The Spanish-American War began with a naval battle – and a Pacific empire at stake.
MAY 1, 1898, MANILA BAY, PHILIPPINES
Nine U.S. Navy ships of the Asiatic Squadron, with their lights extinguished and with Commodore George Dewey’s flagship, USS lead, sailed quietly into Manila Bay shortly after midnight on the night of April 30-May 1, 1898. This was to be no friendly port call to the capital city of the Philippines, a Spanish colony for over 300 years. Five days earlier, the United States had declared war on Spain. Dewey was leading his seven warships and two support vessels into Manila Bay to attack Admiral Patricio Montojo’s Spanish Pacific Squadron. It would be the U.S. Navy’s first major naval engagement since the end of the Civil War, 33 years earlier.
As Dewey’s line of ships passed the four small islands strung across Manila Bay’s entrance, a Spanish shore battery on El Fraile Island fired three ineffective shots. Brief return fire from USS Raleigh and USS Boston quickly silenced the Spanish gun. Despite certainly being alerted by the booming noise and bright flashes of the gunfire exchange, none of the other Spanish shore batteries fired. Dewey’s ships steamed unmolested into the inner bay and waited for daybreak.
At sunrise, Dewey was momentarily startled to discover that Montojo’s ships were not lying at Manila Bay’s best anchorage, located near the city of Manila itself. As the Americans sailed on to search for the Spanish squadron, Dewey’s ships came under fire from three shore batteries. The Spanish gunners, however, missed as USS Boston and USS Concord returned fire.
Finally, at 5:41 a.m., Dewey’s battle line located the Spanish squadron anchored near Cavite on Sangley Point, south of Manila city. As his ships steamed within 5,000 yards of Montojo’s anchored squadron, the guns of the Spanish ships along with the shore batteries at Cavite opened fire at the Americans. Dewey calmly turned to Olympia’s captain and said, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”
The Battle of Manila Bay had begun.
A SAILOR’S LIFE
George Dewey was born December 26, 1837, in Montpelier, Vt., to Julius Dewey and Mary Perrin. Mary passed away when George was only 5 years old, and the energetic and spirited youngster often got into trouble. His interest in pursuing a military career was sparked early on when he received a book about the exploits of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. Due to George’s unruly behavior, his father deemed that the boy was in dire need of discipline – so he packed off the 14-year-old to the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Norwich, Vt.
Founded in 1819, the school, known today as Norwich University, is the oldest private military college in the United States and is recognized as the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). George spent two years there before receiving an appointment in 1854 to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He graduated from Annapolis with the class of 1858 and was assigned as a midshipman to the steam frigate USS Wabash.
After the Civil War began in April 1861, Dewey was assigned on May 10 to USS Mississippi. He took part in the naval actions leading to the Union capture of New Orleans in 1862 and the 1863 Battle of Port Hudson (in which Mississippi grounded and then was sunk by shore battery fire). From 1863-65, Dewey served on USS Brooklyn, USS Agawa, and finally USS Colorado. As Colorado’s executive officer, he participated in the 1864-65 Battles of Fort Fisher. During the Civil War, Dewey was highly praised for his seamanship, leadership and courage, and at war’s end he was promoted to lieutenant commander.
Following the Civil War and until 1867, Dewey served on a number of vessels – including USS Kearsarge, USS Canandaigua and again USS Colorado – and in a variety of assignments at sea and ashore. After that he was assigned to shore duty at the U.S. Naval Academy, placed in charge of a class of midshipmen and the ships stationed at the school. In 1873, Dewey was given his first command, USS Narragansett. His other ships and assignments between 1875 and 1896 included USS Juniata in the Asiatic Squadron; USS Dolphin on the American east coast; the venerable Civil War veteran USS Pensacola in the European Squadron; and shore duty in Washington, D.C., in two assignments to the Lighthouse Board, the last one (1893-96) as the board’s naval secretary. Dewey received promotions to commander, captain and then (in 1896) commodore.
In 1897, the commanding officer positions in both the Asiatic Squadron and the Atlantic Squadron opened up with the departure of their respective commanders. Dewey requested command of the Asiatic Squadron, but the post had been all but assigned to Commodore John A. Howell, who was backed by Secretary of the Navy John Long. However, the dynamic, energetic and resourceful Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt favored Dewey for the posting. Roosevelt urged Dewey to speak with Redfield Proctor, a U.S. senator from Dewey’s home state of Vermont. Proctor enthusiastically endorsed his family friend and in turn encouraged President William McKinley to direct the Naval Department to appoint Dewey. McKinley so ordered, and Secretary Long, although unenthusiastically, dutifully complied with the order. However, Long refused to promote Dewey to rear admiral, the rank held by his predecessor in the important command.
The Asiatic Squadron command was a significant advancement for Dewey; but with tensions rising between the United States and Spain, it was even more critical for the U.S. Navy to have an officer of his experience, skill and initiative in charge of America’s naval strike force in the Pacific.
WAR WITH SPAIN
Following the Civil War, the United States had renewed its westward expansion that took American interests beyond the country’s Pacific coast, across the ocean and into Asia. New markets in China and rapidly modernizing Japan drew the United States into a region that had long been exploited by European colonial powers such as Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Spain. Spain’s Philippines colony, given its superb strategic position astride the main western Pacific sea-lanes, and the fact that Manila Bay was the finest natural port in Asia, was of particular interest to Americans (notably Theodore Roosevelt) who longed for a U.S. Pacific empire.
Meanwhile, in another Spanish colony closer to home, nationalists in Cuba chafed under despotic Spanish rule, with violence breaking out in the mid-1890s. The American public strongly supported Cuban revolutionaries and their cause, as did the McKinley administration that took the reins of government after the 1896 election. As tensions between the United States and Spain mounted, USS Maine exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana harbor February 15, 1898, killing 266 of the ship’s 355-man crew.
The American press immediately claimed the explosion was an act of war by Spain against the United States – a charge the Spanish government vehemently (and probably truthfully) denied. McKinley, under increasing political and public opinion pressure, sent Spain an ultimatum demanding that the Spanish withdraw from Cuba. On April 24, Spain declared war on the United States, which reciprocated April 25.
Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, always alert to opportunity and ever eager to seize the unforgiving moment, U.S. Navy ships were made ready for battle soon after war was declared. Although only Assistant Navy Secretary Roosevelt took the initiative to speed ammunition and supplies to American warships worldwide and place the vessels on alert for imminent action. On April 26, the Navy Department sent Dewey, who had been readying his Asiatic Squadron, a message reading: “Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.”
On April 27, Dewey set out from the China coast, where the Asiatic Squadron was based, en route to the Philippines, 600 miles away across the South China Sea. In addition to Dewey’s flagship, USS Olympia, the squadron included three other cruisers, Baltimore, Raleigh and Boston; two gunboats, Concord and Petrel; the revenue cutter McCulloch (essentially a lightly armed gunboat); the collier Nanshan; and the supply steamer Zafiro. The squadron’s striking power was contained in the 8-inch, 6-inch and 5-inch naval guns mounted on the cruisers and gunboats (although McCulloch mounted only small, 3-inch guns).
The Asiatic Squadron’s destination, Manila Bay, was guarded at its 12-mile entrance by shore batteries. A total of 17 guns were mounted on four islands: Corregidor, Caballo, El Fraile and Carabao. The islands divided ship passage into Manila Bay into two channels, north and south. Although Dewey realized the channels were likely protected by naval mines, while en route he met with his captains and concluded that the mines would not pose a major threat to his ships passing into the bay. Moreover, despite the fact that Admiral Montojo’s Spanish squadron outnumbered Dewey’s squadron in fighting vessels 11-to-7, the American ships were newer, faster, had thicker armor protection, mounted larger guns and were manned by much better trained crews.
On April 30, the American squadron reached the coast of the northern Philippines island of Luzon, the most important of the over 7,000 islands making up the Philippine Archipelago. Dewey dispatched Boston and Concord to examine Subic Bay, on Luzon’s western coast 60 miles north of Manila Bay, for the presence of any Spanish warships. Although a report of firing at Subic led Dewey to send Baltimore to join the other two ships, there had been no enemy contact. Subic Bay contained no Spanish ships and therefore posed no threat to Dewey’s advance. Since it then seemed certain that the Spanish squadron was concentrated in Manila Bay, a more relaxed Dewey told one of his officers, “Now we have them!”
As the Asiatic Squadron approached within 30 miles of Manila Bay’s entrance, Dewey decided to bring his ships past the Spanish island outposts and into the bay under cover of darkness. He brought his captains onboard Olympia and instructed them: “We shall enter Manila Bay tonight and you will follow the motions and movements of the flagship, which will lead.”
BATTLE OF MANILA BAY
After Dewey’s ships sailed unscathed past the islands guarding Manila Bay’s entrance and eventually discovered the Spanish squadron anchored at Sangley Point, the battle that would decide the fate of the Philippines began at 5:41 a.m. on May 1, 1898. In response to Dewey’s “fire when ready” instructions, Olympia’s 8-inch guns launched the squadron’s first rounds toward the Spanish ships, followed immediately by volleys from the other American warships. Much to Dewey’s consternation, however, the initial volleys went wild. Although these first shots missed, billowing smoke from the ships’ guns obscured the American vessels from the Spanish gunners’ observation, thereby preventing the Spaniards from firing accurately at Dewey’s ships.
Tactically, the American ships steamed in “line ahead” battle formation – with Olympia leading, followed by the rest of the squadron’s ships, one behind the other – tracing a circular course that kept them 2,000-3,000 yards from the Spanish ships while firing successive volleys at the enemy. Throughout the battle, Dewey’s circular “turning and firing” maneuver was repeated five times.
The first casualty of the battle was a small Spanish torpedo boat that drove straight toward Olympia but was promptly sunk. The American ships then targeted Montojo’s flagship, Reina Cristina, and began systematically tearing it apart. Shots landed on its stern, forecastle and mizzenmast, killing 80 Spanish sailors before the ship was abandoned. Reina Cristina’s captain, Don Luis Cadarso, was killed as he worked to evacuate his men, and Pacific Squadron commander Admiral Montojo was forced to move his flag to Isla de Cuba.
Raleigh targeted the Spanish ship Castilla on its third firing run, landing a shot under the ship’s bridge that destroyed two of its guns and wounded many members of its command staff. Continual fire from Raleigh forced Castilla’s crew to abandon the vessel just before it sank. The Spanish cruiser Don Juan de Austria got under way and attempted to charge the American battle line but was forced to turn away after Olympia’s guns inflicted heavy damage.
On the American squadron’s fourth firing pass, one of Dewey’s ships was finally hit. A Spanish shell penetrated Baltimore’s hull, ricocheted through the ship, disabled a gun and exploded in the ammunition store, injuring eight U.S. sailors. Except for McCulloch’s chief engineer, Francis Randall, who died from a heart attack (or heatstroke), these eight wounded sailors were Dewey’s only battle casualties. The next American volley, however, heavily damaged two more Spanish ships, Isla de Luzon and Marques del Duero.
At 7:15 a.m., the American squadron began its fifth and final firing run against the Spanish ships. Midway through the maneuver, however, Dewey received a report that Olympia was running low on ammunition – only 15 rounds per gun remained aboard ship. Furthermore, gun smoke hanging over the battle area concealed the damage the American ships had wrought on the Spanish vessels, leaving Dewey unaware of the enemy’s disposition and status. These circumstances convinced him to pause his attacks, and he ordered his crews to rest and eat breakfast.
While Dewey’s crews rested, the smoke cleared and it became evident that the Spanish squadron was in serious trouble. Additionally, Dewey received the good news that Olympia actually had plenty of ammunition left. The initial report was incorrect – only 15 rounds per gun had been fired. Dewey brought his officers aboard Olympia, where he learned that during the morning’s battle his squadron had suffered few casualties and that only four ships had been hit by Spanish fire: Baltimore suffered minor damage and eight wounded sailors; Olympia had been struck in the hull at five non-critical locations; Boston sustained minor damage; and Petrel was hit once.
At 11:16 a.m., Dewey ordered his squadron to resume the attack, targeting Don Antonio de Ulloa, the remaining intact Spanish warship, and the enemy shore batteries still firing. Within minutes, Ulloa was sunk and the gunnery duel with the shore batteries proved one-sided in the Americans’ favor – the batteries’ guns had insufficient range to hit the U.S. ships.
All that remained to Dewey was to finish off the stricken enemy ships, some of which the Spaniards had intentionally beached to prevent their sinking. Dewey’s ships closed on the Spanish squadron’s remnants, destroyed the beached transport Mindanao, and dispatched American crews to set fire to other beached ships. Petrel was ordered to lob several rounds at the Spanish colonial government building, and that prompted the surrender of Spanish forces.
By 12:30 p.m. on May 1, Montojo’s ships Don Juan de Austria, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, Marques del Duero, Correo and General Lezo were ablaze and the rest of his Pacific Squadron had been sunk. In all, the Spaniards had lost 167 sailors killed and 214 wounded. The Battle for Manila Bay was over. Thanks to Dewey’s leadership, the U.S. Navy’s first major engagement since the Civil War was a stunning American victory.
Later that night, Dewey wrote in his journal: “Sunday, May 1. Reached Manila at daylight and immediately engaged the Spanish ships and batteries at Cavite. Destroyed [eight] of the former including the Reina Cristina and Castilla. Anchored at noon off Manila. [Also one large steam transport].”
SEIZING A PACIFIC EMPIRE
Shortly after the Spanish surrender, Dewey dispatched a message to Manila’s Spanish captain general: The American warships would level the city if they were fired upon from that point forward, and any Spanish ships remaining in the adjacent rivers were to be handed over to Dewey’s forces. If those conditions were met, Dewey would leave intact the telegraph cable and allow its use by the Spaniards. The captain general agreed to the first term but refused the second. In response, Dewey cut the telegraph cable, severing communications to and from the Philippines.
On May 2, the Spanish flag was raised over Cavite arsenal, and Dewey learned it signaled that the Spanish garrison intended a temporary truce. Uninterested in only a “temporary truce,” he quickly sent an ultimatum: The arsenal was to surrender by noon or the American ships would open fire. The threat worked, and the soldiers manning the arsenal promptly surrendered. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish squadron’s survivors and Cavite garrison soldiers were allowed to evacuate the islands. Admiral Montojo was recalled to Madrid, where he was court-martialed, convicted, imprisoned and dismissed from the Spanish navy. (Montojo was later absolved of the court-martial conviction, and Dewey was one of his principal supporters.)
Dewey dispatched McCulloch to Hong Kong on May 4 to report back to Washington. Upon receiving the news of Dewey’s great success in the Philippines, Senator Proctor wrote to President McKinley: “I want to say that [Dewey] will be as wise and safe, if there are political duties devolving on him, as he is forcible in action. There is no better man in discretion and safe judgment. We may run him against you for president. He would make a good one.” Dewey’s victory at Manila had indeed electrified the nation. Roosevelt and countless others wrote their congratulations, and McKinley promoted Dewey to acting rear admiral.
With victory won, Dewey set about ensuring that he would be able to hold onto his prize – America’s new Pacific empire. He established a blockade sealing off Manila’s sea approaches, and when a Spanish vessel appeared on May 12, it was quickly captured (the Spanish crew, it was discovered, had been out of touch since the war began and hadn’t even realized that Spain and the United States were at war). Throughout the rest of May and into June, Dewey worked to consolidate his hold on Manila while Filipino nationalists sought out and engaged Spanish garrisons that remained scattered throughout the Philippines’ interior. On May 16, Dewey received the welcome news that 2,500 American reinforcements were under way along with badly needed ammunition resupply. In August, American forces formally entered Manila alongside Filipino soldiers.
The end result of Dewey’s naval victory and subsequent capture of Manila is best summed up in his biography: “Hitherto the United States had been considered a second-class power, whose foreign policy was an unimportant factor beyond the 3-mile limit of the American hemisphere. By a morning’s battle, we had secured a base in the Far East at a juncture in international relations when the parceling out of China among the European powers seemed imminent.”
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in the Caribbean, U.S. land and sea forces achieved more successes against Spain’s army and navy. Americans invaded Cuba and defeated the Spanish army on the island – and Dewey’s staunch supporter, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, gained battlefield fame leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Heights, which would eventually propel Roosevelt into the White House. The Spanish naval squadron based in Santiago Bay, Cuba, shared the same fate as Montojo’s Pacific Squadron and was destroyed as it left harbor.
On July 26, 1898, after decisive defeats in the Pacific and the Caribbean, the Spanish government had enough. Spain signed a ceasefire August 12. The peace treaty, signed in December, required Spain to formally relinquish Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain’s Pacific colonies (Philippines and Guam) to a new imperial power – the United States. The Spanish-American War lasted a mere 109 days, but it propelled the United States to the forefront of world affairs.
Filipino nationalists, however, soon recognized Dewey’s rapid conquest of the Philippines as merely one occupying power, Spain, being replaced with another colonial master, the United States. American military forces in the Philippines soon began to clash with Filipino insurrectionists demanding total independence. From 1899 to 1902, the United States was involved in a bloody guerrilla war in which over 4,300 Americans and countless Filipinos died before the insurrection was quelled. Decades later, on July 4, 1946, after Americans and Filipinos had fought side by side to defeat the Japanese in World War II, the independent Republic of the Philippines was established.
In March 1899, Dewey was promoted to admiral, and he soon departed Manila, leaving the Asiatic Squadron in the hands of Captain A.S. Barker. Upon returning to the United States, Dewey discovered his Manila Bay triumph had made him a national hero. Books, magazines and Dewey-themed memorabilia – his image appeared on commemorative plates, busts, calendars and other trinkets – were best-sellers nationwide. He was met by cheering crowds everywhere as he crossed the country. In New York City and in his hometown of Montpelier, Vt., he was feted and honored in overwhelming celebrations.
As early as 1898, while Dewey was still in Manila, supporters began to consider him as a potential political candidate and a suitable alternative to anti-imperialist Democrat William Jennings Bryan to run for president against McKinley. Although Dewey initially resisted running, he was strongly encouraged to do so by a number of the era’s notable figures, including Joseph Pulitzer, J.P. Morgan and William Randolph Hearst. In 1900, Dewey relented, announced he would run for president, and was strongly backed in Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s newspaper empires.
While Dewey was America’s most renowned naval hero, he was out of his depth in politics. He lacked the necessary experience in the political arena to run for the nation’s highest office and ended up withdrawing from the race in favor of Bryan. Ironically, Dewey’s stunning Manila Bay victory – which McKinley trumpeted as occurring during his administration – significantly helped the incumbent and his running mate, Dewey’s fellow Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt, decisively defeat Bryan in the 1900 election.
In 1903, Dewey was promoted to the unprecedented rank of “admiral of the Navy” (retroactive to March 2, 1899). He was the only officer to hold this highest-ever U.S. naval rank that is considered equivalent to John J. Pershing’s later (promoted 1919) “general of the armies” rank. On January 16, 1917, just before the United States became involved in World War I, Admiral George Dewey passed away in Washington, D.C., and is buried under a memorial plaque in the floor of Washington National Cathedral.
Andrew Liptak, a graduate of Norwich University, is a freelance writer and historian currently residing in Vermont. He specializes in 20th-century military and popular culture history.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.