Pandemic Relief: The Spanish American War Campaign.

This is a tale that goes back a bit, at the end of the summer as we knew the Dave Schueler front yard tent series was coming to an end. John Gee and I both purchased David Manley’s set of campaign rules for the Spanish American War. I was accumulating 1/1250 ships for both sides and John had an ample collection of the 1/1000 scale Houston’s Ships models for the period. As summer turned into fall we made noises about doing the campaign game. We asked Dave if he’d be willing to moderate, he said yes and we were on.

We wrapped up the campaign on Sunday February 21st. The Americans won. That’s me. But that isn’t really the story. The story is really about what we did during the pandemic to bring some rationality to what is a truly challenging situation for the socially deprived miniature wargamer.

We began the campaign at the end of October, just as Dave’s summer game series was coming to a close. The weather had turned so gaming outside in his tent was no longer an option. Sharp increases in the rate of infection in our state, counties and the United States in general made an in-door gaming event or series of events impossible. Add to that John, who lives in the Sound-side city of Bellingham lives 122 miles from my South Hill home at the foot of Mount Rainier.

Throughout the summer we chatted up rules and campaigns, and we played some games from the pre-dreadnaught era on the table. We took a look at a couple of David Manley’s naval campaign rule sets from Long Face Games. We settled on Splendid Little War, Manley’s game for the Spanish American War. There were some good reasons for choosing that over a different campaign, like White Bear Red Sun, again by David Manley on the Russo-Japanese War. John had piles of the old Houston’s Ships range for the conflict in 1/1000 scale ready to go, so if we could get together so be it. Honestly, I think John was desperate to play something, so he volunteered to be Spanish-a gift of unimaginable generosity.

One of two campaign maps for Splendid Little War. The other is of the Asia theater. But most of the action happened here.

Let me chat up the rules for just a minute. If you’re interested in a campaign for this period, Splendid Little War is up your alley. There are maps and ship lists, a time line and reinforcements, coastal defense details and repair schedules, mission and combat details. David really has thought it through well. The campaign also includes the Broadside and Salvo miniatures rules. We agreed to stick with Manley’s Fire When Ready (yes, we’re Manley Men in the Pacific Northwest.) We agreed they were easy to play and and had a nice mix of cumulative and critical damage that just spoke to us. Some rules are simply punishment to play, and these do not fit that description.

Dave agreed to GM the show, I took the Americans. The show must go on.

Anyone who knows anything about the Spanish-American War, even as little as yours truly, knows after the declaration of war, the American Asiatic Fleet under Commodore Dewey descended on the antiquated Spanish fleet under Admiral Patricio Montojo in Manila Bay and like a cloud of hungry locusts literally chewed his wooden ships down to the water line. Never one to dispute greatness, I attempted to do the same in turn one.

Game on. But how and where would we get it done? The infection rates skyrocketed. I offered to host the game at my place. The garage had recently been cleaned out and it would be easy to host a Manila Bay game on a 7’6″ X 6′ table. We set a date. We’d play in my garage with the door closed on November 12th. As the date approached and the infection rates climbed we canceled. I agreed to open the garage door. No problem, the weather was mild but moist. We should be good. December 12th. Ugh. I gave details here. The upshot was the Americans again flogged the Spanish. But not so fast. John didn’t Montojo. He sheltered his fleet under Manila’s significant batteries. He lost his fleet, but it cost me the gunboat Concord, which is one of my favorites and has ties to the Seattle area. Gah!!

Turn one also included the blockade of Havana. The USS Oregon began her long journey around the Pacific coast to the Caribbean. Admiral Sampson took the other American battleships and cruisers on a tour of southern Cuba and laid waste the port facilities at Cienfuegos.

Turn two was mostly fencing, as the Spanish continued to ready their fleet for combat. The Spanish navy begins largely unprepared for war and they’re required to take some time to scrub the bilges and scrape off the barnacles. (Actually a problem because so much their fleet is wooden-hulled.) Arguably their best ship, Cristobal Colon, built in Italy, arrived without its main armament installed. Bad news

For the Americans, however, time is money. The Havana blockade was reinforced. An American fleet bombarded the coastal defenses of Santiago, Cuba. Batteries there had the temerity to damage the Iowa, but things were left pretty sloppy in the port. A second American fleet bombarded Guantanamo Bay. More ships left San Francisco for the Philippines, and the Oregon continued its long southward journey.

Turn 3 found the Americans beginning to get nervous. The Philippines were secure, but there was an understanding that soon there could be a pile of fairly decent Spanish ships arriving in the Caribbean from Spain. When would they show up. I had to keep the Atlantic coast free from marauding Spaniards. Victory conditions demanded I act aggressively against potential targets. I sent out a fleet with a convoy of troops to attack Puerto Rico and bombard the forts guarding San Juan. Convoys pop up on the game’s reinforcement track on specific turns. I could hold them and let them molder away in Tampa, or I could send them to Puerto Rico to plant the Stars N’ Stripes. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, American ships patrolling the area south of Florida made a an encounter with a Spanish ship. Unfortunately, it got away. It was the wooden cruiser Reina Mercedes and would have been matchwood in an engagement, but it was faster than my slow gunboats.

Turn 4 got really interesting as the Spanish armored cruiser squadron showed up in the Grand Bahama Banks. We each took a closer look. The Spanish ships were Cevera’s armored cruisers: Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, Cristobal Colon, Carlos V, and Almirante Oquendo accompanied by a torpedo boat flotilla. My ships were battleships Massachusetts and Iowa, almost a battleship Texas, armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn, protected cruiser New Orleans, gunboats Helena and Dolphin also trailed by a torpedo boat flotilla. The Spanish are large and imposing, but most importantly they’re fast. The American orders are always “We’ll shoot it out here,” but the Spanish survival instinct kicked in before shots could be exchanged and they disappeared into the mist.

But wait, there’s more. There were two further incidents that didn’t turn out as well for the Spanish on the blockade lines. One of our problems was knowing that if there was an encounter that turned into a battle, hence a game opportunity, we didn’t know quite how we’d work it out. Distance and the height of the pandemic in January made it all really difficult. Dave just kind of worked it out. What were the ships involved? What were our intentions? Were we going to fight or run? What were chances of pursuit? He basically walked through Fire When Ready and kept us updated through a series of PowerPoints. I’ll share the PowerPoints as things go along here.

At San Juan, the Spanish sortied and attacked the very small American blockading force. the result was some damage to the American cruiser Minneapolis, but the merchant cruiser Patriota and the gunboat Concha were sunk, the cruiser Isabel II was badly damaged, but the merchant cruiser Rapido escaped unharmed.

Another action occurred on the blockade line at Havana. Spanish cruisers Alfonso XII , Venadito and Isla de Ensenada, accompanied by gunboat Alvarado and two flotillas of torpedo boats attacked the American blockading force. This consisted of battleship Indiana, cruisers Cincinnati, Detroit, Columbia, Marblehead, a torpedo boat flotilla and the monitor Terror. This time, though outnumbered and out-gunned, the Spanish inflicted some serious damage on the cruisers Detroit and Cincinnati, though the outcome was not exactly a Spanish victory.

Turn 4 secured San Juan and Havana from attacks from the harbor, at least in the short term. But both blockades would require reinforcement. Now that Cervera was loose in the Caribbean, the game, for me at least, became a cat and mouse game. The five armored cruisers were a game changer. They could attack the Atlantic seaboard. They could threaten either of the blockades. Though I’d been pretty cautious about deploying the Navy’s pile o’ monitors outside of harbor defense, they had taken station on the blockade line during the historical conflict, so they were pushed out to help with keeping a lid on things. Terror had already shown its mettle in sinking gunboat Alvarado in Havana.

Meanwhile, I divided the fleet into a Task Force Sampson and a Task Force Schley named for the two American Admirals available to me. For turn 5 I did my best to screen the Havana blockade to the west and perhaps sail to Cienfuegos to catch Cervera. Schley’s job was to watch approaches to Tampa, Miami and the Atlantic Coast to the East. The San Juan blockade, furthest out on the proverbial limb, was strengthened with more cruisers and the addition of monitors Puritan and Miantanomah, and the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius. Indiana joined Task Force Sampson, but was replaced on the Havana blockade line by the monitor Amphitrite and the gunboat Annapolis.

Turn 5 had only one encounter. Task Force Sampson and Cervera had a tete a tete in the North Yucatan Passage (NYP.) Cervera had his force of five armored cruisers, but Sampson had battleships Indiana, Massachusetts, Iowa and armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn and a couple of gunboats. What ensued was a wild chase southward as the Spanish tried to escape to a friendly port. Sampson turned loose his armored cruisers and a bruising brawl followed Cervera south.

This was a tricky action for Dave to conduct because it included multiple phases and Dave had to be in contacted with each player after each five turn increment. Did we want to continue, did we want to break off, did we want to change our fire? Though heavily outnumbered, the two American ships had some distinct advantages. Speed was equal, but armament was not. The Spanish ships could muster a main armament of ten guns if they turned to face the Yanquis. Except for the Colon, they weren’t really good guns and they had Poor Spanish crews. Firing at long range, that’s a double penalty. The American also had pretty lousy main guns, but they had ten of them firing forward. A hit from the Brooklyn could be devastating. Carlos V suffered a devastating fire. Vizcaya was wrecked by shellfire. Both American cruisers were damaged and would make their way to port for a week of repairs.

Turn 6, though Cervera was weakened, the cat and mouse game continued. The troop convoy headed for the Philippines arrived in Manila Bay with additional naval units. Ships were sent from the Philippines to Guam to demand the surrender of that isolated island post. The Oregon, having reached Key West at the end of turn 5, strengthened Task Force Schley. In Tampa things were made ready for the first troop convoy to Cuba that would set sail in Turn 7. Depleted, Sampson played defense in the North Yucatan Passage while Schley kept an eye on things in the Grand Bahama Banks. President McKinley, deciphering some handwriting that may be emerging, offered peace terms to the Spanish. Prime Minister Mateo Sagasta y Escolar declined.

Cervera struck, not entirely unexpectedly, the San Juan blockade. It was the most distant, and vulnerable, American target. Cristobal Colon, Infante Maria Teresa and Almirante Oquendo were able to take advantage of conditions and descend on the blockaders in somewhat disordered formation at medium range. The American fleet consisted of the original American cruiser Atlanta, protected cruiser San Francisco, barely-a-cruiser Montgomery, not-even-a-cruiser Vesuvius, and the two monitors Puritan and Miantonomoh. However the blockaders once again had the preponderance of heavy guns. Together, the Spanish could muster six. The monitors, while not intended for a sea fight, were nasty. The Puritan, with its heavy armor and main battery of four 12-inch guns was a challenge. While not as formidable, as Puritan, Miantonomoh had four 10-inch guns, and Atlanta could throw in two 8-inch guns. In secondary guns it was a much closer contest, but the Americans could offer 16 four to six inch guns, to Cervera’s 15. The American fleet was brittle, but it would be no walk in the park.

It was a nail-biter. Dave communicated effectively over the course of two days with John and I. In my mind, it was a Waterloo moment, a near run thing in which “Night or the Prussians must come.” It was a Taffy 3 instance in which a smaller force was tasked with doing something desperate. But in the end it came down to Puritan, Miantonomoh, San Francisco and Atlanta dishing out more than the Spanish could take. Little Montgomery was sunk and San Francisco nearly so, but Cervera was wrecked and the blockade preserved. There would be monitors in the American navy for another 50 years.

With Cuba about to be invaded, the Philippines and Guam secured, John called it good. He still had a few decent ships in Cadiz, but he had some fairly obsolete vessels as well. Best to head to the negotiating table before stronger neighbors decided to take advantage of Spain’s weakness.

In retrospect, yes the Americans won. Decisively, wasn’t close. The naval battles of the Spanish American War were mostly the same, though there were some smaller ones in San Juan and elsewhere that nobody ever heard of between small vessels that were much tighter and very interesting. However, it’s important to be fair. In this campaign John did quite well. At Manila he sank the Yorktown and significantly damaged the cruiser Raleigh. At first San Juan, he damaged the Minneapolis and forced it into port for a week of repairs. At Havana, he damaged Cincinnati and nearly sank Detroit. At Yucatan Pass he tossed New York AND Brooklyn in the shop for repairs, two very important ships. At second San Juan, he sank Montgomery and was within a gnat’s eyelash of taking down San Francisco. So however the campaign ended, John guided the forlorn Spanish through a miserable situation and outperformed history.

While I would much rather have played the games on the tabletop, the campaign was absorbing and interesting. It was fun to set up the tables in my garage and set up all the ships. It wasn’t until after Second San Juan I felt I could breathe easier. Thanks to John and Dave for the fun, and thanks to you reader for following along. Photos good, bad and indifferent are mine. Thanks to Dave Schueler for allowing me to use his PowerPoint slides. Thanks to David Manley for permission to use the cover of Splendid Little War.

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