Hobson And The Sinking Of The Merrimac


SOME of us know what a dark night is and some of us don't. Those who

live in cities, under the glare of the electric light, hardly ever see

real darkness. One must go far into the country, and be out on a cloudy

night, to know what it means to be really in the dark. Or to be out at

sea, with not a light above or below.

It was on such a
night that a great black hulk moved like a sable

monster through the waters off the coast of Cuba. This was the night of

June 3, 1898. There was a moon somewhere in the sky, but thick clouds

lay over it and snuffed out its light. And on the vessel not a light was

to be seen and not a sound could be heard. It was like a mighty beast

gliding on its prey.

This vessel was the Merrimac, which had carried a load of coal to the

American fleet that lay outside of Santiago de Cuba. Inside the harbor

there were four fine Spanish ships-of-war. But these were like foxes run

into their hole, with the hunters waiting for them outside.

The harbor of Santiago is something like a great, mis-shipen

water-bottle, and the passage into the harbor is like the neck of the

bottle. Now, if you want to keep anything from getting out of a bottle

you drive a cork into its neck. And that is just what the Americans were

trying to do. The Merrimac was the cork with which they wanted to

fasten up the Spanish ships in the water-bottle of Santiago.

The captain of the Merrimac was a young officer named Richard P.

Hobson, who was ready to give his life, if he must, for his country.

Admiral Sampson did not like to send anyone into such terrible danger,

but the daring young man insisted on going, and he had no trouble in

getting seven men to go with him.

Most of the coal had been taken out of the Merrimac, but there was

enough left to sink her to the bottom like a stone. And along both

sides there had been placed a row of torpedoes, filled with gunpowder

and with electric wires to set them off when the right time came.

Hobson was to try to take the ship to the right spot, and then to blow

holes in her sides with the torpedoes and sink her across the channel.

Would not he and his men sink with her? Oh, well, they took the chances

on that.

Lieutenant Hobson had a fine plan laid out; but the trouble with fine

plans is that they do not always work in a fine way. He was to go in to

where the channel was very narrow. Then he was to let the anchor fall

and swing the ship round crossways with the rudder. Then he would touch

the button to fire the torpedoes. When that was done they would all jump

overboard and swim to the little boat that was towed astern. They

expected the Merrimac would sink across the channel and thus cork it


That was the plan. Don't you think it was a very good one? I am sure

Lieutenant Hobson and Admiral Sampson thought so, and felt sure they

were going to give the Spaniards a great deal of trouble.

It was about three o'clock when the Merrimac came into the mouth of

the channel. Here it was pitch dark and as still as death. But the

Spaniards were not asleep. They had a small picket-boat in the harbor's

mouth, on the lookout for trouble, and its men saw a deeper darkness

moving through the darkness.

They thought it must be one of the American warships and rowed out and

fired several shots at it. One of these hit the chains of the rudder and

carried them off. That spoiled Hobson's plan of steering across the

channel. You see, as I have just told you, it does not take much to

spoil a good plan.

The alarm was given and the Spaniards in the forts roused up. They

looked out and saw this dark shadow gliding swiftly on through the

gloom. They, too, thought it must be an American battleship, and that

the whole fleet might be coming close behind to attack the ships in the


The guns of Morro Castle and of the shore batteries began to rain their

balls on the Merrimac. Then the Spanish ships joined in and fired down

the channel until there was a terrible roar. And as the Merrimac drove

on, a dynamite mine under the water went off behind her, flinging the

water into the air, but not doing her any harm.

The cannonade was fierce and fast, but the darkness and the smoke of the

guns hid the Merrimac, and she went on unhurt. Soon the narrow part of

the channel was reached. Then the anchor was dropped to the bottom and

the engines were made to go backward. The helm was set, but the ship did

not turn. Hobson now first learned that the rudder chains were gone and

the ship could not be steered. The little picket-boat had spoiled his

fine plan.

There was only one thing left to do. He touched the electric button. In

a second a dull roar came up from below and the ship pitched and rolled.

A thousand pounds of powder had exploded and blown great jagged holes in

the ship's sides.

Hobson and his men leaped over the side into the water. Those who were

slow about it were flung over by the shock. Down plunged the Merrimac

beneath the waves, while loud cheers came from the forts. The Spanish

gunners were glad, for they thought they had sunk a great American


But it does not matter to us what the Spaniards thought. All we want to

know is what became of Lieutenant Hobson and his daring men. Their

little boat had been carried away by a Spanish shot, and they were

swimming in the deep waters without knowing what would be their fate. On

one side was the sea; on the other were the Spaniards: they did not know

which would be the worst.

"I swam away from the ship as soon as I struck the water," said Hobson,

"but I could feel the eddies drawing me backward in spite of all I could

do. That did not last long, however, and as soon as I felt the tugging

cease I turned and struck out for the float, which I could see dimly

bobbing up and down over the sunken hull."

The float he spoke of was a sort of raft which lay on the ship's deck,

with a rope tied to it so as to let it float. The rope pulled one side

of it a little under the water, so that the other side was a little

above the water.

This was a good thing for Hobson and his men, for Spanish boats were

soon rowing out to where the ship had gone down. The eight men got under

the high side of the raft, and held on to it by putting their fingers

through the crevices.

"All night long we stayed there with our noses and mouths barely out of

the water," says Hobson.

They were afraid to speak or move, for fear they would be shot by the

men in the boats. It was that way all night long. Boats kept rowing

about, some of them very close, but nobody thought of looking under the

raft. The water felt warm at first, but after a while it felt cold, and

their fingers ached and their teeth chattered.

One of the men, who thought he could not stand this any longer, left the

raft and started to swim ashore. Hobson had to call him back. He came at

once, but the call was heard on the boats and they rowed swiftly up. But

they did not find the hiding place of the men and rowed away again.

After daylight came Hobson saw a steam-launch approaching from the

ships. There were officers in it, and when it came near he gave it a

hail. His voice seemed to scare the men on board, for they backed off in

great haste.

They were still more surprised when they saw a number of men clamber out

from under the float. The marines in the launch were about to fire, but

the officers would not let them.

Then Hobson swam towards the launch and called out in Spanish:

"Is there an officer on board?"

"Yes," came the reply.

"I have seven men to surrender," said Hobson.

He now swam up and was seized and lifted out of the water. One of the

men who had hold of him was Admiral Cervera, the commander of the

Spanish fleet.

The admiral gave an odd look at the queer kind of fish he had caught.

Hobson had been in the engine-room of the Merrimac and was covered

with oil, coal-dust, and soot. But he wore his officer's belt, and when

he pointed to that the admiral smiled and bade him welcome.

Then the men were taken on board the launch, where they were well

treated. They had come very near death and had escaped.

Of course, you want to read the rest of this story. Well, they were

locked up in Morro Castle. This was a fine old fort on the cliff at the

harbor's mouth, where they could see the great shells come in from the

ships and explode, and see the Spanish gunners fire back.

Admiral Cervera was very kind to them and sent word to Admiral Sampson

that they were safe, and that he would exchange them for Spanish


They were not exchanged until July 7, and by that time Admiral Cervera's

ships had all been destroyed and he was a prisoner himself.