Following the February 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, the Navy's assistant secretary Theodore Roosevelt asked President William J. McKinley to detail some of the revenue cutters to support the U. S. Navy. It was a reasonable request. Revenue cutters had been plying the Flordia Straits since 1891 to enforce the embargo against weapons being shipped to the Cuban Rebels. The interdiction was a success including rooting out Spanish priates at the same time. The patrols were so successful that it caused the rebels to turn to other sources of supplies which were the Spanish forts. This escalation of attacks on the forts caused counter strikes and the ultimate involvment of the United States in this civil war.
President McKinley agreed and at an March 24, 1898 meeting with Captain Charles F. Shoemaker, USRCS, then Chief of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service. McKinley ordered ten cutters to the temporary control of the Navy. This placed the cutters on "Naval" service for the first time since the War Between the States. There has been some discussion whether or not the cutters were placed under the U. S. Navy control, however, on April 9, 1898, McKinley signed an Executive Order directly placing the revenue cutters in naval service. The Revenue Cutter McLane was added later.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt was not overly impressed with the cutters. He noted of them, "It is not necessary to say that they will constitute far from an ideal flotilla, but it will be the best we can improve." Roosevelt was not denagrating the ability of the officers and men of the service, but the cutter's lack of material readiness including armaments. Nearly all the cutters were either unarmed or underarmed with obsolete guns at the beginning of the war. The war training of the officers was equally obsolete. All cutters began naval service with having guns installed and crews expanded to wartime complements.
Prior to the war the white painted five-year old unarmed third rate Revenue Cutter Hudson was manned by two officers(one line and one engineer) and nine men and performed routine duties in New York harbor. Her compliment would grow to five officers and sixteen men when taken into Naval service. When ordered to naval service she steamed first to Norfolk to install a 6-pounder (57mm) guns fore and aft and a Colt Firearms 6mm machine gun on top of the wheel house. Configured as many harbor tugs of the period, she was 128 tons, 96 feet long, 20 feet in the beam, with a 8 foot draft, the 24-inch stroke of her pistons made her slow, her superstructure was high out of the water topped with a large smoke stack.
Manned, armed, and armored with steel plate installed across bridge and engine room, Hudson made her way to Key West. She was the perverbal ugly duckling among the more impressive looking naval vessels of the squadron and certainly not a craft to put fear in the Spaniard's hearts, but the Spanish had wide experience with the U. S. Revenue Cutters because of pirates coming out and filibusters going to Cuba, nevertheless, the Spanish did respect the dedication and seamanship of the cuttermen. The Hudson's commander, Massachusett's native First Lieutenant, Frank H. Newcomb, USRCS, was assigned to patrol Cuba's northern coast east of Havana. One of the ports he was to help blockade was Cardenas. There Newcomb found three Cuban naval craft in the harbor protecting merchant steamers. A veteran of the U. S. Nany during the Civil War, Newcomb first tired to lure the gunboats out, failing in this tactic, he decided to enter the harbor and fight them there. However, the main harbor channel was blocked with mines but he located an alternate secondary channel. The lack of coal prevented his venturing into the harbor. Arriving at the coaler, he reported what he found but was told to ignore the gunboats and continue his blockade patrol.
On May 11, Newcomb received orders to join the U. S. Navy gunboats Machias and Wilmington and the torpedo boat Winslow.
A. Anchorage off Piedras Light, approximately marking eastern terminus of line of blockade.
B. Channel between Romero and Blanco cays, through which the ships entered.
C, C', C" Entrance courses respectively of Hudson, Wilmington, and Winslow.
W1, H, W. Positions respectively of Wilmington, Hudson, and Winslow at beginning of fight.
W1', H', W'. Positions respectively of Wilmington, Hudson, and Winslow at end of fight.
D. Position of Spanish gunboat.
E, E',E",E'''. Approximate positions of enemy's batteries.
(From Century Magazine, Vol. 57 (ns 35) Nov. 1898-April 1899)
Commander Merry, commanding Machias, found his draft too deep for the secondary channel and remained outside to give gunfire support. The other three vessels Hudson, Winslow and Wilmington, made their way through the mango trees and entered the harbor. Receiving no fire from the Spanish, the three vessels steamed across Cardenas Bay toward the three moored Spanish gunboats. The Winslow commanded by the brash LT. John B. Bernadou, USN, charged ahead of the others(at a speed of about 24 knots) to cutout a gunboat for a prize and, probably to his surprise, immeadiately drew heavy fire from hidden Spanish shore batteries and the gunboats that mounted tweleve-pounder guns. The Spanish-American War was the last in which U. S. Naval Officers could receive prize money for captured vessels. Bernadou was the prototype of the brashness needed for the PT boat skippers of World War II and the figher pilots of the current era. The Winslow returned fire with her three one-pounders on the Spanish gunboats. The Hudson saw the perdictament and hurried at best speed (12 knots maximum -- on a good day) to assist the Winslow with her heavier six-pounder guns. The Wilmington , stopped by shoal waters, laid off the mile and one half and gave support with her 4-inch guns. Both the forward vessels sank two of the Spanish gunboats, the Antonio Lopez and Lealtad, at their moorings and then turned their attention to the shore batteries.
Although the Spanish had placed ranging buoys in the bay and both vessels were among the red buoys, the Spanish artillery was not accurate in its fire in part because of the black stack smoke and the fog of cannon smoke. Their shells exploded in the air spraying schrapnel or fell into the water alongside the vessels. The engagement was about twenty minutes old when the Winslow took her first hits. One round hit the bow, entered the captain's cabin and exploded in the paint locker causing a fire. Another round struck the conning tower wounding Bernadou in the leg. Two hits destroyed her steering gear and damaged a boiler, another hit puts the emergency(hand gear) steering out of commission as well as hitting an engine. The Winslow, without power and steering, became a target for the Spanish gunners. Nature too began to conspire against Winslow and a rising eastward wind began pushing her toward the Spanish batteries but using the remaining undamaged engine Bernadou was able to back away from the shore and ranging buoys.
Lt. Newcomb fully understood Winslow's plight and with Spanish shells exploding all around the cutter went to the Winslow's assistance. The Hudson took a position 150 yards inshore of the Winslow to draw Spanish fire and protect the disabled torpedo boat. Newcomb attempted to suppress the Spanish fire, but the Spanish used smokeless powder that did not reveal their positions. However, once the cutter got the range was able to place several rounds near the Spanish batteries.
Newcomb received a report that the Winslow was badly damaged and offered Brenadou assistance but he "declined by a negative shake of his head." However, Brenadou realizing the dangerous position he was in relented to a tow from Hudson. The Winslow, with its seven-foot draft, had shoaled causing the Hudson to literally plow through the bottom silt to reach the Winslow. Brenadou later wrote his account of the action in which he said he directed Hudson to take him in tow. Newcomb had to abandon his inshore position to reach the stricken vessel and when within 100 feet a Spanish shell exploded on board Winslow killing North Carolinian Ensign Bagby( who has the dubious distinction of being the only U. S. Naval officer killed in action during the war) and two others. Two others were mortally wounded.
During Hudson's attempts to attach a tow, the Wilmington fired her guns over both of the other vessels. A number of her shells exploded prematurely showering fragments on Hudson and Winslow. The Winslow passed its heavy tow line, but as Hudson took up the strain to swing the torpedo boat around the line parted. Although some believe the line was shot away, Newcomb reported it was caused by the excessive yawing of the torpedo boat because of the damaged steering gear. Newcomb then tried taking Winslow along side but the bay had become rough and he feared the Winslow would sink because to the water thrown up between the two. Spanish cannon fire had ceased but the threat was still there as and another line was hastily rigged and the Winslow towed to safety. Somewhat bitterly, Newcomb noted "after a long and laborious chase dead to windward, we finally overtook the Wilmington." Although the Wilmington had a doctor on board, it had not come about to assist with the wounded despite wig-wag [flag] signals from both vessels.
The engagement began about 1 PM and lasted until 4 PM when Hudson towed the Winslow out of the bay. The Hudson fired some 135 rounds and although in the midst of the battle she escaped with only minor sturctural damage.
Lieutenant Newcomb's quick decisions and service saved the Winslow and its survivors. Newcomb did not receive orders prior to the expedition of what part Hudson was to play so he used his initiative and leadership to develop a role for his command all while the action was ongoing. Newcomb also had the unpleasant responsiblity of transporting the dead and wounded to Key West.
Consistent with the journalism of the period, little mention was made of the heroism shown by the Hudson's officers and men. The New York Times, looking for sensational stories, regulated the Hudson to a small , nearly unimportant, role of an auxillary vessel simply towing Winslow out of danger. Although, Lieutenant Berndaou thanked Lt. Newcomb he did not give credit to the cutter for saving his vessel and crew. It was not until June 25, 1898, did the New York Times recognize the service of the Hudson, however, this recognition came only after the announcement of President McKinley that he would ask Congress to bestow a special medal on the officers and men of the Hudson. The question has been asked for many years why did not Lieutenant Newcomb receive the highest naval award -- the Medal of Honor. Several theories are possible, the medal was an enlisted man's award and that the Revenue Cutter Service was not in naval service. The latter can be easily discounted there was an Executive Order placing the cutters under naval operational control. The Navy, then and in later years, did not consider the officers of the Revenue Cutter Service part of the naval service but rather "civilians." This attitude came on the heels of serveral unsuccessful attempts of the Navy to take over the RCS during the 1880s and 1890s.
Does Lieutenant Newcomb deserve the Medal of Honor? Absolutely. Navy Secretary John D. Long called the rescue of the Winslow under "the most galling fire" gallant and deserved the "warmest" commendation. After all, three men Chief Gunner's Mate George F. Brady, Chief Machinest Thomas C. Cooney, and Chief Machinest Hans Johnsenon board the Winslow received the Medal of Honor. The mass awarding of the medal was common in the U. S. Navy during this war. The USS Nashville awarded 26 Medals of Honor and the USS Marblehead awarded 30 more.
The Medal of Honor is more than an indivdual award. It signifies respect for the military service. Withholding the Medal of Honor from Lieutenant Newcomb is a sign of disrepect for himself and the service he represented. This was not the intent of the award. Lt. Newcomb's and the awards of his crew were meant to be special and above the normal awards. The "medals of honor" they did received were intended to recognize that special courage and professionalism of the Revenue Cutter Service. However, as in many good intentions, this award became something less than intended. It holds not place in the hierarchy of military and naval awards as does the Medal of Honor. It has not even been placed on the U. S. Army's Center for Military History's Special Legislation section of it's Medal of Honor web site.
True justice requires that First Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb, USRCS, receive the award he should have a hundred years ago.