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From the Schofield Letters: Remember the Maine - Part II

Yates Past - January 2008

Part I of this article (October issue) ended with the USS Hawk, a Scottish yacht converted by the Navy into a gunboat, heading for Navy headquarters in Key West, Florida to play a role in the Spanish-American War. The Executive Officer on the Hawk was Yates County native Ensign Frank H. Schofield. Commanding the ship was Lieutenant John Hood, a survivor of the explosion of the USS Maine in February of 1898. The Spanish-American War started in mid-April and was over by the second week of August. There were two major naval engagements in the war. The first was Manila Bay in the Philippines on May 1st where the Spanish Pacific fleet was destroyed by a US squadron under the direction of Admiral George Dewey. Spain still had a fleet in the Caribbean and for weeks its whereabouts were unknown. When it was located in the harbor of Santiago on the southern coast of Cuba it was the Hawk, acting as a scout boat, that took word to an American squadron under the leadership of Commodore Schley which proceeded to bottle up the Spanish fleet. When the Spanish ships attempted to break out of the harbor on July 3rd, they were destroyed by Schley’s “Flying Squadron” and Admiral William Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron. (Sampson was a Palmyra, NY native after whom Sampson Naval Training Station on Seneca Lake was named).

Although Santiago was the last major naval battle of the war, there was still fighting to be done on the island of Cuba by land forces and the Hawk served in support of that as part of the blockade of ports on the north shore of the island. About a week after the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Santiago, Frank (and the Hawk) saw some serious hostilities near Mariel just west of Havana. According to the Penn Yan Democrat...........

About midnight July 8th, the Hawk spotted a Spanish steamer believed to be the Villaverde from Mexico with munitions and supplies for Havana. She paid no attention to three shots fired across her bow by the Hawk as a signal to heave to. The Hawk then gave chase and fired twenty-five shots, all but three of which hit the ship. The vessel was soon on fire and, signaling distress, made for the beach at full speed. The Hawk continued firing upon her just as the Spaniard ran high and dry on a reef under cover of the fort at Mariel. Ensign Schofield volunteered to go in a small rowboat and demand her surrender. Before leaving the Hawk he placed in the boat’s bow a small Colt automatic machine gun and rowing in between the stranded steamer and the batteries on shore with his little crew of four, he demanded the surrender of the auxiliary cruiser from his little boat. He was immediately fired upon by the men on board the Alfonso and was attacked at the same time by the batteries on shore. Never losing his nerve, he swung his little Colt around and peppered the Alfonso, actually silencing her fire by his audacity and
coolness. He then turned and fired on the batteries. He was in the act of withdraw in from his perilous position when the little daredevil Hawk, herself almost small enough to be swung on the davits of the Alfonso, came to its rescue. It was with the full expectation of finding dead and wounded men and a crushed and sinking rowboat that Captain Hood steamed up. When Schofield was asked if the fire had not been pretty heavy, he only replied, “Yes, but you ought to have heard our little Colt talk to them.” Such daring and nerve are characteristic of the American Navy.

It was indicative of “the fog of war” that there was quite a bit of confusion as to the accurate identity of the ship. At first reported to be a Spanish steamer, the Villaverde, it was then thought to be the warship, Alfonso XII. One of the reasons why Frank and the others got in the small boat was to try to get the name off of the ship....something they were unable to do before coming under fire. It turned out to be named Alfonso XII, but it was a converted transatlantic liner with that name. It was bringing munitions in from Mexico. It ran aground under the protection of the guns of the fort at Mariel, which made for a very dangerous situation. Once the crew of the small boat was safely back onboard the Hawk, they went for assistance and returned with two other “scout boats”, the Castine and the Prairie. Combined, they pumped what was reported as 600 shells into the Spaniard until it was destroyed in flames. Most of the crew jumped oversides and most of the cargo was floated to shore.

The Scottish yacht Hermione before it was converted to the USS Hawk

The incident was widely covered by newspapers back in the States, but the “fog of war” carried over to their articles. One New York Times article referred to the US ship as “the Wasp” and a Baltimore paper referred to the officer in the small boat as “Ensign Kellogg”. His crew was either four, seven, or eight. All of that was very frustrating to Frank’s wife Claribel, who wrote to him on July 9th:

The paper just came telling of the Hawk’s adventure. I feel very proud of you, Honey, and am glad you have had a chance to do something, but it is a dreadful thing also and makes me shudder to think of all those lives lost at your hands. But it is war and of course you are not responsible for the consequences of doing your duty. You have done your duty and justified my opinion of you and I am proud of you --- more than proud, but at the same time, I am trembling all over and positively sick at the thought of the danger you ran and how close I came to losing you. You get no newspaper credit or anything and no promotion. Now, Frank, you have proved yourself heroic in the eyes of everybody who cares whether you are heroic or not. Don’t try it again. You have “remembered the Maine” now remember those at home a little.

Based on the laws which existed at that time, those on board the Hawk thought they were entitled to prize money from the government. The prize was based on $100 per person on board the enemy vessel that was destroyed or captured. They made their claim but were refused by the Attorney General ....”inasmuch as they neither captured nor obtained possession of the vessel. The cargo of the Alfonso XII was destroyed by the Spaniards to prevent its falling into enemy hands.” It was then tied up in the Navy’s prize court for a few years. In the end, the Navy’s decision was upheld.

In March of 1899, when Frank received a promotion from Ensign to Lieutenant, the New York Sun, in an article about that promotion, reported: “The Alfonso was an immense transport ship loaded with ammunition and the US Government had warned the small ships to beware of her and the large ships to look out for her. She was destined, however, to be destroyed by a rowboat of the tiny Hawk, commanded by Mr. Schofield.”

In the final weeks of the war, the Hawk took three more “prizes” caught trying to run the blockade.....a Norwegian steamer, a British freighter, and a Mexican steamer. Each time, the ship was captured without incident and Frank Schofield commanded the “prize crew” that took the ship to Key West. All three of those ships were returned to their owners after the war and no prize money was awarded.

by Rich MacAlpine

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