Captain Charles E. Clark, U.S.N.
Vermont In The Spanish American War
"Captain Clark and the Oregon" is as familiar a phrase to the American people as that associated with any military hero and battle of ancient or modern times. What Commodore Hull was to the "Constitution" Captain Clark was to the "Oregon". The tale of the trip of the Oregon from the Golden Gate to the Pearl of the Antilles forms a thrilling and entertaining Chapter in the Naval history of the World. This great battleship faced unknown perils of the mighty deep and menacing dangers from hostile warships on the high seas in its journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic. But its gallant commander and its brave crew were undaunted by the elements or the enemy and sailed the Oregon as though she were the veritable "Ship of State", and humanity with all its fear hung breathless on its fate.
At the time of the destruction of the "Maine" in Havana Harbor on February 16, 1898, Captain Charles E. Clark was in command of the "Monterey" attached to the Pacific Squadron. On March 12th the Secretary of War sent the following telegram to the Commanding Officer, Pacific Squadron.
"In view of present critical condition of affairs, the "Oregon" should leave San Francisco at the earliest possible date and arrive in Callao as soon as practicable."
Meanwhile, Captain McCormick, then in command of the Oregon, became incapacitated by ill-health and Captain Charles E. Clark was placed in command on March 17th. On the morning of March 19th the "Oregon" steamed out of the Golden Gate on a voyage that ended at Santiago nearly 17,000 miles distant, and proved to be one of the memorable voyages of history.
The "Oregon", with her heavy armor and armament, was not then regarded as a regular sea-going battleship, and in the bill authorizing her construction she was classed as a coast line battleship.
On April 4th the Oregon arrived at Callao and reported her arrival by cable to the Department, It should here be noted that all cablegrams sent and received were in cipher and so an excess or lack of words will often be found in the translation. April 5th cabled.
"Will complete necessary work, boilers and engines will be ready to sail Thursday night. I can make Montevideo, perhaps Rio Janerio, not stopping at Valparaiso, and if coal may be obtained at Sandy Point, Patagonia, I could make Bahia.
The two following cablegrams probably crossed:
"April 6. On account of navigation of Magellan strait and reported movement of Spanish torpedo vessel near Montevideo I should recommend Marietta to accompany this vessel. If required I could touch Talcahuana, Chile, for Orders six days after sailing.
"Washington, April 6, 1898. Proceed at once to Montevideo or Rio Janerio. The Spanish torpedo boat, Termarario, is in Montevideo. Marietta has been ordered to proceed to Sandy Point, Patagonia to arrange for coal. How many tons will you require? The Marietta and Oregon to proceed together. Keep secret your destination. Keep secret this message.
The Oregon arrived at Rio Janerio, April 30, and the following report was at once forwarded to the Department.
"I have the honor to report that this ship left Callao, Peru, on the evening of April 7, (one boiler under repairs) having taken in during our stay of eight hours 1100 tons of coal (100 being in bags on deck.) Had comparatively good weather until we reached the Straits, though a heavy swell, increased by fresh, southerly winds, made the ship pitch heavily, the jack staff sometimes disappearing under the heavy seas that swept all but the superstructure deck. The vibrations and the racing of the propellers were very marked at times but the condition of affairs and the Department's instructions warranted a high rate of speed. Entered the Straits at about 3:30 p. m. on the 16th, and that evening anchored outside Port Tamar. One of the severest gales of the season broke before an anchorage was reached and as the mist and rain became so dense that the abrupt shores could not be seen, while no soundings could be obtained, the Oregon was for a time awkwardly placed. Just before dark the anchors were let go on a rocky shelf fringed by islets and reefs in 38 and 52 fathoms of water and they fortunately held through some of the most violent gusts I have ever experienced. Got underway next morning April 17 and anchored the same evening off Sandy Point. The total run from Callao was made at the rate of eleven and three quarters knots per hour. We found the hulk from which the coal (contracted for by Commander F. M. Symonds, who arrived with the Marietta a few hours later) was to be furnished, loaded with wool and during the next three days our men were constantly transferring it to enable them to get at the coal. The courtesy and good will of the Chilian officials in allowing me to take Government coal for the Marietta and so save further delays has been made the subject of another letter.
We left Sandy Point before daylight on the 21st and the same evening passed out of the Straits, but owing to the Marietta's low rate of speed even under favorable conditions and to the high winds and seas encountered north of La Plata, we only made Rio on the afternoon of the 30th. During the run owing to the chance that the Spanish torpedo vessel, the Temarario, might, if war existed, sight us before dark and get near enough to dispatch a torpedo during the night, only the leading vessel showed any lights and these were screened at the sides. The 8 in. and 6 in. guns were loaded with shell, and ammunition of the rapid fire guns was kept on deck, four crews in each watch being stationed at the guns. Orders for the maneuvering of the two ships in the event of falling in with a suspicious vessel were issued.
It is gratifying to call the Department's attention to the spirit existing on board the ship in both officers and men, which can best be described by referring to instances such as that of engineer officers in voluntarily doubling their watches when high speed was to be made, to the attempt of men to return to the fire room after being carried out of it insensible, and to the fact that most of the crew who were working by watches, day and night at Sandy Point preferred to leave their hammocks in the netting until they could get the ship coaled and ready to soil."
C. E. CLARK,
Captain, U. S. Navy.
To the Secretary of the Navy.
The Oregon's cablegram reporting arrival at Rio brought the following reply.
"Washington, April 30. War has been declared between the United States and Spain. April 21, Temarario has left Montevideo probably for Rio Janerio. Await orders.
The next day the following was received.
"Washington, May 1, 1898. Four spanish cruisers, heavy and fast, three torpedo boats, deep sea class, sailed April 29, from Cape Verde Islands to the west. Destination unknown. Beware of and study carefully the situation. Must be left to your discretion entirely to avoid this fleet and to reach the United States, the West Indies. You can go when where you desire or if it be considered necessary as last resort and can rely upon Brazilian protection you may remain there, the plea of repairs. It that case beware of unfriendliness, treachery, Nictheroy and Marietta subject to orders of yourself. After leaving Rio Janerio, Brazil, probably will be watched and followed by spy vessel.
In the publication of correspondence dispatches by the Department after the war the words in the preceding cablegram "Or if it be considered necessary as last resort and can rely upon Brazilian protection you may remain there, the plea of repairs. It that case beware of unfriendliness, treachery" were omitted.
May 2nd the Department cabled.
"Do not sail from Rio Janerio, Brazil, till further orders.
And later the same day
"My telegram May 2 countermanded. Carry out former instructions in my telegram May 1 to proceed with Oregon, Marietta, Nictheroy.
On May 3rd.
"Inform Department of your plans. The Spanish fleet in Philippine Islands annihilated by our naval force in the Asiatic station.
Clark cabled the same day:
"The Brazilian government wishes interval between our departure and the Nictheroy. The Marietta and Oregon will go outside tomorrow morning. Nictheroy sails tomorrow evening to join.
On the 4th.
"The receipt of telegram May 3 is acknowledged. Will proceed in accordance to orders I have received keeping near the Brazilian coast as the Navy Department considers the Spanish fleet from Cape Verde Islands superior. I can coal from Nictheroy if necessity compels it to reach the United States. If the Nictheroy delays too much I shall hasten passage leaving her with the Marietta. Every department of the Oregon in fine condition.
There was little expectation that in the event of a defeat, the Oregon could take selter in a Brazilian port as there were only two or three north of Rio Janerio she could enter, but if in a sinking condition she could perhaps be run aground in neurtal waters or on a shoal outside the marine league, where she could still work her guns. As was stated in a later despatch the intention was to make a running fight at full speed and if two or more of the enemy's ships were destroyed to turn and attack the others. That this appearance of flight should not be misunderstood, Clark let his purpose be known to every one on board and in a council with the officers reminded them of the tactics of the survivor of the Horatii. It was to this that Captain Mahan, the author of "Sea Power in History," referred when he said "Captain Clark drew for support from the very fountain heads of history from the remote and even legendary past."
The next morning after the Oregon left her consorts, Clark pleased with the suggestion of the navigator, Lieutenant Nicholson, called the crew to the quarter deck and after telling them that their devotion to duty and sacrifees entitled them to a knowledge of the situation read the despatches about the strength of the Spanish fleet and then said: "Well, my men, we are going north and if we meet this fleet we may not be able to whip it but we will, as Mr. Lincoln said, put an end to its usefulness as a fleet. It won't trouble our country much after we get through with it."
The belief at home that Clark was seeking a combat with the Spanish fleet was unfounded. Such an action on the part of a commander with only the knowledge he then possessed would, in his opinion, have been reckless and even criminal. If, as reported, all four Spanish ships were faster than the Oregon, they could come up together, disable all his rapid fire guns and then send in their torpedo boats. The destination of the Spanish fleet was probably the West Indies where, if well employed, it could prevent or greatly delay the invasion of Cuba. The chances that the Oregon would be needed there were so great that those of encountering the fleet single handed should be hesitatingly incurred.
The presence of the Spanish fleet at Curacao caused serious apprehensions as to the fate of the Oregon. The last news of her was that she had left Bahia, Brazil, May 9. Her movements was unknown to the navy department, for the question of prescribing her route and sending a detachment to meet her had been carefully considered but abandoned. She was left to shift for herself, and was considered safer if not so closely watched.
The Oregon sailed from Rio Janerio May 4th. May 9th, the Oregon having been for two or three days within the zone in which the Spanish fleet could have been encountered, Clark determined to secure the sanction of the Department before proceeding further, so ran into Bahia and sent the following cablegram:
"Much delayed by the Marietta and Nictheroy left them near Cape Frio with orders to come here or beach if necessity compels it to avoid capture. The Oregon could steam 14 knots for hours and in a running fight might beat off and even cripple Spanish fleet. With present amount of coal on board will be in good fighting trim and could reach West Indies. If more should be taken here I could reach Key West, but in that case belt armor, cellulose belt and protection deck would be below water line. Whereabouts of Spanish fleet requested.
Senator Lodge wrote of this dispatch that it "recalled Sir. Richard Grenville in days gone by."
The Department answered,
"Proceed at once to West Indies without further stop Brazil. No authentic news Spanish fleet. Avoid if possible. We believe you will defeat it if met.
In his official letter written May 18th from Barbadoes, Clark reports upon the incidents during his stay in Rio Janerio and the movements of the ships after sailing from that port.
"Sir: I have the honor to report that having received during the night after my arrival at Rio Janerio the Department's telegram of April 30 stating that war had been declared and that the Spanish torpedo vessel had sailed from Montevideo, probably for Rio Janerio, and hearing that the American minister was in Petropolis, though expected in Rio during the forenoon, and the consul general having stated that the representations from me direct to the Brazilian Admiral would be well received and acted upon, I sent an officer who, explained to the Brazilian officer in command of the flagship, that the Oregon, a five million dollar battleship, might be disabled or even destroyed by the torpedo vessel of the nation that had blown up the Maine and that I relied upon the Brazilian naval forces to prevent any such act of hostility in their waters, but that if the Temarario entered the harbor and approached the Oregon with a hostile purpose I must destroy her. The American minister having arrived during the afternoon and the situation being explained to him, he immediately communicated with the Brazilian Government. In the meantime, that the Termarario might not have the excuse of approaching too close on the plea of entering the harbor and going to the usual man-o-war anchorage I got underway and went farther up the bay giving the commanding officer of the Marietta orders to send her steam launch to the Temarario if she appeared and inform her commander that if he approached within half a mile of the Oregon he would be sunk. The Marietta was ordered to keep her search light on the vessel all the time. Just before anchoring in the new berth, word came from the minister that the Brazilian Admiral had ordered that if the Temarario appeared she would be stopped from entering the harbor, or if permitted to enter would be convoyed by a Brazilian man-of-war to an anchorage well up the Bay. During the remainder of our stay a cruiser was stationed near the entrance and at night her search lights and those on Fort Santa Cruz swept the entrance. In this, as in all other respects during our stay, the Brazilian officials showed by their acts that their expressions of sympathy and hopes for our immediate success were genuine.
C. E. CLARK, U. S. N."
During the evening of May 24th the Oregon made Jupiter Inlet, Florida, and ran in near enough to send a boat with the following telegram to the Secretary of the Navy:
"Oregon arrived. Have coal enough to reach Dry Tortugas in 33 hours. Hampton Roads in 52 hours. Boat landed through surf awaits answer.
The following answer came.
"Washington, May 24, 1898. If ship is in good condition go to Key West. Otherwise to Hampton Roads. The Department congratulates you upon your safe arrival which has been reported to the President.
The Oregon reached Key West early in the morning of the 26th and received the following telegram:
"Washington, May 26th, '98. The Department congraulate you, your officers and crew on the completion of your long and remarkably successfully voyage.
The following letter of acknowledgement was sent.
"I have the honor to acknowledge the Department's telegram of yesterday which was received and read to all hands at muster the same evening, causing great enthusiasm and spontaneous cheers. That the officers who have labored so faithfully and intelligently to bring the ship around in our efficient condition for fighting and steaming and especially that the crew, who individually and collectively have made real sacrifices and who for two months have asked for nothing but the previlege of doing extra work that might hasten the progress of the ship, should be mentioned and congratulated affords me, as the Commanding Officer, expecial gratification.
C. E. CLARK'
Captain U. S. Navy, Commanding."
The following glowing tribute to Captain Clark was subsequently paid him by Private D. E. Smith, U. S. Marine Corps, one of the crew of the Oregon:
"A world of praise is due to the man who by his pleasant greetings and kindly ways drew to him the hearts of all his crew; the man who steamed the "Oregon" the breadth of two oceans. In the midst of a raging storm he steered her safely through the dangerous shoals and rocks of the Magellan Strait; in the early darkness of night with but a red light of danger burning at the mast-head, with every gun loaded and manned he steamed into the small harbor of the most southern city of the world, Punta Arenas, Chili. Our gallant Captain is also the man who mustered his crew and read to them cablegrams which he had received from the Department at Washington, and then spoke to them in a manner which inspired all with confidence and made theem feel as though they were men. He said that he was only a commander and that alone he could do nothing with the "Oregon" and all her guns, he impressed upon them the fact that it was to his men he must look for assistance, he believed them all to be good and loyal American citizens, and that if need be their lives would be given for their country. This same Commander personally looked after the interest of his crew. He made frequent visits forward among the men and drank from the same scuttle butt which they used, and finding the water lukewarm, gave orders that the ice reserved for his private use be given to the men in order that their drinking water might be colder and more refreshing."
Lieutenant Edward W. Eberle, U. S. N., in his interesting and graphic article in the Century Magazine on the "Oregon's Great Voyage," concludes as follows:
"We reached Key West on the morning of May 26, and anchored off Sand Key, having made the run of 14,000 miles in just 68 days, having passed through two oceans and circumnavigated a Continent, having endured most opressed heat and incessant toil, having demonstrated to the skepties of Europe that heavy battleships of the Oregon class can cruise with safety under all conditions of wind and sea, and at the end of this remarkable voyage having had the pleasure to report the ship in excellent condition and ready to meet the enemy. Our noble and beloved Captain, who had so ably executed his trying task received congratulatory messages from every part of the country.
The efforts that all on board the Oregon had made and the risks that had been taken to bring her to the seat of war, obtained their full justification when the Navy Department received from Commodore Schley his despatch that he would have to return to Key West for coal. Only the Indiana, the slowest of the battleships, had been left on the north side of Cuba but with the arrival of the Oregon Admiral Sampson offered to proceed at once with her and his flagship New York to Santiago. During the race along the Cuban coast and around Cape Maysi the Admiral signalled asking if the Oregon could keep up such speed and later: "Are you sure you can keep this speed without injury to boilers or machinery?" Clark on both occasions answered, "Yes" knowing only the exhaustion of the officers and men inthe engineer's department would have to be considered, and they once more nobly responded to the call of duty. As the ships rushed to the goal off Santiago, the American squadron was discovered in position and the two days and nights of suspense and anxiety about the escape of the Spanish fleet ended.
The Oregon was engaged in all the bombardments of Santiago. Upon one occasion Admiral Sampson ordered her to run in and silence the Punta Gorda battery. The Massachusetts and Indiana, seeing her advance, closed in at once and the Spaniards were soon driven from their guns.
The following in Captain Clark's official report of the Battle of Santiago
(This report has been revised in compliance with the request of Captain Clark of July 28, 1898)
U. S. S. OREGON, 1ST RATE,
Off Santiago de Cuba, July 4, 1898
Sir: I have the honor to report that at 9:30 a. m., yesterday, the Spanish fleet was discovered standing out of the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. They turned to the westward and opened fire, to which our ships replied vigorously. For a short time there was an almost continuous flight of projectiles over this ship, but when our line was fairly engaged, and the Iowa had made a swift advance as if to ram or close, the enemy's fire became defective in train as well as range. The ship was only struck three times, and at least two of them were by fragments of shells. We had no casualties.
As soon as it was evident that the enemy's ships were trying to break through and escape to the westward we went ahead at full speed, with the determination of carrying out to the utmost your order: "If the enemy tries to escape, the ships must close and engage as soon as possible and endeavor to sink his vessels or force them to run ashore." We soon passed all of our ships except the Brooklyn, bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Schley. At first we only used our main battery, but when it was discovered that the enemy's torpedo boats were following their ships we used our rapid-fire guns, as well as the 6-inch, upon them with telling effort. As we ranged up near the sternmost of their ships she headed for the beach, evidently on fire. We raked her as we passed, pushing on for the next ahead, using our starboard guns as they were brought to bear, and before we had her fairly abeam she too was making for the beach. The two remaining vessels were now some distance ahead, but our speed had increased to 16 knots and our fire, added to that of the Brooklyn, soon sent another, the Vizaya, to the shore in flames. The Brooklyn signaled "Oregon, well done." Only the Cristobal Colon was left, and for a time it seemed as if she might escape; but when we opened with our forward turret guns and the Brooklyn followed she began to edge in toward the coast and her capture or destruction was assured. As she struck the beach her flag came down and the Brooklyn signaled, "Cease firing," following it with "Congratulations for the grand victory, thanks for your splendid assistance.
The Brooklyn sent a boat to herm and when the admiral camp up with the New York, Texas and Vixen she was taken possession of. A prize crew was put on board from this ship under Lieutenant Commander Cogswell, the executive officer, but before 11 p. m. the ship, which had been filling in spite of all efforts to stop leaks, was abandoned, and just as the crew left she went over on her side.
I cannot speak in too high terms of the bearing and conduct of all on board this ship. When they found that the Oregon had pushed to the front, and was hurrying to a succession of conflicts with the enemy's vessels if they could be overtaken, and would engage, the enthusiasm was intence.
As these vessels were so much more heavily armored than the Brooklyn they might have concentrated upon and overpowered her, and consequently I am persuaded that, but for the way the officers and men of the Oregon steamed and steered the ship and fought and supplied her batteries, the Colon and perhaps the Vizcaya would have escaped.
Regarding the part played by the Oregon in the Battle of Santiago in is pertinent to call attention to the following facts. Her station was to the eastward of the battleships Iowa and Texas, and the armored cruiser Brooklyn all rated as superior to her in speed but in less than twenty minutes she had passed the two first and taken a position on the starboard quarter of the Brooklyn inside of her, but not so far ahead and this she maintained until the end of the battle. The Brooklyn was at the end that was attacked but the Oregon forced her way there at the serious risk of collision, first with the Iowa and then with the Texas.
It is said that the words "God save the Oregon" were often used while she was believed to be in the track of the Spanish fleet, but the hour came off Santiago when according to the testimony of the officers of the Brooklyn, she was greeted with cries of "God bless the Oregon."
The following appeared in one of the House Documents in the Fall of 1898.
This alone would have given her an unparalleled record among battle ships, but the culmination came in the great battle of July 3, when she surpassed herself. Always ready for action, she speedily attained a power greater than that developed on the trial, giving a speed (on account of greater displacement, and foul bottom) only slightly less than then attainted, and distancing all the other ships except the Brooklyn, which is 5 knots faster. Every official report comments on her wonderful speed, and it is generally believed that but for it one at least, and possibly two, of the Spanish ships might have escaped.
The whole record is thus one which has never been equaled in the history of navies, and it will remain the standard for a long time to come.
On August 10, 1898, Captain Clark was advanced six numbers for eminent and conspicuous conduct in battle, and in June, 1902, he was, for the same reason, advanced seven more numbers and commissioned a Rear Admiral. The Navy and the country knew that his meritorious conduct and ability had not been sufficiently recognized, but, owing to an unfortunate naval controversy, in which he was in no way involved, no further action was taken.
The State of Oregon gave him a sword in commemoration of his part in the Battle of Santiago, inscribed with the battleships of both fleets, and carrying his monogram, set with gems in the National colors.
This sword, together with the cap worn by Captain Clark during the Battle of Santiago, is now in the possession of the Vermont Historical Society and may be seen in one of the cases in their rooms in the State House Annex.
Admiral Clark was always a Vermonter; he loved the mountains, valleys and streams of his native state, and, whenever possible, spent a part of each year within its borders.