The Reina Mercedes was a Spanish-American War prize

White-hulled landmark Spanish cruiser served as Naval Academy barracks ship for 45 years

  • Shown in 1952, the USS Reina Mercedes, a prize of the Spanish-American War, was docked at the Naval Academy for 45 years.
Shown in 1952, the USS Reina Mercedes, a prize of the Spanish-American… (Hans Marx, Baltimore Sun )
May 14, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

In a recent obituary, I mauled the spelling of a ship's name, the USS Reina Mercedes, which was a three-masted Spanish-American War prize that dated to 1887 and had been a fixture on the Naval Academy waterfront for decades.

It wasn't long before my inbox was swimming with emails regarding my mistake, and a few old salts even put pen to paper to let me know I had it wrong.

A number of academy graduates pointed out the error of my ways, and they were joined by Jeff Landaw, an eagle-eyed veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor and longtime colleague, who saw it after it was too late to spare me professional embarrassment.

Paul Noell, a City College graduate who was a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1952, wrote an informative email regarding the beloved old vessel.

"Each year, the incoming segment of Navy personnel becoming part of a new class of midshipmen would be billeted aboard the Reina Mercedes for a short while, before taking the oath that formalized its transition from enlisted status to the rank of midshipman (officer status)," he wrote. "I experienced that process as part of the incoming Class of 1952."

Art Wadsworth, who is a volunteer aboard Project Liberty Ship's SS John W. Brown, where he works in the engine room as an oiler, also sent an email.

"Only one little gripe. Reina Mercedes — not Arena Mercedes. Ending her career in Annapolis, she was known as the 'fastest' ship in the Navy due to the fact that she was permanently made 'fast' to the dock," he wrote.

Named for Queen Mercedes of Orleans, the first wife of Spanish King Alfonso XII, the ship was launched Sept. 12, 1887, at the naval shipyard in Cartagena, Spain.

The 275-foot iron-hulled cruiser was 42 feet wide, displaced 3,000 tons, and carried a crew of 370. The ship's hand-fired steam boilers generated 3,700 horsepower, which allowed it to steam at 171/2 knots. Its bunkers carried 500 tons of coal.

The vessel's armaments included six 160 mm guns, 11 smaller-caliber guns, machine guns on the forecastle and five torpedo tubes.

The Reina was stationed in Spanish waters before joining the Instructional Squadron in 1893. Two years later, the cruiser transferred to the Caribbean, and was eventually assigned as the personal flagship of Rear Adm. Pasqual Cervera and his Cuban squadron.

The Reina was anchored at the entrance of the port of Santiago de Cuba when the Spanish- American War broke out in 1898.

The ship was largely vulnerable; most of its guns and crew had been taken ashore to fortify and strengthen the harbor's ground defenses.

Its topmasts and yards had also been removed and the vessel's engines were useless because its aging boilers had become inoperable.

With its remaining armor, the guns of the Reina sprang to life along with those of shore batteries on June 3, 1898, when Lt. Richmond Pearson Hobson attempted to run the USS Merrimac aground.

In the subsequent attack, the Merrimac went to the bottom and Hobson and his seven men were taken prisoner aboard the Reina.

After American Marines invaded Cuba in early June, the Reina was severely damaged in eight attacks over the course of the month.

Due no doubt to the chaos of war reporting, The Sun erroneously reported June 8, 1898, that the Reina had been severely damaged and abandoned.

"A 13-inch shell from the Oregon landed squarely abaft the cruiser's pilot house and tore all her upper works to shreds," reported the newspaper.

"One of her officers, five sailors and a Marine were killed. A second lieutenant and sixteen seamen were severely wounded. A perfect shower of shell and shot fell upon and around the old cruiser, and she was so badly damaged that her crew, by orders of Admiral Cervera, abandoned her, and sought the shore for safety," according to an article in The Sun.

In a following day's story, based on a "semi-official note," The Sun again reported that warships under the command of Adm. William Thomas Sampson had sunk the Reina.

A general assault on Santiago commenced July 1, and two days later, after the destruction of Admiral Cervera's squadron, the commanding officer of the Reina was ordered to scuttle the ship at the harbor's narrow entrance, thus blocking access for American warships.

At midnight July 4, the battleships Indiana and Massachusetts detected the Reina being towed into position and opened fire.

A lucky shot fired from one of the battleships severed the towing line and the vessel then maneuvered out of the main channel, settling in shallow water with its upper works still visible.

In a dispatch dated July 7, The Sun reported that the vessel had been "run ashore" after the attack by the two battleships.

With the fall of Santiago on July 17, the scuttled vessel officially became a war prize, and in January 1899, salvage work began. Raised and badly leaking, it was towed to the Norfolk Navy Yard, where it arrived May 27.

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