Battle of Manila Bay 1898 / AKA Battle of Cavite : Spanish American War

Battle of Manila Bay 1898 / AKA Battle of Cavite : Spanish American War

Battle of Manila Bay 1898 / AKA Battle of Cavite : Spanish American War At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States had an army consisting of 1 million men, the greatest military force on the planet at the time. However, the US Navy was nothing more than some disorganized group of rag tag coastal ships that had little ocean-going abilities.

The Spanish Empire at the time still boasted a considerable armada with cruisers, frigates, battleships and battlecruisers, a force that the US Navy had no chance of beating in combat.

However, the US public was growing frustrated with the Spanish ownership of so much of the Caribbean. Due to the Caribbean’s prime location, many Americans, including the journalist William Randolph Hearst, were driven towards a desire for war against Spain.

Despite the public’s cry for war, the US naval forces were outmatched by the Spanish Navy. Secretary of the Navy Hilary A. Herbert stated to Congress: “if all this old navy of ours were drawn up in battle array in mid-ocean and confronted by Riachuelo it is doubtful whether a single vessel bearing the American flag would get into port.” Riachuelo was a Brazilian battleship that was delivered in 1883, the same time that European, Chilean and other major powers were increasing their navies around the globe. It was clear the United States would have to start developing some impressive warships of their own. With enough pressure, the US Congress allocated significant resources towards naval expansion in the decades after the Civil War.

The first US battleship to be built was the USS Texas followed by the USS Maine, considered an armored cruiser or a second-class battleship.

The USS Maine would go on to become infamous for blowing up in Havana Harbor. All 260 members of her crew were killed and this incident inspired the phrase “remember the Maine” which many attribute to being the catalyst for the Spanish-American War. The Maine was actually the largest US-built warship at the time. 

USS Maine

The Spanish empire at the time had been selling off properties to the German empire as it became increasingly difficult to manage an empire that spanned the Western Pacific of the Philippines to Cuba. Furthermore, the Spanish had limited resources in both foreign ports. Most of the best Spanish ships were still anchored in Spanish waters for fear of a US invasion. This invasion potential was pushed heavily by the domestic Spanish press. 

By the 1890s William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper barron competitors were all screaming for war, and by 1895 the US laid down one of the most legendary US Naval ships of all time, the USS Olympia. 

USS Olympia

The USS Maine was chosen to sail down to Havana to protect American interests in February of 1898.

However, in an early morning explosion, the Maine sank to the bottom of Havana Harbor. Most naval historians believe it was due to methane leakage from the type of coal the Navy had been using for the Maine, as opposed to some Spanish sub that lay tons of explosives at the ship to start a war the Spanish did not want to fight nor did they believe they would win.

Whether or not the Spanish had sunk the Maine, Americans were furious and war was on.

USS Maine being raised in 1911

On April 25th, 1898 the US Navy sent instructions to their Pacific commander Admiral George Dewey & American Asiatic Squadron (including Dewey’s flagship, the USS Olympia, to sail from his port in Hong Kong and engage the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. 

Admiral George Dewey

The Spanish Commander of the Philipines was Admiral Montojo, a well-regarded commander, but his forces were no match for the USS Olympia and her squadron of USS Boston, USS Petrel and the USS Baltimore.

Admiral Montojo

His ships in Manila Bay were slow and poorly armored. Furthermore, the Spanish gunpowder was in short supply on the ships and exacerbating an already poor situation, the land defenses were in no way prepared for an invasion.

USS Boston
USS Petrel
USS Boston

Montojo was notified the night before battle that the American fleet was at Subic Bay on April 30th. Montojo, however, had guns with poor distance on land and ships that had weak guns as well. 

When Dewey first sailed into the harbor at Manila Bay, two Spanish mines went off, but in a foreshadowing of the morning’s events, the mines inflicted zero damage on the US ships.

In fact almost all of the land artillery positions that Spanish had readied couldn’t reach the ships with their guns. All of the shots were landing short of the US squadron. The same thing was happening with Montojo’s Spanish ships: Cristina, Castilla & the Ulloa, the Spanish also had some smaller ships that were not even used in the fight. 

Castilla

At 5:41 am the famous military phrase was uttered on the USS Olympia, “You may fire when ready, Gridley” alerting the crew to unleash their guns on the defenders at Manila Bay. The Americans had already been receiving fire for some time from the Spanish, but almost nothing had hit or if it did hit the ships, there was little to no impact. 

Spanish warship Reina Christina, Admiral Montojo’s flagship – completely destroyed by Dewey, Cavite, May 1st, 1898. Greely Collection. (Army) NARA FILE #: 111-AGA-2-149 WAR & CONFLICT #: 279

Unlike the poorly armored Spanish ships, the American ships were new and well fortified. 

The Olympia made multiple passes through the harbor decimating both land and sea. In fact Olympia did not even lose one crewmember in the fight. The only fatality for the American side was heatstroke. Imagine being fully clothed in the Philipine heat while firing round after round all the while with the stress of being in battle. 

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By a little after noon the Americans were firing on the Spanish government offices and almost all of the land artillery was blown away or on fire. Every Spanish ship that fought went to the bottom of the Sea that day and Dewey and the Americans claimed arguably the most decisive victory in Naval history.  

Spanish reinforcements that would never make it in the Suez Canal

The Spanish-American War would end just a few short months later. 

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