Spanish-American War: Battle of Manila Bay

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USS Olympia leads the US Asiatic Squadron during the Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

The Battle of Manila Bay was the opening engagement of the Spanish-American War (1898) and was fought May 1, 1898. After several months of heightening tensions between the United States and Spain, war was declared on April 25, 1898. Swiftly moving towards the Philippines from Hong Kong, the US Asiatic Squadron, led by Commodore George Dewey, prepared to strike an early blow. Arriving in Manila Bay, Dewey found the antiquated ships of Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron's Spanish fleet anchored off Cavite. Engaging, the Americans succeeded in destroying the Spanish vessels and gained control of the waters around the Philippines. American troops arrived later that year to take possession of the islands.

Fast Facts: Battle of Manila Bay

United States Asiatic Squadron

Spanish Pacific Squadron

    • Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón
    • 7 cruisers and gunboats
  • Casualties:
    • United States: 1 dead (heat stroke), 9 wounded
    • Spain: 161 dead, 210 wounded

Background

In 1896, as tensions with Spain began rising due to Cuba, the US Navy began planning for an attack on the Philippines in the event of war. First conceived at the US Naval War College, the attack was not intended to conquer the Spanish colony, but rather to draw enemy ships and resources away from Cuba. On February 25, 1898, ten days after the sinking of USS Maine in Havana harbor, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed Commodore George Dewey with orders to assemble the US Asiatic Squadron at Hong Kong. Anticipating the coming war, Roosevelt wanted Dewey in place to strike a quick blow.

George Dewey
Admiral of the Navy George Dewey. Public Domain

The Opposing Fleets

Consisting of the protected cruisers USS Olympia, Boston, and Raleigh, as well as the gunboats USS Petrel and Concord, the US Asiatic Squadron was a largely modern force of steel ships. In mid-April, Dewey was further reinforced by the protected cruiser USS Baltimore and the revenue cutter McCulloch. In Manila, the Spanish leadership was aware that Dewey was concentrating his forces. The commander of the Spanish Pacific Squadron, Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron, feared meeting Dewey as his ships were generally old and obsolete.

Consisting of seven unarmored ships, Montojo's squadron was centered on his flagship, the cruiser Reina Cristina. With the situation looking bleak, Montojo recommended fortifying the entrance to Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, and fighting his ships with the aid of shore batteries. This plan was approved and work commenced at Subic Bay. On April 21, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long telegraphed Dewey to inform him that a blockade of Cuba had been put in place and that war was imminent. Three days later, the British authorities informed Dewey that the war had started and that he had 24 hours to leave Hong Kong.

Patricio Montojo y Pasarón
Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. Public Domain

Dewey Sails

Before departing, Dewey received instructions from Washington ordering him to move against the Philippines. As Dewey wished to obtain the latest intelligence from the US Consul to Manila, Oscar Williams, who was en route to Hong Kong, he shifted the squadron to Mirs Bay on the Chinese coast. After preparing and drilling for two days, Dewey began steaming towards Manila immediately after Williams' arrival on April 27. With war declared, Montojo shifted his ships from Manila to Subic Bay. Arriving, he was stunned to find that batteries were not complete.

After being informed that it would take another six weeks to complete the work, Montojo returned to Manila and took up a position in shallow water off Cavite. Pessimistic about his chances in battle, Montojo felt that the shallow water offered his men the ability to swim to shore if they needed to escape their ships. At the mouth of the bay, the Spanish placed several mines, however, the channels were too wide to effectively prevent the entrance of the American ships. Arriving off Subic Bay on April 30, Dewey sent two cruisers to search for Montojo's ships.

Dewey Attacks

Not finding them, Dewey pushed onto Manila Bay. At 5:30 that evening, he summoned his captains and developed his plan of attack for the next day. Running dark, the US Asiatic Squadron entered the bay that night, with the goal of striking the Spanish at dawn. Detaching McCulloch to guard his two supply ships, Dewey formed his other ships into the line of battle with Olympia in the lead. After briefly taking fire from batteries near the city of Manila, Dewey's squadron approached Montojo's position. At 5:15 AM, Montojo's men opened fire.

Waiting 20 minutes to close the distance, Dewey gave the famous order "You may fire when ready, Gridley," to Olympia's captain at 5:35. Steaming in an oval pattern, the US Asiatic Squadron opened first with their starboard guns and then their port guns as they circled back. For the next hour and a half, Dewey pounded the Spanish, defeating several torpedo boat attacks and a ramming attempt by Reina Cristina in the process.

At 7:30, Dewey was informed that his ships were low on ammunition. Withdrawing into the bay, he quickly found that this report was an error. Returning to action around 11:15, the American ships saw that only one Spanish ship was offering resistance. Closing in, Dewey's ships finished the battle, reducing Montojo's squadron to burning wrecks.

Wreck of the Reina Cristina
Wreck of Reina Cristina after the Battle of Manila Bay. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Aftermath

Dewey's stunning victory at Manila Bay cost him a mere 1 killed and 9 wounded. The one fatality was not combat-related and occurred when an engineer aboard McCulloch died of heat exhaustion. For Montojo, the battle cost him his entire squadron as well as 161 dead and 210 wounded. With the fighting concluded, Dewey found himself in control of the waters around the Philippines.

Landing US Marines the next day, Dewey occupied the arsenal and navy yard at Cavite. Lacking troops to take Manila, Dewey contacted Filipino insurgent Emilio Aguinaldo and asked for assistance in distracting the Spanish troops. In the wake of Dewey's triumph, President William McKinley authorized sending troops to the Philippines. These arrived later that summer and Manila were captured on August 13, 1898. The victory made Dewey a national hero and led to his promotion to Admiral of the Navy - the only time the rank has been awarded.