Disputed Victory

By Quintin Barry.

As I write these lines, Disputed Victory is the latest of my books to be published by Helion, but it will very shortly be overtaken by the next, which is a study of the campaign in eastern France in 1870 – 1871 entitled The Last Throw of the Dice. After that I go back to sea with a visit to the third Anglo Dutch war.

However, I do welcome the opportunity to explain how and why I came to write Disputed Victory. It tells the story of a bitter controversy that split the United States Navy after the Spanish American war of 1898. The American literature dealing with the war is huge, but little of it has focused on what for me was the most absorbing aspect of it. The dispute arose between Rear Admiral William Sampson and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, and more especially between their respective supporters, and it was over the question of who deserved the credit for the American victory at the battle of Santiago. The Spanish Admiral Cervera had been blockaded in the port of Santiago de Cuba by the US fleet under the overall command of Sampson; but when the Spanish squadron emerged, Sampson had left his station for a conference with the military commander, the inept General Shafter, and it was left to Schley to conduct the ensuing battle.

Sampson’s adherents, among whom were the US Navy Secretary John D Long and the famous naval historian Alfred Mahan, levelled bitter criticism at Schley. When a libellous book was published, accusing him among other things of cowardice, he sought a court martial. The subsequent Court of Inquiry, presided over by the American naval icon Admiral George Dewey, lasted more than 40 days. And here, for me, lay the real fascination in the story, because one of the key sources for my book was the verbatim record of the trial. In the course of it, the lawyers on each side battled to assert their view of the controversy. Perhaps the real hero of my book is the redoubtable Isidor Rayner, the lawyer who represented Schley. His performance was one of the most remarkabl in American legal history, and as a lawyer I enjoyed it enormously. At the end of the hearing the majority of the court found against Schley, but Dewey delivered a minority judgment that in the eyes of the American press and public carried much more weight, and justified Schley’s insistence on the court martial. It took many years for the bitterness aroused by the controversy to disperse. Perhaps the only trial in naval history to compare with it was that of the English Admiral Keppel in 1779 after the battle of Ushant; maybe I will be tempted one day to write a book about that, too.

Disputed Victory: Schley, Sampson and the Spanish-American War of 1898 is now available to order here.

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