(W)Archives: A Firsthand Account of the Battle of Manila Bay
The Battle of Manila Bay took place on May 1, 1898 and was the great naval battle of the Spanish-American War. It pitted the U.S. Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey against Spain’s Pacific Squadron under the command of under Admiral Patricio Montojo. Dewey dealt Montojo a crushing defeat. The battle passed into lore, the Philippines passed into American possession, and Dewey became a national hero in the United States.
With Dewey for this battle was Oscar F. Williams, the U.S. Consul in Manila. This week we look at the report that he sent to the State Department about the battle and which Secretary of State William R. Day forwarded to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long. It is available online through the website of the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command.
Williams provides a short but gripping account of the battle. He witnessed the first part of the fight from the cruiser Baltimore. This phase of the battle, he reports, ended with a Spanish ship sinking, others burning, and the remaining Spanish ships and shore defenses damaged. At this point, “our squadron, with no harm done its ships, retired for breakfast.” Williams then transferred to the American flagship, the Olympia. From there, alongside Dewey, he witnessed the second phase of the battle, which completed the destruction of the Spanish squadron despite “the bravery of Spanish forces [which was] such as to challenge admiration.” Spanish losses were heavy. Meanwhile, Williams reported, “Our crews are all hoarse from cheering, and while we suffer for cough drops and throat doctors, we have no use for liniment or surgeons.”
All of us today, including naval commanders, operate in an information-rich environment. If we have an information gap, our communications systems can get us an answer literally at the speed of light. Despite the existence of the telegraph system Dewey and the rest of the U.S. government and its armed forces operated in an information-poor environment that is hard to for us to imagine. If anything, it makes their accomplishments all the more impressive. Two examples show why:
First, why was the U.S. Consul sailing with the American fleet? Lieutenant John Ellicott, who served as an intelligence officer aboard the Baltimore gives us the answer: intelligence. He wrote in 1901 in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute that Dewey and his squadron were at Hong Kong when on April 24 he received word that war had broken out with Spain. The Secretary of the Navy ordered him to proceed “at once” to the Philippines and “use utmost endeavors” to destroy the Spanish fleet there. Despite receiving these orders, Dewey waited. He lacked information because the Office of Naval Intelligence had been unable to provide any intelligence to support his operations against the Spanish fleet. Williams had direct knowledge of the Spanish fleet and the defenses at Manila so Dewey waited for Williams to arrive in Hong Kong with his precious intelligence. As soon as Williams was aboard, Dewey sailed.
Second, the battle took place on May 1. Williams wrote his hard copy report to Assistant Secretary of State William R. Day on May 4. He did not know that a week earlier Day had ascended to the top position in the State Department. William’s report took weeks to arrive in Washington, so it was not until 17 June that Secretary Day was able to forward the report to Navy Secretary Long. Urgent messages could flash around the world in a matter of hours via telegraph cables as long as they were very short (long telegrams were exceedingly expensive) and the recipient was near a telegraph office. Otherwise, communications were scarcely faster than they had been in Napoleon’s time. As a result, each side could quickly be informed of the bare outlines of what the other was thinking or had done but would have to guess at the context or details behind it. Today, a president or prime minister can instantly videoconference with a commander halfway around the. Lacking that capability, there was more emphasis on the judgment of commanders at sea or in the field. In so many ways, the wide array of information sources available today is considered vastly more advantageous. But it also means that the commander who reads the situation perfectly, seizes the initiative, wins the day, and goes down a hero — in essence, the George Dewey — is an increasingly rare thing to come by.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.