Prologue Magazine

Documenting United States Naval Activities During the Spanish-American War

Spring 1998, Vol. 30, No. 1

By Richard W. Peuser


For many people, the conflict known as the Spanish-American War is a little understood episode in U.S. history. It evokes gripping images such as the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, or Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. But few scholars examined the subject at the fiftieth anniversary in 1948, and as the centennial anniversary of the war approaches, there is still a relatively short bibliography. This is unfortunate, since the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds hundreds of thousands of pages of records covering U.S. military activities during this period, many untapped by the research community. It is impossible to cite every series in all navy-related record groups relating to the Spanish-American War, but this article will mention the obvious and some not-so-obvious holdings that document United States naval activities during this period.

The United States emerged from the Spanish-American War with a global empire, having acquired the possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. It was a popular war with both the public and the press. The victories were glorified by newspapers, popular magazines, and veterans' own accounts published after the war.  Songs, poems, and dirges written by the general public romanticized the exploits of ships, soldiers, and sailors. The following poem written by J. L. Miller of Denver, Idaho, entitled Our War Cry Is "The Maine" was sent to the secretary of the navy with the request that it be used as an "official" poem for "Sampson's Fleet":

Our War Cry Is "The Maine"
Air: "Rally Round the Flag, Boys"

Our Court has found that Spain,
By her treachery has slain
Our brave and noble sailors,
By blowing up the Maine.
And now our Uncle Sam is plain
In dealing with the same.
He calls us "come on, boys
We'll soundly whip old Spain!"

Old Glory forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah,
Down with the Spanish; and up with the stars!
While we rally round old glory, boys,
Rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry: "The Maine, boys."1

Despite tensions with Spain dating back to 1895, the McKinley administration only reluctantly went to war. The explosion that destroyed the USS Maine did not convince the cautious McKinley to take immediate aggressive action. Instead he studied all available options short of declaring war. But the public clamor for war was very strong, and newspapers such as the New York World and the New York Journal exerted incredible pressure on both Congress and the White House. Eventually, both bowed to this pressure, and McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, which was granted on April 25, 1898. Recent scholarship portrays McKinley as a fully competent commander in chief who grasped the strategic objectives and coordinated policy through both the Navy and War Departments.2

Administration of the Navy Department in 1898

In order to understand the types of documentation relating to U.S. naval operations, it is important to understand the organization of the naval establishment in 1898. The Department of the Navy was headed by a presidentially appointed civilian secretary. Under him was an assistant secretary and the department's "legal adviser," the Judge Advocate General. In addition, the U.S. Marine Corps fell under naval jurisdiction. The basic organization of the department was the bureau system, which had been implemented in 1842. The bureaus were Construction and Repair, Equipment, Medicine and Surgery, Navigation, Ordinance, Steam Engineering, Supplies and Accounts, and Yards and Docks. Each bureau was further divided into offices. For example, the Naval Academy and the Office of Naval Intelligence were placed in the Bureau of Navigation. The Naval Observatory was administered by the Bureau of Equipment. The navy also created and appointed temporary and permanent boards. Examples of "temporary" boards were the board of inquiry concerning the destruction of the Maine and the Naval War Board, the latter organized by Secretary of the Navy John Long as an informal policy and strategy group accountable directly to him for the duration of the war.3 Examples of "permanent" boards were the Judge Advocate General's promotion and retirement boards which were set up to measure the "fitness" (both mental and physical) of officers serving in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Like the War Department during this period, the navy had organizational flaws. Two major obstacles were lack of coordination among the bureaus and of a centralized policy or planning apparatus to prepare the department for future wars. The latter problem was partially addressed by the creation of the General Board in 1900.4 Despite its organizational flaws and shortcomings, the navy performed capably in the war with Spain. The vision of men such as Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, Rear Adm. Stephen B. Luce, and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy, as well as technological innovations developed after the Civil War, made a strong enough foundation for the navy's preparedness and successful conduct of war. The outcome was never in doubt. Anchored around the newly developed armored battleship advocated by Mahan, the "Steel Navy" of the United States defeated the outdated, outmanned, and outclassed fleet of the Spanish navy in every battle from the opening guns at Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, to the ultimate destruction of the Spanish fleet at Santiago de Cuba, July 3, 1898.

The war with Spain involved naval operations in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Documentation concerning operations, training, administration, and personnel as well as other subjects relating to the naval establishment in 1898 are abundant among the holdings of the National Archives. Before conducting research at the National Archives, individuals are strongly encouraged to examine the variety of the published documentation that is available.

Published Documentation

Significant published primary sources consist of annual reports of the Navy Department (for specific years) and selected published proceedings such as the Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry Upon the Destruction of the United States Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898, Together with the Testimony Taken Before the Court (U.S. Senate document 207, 55th Cong., 2d sess.) and Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry in the Case of Rear-Admiral Winfield S. Schley, U.S. Navy (2 volumes, 57th Cong., 1st sess). The Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States, and of the Marine Corps (for specific years) is also a fine source for information concerning the names and duty stations of the officers that staffed the navy for given years. These published documents are part of the congressional serial set and are indispensable for researching U.S. naval activities during the conflict. In many instances, testimony of officers and supporting documentation such as "extracts" from a deck log or ship movement orders are included. The Government Printing Office (GPO) published these reports and registers, and they are available at designated depository libraries throughout the United States.

A unique resource for the study of U.S. Navy operations during the war with Spain is the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1898. All executive branch agencies are required by law to submit an annual report to Congress explaining actions taken during the previous year. Under the direction of the secretary of the navy, who produced his own report on the overall "state of the navy" and his office's activities, each bureau and administrative office, such as the Judge Advocate General and the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), produced reports concerning its own specific activities. The Annual Reports for the Navy Department for the Year 1898 consists of two volumes of administrative reports by the bureaus and "independent" offices and a separate volume, Appendix to the Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, relating to "fleet" and other operational components of the navy in the war with Spain. The main volume consists of orders, maps, statistical summaries, and battle reports. The appendix contains the list of officers and enlisted men killed, drowned, and saved from the USS Maine and the findings of the United States and Spanish naval courts of inquiry concerning the destruction of the Maine. It also includes battle reports, orders, and other documentation relating to operations of the U.S. naval forces in Cuban waters and the Philippines. These printed reports compiled as the "appendix" were extracted and transcribed from the General Correspondence File, 1897–1926 (Entry 19), General Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Record Group 80. All the entries include the "Sec. Nav." file number.

Archival Research

Records in the custody of the National Archives are divided into "record groups," which maintain the same arrangement the creating agency used. Conducting research at the National Archives and Records Administration can be quite challenging, especially for first-time researchers. The depth of research depends on the researcher and the topic. The Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States is the first step for individuals conducting research on broad subjects, particular agencies, or getting general information on the holdings of the National Archives. It is available at most large reference and university libraries and is also available online through the "Research Room" section of the NARA home page on the World Wide Web at Descriptions include administrative histories, record types (i.e., general correspondence, photographs), and dates covered. The Guide also provides the next step for archival research by listing the pertinent inventories for individual record groups.

An "inventory" is a listing designed to tell the researcher both the quantity and nature of the records in a particular record group. Inventories contain a brief administrative history of the agency in question and a series-by-series description of the records. Inventories may also list related records available in other record groups (and in some cases, other repositories) and records that have been made into National Archives microfilm publications. Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (Record Group 24) even lists the "Chiefs of the Bureau of Naval personnel and of the Predecessor Bureau of Navigation, 1862–1959" (p. 4), and the Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Record Group 38) includes as an appendix a "List of the First Naval Attachés, 1882–1919" (p. 105).

One important source not to be overlooked is the Guide to Materials on Latin America in the National Archives of the United States, compiled by George S. Ulibarri and John P. Harrison. It includes descriptions of various naval record groups that contain information or documentation on a variety of subjects relating to the Spanish-American War. The guide is arranged by branch or function of government, thereunder by record group. A subject index is included at the back of the volume.

Records Description

This section describes record groups and pertinent finding aids relating to naval activities during the Spanish-American War. Many significant series of records are available as National Archives microfilm publications. All National Archives microfilm publications are listed in National Archives Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog.

Record Group 19, Records of the Bureau of Ships

Finding Aid: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Ships (1961).

(Bureau of Construction and Repair, 1898; Bureau of Equipment, 1898)

Functions in 1898: Responsible for ship designs, building, fitting, and repairing all U.S. Navy ships and ship equipment.

These records relate to the design and construction of U.S. naval battleships and auxiliary craft. Some general correspondence files concern steel construction of ships and include blueprints and specifications. One of the entries, "Returns of the New York (December 1898–September 1900)" includes cruising information, places sailed, weather conditions, and information on the physical features of the flagship of the North Atlantic Station, which was commanded by Capt. William T. Sampson.

Other series include information on coaling stations and coaling equipment, in particular the U.S. naval coaling stations at Honolulu, Hawaii (1885-1899), and Pichilingus Harbor, La Paz, Mexico (1885–1897). One fascinating series, "Records Relating to Homing Pigeons (1896 - 1899)," contains, in addition to correspondence to the U.S. Navy Department, sample packets of pigeon food and one packet labeled "feces." These packets were sent by pigeon experts in Dijon, France, to show the quality of carrier pigeon produced in that region. (The navy experimented with the idea of using messenger pigeons especially for ship-to-ship service.)

Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel

(Note: To avoid duplication, this segment will not discuss records relating to U.S. Navy personnel since "Genealogy Notes" in this issue will cover records relating to individuals.)

Finding Aid: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (1960).

(Bureau of Navigation, 1898)

Functions in 1898: Responsible for personnel, i.e., recruiting training, staffing (enlisted men and officers), and movement/operations of ships. Perhaps the most powerful bureau within the naval establishment during the war with Spain, the Bureau of Navigation had jurisdiction over personnel decisions of the Department of the Navy, including those relating to officers, enlisted men, and civilians who worked for the department. It administered the United States Naval Academy, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Coast Signal Service.

A very popular series records is the "Logs of United States Naval Ships and Stations. 1801–1946." The National Archives has custody of all deck logs of U.S. Navy ships commissioned during the Spanish-American War. Deck logs and station logs were standardized records maintained by a specific ship or shore unit. They include a daily narrative of the unit's activity and record weather and hydrographical data. They were usually handwritten by the officer of the day. Each log begins with the name and rank of the officers and the dates covered by the log.

Generally, the more active the ship or station, the more information is provided. In some cases, especially during action or by accident, the deck log was lost. Most notably, the deck log of the USS Maine was lost in the explosion in Havana Harbor, Cuba, February 15, 1898. A few of the Spanish-American War-era ships whose deck logs are in the custody of the National Archives are USS New York, USS Iowa, USS Marblehead, USS Brooklyn, USS Texas, USS Montgomery, USS Oregon, USS Massachusetts, and the USS Olympia. Logs were gathered together and bound, and each volume consists of two or three years of entries. Researchers will find an abundance of information in these logs including narratives of battles; instructions; orders; ship movements; ordnance, cargo, and personnel (including, in some cases, Spanish prisoners of war) taken aboard; and other documented day-to-day activities of navy commissioned ships.

The best source to locate the names of the ship and shore units whose logs are in the custody of the National Archives is Special List #44, List of Logbooks of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Miscellaneous Stations, 1801–1947. Special List #44 lists all ship and shore units alphabetically with the accompanying years covered by the logs.

Beginning in 1885, the Navy Department created a general file by registering incoming and outgoing correspondence with a serial number, which was then registered with the date received or sent, the file number, name of correspondent, subject, and action taken.5 In the series "General Correspondence, 1889–1913," can be found a variety of actions and decisions made by the bureau chief (Arent Schuyler Crowninshield in 1898) concerning ships, shore establishments, and men. To locate specific documentation for the year 1898 in this series, a researcher would have to examine another entry," Subject Registers of Letters Sent and Received ("Correspondence/Subjects"), 1896–1902" (8 volumes), which is arranged by the subjects "Persons, Vessels, Miscellaneous."6 The registers give the name of the subject, division, brief (description of incoming correspondence), writer, number, and action taken. If a researcher knows that an officer on the USS Iowa was transferred in 1898 to the USS Brooklyn, it is possible, for example, to search under the officer's name to locate the orders that sent him to the Brooklyn.

Among the records of the general correspondence file is an interesting file concerning Commodore George Dewey. It acknowledges the receipt of multiple telegrams from Secretary of the Navy John Long announcing Dewey's rank as "admiral": "Hoist flag as Admiral— (signed) Long." Another telegram passes congratulations from President McKinley, Congress, and the entire Department of Navy to Dewey on his promotion to admiral.7 Other subjects within the registers include the names of executives of the U.S. governrnent, foreign dignitaries, and heads of state.

Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations

Finding Aid: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (1966).

(Office of Naval Intelligence, 1898; Office of Naval Records and Library, 1898)

Functions in 1898: Responsibilities for the Office of Naval Intelligence included the collection of technical and scientific data on foreign navies, usually by written reports and newspaper clippings compiled by the various naval attachés staffing European posts. This office was placed administratively under the Bureau of Navigation when war was declared.

Intelligence and intelligence-gathering activities conducted by the U.S. Navy in the war with Spain were adequate, at the least. Naval attachés stationed at U.S. consular posts abroad and commercial agents acting on behalf of the department or the U.S. government forwarded information to the department.8 This information was transmitted in the form of letters, reports, cables, or messages (sometimes in code); analyzed for content; and disseminated to appropriate offices within the department or passed onto other U.S. government agencies whose interests were represented.

Letters from attachés in RG 38 are bound into twenty-five volumes covering the period October 28, 1882–December 29, 1900 (entry 90). These "letterbooks" are arranged by the name of post, including the name of the naval attaché stationed there, thereunder chronologically. The volumes covering the period of the Spanish-American War are:

  • London (October 28, 1882–March 31, 1900), 9 volumes.
  • Berlin, Rome, and Vienna (January 10, 1889–September 29, 1900), 6 volumes.
  • Paris and St. Petersburg (September 6, 1892–May 30, 1900), 6 volumes.
  • Tokyo, Madrid, London, Paris, and St. Petersburg (January 5, 1895–December 29, 1900), 1 volume.9

Many of these letters include enclosures such as newspaper clippings, technical pamphlets, maps, charts, summaries, and diagrams. These letterbooks are a great source of information concerning foreign navies and merchant fleets, foreign technological developments, and in some instances, the attitude of a particular country towards the United States. They are indexed by a separate series of registers arranged by year, thereunder by subject (entry 89).

Communications from the department to naval attachés are also available in this record group. "Cable Correspondence with U.S. Naval Attachés During the Spanish-American War (January 20, 1898–November 1, 1900)" consists of letters, cables, and instructions from the secretary of the navy to attachés stationed at London, Rome, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and Madrid. This series is arranged by post, thereunder chronologically, and consists of letters, bound in two volumes, detailing some of the actions the U.S. Navy took leading up to the actual declaration of war. Many of these letters are the instructions sent by Secretary Long and Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt during March 1898 requesting information on Spain's naval preparations for possible war. Another topic with which the department concerned itself was the condition, preparation, and movements of the Spanish fleet. Accordingly, cables and letters are included in this series, instructing the naval attachés to provide related intelligence. One cablegram, written by Roosevelt to the U.S. attaché in Madrid, Spain, urged caution while instructing him to keep fully abreast of the situation:

Alusna, Madrid.
March 5, 1898

Keep informed state of affairs and report fully by navy secret code preparation and movement Spanish navy. Exercise discretion.

Roosevelt 10

The Navy Department was also concerned about its own overall readiness for a possible war with Spain. Researchers can find a wealth of information in this series concerning the various steps taken by the department such as the purchasing of guns, ordnance, and other weaponry.

Record Group 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library

Finding Aid: Preliminary Checklist of the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library (1945).

(Office of Naval Records and Library, 1898)

Functions in 1898: Administered the Navy Department Library; continued the publication and distribution of the Official Records of The War of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

The records collected by the Office of Naval Records and Library cover the period 1775–1927 and document virtually every aspect of U.S. Navy history. The scope and depth makes it the most important record group for the study of U.S. naval history for the nineteenth century. Researchers who intend to study the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American are strongly urged to start with this record group. The records that make up this collection were gleaned from other naval bureaus, offices, boards, and functions. They were placed into an artificial filing scheme created by the navy's historical section between the years 1923 and 1942.11 Two series are especially important.

Entry 464, Subject File, 1775–1910. These records are arranged by an alpha-subject designation. An index lists the subject designations and the titles of the files in chronological order. All of the individual files are either in folders or envelopes, each clearly labeled with the contents and dates of the records inside. Information relating to the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War is scattered among these records. Some of the file designations and accompanying document titles are:

File HA (Engagement with Enemy Vessels)

  • "July 3,1898, Description of Battle of Santiago written by Lt. Thomas A. Kearney immediately after battle."
  • "1898, Battle of Manila Bay—miscellaneous material. Also, a translation of a Spanish book relating to the battle."
  • "July 3,1898, Spanish Account of the Battle of Santiago, Cuba. List of Spanish Personnel included."

File HF (Fires, Explosions, Etc.)

  • "Correspondence Relating to the loss of the USS Maine."

File O1 (Reports of Inspection—U.S. Ships)

File OO (Operations of Large Groups of vessels)

These are the operational records of the fleet and squadron components of the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War, including auxiliary crafts. Some of the document titles include:

  • "1898, Battles and Capitulation of Santiago, Cuba, including data concerning the sinking of the USS Maine from a Spanish point of view."
  • "Activities of the German Squadron in Manila Bay, told by Chief Boatswain Ernest Heilman. Other data relative to Dewey and the German Fleet."
  • "1898, Diary of Commodore George Dewey (Manila Campaign, January 1898–May 1898), (photostat)."
  • "1898, Narrative of Manila Campaign, preparation at Hong Kong—Battle of Manila Bay, enforcement of blockade and operations resulting in the surrender of Manila."

Under the file designation VN (Naval Policy), there are two attaché reports concerning the effects or influence the Spanish-American War had on Europe, in particular, Germany and Great Britain. One report, dated September 16, 1899, written by U.S. naval attaché to Great Britain Lt. Comdr. John C. Colwell, concluded with the remark that, in respect to Her Majesty's Navy, the late war was of little interest since the "professional aspects" and outcome were already known. The second report, dated October 30, 1899, written by U.S. naval attaché to Germany Comdr. William H. Beehler, concerns the effect of the war on German naval policy. It discusses such topics as ship design, armored coast defense vessels, cruisers, and communications (telegraph). These two files reveal some general prevailing attitudes of Europe's navies to that of the U.S. Navy after the end of hostilities.12

Entry 464, Area File, August 1775–December 1910. These records are arranged by geographic region, thereunder chronologically. The geographic divisions are further divided into eleven subdivisions. These records have been microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M625, Area File of the Naval Records Collection, 1775–1910 (414 rolls). The descriptive pamphlet accompanying M625 contains the administrative history of the collection; a description of the geographic locations or areas, including date or time period covered; a map of the divided areas; and a roll-by-roll list of contents.

Two examples of the kind of documentation found in this collection are the famous "Sigsbee Telegram," written while the Maine's captain, Charles Sigsbee, was aboard the SS City of Washington, informing the department of the explosion of his vessel, February 15, 1898 (Area #8), and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt's instructions (in code) to Commodore Dewey to take action against the Spanish fleet in Mirs (Manila) Bay, April 1898 (Area #10).

Record Group 52, Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

Finding Aid: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (1948).

(Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 1898)

Functions in 1898: One of the original bureaus since 1842, it concerned itself with naval medicine, including the overall health and welfare of officers and enlisted men of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. It administered U.S. Navy ship and shore medical facilities.

As the title indicates, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was the medical arm of the naval establishment in 1898. Included in this record group are personnel-related series, including individual personnel histories of medical officers; records relating to the history of naval medicine; and a general correspondence file, 1885–1912, which has an alphabetical subject index. Under the subject heading, "Maine, USS, Disaster the," researchers can locate records relating to casualty lists, lists of survivors, Marine Corps casualties, final disposition of survivors, permission from the secretary of the navy for the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to give copies of death certificates to next-of-kin, and death certificates forwarded to the commissioner of pensions.13

A thin volume entitled "Casualty Book—War with Spain" includes a statistical summary of total strength, casualties from battle, deaths from battle, and deaths from all causes. The volumes contain an alphabetical listing of men, nativity (residence or origin), where enlisted, and date and place of death. In the back of the volume is an envelope that contains correspondence concerning both U.S. Navy and Marine Corps casualties in the war with Spain. Some of the documents are annotated with additional names and dates of death. The volume and accompanying correspondence are dated 1903.14

Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947

Finding Aid: Preliminary Checklist of the General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1804–1944 (1945).

(Office of the Secretary of the Navy, 1898)

Functions in 1898: The secretary of the navy (John D. Long in 1898) has charge of all duties connected with the U.S. Naval Establishment including setting policy, creating and abolishing boards, and fiscal matters.

The records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy were filed numerically by subject for the period of the Spanish-American War. The "General Correspondence File, January 1897–August 1926," has an index, arranged alphabetically by name or subject. It is available on microfilm as National Archives Microfilm Publication M1052, General and Special Indexes to the General Correspondence of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, July 1897–August 1926 (119 rolls). This publication's descriptive pamphlet contains an administrative history, notes on recordkeeping practices of the Navy Department in the late nineteenth century, and a roll-by-roll list of contents. Appendix B of the preliminary inventory for RG 80 contains an alphabetical list of the main subject headings in the file (entry 19), 1897–1926. Since the records were maintained by the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, information on a wide variety of subjects ranging from personnel actions within the department to shipbuilding programs in the navy's many shipyards may be found in this series.

The Naval War Board, a policy organization whose members were Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Adm. Montgomery Sicard, Capt. Arent S. Crowninshield, and Capt. Albert S. Barker, was crucial in providing coherent strategy and war planning for the navy in the war with Spain.15 Under this file heading are handwritten references to five documents whose titles are "Spanish Vessels" (file 7332-3-9), "Light Buoys" (file 7736), "Coaling Stations" (file 6951-6), "Papers from Board" (file 8153), and "Dept. directs Capt. A. T. Mahan to prepare a history of the work of the Board: The Causes leading to its organization, etc., etc., for the General Board" (file 22132). A further annotation remarks that this last document was filed in the records of the General Board. The records of the General Board (1900–1951), also part of RG 80, contain the original manuscript of "History of Naval War Board, 1898," written by Alfred T. Mahan in 1906. Attached to the manuscript are letters written by Captain Mahan to former Secretary of the Navy John D. Long and other members of the Naval War Board and a letter from the president of the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, dated January 26, 1940, requesting a copy of Mahan's work for the college. No organized body of records exists for the Naval War Board, however.16

Examples of other documentation in RG 80 are records of various boards commissioned during the Spanish-American War including the Board on Construction, 1889–1909, and the Board on Auxiliary Vessels, 1898. Records of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Theodore Roosevelt during the period, April 1897–May 1898) also exist. There are eight volumes of letters sent by Roosevelt to other officers of the navy and to private and public individuals. Many letters relate to the formation of the First U.S. Cavalry ("Rough Riders"), the unit he and Col. Leonard Wood formed after he resigned from the position of assistant secretary in May 1898. Letters sent to the attaché in London concern the purchase of naval war stores and auxiliary vessels, and letters to various congressmen concern the push for naval preparedness. 17

Record Group 313, Records of Naval Operating Forces

Finding Aid: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of Naval Operating Forces (1963).

(Bureau of Navigation, 1898)

Functions in 1898: Responsible for ship operations and movements. Records of the components of the U.S. Fleet include North Atlantic Squadron, Eastern Squadron, Asiatic Squadron, European Squadron, and the Flying Squadron (1898).

Researchers examining the finding aid for RG 313 will find that the records described within its pages are almost exclusively of Spanish-American War vintage. There is a wealth of documentation concerning operations of the fleet, including squadrons and flotillas. Included are operational reports, journals, orders, and instructions issued by commanders of the various naval forces for the Spanish-American War. Historically, the Navy Department operated five geographically organized squadrons from immediately after the Civil War until 1906–1907: North Atlantic Squadron, European Squadron, Asiatic Squadron, Pacific Squadron, and Training Squadron.18 Accordingly, the records are arranged by squadrons thereunder by type of record and date. Included in this record group is the journal of Rear Adm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Squadron, March–August, 1898. Reports of action during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba can be found in the journal.

There are records of the "Flying Squadron," commanded by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, March 28–November 11, 1898, and records of the United States Auxiliary Naval Force, 1898, which had been organized for the coastal defense of the United States. Other series include correspondence with bureaus of the Navy Department (entry 47) and correspondence with Commodore John C. Watson (entry 51) and Commodore George C. Remey (entry 53). These series are letters sent to the officers by other commanders in the field and the Navy Department in Washington, D.C.

These are examples of the kinds of documentation available in the National Archives relating to the U.S. Navy in the "Age of Empire." There is much more. Some of the record groups not covered in this essay include

  • Record Group 37, Records of the Hydrographic Office;
  • Record Group 71, Records of the Bureau of Yards and Docks;
  • Record Group 74, Records of the Bureau of Ordnance;
  • Record Group 125, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy);
  • Record Group 127, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps;
  • Record Group 143, Records of the Bureau of Supply and Accounts (Navy);
  • and Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments.

Researchers are encouraged to explore these sources as well.

One final note for researchers to keep in mind: as mentioned previously, many records in these record groups were removed and placed in Record Group 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library. If records cannot be found in the above record groups, chances are they were refiled in RG 45.

Archival research takes time and patience. Both staff and scholars have compared it to detective work. It is important to remember that this kind of research is a layered process, going from the general to the specific. One of the best strategies for archival research is to know and understand the secondary sources relating to a topic before consulting primary documents. Checking footnotes and bibliographies cited by other authors and specialists in the field may help individuals open doors into the world of archival research. The "Suggested Readings" list contains several excellent secondary works concerning U.S. naval operations during the Spanish-American War written in the past thirty years.

Researchers are also encouraged to consult with the NARA reference staff archivists who are familiar with the pertinent records and finding aids relating to the U.S. Naval Establishment at the turn of the century. NARA archivists who work with military records can help map out research strategies for prospective researchers.19 Letters of introduction and intention are especially useful prior to a visit to the Archives.

This is not the first time a call has been made for more research in this period of U.S. naval history. David F. Trask, in his essay entitled "Research Opportunities in the Spanish-Cuban-American War and World War I," delivered at the National Archives Conference on Naval History, May 29–31, 1974, concluded with "a plea for efforts to stimulate use of the National Archives collections (for this period)." He further stated that, "if and when these sources are properly exploited, we will assuredly process more of the illusive 'new naval History,' about which we hear so much and which indeed is attainable in our time."20 These words echo as loudly today as they did when he first issued the call twenty-three years ago.

Richard W. Peuser is an archivist with the Old Military and Civil Unit, specializing in U.S. Navy and maritime records for the period 1775 - 1940. He is a contributing author to the volume, Historical Dictionary of the Spanish-American War (1996).


The author would like to thank David Langbart, Rebecca A. Livingston, Trevor K. Plante, Tim Nenninger, Angie VanDereedt, and Dr. Anne C. Venzon for their helpful suggestions.

1. The poem was printed in a local newspaper. It was clipped and attached to a letter from Miller, who further states that it "conveys the general attitude of all the miners in camp at Denver, Idaho." J. L. Miller to John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy, June 12, 1898, entry 19 General Correspondence of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, July 1897–August 1926, file #4950-6, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947, Record Group 80, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG___, NARA)

2. Alan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense (1984), p. 269.

3. Navy Department, Appendix to the Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (1898), pp. 33–34.

4. Russell E. Weigley, The American Way of War (1973), p.186.

5. Virgil E. Baugh, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, PI 123 (1960), p.5.

6. Ibid., pp. 28, 32–33.

7. Dewey to Long, Mar. 3, 1899, entry 88, General Correspondence of the Bureau of Navigation, 1896–1903, file #163314, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, RG 24, NARA.

8. Wyman H. Packard, A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence (1996), p.42.

9. Harry Schwartz, Kenneth E. Bartlett and Lyman Hinckley, comps., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Chief of Naval Operations, NM 63 (1996), p.8.

10. Roosevelt to Lt. George L. Dyer, U.S. naval attaché, Madrid, Mar. 5, 1898, entry 100, Cable Correspondence with U.S. Naval Attachés During the Spanish-American War, Jan. 20, 1898–Nov. 1, 1900, Vol. 1, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38, NARA. The term ALUSNA is the cable address for U.S. naval attachés posted abroad. ;It stands for "American Legation United States Naval Attaché."

11. Mabel Deutrich, "'Cognizance' over Navy Department Records," in Versatile Guardian, Research in Naval History, ed. Richard A. von Doenhoff (1979), pp. 12–13. The Department of the Navy's Historical Section went to other historical depositories, libraries, and in some cases, private individuals or their estates and collected documents (originals and photostats) to complement the holdings. In the case of the Area File, they collected pre-1775 records.

12. Entry 464, Subject File, 1775–1910,"VN" (Naval Policy), Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, RG 45, NARA.

13. Entry 13, Index to the General Correspondence File, 1896–December 1925, Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, RG 52, NARA.

14. Entry 36, Casualty Lists—Spanish-American War (1903), ibid.

15. David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (1981), pp. 88–89.

16. James R. Masterson, comp., Preliminary Check-list of the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, PC 30 (1945), p. 73. Although there are some records relating to the Naval War Board, including letters and telegrams sent, April–August, 1898, and some letters found in the Sec. Nav. correspondence file (RG 80, entry 19) they are incomplete or fragmentary at best. A typewritten copy of the "History of the Naval War Board, 1898," is filed under the "ON" (strategy and tactics) designation in the Subject File, 1775–1910, entry 464, RG 45.

17. Entry 124, Letters Sent and Memoranda Issued, March 1893–December 1911, Theodore Roosevelt (April 1897–May 1898), vols. 1–8, RG 80, NARA.

18. Harry Schwartz, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of Naval Operating Forces, NM 18 (1963), p. 1.

19. Researchers should also check the Naval Historical Center and the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. The records of the Naval War College (NWC), which are located at the Naval War College, Newport, RI, are important for studying U.S. naval strategy during the Spanish- American War.

20. David F. Trask, "Research Opportunities in the Spanish-Cuban-American War and World War I," in Versatile Guardian, p. 183.

Suggested Readings

Bradford, James C., ed. Admirals of the New Steel Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1880–1930. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

———. Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War & Its Aftermath. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Cooling, Benjamin Franklin. Gray Steel and Blue Water Navy: The Formative Years of America's Military-Industrial Complex, 1881–1917. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1979.

Dowart, Jeffrey M. Office of Naval Intelligence. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1979.

Herrick, Walter, Jr. The American Naval Revolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

Karsten, Peter. The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism. New York: Free Press, 1972.

O'Toole, G.J.A. The Spanish War. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984.

Shulimson, Jack. The Marine Corps' Search for a Mission, 1880–1898. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993.

Spector, Ronald. Admiral of a New Empire: The Life and Career of George Dewey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

A number of scholarly articles and essays relating to the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War make use of National Archives Records. The following journals and periodicals are good places to search for such articles.

Journal of Military History, January 1989– (formerly the Journal of the American Military History Foundation, 1937–1938).

Journal of the American Military Institute, 1939–1940.

Military Affairs, 1941–1988.

Naval History, April 1987– .

Naval War College Review, September 1948– .


[Dec.7, 2017 - corrected beginning year for RG 45, Entry 464, to 1775.]


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.