until Lindbergh’s flight. The kissing began, and culminated in the ultimate accolade: a candy company marketed a caramel called “Hobson’s Kiss.”
The fervor didn’t last long. Public attention drifted to a colonel of the Rough Riders, and Hobson, for his pains, was awarded a minor advance in the Construction Corps. On duty in Hong Kong, his eyesight became impaired, and in 1903 he asked to be retired. The Board of Surgeons refused with the generous ruling that, while he probably would go blind if he stayed with his duties, he could see well enough for the time being. Hobson resigned.
For the remainder of his life he restlessly embraced various causes, among them American naval supremacy—to him, “the will of God”—Prohibition, and halting the growth of Japanese sea power in the Pacific. He wrote a novel called Buck Jones at Annapolis and served four terms in Congress, where he fought—vigorously, but only sporadically—for his goals. At last, in 1933, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and shortly afterward he was made a rear admiral with $4,500 a year retirement pay.
But nothing could ever again give him a measure of the desperate satisfaction he had felt on the riven decks of the Merrimac . Not long before his death in 1937 he wrote, “One of the basic evils of hero worship is its effect on a private career.”