May 1898: The Death of Ensign Worth Bagley

This Month in North Carolina History

Bagley-1The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898, accelerated the deterioration of relations between Spain and the United States which had resulted from Spain’s attempt to crush a long-simmering rebellion on the island. On the 19th of April, well in advance of the declaration of war on the 25th, the United States Navy began a blockade of Cuba. U. S. warships patrolled the approaches to every significant Cuban port and began probing coastal defenses.

On the afternoon of May 11, three American ships, the gunboat Wilmington, the torpedo boat Winslow, and the converted revenue cutter Hudson entered Cardenas Bay, about seventy miles west of Havana to confirm the presence of Spanish gunboats in the bay and the creation of new Spanish artillery batteries. Spotting a gunboat tied to a dock in the city of Cardenas, the Winslow moved closer to investigate and suddenly found itself the target of a barrage of shells, fired from the gunboat and hidden artillery on shore. In short order the Winslow‘s steering was shot away and its engines damaged. Attempting to limp away from the Spanish guns, the Winslow signaled for a tow. With shells falling all around them, the Hudson managed to get a tow line to the stricken torpedo boat. As the Winslow was pulled out of range, a final shell exploded on its deck killing three men instantly and mortally wounding two others. One of the men killed, Ensign Worth Bagley of Raleigh, North Carolina, is thought to be the first American naval officer to die in the Spanish-American War.

Bagley entered the U. S. Naval Academy at the age of fifteen in 1889 where he made a name for himself as a football player. Following graduation and a series of typical junior officer assignments, Bagley became secretary to the captain of the Maine, which post he left in November 1897 to become executive officer of the Winslow. The navy hoped for great things from its torpedo boats and service on one was a good choice for a young officer who wanted to distinguish himself.

Bagley’s death was widely reported and caused a sensation in North Carolina. He was buried in Raleigh with the military honors due a brigadier general, and in 1907 a monument was erected to him on Capitol Square. In part this attention stems from Bagley’s family connection. As grandson of a governor and brother-in-law of a powerful newspaper editor and Democratic Party leader, Worth Bagley was clearly part of North Carolina’s political elite, but the reaction to his death also points to the symbolic importance of the Spanish American War. North Carolina had resisted the clamor for war with Spain until after the destruction of the Maine. In the war itself, however, many North Carolinians and other southerners saw a reuniting of the country after the Civil War. Former Confederates volunteered to serve under the American flag—although Joseph Wheeler, once general in the Confederate Army and commander of American cavalry in Cuba, kept referring to the Spanish as Yankees. Worth Bagley, and other young southerners gave their lives in what many saw as a renewal of national allegiance.

Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.

Feuer, A. B. The Spanish-American War at Sea: Naval Action in the Atlantic. Westport, CN: Praeger, c. 1995.

Gibson, George H. “Attitudes in North Carolina Regarding the Independence of Cuba, 1868-1898.” North Carolina Historical Review, 43:1 (January 1966), pages 43-65.

Image Source:
[Front cover of] Daniels, Josephus. The First Fallen Hero: A Biographical Sketch of Worth Bagley, Ensign, U. S. N. Norfolk, VA: Sam W. Bowman, Publisher: 1898.

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