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First Name: William

Last Name: Sampson

Birthplace: Palmyra, NY, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)


Middle Name: Thomas

Date of Birth: 09 February 1840

Date of Death: 06 May 1902

Rank or Rate: Rear Admiral

Years Served:
William Thomas Sampson

•  American Civil War (1861 - 1865)
•  Spanish-American War (1898)


William Thomas Sampson
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy

William Thomas Sampson was born on 9 February 1840 in Palmyra, NY.

Sampson was born in Palmyra, NY, and entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 24 September 1857. After graduating first in his class four years later, he served as an Instructor at the Academy, teaching Physics. In 1864, he became Executive Officer of the monitor USS Patapsco of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and engaged in sweeping torpedoes off Charleston, SC. He survived the loss of that ironclad on 15 January 1865, when she struck a torpedo, exploded, and sank with a loss of 75 lives.

Following duty in the steam frigate USS Colorado on the European Station, another tour as Instructor at the Naval Academy, and in the Bureau of Navigation of the Navy Department, he served in the screw sloop USS Congress. He then commanded USS Alert, practice ship USS Mayflower, and USS Swatara while on duty at the Naval Academy.

During the next years, he was Assistant to the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, then Officer-in-Charge of the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, RI. On 9 September 1886, he became Superintendent of the Naval Academy. He was promoted to Captain on 9 April 1889, reported to the Mare Island Navy Yard to fit-out the protected cruiser San Francisco, and assumed command when she was commissioned on 15 November 1889. He was detached in June 1892 to serve as Inspector of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard and was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance on 28 January 1893. He assumed command of the battleship USS Iowa on 15 June 1897. On 17 February 1898, he was made President of the Board of Inquiry to investigate the destruction of the USS Maine. On 26 March 1898, he assumed command of the North Atlantic Squadron, with the temporary rank of Rear Admiral.

Spanish-American War

The U.S. declared war against Spain on 21 April 1898 and, eight days later, Admiral Cevera's fleet sailed from the Cape Verde Islands for an uncertain destination. Rear Admiral Sampson, in flagship USS New York, put to sea from Key West. Sampson's early involvement in the conflict would include his supervision of the Cuban blockade, which would last for the duration of the war, as well as the bombardment of the city of San Juan on 10 May 1898. After initially being sent to blockade Havana itself, Sampson would be given orders to intercept Admiral Cevera's squadron. But with only a vague notion of Cevera's current location, he was unable to actively pursue. Awaiting further information on Cevera's whereabouts, Sampson sailed east to San Juan, and carried out a bombardment on 10 May that lasted several days, dealing minor infrastructural damage to the city. After this preliminary bombardment, Sampson helped lead a land-sea attack on San Juan, and along with General William Shafter, took the city. On 1 July, following the successful invasion, Sampson returned to Cuba, reinforcing the blockades in Santiago and Cienfuegos.

On 29 May, elements of Sampson's command spotted Admiral Cevera's squadron moving into Santiago Harbor, and the naval presence there was greatly increased to prevent Cevera's escape. On the morning of 3 July 1898, Cevera's fleet came out of the harbor. Sampson was ashore at a conference with General Shafter, making plans for a coordinated attack on Santiago. Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley was in command of the Flying Squadron in Sampson's absence and met the Spanish fleet, completely destroying every Spanish vessel in a running sea battle lasting five hours. The next day, Rear Admiral Sampson sent his famous message: "The Fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present, the whole of Cervera's Fleet."

Sampson's message omitted any mention of Schley's leadership in the battle, leading to a controversy as to who was responsible for the victory. While Sampson also arguably played a significant role in the victory, having laid down the strategic framework and determining the favorable positions of his own forces, it was of course Schley who had actually commanded the fleet during the battle. Schley appealed for a court of inquiry, which he got in 1901. In the Navy, the quarrel was so divisive that the rank-and-file identified themselves as either a "Schley man" or a "Sampson man." The court of inquiry heard testimony in support of Schley by his own men and, despite some criticism of Schley, exonerated the commander of the Flying Squadron.

After the Battle of Santiago Bay, Sampson was appointed Cuban Commissioner on 20 August 1898, but resumed command of the North Atlantic Fleet in December. He became Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard in October 1899 and transferred to the Retired List on 9 February 1902.


Four destroyers of the Navy have been named USS Sampson in his honor.

The U.S. Naval Academy's Sampson Hall, which houses the English and History departments, is named in his honor.

The U.S. Navy also authorized a service medal, known as the Sampson Medal, to recognize those who had served under his command during the Spanish-American War.

The former Sampson Naval Training Base, that became the Sampson Air Force Base and is now a New York State Park on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake were named in his honor. Approved by President Roosevelt in 1942, 498 buildings were constructed on 2,500 acres of farmland in the Finger Lakes near Palmyra, NY, by 15,500 workers in 270 days so that 411,000 sailors could be trained before the facility closed in 1946. The facility was converted to the Sampson Air Force Base for the Korean War and between 1950-56 over 300,000 airmen had their basic training there. Even though the facility is now the Sampson State Park known for its herd of white deer, it will return to military duty when the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery is completed.

A Brooklyn, NY, elementary school PS 160 was named in his honor.

Both the elementary and high school at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base were named in his honor.

Death and Burial

Rear Admiral William Thomas Sampson died on 6 May 1902 in Washington, DC. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.

Honoree ID: 3041   Created by: MHOH




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