A few days before he blew up the ship he commanded, thereby earning a Medal of Honor, Lieutenant Richmond Hobson wrote in his journal that he might die there in Santiago, Cuba. Even so, he felt nothing disquieting about the possibility. In fact, he said, “The mind and heart accepted the reality of things with deep, keen, exquisite delight.”
Such lofty thinking fit the aristocratic southerner to a tee. He seemed destined for some courageous act, seemed a veritable template for Victorian-era heroism with his clean-cut, broad-shouldered good looks and unshakable self-confidence.
An Alabama native, Hobson was born on a plantation called Magnolia Grove in Greensboro, in 1870. His maternal grandfather served many years as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. His father, as a Confederate officer, suffered wounds at Malvern Hill, Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania. Hobson grew up as a studious loner and authentic prodigy who was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis when he was 15.
His interest in steam engines and naval architecture led to an assignment in Washington and design work in various shipyards in the northeast. Peacetime advancement in rank seemed at a standstill, yet he appeared content in his career.
In early 1898, on the eve of a conflict with Spain, he was transferred to duty on the armored cruiser New York, the flagship of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, and the meeting between the 28-year-old lieutenant and the 58-year-old admiral was fateful. Sampson, arriving with his North Atlantic Fleet off the Cuban coast on June 1, needed a man who knew ship design inside and out and who could implement a daring scheme.
A squadron of the Spanish Grand Fleet—four cruisers and three destroyers—brought west from the Cape Verde Islands to the southeastern Cuban coast lay at anchor inside Santiago Harbor. Sampson intended to “bottle them up.” His plan, in collaboration with his ship construction expert, Hobson, was a seemingly suicidal venture. It required the harbor to be penetrated at night by a manned, unarmed vessel under the blazing searchlights and guns of shore batteries along the harbor channel as well as the enemy ships inside. Then, at a preplanned position that would prevent the Spanish warships from steaming out to sea, the American “blockship” would be scuttled athwart the channel, the crewmen who survived were to make their way ashore in a catamaran to await rescue—whether by friend or foe.
The admiral named Hobson to command the operation with seven sailor-volunteers as his crew, and the Merrimac, a decrepit 4,000-ton collier of Norwegian ancestry, was singled out from Sampson’s armada as the sacrificial vessel.
The mission got underway at flood tide on June 3, 1898, and problems arose from the start.
In the Santiago channel, enemy cannon and machine-gun fire disabled the Merrimac’s steering gear and anchor chains, leaving it to wallow and drift. Meantime, crewmen lashed 10 waterproof canisters of gunpowder to the portside hull a dozen feet below the waterline, to be detonated by electrical timer. Two of the canisters exploded just before a Spanish shell penetrated the hold and blew Merrimac’s boilers skyward. Torpedoes from the Spanish warships administered the coup de grâce.
Not only had the scuttling operation failed, but the Merrimac had drifted too far to serve as the cork in the bottle.
Hobson and his seven sailors clinging to the catamaran were picked up by a Spanish launch and taken to Santiago’s Morro Castle—it older namesake in Havana’s harbor—a fortress on a promontory overlooking the city. All were released on July 6, after the Spanish surrender.
On November 2, 1899, the six Merrimac crewmen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their conspicuous gallantry in the expedition. The Navy Medal of Honor continued to be awarded only to enlisted personnel until 1915.
A congressional resolution in 1901 promoted Hobson to captain, but with his eyesight failing, he resigned his commission in 1903. He later served four terms as a congressman from Alabama and campaigned to combat the growing threat of alcohol and narcotic addiction, a cause that occupied him as lecturer and author until his death.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Hobson the Medal of Honor for his command of the Merrimac mission 35 years earlier, and a year later he was promoted to rear admiral on the retired list.
Admiral Hobson died of a heart seizure on March 16, 1937, and was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery with a battalion of bluejackets firing a salute in his honor.
Dale L. Walker of El Paso, Texas, is a past-president of Western Writers of America, Inc., and author of many historical books and biographies.