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Wilmington (Gunboat No. 8) was laid down on 8 October 1894 at Newport News, VA., by the Newport News Shipbuilding Co., launched on 19 October 1895 sponsored by Mrs. Anne B. Gray, and commissioned on 13 May 1897, Comdr. Chapman C. Todd in command.The new gunboat conducted sea trials and underwent training off the east coast and joined the North Atlantic Squadron at Key West. Wilmington trained and underwent exercises in gunnery and testes in late 1897 and early 1898 as tension between the United States and Spain was rising steadily closer to open hostilities.On 21 April 1898, two months after the sinking of battleship Maine in Havana harbor, Cuba, the United States declared war on Spain. Meanwhile, the Navy had moved its warships into position to attack Spanish possessions in the Far East and in the Caribbean. On 15 July 1898, Wilmington arrived off Cape Cruz, near Manzanillo, Cuba, and joined Wompatuck on station with the blockading forces. The following day, Wilmington overhauled two small charcoal-burning fishing boats off the harbor mouth and questioned their Cuban crews. From the brief interrogation, the Americans learned that a submarine cable connected Santa Cruz and Juearo. The gunboat then proceeded to the spot mentioned by the fishermen and lowered a grappling hook. Finding the cable, Wilmington cut it and made for Cuarto Reales to join Helena (Gunboat No. 9), Wompatuck, and Hist. On 17 July, Wilmington led the three other ships to El Guayabal, 20 miles north of Manzanillo, Cuba. Upon their arrival at Guayabal, the warships found Scorpion, Hornet, and Osceola. During the afternoon hours, the four commanding officers met in conference and formulated preliminary plans for an expedition to Manzanillo to destroy the Spanish shipping there. Accordingly, at 0300 on 18 July, the American ships set out from Guayabal and set course for Manzanillo. At 0645, the group split up according to plan: Wilmington and Helena made for the north channel; Hist, Hornet, and Wompatuck for the south, Scorpion and Osceola for the central harbor entrance. Fifteen minutes later, the two largest ships entered the harbor with black smoke billowing from their tall funnels and gunners ready at their weapons. Taking particular care not to damage the city beyond the waterfront, the American gunners directed their gunfire solely at the Spanish ships and took a heavy toll of the steamers congregated there. Spanish supply steamer Purissima Concepcion caught fire alongside a dock and sank at her moorings, gunboat Maria Ponton blew up when her magazines exploded; gunboats Estrella and Delgado Perrado also burned and sank while two transports, Gloria and Jose Garcia, went down as well. Two small gunboats, Guantanamo and Guardian were driven ashore and shot to pieces. Beyond the effective range of Spanish shore batteries, the Americans emerged unscathed, leaving columns of smoke to mark the pyres of the enemy's supply and patrol vessels. The twenty-minute engagement ended with the attackers withdrawing to sea to resume routine patrol duties with the North Atlantic Squadron for the duration of hostilities. Late in the summer, the gunboat headed home and was drydocked at Boston from 24 September to 3 October. Following repairs, the ship departed the Massachusetts coast on 20 October, bound, via Charleston S.C., for Norfolk. Arriving at Hampton Roads on 31 October, the ship put into the Norfolk Navy Yard on the following day for further repairs, overhaul, and preparation for foreign service. With the reestablishment of the South Atlantic Squadron, Wilmington got underway on Christmas Eve and set her course for Puerto Rico. She arrived at San Juan on 30 December 1898 but resumed her voyage south on 2 January 1899 and proceeded via Port Castries, St. Lucia, to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where she made port on the 16th. Six days later, the gunboat left Trinidad behind and pointed her straight stem toward Venezuela. On the 23d, the ship arrived off Barima Point and stood up the Santa Catalina River, which led to the main branch of the Orinoco. After a brief stop at the town of Las Tablas, Wilmington put into Ciudad Bolivar on the 24th where the mayor, the American consul, and a number of city officials came on board the ship for a visit. Diplomatic affairs occupied the officers, with the commanding officer visiting the provincial governor and collector of customs. The ship was "full-dressed" with flags and appropriate ceremonial trappings on 28 January when she welcomed the citizens of the city on board. Two days later, the gunboat departed Ciudad Bolivar to return to Port-of-Spain. She was based at Trinidad through February and into March. During this time. she visited Guanta in northern Venezuela; Georgetown, British Guiana; and proceeded up the Surinam River to Paramaibo, Dutch Guiana. Departing Paramaibo on 6 March, she commenced the initial leg of her cruise up the Amazon River. Navigable for nearly 2,300 miles of its 3,200-mile length during the rainy season, the Amazon and its verdant banks presented the ship's company with interesting and unusual flora and fauna as she proceeded upriver. Calling at Para and Manaos, Brazil, en route, the ship arrived at the Peruvian border at Leticia, Peru, on 11 April. Heaving-to, the gunboat dropped anchor off Leticia to secure permission from Peruvian authorities to proceed further up the Amazon. With permission granted, Wilmington again got underway and arrived at Iquitos on 13 April. While numerous official calls were exchanged during the visit, the gunboat also acquired a small menagerie: three monkeys and one tiger cat which were presented to the ship by the Peruvians. On 18 April, the gunboat departed Iquitos, headed back down stream, and reached Rio de Janeiro on 28 May, completing a 4,600-mile round-trip voyage on the Amazon. On 6 June, Wilmington entered the Brazilian government drydock at Rio de Janeiro for routine bottom cleaning and remained there until 4 July when she got underway and cruised south along the coast visiting Brazilian and Uruguayan ports. She arrived at Montevideo on 16 July and spent one month operating out of that port.
On 17 August, the ship departed Montevideo. However, at 1750 the following day, the port propeller shaft failed, resulting in a change of course back to Montevideo. After remaining in the Uruguayan Port for the days following her arrival on 22 August, she departed on 3 September, steaming by her starboard engine only, for Buenos Aires.
Arriving on 4 September, Wilmington broke the Argentine flag at the main and her saluting guns barked out a 21-gun salute to the Argentine nation as the gunboat entered port. After the usual boarding calls and shore visits by the American officers to the American charge d'affairs and consul, the gunboat entered the drydock at Buenos Aires on 8 September.
Unshipping the port propeller shaft and landing the propeller and a section of the shaft on 16 September, the ship left the drydock the following day with the assistance of two tugs and proceeded to basin number 4 at the Brazilian
Wilmington remained incapacitated at the basin until 18 January 1900, when she was moved to Ensenada, Argentina. Eleven days later, cruiser Chicago passed a towline to the gunboat, and the two ships set out for Montevideo. On 9 February, steamship Corunda arrived with new shafts from the New York Navy Yard. Subsequently, the gunboat returned to Buenos Aires, under tow from gunboat Montgomery, and entered drydock on 3 March 1900, nearly six months after having first been crippled by the damaged propeller shaft.
Once the repairs were finally corrected after dockyard overhaul and a trial period, Wilmington continued cruising on the South American station through the summer and early fall of 1900. While the ship was en route to Rio de Janeiro on 10 May 1900, her inclinometer recorded 45-degree rolls in each direction while traversing heavy, choppy seas. On 16 October 1900, the ship departed Pernambueo, Brazil, bound for the Far East.
Arriving at Gibraltar on 3 November, the ship pushed on across the Mediterranean and transited the Suez Canal early in December, arriving at Port Said on the 4th. On 21 January 1901, the gunboat made port at Manila, in the Philippines, to commence her Asiatic service.
Departing from Cavite on 10 May, the ship headed for the China coast and called at Hong Kong on the 13th. Still nominally attached to the South Atlantic Fleet, Wilmington served in Chinese waters through 1904 on routine cruises showing the stars and stripes along the China coast at ports such as Swatow, Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. On 30 June 1904, the ship was decommissioned at Cavite.
On 2 April 1906, the ship was recommissioned there, with Comdr. William L. Rodgers in command. For the next two years, the ship served off the China coast carrying out her routine cruising and "showing the flag." On 17 December 1908, the gunboat commenced her river service, on the Yangtze as far as Hankow, with the Yangtze River Patrol. Ordinary activities included the usual calls and port visits to such places as Hong Kong, Canton, and Swatow. She conducted target practice after constructing her own target rafts and laying out a firing area. On one occasion, Chinese fishermen decided that the raft presented a good perch from which to fish. Repeated attempts by the gunboaters to shoo away the fishermen only ended in frustration. Finally, as the ship steamed slowly toward the area, she fired a few blank rounds purposely "over," and the squatters promptly abandoned their erstwhile fishing vantage point.After repairs while stationed at Hong Kong from 30 June 1912 to 30 June 1914, the ship resumed her routine cruises, attached to the Far Eastern Squadron, Asiatic Fleet, and continued such duty for the next five years. On 7 April 1917, while at Shanghai, Wilmington received a cable informing the ship that Germany and the United States were at war. Events in the Atlantic had resulted in the severing of relations and the commencement of hostilities. In the Far East, the neutral Chinese greeted the news by issuing terms of internment to all belligerent shipping on 5 May. While Palos ( River Gunboat No. 1), Monocacy ( River Gunboat No. 2), Quiros ( Gunboat No. 40 ), Samar ( Gunboat No. 41 ) and Villalobos (Gunboat No. 42) were directed to stay and be interned, Wilmington got underway on the 6th, within the stated 48-hour limit, and made for the Philippines. Arriving at Manila on 11 May, the gunboat moored alongside Brooklyn (Cruiser No. 3). Proceeding first to Cavite and then to Olongapo, the ship commenced patrol duties in the Philippine Islands, off Corregidor Island's north channel. Operating from Mariveles Bay the gunboat cruised on patrol duty in the Manila Bay area through the fall of 1917, with occasional overhauls at Cavite. She helped to protect the Philippines for the duration of hostilities, intercepting and escorting various vessels entering Philippine waters while carrying out regular drills and exercises. She remained in the archipelago into February 1919, when she again steamed to Shanghai, China. The gunboat remained at Shanghai as station ship from 11 February to 24 June, when she got underway for Hankow. Five days later, the ship dropped anchor off the American consulate at that port. On 11 July, after weeks of official calls and routine business, Wilmington was fouled by a raft of logs, and two Chinese raftsmen fell overboard into the muddy river. The gunboat rescued the two men while other members of the crew proceeded to cut away the
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