William Thomas Sampson
While Luce and Mahan in the eighties and early nineties were laboring determinedly to train the seamen and educate the officers, as well as to awaken the country to the importance of sea power, Sampson was working with like effectiveness for the improvement of the matériel. But for him the Spanish-American War might have been a much more serious conflict. One of the discoveries twenty years later in the World War was the enormously important part that science may play in waging war. The idea was in reality not new; it was only because the applications of physics, chemistry, and other branches had been widened that their significance was more commonly recognized. Sampson had an eminently scientific mind. He saw the needs, and, though not himself a chemist or an electrician or a naval constructor or an inventor, he stated the problem to those who were. And his was the genius to pick the right men for studying the question, to recognize the merits of their solution so far as it was adequate, and to apply the results. He organized the whole. The scientist is commonly a quiet man, and one not easy to know intimately. This was true of Sampson; but those who had that intimate acquaintance speak of him in terms of highest admiration.
His service in the navy extended over forty-five years and was of a varied character, but for our purpose we p273 shall consider only three phases: duty at the Naval Academy, in the Navy Department, and in the fleet.
Sampson entered the Naval Academy at the age of seventeen, coming from Palmyra, New York. He was at the time a raw country lad, his parents having come from Ireland only four years before his birth. Yet there was something in him that almost at once caught the attention of Mahan, who was then a first classman. Mahan, being the second captain of the gun to which the new "plebe" was assigned, messed and drilled with him. Years afterwards when Mahan had forgotten others, he vividly recalled Sampson, who, without any aggressive self-assertion, showed an "unusual inquisitive interest" in all that was going on. When Sampson graduated four years later he was the cadet adjutant of the battalion and had the highest standing in the class. He was given special commendation for proficiency in physics and engineering.
A year after graduation he returned for duty at the academy (temporarily transferred to Newport during the Civil War) to drill midshipmen and teach them gunnery. His next tour at the academy was two years after the war, when, during Admiral Porter's administration, he was detailed as assistant in the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Two years later he succeeded Professor Lockwood as the head of that department.
In 1874 he returned to the same duty, though now the department had changed its name to Physics and Chemistry. By a strange coincidence another member of the academic board at this time was Commander Schley, head of the Department of Modern Languages. It is interesting to note that two men whom Sampson p274 drew early to his department were Munroe, an assistant at Harvard, who has since become known as an eminent chemist, and Michelson, an unknown ensign, later to win world renown as a physicist, the one who measured the diameter of Betelgeuse.a
Sampson gave himself to his work in physics and chemistry as heartily as if these subjects were to occupy him for the rest of his life. Mahan has remarked that Sampson drew his inspiration from scientists like Lord Kelvin rather than from naval officers of the old time. And Professor Michelson observed to the author that in his opinion Sampson was the first naval officer to recognize the value of pure science, "value not primarily for its applications (to which education should not give a great deal of concern), but for its fundamental principles, for itself." In this he encountered some opposition from other officers.
In the instruction of midshipmen Sampson saw how lectures might be introduced to broaden the outlook and stimulate interest. In physics, according to Michelson, most of the recitations had previously given over to a labored reproduction of Ganot's textbook on that subject, of which occasionally the midshipmen would know about as much as the instructor. Sampson, who had not known Michelson personally, had requested that he be assigned to his department because of his good record in physics when he was a midshipman. Evidently satisfied with his choice, he called upon him to lecture on optics. Michelson relates that it occurred to him that it would be interesting to show midshipmen the method employed in measuring the speed of light, and for the experiment he fixed up what he thought was a crude apparatus, spending ten dollars on it. To his surprise, as he went ahead, not only p275 was he able with this homemade apparatus to indicate the method, but he measured the speed of light more accurately than it had ever been measured before. It was this success the turned his thoughts to specialization in physics, and thus he discovered his field.
Dr. C. E. Munroe's story, related to the author, of his call to the academy is significant for the fact it throws on Sampson as head of a department. He had not met Sampson until, on the latter's invitation, he went to Annapolis to look the ground over. At the conclusion of their interview Sampson remarked:
You will receive your appointment as professor of chemistry. I am going to nominate you, but it is the Secretary who will make the appointment. Now I don't know you or any who do know you, but I am satisfied. But since it is the Secretary who does the appointing, won't you send to me statements from two or three of your prominent men at Harvard who can speak of your fitness.
As Munroe observed, "That was characteristic of Sampson; he settled everything right on the spot, silently, powerfully, efficiently."
Professor Munroe on assuming his new duties came to Sampson for instructions. They were extremely brief: "You take charge of chemistry." As he later learned, Sampson was keenly alive to all that was going on, but he left to the officer under him the task of working out the details. He never annoyed the subordinate by being fussy.
Professor Munroe continued at the academy for eleven years, that is, until 1885. In that year he had made up his mind he would leave to accept a promising college position; but Sampson, hearing that he was leaving, induced Munroe to go with him to his new p276 billet at the Torpedo Station, Newport. Here Munroe gave important assistance in the developing of smokeless powder
During the period when Sampson was in charge of the Torpedo Station, the most important work for which he was directly responsible was the improvement of the detonators. Sometimes they would go off and sometimes they would not. There was to be an exhibition at which the Secretary of the Navy would be present; but even after careful preparation there was doubt whether the detonators would explode the mines. Whereupon Sampson called Munroe into consultation and told him that he wanted him to correct the defect. This Munroe did.
Sampson when head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the Naval Academy had seen what an important part electricity was destined to play on the warship of the future, and he gave emphasis to this in his lectures and experiments. He delivered a considerable number of the lectures himself and with unquestioned success, a fact which it is interesting to compare with the statement of his intimate friends, that when he came to fame he shrank with horror from making public addresses.
In 1886 Sampson, who had had nine or ten years of duty at the academy, returned for his fourth and last tour, this time as superintendent. One of the tests his administration early had to meet was that caused by hazing. Warning had been given to the cadets, as they were then called, so that ignorance was no excuse. When the old frigate Constellation, carrying the upper classes on their practice cruise, stopped at New London to take on board the new fourth class, the "youngsters" could not resist the temptation and began putting the p277 "plebes" through various ordeals, most of them playful rather than harsh in character. The law, however, was explicit and strictly forbade any such practices. Sampson, determined that the law should be enforced, at once stopped the practice cruise and ordered the Constellation to Annapolis. A series of courts-martial followed, and nine cadets were sentenced to dismissal. The President saw fit to lighten the penalty, changing it to a term of confinement on the Santee. This ended hazing during Sampson's superintendency.
His annual report of 1888 shows the size of the academy at this time. In October, 1887 there were 37 in the first class, 42 in the second class, 55 in the third class, and 98 in the fourth class, making a total of 232; in the following June this number had shrunk to 191, the fourth class having lost about 32 per cent of its members. At this time the academy grounds were extended to College Creek, •some fifteen acres being added by purchase. Among changes that Sampson effected was that at the beginning of their last year at the academy a part of the class should be so instructed as to become officers of the line and the other to become engineer officers. He urged that the age for entrance should be from fifteen to eighteen and not from fifteen to twenty, as the law provided. For the practice cruise he wanted the most modern steam warship assigned, not an obsolete sailing vessel. Another change he recommended was that the course of six years (the last two years at sea) be reduced to four years; that is, that on graduation the class be commissioned ensigns. This, which is the rule today, was not adopted until 1912.
Sampson seems not to have come into close contact with a large number of the cadets, and even to many of p278 the officers he seemed cold and distant; but the few who knew him intimately had for him ardent admiration and strong loyalty. In the hours of recreation he was an indefatigable tennis player; in fact, one who was a cadet of this time and who since has been a chief of bureau rated him as the best tennis player at the academy.
Sampson as superintendent proved a disciplinarian exacting but kindly and a clear-sighted, bold, and efficient organizer. Park Benjamin remarks: "When Commander Sampson's tour of duty at the Naval Academy ended, there remained little for anyone else to do, save to keep the standard of efficiency unimpaired."
As we come to the second division of this sketch, Sampson's service in the Navy Department, it is to be noted at the outset that after Dahlgren's monumental service of the Civil War period ordnance had slumbered until the eighties. For lack of funds the navy had not been able to keep up with the immense developments abroad. Some of the smoothbores had been converted into rifled guns, and an excellent form of breech closure had been introduced. Otherwise the large guns were the same as those used twenty years before. We had not been building new ships; and the batteries of those in commission were composed in the main of smoothbore guns.
It was Captain Sicard, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance from 1881 to 1890, who began the new order of things. Instead of conceding that conditions were hopeless, he set about educating private industries in every line of ordnance material — designing guns, writing specifications, and working out metallurgical requirements and tests. At this time the infant steel industries needed all the encouragement that could be given. An p279 important step was taken when he ordered construction to begin on a new gun factory at the Washington Navy Yard in 1887. Commander Folger, who succeeded him, carried on the important work. And, by a fortunate choice, from 1893 to 1897 this important billet was given to Sampson, who was somewhat prepared for it by brief tours of duty at the Torpedo Station and at the Gun Factory.
Mahan relates that when Sampson was informed that he was to be Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, recognizing the grave responsibilities about to devolve upon him and the importance of building on foundations already laid, he applied for duty as a subordinate in the bureau, even though the chief he was to succeed (Commander Folger) was much his junior. Folger, who took him, during the three months of his tutelage, to live in his own home, has left this interesting biographical note:
We talked of little else than ordnance, its history, and present conditions, as far as we were acquainted with it. He read little but scientific works and periodicals. I do not recall ever seeing him read a novel, and he cared little for historical subjects or general reading. This side of his temperament and taste was often a source of regret to me, as it left us without resource in conservation after discussion of the shop.
Admiral Strauss, who, though only an ensign on duty in the bureau, was closely associated with Sampson, says that the two outstanding qualities his chief showed in the multitudinous problems which arose were intelligence and courage. He was keen in discerning a need or defect, and he was bold in taking enormous risks when sweeping changes which promised improvement were presented to him.
p280 Mention has already been made of the development of smokeless powder. Other countries had preceded the United States in its adoption, but Sampson had the courage to hold off until he got just what he wanted. England had been using a nitroglycerin smokeless powder, but our officers saw that it was not altogether satisfactory. Sampson knew that, after a certain powder had been selected and guns had been built for it, a change in its composition might be fatal. So he waited until Commander Converse, Lieutenant Bernadou, and others had investigated and thoroughly tested the powder that promised to be the best. Then he gave orders to go ahead with its manufacture. In consequence its composition has never been changed.
Another question that came up concerned the kind of power to be used for operating the turrets in the new battleships. In the British navy hydraulic power was used; but Strauss, who had been a year and a half in the bureau, wanted to use electricity and came forward with designs which he had worked out. With something of temerity, as he thought, the young officer suggested ordering the material for one of the four ships under construction so that the novel idea might be tested. This was in the latter part of 1894. Sampson corrected him in only one particular, and that was number. He told him to order the equipment not for one, but for all four ships. Such decision was characteristic of Sampson. It may be said in explanation that he was absolutely certain of the future of electricity; after a brief but sharp scrutiny he was persuaded of the correctness of the designs, and he wanted no delay in the building of the four ships.
Another new idea in battleship construction which was introduced at this time and for which also Strauss p281 was responsible was the superimposed turret. There had been much discussion as to where the smaller gun turrets should be placed. In the Indiana class they were placed two on each side with the 13‑inch gun turrets forward and aft amidships; but this arrangement was not satisfactory, for the smaller guns could be used only on the side on which they were placed. Strauss, who was called into the conference, suggested putting the 8‑inch turret on top of the 13‑inch, thus doing away with two and permitting the same broadside fire; and he said he could work out an ammunition hoist that would prove practical. Sampson was at once struck by the idea: "Go ahead with your plans. That's what we'll recommend." Thus, on the initiative of an ensign, they began the superimposed-turret type. There was much opposition, but the Kearsarge and the Kentucky were built on this plan. In this way the United States led in a great structural improvement.b
These are but a few isolated examples of the activities of the Bureau of Ordnance and its powerful chief in the four years previous to the Spanish-American War. Telescopic sights were adopted and installed, the United States being the first nation to try them. The first modern submarine in our navy, a Holland boat, was contracted for. Automobile torpedoes were developed, and progress was made in their manufacture. Hard-faced armor was developed, and immediately orders were given to experiment with and develop an armor-piercing projectile.
As Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Sampson was a member of the Advisory Board and the Board of Construction. Thus he had much to do with the general design of the new battleships and cruisers, and he had entire responsibility for the batteries, the armor, the p282 turrets, and the barbettes on these ships. Furthermore, as W. H. Stayton, a graduate of the Naval Academy, writes, 95 per cent of the guns employed in the battle of Santiago, as well as a large part of those used at Manila Bay, were made under his direction: "From 1892 until the outbreak of the Spanish War every gun built for the navy was designed and constructed under the supervision of Admiral Sampson, and the large guns were all upon his personal design."
Important among Sampson's policies was the creation of large ammunition reserves — foresight that was amply justified when war came. He did this, as he explains in his report, "not only because at any moment an emergency may arise making them urgently necessary, but also to prevent the scattering of the skilled labor which has developed this manufacture, and keep occupied plants which were established solely to meet the government demands."
When a new drill book was to be written for the fleet, Sampson was directed to write it. Target practice became of the first importance, and under the new system rapidity as well as accuracy was required. It was as a result of this that at Santiago the rapid American fire swept the enemy decks and prevented the Spaniards from doing any careful shooting and inflicting injury in return.
The complete story of Sampson's life would include also the nonmilitary duty assigned to him: he was assistant superintendent at the Naval Observatory from 1882 to 1885, member of the International Prime Meridian and Time Conference in 1884, and delegate from the United States to the International Maritime Conference held in Washington in 1889. But the limits of this work urge that we now proceed to the third aspect p283 of Sampson's career, his service afloat. This began with the Civil War, in which he saw a fair share of fighting.
As executive officer of the monitor Patapsco in January, 1865, he had a harrowing experience when that vessel, ordered to clear the approaches to Charleston of torpedoes which the Confederates had planted, herself ran upon a mine and sank within fifteen seconds. Nearly 60 per cent of her complement were lost. The executive won commendation for his fearless and efficient handling of the situation. Mahan, who saw him the next morning, remarks, "He was as unaffectedly and without effort imperturbed as though nothing remarkable had occurred."
Sampson's three tours of sea service in the thirty years following the Civil War, on the European and Asiatic stations and in the Pacific, present an honorable record, but, coming as they did during the period of great naval inactivity, they present nothing distinctive. The year 1897 found him still a captain in grade and in command of the battleship Iowa. When the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor, Sampson was president of the court of inquiry ordered to investigate the cause of the explosion. And then, as war was seen to be inevitable, and there came the question of who should succeed Commodore Sicard in command of the North Atlantic Fleet, Secretary Long chose Sampson. A year earlier he had been offered the important post of Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, but he preferred sea duty. At the time of the war he was by no means senior officer on the navy list, but in Long's opinion he was superior to all others as an "accomplished, efficient, competent, all‑round naval officer."
He still maintained his unmoved exterior, but there was no sluggishness in his conduct of the war. He p284 "believed in celerity," and fully two weeks before hostilities began he presented to the Department a plan for the bombardment and capture of Havana immediately on the declaration of war. Captain Chadwick, his chief of staff, like Sampson, felt certain of success. Chadwick afterwards remarked, "The intensity of disappointment brought him [Sampson] by the Navy Department's disapproval can only be understood by those who are acquainted with Sampson's unbending purpose when his will was once fixed." Instead, the Department issued orders for the immediate blockade of designated areas on the north and south coasts of Cuba.
News was cabled to the United States that Admiral Cervera, with cruisers representing the best of the Spanish Navy, had sailed on 29 April from the Cape Verde Islands. This was telegraphed from Washington to Key West and then brought to Sampson, with the blockading squadron off Havana, by the cruiser Montgomery. The Navy Department, believing that the Spaniards' destination must be the West Indies, sent ships from the merchant marine taken over as scouts to cruise off Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Porto Rico in order that they might bring back word of the first appearance of the Spaniards. Sampson conjectured that their first objective might be San Juan, Porto Rico, and he determined to seek them out there, reasoning that if he was mistaken in his surmise he should obtain on arrival information which would enable him to fall back upon Havana before the enemy could reach there.
His only error was in overestimating the speed of the Spanish fleet. Cervera had selected San Juan as the port where he would coal and take on supplies; but p285 hearing that Sampson was there expecting him, he turned far to the south and made for Curaçao. Sampson now had a difficult problem, for he must maintain a fairly strong force before Havana to prevent the elusive enemy from slipping in, and also he must deny him Cienfuegos or any other port that would give a close communication with Spanish headquarters at Havana.
On the 19th of May there came a report, soon verified, that Cervera had succeeded in making Cuba, entering, however, not one of the harbors to the west near Havana, but the deep bay far to the east at Santiago. Meanwhile Commodore Schley, with a group of fast and powerful cruisers known as the Flying Squadron, was lying off Cienfuegos, for some days certain that he had the Spaniards imprisoned there.
Cervera's fleet, weak though it later proved to be, for a long time had the advantage possessed by any force of size which takes the offensive. For several weeks our whole Atlantic coast was in a state of apprehension lest the enemy might descend upon the unprotected harbors; and the army and the navy of the United States were forced to postpone operations in Cuba until they knew where the enemy would strike. With the inadequate means of communication which Sampson had it was nearly two weeks before he could collect his force off Santiago. But the Spaniards, having few places to which they wished to go and not deeming it safe to move, remained quiescent till escape was virtually impossible.
Fearful of a sortie and avoidance of battle on the part of the enemy, Sampson shortly after his arrival sent in the collier Merrimac, in charge of Naval Constructor Hobson with seven volunteers, to block the p286 narrow and winding channel leading from Santiago harbor. The fierce fire the Merrimac encountered from the shore batteries cut her steering gear so that she was sunk at a point where she could not fully accomplish the object. Nevertheless she made the passage more difficult, and the bravery of the little band of heroes electrified their comrades in the fleet. Happily they all were rescued by the Spaniards; and Cervera most chivalrously sent out a boat under a flag of truce to notify Sampson of their safety.
Sampson had already formulated a careful and effective plan of blockade, arranging his battleships and cruisers in a semicircle, none of them more than •six miles from the entrance, and at night or in thick weather not more than •four miles. Further, at night, the battleships in turn, each taking a two‑hour watch, kept a searchlight trained on the entrance. This guarded the ships from the danger of torpedo attack from the harbor and was the factor chiefly instrumental in preventing the Spanish fleet from making an attempt to escape at night. Cervera afterwards remarked that they could not navigate the tortuous channel with the blinding flash in their eyes. Admiral Chadwick regarded Sampson's order relating to the use of searchlights as among the most important of the war.
Soon the army too was doing its part. On 22 June the advance of the invading forces under Major General Shafter was made at Daiquirí, •fifteen miles east of Santiago; and on 1 and 2 July, after the spirited charges at El Caney and San Juan, they had pushed so far forward that they were almost on the edge of the city. Then even the Spanish defenders saw that the end might be a question of only a few days. General Blanco (who lately had been given the command of all Spanish p287 forces in Cuba, naval as well as military) on being informed of this ordered Admiral Cervera to leave Santiago. The latter knew that theirs was a forlorn hope, and that a battle could have only one result, with the sacrifice of hundreds of fine young Spaniards; but having explained this to Blanco and receiving only a confirmation of the previous order, he was too good an officer not to proceed to its execution.
It was on Sunday morning, 3 July, that the sortie was made. Admiral Sampson, on the flagship New York, was on his way to a conference with General Shafter at Siboney, a few miles to the east. At 9.35, when •seven miles from the entrance to Santiago harbor, the admiral, who was on the quarter-deck, saw smoke, though not a Spanish ship was yet in sight. He delayed not a moment. Ordering the helm hard aport, he sounded the call to "general quarters."
Soon the Maria Teresa was seen heading out, and she was followed by the Vizcaya, the Cristóbal Colón, and the Almirante Oquendo. The Brooklyn flew the signal "Clear for action"; be the signal was not required, for ships had been cleared for action since the beginning of the war. Moreover, Sampson had gone over the general plan of action with his captains so carefully that everyone understood what was to be done as in a drill.
The rapid fire of the American fleet, concentrated on the Spanish flagship, the Maria Teresa, was overwhelming. Three quarters of an hour after the time she was first sighted she could stand it no longer and, turning, ran for the shore, a mass of flames. Five minutes later the Oquendo was beached in the same condition. At eleven o'clock the Vizcaya had reached the limit of her endurance and had turned for shore. This left the p288 Colón the only survivor in the attempted flight westward; but as she was reputed to be the fastest ship of the two fleets and had gained a lead of •six miles over the Brooklyn and the Oregon, she bade fair to escape. However, the New York, joining with the Brooklyn, the Vixen, the Oregon, and the Texas, held gamely on, the slower ships looking after the rescue of prisoners or returning on Sampson's signal to their stations. By the end of another hour it became evident that the Colón could not maintain her speed, and at one o'clock the Oregon dropped a 13‑inch shell just ahead of her. Fifteen minutes later the Colón, though uninjured, fired a gun to leeward, lowered her colors, and ran ashore.
Not the least heroic work of the day on the part of the American sailors was the rescue of the Spanish crews. The former rowed boldly up to the shattered hulks, which were burning fiercely fore and aft; and though guns and ammunition piles were constantly exploding, and there was the danger that flames might reach the magazines, they went calmly ahead on their errand of mercy.
From the Spanish fleet 1813 prisoners were captured, including their admiral; the losses by gunfire and drowning were 264. This was Captain Chadwick's estimate, made when all figures were available, and was only a little more than half what the Spanish at first reported. In the American fleet one man was killed and one seriously wounded.
After the battle there came the unhappy controversy begun by certain ill‑advised partisans who sought to gain an official statement from the Navy Department to the effect that Sampson was absent and was not in command at Santiago and therefore not entitled to p289 credit for the victory. Absurd though the contention was, it came before Congress and was the subject of a protracted investigation, which resulted emphatically in Sampson's favor; but it required a trenchant utterance from President Roosevelt to end it all. Secretary Long wrote as follows:
He [Sampson] had been from the first, till after the victory was won, commander in chief in command. He was never out of signaling distance of his blockading fleet. He was on duty at the eastern end of the fighting line, and had Cervera gone that way, then by that chance he would have been universally acclaimed as the foremost figure. Yet, as it was, the plan of battle was not changed; it was fought under his standing order unbroken. Before the smoke was over he had steamed along the whole battle line, firing as he went.
The battle of Santiago virtually ended the war. The Spanish military forces in the city capitulated thirteen days later, and on 12 August, 1898, a protocol was signed in Paris suspending further hostilities and leading directly to the treaty of peace between Spain and the United States.
Rarely has an officer been so thoroughly identified with a victory as was Sampson with Santiago. As one writer expressed this idea, Santiago was "the logical fruition of plans which his own genius had devised and set in motion; that is, it was won by officers whom he had drilled, on ships that he had constructed and armored, equipped with guns he had built."
As many have affirmed, Sampson avoided publicity and felt that he had no felicity in making an address. A year after Santiago, however, when he was presented a sword by the state of New Jersey, in referring to the battle he rose to real eloquence:
p290 No man prepares himself for battle, and no one successfully enters it without first an effacement of self and selfish motives. In even the poorest soul is born in that hour the finest impulses that can adorn our human nature. High above all else we are thankful, for in the after hours of triumph or defeat is the sense that for once we have met our best selves face to face and seen exemplified in those about us the qualities we most strive for and most admire.
Sampson had his defects, and one commonly mentioned was that he did not know how to praise, or that he "withheld pats," as one of his intimate associates put it; and yet the officer who said this added immediately, as if to correct a wrong impression, "Unlike so many others he didn't slop over, but leaned the other way." The general opinion was that he was cold and reserved — qualities that are not likely to win an enthusiastic following. Yet, to those who really knew him, there was another side which among officers and enlisted men awakened ardent devotion. Admiral Strauss, who knew him as perhaps did no one else of our day, sums up his estimate in the brief characterization: "The most remarkable man I have ever known."
Sampson established a tradition in the navy as the great builder and organizer. This he did silently; and even at the grand climax he was as much in the background as a dramatist at the initial performance of his play.
a A curious characterization; far more important was his determination, with Edward Morley, that the interstellar "ether" did not exist.
b The diametrically opposed view is given at some length by a naval constructor in H. A. Evans, One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, pp113‑115; see also G. C. O'Gara, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy, p59, based only in part on Evans' criticism.
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