Experiences of a War Censor

“Here were two messages stopped in the nick of time, and here was the news that the means to decipher them had curiously come into our possession.”

On April 25, 1898, by direction of the President, the cable telegraph systems, seven in number, having their termini in New York city, were constructively taken into possession of the chief signal officer of the army, who is charged by law with the control of all telegraph and cable lines in the United States, in time of war. The first weeks of the censorship were chiefly employed in keeping from the press information regarding the projected movements of bodies of troops, naval vessels, and transports, and to that end I was directed to assume control of the cables at New York city in the name of the government.

With the cutting of the cables both east and west of Santiago, and the establishment of censorship at Santiago, Key West, and New York, the efforts of the enemy to procure and to transmit information and orders between their home government and their officers in Cuba became most energetic. After July 10 no line was open by which messages from Spain could reach Cuba except by passing through American territory. Then the Spanish government resorted to various subterfuges. I frequently stopped messages coming from Madrid addressed to private individuals in Havana, so worded as to be apparently harmless. But we soon learned that certain words were not always intended to convey their ordinary meaning. Such messages as excited the slightest suspicion were stopped in New York. On some days their number would exceed fifty, and in the store-room of one telegraph company the stack of “stopped” or delayed dispatches during the war made a pile more than three feet high.

My most important duty was to edit or to hold back from publication the press dispatches from the seat of war; and there are many keener pleasures than to edit the sensational, if not always truthful narratives of the alert newspaper correspondents, written from their perilous positions. The day after a battle on land or on sea always brought between ten thousand and fifteen thousand words over the Haiti cable, or the land lines which connected at Halifax with the cable that ran to Kingston, Jamaica, via Bermuda. The volume of messages offered for transmission over the Haiti cable, from the day when hostilities began and the dispatch of fleets to Haitian waters was decided upon, became so large that the cable was in use continuously throughout the twenty-four hours of the day, and at no time did it seem safe to the government that the censor should be absent from his office.

A brief account of my daily routine may be interesting. The important task of forwarding the hundreds of messages sent by our own government made it necessary that its official representative should be at the Haitian cable office. Thither, at all hours of the day and night, in an almost endless procession, came the messenger boys of the various companies, each bearing a bundle of telegrams, specially stamped and sealed, and addressed to the “United States Military Censor.”

Official messages of neutral governments, when signed by cabinet ministers or diplomatic or consular representatives, were passed unscrutinized, whether they were written in a code or not; but it required a good memory to keep pace with the changes that were occurring among cabinet officers and others entitled to this privilege. Dispatches in Dutch from the Hague to the governor at Curaçoa, and occasionally a message from a Japanese merchant to a fellow countryman in one of the smaller West Indian islands, indicate the range of languages used, among which were Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German of course. Indeed, we never knew what language we should be called upon to read the next minute. There was no hour of the day or of the night when dispatches, political or commercial, newspaper or private, were not passing to and from every corner of the earth; and despite the large commercial interests of London, not even that city’s cable business exceeds New York’s. There were often on my desk between twenty and thirty government messages from the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, or some one of the bureau chiefs of the two military departments, all waiting to be forwarded and all of the greatest importance. Especially great was the rush between the hours of two and five every afternoon, when the day’s orders had been made ready.

Government business took precedence of all press dispatches and every other kind of message awaiting transmission in either direction. As between the various government messages, those of the Navy Department were given the preference until our forces had landed in Cuba; and thereafter those of the War Department, followed by the business of the Navy, the State, and the Post Office Departments, in the order named. But at all times right of way was given to any government message that plainly called for prompt transmission, regardless of the department whence it came. Occasionally the President issued an order or sent a dispatch in his capacity as commander in chief of all the military and naval forces of the United States; but these were rare occurrences, and their importance always gave them priority. When, toward the end of July, the capture of the province of Santiago was complete, the President issued a proclamation to the people of this newly acquired territory. That message was nearly a thousand words long; and so essential was its accurate transmission that every period, every comma, and every other mark of punctuation was telegraphed to Santiago, and the people of that city, the next morning, had as accurate a copy as was furnished by our own newspapers.

The readers of the daily papers must have become familiar with many names of hitherto unknown telegraph stations, from which many a startling piece of news was dated. Mole St. Nicholas, Caimanera, and Playa del Este are places of which neither the school geographies nor the commercial world, in times of peace, could give us much information; but they became suddenly important, for they were connected with us more or less directly by cable, and many messages were dated from them.

In this short war, not only did the submarine cable, the telegraph, and the telephone play a more prominent part than ever before in any war, but the daring work of the men of the Signal Corps, in their perilous labors of grappling, cutting, and afterward repairing these necessary means of the enemy’s communications, deserves a separate recital. The great value of their work was everywhere recognized, but I was often obliged to suppress the accounts of their successes, so that confidential dispatches to and from the enemy might continue to follow the old route, and thus fall into our hands. It was not by telegraph only that the most important messages came from our armies in Cuba and Porto Rico. Telephone lines supplemented the cable, and land lines extended to the very outposts of our forces and ran to the headquarters of the generals, who were of course in direct communication with the War Department at Washington; and the admiral from his flagship, by the use of his signal flags or “wig-wagging,” as the practice is termed, communicated with his representative on shore, who in turn telegraphed what he had signaled.

On the 3d of July, when the situation of our forces before the city of Santiago looked so discouraging, the first intelligence of the destruction of Cervera’s fleet was received at the cable office six hours before it was given either to the press or to the public. At half past seven on the evening of that day, a message from Colonel Allen, the signal officer in charge of the cable communications in the vicinity of Santiago, was read from the recording tape of the Haiti cable. It gave the first news of the flight of the Spanish fleet out of the harbor, and told how the vessels, one by one, were either burned or beached. The message was brief, — scarcely twenty-five words in length, — but it was read with joy in the cable office, and hurried by telephone to General Greely, to whom it was addressed, and who chanced to be in New York city that night on government business. At the same time, the message was repeated to the White House and to the Secretary of the Navy over the private wire which ran from the same desk which held the cable instrument.

It was Sunday evening; the following day was to be a holiday, and the newspapers were making up their usual uninteresting Monday edition. What an opportunity for the issue of an extra! But the news was not mine to give out. The President and his Cabinet received it within five minutes after its receipt in New York, and it was for them to determine the use to be made of it. Swiftly the wires ticked back the wish of the President that the news be guarded until it could be verified, and then at eight o’clock began the effort to confirm, in the shortest possible time, this most startling and gratifying news. General Greely had hurried to the cable office, and messages of inquiry for confirmation of the news and for details were hastily dispatched. The news itself seemed too good to be true, but the signature to the message almost precluded any possibility of a mistake; for Colonel Allen was one of the most careful of officers, and he had probably himself obtained confirmation of the report before he transmitted it. But the President’s order was peremptory, — “Hold the news until confirmed.” Then followed the anxious hours of waiting by the administration for the details which we were striving to get for them. The time passed slowly, as when one watches by the bedside of a sick person; we bent over the tiny tape of paper, slowly unwinding its coil as it passed beneath the needlelike point of the recorder, making no sign for minutes or for hours of the news so eagerly desired. Ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, midnight, and still no answer; but in the meantime the line between New York and Washington had not been silent, for the officials at the capital were as impatient as we were. We were obliged to explain to them at frequent intervals the difficulties of cable communication over these lines and through the country from which we were seeking information. When we were about to give up hope of more news, slowly, at nine minutes past midnight, the glass needle of the recorder began to trace in the wavy, threadlike line of deep blue characters which told us that the good news was true. This message also was from Colonel Allen, and it confirmed his earlier dispatch, and gave the additional information that the whole Spanish fleet had been overtaken and destroyed, and that Admiral Cervera and the survivors of his crew were our prisoners. In one minute this message was in the President’s hands at Washington. Then the doors of the cable office, which had been locked during the evening, were opened, and a sigh of grateful relief and congratulation went up from all present.

A supplement to this news, which was one of the most impressive and interesting incidents of my censorship, was the receipt of Admiral Cervera’s historic message to General Blanco. I inquired at Washington whether a message from Admiral Cervera, then a prisoner on one of our warships, addressed to Captain-General Blanco, should be allowed to pass New York on its way from Santiago to Havana. The consent of the military authorities was given, and at a later hour I read the surprising message which began with the words: “On the morning of the 3d of July, in accordance with your express orders, I sailed my fleet through the channel of Santiago harbor, meeting the enemy outside, by whom my vessels were engaged, and in succession each burned and destroyed, with the loss of the lives of many of my brave officers and crews. I myself am a prisoner with the survivors.” I at once transmitted it to Washington.

During the following days, it was a touching and pathetic part of my duty to read the brief but expressive messages which were sent and received by the officers and men of Cervera’s fleet. Some contented themselves, in the first tidings to their families, with the one word that they knew would carry most joy, “Buenos.” Others sent longer messages, expressing both comfort and grief: “Well. Am carefully cared for. Pepe dead.” But the one idea which seemed to possess them all, indicative of their surprise as well as their happiness, was of in the words “Well cared for,” which they knew, by their own preconceived estimates of the Americans, would give the greatest surprise and happiness to those at home. Equally pathetic were the answers which came from many a little hamlet and town in Spain, bringing the first news to the prisoners that their safety was known to their friends, and asking if money or any delicacy or article of clothing were needed which the parent or the wife or the friend could send to lessen the terrors of imprisonment. These messages also it was my fixed policy to hasten to their destinations without loss of time; and great was the delight both of the officers and of their families at the ease of communication between them, in contrast with the difficulties and restrictions of a few days previous.

But the censor’s office had other kinds of service to perform than the receiving of news from the front. One day there came a dispatch from a cable ship engaged in cutting or repairing cables off Santiago, saying that the vessel was out of coal. A telegram had been sent by the captain of the vessel to the representative of his company on the island of Martinique, a distance of one thousand miles eastward of Santiago. The need of coal was pressing. The immensely important work of cable cutting and repairing, which was hardly appreciated by the public at that time, was then most active. The fate of the Santiago campaign, if we could but cut Blanco off from Madrid, might depend on the promptness with which a fresh supply of coal could be hurried to this cable vessel. The company’s manager at Martinique cabled to the manager in New York a brief cipher message repeating the cable-ship captain’s wants. In spite of the hour, — it was midnight, — the New York manager repeated the message by telephone to me at my house up town. I immediately understood the importance of the request; but how could the needs of the vessel be attended to at that hour of the night? No hours, however, were sacred to the sleep of either cabinet minister or bureau chief in Washington, and a dispatch was sent, to be delivered without delay to the Secretary of the Navy. About two o’clock came a reply from the Secretary, addressed to Admiral Sampson, directing that a collier be sent at once to the relief of the cable vessel. Thus, in three hours this call from a helpless vessel had traveled four thousand miles, had passed through the hands of no fewer than half a dozen officials, and had given another striking proof of the promptness with which the various departments of the government met the demands upon them.

While our government was thus active, Spain was not idle. Many evidences of Spanish activity came under my notice. Many communications were allowed to pass, the messages and answers being carefully copied, so that a decisive move might be made by our government at the right moment, if the Spanish plans were carried out. One Sunday evening, toward the end of July, a harmless-looking dispatch in plain Spanish, between twenty and thirty words long, without signature, addressed to a firm of bankers in New York from a place in the West Indies, attracted my attention. There was nothing in the fact that the message was unsigned to excite my suspicion. Indeed, in ordinary communications between persons well known to one another the signature is usually omitted, as unnecessary and expensive. Nor did the fact that the message was in Spanish make it improper to forward it. But this dispatch was peculiarly frank. It requested that the correspondent in New York hire a steamer of about four hundred tons burden for thirty days; that she be fitted out with a cargo of flour, potatoes, butter, lard, hams and bacon, and other food; that she then be cleared for a port in the neutral island of Jamaica; but that her captain be notified that his vessel would be met long before she came in sight of British territory, and that he must seek a landing for his cargo at the first convenient point in Cuba where he could evade the blockading fleet. This was delicious, but the sender must not have his fear aroused that his dispatch had been read. The message, therefore, was promptly delivered. Within two or three hours, a dispatch clearly in answer to this message was filed in the office of a different cable company. It acknowledged the receipt of the order to charter the vessel, and named two or three vessels that could be hired. A copy of the message was retained, and further developments were awaited. The following day came the reply in Spanish, naming the vessel to be engaged, and urging the utmost haste in the purchase of her cargo and in her departure for West Indian waters. In this way was accumulated the necessary evidence to connect this firm of bankers with Spain’s agent in Jamaica. The custom-house authorities in New York were notified of the vessel’s proposed departure, and Secret Service men were sent from Washington by the Secretary of the Treasury to aid in ferreting out the blockade runner. In less than a week fifteen telegrams had passed between the conspirators without a suspicion that their plans were known to the government. The day before the vessel sailed, and while she was yet loading her valuable cargo intended to relieve the Spaniards in Cuba, I strolled, in citizen’s dress, to the dock where she lay, and went aboard her unsuspected. I had been ordered to report information about her appearance and cargo, that it might be cabled to Admiral Sampson, who in turn would pass the information to the commanders of the various vessels of his blockading fleet. The camera also was brought into play; early in the morning of the day when the steamer was to sail a photographer passed unnoticed to a little tug anchored off the same pier, and, on the plea that he wanted to get a view of some adjacent buildings, he took a picture of the trim, rakish little craft with steam up ready to sail. By noon the cable carried to Admiral Sampson the information regarding the vessel and her departure, and a government transport sailing the same day took in its mail bag a little bundle of photographic prints of what proved to be the blockading fleet’s next capture.

Hardly had my interest in the fate of this vessel subsided when a new plot was brought to my attention, as ingenious and as daring as any chronicled in fiction. It was nothing more nor less than the capture of an American vessel laden with gold, on her return from the Klondike! That was the bold proposition of some adventurers in British Columbia. At this time the papers were full of reports that several gold-laden vessels were on their way from the Yukon to San Francisco. I read the suggestion when it came, addressed to certain Spanish sympathizers in New York city. They cabled to Spain, but I could not believe that any attempt to capture one of these rich prizes on the far Pacific would be seriously contemplated by the enemy. It was a surprise, therefore, a day or two later, to receive two dispatches from a Spanish cabinet minister in Madrid, one addressed to the Spanish consul at Vancouver, the other to a firm of shipowners in the same place. Only the day before, the newspapers had been spreading the report of the arrival in San Francisco of a vessel with millions of dollars’ worth of ore, and announcing that others were coming. I quietly pigeonholed the two messages to Vancouver, arid neither the Spanish consul nor the firm of ship-owners had a chance to try their skill in capturing a defenseless American vessel in that part of the Pacific. The importance of the telegrams may be guessed when it is recalled that for a week the Spanish consul in Vancouver and his government in Madrid made numerous and frantic efforts to communicate with each other, but their messages seemed, for some reason, to stop in New York.

Much has been said and written about the luck of the navy during the war, and perhaps the following incident will illustrate the good fortune that followed us. Late one night two messages came in cipher from the Minister of Marine in Madrid, one addressed to the captain of a Spanish warship then cruising off the island of Haiti, the other to the military commander of Spanish forces at San Juan de Porto Rico. The messages were intercepted on their arrival in New York en route to their destinations. They might be harmless, or they might be of the greatest importance to us. The words of the cipher conveyed no meaning, but I knew that the sender and his correspondents were at least not friendly to the United States. By a strange happening, at almost the same moment that they were handed to me I received a message from Santiago, saying that one of our naval officers, while inspecting the hulk of one of the Spanish vessels, had found in her captain’s cabin a copy of the cipher code book used by the Spanish naval officers. Could there have been a more startling coincidence? Could any information have come more pat? Here were two messages stopped in the nick of time, and here was the news that the means to decipher them had curiously come into our possession. I telegraphed to the President and the War Department of the interception of the two code messages, told who had sent them and their destinations, and repeated the news of the finding, only a few hours before, of the Spanish naval code book. I suggested that the two messages be cabled to Admiral Sampson. Swiftly the wires brought back the congratulations of the President and the Cabinet, who chanced to be in conference. Orders were given that the messages be transmitted to Admiral Sampson, to be deciphered. It is almost needless to say that after these messages were translated they were still detained; but the story they told shortened not a little the period of our Porto Rican campaign.

Two examples will suffice to show the diversity of the inquiries which came to the censor’s office. An officer in charge of cable repair work off Santiago, who held the end of a cut cable which he wished to carry ashore to connect with an existing land line of wire, telegraphed to ask how many yards from the harbor entrance was the spot where the land line approached the shore. He did not wish needlessly to expose his party to attack by trying to force a landing at any other than the proper place. The enterprise that he had in hand was an important one. The cable would connect Washington with General Shafter’s headquarters in the field, if he could find the line on shore. I learned that there was only one man who could give this information. He was the builder of the land line of wire, and lived in the island of Martinique. No one else knew exactly where the line came to the shore. The coast was in possession of the enemy, and armed Spanish forces could be seen from the cable boat as they patrolled the beach. When our men took the cable ashore, it must be to the exact spot where it could be connected with the land line, or many lives would be sacrificed. An inquiry was cabled to the constructor at his home in Martinique. He was visiting in the interior, but he soon replied, Seven hundred and fifty yards to the east of the harbor entrance. This information was telegraphed to our waiting party bobbing up and down in the cable boat. They made a successful landing and, a few hours later, established communication between the headquarters before Santiago and New York.

One day a message came through the cable office at Santiago, from an officer of Admiral Sampson’s flagship, asking, “What time is it?” That did not seem a difficult question to answer until it was made clear that the admiral was adjusting the chronometers of his fleet preparatory to sailing, and that he wished accurate, not to say official time to aid in such adjustment. It was then fifteen minutes before midday, and there was a good opportunity to give to the careful navigator the benefit of the precise noon time of his borne meridian at Washington. Accordingly the Naval Observatory was notified by telegraph. The land lines as well as the cable lines and all their connections were cleared, and for the space of one minute preceding noon the line between Santiago and Washington, for the first time in one hundred days, was silent. The signal of one click of the key was agreed upon, and it was awaited eagerly at the various relay stations as well as by the officers of our fleet in Santiago. Precisely at noon the click at Washington was transmitted to New York, thence over the 1450 miles of cable terminating at Cape Haytien, where another cable operator sent it on the last stage of its journey into Santiago, within three seconds of its first transmission nearly 2500 miles away. This is the first instance of chronometer regulation by cable and telegraph lines over so long a distance.

Toward the end of the censorship the government removed the interruption of all forms of commercial business. I was ordered to notify firms in New York which might wish to employ a code or a cipher in the composition of their messages that they might do so, provided they gave me assurance in writing that no matter hurtful to the interests of our country or dealing with its political relations with Spain should lie hidden in any message. No sooner was this announcement made than persons of all ages and nationalities came in crowds. Representatives of houses that imported sugar, tobacco, and fruit, and shippers of cargoes of all kinds, came flocking in, until one doubted whether there could be so many interests in the United States having close relations with Cuba and Porto Rico, and requiring so great a use of the cables. One representative of a steamship line declared that the new order would save him nearly $5000 a month, in the lessened cost of his cable tolls. Another declared that this was the first day that he had been able to do business in more than three months, for the danger that knowledge might leak out to his rivals from messages in plain language had compelled him to suspend all his enterprises. One firm filed fifteen code messages within five minutes after their agent had taken his precipitate departure.

Our government, however, had reckoned without due regard to the conditions existing at the other end of the line. The next day a message came from the Spanish censor at Havana, couched in dignified but haughty Castilian: “By what authority does the military censor in New York dictate to me what messages I shall receive and deliver to their destinations, and how long is it since the same authority has declared to whom I may pass messages with its approval?” This message was provoked by the large volume of code and cipher messages which had come to this Spanish functionary, after I had telegraphed to the censor in Key West the long list of firms which had received the government privilege of sending code dispatches. The censor at Havana never received an answer to his inquiry; for a few days later I was instructed to announce to all the cable companies at once that similar instructions had been telegraphed or cabled to our censors at Key West, Santiago, and Ponce, and that all restrictions in the use of code or cipher in commercial business to Cuba or Porto Rico were raised. Thus ended, after a duration of about one hundred and ten days, the military censorship exercised by the United States.