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Fate of relic from famed torpedo boat of Spanish-American war fame remains mystery 100 years later

Ship’s steering wheel, loaned to local veterans group in 1910, is missing

Fate of relic from famed torpedo boat of Spanish-American war fame remains mystery 100 years later

Contributed by Jim Blount

A steering wheel is missing. It isn’t from a car or truck. It’s the steering device from an historic U. S. Navy vessel involved in early fighting in the Spanish-American War. The ship honored a Union navy hero during the Civil War. The artifact was on the USS Winslow, a torpedo boat. Among the crew was the first U. S. naval officer killed in the 1898 war against Spain. [The USS Winslow is pictured above]

The USS Winslow steering wheel -- which documents prove arrived in Hamilton Sept. 10, 1910 -- is supposed to be exhibited in the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument in Hamilton. But it isn’t there, and no one associated with the monument can remember it being displayed there. Its fate is a mystery.

Part of the puzzle may be who became the legal borrower of the relic. News reports in 1910 said the steering wheel was "permanently loaned" to a local veterans group because a federal law "prohibits an outright gift." The newspaper said "the loan is practically a gift."

It began when Theodore Bock of Grubbs-Bagley Camp 16, United Spanish War Veterans, contacted the secretary of the navy. Bock requested a souvenir from the ship, which had recently been dismantled.

Camp 16 seemed like an appropriate recipient of the loan. The hyphenated name of the Hamilton group honored two heroes of the Spanish-American War. Hayden Young Grubbs, a 27-year-old U. S. Army lieutenant colonel, was killed in the Philippines in 1899. Worth Bagley was a 24-year-old naval officer killed in battle off the Cuban coast in 1898. Neither man had any local connections. [photo of Worth Bagley mounment in Raleigh, N. C.]

Grubbs-Bagley Camp 16, United Spanish War Veterans, was organized in Hamilton in January 1902. Eligible for membership were those enrolled in the U. S. armed services between April 19, 1898, and July 4, 1902, in the war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, the Philippine insurrection and the China expedition.

Its last two members died in 1969, two days apart -- Willard Denning Sept. 19 and Earle Beaver Sept. 21. The camp charter and colors were formally retired July 2, 1970, to be displayed in the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneer Monument.

The USS Winslow was involved in the first naval action of the war, set off by the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine Feb. 15, 1898, in Havana harbor in Cuba. The blast may have been an accident, but popular sentiment believed the ship was sabotaged by Spain.

April 19 -- six days before the U. S. officially declared war on Spain -- American ships began blockading Cuban ports and scouting coastal defenses.

The afternoon of May 11, about 70 miles west of Havana, the Winslow and two other U. S. ships were searching for Cuban gunboats, mines and land-based guns protecting harbors and shipping lanes.

The Winslow spotted a gunboat docked at Cardenas and moved closer to investigate. It was greeted by a barrage from a Cuban boat and shore batteries.

One or more shells hit the Winslow, destroying its engines and steering apparatus. Lieutenant J. B. Bernadou’s ship was being towed from enemy range when a shell exploded on deck, killing three men instantly and mortally wounding two others.

Ensign Worth Bagley, the Winslow’s executive officer, was one of the victims. He is considered the first U. S. naval officer killed in the Spanish-American War.

As a 15-year-old in 1889, the Raleigh, N. C., native had entered the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis where he played football. He participated in the first Army-Navy game in 1891 at West Point.

After graduation, the son of a former Confederate army major had several junior officer assignments, including service on the USS Maine before transfer in July 1897 to the new torpedo boat.

The 160-foot Winslow -- built by the Columbia Iron Works in Baltimore -- was commissioned Dec. 29, 1897. The $97,000 ship had three torpedo tubes. Officially Torpedo Boat 5, she had two sister ships, the USS Foote (TB 3) and the USS Cushing (TB 4).

The Winslow, with five officers and 20 enlisted men, trained off Newport, R. I., before departing for Norfolk, Va., Jan. 20, 1898. She was sent to Key West, Fla., after the USS Maine was lost Feb. 11, 1898.

The torpedo boat was named for Rear Admiral John Ancrum Winslow, whose U. S. Navy career spanned from 1827 until 1872, a year before his death. The highlight of his distinguished career was during the Civil War. In 1864 he commanded the USS Kearsage when it caught up with the feared Confederate raider, CSS Alabama.

The rebel ship, commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes, had captured 447 vessels and taken more than 2,000 prisoners in 22 months after being commissioned in August 1862. Capture or destruction of the Alabama was a major objective of the Union navy.

In a one-hour showdown June 19, 1864, off the French coast, Winslow’s USS Kearsage won a complete victory over the CSS Alabama.

Hayden Young Grubbs was born near Shelby in Boyle County, Ky. He was valedictorian of the 1886 class at Centre College in Danville, Ky., before teaching at Monticello, Ky. He was appointed to the U. S. Military Academy, graduating in 1896.

When the war started, he helped raise a volunteer infantry regiment, which was sent to Cuba. He was reassigned to the Philippines and was killed in action there Oct. 1, 1899. 

Above: U. S. troops charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898