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Winfield Scott Schley: The Vilified Victor

July 2024
4min read

DURING THE summer of 1901, while he was “watching for some hope at the bedside of a beloved son who was desparately ill with blood poisoning … and with mind and heart under the strain of anxiety known only to those who have gone through similar experience,” Rear Adm. winfield Scott Schley got word of a new history of the U.S. Navy. The third and final volume of a work already being used as a textbook by the Naval Academy, it held that during the Spanish-American War, Schley “exhibited … a timidity amounting to absolute cowardice” and that his “contribution to naval strategy, as to plainly shown by his conduct throughout the campaign, was, ‘Avoid your enemy as long as possible, and if he makes for you, run.’”

The accusation would have been galling enough to any naval officer, of course, but it must have been particularly painful to the gregarious and affectionate Schley, who had enjoyed good friendships and good press throughout a thoroughly sunny career.

Born to prosperous Maryland landowners in 1839, Schley entered the Naval Academy in 1856. He admitted to holding “pleasure and holidays in higher esteem than plodding study, which was more interesting in some such ratio as the square of the distance separating us from books,” and was graduated in the bottom of his class. Nevertheless, in 1860 Midshipman Schley reported aboard the steam frigate Niagara for a cruise to Japan. On its return to Boston the following spring, the ship was greeted by a harbor pilot with the news, “The country is all busted to hell!” So the Niagara headed south, and during the next four years Schley proved himself a capable officer, and a brave one. Once, while commanding a sloop, he stood so close inshore to bombard a Confederate battery that Adm. David Glasgow Farragut ordered him to withdraw. Borrowing a tradition from Britain’s greatest sailor, Schley pretended not to notice. When he went aboard the flagship to report, Farragut upbraided him publicly, declaring he “wanted none of this Nelson business … about not seeing signals.” But later, in his cabin, the admiral uncorked a bottle and said, “Had to blow you up, Scott, but, by God, that’s the way to fight. Have a drink.”

After the war the doldrums that settled on the Navy failed to corrode Schley’s natural good spirits. He cheerfully accepted the lighthouse inspectorships and aimless South Atlantic commands that were the best posts those torpid years had to offer. After one cruise he was officially thanked by the Navy Department for the somewhat unglamorous achievement of steaming over forty thousand miles “without losing a spar or sail.” Then, in 1884 Schley got command of the expedition that punched its way through thirteen hundred miles of Arctic ice to rescue Lt. A. W. Greely’s stranded polar exploration party. He came home a hero, and when war broke out with Spain in the spring of 1898, he was jumped over a dozen more’ senior men to take command of the Flying Squadron at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

This dashingly named unit stood ready to move at an hour’s notice in the unlikely event that the Spanish fleet chose to attack a city along the Atlantic coast. When it finally became clear that if there was to be any fighting at all, it would take place in the West Indies, Schley was ordered south to Key West. He arrived on May 18 and met up with his dour old classmate William T. Sampson, who, as head of the Atlantic Squadron, was in chief command.

Sampson sent Schley to blockade the Cuban port of Cienfuegos. Saying that he was attempting to conserve fuel, Schley made inf uriatingly slow progress during the voyage. When it turned out the Spanish admiral Cervera had run his fleet into Santiago Harbor, Schley, ever fretting about the difficulties of refueling at sea, made another weirdly cautious passage.

The textbook accused him of “timidity amounting to absolute cowardice.”

But he was there on the breezy, bright blue morning of July 3 when Cervera came out to fight. Sampson was seven miles away, steaming off to confer with the Army leaders, and Schley had command when Cervera’s flagship shot out of the narrow mouth of Santiago Harbor. “Commodore,” the navigator called from the upper bridge of the flagship Brooklyn , “they are coming right at us!” “Well,” said Schley, “go right for them.”

With their black hulls and gold figureheads flashing beneath streaming silk battle flags, the Spanish relics made a brave sight. But they were no match for the powerful gray American ships: one after another they took fire and ran aground. In a little more than three hours the fleet was scrap and 323 Spaniards had been killed. One American died. “The fleet under my command,” cabled Sampson, “offers the nation as a Fourth of July present the whole of Cervera’s fleet.”

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.”

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