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26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Dewey Sails to Manila
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


When Congress issued its ultimatum to Spain on April 20, the condition of our Pacific defences and naval force was such as to cause uneasiness. San Francisco, San Diego, and other seaports were nominally in a state of defence, but no more. The United States naval squadron in Asiatic waters, commanded by Commodore George Washington Dewey, was assembled at Hong-Kong. In preparation for events it had been well supplied with ammunition, stores, and coal. It consisted of six ships, as follows: The Commodore's flag-ship Olympia, a protected cruiser of 5,900 tons, of high speed and with heavy armament, regarded as one of the best fighting cruisers among the navies of the world; the protected cruisers Baltimore, 4,400 tons, Raleigh, 3,200 tons, Boston, 3,000 tons; the gunboats Concord, 1,700 tons, Petrel, 890 tons. The despatch-boat McCulloch and steamers Zafiro and Nanshan (both emergency colliers), were attached to the squadron. The six fighting ships were 7,000 miles from the nearest American port base, since the United States possessed no coaling station in the Pacific nearer than California available for purposes of war. On the California coast were the first-class battle-ship Oregon, the gunboat Marietta, and the monitors Monterey and Monadnock, all purely coast defenders and all unable to cross the Pacific upon their own coal supply. The lack of American merchant steamers in the Pacific rendered it difficult to obtain the requisite transports and auxiliary vessels.

The Spanish naval force available at Manila bay, under command of Admiral Montojo, consisted of fourteen ships and gunboats. Four were protected cruisers, one, the flagship Reina Cristina, well armed and equipped, though of only 3,500 tons displacement. The Castilla, Don Juan de Austria, and Velasco were smaller cruisers, and the remaining eight were gunboats. While the Spaniards had more vessels, they were not as powerful in size or armament combined as the six ships of the American squadron. They were, however, assembled in Manila harbor, under the guns of the forts at Manila and Cavite, with batteries on Corregidor Island, at the entrance to Manila Bay, a position apparently impregnable if properly maintained, especially as the approaches were covered with mines to render entrance dangerous.

If the Spanish fleet remained at Manila the safety of our Pacific coast against attack was assured; but if a declaration of war were made the American fleet would be forced to leave the neutral harbor of Hong-Kong, and, with its supply of coal, stores, and ammunition limited, its effectiveness would also be limited to the period of consumption of these articles, without any available source of fresh supply. It was plain that the American squadron must either sail for American waters and act upon the defensive, or seek out the Spaniard in the bay of Manila under the guns of his own fortresses and abide the issue of battle. To Americans, eager to test the enemy, to authorities fully confident of the intelligence, courage, skill, patriotism, and readiness of our sailors, there was but one thing to do.

On April 25, when the declaration of war was formally made, Commodore Dewey received orders by cable from the President to "seek the Spanish fleet and capture or destroy it." The same day the British authorities at Hong-Kong, after receiving notice of the declaration of war, notified Commodore Dewey that as Great Britain was neutral in the conflict, his squadron would be expected to leave Hong-Kong within twenty-four hours under the rules of international agreement. The Commodore immediately set sail without consuming the time remaining to him under the rule, and rendezvoused at Mirs Bay on the Chinese coast to strip his ships for action and communicate his plans to the officers of his ships. The plan was simplicity itself. It was to obey orders by seeking the Spaniard, finding him as quickly as possible and, without hesitating a moment, to "smash him" with all the might of projectiles that the American ships could deliver. The details of the line of battle and order of ships were also arranged and the preparations aroused the sailors to great enthusiasm.

George Washington Dewey was born in Vermont of good old Puritan stock. When he was ordered against Manila he was in his sixty-second year. A graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1858, he had served with courage and distinction in the Civil War. He was a junior officer on the Hartford under Admiral Farragut when that commander, entering Mobile Bay and finding the bay mined with explosives that had already destroyed a ship ahead of him, had cried out to the ship's captain, who seemed to hesitate: "Go right ahead, Captain, damn the torpedoes!" The same laconic style of expression was in Commodore Dewey's language thirty-three years later when in Mirs Bay he told his men, "We are to seek the Spaniard and smash him as soon as we find him." To sailors imbued with patriotic pride, far from home, and who cherished a determination to "Remember the Maine," the promise of quick battle was full of exciting recompense.

But Commodore Dewey's plan went further than one of mere battle. The Philippine revolutionary leader, Aguinaldo, who had found refuge at Hong-Kong, had been invited to co-operate. Supplied with money, arms and ammunition, he and his influential followers were to be transported to Luzon and landed. In the event of a protracted siege or the miscarriage of plans, the Americans would thus have allies in the rear of the Spanish army and navy, and the revolutionists, under the encouragement of new and powerful allies in front, would be able to reduce the Spanish power to impotence for offensive action. These arrangements were perfected in one day, and on Friday, April 29, the American squadron sailed for Manila, distant about 700 miles, requiring three days' steaming.

The Spaniards awaited the approach of the Americans with a display of exultation. Governor-General Augusti announced that after the expected battle Spanish cruisers would be despatched against San Francisco. The capture of an American trading bark by a Spanish gunboat was made an occasion of popular rejoicing. The means adopted to excite native hatred against the Americans by inspiring dread of them seems incredible and would only be possible in a country where press censorship and general ignorance combined to leave the people at the mercy of unscrupulous rulers. The Governor-General issued a bombastic address in which, after declaring that "the hour of glory had arrived," herevelled in abuse of the Americans:--

"The North American people, constituted of all social excrescences, have exhausted our patience and provoked war by their perfidious machinations, their acts of treachery, their outrages against the laws of nations and international conventions. .

"Spain, which counts upon the sympathies of all nations, will emerge triumphant from this new test, humiliating and blasting the adventurers from those United States that, without cohesion, offer humanity only infamous traditions and ungrateful spectacles in her chambers, in which appear insolence, defamation, cowardice, and cynicism.

"Her squadron, manned by foreigners, possessing neither instruction nor discipline, is preparing to come to this archipelago with ruffianly intention, robbing us of all that means life, honor, and liberty, and pretending to be inspired by a courage of which they are incapable.

"American seamen undertake as an enterprise capable of realization the substitution of Protestantism for the Catholic religion, to treat you as tribes refractory to civilization, to take possession of your riches as if they were unacquainted with the rights of property, to kidnap those persons they consider useful to man their ships or to be exploited in agricultural and industrial labor.

"Vain designs, ridiculous boastings! Your indomitable bravery will suffice to frustrate the realization of their designs. You will not allow the faith you profess, to be made a mockery, or impious hands to be placed on the temple of the true God. The images you adore, thrown down by the unbelief of the aggressors, shall not prove the tombs of your fathers. They shall not gratify lustful passions at the cost of your wives' and daughters' honor, or appropriate property accumulated in provision for your old age.

"They shall not perpetrate these crimes, inspired by their wickedness and covetousness, because your valor and patriotism will suffice to punish a base people that is claiming to be civilized and cultivated. They have exterminated the natives of North America instead of giving them civilization and progress."

As if the defence of Manila were a theatrical spectacle the authorities sent daily to Madrid rhetorical assurances of their security and the preparations to destroy the Americans; of the impregnability of their fleet and forts and the patriotism of the Spaniards and volunteers. Yet it was well known at Manila that the forts alone mounted good modern guns, that the fleet was poorly equipped, that the insurgents beleaguered the city ready to fall on it when the American ships arrived, that the harbor contained few really effective mines to prevent entrance. During these days thousands of refugees left for Hong-Kong on passing ships and the price of food increased alarmingly. Terror was felt by the whole population. The Spanish admiral, Montojo, whose reputation for courage was unchallenged, took his vessels to Subig Bay, a harbor at the northern entrance to Manila Bay, with the intention of assailing the American fleet unexpectedly as it passed. He found only worthless defences at Subig and brought his ships back under the guns of Cavite, to give battle inside the bay and support the capital defences. The Admiral, who was called "The Fighting Montojo" by the Spanish sailors, was at one and the same time to prove his dauntless courage and to demonstrate his utter incompetence to provide against surprise or to make adequate preparation for combat.

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