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120th Anniversary of Spanish-American War—Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898

"You May Fire When Ready, Gridley!"

Battle of Manila Bay, Sunday, May 1, 1898
"Battle of Manila Bay, Sunday, May 1, 1898," by Dr. Alfonso Saenz, a Spanish naval surgeon. Painted in 1899 (KN 619).

H-Gram 018, Attachment 5
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
April 2018 


In the mid-1890s, as tensions between the United States and Spain increased due to the rebellion in the Spanish colony of Cuba, the U.S. Navy began planning for the possibility of conflict with Spain. For about four years, the U.S. Navy worked on a plan for the U.S. Asiatic Squadron to defeat the Spanish Pacific Squadron—based in the Philippines—immediately upon the outbreak of war. At that time, war planning was mostly done at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. Although sidetracked for a bit due to a war scare with Japan, the plan was well-advanced when it appeared war was imminent. The war scare occurred when Japan deployed a cruiser to the Hawaiian Islands in response to reports of discrimination against Japanese nationals by the Dole regime (basically U.S. businessmen/planters who had overthrown the native-Hawaiian monarchy).

In anticipation of having to execute the plan, the high-energy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt—compared to the much more low-energy Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long—hand-picked Commodore George E. Dewey to assume command of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron in January 1898. Dewey had a distinguished himself under fire during the Civil War at the battles of New Orleans, Port Hudson and Fort Fisher. Dewey was deeply impressed by the Union commander in the first two battles, Admiral David Farragut, and would later state that whenever in a tough situation he would ask, “what would Farragut do?” Dewey was also a voracious consumer and user of intelligence, devouring many books and reports on the Philippines in the Navy Department Library and Office of Naval Intelligence (then co-located) before he reported for duty in the Far East. Once there, he established close relationships with the U.S. consul general in Manila, and through that means quickly developed a very accurate understanding of the Spanish squadron’s strength, capability, and condition of readiness. He then implemented a rigorous battle training program for the Asiatic Squadron, at that time operating out of Hong Kong. He would later say that the battle of Manila Bay was won in the harbor of Hong Kong (due to the extensive training.)

Dewey’s flagship was the protected cruiser USS Olympia (C-6). (“Protected” meant it had armor protecting vital areas, as opposed to “unprotected” cruisers.) Completed in 1895, Olympia benefited from lessons of many of the design flaws in ships built in the late 1880s and early 1890s as the U.S. Navy rapidly came out of a protracted period of stasis and neglect after the Civil War. Armed with two twin 8-inch gun turrets fore and aft, ten single 5-inch guns, four Gatling guns, and six 17-inch torpedo tubes, Olympia displaced 5,300 tons and could make a top speed of 21.7 knots. Olympia was the technological cutting edge of her day. (She is still preserved as a museum ship in Philadelphia, and a visitor will note the numerous “first of’s”—such as triple-expansion engines—of a truly modern warship, as well as a few “last of’s” such as a ram bow and sail rig.)

Dewey had three other protected cruisers in his squadron, which were a mishmash of design and capability. USS Boston was the oldest (1884) and least capable, and was one of the original “ABC” program of ships that started the U.S. Navy out of the doldrums. USS Baltimore (C-3) was newer (1890) and had served as the Asiatic Squadron flagship in the early 1890s and had just returned from Hawaii. USS Raleigh (C-8) was newer (1894) but only had 6-inch guns as her main armament. The squadron also had two gunboats, USS Petrel (PG-2) and USS Concord (PG-3), both decently armed for gunboats with 6-inch guns. Dewey also incorporated the revenue cutter McCulloch, which just happened by en route to the U.S. West Coast via the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. As the threat of war became imminent, Dewey augmented his capability by purchasing the collier Nanshan and supply vessel Zafiro, both foreign-flagged ships that happened to be in Hong Kong, complete with their crews and cargo. (Obviously, procurement regulations were different at the time, but they were remarkably efficient).

By contrast, the Spanish Pacific Squadron was in deep trouble before the war even started. Contra-Almirante (Rear Admiral) Patricio Montojo’s ships were outdated, poorly-maintained, under-manned, short on ammunition, and several ships had already been transferred to the Atlantic. Spain’s strategy seemed to be based more on saving face than putting up an effective fight. Montojo’s flagship was the unprotected cruiser Reina Cristina. Armed only with 6.4-inch guns and a top speed of 16 knots, she was the queen of the squadron but no match for Olympia. Montojo’s biggest ship was Castilla, but her 8-inch guns had been stripped to equip shore batteries; she was no longer capable of steaming under her own power and had to be towed. The rest of Montojo’s squadron consisted of two small, unprotected cruisers and two even smaller protected cruisers—and a gunboat.

Montojo clearly understood that his ships were no match for the U.S. Asiatic Squadron. With war declared on 25 April, Montojo received word on April 28 that Dewey was underway from Hong Kong. Montojo had initially planned to mount his defense of the Philippines at Subic Bay, but quickly abandoned that idea as it was unlikely he could get his ships there in time, if at all. He opted to anchor his force off the Cavite Peninsula in shallow water and await the Americans there. Although there were shore batteries at Cavite, they did not have range to reach the U.S. ships. A primary rationale for where Montojo anchored was to give his sailors the best chance of survival. He chose not to anchor under the protection of Fort San Antonia Abad, whose 9.4-inch guns could outrange the Americans, for reasons that must have made sense to him. On 30 April, Montojo was informed that Dewey’s force had reached Subic Bay, so he anticipated the U.S. squadron to arrive off Manila after midday on 1 May

The entrance to Manila Bay was generally considered to be unnavigable at night, and at least the northern of the two channels had reportedly been mined. Adopting the “damn the torpedoes” attitude of his role model, Farragut, Dewey boldly led his ships through the little used and poorly charted southern channel under the cover of darkness. Some reports claim a couple Spanish mines exploded but were ineffective, but details are vague. A shower of sparks from McCulloch’s stack apparently attracted some ineffective Spanish-shore-battery-fire. The only known U.S. fatality of the operation was the chief engineer of McCulloch, who suffered either a heart attack or heat exhaustion while trying to put out the soot fire in McCulloch’s stack. Regardless, the Spanish were surprised and shocked to find the U.S. ships off Cavite at 0515 in the morning. The Spanish ships and shore batteries at Cavite opened fire first, but the U.S. ships were out of their range.

At 0541, Commodore Dewey gave his immortal command, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” and the U.S. force began methodically blasting the Spanish squadron. “Gridley” was Captain Charles Vernon Gridley, commanding officer of Olympia. Gridley was actually very seriously ill, and would die on 5 June 1898, probably from a combination of dysentery and liver cancer. He died in Japan while being transported back to the United States for treatment. (Like Dewey, Gridley also had a distinguished Civil War record and served with Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay).

For the next couple hours, Dewey’s force steamed back and forth—five times—firing first to port, reversing course, then firing to starboard. With each pass, range to the Spanish decreased from 5,000 yards at first, to 2,000 yards at the end. At this point, Montojo, with his return fire completely ineffective, ordered his ships to attempt to ram the U.S. ships. His flagship, Reina Cristina, succeeded in getting underway, and as a result, drew heavy fire. Within a short period, 200 of her crew of 400 were casualties, including Montojo, with a heavy loss of life among her gun crews. Montojo ordered the heavily damaged ship into shallow water and scuttled her. The unprotected cruiser Ulloa also attempted to get underway, but was holed below the waterline; her captain killed and half the crew were casualties. The immobile Castilla only had guns on her port side, and when the tide swung her in the opposite direction, her captain ordered her abandoned and scuttled.      

At 0745, the fog of war struck when Dewey received a report that his ships were down to 15 rounds of ammo per gun. Dewey then ordered a withdrawal, but so as not to affect the morale of the men, said they were withdrawing for “breakfast.” The ships’ captains then all convened on Olympia and determined that they had suffered little damage and no men killed. It was also discovered that the ammunition report had been garbled; the true report was that only 15 rounds per gun had been expended.

At 1045, apparently after a leisurely breakfast, the U.S. ships resumed firing on the Spanish, but the great majority of damage had already been done. The Spanish put up little further resistance. Ulloa finally sank, and Montojo ordered the entire fleet scuttled, after disabling all guns. U.S. ships then shifted fire and silenced shore batteries on Sangley Point. The Spanish struck their colors at 1240. Reina Cristina was hit about 80 times, Castilla about 50 times, and Ulloa 33 times. The other Spanish ships were all hit between three and 13 times. Nevertheless, despite the one-sided nature of the battle, the accuracy of U.S. gunnery was abysmal. Of 5,859 shells expended, only about 170 hit Spanish vessels. Improving gunnery accuracy would become a major issue in the U.S. Navy over the next decade, and ideas for how to do so would provoke dissension and controversy. Casualty figures for the Spanish vary widely depending on the source. My United States Naval Academy Seapower textbook says 381 were killed and U.S. ships hit 15 times. The U.S. forces suffered seven or nine wounded (depending on the source), although the Spanish would later claim Dewey hid a higher number of killed and wounded in the approximately 150 U.S. Sailors who deserted in the Philippines over the next months.

Having won a great victory, Dewey was faced with the perennial problem of, “now what?” The U.S. Navy had a plan to defeat the Spanish navy, but the United States did not have a plan to annex the Philippines. The city of Manila remained in Spanish hands. In a somewhat bizarre event, Dewey asked the Spanish governor general to use the cable from Manila to Hong Kong so that he could request instructions from the U.S. government about what to do. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the governor general refused. Dewey then had the cable cut, and he was then on his own to make decisions about the future of the Philippines. Despite the loss of the Spanish squadron, the city of Manila refused to capitulate—and would not do so until August 1998. In the meantime, Dewey and the U.S. would get drawn in to the ongoing insurrection against the Spanish by much of the Filipino population. Dewey was eventually able to get word to the United States that he had sufficient force to take the city—in cooperation with Filipino rebels— but would not be able to hold it. In a surprisingly short period of time, by May 28, a U.S. Army division of 11,000 men left San Francisco on the way to the Philippines and long-term involvement in the islands. Along the way, the cruiser USS Charleston made a side trip and conducted a bloodless capture of Guam, whose Spanish governor had not yet learned there was a war on.

Dewey’s situation in Manila Bay became more complicated in June 1898, when the German Asiatic Squadron showed up uninvited. Under the command of Vice Admiral Otto von Diederich, the German Squadron made no overtly hostile moves, although Dewey believed the Germans were rude, arrogant, and engaged in suspicious activity with ulterior motives. Given that the U.S. squadron was low on ammunition, Dewey was careful not to provoke the Germans. At the time, the Germans under Kaiser Wilhelm II were trying to make up for lost time and catch up to the British and French in acquiring colonies—and coaling stations—around the world. If the U.S. wasn’t going to annex the Philippines the Germans apparently were itching to do so. Eventually, the Germans went away.

The Spanish made an attempt to send a relief force to the Philippines, which included the battleship Pelayo, but it only made it as far Suez, before Spain determined they would be better used defending Spain’s own coast after the crushing defeat of the Spanish squadron in Cuba in July 1898— the battle of Santiago. The United States had a plan to bombard Spain, and two battleships (Iowa and Oregon) and the armored cruiser Brooklyn were ordered to do so, but the operation was cancelled before the ships ever left the Caribbean.

Dewey’s victory catapulted him to immense fame. The U.S. newspapers hyped the victory and it seemed every artist in the United States did a painting of the battle. Dewey actually ran for election for president in 1900, but withdrew before the election, and the incumbent William McKinley was re-elected—and then assassinated. Dewey was then appointed as president of the new General Board for the U.S. Navy. The General Board consisted of very senior U.S. naval officers whose purpose was to advise the Secretary of the Navy, and to try to break down the stovepipes between the different Navy bureaus that tended to operate as independent fiefdoms. (There will be more on this in a future H-gram, because this power struggle would eventually lead to the creation of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in 1915 and the OPNAV staff).  Dewey, with the rank of Admiral of the Navy (the only U.S. admiral ever to hold that rank) served as the president of the General Board until his death in 1917, although he had largely been incapacitated by a stroke in 1914.

(Sources for this piece include; Sea Power by E. B. Potter—the classic history of seapower textbook—and History of the U.S. Navy (Volume 1) by my academy advisor, Professor Robert Love. Also Al Nofi’s 1997 book, The Spanish American War, 1898.)

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Published: Wed May 08 10:48:30 EDT 2019