viernes, 15 de enero de 2016

El Bombardeo a Matanzas en las batallas navales del siglo XIX

Por Odlanyer Hernández de Lara

El enfrentamiento entre la flota estadounidense y las defensas hispanas en la bahía de Matanzas ha quedado en la historia como el “Bombardeo a Matanzas”. Así se le denominó en la prensa en su momento y se ha seguido repitiendo ininterrumpidamente desde entonces. Pero es preciso aclarar algunos detalles conceptuales: un bombardeo implica simplemente lanzar bombas hacia un lugar determinado. Si se considera someramente el suceso de Matanzas, es muy simple observar que lo ocurrido está muy distante de haber sido un simple bombardeo.

Como bien se ha planteado recientemente por un grupo de investigadores (Hernández de Lara et al. 2014), este hecho fue una batalla terrestre-naval en toda su dimensión, que incluyó combates concretos que se desarrollaron al mismo tiempo, al enfrentarse las tres embarcaciones militares con distintos puntos fortificados. Este hecho, además, fue la primera batalla de la Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americana. Como tal, su impacto en los medios de prensa de la época fue contundente, aunque muchas veces exagerado, incluso por los que participaron en persona.

Tal es así que los relatos sobre el “Bombardeo a Matanzas” abundan en diferentes fuentes periodísticas, en libros y hasta se le dedicó una película. Su importancia, para el momento de iniciada la guerra, influyó para que la acción fuera incluida en la serie de libros Battles of the Nineteenth Century. Es así como en el quinto tomo, publicado en 1901 por A. Hilliard Atteridge, se incluye la narración de la batalla. Esta visión del suceso contiene muchos errores, que en parte han sido señalados por Hernández de Lara y colaboradores (2014), a pesar de tener en cuenta las noticias hispanas sobre el hecho. Pero la base de la narrativa es el relato de un periodista del New York Herald, que escribió su crónica desde la embarcación de prensa y, por tanto, muchos detalles, más que descriptivos, son imaginativos.

Cubierta del libro
Battles of the Nineteenth Century (1901)

Pero a pesar de todo, es una perspectiva de la batalla y vale la pena compartirla para que pueda ser leída y, posteriormente, comparada con otros relatos del mismo suceso. De esa forma, se pueden llegar a aproximaciones más acertadas de lo que ocurrió. Para ello, nosotros agregamos una fuente de información fundamental: la arqueología. Esto permite contrastar los relatos históricos con las evidencias materiales, para de esa forma generar nuevas narrativas que confirmen o refuten la historia conocida.

Abajo, transcribimos el relato publicado en Battles of the Nineteenth Century y, además, ponemos a disposición de todos el fragmento original del libro. Es preciso aclarar que el mapa de la bahía de Matanzas que incluímos aquí aparece en la página 107 del libro, por lo que no se encuentra en el archivo PDF adjunto.

Acceder al archivo en PDF [ver]
Si quiere descargar el libro completo [ver]


The Bombardment Of Matanzas*


Matanzas is the second city of Cuba, coming next to Havana both in population and in wealth. It is a city of more than 50,000 inhabitants, with well built streets, and in the suburbs the broad promenades are overhung with shade trees. Which the colonial Spaniard loves. Several railways connect it with the capital and with the towns of what was lately the richest district in Cuba, a land of rich soil with tobacco and sugar plantations, well watered by the numerous rivers, each with its course marked by long winding avenues of “royal palms,” the noblest of West Indian trees.

The city stands at the end of a deep curving bay. A reef of rocks forms a breakwater in front of its wharves, and the passage into this inner harbour at each end of the reef is guarded by an old Spanish fort. In the days of short-range artillery these were the only defences of Matanzas. But modern batteries, armed with heavy rifled guns, had been erected, both on the slopes of the wooded promontories that guarded the mouth of the bay, and on the edge of the sea below. Morillo Battery, looking out between the headlands, crossed its fire with Maya on the right and Fort Rubal Caya on the left. Further in than Rubal Caya, a sandbag battery was being erected on the low ground of Punta Gorda. The great depth of water at the entrance more than a hundred and fifty fathoms-made defence by submarine mines extremely difficult. If Matanzas Bay was to be held, it must be by the batteries, assisted by torpedo boats. There was a suspicion that the United States staff might select the bay as a convenient place for landing their army for the advance of Havana, so a considerable force of Spanish troops had been concentrated at Matanzas city to resist a possible attempt at invasion.

Las fortificaciones de la bahía de Matanzas

Since the second day of the war, the cruiser Cincinnati and the powerful turret ship Puritan had been watching the place. From their position a few miles off the land they could see every day strong working parties on the headlands extending the earthworks and mounting new guns. A torpedo boat, which ran into take a closer look at the shore, was fired on from Point Maya, and Admiral Sampson, on hearing the report of this occurrence, decided to reconnoitre with a more powerful force. Accordingly, on the morning of Wednesday April 27th, he left the blockading squadron before Havana, and with his flagship the New York steamed eastward along the coast to join the Puritan and Cincinnati before Matanzas.

It was a bright clear day, with a smooth sea and hardly any wind, an ideal day for naval gunners to make good practice. The New York led the way towards Matanzas harbour mouth, the Puritan following her, and the Cincinnati remaining further out to seaward. The New York and the Puritan alone were a formidable force: the great armoured cruiser with her two masts fitted with several fighting tops, her three funnels, her many quick firers, and the six long 8-inch guns mounted in armoured barbettes; the monitor, a heavy low lying craft, her deck almost level with the water, and her two pairs of 12-inch guns mounted in revolving turrets. As they headed for the bay, work ceased in the batteries. Spade and pick were laid aside, and the Spanish gunners stood by their pieces, waiting to open fire. A few minutes before one o’clock the first shot was fired, it came from the batteries on Point Maya. There was a bright flash, a cloud of blue smoke above the low breastwork on the shore, and a moment after a tall fountain of water spurting from the sea half a mile from the New York showed that the shell had fallen short. The Spaniards had judged the distance badly. The flagship was at the moment about 6,000 yards from the battery, and ought to have been fairly easy target, even though she was under way. Still moving towards the bay, the Admiral signalled to the Puritan, which was nearer Maya, to reply, and the monitor answered with her quick firers, the first few shots falling short. Presently she got the range, and then she brought her big turret guns into action. Two of the enormous shells, each a thousand pounds in weight, fell close to the breastwork of the battery and exploded in a cloud of flying sand and earth. But a naval officer who stood on the bridge of the New York beside the Admiral, and watched, with a powerful telescope, the bursting shells, noted that none of them had done any serious damage to the battery, and the gunners at Maya kept up a steady fire all the time. None of their shells actually hit the Puritan, but all round her the flying jets of water showed that they were not far from their mark.

El US Monitor Puritan

And now the batteries on the opposite point joined in the engagement. A shot from Rubal Caya struck the water just a hundred yards ahead of the New York, another from Punta Gorda flew high over her deck. Lying broadside on to the batteries, the New York replied with five of her 8-inch guns, two from each barbette and one from the starboard sponson amidships. All her smaller guns on that side joined in, and a signal to the Cincinnati called the cruiser up to lie to the westward of the flagship and assist her in hammering away at the batteries on Sabanilla Point, the Puritan devoting all her attention to those on Maya.

For a few minutes the fire from the three American ships was very heavy. Wrapped in clouds of smoke, they were steaming nearer and nearer the batteries till the range was reduced to about 3,000 yards, a short distance for such powerful guns as were now in action. The Spanish gunners were firing slowly and deliberately, but not one shot from the batteries actually hit the ships, though several fell close to them, or flew screaming high in air above the funnels and between their masts. The lookouts in the tops of the ships could see that on the other hand the American fire was well directed. Shell after shell burst in the earthworks, and the flying showers of debris showed that the explosions were rapidly destroying the Spanish defences. The first shot had been fired from Maya at three minutes to one, at a quarter past the hour the batteries on both points were silent, and Sampson signalled to cease-fire and resume station off the port. As the ships turned slowly with silent, smoking guns, Rubal Caya fired a last shot, which fell between the Puritan and the New York. The monitor replied with a 12-inch shell from her stern turret. It struck the battery and sent up a shower of rubbish sixty feet into the air. To those who watched the shot from the bridge of the flagship, it seemed that a gun had been dismounted and all the gunners killed.

The first report of the Matanzas bombardment from Spanish sources admitted that a good deal of damage had been done to the batteries, and that several men had been killed. It was also stated that some projectiles had fallen into the city; these must have been shells intended for Punta Gorda, but aimed far too high. A subsequent report said that little or no injury had been done to the works; and as for losses, the only casualty was the death of a mule, unfortunately hit by a shot in the rear of one of the batteries. This story of the “sad death of a mule at Matanzas” was probably not meant to be taken seriously. It was playful satire on the wildly exaggerated accounts of the bombardment circulated by the more sensational newspapers in the United States. Some of these were the work of pure imagination. It so happened that only one of the numerous “press boats” was with the squadron when Matanzas was attacked. All the rest were off Havana, for Admiral Sampson had given no hint of his intentions. But the boat belonging to the New York Herald followed the flagship; its correspondents were the fight. Then the little steamer ran back to Key West through some very rough weather, for in the evening there was a sudden gale. Soon after midnight the news was on the wires for New York. The Herald had next day the satisfaction of publishing the only complete ad authentic narrative of the affair. Some of its rivals had, it is true, wonderful stories of the bombardment; but they were highly coloured romances based on a small foundation of fact gleaned from telegraph operators, who could not help talking about the great news from Cuba.

According to these stories the Spanish batteries had been laid in ruins, hundreds of the enemy’s gunners had been blown to atoms; the crews of the warships had displayed the wildest enthusiasm, the men cheering every shot, and the stokers down below running up to request permission to have a shot at Spaniards. If these absurd newspaper touches had been true, it would not say much for the discipline of the American navy. In one paper an imaginative writer told how after each shot one could hear the rumbling fall of the earth displaced from the enemy’s breastworks. Anyone who could hear this at a range of from two to four miles must have good ears.

The plain facts were set forth in Admiral Sampson’s brief official report next day. He had exchanged fire with the batteries at the entrance to Matanzas Bay, in order to ascertain the strength and position of the works, to get some idea of their armament, and to prevent the completion of the new battery at Punta Gorda. He had silenced the outlying batteries, and was well satisfied with the conduct of his crews.

The bombardment showed that the gun practice of the United States ships was excellent, that of the Spanish artillerymen hopelessly bad. But only a few days after, the Americans suffered severe loss through presuming that all Spanish gunners would shoot as wildly as those at Matanzas. As to the damage done, the inner forts were, of course, intact. They had not even been in action. The damage done to the earthwork batteries at the harbour mouth was probably of a kind that could be easily made good. Only about sixty heavy shells had been fired from the fleet, the Spaniards replying with about half that number. Our own experience at Alexandria showed that a much heavier and more prolonged bombardment does not suffice to demolish beyond repair even badly constructed batteries. The results of the practice cannot be judged from the ships, unless large allowance is made for misleading impressions. Thus a shell bursting a few feet in front of the parapet of a battery will send up a tremendous cloud of dust and sand, and an onlooker from the ship will think he has seen a lot of the breastwork itself blown into the air, though actually it has not been touched. Again, even when the shell bursts fairly on the breastwork, the earth it displaces mostly falls back into very nearly its original position. In experiments at Lydd against earthwork batteries, it has been found that the only result of a prolonged bombardment is to reduce to a moderate extent the height of the crest of the parapet, and to bring down the general level of its outer slope. The fact that as the American ships were with drawing a last shot was fired from Rubal Caya shows that the batteries were not demolished. Apparently the chief damage done was to the unfinished work at Punta Gorda, on which the New York directed a hot fire, the destruction of this battery being the object that Sampson had chiefly in view. Altogether, the attack on the Matanzas batteries, though not an important affair, was very encouraging to the United States. It was a welcome change from the captures of tramp steamers and coasting schooners that had so far been the only exploits of Sampson’s fleet, and it helped to calm the impatience of American public opinion, which from the first day of the war had been eagerly anticipating a fight. A few days more brought news of a more serious naval engagement, not in Cuban waters this time, but in the far off Philippines. These islands had for a long time been the scene of insurrectionary movements against Spain, and the United States Pacific squadron, under Commodore Dewey, had been concentrated at Hong Kong before the war, with orders to proceed to Manila, destroy the Spanish Pacific fleet, and co-operate with the rebels as soon as war was declared.

It was a momentous resolution, which had more of a political than a military bearing on the results of the war. For the small force was not helpless to influence the general results of the conflict, nor did the American attack on Manila lead to any Spanish force being diverted in that direction during the decisive period of the struggle. On the other hand, however opposed many of the leading men in the United States might be to making war undertaken for the liberation of Cuba the occasion of a campaign of conquest in Eastern seas, there was little doubt that once the Stars and Stripes were hoisted in the Philippines they would not be hauled down again. Thus the order that told Commodore Dewey to set out for Manila did more than set a squadron in motion. It launched the United States on a new policy of imperial rule.

* Atteridge, A Hilliard (1901), "The Bombardment Of Matanzas". Battles of the Nineteenth Century. Vol. V: 110-113. Cassell and Company, New York.

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