In 1898 Spain was a weak and declining power with overseas territories which were seething with resentment to Spanish rule and ripe for the pickings of any power that wanted to challenge Spain. The United States was beginning its ascendency to becoming a world power and the Spanish colony of Cuba, which had many American economic interests and the possession of which could allow the United States to dominate the Caribbean was considered by many American political and economic leaders to be ripe for the picking. It was just a short distance from the United States, had a restive population whose cause was being promoted and exploited by the Yellow journalists of the Hearst media empire.
In response to the alleged dangers faced by American citizens in Havana, President McKinley sent the USS Maine to Cuba to safeguard American interests and citizens. The deployment was part of a larger world wide deployment of US Navy forces in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. On February 15th the Maine blew up and sank. The American press declared it to be an act of terrorism perpetrated by Spanish agents in Havana. A US Navy investigation concluded that such was the case, while Spanish investigators concluded Maine’s loss was due to a magazine explosion. The truth of the matter was that the Maine blew up and the cause is inconclusive with experts, including a commission led by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1974 determining that the cause could have been an internal ammunition magazine explosion, while others do not rule out the possibility of a Spanish mine.
Regardless of the actual cause tensions rapidly escalated and on April 23rd Spain declared war on the United States. On the 25th Congress declared war on Spain. In the Pacific the US Navy Asiatic Squadron under the command of Commodore George Dewey set sail from Honk Kong to Manila, where a poorly equipped squadron of mostly obsolete ships under the command of Admiral Patricio Montojo awaited them.
The US Navy forces were modern and well equipped compared to the Spanish. Composed of 4 relatively modern protected cruisers and 2 gunboats led by the Protected Cruiser USS Olympia. Dewey’s force was well trained and its ships superior to anything in the Spanish squadron. The Spanish ships, undermanned and some of which had much of their armament shipped ashore to supplement shore batteries were composed of 4 unprotected cruisers, two small protected cruisers and two gunboats. A number of smaller and even less capable ships were in the area but took no part in the action.
Dewey’s squadron sailed into Manila Bay on the evening of the 30th of April, surprising Montojo who believed that the approaches to the bay were too treacherous to navigate at night for mariners unfamiliar with them. Arriving in Manila Bay in the early morning hours and ineffectively opposed by shore batteries at El Fraile and Cavite and at 0541 Dewey ordered the Captain of the Olympia to open fire using the famous line “You may fire when ready Gridley.”
Within two and a half hours the Spanish force was destroyed. Dewey lost one man dead and 9 men wounded though some Spanish sources report that Dewey might have lost 13 killed and 30 wounded. The Spanish force lost all of its engaged forces with 77 men killed and 271 wounded. Dewey’s force would destroy the Spanish shore batteries and land Marines taking possession of the Cavite Naval Yard on May 7th.
The action was the first major naval action conducted by the United States overseas in the steam age and helped secure the United States a place in the early 20th Century colonization of Asia by European powers and Japan. As a result of Dewey’s victory other Spanish possessions in the Pacific like Guam would be occupied by the United States. It would also through the American occupation of the Philippines necessitate a campaign against the recently liberated Filipino population who had looked to the United States as liberators, and eventually to the Philippines becoming a major campaign in the Pacific war between Japan and the United States.
The wreck of the Spanish Flagship the Cruiser Regina Cristina
Destroying the Montojo’s Spanish squadron was easy compared to the American counter-insurgency campaign against the Filipinos and the later conflict with the Japanese in the Second World War. However, Dewey’s defeat of Montojo’s squadron would help establish the United States as a world power and help ensure that the United States Navy would become one of the world’s preeminent Naval forces within a decade of the battle. Spain never fully recovered from the battle or the war and declined in influence. eventually succumbing to a violent civil war in the 1930s.
As a so common the initial battle or battles of a war can seem easy compared to the later tasks of occupying and ruling a conquered territory or the unexpected consequences that follow. As such it should serve as a warning for those that see easy conquests and do not calculate what might happen after the initial battle is won.