Manila Bay and Assembling the U.S. Army

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Manila Bay and Assembling the U.S. Army

Spain had been fighting against a rebel Liberating Army in its colony of Cuba since 1895 when it came to war with the United States in April 1898. Spain's colonial empire then included the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Pacific island of Guam, and the Asian islands of the Philippines. By the end of the Spanish-American War in August 1898, the United States had taken all but Cuba for itself and was officially in control of that island by early 1899. The United States prevailed thanks to the efforts of its navy and the Cuban Liberating Army, and in spite of many problems experienced by its own army.

Except for battles fought to conquer Native Americans, the United States had not been at war since the American Civil War (1861-65). In early 1898, the U.S. Army had only 28,000 soldiers, compared to the 180,000 regulars that Spain had stationed in Cuba. U.S. secretary of war Russell A. Alger (1836-1907), who oversaw the army, was still devising his plan of attack when war began. (The U.S. Department of Defense was called the Department of War until 1947; from 1947 until 1949, it was referred to as the Department of the Army.)

The U.S. Navy, which was separate from the War Department and thus was disconnected from the army, was in better shape. In December 1889, Navy secretary Benjamin F. Tracy (1830-1915) issued an annual report that said naval war, "though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations," according to Ivan Musicant in Empire By Default.

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) published a book called The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Mahan, then president of the U.S. Naval War College, argued that a strong navy with overseas bases was essential for the United States to open and protect foreign markets for goods manufactured at home. That year, the first U.S. Congress to spend one billion dollars used some of the money to add three new battleships, a cruiser, and a torpedo boat to the navy. When war came with Spain in 1898, the U.S. Navy was ready.

Battle of Manila Bay

U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry in Biographies section) went to war on April 21, 1898, by ordering a naval blockade of Cuba and severing diplomatic relations with Spain. Cuba was the immediate source of the conflict. Spain's treatment of the colony had sparked a revolution on the island in February 1895. The United States meant to send the Spanish troops back to Europe and end the fighting, which was hurting American investment in and trade with the island.

On the other side of the world, Spain had just called a truce in December 1897 with rebels in the Philippines fighting for their own freedom. When the war with the United States began the following April, Spain still had a six-vessel naval squadron deployed near the Philippines under the command of Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. Six hundred miles to the north, in British-ruled Hong Kong, U.S. commodore George Dewey (1837-1917; see entry in Biographies section) commanded the seven-vessel Asiatic Squadron aboard the flagship U.S.S. Olympia. Dewey had arrived in Hong Kong in March 1898, in case U.S. participation in the war in Cuba should require action against Montojo's fleet.

On April 24, 1898, U.S. Navy secretary John D. Long (1838-1915) sent a telegram to Dewey saying, "War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors," according to Harvey Rosenfeld in Diary of a Dirty Little War. Three days later, the Asiatic Squadron began steaming toward Manila, the capital city of the Philippines on its large island of Luzon.

Dewey's lookouts spotted Luzon on April 30. By the morning of May 1, his vessels were within one mile of the Manila shoreline in Manila Bay. Expecting to find Montojo's squadron guarding the capital city, Dewey was surprised to find it anchored instead at the nearby Cavite naval station. At 5:41 A . M . on May 1, after watching Spanish bombs fall short of his vessels, Dewey turned to the captain of the Olympia and said, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," according to Laurin Hall Healy and Luis Kutner in The Admiral.

The ensuing battle was very one-sided, for Dewey's ships carried fifty-three guns compared to Montojo's thirty-one. Montojo surrendered his wrecked vessels with around four hundred casualties (dead or severely wounded) less than seven hours after the battle began. Dewey's ships incurred little damage and his crews suffered few injuries. Historians say that not a single American died, but a newspaper reported that Dewey lost one man to heatstroke.

Anxious to send news of the victory to McKinley, Dewey sought Spain's permission to use the telegraph office in Manila. When the commander there refused, Dewey ordered his men to dredge the underwater telegraph cable from the bay floor and cut it. As a result, Dewey had to send a messenger by boat to telegraph Washington, D.C., from Hong Kong. Waiting anxiously amid unconfirmed reports from the Spanish capital of Madrid and elsewhere, McKinley finally received Dewey's victory announcement on May 7.

McKinley decided to seize the Philippines with an expeditionary force to be assembled and shipped out from San Francisco, California. According to Rosenfeld, Americans thought the Philippines would be a great base from which to prevent Japan from trying to take over Hawaii, which was an independent country at the time. (The United States ended up taking Hawaii for itself in July 1898.) Meanwhile, the United States was busy trying to scrounge together an army to fight in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Assembling the U.S. Army

In February 1898, before the Spanish-American War began, McKinley proposed to some senators that the United States try to buy Cuba from Spain. When the senators rejected the idea, McKinley told U.S. representative Joe Cannon on March 6, "I must have money to get ready for war. I am doing everything possible to prevent war, but it must come, and we are not prepared," according to Musicant. Two weeks later the U.S. minister to Spain, Stewart L. Woodford (1835-1913), wrote to McKinley, "I am thus, reluctantly, slowly, but entirely a convert to the early American ownership and occupation of the Island. If we recognize independence, we may turn the Island over to part of its inhabitants against the judgment of many of its most educated and wealthy residents.… If we have war we must finally occupy and ultimately own the Island," according to Philip Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism.

These designs set the stage for war with Spain. Publicly, the United States called its intervention a humanitarian effort to free Cuba from Spain's brutal control. But a large part of the motivation was America's effort to grow into a global economic powerhouse.

To get there, the United States needed an army. McKinley initially asked 125,000 American men to volunteer for military service to their country. One million answered the call. As Dewey defeated Montojo in the Philippines and word of the victory reached home, would-be soldiers crowded into recruiting offices and took physical examinations. By Monday, May 9, the army had plans to assemble a force of fifty to sixty thousand troops to attack Spain in Cuba. By the end of the month, it had designed a similar force for invading Puerto Rico. According to Rosenfeld, an army officer commented, "Napoleon took two years to get together transports for the…100,000 men which he proposed to invade England, and we were expected to get together transports for…50,000 men in two weeks."

The army for invading Cuba converged in Tampa, Florida, during the month of May. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry in Biographies section) resigned from his office to become a lieutenant colonel in the army. He was a jingoist who scoffed at peace and celebrated war as manly and American. Roosevelt would lead a group of volunteers in the First U.S. Volunteer Regiment, which became known as the Rough Riders. According to Rosenfeld, the Rough Riders wrote a fight song that said, "Rough, tough, we're the stuff. We want to fight and we can't get enough."

Before the forces in Tampa could leave for Cuba, they had to be uniformed, armed, equipped, and trained. In this way, as in many others, the U.S. Army was terribly unprepared for war. Soldiers received heavy wool uniforms that were inappropriate for battle in tropical Cuba. Food arriving for meals included canned beef, some from bad batches that contained bits of gristle, rope, and dead maggots, according to Ivan Musicant in Empire by Default. African Americans volunteering to serve their country found that they were treated as second-class citizens; for example, they often could not receive service in Florida restaurants. Basic training emphasized long marches to harden bodies rather then drills and exercises in battle tactics, according to Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War. Boredom spread and tempers flared as the troops waited over a month for the U.S. Navy to complete a blockade in Cuba that would eventually allow the army to leave for the island in late June.

Public opinion of the war

History books suggest that the American public was almost unanimous in supporting the Spanish-American War. According to Harvey Rosenfeld in Diary of a Dirty Little War, an article in the New York Times on May 18, 1898, said:

It is a grand, patriotic impulse that unites [us]…for the dominant thought is that this is our country's war, 'our country—right or wrong.' It is this impulse, which does not [look back] for the establishment of the righteousness of our cause, that moves the majority…to uphold the action of the National Government.… The present generation has never witnessed such an outpouring of…patriotism.… Never before have the National colors been so profusely…displayed in city, town, and village …[nor] the younger generation…so profoundly stirred by allusions to the country's cause.

Newspaper coverage of the war shaped public opinion greatly. During the Second Cuban Revolution, from 1895 to 1898, a circulation war between the New York World and the New York Journal had fed growing support for American intervention in Cuba. Early in May 1898, War Secretary Alger announced that 145 newspapers would receive passes for correspondents who wanted to cover the war alongside the U.S. Army. Journalists such as Stephen Crane (1871-1900; see entry in Primary Sources section) and Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916; see entry in Biographies section) joined illustrators such as Frederic Remington (1861-1909) to give Americans close-up accounts of the war. Small newspapers that could not afford to send correspondents used soldiers, who sent stories back for publication.

The antiwar sentiment

History books do not tell much of the antiwar element of public opinion. According to Michael Golay in TheSpanish-American War, a cobbler in Kansas City hung a sign over his door that said, "Closed in memory of a Christian nation that descends to the barbarity of war." Rosenfeld tells of a Jewish man named Solomon Solis-Cohen, who opposed the war despite Spain's barbaric torture and murder of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), saying, "If thine enemy hunger, give him food, and if he thirst give him to drink. The expulsion or ill-treatment of my fathers by…Spain gives me no right to murder Spaniards…even though I…march beneath a banner bearing stars and stripes."

Socialists—people who believe goods and property should be government owned and distributed instead of privately held—opposed the war in great numbers. Many of them felt that war benefits the rich and hurts the poor. Authorities in New York City prevented the Socialist Labor party from holding an antiwar parade on May 1, 1898. A socialist writing in the Voice of Labor said, "It is a terrible thing to think that the poor workers of this country should be sent to kill and wound the poor workers of Spain merely because a few leaders may incite them to do so," according to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States. Also according to Zinn, a labor leader named Bolton Hall told workers that war would only give them "the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have."

Some Americans even questioned whether the United States had good reason to act righteous (morally superior) compared to Spain. Referring to the weekly murder of African Americans by lynch mobs, Chaplain George W. Prioleau asked, "Is America any better than Spain?…Has [America] not subjects in her very midst who are murdered daily without a trial…whose children are half-fed and half-clothed, because their father's skin is black?," according to Rosenfeld. According to Zinn, the monthly journal of the International Association of Machinists resisted war before its outbreak, saying that the

"…carnival of carnage that takes place every day, month and year in the realm of industry, the thousands of useful lives that are annually sacrificed to the Moloch of greed, the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism, brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparation.… Death comes in thousands of instances in mill and mine, claims his victims, and no popular uproar is heard."

Still, young men marched off to war in Cuba, and their country cheered them on.

For More Information

Collins, Mary. The Spanish-American War. New York: Children's Press,1998.

Dolan, Edward F. The Spanish-American War. Brookfield, CT: MillbrookPress, 2001.

Feuer, A. B. The Spanish-American War at Sea. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Gay, Kathlyn, and Martin K. Gay. Spanish American War. New York: Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File, 1995.

Graves, Kerry A. The Spanish-American War. Mankato, MN: Capstone Books, 2001.

Langellier, John P. Uncle Sam's Little Wars: The Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1902. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2001.

Linderman, Gerald F. The Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

O'Toole, G. J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic-1898. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.

Rosenfeld, Harvey. Diary of a Dirty Little War: The Spanish-American War of 1898. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2000.

Smith, Angel, and Emma Dávila-Cox, eds. The Crisis of 1898: Colonial Redistribution and Nationalist Mobilization. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Somerlott, Robert. The Spanish-American War: Remember the Maine! Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Wukovits, John F. The Spanish-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

"Tell Them I Died Like A Man "

On May 11, 1898, the United States suffered its first defeat in the Spanish-American War. That day, the Spanish fired upon and disabled the American torpedo boat Winslow after it entered the harbor at Cárdenas on the northwest coast of Cuba. Five Americans died in the fight. According to Harvey Rosenfeld in Diary of a Dirty Little War, Winslow fireman G. B. Meeks's last words were, "Tell them I died like a man." These words became a song that captured the nationalistic, masculine, and deadly aspects of war, as recorded by Rosenfeld:

On Cárdenas' sunny bay
In the thickest of the fray,
Was the Winslow, fighting bravely, but in vain.
For the foeman aimed too well
Every shot and every shell,
But still Yankee showed her teeth to Spain
Then we heard a sudden cry:

"Help us! Save us, or we die!"
Upon her deck had burst a murderous shell.
And we saw her heroes fall,
But above the noise and all
Came a moan from one poor lad as he fell.

Tell them I died like a man!
That I fell in the battle's van!
Tell them not to grieve or cry.
I was not afraid to die
'Twas my turn and I died like a man!

As we drew our boats away
Torn and bleeding there he lay—
By his side were other comrades gone to rest.
In the flag he loved so well
Did we wrap him where he fell.
And crossed his wounded hands upon his breast.
Ne'er again will call to arms
Summon him to war's alarms.
His soul has gone to seek its rest on high.
And when other heroes fall.
Answ'ring to their country's call.
That brave lad's words will cheer them as they die.