Commodore Dewey and the Spanish American war

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.

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.

The morning of Saturday, April 30, the American squadron was sighted off Cape Bolinao and at 4 o'clock in the afternoon it rounded to off Subig Bay on the sea side of the Peninsula that encloses the great bay of Manila on the west. The distance to the city of Manila was about fifty miles. The cruisers Boston and Concord were detailed to search Subig Bay for the enemy, the crews of all ships standing to their guns ready to engage. There was no trace of the Spaniard in Subig. It was then that Commodore Dewey for the first time made known to the commanders of his ships his intention to force the entrance of Manila Bay under cover of night, and to engage the enemy under the fire of the forts. Slow headway was made down the coast and at 11 o'clock at night the squadron entered the Boca Grande, the larger of the two entrances to the bay.

The bay of Manila is one of the largest and deepest harbors of the world. It has an area of 125 square miles, with a depth approximating the ocean itself. The entrance is twelve miles wide on the south and almost midway rise the rocky islands of Corregidor and Caballos. Corregidor was strongly fortified, armed with heavy modern guns and equipped with searchlights that would have enabled competent defenders to render entering it a hazardous feat. The channel to the north of Corregidor is called the Boca Chica, or small mouth, and the Boca Grande is on the south.

More than twelve hours earlier the appearance of the Americans at Cape Bolinao had been reported to the Spaniards, yet when the squadron in order, with all lights out, and every man at his station, turned Corregidor and headed up the Boca Grande towards the city of Manila, there was not a Spanish patrol to give warning of its approach, and apparently no watch on Corregidor fortress or tower. On board the American ships every man was at his post, and had been for eighteen hours, as he was to be for eighteen hours longer, except for brief moments of rest. Down in the engine and furnace rooms the heat was from 125 to 160 degrees; but no engineer or stoker left his place, save the engineer of the despatch-boat McCulloch, who dropped dead from heart disease superinduced by the heat. This happened as the ships were passing in.

Realizing the preparation that could be made by a warned foe, expecting floating mines, torpedo attacks, and a plunging fire from the lofty fortress on Corregidor, the Americans, hidden only by darkness, slowly and silently as possible filed into the channel, led by the flag-ship, and began to run the terrible gauntlet of unknown dangers without hesitation.

Half the squadron had passed when sparks escaping from one of the funnels were observed by the watch on Corregidor. Instantly the guns on the fort opened fire upon the squadron, to which the Boston and McCulloch replied with a few shots, and then silence again reigned. Past the fort the ships slowed down to bare steerageway and, all hands resting by their guns, the squadron waited for day to dawn to begin the terrible work that lay before it in the splendid amphitheatre of the mountain-locked bay.

At 5 o'clock in the morning the Olympia was five miles from Manila, the spires of whose churches and the towers of whose fortresses could be dimly seen through the glasses of the lookouts. The city lies on the east side of the bay, about twenty-five miles from the entrance, situated upon a low plateau, divided by Pasig River. Volcanic mountains enclose the coasts at varying distances. Eight miles south of Manila, on the same side of the bay, is a low point of land projecting into the water, eked out by the construction of a breakwater, upon which stand the arsenal and fortress of Cavite, commanding the Spanish navy-yard. Thus Manila and Cavite were within sea view and gun range of each other, and the theatre of battle was so designed that the combat might be witnessed by the 300,000 people dwelling within range.

The American ships and the Spanish guard at Manila discovered each other at 5 o'clock. As the light increased the Spanish ships were revealed lying under the guns of Cavite, in line of battle almost east and west. At 15 minutes past 5 the light permitted action, and three batteries of heavy guns at Manila and two at Cavite, together with the long-range guns of the Spanish ships, opened fire on the Americans. The shots were harmless. Two guns were fired at Manila from our ships, but Commodore Dewey signalled orders not to reply to Manila. It was not his intention to subject the helpless non-combatants of that crowded city to a bombardment, but to "smash the Spanish fleet." So that, while the Manila batteries kept up a continuous fire upon our ships for two hours, without effect, no shells were thrown into the city, which must have been a thing greatly marvelled at by those who had described the Americans as pitiless destroyers and cruel cowards.

Under the cross-fire of the enemy Commodore Dewey formed his squadron for attack as coolly as if for target practice. His flag-ship Olympia led, followed at regular intervals in line by the Baltimore, the Raleigh, the Petrel, the Concord, and the Boston, in the order named, which formation was preserved without change. Notwithstanding the furious fire of the enemy, our ships moved steadily without replying for twenty-six minutes, steaming directly for Cavite, which was some miles distant. Commodore Dewey, with his officers, was on the bridge of the Olympia, and Captain Gridley, who was fighting the ship, was in the conning-tower. The day was clear and the heat intense. On every ship the fighters were stripped to the waist, waiting with natural impatience for firing orders, and eager for close collision in fighting. As the Olympia steamed to the attack in the lead two torpedo mines were exploded in her path by the Spaniards, but too far ahead to affect her. The explosions threw enormous columns of water to a great height. The power was sufficient to have destroyed the vessel if it had been successfully managed. In spite of these dangers, and of more to be apprehended, the Olympia kept steadily on. No other mines were exploded, however, if any existed.

At 41 minutes past 5 o'clock Commodore Dewey, the Olympia then being bow on, 5,500 yards or about three miles, from the fortress at Cavite, called out to Captain Gridley: "You may fire when ready." A few moments later the huge 8-inch guns in the forward turret belched forth flame and steel at the flag-ship of Admiral Montojo. At this signal to engage the enemy an eye-witness with the squadron reports that from the throats of the Americans on all the ships rose a triumphant cheer and the cry, "Remember the Maine." And then, from every ship that could train guns on the enemy, poured a rain of shot and shell directed by men who were as deliberate and cool as if they were at play. The deadly accuracy of American marksmanship was exhibited under circumstances so extraordinary that it was destined to stand without precedent or comparison in all naval history.

Sheltered under the guns of Cavite the Spanish cruiser Castilla lay anchored by head and stern, broadside to our fire. On either side Admiral Montojo's flag-ship, the Reina Cristina, the Don Juan de Austria, and the Velasco moved into action, while the gunboats behind the breakwater were sheltered to some extent. The Americans at 5,500 yards filed in line past the enemy and, countermarching in a circle that extended closer to the Spaniards at every turn, sent in a crushing rain of fire from each broadside as it was presented.

Two small launches were sent out from the Castilla and boldly advanced towards the Olympia. They were supposed to be provided with torpedoes to be discharged against the flag-ship. No sooner was their purpose suspected than the small guns of the Olympia were turned upon the two boats with deadly effect. One was riddled and sunk at the first fire and the other, badly damaged, turned back and sought safety.

The enemy fought with desperation. Admiral Montojo with the Reina Cristina, sallied forth from his line against the Olympia, but was met with a concentrated fire from our ships so frightful that he could not advance. The Reina Cristina turned and was making for the breakwater, when an 8-inch shell from the Olympia was sent whizzing through her stern, penetrating the whole extent of the ship to her engine-room where it exploded with awful destruction, setting fire to the vessel and rendering her unmanageable.

The fire made such headway that Admiral Montojo abandoned his vessel and taking his flag in an open boat, was transferred to the gunboat Isla de Cuba, whence he continued to issue his orders. It was an act of personal bravery so marked that it elicited admiration from all the Americans and was especially commented upon by Commodore Dewey in his report of the battle. Captain Cadarso, of the Reina Cristina, a Spaniard of noble family at Madrid, was mortally wounded with many others on his ship, but refused to be carried off. He remained with his men and went down with his ship. A shell entered the magazine of the Don Juan de Austria and that vessel was blown up. The Castilla at her moorings was also on fire by this time, but the firing from the other vessels and the forts was maintained with wild desperation.

The heavy guns from Manila were also keeping up their attack. Commodore Dewey sent a flag messenger to the Governor-General bearing notice that if the firing from that quarter did not instantly cease he would shell the city. The message at once silenced the batteries.

It was now 7:35 o'clock and the men had been in suspense or in exhaustive action for nearly thirty hours. During the two hours of fighting they had been served with only a cup of coffee each. Observing the destruction in the enemy's ranks and desiring to give him time for reflection, but mainly to give his own men refreshment and new strength, Commodore Dewey ordered action to cease and the ships to retire beyond range. This they did, the squadron filing past the Olympia with triumphant cheers and steaming across the bay, followed by the sullen fire of the enemy. The Olympia brought up the rear, and orders were issued to-serve breakfast bountifully on all the ships.

While the men were refreshing themselves, the commanders of the ships were summoned aboard the Olympia to make reports of their condition and for conference. It was then the discovery was made--almost incredible--that no material casualty had occurred to the Americans during an engagement filled with such disaster to the enemy. It seemed miraculous to have gone through a hail of fire without one man being killed or a ship disabled. Meanwhile the Spanish had viewed the withdrawal of our ships with exultation. With the fatuity of overconfidence in their own courage they had construed the American pause for rest as a retreat. To that effect they cabled the Spanish Government, where the news caused excited rejoicings. The Minister of Marine cabled a message of bombastic compliments to Admiral Montojo upon the glory of Spanish sailors. While these messages were yet passing under the ocean the second attack was in progress that was to turn exultation to despair and set the Spanish populace at Madrid on fire with angry protests of deception and betrayal.

After three and a half hours of recuperation, the American squadron got under way at a quarter past eleven o'clock and advanced again to attack the enemy. Buoyed up by the early morning results, the gunners aimed with perfect deliberation and, under orders for "close action," the line steamed up as near as the water-depth permitted, and poured a remorseless fire into the enemy's ships that were now replying slowly. But the guns of Cavite were hard at work and the Baltimore was ordered to silence the arsenal. The bay was filled with smoke, and into this the Baltimore steered straight for the point of attack. When close up she opened all her batteries, and in a moment the powder magazine of the arsenal blew up with a deafening roar, and the battery of Cavite was destroyed.

The Boston, Concord and Petrel were ordered to enter the bay and destroy the ships there. The Petrel being of very light draught was able to penetrate behind the breakwater up to the gunboats. The Spaniards on board made haste to surrender, and their ships were then scuttled and fired. The only ship left was a transport belonging to the coast survey, and she was taken possession of by our forces. At 40 minutes past 12 o'clock, the Spanish flag had been hauled down from Cavite and the white flag of surrender was flying. The Olympia stood off towards Manila, leaving the other vessels to take care of the wounded on shore.

In this battle the Spanish lost the following vessels: Reina Cristina, Castilla, Don Antonio de Ulloa, sunk; Don Juan de Austria, Isla de Luzon, Isla de Cuba, General Lezo, Marquis del Duero, El Correo, Velasco and Isla de Mindanao, burned; the Manila and several tugs and launches captured. There were 1,000 Spaniards killed in the engagement and more than 600 wounded, among the latter Admiral Montojo and his son, a lieutenant, both slightly. The wounded were removed to the arsenal in Cavite, where they were attended by the American surgeons, who gave their skill, science, and labor to succor the unfortunate. Yet while this work of humanity was in progress the Archbishop of Manila was issuing a pastoral letter to his flock in which he called upon all Christians in the island to defend the faith against heretics who designed to erect an insuperable barrier to salvation, intending to enslave the people and forbid the sacraments of baptism, matrimony, and burial, and the consolation of absolution. He declared that if the Americans were allowed to possess the islands, altars would be desecrated and the churches changed into Protestant chapels. Instead of there being pure morality, as then existed, examples of vice only would be inculcated. He closed by appointing May 17 as a day of rejoicing over the renewed consecration of the islands to "the Sacred Heart of Jesus."

Commodore Dewey sent a message to Governor-General Augusti in Manila proposing to be permitted to use the submarine cable to Hong-Kong for the purpose of communicating his reports to the government at Washington. Augusti refused the permission and Commodore Dewey cut the cable, thus rendering impossible all communication with the world except by mail, by way of Hong-Kong, three days' sail distant. He then anchored before Manila to await reinforcements and orders, the revolutionists under General Aguinaldo cutting off all supplies from the landside, and investing the city in effective siege.

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