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Winfield Scott Schley

naval officer who served with distinction during two wars despite graduating near the bottom of his Naval Academy class

Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley

Winfield Scott Schley was born in Frederick City, Maryland, on October 9, 1839. Two of his uncles had served under General Winfield Scott, one during the War of 1812 and the other during the Mexican War, which is how he got his name. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy from Maryland in 1856, and graduated toward the bottom of his class on June 15, 1860.

Schley spent his first naval years as a midshipman aboard the USS Niagara (1860-1861), the USS Keystone State (1861), and the USS Potomac (1861-1862). In July of 1862, he was promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to the USS Winona, which was at the time part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. On December 14, 1862, the Winona engaged a battery near Port Hudson, Louisiana, and that engagement played an important role in the ultimate capture of Port Hudson, in July of 1863. He married Annie R. Franklin on September 10, 1863, and subsequently served aboard the USS Wateree, in the Pacific Squadron (1864-1866).

Promoted to Lieutenant Commander on July 25, 1866, Schley served the next three years teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy. He returned to active duty in 1869, as the Commander of the USS Benicia, Asiatic Squadron. In June of 1871, while in Korea searching for a ship believed to have been taken by pirates sanctioned by the Korean government, he led an attack on forts on the Salee River. He returned to the Naval Academy in 1873, and was promoted to Commander on June 19, 1874. As Commander of the USS Essex, Brazil Squadron, from 1876 to 1879, he punished pirates in the Lower Congo. He subsequently served as a lighthouse inspector in the Boston area (1880-1883).

In 1884, Schley took command of the USS Thetis, which was assigned to search for Army Lieutenant Adolphus Washington Greely, the leader of a Greenland exploratory party that had not been heard from since 1881. On June 22, against all odds, the Thetis located and rescued Greely and six surviving members of his party at Cape Sabine, Greenland. The incredible rescue made Schley a hero, and he was rewarded with a gold watch and a formal thanks from the Maryland Legislature and a gold medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society. Once back in the United States, Schley was made Chief of the Bureau of Equipment and Repair, in which capacity he served until 1889. He was promoted to Captain on March 31, 1888.

Schley returned to the sea in 1889, as Commander of the USS Baltimore, and served in that capacity until 1892. On October 16, 1891, the Baltimore was anchored in the harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, when a liberty party was attacked by a mob on the streets and two sailors were killed. Rather than retaliate or pull anchor and sail away, Schley maintained a firm presence in the harbor until the Baltimore was relieved by the USS Yorktown in November. He subsequently served as a lighthouse inspector (1892-1895), as Commander of the USS New York (1895-1897), and as Chairman of the Lighthouse Board (1897-1898). He was promoted to Commodore on February 6, 1898.

Upon outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Schley was placed in command of the "Flying Squadron" and ordered to join up with the North Atlantic Squadron, under the command of Acting-Rear Admiral William Thompson Sampson. The North Atlantic Squadron had been charged with preventing Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera's fleet from reaching Cuba, but Cervera managed to slip past Sampson and reach Santiago, Cuba. Sampson chose not to pursue Cervera into Santiago and established a naval blockade of the harbor instead; Schley's fleet became part of that blockade. On July 3, while Sampson was en route to a conference elsewhere, Cervera attempted to lead his fleet past the blockade. Although Schley was in command of the squadron during Sampson's absence, he never issued an order to attack the Spanish fleet. Instead, each ship's Captain acted on standing orders to attack any Spanish ship that attempted to run the blockade, and within a few hours Cervera's fleet had been decimated. And, while Schley did not direct the overall battle, his flagship, the Brooklyn, played a vital role, including the sinking of Cervera's flagship, the Maria Teresa.

After the war ended, Schley served as a member of the Puerto Rico Evacuation Commission (September-October 1898). He was promoted to Rear Admiral on March 3, 1899, and served as Commander-In-Chief of the South Atlantic Squadron from 1899 to 1901. After he retired on October 9, 1901, he was presented with a gold sword from the people of Pennsylvania, a silver sword from the Royal Arcanum, and a gold and jeweled medal with formal thanks from the Maryland Legislature. He died in New York City on October 2, 1909, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to being a distinguished naval officer, Schley was also the author of The Rescue of Greely (1885) and Forty-5 Years Under the Flag (1904).

The Spanish-American War Centennial Website

Winfield Scott
War of 1812
Mexican War
Spanish-American War
William Thompson Sampson

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Naval History

This page was last updated on 10/01/2017.