The "Harvard Incident"

By Patrick McSherry

Click here to read a letter written by a crewmember of the HARVARD concerning this incident.


An incident occurred aboard the transport HARVARD. During this event six Spanish prisoners of war were killed, and thirteen were injured. This article addresses the background of this incident.

The "incident":

As the Spanish naval vessels were aflame and aground following the Naval Battle of Santiago, American naval crews risked their own lives to save those of their former enemies. Those rescued became prisoners of war. One of the vessels that took part in the resuce was the HARVARD. The auxiliary cruiser HARVARD was a former oceanliner, which was outfitted with guns and used by the U.S. Navy as a transport, a dispatch vessel (because of its speed) and as a cruiser to help enforce the blockades of Cuba and Puerto Rico. After the battle, the HARVARD approached the wrecks of the OQUENDO and the MARIA TERESA, and sent nine of its boats to take on survivors, an action it continued for five hours, rescuing 35 officers and 637 men.

Many of the men who were taken aboard were in a sad condition, many losing even their clothes in the fires. The most dangerously injured were transferred to the hospital ship SOLACE, and 300 suits of working clothes, as well as shoes and hats were issued to the prisoners.

On July 4, 1898, HARVARD was anchored off Siboney, Cuba. It was nighttime, nearly midnight. The prisoners of war were being guarded by members of the 4th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A line had been marked on the ship's deck, beyond which the prisoners were not allowed to pass. A prisoner, for some unknown reason (some have siad to escape the heat), appeared to make an attempt to cross the line. He was ordered to return, but failed to do so, possibly because he did not speak English. The sentry fired, causing the other prisoners to rise to the feet. Thinking that the Spanish prisoners were about to attack, the men of the 4th Massaschussetts fired a volley into the mass of prisoners. When the smoke cleared and order was restored, six Spaniards lay dead and thirteen more were injured.

The action was later thought to be sad mistake, and was in contrast to the good treatment many of the Spanish prisoners reported.

Spanish Prisoners

Spanish Naval prisoners in a hospital at Portsmouth, New Hampshire


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899), Vol. 2, 1099;Vol. 4, 549-550,

Freidel, Frank, The Splendid Little War. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958). 231 (image).

Trask, David F. The War With Spain in 1898 . (New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1981).

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