Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Mar. 8, 2017: The old Spanish maiden of Annapolis (and Santiago)
In honor of International Women’s Day, of course, we had to have a warship named in honor of a member of the more civilized half of our species. As such here we see the Alfonso XII-class unprotected cruiser Reina Mercedes of the Armada Española. Named after Mercedes of Orléans, the first wife of Spain’s King Alfonso XII who died just two days after her 18th birthday, our cruiser would go on to live a longer but no less tragic existence.
The three 3,042-ton Alfonso XII-class cruisers were designed in the 1880s for colonial service in the Caribbean and Pacific, where Spain still had remnants of Empire. Steel-hulled with 12 watertight bulkheads, they were to be modern steam warships capable of 17 knots, which was fast for the day. However, their bank of 10 cranky cylindrical boilers handicapped these ships their whole life and they rarely achieved such speed. Like many ships of the day, they were given an auxiliary sail rig of three masts, two fully rigged, one schooner rigged.
Armed with a half-dozen 6.3-inch/35cal (160mm) M1883 bag-loaded breech-loading guns made by the Spanish Hontoria Company, theoretically capable of 10,000m shots at maximum elevation, they could deal sufficient punishment to all but a determined capital ship. However, this model gun was adapted from a French black powder design(M1881) that did not translate to smokeless powder too well and, at least in Spanish service, proved much slower to load and fire safely than comparable German Krupp or British Elswick designs of the period.
Augmenting these big guns were smaller batteries of Hotchkiss 57mm/40 cal and 47mm/22 guns for torpedo boat defense and a set of five 356mm tubes for Whitehead guncotton torpedoes (more on these later).
The Alfonso‘s also took a while to build, being the first steel ships constructed in their respective yards. Both Alfonso XII and sistership Reina Cristina were laid down at Arsenal del Ferrol the same day in 1881 but took a decade before they entered service.
The hero of our tale, the only example of the class laid down at Arsenal de Cartagena, was commissioned in 1892, fully 11 years after steel was first cut. Never really cutting edge, Reina Mercedes was pushing obsolescence as she began her career.
Made the flagship of the modest Spanish naval forces operating in Cuba, she left for that Caribbean colony in 1893, joining Alfonso XII which had been there since the previous year–and was urgently needed to help fight the growing local insurgency.
Sister Reina Cristina made for the Philippines where she became the flagship of Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron.
On 26 May 1897, the U.S.-flagged Red D Line chartered coastal passenger liner SS Valencia (1,598-tons) was plying her way off the Cuban port of Guantanamo when she encountered Reina Mercedes at sea on a dark night. The Spanish cruiser lit up Valencia with her spotlights but allowed her to proceed.
Three days later, after discharging cargo and passengers, the Valencia and Reina Mercedes again met at sea, this time in daylight. Although no state of war existed between the U.S. and Spain (though tensions were high) Reina Mercedes fired first a blank round then a warshot from a mile behind the American steamer, the latter falling just 80 yards behind the stern of Valencia. It was an international incident for sure and helped ratchet up the pregame for the Spanish-American War.
Speaking of which, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in Feb. 1898, Alfonso XII was just 200m off her bow and was partially damaged. Her crew was involved in rescuing the battleship’s survivors, treating them in the cruiser’s sickbay, and guarding the battleship’s wreck. They later marched in the funeral cortege during services ashore in Havana for those who had perished.
When war broke out in April 1898, Regina Mercedes was immobilized as a station ship at Santiago de Cuba with a hull full of busted boilers. Soon, she would become blockaded in the harbor by the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson.
With Gen. William Rufus Shafter’s troops laying siege to the city on land, on the night of 2–3 June 1898, eight volunteers aboard the 3,300-ton converted Norwegian steamship, SS Solveig, then in service as the collier USS Merrimac, sailed into Santiago harbor with the intention of sinking the vessel as a blockship, trapping the Spanish fleet for good.
That’s where the crippled Regina Mercedes and her iffy 6.3-inch guns came in.
Bracketing the Merrimac with shells, torpedoes from the cruiser were credited in helping to sink the American ship just off Socapa Point, short of blocking the harbor entrance. To be sure, the muzzles of the destroyer Pluton, cruiser Vizcaya, and shore-based howitzers contributed, but Mercedes counted the most. Merrimac was the only U.S. ship sunk in the Span-Am War, and all eight U.S. heroes were picked up by Mercedes alive.
The endgame for our cruiser, at least in Spanish service, came just 72 hours later when on 6 June 1898 the U.S. warships on blockade came close enough to bombard the harbor, hitting the moored Reina Mercedes at least three dozen times with large caliber shells. Commander Emilio de Acosta and five sailors were killed, 12 more wounded. Very lucky for the amount of punishment. After this date, the Spanish moved as much of the working armament off the ship as they could (more on this below).
After the destruction of Admiral Cervera’s squadron on 3 July 1898 and with Mercedes the only real warship left afloat at Santigo, it was decided to do something with the battered girl.
Incapable of any service, the Spanish salvaged what they could, emplacing at least four of her 6.3inch Hontorias in a battery on shore at Socapa, and decided to use her to block the harbor themselves– to keep the Americans out!
On 5 July, Mercedes sailed forth, unarmed, under steam from just two boilers, and with a skeleton crew, to plug the channel. However, she was caught by a searchlight from the early Indiana-class battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-2) of some 11,500-tons and armed with 4 × 13”/35 guns, who quickly landed at least three direct hits from her 13-inch shells on the little cruiser.
Her crew scuttled the cruiser in shallow water, her decks barely awash, but fell just short of blocking the channel.
The Spanish emplaced four batteries made in large part of Reina Mercedes‘ guns and crew:
1. The Upper Socapa Battery used three relic-quality iron 8-inch guns as well as two of the stricken cruiser’s 6.3-inchers. It is believed that one of the Hontorias here achieved a hit on the USS Texas on 23 June, killing the Sailor Blakely and wounding eight bluejackets. It was the first time a U.S. ship was hit during the war in Cuban waters.
2. Her men also helped crew the Estrella Battery near Morro Castle which mounted another two ancient 8-inchers, a 4.7-inch bronze cannon, and some 3-inch breechloaders.
3. Across the harbor mouth, they manned four Hotchkiss and two Nordenfelt small guns taken from Mercedes in an earthwork at the water’s edge dubbed the Lower Socapa Battery.
4. The Punta Gorda Battery, a mile up the bay from Morro Castle, held two more of Mercedes 6.3-inch Hontorias, two modern 6-inch Meta howitzers and a pair of 3.5-inch breechloaders. Lines of water-based Bustamante sea mines were electrically controlled from firing stations ashore.
Her sistership, Reina Cristina, was the Spanish flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898, and was lost in that one-sided action.
Her location on “Dewey Boulevard” as noted by an American cartoon of the era, now home to mermaids:
Class leader Alfonso XII— trapped in Havana during the War– returned to Spain after the conflict, where she was decommissioned in 1900 and sold for breaking in 1907.
Images of Reina Mercedes on the bottom proved popular for a generation as postcards.
Then, of course, there is the rest of the story.
You see, Regina Mercedes was a survivor. Between 2 January and 1 March 1899, the U.S. Navy raised her and cleaned her up. A prize of war.
Leaking considerably from scuttling charges and dozens of shell holes, Reina Mercedes was towed to Norfolk Navy Yard, arriving 27 May 1899, for temporary repairs.
Departing Norfolk 25 August 1900, again in tow, Reina Mercedes arrived Portsmouth Navy Yard, N.H., on 29 August for refitting.
It was first planned to convert the old cruiser to a seagoing training ship; but, after much delay, the Navy Yard received orders on 10 December 1902 to complete her as a non-self-propelled receiving ship.
In 1905, she was recommissioned as USS Reina Mercedes. Departing Portsmouth in tow 21 May 1905, Reina Mercedes was taken to Newport, R.I., to be attached to the receiving ship Constellation; and, save for a visit to Boston and to New York in 1908, served there until 1912.
Towed to Annapolis in 1912 to serve as a barracks ship (and brig for wayward mids) she was issued hull number IX-25 as a miscellaneous unclassified vessel in 1920. There, she was jokingly called the “fastest ship in the Navy” because she was always tied fast to her pier. In her own way, she served through both World Wars as a commissioned naval vessel.
In 1920, when the Spanish battleship Alfonso XIII called at Annapolis, the old cruiser flew the flag of Spain as a gesture of goodwill.
For a number of years, the Reina Mercedes acted as a sort of brig — though not in the truest sense — for Naval Academy midshipmen. Those punished for serious infractions of the Academy Regulations were confined to the ship for periods of a week to a month or more, attending drills but sleeping in hammocks and taking their meals aboard. This punishment was abolished in 1940, substituted instead for restricting midshipmen to their rooms in Bancroft Hall.
After 1940 the ship was used as living quarters for unmarried enlisted personnel assigned to the Naval Academy, as well as the captain of the ship — who was also the commanding officer of the Naval Station, Severn River Naval Command — and his family. The most famous of these commanders was William F. “Bull” Halsey. Because of this latter arrangement, the Reina Mercedes held the unique distinction of being the only ship in the Navy to have ever permit the commanding officer and his dependents living aboard permanently.
Towed to Norfolk every decade or so (1916, 1927, 1932, 1939, and 1951) to have her hull cleaned and repainted, she was kept in good condition for her role and you can expect any brightwork was kept in gleaming condition by her visiting Midshipmen. However, after a while, the metal was too thin to do anything with and she was struck from the Naval Register, 6 September 1957 and disposed of in a sale to Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, MD., for scrapping. Certainly, she was among the last warships to see action in 1898 that was still in naval service in any fleet.
About all that is left of her is maritime art.
However, at least some of her guns landed at Santiago in 1898 are still in Cuba to this day and remain a tourist attraction at San Juan Hill.
Displacement: 3,042 tons
Length: 278 ft. (85 m)
Beam: 43 ft. (13 m)
Draft: 20 ft. 0 in (6.10 m) maximum
Engines: 10 boilers, 4400 h.p. 1 shaft
Sailing rig: Three masts, two fully rigged, one schooner rigged
Speed: 17 kn max, 9 knots typical
500 tons of coal (normal),
720 tons of coal (maximum)
Armament: (All removed 1898-99)
6 × 6.3-inch (160 mm) M1883 Hontoria guns mounted in sponsons
8 × 6-pounder (57mm) Hotchkiss quick-firing guns
6 × 3-pounder (47mm) Hotchkiss revolvers
5 × 14-inch (356 mm) torpedo tubes (2 bow, 2 beam, 1 aft), Whitehead torpedoes
Armor: Hope and dreams
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