USS Olympia_b&w.jpg

USS Olympia

The 10-week Spanish-American War of 1898 is not a forgotten war, yet in most American eyes hostilities were limited to events in nearby Cuba and Puerto Rico. Another phase of the same war on the other side of the world doesn’t resonate well in our memory. So in this sense it is often overlooked. As a boy growing up in the Philippines, I sometimes was in the company of Spanish-American War veterans, both Americans and Filipinos; with a little prodding they might tell of their experiences. To me the Spanish-American War 30 years earlier was as real as World War I ending only 12 years before. Every four or five years when we went back to the United States for a month’s visit, I was puzzled that others my age often thought the Philippines lay in the Caribbean near Cuba. After all, they said, that was where the Spanish-American War had been fought. Oddly enough, an adult I was talking with a few years ago said the same thing.

With the opening of hostilities defeating Spain in nearby Cuba was feverishly reported by the sensationalist “yellow press,” so-named after the color of ink used in a denigrating comic strip. To this day yellow journalism implies irresponsible reporting. The nation’s attention was riveted on stories of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill (little was made of the difficulties he found himself in later). Warfare in the distant Philippine Islands remained almost a footnote except for a startling victory by a naval officer from Vermont. Other than that, relatively little mention was made when the Philippines and Guam fell to the Americans in a matter of days.

Thus the Spanish-American War’s Philippine theater may qualify as one of our “forgotten” wars, with the exception of that one brief, highly publicized naval engagement. Remembering today tells of brief battles that resulted in very few American casualties (17 killed, 115 wounded) and little loss of matériel. It is more important to understand how this brief campaign set in motion the much more costly Philippine-American and Moro Wars that raged for 15 more years. These will be taken up separately in later accounts.

The origins of the Spanish-American War are explained in voluminous histories and are amply discussed in excellent websites on the Internet. They need only brief comment here.

During the last decade of the 19th Century the possibility of armed intervention in Cuba by the United States was in the air as Washington and particularly the press grew increasingly concerned about conditions in Cuba. Actually the first mention of acquisition occurred long before when James Buchanan, serving as Secretary of State under President James Polk, felt that nearby Cuba really should be a part of the young United States of America. He tried to purchase the island, but nothing came of it.

Intermittent rebellions of one sort or another among independence-minded Cubans also had an early beginning around the time of our Civil War. Resistance increased and by the close of the 19th Century erupted into 10 years of armed insurrection against the brutal Spanish rule of Captain-General Valeriano Weyler. Weyler’s track record included a previous stint in the Spanish Philippines where he attempted to suppress Filipino insurgents, but his ruthless efforts only served to inflame them further. Due to increasingly restive colonial peoples in two different parts of the world, the far-flung Spanish empire was showing signs of unraveling.

Weyler’s Cuban repressions were especially severe because the island was considered to be a maritime province of Spain itself. Unrest bordering on revolution would not be tolerated, and Weyler did his brutal best to see that it was so. Small blockhouses and sentry posts were placed at road intersections to limit and inspect traffic. It was in Cuba that the term “concentration camp” originated. Under Weyler’s direction, the authorities began concentrating civilians (reconcentrados) in heavily protected areas behind trenches, fences, and towers manned by armed guards. The intent was to keep non-militants bottled up and away from the influence of rebellious factions roaming the country. Because conditions in the camps were frightful with limited housing, lack of food, insufficient sanitation, and indiscriminate shooting of any who attempted to leave, the death toll among innocents rose to alarming heights. Other nations soon became aware of the situation.

Underlying America’s humanitarian concern for Cubans was a long-term, barely concealed interest not only in having Spain withdraw from Cuba and Puerto Rico, but also a determination to become politically and economically involved with the fate of those two islands. On the other hand a strong anti-imperialist sentiment existed in the United States that with the onset of the Spanish-American War temporarily subsided but grew strong again as America became involved in the next two Far Eastern wars. Powerful anti-war factions in Washington at first stood firm against the possibility of armed conflict with Spain, as did President William McKinley.

In early 1898, a U.S. battleship, the newly commissioned USS Maine, was sent on a goodwill mission to Cuba and also to serve visibly as protection for the large American presence in the island. On January 15, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor with a large loss among its crew. To this day it hasn’t been determined whether it was an internal conflagration in the coal bunkers or the result of a collision with a Cuban mine, but the loss of life and destruction of a capital ship in the U.S. Navy fanned patriotic fervor across the country.

Redfield Proctor of Proctorsville, VT, was a distinguished Civil War veteran who, after returning to civilian life, had been elected Governor of Vermont and later served as Secretary of War under President Benjamin Harrison. A senior, highly respected Republican, he was elected in 1891 to the U.S. Senate, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Two months after the Maine disaster, Proctor visited Cuba with a keen observer’s eye to make an intensive study of the country, its people and conditions under the oppressive Spanish rule.

Upon his return, Proctor gave a dispassionate, carefully thought-out speech on the Senate floor on March 17. It was the direct opposite of William Randolph Hearst’s hysterical, war-provoking yellow press that had ignited war fever throughout the country. Proctor also called for war, but in a measured, calm fashion fully documented by his personal observations in Cuba. His speech played a pivotal role in shifting the President’s anti-war policy in which he had become increasingly isolated. For everyone else, Proctor was preaching to the choir.

Proctor’s speech also strengthened the war party’s momentum, which had already reached unprecedented heights. After almost a month of debate in both houses of congress, a declaration of war was passed and on April 21, 1898, was promptly signed into law by President McKinley .

The Vermont senator’s speech made no mention of Spain’s Philippine possessions on the other side of the world.

The U.S. Asiatic Fleet was just that. It had no naval base beyond the West Coast (Hawaii had not yet been annexed). The little fleet remained in Asiatic waters using Great Britain’s Hong Kong naval yard as a friendly base, but it had no source of supply for munitions and engineering necessities, only provisioning and coal for its steam-fired boilers. All the other naval powers — Great Britain, Germany, France, Holland, and the emerging Empire of Japan — had Asiatic ports enabling them to maintain substantial fleets in the western Pacific. On paper and under normal circumstances even the Spanish fleet based in Manila was superior to the small American squadron commanded by Commodore George Dewey, another Vermonter, from Montpelier. When war was declared by both the United States and Spain, Dewey’s small squadron was in Hong Kong.

It was the dawn of a new age: news could now be sent instantly around the world by telegraphic transmission through submarine cables. Dewey learned of the outbreak of war from British authorities in the Crown Colony, but was told he had to leave because of Great Britain’s neutrality. Four days later on April 24, he received orders from President McKinley to attack Manila, although exactly what and how he was to carry it out were left up to him.

Dewey’s little squadron departed from Hong Kong in such a hurry he failed to take an important Filipino passenger, Emilio Aquinaldo, about whom more will be said in a future account.

Western nations, including the British in Hong Kong, thought Dewey was sailing into disaster and sure defeat. Nations and news organizations took polls and bets to see how long he would last. Everyone knew the larger Spanish fleet would take care of him in short order, even though the caliber of their ships’ guns was less than that of the Americans’. A ship sailing in open waters found the sea strewn with trash and flotsam — sure indication the American ships had been destroyed — when in fact it was stuff Dewey’s ships had thrown overboard to prepare for action.

The Spanish government in Manila was not overly concerned when a significant part of their Asiatic fleet was ordered back to Spain to protect the homeland against American attack — which never occurred nor was it even contemplated. What naval power had been left in Philippine waters was thought to be sufficient to take care of the small American squadron of five cruisers and three gunboats.

What happened next was extraordinary — fortuitous for the Americans, calamitous for the Spanish. The commander of the Spanish Fleet, Admiral Patricio Montojo, decided not to put his ships to sea to confront the Americans head-on, nor did he want to keep them stationed in the large open port of Manila, which would result in the city being bombarded. But the “wisdom” of what he actually did is difficult to explain.

Montojo ordered his entire fleet to cross Manila Bay and anchor in protected waters close in the lee of Cavite, Spain’s large naval base. There the ships would also come under the protection of powerful shore batteries around the bay. As a result, at the time of battle all Spanish ships were immobilized at anchor. One of their largest ship’s engines were in such disrepair that it had to be towed to its anchorage.

The first shots were fired by Spanish shore batteries a little after midnight on May 1 as Dewey’s squadron sailed south from its temporary halt in nearby Subic Bay.

At daybreak, as Dewey approached Manila and sailed past Corregidor’s silent shore batteries, he expected to encounter mine fields and the battle-ready Spanish fleet maneuvering in Manila Bay. There was an added danger from forts and gun emplacements around the bay. Instead he found no mines and the enemy ships anchored and lined up at Cavite like targets in a shooting gallery. And that is precisely what occurred. Dewey’s ships sailed back and forth raking the immobilized Spaniards with deadly, large caliber fire. Ships were set ablaze, exploded, sank, or were scuttled.

As a boy I once stopped to look at two rusted, shot-up Spanish warship hulks that had been beached near a coastal road 30 years earlier, their guns hanging loosely from turrets. My father took photographs that may be in family files, but of course the ships themselves are long gone. Hundreds of Spanish officers and men had been killed in the few hours before their fleet ceased to exist. The Americans lost one officer from heat stroke and several other men were wounded in battle, none seriously. American ships were rarely struck by Spanish shells and damage was minimal. One shell ricocheted around the deck of the USS Baltimore and got stuck in a ventilator. Despite a rapid rate of fire during the morning, Dewey’s fleet had sufficient quantities of munitions left for further action, if necessary.

The last Spanish ship was sunk before noon, and a short time later naval forces in a battered coastal fort surrendered. Admiral Patricio Montojo had been defeated, and Commodore George Dewey (he was not yet an admiral) was victorious in one of America’s briefest and most one-sided naval battles. Mainland newspaper headlines shouted praise that further inflamed the reading public over the great victory. Dewey instantly became a national hero, overshadowing Teddy Roosevelt, and was lauded and decorated with a specially minted medal and immediately promoted to Rear Admiral. It was even suggested that he run for President the next time around. Today the praise seems fulsome, but the United States was not yet a world power and Dewey’s triumph set the stage for ascendancy into that rank. The American navy, formerly disregarded by European powers, was now to be reckoned with, even though it was no match for them at the time. Vermont’s George Dewey was a bona fide hero and responsible not only for an astonishing naval victory, but also for securing Manila itself and establishing an American foothold in the Far East.

Dewey’s other important contribution to overall victory was the capture of Manila by land forces of which he had few at the moment other than shipboard Marines. The battle for Manila seemed a daring maneuver in which Spanish soldiers fought gallantly, but to observe protocol it was almost a make-believe engagement due to an agreement between the city’s Governor and Dewey. After a skirmish or two an honorable surrender took place. Filipino revolutionary forces, emboldened by the American naval victory, had wanted to take part in Manila’s defeat and occupation, but were prevented from doing so by the Americans. Not taking over the city that had been in the hands of the hated Spanish for over 300 years was bitterly resented and amplified further with the arrival in August of 11,000 American troops to take over the role Spanish troops had held. The independence-minded nationalists’ rancor brought about another far more costly and deadly conflict that would soon erupt as the four-year Philippine-American War.

With the onset of hostilities between the Americans and Spanish, other nations grew intensely interested in the Philippines and the demise of the Spanish Empire. Their naval forces hovered nearby in international waters to see what might develop. The German Far Eastern squadron actually entered Manila Bay and deliberately sailed under the noses of the Americans refusing to recognize them while they unloaded supplies for the Spanish land forces. The Germans had expected the Americans to be defeated and were ready to pick up the spoils. Dewey called their bluff and asked if they wanted a war. If so, he’d be glad to give it to them. Knowing the British would join the Americans if further hostilities broke out, the Germans left. What might have happened had not George Dewey stood his ground is anyone’s guess.

Manila was now firmly under the control of the United States.

Forty years ago, I had a chance to understand George Dewey’s personal heroism. I went aboard his flagship, the cruiser USS Olympia, permanently anchored on display in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but today in grave danger for lack of funds for necessary repair and restoration. It is a small ship by modern standards and the bridge he stood upon throughout the morning battle is elevated, open and unprotected. A shell bursting anywhere near would have killed him.

Commodore Dewey did not foresee a serious and inevitable development in the Philippine situation. Had Emilio Aquinaldo been on board the flagship when the American squadron left Hong Kong in such a hurry, Dewey might have been able to talk with the exiled leader, understand his determination for an independent Philippine Republic, and foresee the likelihood of trouble if things did not go as expected. What actually happened was an immediate misunderstanding between Filipino loyalists and the American newcomers.

Washington, caught by surprise at the suddenness of the complete victory, had to rush plans into effect that had been little thought out. And there was the additional independence factor the United States had not considered that led to a prolonged, far more costly war. This time it was a real war.

To be continued