Lithograph depicting the U.S. Navy bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 12, 1898. (Library of Congress)
Event Date: May 12, 1898
Naval bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, by ships of the U.S. North American Squadron on May 12, 1898. Rear Admiral William T. Sampson sailed from Havana, Cuba, to San Juan in search of Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s Cádiz Squadron. Sampson’s ships arrived off San Juan in the early morning of May 12 and at 5:20 a.m. commenced a bombardment of Spanish military positions ashore. The American ships made three bombardment circuits. The cruiser Detroit led, followed by the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and New York; the double-turreted monitors Amphitrite and Terror; and the unprotected cruiser Montgomery.
The American warships fired a total of 1,360 shells before they broke off the engagement at 7:45 a.m. The Spanish shore batteries fired only 441 shells in reply. Neither side inflicted much damage on the other. American gunnery was abysmal. A majority of the U.S. shells went long, while others fell short. Probably only 20 percent of the shells hit in the general target area, and many of these failed to explode. In the exchange, the U.S. side suffered some minor damage, 1 man killed, and another 7 wounded. Spanish casualties amounted to 13 killed and perhaps 100 wounded, most of these civilians.
The shelling was controversial, for international law clearly required that noncombatants be warned before such an event, but Sampson claimed that his ships were firing not on the city but on its military installations and thus that no prior notification was required. The shelling made little sense, however. Sampson later justified it as a form of naval reconnaissance to ascertain, as he put it, enemy “positions and strength.” The shelling did serve to provide the American squadron with a baptism of fire. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long was not impressed and was also upset that Sampson had placed his ships at risk by shelling shore installations before he had concluded the pressing matter of locating and destroying Cervera’s squadron.
On May 13, Spanish governor-general of Puerto Rico Manuel Macías y Casado and the island press trumpeted the bombardment as the first Spanish victory of the war, and island merchants distributed food and gifts to the Spanish troops. Sampson, meanwhile, took his squadron to Haiti and then on to Key West, Florida, where he arrived on May 18.
Further Reading Mitchell, Donald W. History of the Modern American Navy: From 1883 through Pearl Harbor. New York: Knopf, 1946. Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. West, Richard Sedgwick, Jr. Admirals of American Empire: The Combined Story of George Dewey, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Winfield Scott Schley, and William Thomas Sampson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.