The Spanish American war: American blockade of the Philippines

DURING the first ten days of the war attention was centred upon the naval field of operations in Cuban waters or upon the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, the great cities along which, it was expected, would invite swift attack from the Spanish ships. Meanwhile in Asiatic waters an event was preparing that was to fill the world with wonder and admiration, and to render American arms glorious in the very first collision with the enemy. This was the enterprise of the American squadron on the Asiatic station against the city of Manila, the capital of the Philippine Islands, colonies of Spain in the Pacific not less valuable and productive than Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Atlantic. The Philippines had been first discovered by Spanish adventurers and had been in the possession of the Spanish crown for more than four hundred years, during all of which time the cruelty and rapacity of the sovereigns and of the Governors sent out to administer colonial affairs, had provoked many revolutions and uprisings. The archipelago, which consists of from 1,200 to 1,800 separate islands, only a few of which are of considerable size, contains mixtures of the most savage and intractable populations in the world. These occupy the principal islands of Luzon, Mindanao, Samar, and Panay. Luzon has an area of about 43,000 square miles, nearly equal to the State of Illinois; Mindanao covers about 38,000 square miles, nearly the area of the State of Kentucky. The land area of the archipelago is estimated at 114,000 square miles, equal to the whole of New England and New York.

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.

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