The Battle of Manila Bay
The Battle of Manila Bay was the first American naval battle fought against a foreign power since the Mexican American War (1846-1848). It can also be considered the most total victory in the history of the United States Navy. On the morning of 1 May 1898, Commo. George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron sailed into Manila Bay and completely destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Pacific, losing not a single man or vessel. The victory at Manila lay at the feet of extensive American foresight, diligent preparation, Spanish military failings, and Dewey’s bold leadership.
The Asiatic Station posed a mammoth logistical challenge. The sheer expanse of the Pacific Ocean meant that relief on the Asiatic Station could take months. American ships on the Asiatic Station were spread all over the Asian coast from India to the eastern coast Russian Siberia. Communication between ports could take days and commanders were relied upon to make important decisions with severe diplomatic consequences. If war was declared, international law forbid the sale of war material to any belligerents in conflict and in 1897 and 1898 the Asiatic Station was a diplomatic minefield. European states and Japan vied for control of Korean, Chinese, and Southeast Asian ports, while contending with local populations violently struggling against colonial incursion. RAdm. Frederick V. McNair, reported at the beginning of 1898 that it appeared the British and Russians were preparing to go to war over Port Arthur and only months before the murder of German missionaries by Chinese nationals lead to the German occupation of Tsingtao. In the Philippines a recent attempted revolution against Spanish rule had been averted only to start anew a few months later.
As tensions mounted between Spain and the United States over the Cuban revolution the zealous Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt believed he knew of one man up to the task of commanding such a post, Commo. George Dewey. The Assistant Secretary encouraged Dewey to use his friendship with Vermont Senator Redfield Proctor to gain the prestigious posting of Commander-in-Chief on the Asiatic Station. Roosevelt also covertly acted to avert the appointment of Dewey’s competitor, Commo. John A Howell. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long resented the politicking and it caused Dewey an active rank increase. Nonetheless, Roosevelt got his wish, and Dewey was given command on the Asiatic Station.
Dewey had less than a month in command before receiving messages from the Navy Department that portended possible conflict with Spain. He was ordered to retain his enlisted personnel in January 1898. In the flurry of activity after the Maine’s explosion on 15 February, Dewey received a premature cable from Roosevelt tell him to retain his flagship, Olympia, and form his squadron at Hong Kong in anticipation of steaming to Manila and destroying the Spanish fleet if ordered. American planning for a possible war with Spain had long considered the possibility of attack the Philippines. Lt. William W. Kimball best described the ultimate goal in his 1896 plan. The capture of Manila would inflict greater pressure on the Spanish, serving as collateral, and forcing a faster a resolution to any conflict.
Both Dewey and the department understood the Asiatic Squadron’s eventual mission and undertook extensive preparations in anticipation of the geographic and diplomatic isolation that would result from declared conflict with Spain. The Concord and Baltimore, both heavy with ammunition for the ships on station, sailed from San Francisco and were added to Dewey’s command. So too was the Revenue Cutter McCulloch. Dewey purchased the collier Nanshan and supply ship Zafiro on station and took their civilian crews under his command. The raging insurrection in the Philippines was known on station, but Dewey wanted details. He reached out to the United States Consul at Manila, Oscar F. Williams, who acted as Dewey’s eyes and ear in Manila, sending clandestine reports until he was ordered to leave by the Spanish government.
Dewey was informed of war between the United States and Spain by the Governor General of Hong Kong, Wilsone Black, on 23 April and cabled the Navy Department for instructions. Some controversy later arose about who ordered Dewey to Manila, but witness testimonies show the decision was made by President William McKinley the next morning in a cabinet meeting, and the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, drafted and sent a cable in Secretary Long’s name:
Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations particularly against Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavor.
Dewey moved his fleet to Mirs Bay were he waited for Consul Williams to arrive with last minute intelligence. On 27 April, Williams and Dewey finally met and the Asiatic Squadron steamed for Manila.
In Manila, Spanish preparation had not been nearly as diligent. Years of insurgent conflict in the far flung Spanish possession had alienated the Spanish from the local population and a recent uprising was being fought with brutal force. The Spanish Navy’s vessels were outdated and in a state of disrepair. The cruiser Castilla’s engines had to be cemented to prevent it from sinking. The immobilized cruiser had to be towed. Adm. Patricio Montojo initially moved his fleet to the more defensible Subic Bay in hopes of engaging Dewey under circumstances where coastal guns might provide some advantage, but Montojo found the shore guns at Subic were never erected. With antiquated and defective vessels, Montojo decided to face Dewey in the wide open, but shallow, Manila Bay, where he believed his men might better be rescued, if the oncoming battle turned disastrous.
Dewey’s line of ships slipped into Manila Bay during the early morning hours 1 May. They steamed past the erratic fire of Spanish coastal batteries and came upon the Spanish fleet at dawn. Montojo had anchored his ships in the shallow waters off Cavite. Dewey’s line made repeated oval passes raining fire on the Spanish whose ships were ripped to pieces and eventually caught fire. Word reached Dewey a little before 8 am that he was running low on ammunition, and he withdrew and signaled for the crew to eat breakfast. After learning that he remained well stocked, Dewey ordered a second assault to burn the remaining, and now largely abandoned Spanish ships.
The Spanish fleet now entirely destroyed, Dewey dispatched the captain of a British merchant ship to make contact with Spanish Governor Basilio Augustín. Dewey informed Augustín that he would not bombard the city if the shore batteries remained silent and would allow the telegraph from Manila to remain open as long as the Americans could use it. Augustín agreed to a ceasefire under threat of Dewey’s bombardment but refused Dewey’s request to use the telegraph. On 2 May 1898 Dewey severed the telegraph.
Before the cable was cut, the Spanish issued an inaccurate brief that indicated Dewey’s fleet had suffered serious losses. It was almost a week before Dewey’s first report reached Hong Kong and could be cabled to Washington. The Asiatic Squadron had achieved absolute victory, the Spanish fleet was at the bottom of Manila Bay, and Dewey did not lose a single man. The American people were elated and Dewey became a national hero and household name overnight.
Back in Manila, the Asiatic Squadron settled into a blockade under a tenuous ceasefire. Dewey’s squadron was days from the nearest functioning telegraph office and months from reinforcement by the American ground troops he needed to hold Manila and capture the city.