The first action of the war was a small affair, but I shall mention it, as it was much talked about at the time. It took place on April 27th, a few days after our ships had begun the blockade. The Spaniards were building new forts at Matanzas, a port about sixty miles east of Havana. With the exception of Havana, Matanzas has the finest harbor on the northern coast of Cuba. The city itself lies between two small rivers and contains many beautiful homes. The houses are often decorated with colored tiles, and with their luxuriant gardens make a charming picture against the background of hills that rise beyond the beautiful valley of the Yumurri, which is one of the loveliest spots in Cuba. In times of peace the exports of sugar and molasses from Matanzas have been very large, but the Cuban army burned many of the finest plantations in the district.
The ships that engaged the new forts that the Spaniards were adding to the castle of San Severino and other defences of Matanzas, were the flagship New York, the monitor Puritan, and the cruiser Cincinnati. The Spaniards fired the first gun, and then the New York took up a position between two batteries and delivered broadsides right and left. Then the Puritan’s big guns came into play, and then the Cincinnati poured a stream of shells into the forts. It did not take long to knock the Spanish defences into sand-heaps—only about half an hour—and then the American ships stood out to sea. As they were doing so, the Spaniards fired one more shot. The Puritan had the range and sent a twelve-inch shell in reply. It was one of the best shots of the war. It struck the Spanish gun fairly, dismounted it, and then burst, throwing the sand high in the air. The Spanish account of the engagement stated that no damage whatever was done, except the killing of one mule!
Great excitement and great anxiety were caused by the news that a large and powerful fleet was coming from Spain. Our Government could not tell whether these ships would come to a Spanish port in the West Indies, or whether they would attack one of our large cities on the Atlantic coast. We had not ships enough to protect all our ports as well as to blockade Cuba, so much care was needed to make good plans, and our naval officers were kept busy. It was most important to watch for the Spanish ships.
[Illustration: The “Cape Verde” Fleet.]