Following the usual practice, as soon as Spitfires were available with powerful Griffon 61 series engines, the PRUs made their demands. Still more altitude and a higher top speed suited their needs admirably, but they wanted the advantage of a pressure-cabin which allowed pilots to safely fly the aircraft at altitudes in excess of 40,000 ft. Units had experienced a taste of this with the limited production run PR X (based on the F VII), and they were keen to get hold of the new PR XIX, which evolved from the Spitfire XIV. Boasting a greater range than the PR XI and the cockpit conditions of the PR X, the aeroplane would be broadly similar to the Mk XIV but with modified PR XI wings (more fuel tanks were added) and other modifications associated with the installation of cockpit pressurisation. In general, the latter system was the same as that installed in the Spitfire VII, except that for this aircraft the air intake and blower were on the port side of the engine rather than to starboard.
The camera installation in the PR XIX was broadly similar to that found in the PR XI, with a ‘U’ fitting provided for either two ‘fanned’ or a single F52 36-inch vertical camera, two ‘fanned’ F52 20-inch vertical or two ‘fanned’ F24 14-inch vertical cameras and one F24 14-inch or 8-inch oblique. In addition, the wing camera installation as used on later PR XIs could be fitted in place on the inter-spar fuel tanks.
The all-up weight of the PR XIX was 7,500 lbs, and with its overall PR blue finish and no guns, the aircraft looked the last word in smooth, purposeful efficiency. Little wonder, then, that the PR XIX was the fastest Spitfire of them all with a top speed of 460 mph – an increase of 100 mph over its elder brother, the Mk I.
In the third of a century between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the American declaration of war against Spain in 1898, the United States was transformed. Even as the nation struggled painfully through the period of broken pledges and sectional resentment that history has labeled Reconstruction, it also strengthened its hold on the North American continent, strapping it together with railroads and telegraph wires and stamping out the last resistance from the native tribes. At the same time, American industry became a force of historic proportions. Triggered in part by the mass production of war matériel from 1861 to 1865, fueled by new developments in engineering and metallurgy, and fed by a cheap labor pool of immigrants, the United States became an economic and industrial powerhouse by the 1890s, establishing the foundation that would eventually make it the most powerful nation on earth. If the rest of the world failed to take sufficient note of this historic phenomenon, it was in part because until the very end of the century the transformative significance of these developments was not immediately evident beyond America’s insulating and protecting oceans.
The U.S. Navy did not keep pace with the economic and industrial explosion. The fleet of ironclad monitors was placed in ordinary (what later generations would call “mothballs”); the blockade fleet, composed of mostly converted merchantmen, was sold off; the fast cruisers, designed to hunt down rebel raiders such as the Shenandoah and the Alabama, were scrapped. By the 1880s the United States Navy consisted of little more than a handful of antique steamers—museum pieces by the standard of most European navies—all of them fully equipped with masts and sails for their day-to-day work of “showing the flag” on distant station patrols. In his 1880s short story “The Canterville Ghost,” Oscar Wilde provoked a knowing chuckle from his British audience when his central character contradicted an American who declared that her country had no ruins or curiosities. “No ruins! No curiosities!” the ghost exclaimed. “You have your Navy and your manners.”
For Americans, however, there seemed to be little reason to pour public money into a revitalized Navy, for unlike Oscar Wilde’s England, the United States had no proximate enemies unless one counted the western Indians (who would not have been impressed by American battleships in any case), nor did it have overseas colonies to protect. To most Americans, the small, antiquated U.S. Navy of the 1870s and ’80s seemed perfectly adequate to the limited task assigned to it. Indeed, it is possible to argue that there was little reason for the Navy to abandon its low profile even at the end of the century, for in the 1890s there were still no perceivable threats on, or even over, the horizon.
Change was coming nonetheless. It was evidenced in 1883 when Congress authorized the first three vessels of what would eventually become a new generation of steam-and-steel warships: the “New Navy.” The very next year, Stephen B. Luce founded the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, and hired an otherwise undistinguished naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan to lecture there. At the end of the decade, Mahan published his collected lectures in book form as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. Citing Britain’s domination of the Age of Sail as his case study, Mahan declared that naval power was the principal instrument of national greatness and, by implication at least, suggested how the United States, too, could achieve the status of great power. It was the existence of a dominant battleship fleet, Mahan declared, that had allowed Britain to secure control of the sea and thereby control not merely three-quarters of the globe but also the trade routes and the colonial empire that brought her wealth, power, and influence.
The astonishing success of Mahan’s book was more a matter of good timing than keen insight. The same year that it was published, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that there was no longer an area in the western United States that could properly be designated as “the frontier.” Not only did this prompt young Frederick Turner to offer his interpretive essay about the wellsprings of the American character at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it also foreshadowed a turning point in America’s role in the world by implying, at least, that the United States might now begin to look outward, beyond its protecting oceans, to find a broader outlet and a bigger stage for its national energy. Mahan’s essay thus provided a credible rationale for the program of U.S. naval expansion that was already under way. At the same time, it provided a justification for Europeans to compete in what amounted to a naval arms race—a competition that would last into the next century and play a role in the catastrophe that engulfed Europe in 1914.
It is entirely possible that the United States would have built its “New Navy” even without the influence of Mahan’s book, for at the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was a nation emerging from its awkward teenage years: a bit gawky still—its clothes a bit too short at the wrists and ankles—but bursting with the strength and power of imminent adulthood. At the end of the decade, the United States found employment for its new steam-and-steel warships by fighting what Secretary of State John Hay famously called a “splendid little war” against the fading Spanish Empire. It was a war with broad implications and historic significance, for it thrust the United States into the ranks of great powers and thereby signaled a dramatic sea change for both the United States, and for the world. Though the conflict was ostensibly rooted in American concern about Spanish misrule in Cuba, the milestone naval engagement of this war in the age of the battleship was one that involved no battleships at all and which took place almost exactly halfway around the world from Cuba, in a remote bay that most Americans had never even heard of.
ON THE NIGHT of April 30, 1898, a column of six American warships, trailed by three small support vessels, steamed purposefully toward the three-mile-wide gap of water that marked the entrance to Manila Bay in the Spanish Philippines. The U.S. ships were all but invisible from the shore. They had recently been repainted, their peacetime white covered by a wartime gray-green so that they would blend with the sea, and they were running blacked out, each vessel burning only a single fantail light that was carefully screened by baffles to ensure that it showed only from directly astern, thus allowing the ships to follow one another single file through the unfamiliar waters of the channel. The lead vessel was the 5,870-ton protected (that is, partially armored) cruiser USS Olympia, and on its open bridge wing Commodore George Dewey peered into the dark waters ahead. At age sixty, Dewey was of medium stature with a compact but no longer trim figure, looking much like a man who was entirely comfortable with himself. His pale brown hair was graying at the temples, and except for a rather spectacular walrus mustache, he was clean-shaven above the constricting stock of his white uniform. His face was dominated by a slightly hooked nose and a high forehead on which rested a pillbox-shaped officer’s cap, its brim decorated with the gold “scrambled eggs” of his rank. As usual, however, his expression was unreadable; like the surface of the water around him, he projected placidity and calmness.
Indeed, there was little that appeared warlike in this tableau. When the new moon broke through the patchy clouds overhead, it left a bright sheen on the calm water, though Lieutenant C. G. Culkins recalled that in the distance, “dancing pillars of cloud, pulsating with tropical lightning,” provided dramatic backlighting. As the Olympia turned into the channel between the dark headlands, high “volcanic peaks densely covered with tropical foliage” jutted out from the water on both sides. Late as it was, there were a large number of sailors topside. At 10:40 the word had quietly been passed for the men to stand to the guns, and they stood now at their battle stations, happy to be there not only because of the excitement of impending action but because it was “oppressively hot” below decks; “the ship,” one officer recalled, “was like a furnace.” Or at least it was until around eleven, when a light shower passed over the column of warships, cooling the air but also dampening the white duck uniforms of the men, though, as one recalled, “nobody noticed such trifles.”
Behind the Olympia, the other ships of the American Asiatic Squadron followed at regular intervals. They were all relatively new: built not of wood or iron but of steel, an alloy that was stronger and lighter than raw iron, and their coal-fired steam engine plants powered not only the screw propellers that drove them through the water but also the onboard electrical generators that lit the passageways below decks so that lanterns were no longer necessary. The oldest of the ships was the Boston, launched in 1884 (the same year that Luce had founded the War College), one of a trio of small cruisers all named for American cities—Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago—which, along with their consort, the dispatch vessel Dolphin, had come to be known as the “ABCD ships.” Commissioned in the late 1880s, they had been the first ships of an American naval revival that had continued through the nineties and turned the United States from a third-rate naval power into, if not quite a first-rate power, then at least a top-tier second-rate power. Though the Boston still bore masts and spars, giving it the silhouette of a sailing ship, it was designed to operate as a steamer, and it boasted a powerful battery of rifled guns, including two eight-inch guns and a half dozen six-inch guns.
The newest and largest of the ships was the Olympia, which led the column, and on whose bridge Commodore Dewey stood watching the approaching headlands. Commissioned only three years before, in February 1895, the Olympia’s battery was even more impressive than that of the Boston: it carried a quartet of eight-inch guns, which, in testimony to the continuing influence of John Ericsson’s design for the Monitor, were mounted in two gun turrets (one fore and one aft), plus ten more five-inch guns carried in broadside, as well as twenty-one small-caliber “quick-firing” guns. The Olympia had a top speed of twenty-one knots, three times as fast as any Civil War monitor, though it was making only about eight knots now as it slipped into the channel between the southern headland to starboard and the dark bulk of Corregidor Island to port, which looked to one sailor “like a huge ill-moulded grave.”
The cruiser USS Boston, one of the ships in Dewey’s squadron at Manila Bay, was also one of the first vessels of the “New Navy” begun during the 1880s. With its sister ships Atlanta and Chicago, and the dispatch vessel Dolphin, it was part of the “Squadron of Evolution,” often referred to as the “ABCD ships.” Note that despite its steel construction, it still carried a full suit of sails, and it carried most of its guns in broadside. (U.S. Navy)
There were two entrances into Manila Bay, and Dewey had selected the wider of them—Boca Grande—primarily to maximize the range from the Spanish shore batteries. Dewey had received reports that the Spanish had sown mines in the channel, but he was skeptical. He knew that mooring contact mines in the deep water of the Boca Grande Channel would be difficult in any case, and he doubted that the Spaniards had either the time or the expertise to do it effectively. Even if there were mines in the channel, he believed the tropical waters of Manila Bay would render most of them inoperable, and he suspected that all the reports he had received about mines were part of an elaborate ruse by the Spanish to discourage him from forcing the entrance to the bay.
On the other hand, the threat from the Spanish shore batteries was very real. Dewey knew that the Spanish had several 5.9-inch guns on Corregidor, as well as 4.7-inch guns on the smaller islands in the channel: El Fraile to starboard and Caballo to port. He had no intention of stopping to shoot it out with them; his goal was to get past them into the bay and seek out the Spanish naval squadron. In making this determination he was not only thinking of Mahan’s declaration that the primary object of any naval campaign must be the enemy’s main battle fleet but also recalling his own experience more than thirty years before, when as a young midshipman during the Civil War he had served under David Glasgow Farragut in that officer’s dramatic run up the Mississippi River. Just as Farragut had run past Forts Jackson and St. Philip to capture New Orleans, so now did Dewey intend to run past El Fraile and Caballo into Manila Bay.
The narrow part of the channel was now at hand; it was just before midnight when the Olympia came abreast of Corregidor. “That was the hardest part,” one sailor recalled, “not knowing which moment a mine or torpedo would send you through the deck above.” As the island slid past, “men held their breaths and hearts almost stood still.” But there was no sign of life ashore. Dewey may have begun to wonder if his entire squadron might slip into the bay undetected, and he passed the word for the crew to stand down. Then, just as the Olympia was passing El Fraile, which appeared as a “jagged lump” only half a mile to starboard, Dewey changed course from due east to northeast by north in order to enter the bay. The Olympia’s stern swung toward El Fraile, and its fantail light became visible to the watchers on shore. At almost the same moment, the soot in the stack of one of the support vessels caught fire and a bright plume of flame shot up into the night, a beacon to anyone watching. At once a light from El Fraile blinked out a signal, a response blinked back from Corregidor, and a signal rocket streaked skyward. An orange stab of flame on El Fraile was followed in a few seconds by a muffled thump, and a shell whistled overhead. The crew raced back to man the guns, and there was a moment of confusion in the dark as running men collided into one another, “falling over hoses, ammunition, etc.”
Behind the Olympia, the Boston, the Concord, the Raleigh, and even the supply ship McCulloch all returned fire, but the flagship’s guns remained silent. Dewey was looking ahead. His goal was to get past the batteries and into the bay, where he would find the Spanish naval squadron and destroy it. Consequently, the gun duel with the batteries guarding the Boca Grande was short. The El Fraile battery fired only three rounds; the Americans fired “only about 8 or 10 shots.” By 1:00 A.M., all the ships of the American squadron were through the Boca Grande and into the bay. The Americans had found no evidence of mines, nor had there been any other resistance beyond those three shots from the battery on El Fraile. Dewey pointed the Olympia toward the faint glow of the city lights of Manila in the distance. As the American squadron cruised slowly eastward, “the white glow on the northeast broke into bright points of electric light, marking the avenues of Manila.” The fox was inside the henhouse. Somewhere on the broad surface of that bay, perhaps under the glow of those lights from the city, was the Spanish fleet of Rear Admiral Don Patricio Montojo y Pasaron, and with the day’s first light, Dewey intended to find it and sink it.
Dewey passed the word to his flag captain, Charles Gridley, to have the crew stand down from general quarters and get some rest. If the day unfolded as he planned, the men would need all the rest they could get. Dewey, however, remained on the open bridge wing, his face impassive. But that public demeanor was a pose; his orders were terse and brusque, and his unsmiling visage concealed roiling emotions. At 4:00 A.M., with the eastern sky beginning to brighten, a steward appeared at his elbow with a cup of coffee. Dewey brought it to his lips and sipped. When the bitter caffeinated liquid hit his stomach, he turned and vomited violently on the spotless deck of the Olympia.
The sequence of events that brought Dewey’s squadron to Manila Bay at midnight on April 30, 1898, had begun a quarter of a century earlier and half a world away. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the enormous Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere, an expanse of territory that dwarfed the Roman Empire at its height, had all but disappeared. One by one, pieces of that empire had been stripped away as they secured their independence, cheered on by Americans who saw in these revolutions Latin versions of their own struggle to break free of a colonial power. For the Spanish it was a cruel and painful process. It was a Spanish tradition that their American empire had been a gift from God for the Reconquista, the military campaign that in 1492 had driven the forces of Islam from their toehold in Europe. Was it mere coincidence that in the very year of that victory Christopher Columbus had sailed under Spanish colors to “discover” the New World? Yet four hundred years later the gift was all but gone. Of all that vast territory, only Cuba and nearby Puerto Rico were left. Though Cuba was a profitable colony, it was more for pride than greed that the Spanish clung to it, dubbing it “the Ever-Faithful Isle” and resisting sporadic revolutionary outbreaks.
American interest in Cuba was more than a century old. Up to the time of the Civil War, one element of that concern had been the ambition of southerners to acquire Cuba as a new slave state to balance the growing power of the free states in the North. In 1848, at the end of the war with Mexico, President Polk had tried to buy the island from Spain for $100 million, but Spain was not interested. Another element of the American concern was strategic; the location of Cuba, corking as it did the bottle of the Gulf of Mexico, made it of great interest to American strategic planners. In 1854 these twin interests combined when, in Ostend, Belgium, a trio of American diplomats announced what amounted to an ultimatum. They declared that Cuba was a natural part of the United States and that if Spain did not agree to sell it, the United States would be justified in seizing it. “The Union can never enjoy repose,” these Americans declared, “nor possess reliable security, as long as Cuba is not embraced within its boundaries.” The United States subsequently disavowed the Ostend Manifesto, however, and southern hopes for a slave state in Cuba died with the Civil War.
While the United States struggled through the Reconstruction years after the Civil War, Spain survived a long and wasting revolution in Cuba that was subsequently named the Ten Years’ War (1868–78). When not distracted by their own internal problems, Americans watched with interest, and often with open sympathy, for the rebel cause. A few American citizens did more than sympathize. Motivated by ideology, by profit, or simply by the romance of it all, these sympathizers, known as filibusters, smuggled weapons to the insurrectos and even volunteered their own services. In the middle of the Ten Years’ War, in 1873, the Spanish navy stopped and searched a chartered steamer named Virginius that was headed for Cuba under the American flag. Its captain was a former U.S. naval officer named Joseph Fry, the crew was a mixed group of Americans and Cubans, and the cargo consisted of arms that were certainly intended for the Cuban rebels. Though the men were unquestionably filibusters, it would have been hard to make an ironclad case against them, for their vessel was still on the high seas when it was intercepted. Nevertheless, the Spanish conducted a quick trial, condemned the officers and crew of the Virginius to death, and shot fifty-three of them before the protests of a British official halted the executions.
It might have led to war. President Grant sought to make a statement of sorts by ordering a concentration of the U.S. fleet at Key West, though there is no indication he intended any more than that. Instead, the U.S. State Department obtained an apology from the Spanish, who also agreed to pay an indemnity. The fact that the United States was then wallowing in the worst financial crisis of the postwar years—the so-called Panic of ’73—may have muted American outrage. Still, it was sobering to some when the attempted mobilization of the fleet betrayed the weakness of the U.S. Navy in the 1870s. The monitors, called out of mothballs, were so crank and unseaworthy that they were a greater threat to their own crews than to any potential enemy. In short, the Virginius episode demonstrated that in 1873 the United States lacked the capability to express its outrage, even against a tired and fading empire such as Spain.
That was no longer true in 1895, when a second round of revolutionary activity broke out in Cuba. By then, Luce had founded the War College, Mahan had published his book, and the United States had begun building the steam-and-steel ships of the “New Navy.” That very year, in fact, the United States launched the USS Olympia, the newest vessel of its expanding fleet. It was not that the United States had any particular opponent in mind when it constructed this “New Navy,” just a vague sense that the time had come for the United States to possess a war fleet worthy of a great nation. After all, the possession of modern weapons would give America options that were otherwise not available in a diplomatic crisis. A few skeptics noted that great-power status brought dangers as well as options, but they were largely ignored.
The renewed insurrection in Cuba was led by the poet José Martí, who quickly became its first martyr, and by two gifted field generals, Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez, who focused their campaign on the sources of Spanish wealth in Cuba, especially the sugar mills and tobacco fields. By 1896, the scorched-earth policy of these rebel generals had caused so much damage to the Cuban economy that Spanish authorities turned to the ruthless Lieutenant General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau to bring order to the island. Weyler had served as a Spanish observer during the American Civil War and was a great admirer of William T. Sherman. He responded to the destructive tactics of the rebels by adopting a hard-line policy of his own designed to deprive the rebel armies of the wherewithal to continue the fight. In order to protect loyal Cubans from the rebels, Weyler relocated (or concentrated) them into armed camps, a policy remarkably similar to the “strategic hamlet” program adopted by Americans during the Vietnam War seventy years later. Overcrowded and often unsanitary, these camps spawned both hunger and disease, and the term “concentration camp” took on a very negative connotation. Outside the camps, the rebels took or destroyed whatever of value they could find that was unprotected. The Spanish controlled the cities and the harbors, the rebels controlled the countryside, and the people of Cuba suffered.
Americans professed to be shocked by the brutality of the conflict. The major urban newspapers, especially the big New York dailies controlled by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, vied with one another to present horror stories of destruction and brutality. In almost every case, the Spanish were portrayed as the principal instigators of violence and the rebels as victimized patriots. A representative example is the report filed by a New York World correspondent in May 1896:
The horrors of a barbarous struggle for the extermination of the native population are witnessed in all parts of the country. Blood on the roadsides, blood on the fields, blood on the doorsteps, blood, blood, blood! The old, the young, the weak, the crippled, all are butchered without mercy. There is scarcely a hamlet that has not witnessed the dreadful work. Is there no nation wise enough, brave enough to aid this smitten land?
Recognizing that Weyler’s tactics not only failed to suppress the rebellion but also produced bad publicity, Spain’s rulers dropped the reconcentrado policy and replaced Weyler with the moderate Ramón Blanco. It was too late. The momentum of outrage combined with Spain’s tendency to brush off U.S. complaints, all of it fueled by the nearly hysterical popular press, had created a climate in which war became almost irresistible. Under these circumstances, another incident like the Virginius episode would very likely have far different consequences.
Though the Spanish-American War is commonly associated with the presidency of William McKinley, who was elected in 1896 over the populist William Jennings Bryan, the new American president dreaded the prospect of war and found the mounting martial drumbeat a distraction from his primary goal of ensuring the continued prosperity of the nation’s business interests. Though his predecessor in the White House had suspended courtesy visits by U.S. Navy warships to Cuban ports for fear of inciting a negative reaction, McKinley decided to renew them. In January he responded to a request from the U.S. consul general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) to send the second-class battleship USS Maine to Havana Harbor.
The Maine was America’s first “modern” battleship, and as evidence of its transitional status, it incorporated a hodgepodge of design features. Like Perry’s Lawrence, it boasted a full set of masts and spars, though the sails for those spars were never delivered and throughout its short history it operated as a steam vessel. Like Buchanan’s Virginia (Merrimack), it was equipped with a forward ram, and like Worden’s Monitor, its main battery was housed in revolving armored gun turrets. But the Maine had a curiously unbalanced appearance. Its two main turrets were offset from the centerline: the forward turret overhung the starboard side, and the after turret was cantilevered over the port side. The idea was to allow the ten-inch guns of its main battery to fire both forward and aft, but the result was disharmonious, and only an especially proud captain ever would have called it a beautiful ship.
Captain Charles Sigsbee was the Maine’s captain, and whether or not he thought his ship beautiful, he was very much aware of the sensitivity of his assignment. Even after bringing the Maine safely to anchor in Havana Harbor at midmorning on January 25, 1898, he kept the ship on alert, with one-quarter of the crew on duty around the clock and two of the ship’s four boilers on line. Publicly, however, he carried on as if his presence in Havana Harbor were nothing more than a routine port visit. He greeted dignitaries on board and gave them tours of the ship; he allowed officers (though not the men) shore liberty; and Sigsbee himself attended a bull-fight in Havana as the guest of Blanco’s deputy, Major General Julian González Parrado. He later wrote that he “had but one wish” and that was “to be friendly to the Spanish authorities as required by my orders.”
Meanwhile, McKinley became the center of a new crisis when the Spanish minister in the United States, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, wrote an indiscreet private letter to a friend who happened to be the editor of a Havana newspaper. A worker in the editor’s office who was sympathetic to the rebels stole the letter and passed it on to others who made sure that it landed eventually on the desk of William Randolph Hearst. It was published on the front page of the New York Journal on February 9. In that missive, de Lôme referred to the new American president as “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” He was, de Lôme concluded, a “common politician.” It was a pretty astute analysis, but diplomats of foreign governments are not supposed to say such things. De Lôme resigned and Spain apologized, but the damage had been done.
Six days later the Maine blew up in Havana Harbor.
In the crisis mentality of February 1898, it is not surprising that Americans assumed as a matter of course that the Spanish had somehow managed to detonate a mine or some other “infernal machine” under the Maine and destroy it, killing some 260 American officers and men in the process. The penny press in America reached a crescendo of outrage about Spanish perfidy, encouraging most Americans to assume that the Spanish had deliberately destroyed the American ship and murdered most of its crew. Even those who doubted that Spain was complicit in the destruction of the Maine insisted that the Spanish were nevertheless responsible because they had failed to ensure the Maine’s security. And even if none of that was true, there was still the lingering resentment of Spain’s repressive regime in Cuba and the accumulated sympathy of Americans for the suffering of the Cuban people. In the end, angry Americans justified hostilities against Spain by arguing that its repressive regime in Cuba, by itself, was sufficient grounds for war. The influential Vermont senator Redfield Proctor soberly described Spain’s administration in Cuba as “the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge.”
Calm reflection (something few seemed interested in at the time) would have suggested that of all the possible causes of the Maine disaster, a deliberate attack by Spanish agents was the least likely explanation. After all, the destruction of the Maine was an even greater disaster for the Spanish than it was for Americans, for it resulted in a major international crisis at a time when Spain already had its hands full. Indeed, if any group had a motive to destroy the Maine and thereby widen the rift between the United States and Spain, it was the Cuban insurrectos, whose tactics were certainly consistent with such an act.
In fact, neither the Spanish nor the rebels were responsible. Though an early postwar investigation initially confirmed that the Maine had been destroyed by an external explosion, the most thorough postwar analysis demonstrates convincingly that it was the victim of an internal accident: a smoldering fire in the forward coal bunker that flared up suddenly and ignited the magazine for the ship’s six-inch guns. Coal was a volatile fuel, and it was not uncommon for small fires deep inside the fuel pile to burn for hours or even days, undetectable from the outside until they burst into flame. A team of U.S. Navy analysts headed by Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded in 1975 that “the characteristics of the damage [to the Maine] are consistent with a large internal explosion” and that “there is no evidence that a mine destroyed the Maine.”
In this case, however, it was not the actual cause of the explosion that mattered but the perceived one. The destruction of the Maine provoked a national outcry, including public pleas such as “Remember the Maine!” which was often rhymed with “And to hell with Spain!” McKinley was determined not to be stampeded by the popular sentiment—“I don’t propose to be swept off my feet,” he told a Republican senator—but he lacked the courage or commitment to stand against the tide of public opinion. In the end, the outbreak of the Spanish-American War took place not only because many sought it but also because too few made any serious effort to oppose or prevent it. Those who saw war as unwise or unnecessary kept quiet, out of either diffidence or a fear of being ostracized by the groundswell of public opinion, whereas those who sought war did so loudly and publicly. In addition, many Americans were enthusiastic about war in 1898 because an entire generation of young men, raised on stories of the Civil War, had not seen a war in their lifetime. Someone who was twenty-two years old in 1898 had been born in 1876, the year Reconstruction ended. Many feared they would miss out on the kind of great adventure that had defined the lives of their forebears. Recalling the time years later, Carl Sandburg wrote, “I was going along with millions of other Americans who were about ready for a war.” Like the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, the sinking of the Maine was such a traumatic national event that Americans felt it necessary to strike out and strike back.
Thanks to the recent expansion of the Navy, they could. In 1884, the year that Luce opened the doors of the Naval War College at Newport, the United States had possessed no battleships at all and its appropriation for the Navy had totaled just over $10.5 million. Five years later, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Franklin Tracy called for the construction of an American fleet of twenty battleships and sixty cruisers, and the next year the Navy’s budget topped $25.5 million. In March 1898, in the wake of the Maine crisis, Congress passed a supplementary national defense bill authorizing an additional $50 million, and by the end of the year naval appropriations had reached $144.5 million, a staggering sum at a time when the entire national budget did not exceed $450 million. When the supplementary appropriations bill unanimously passed the House, the former Confederate cavalry general Joe Wheeler, now a Democratic congressman from Alabama, greeted the vote with a ringing rebel yell that echoed through the House chamber.
McKinley continued to hope that war could be avoided. When he offered a long-awaited speech to Congress in April, he reviewed the frustrating history of U.S.-Spanish relations over Cuba but stopped short of asking for a declaration of war. Instead he requested the authority “to use military and naval forces . . . as may be necessary.” Congress dutifully granted McKinley his request, but a week later the legislative branch demonstrated that it was on the verge of seizing control of American policy from the executive when it passed a joint resolution declaring that Cuba was an independent country, demanding that Spain leave the island at once, and directing McKinley to use the nation’s naval and military forces to enforce these pronouncements. This piece of legislation also contained the self-denying Teller Amendment, in which the United States for-swore any territorial concessions in Cuba.
Unwilling to be made entirely superfluous, McKinley three days later issued a call for 125,000 volunteers, and three days after that he requested a formal declaration of war backdated to April 21. That same day, Navy secretary John D. Long telegraphed Dewey in Hong Kong: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands.”
That George Dewey was in Hong Kong to receive that historic message was due, at least in part, to the influence of the brash young assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. The relationship between Long, the dignified fifty-nine-year-old Navy secretary, and his hyperkinetic thirty-nine-year-old assistant was a curious one. Long looked upon the antics of his young assistant with an avuncular tolerance, going so far as to acknowledge that since his own tendencies were innately cautious, it was perhaps a good thing that Roosevelt was there to prod him. Long, it appears, found Roosevelt amusing, even entertaining.25 Thus encouraged (or at least not discouraged), Roosevelt frequently took liberties with his office, acting more in conformance with his own perceptions of what America ought to be doing than with administration policy. Even as McKinley worked to prevent or postpone a clash with Spain, Roosevelt acted as if war were a settled fact, and he did whatever he could to make it so. When Roosevelt learned that the steady and temperate John A. Howell was in line for the command of the Asiatic fleet, he urged Dewey, whom Roosevelt considered more of a warrior than Howell, to use whatever influence he could to obtain the position for himself. Thus prodded, Dewey, who was originally from Vermont, visited the powerful Vermont senator Redfield Proctor, who lobbied Secretary Long on Dewey’s behalf.
Officially, at least, Dewey’s orders said nothing about a possible war with Spain. He was to perform the traditional tasks of the American squadron in the Far East: guard the interests of U.S. merchants, protect Western missionaries, keep an eye on the state of affairs in Korea (or Corea, as it was often spelled then), and otherwise stay out of the way of the great-power rivalries along the China coast. Those rivalries had reached new heights with the German seizure of Kiau Chau Bay. The European powers at the turn of the nineteenth century acted toward China the way American settlers treated the Western frontier: as unoccupied territory available to anyone willful enough to claim it and strong enough to defend it. The British, French, and Portuguese, and now the Germans, had all grabbed chunks of the Chinese coast to use as naval bases and/or commercial ports, and while the Chinese mostly resented it, they were too disorganized and too weak to do anything about it. The fact that the United States did not assert a claim of its own in China was less out of consideration for Chinese sensibilities than an acknowledgment of the relatively minor role that America played in world affairs in the waning years of the nineteenth century. That, however, was about to change.
Dewey made the usual round of formal calls on local rulers and officials. He visited the emperor of Japan, who greeted him in full military dress surrounded, as Dewey recalled in his autobiography, by an anxious group of “court chamberlains, gentlemen in waiting, etc.” In many ways it was a measure of how much Japan had changed in the forty-five years since Matthew Perry’s first visit there in 1853. Then Japan had been an exotic regime of such mystery that no man was permitted even to look upon the face of the emperor; now Dewey found it “but little different from . . . any court of Europe.” Indeed, much like the United States, Japan was a country on the cusp of becoming a major naval power. It had defeated China in a naval war in 1895, and the first two modern Japanese battleships were even then under construction in British naval yards; the delivery of these ships would make Japan a major player in the Asian balance of power.
But even as Dewey fulfilled the traditional functions of American squadron commanders abroad, he remained acutely aware of the possibility of imminent war with Spain. He knew full well what was expected of him: the minute war was declared, he was to steam to the Philippines and destroy the Spanish naval squadron there. Though the Philippines had nothing whatsoever to do with the independence of Cuba, it was a central tenet of Admiral Mahan’s famous doctrine that the sea was a seamless cloth—or as Mahan himself dubbed it, “a great common”—and that the existence of an enemy fleet anywhere on its surface was a threat to sea control. As early as 1895, officers at the Naval War College in Newport, where Mahan had developed his theories of naval warfare, were drafting plans calling for the U.S. Asiatic Squadron to attack the Philippines in case of war with Spain. The first blow for Cuban independence, therefore, would take place eleven thousand miles away in the principal harbor of the Spanish Philippines.
In considering such an attack, Dewey confronted logistical problems as perplexing in their own way as those Perry had encountered on Lake Erie. For one thing, none of his ships had a complete supply of ammunition, a commodity not easily found seven thousand miles from the nearest U.S. naval base. Before he had left the United States, Dewey had urged Navy authorities to forward ammunition to him as quickly as possible, but despite the near-hysterical tone of the public press, peacetime lethargy dominated in the Bureau of Ordnance. Navy officials shook their heads and declared they could not guarantee a speedy delivery of ammunition because commercial shippers quite reasonably refused to carry Navy powder and shells as cargo. That meant that Dewey would have to wait until the USS Charleston, then under repair, was ready for a Pacific crossing. Demonstrating that Roosevelt had chosen a kindred spirit for the command, Dewey overcame these obstacles and convinced the department to use the gunboat Concord, which was at Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco Bay, to carry the ammunition. He even visited the Concord personally to cajole its skipper into cramming as much powder and shell on board as possible. As a result, the Concord arrived in Yokohama on February 9 (the same day the de Lôme letter was printed in New York), and Dewey took thirty-five tons of ammunition on board the Olympia the next day. To supply the rest of the squadron, Dewey eagerly anticipated the arrival of the cruiser USS Baltimore, which carried a second load of ammunition.
Dewey’s next task was to concentrate the fleet. When he arrived in Japan in January, the handful of ships belonging to what was rather grandly titled the American Asiatic Squadron was scattered all over the western Pacific: in Korea, in Japan, and along the China coast. If it came to war, as Dewey surely expected, this would not do. Consistent with the Mahanian prescription that fleet concentration was the key to victory, Dewey sent out orders for all the vessels to concentrate at Hong Kong, and as soon as he loaded the ammunition brought by the Concord, he set out with the Olympia and Concord for the British crown colony on the South China coast.
News of the destruction of the Maine was waiting for Dewey when the Olympia arrived at Hong Kong on February 17. All over the harbor, the ships of a dozen nations had lowered their flags to half staff in recognition of the disaster, and throughout the following days, boats plied back and forth across the harbor as representatives of the various squadrons delivered the formal condolences of their nations to the American visitors. Much like the international response to the September 11, 2001, disaster, the world reaction in 1998 was “horrified amazement at such an act.”
Meanwhile, other U.S. vessels arrived to augment Dewey’s squadron, including the veteran cruiser Boston, a dozen years old now but armed with eight-inch guns, and the newer but smaller Raleigh, with six-inch guns. Most welcome of all was the Baltimore, another eight-inch-gun cruiser that originally had been dispatched as a replacement for the Olympia but which in the new circumstances would join the American squadron as a reinforcement. Equally important, the Baltimore brought with it enough ammunition to bring the ships of the squadron up to about 60 percent of capacity. This was probably sufficient even for a large-scale battle, but Dewey’s awareness that his ships did not have a full complement of ammunition and that there was no source of resupply closer than California remained a nagging worry in the back of his mind.
The most serious of Dewey’s logistical problems concerned fuel. The Americans had no naval bases in the Far East and were therefore dependent on the hospitality of the Japanese at Yokohama or the British at Hong Kong. In the case of war, even those bases would be closed to them, since international law forbade neutrals from allowing belligerents to operate from their ports and harbors. Lacking an American naval base in the Far East, Dewey’s steam-powered ships would have no place where they could recoal. The solution, though not a perfect one, was somehow to acquire a number of coal ships, or colliers, to provide floating logistic support. Dewey cabled Secretary Long for permission to purchase both coal and a collier to carry it. Long approved the request and suggested that Dewey might purchase the British Nanshan, due any day in Hong Kong with a cargo of Welsh coal. Dewey did so, and he also purchased the British revenue cutter McCulloch and the small supply ship Zafiro. All three vessels became U.S. auxiliary warships, but although Dewey put a U.S. Navy officer and four signalmen on board each vessel, he kept their original English crews and registered the ships as merchant vessels so that they would not have to leave Hong Kong with the rest of the squadron when war was declared. To sustain the deception, Dewey filed papers listing Guam in the Spanish Ladrones as their official home port, an island that was then so remote it was, as Dewey said, “almost a mythical country.”
Dewey also had to resolve some personnel problems within the officer corps. Two of Dewey’s senior officers, Captain Charles V. Gridley of the Olympia and Captain Frank Wildes of the Boston, were due to rotate back to the States. Both men begged Dewey to be allowed to stay with their commands until after the fight. Having spent a lifetime in a peacetime navy, neither wanted to miss the one chance they were likely to have for martial glory. Dewey was sympathetic; he allowed Gridley to stay in command of the Olympia despite his precarious health, and he asked Captain Benjamin P. Lamberton, who had orders to take command of the Boston, if he would instead accept an appointment as chief of staff on the flagship. Finally, there was the problem of what to do with the old monitor Monocacy, relic of a former age. Aware that the Monocacy would be of little value in a fight with the Spanish, Dewey decided to leave it in Shanghai under a skeleton crew, and he distributed the rest of the men to fill out the crews of his other ships, bringing her skipper, C. P. Rees, onto the Olympia as the flagship’s executive officer. Another addition to the Olympia’s wardroom was Joseph L. Stickney, a Naval Academy graduate who had resigned his commission to become a journalist. He asked Dewey for permission to accompany the squadron into battle. Dewey not only agreed, he made Stickney a volunteer aide, and Stickney was therefore present on the bridge of the Olympia throughout the campaign, making him an early embedded journalist.
Dewey had already completed most of these dispositions when he received a cablegram from Roosevelt that confirmed most of his decisions: “Order the squadron, except for Monocacy, to Hong Kong. Keep full of coal. In the event declaration of war Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia until further orders.”
Dewey labored daily to ensure that the assembled squadron was ready for combat. He had the ships scraped and painted, covering their traditional peacetime white with an equally traditional drab gray-green that the sailors called “war colors” and which the Spanish later referred to as “wet moon color.” When Lamberton arrived in Hong Kong aboard the small steamer China, he had been out of touch with unfolding events during the long Pacific crossing. As he peered ahead into Hong Kong Harbor through a lifting fog and saw the American squadron at anchor, he cried out to a fellow passenger: “They’re gray! They’re gray! That means war!”
All of these preparations had to be conducted in the open; there were no secrets in the roadstead at British Hong Kong. Most of the British openly sided with their American cousins, but despite that sympathy, international law compelled the British to ask Dewey to leave as soon as the United States became a formal belligerent. On April 24 Dewey received a formal message from the governor general of Hong Kong, Major General Wilsone Black, who notified him that he would have to stop taking on coal and stores in Hong Kong and leave port by four the next afternoon, though in a private note, Black confided: “God knows, my dear Commodore, that it breaks my heart to send you this notification.”
By this time, the Americans had completed most of their preparations and Dewey had already decided to quit Hong Kong and take his fleet to Mirs Bay, some thirty miles up the coast. Mirs Bay was indisputably Chinese territory, but in 1898 the notion of Chinese sovereignty was little more than an abstraction. Dewey believed—correctly, as it proved—that he could anchor his squadron there without fear of “international complication.” The same day he received Black’s notice, therefore, Dewey sent his four smaller ships to Mirs Bay and planned to follow them the next day with the rest of the squadron. He used the extra day to complete the scraping and painting of the Baltimore and to make engine repairs on the Raleigh. Ensign Harry Chadwick would be left behind with the chartered tug Fame to accept delivery of a new circulating pump for the Raleigh and to bring the latest information about the Spanish squadron in the Philippines. That night, one of the British regiments hosted the American officers at a farewell dinner, and afterward one British officer remarked lugubriously: “A very fine set of fellows, but unhappily we shall never see them again.” At ten the next morning, six hours in advance of the British deadline, the American squadron steamed slowly out of Hong Kong harbor as British sailors manned the side in a gesture of silent support, and patients on the British hospital ship offered up three rousing cheers, which were answered by the Americans.
Safely anchored in Mirs Bay, Dewey ordered that the ammunition brought by the Baltimore be distributed to the ships of the squadron, and he kept the crews busy day and night preparing for battle. A few of the ships were shorthanded. Like most nineteenth-century navies, the U.S. Navy accepted sailors of virtually any nationality. In addition to native-born Americans, about 20 percent of the crew consisted of Englishmen, Irishmen, Frenchmen, Chinese, and others. On the eve of the departure from Hong Kong, a handful of these foreign nationals had disappeared. The rest, however, worked with a will. They tore off the decorative gilt woodwork and threw it over the side so that wooden splinters would not add to the casualties, though on the Olympia, Dewey merely ordered the woodwork covered with canvas and splinter nets. Sailors also kept busy constructing makeshift barricades of iron to protect the ammunition hoists and draping chains over the sides to add another layer of “armor” to otherwise unarmored areas. In the midst of all this activity, on April 27 officers on the Olympia saw the little tug Fame enter Mirs Bay at top speed, its whistle blowing shrilly, and soon a grinning Ensign Chadwick was on the quarterdeck delivering a cablegram from Secretary Long: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.”
Even without the two references to acting “at once,” Dewey planned to waste no time. He ordered the signal for “all captains,” and within the hour he was meeting with his senior officers. He gave no fiery speeches such as those offered by Perry and Buchanan before their battles. Instead he explained the squadron’s mission quietly and dispassionately, and after a businesslike meeting he dismissed them to their ships. At 2:00 that same afternoon the nine vessels of the American Asiatic Squadron hoisted their anchors and shaped a course for the Philippine Islands.
Six hundred and thirty miles to the south, Rear Admiral Don Patricio Montojo y Pasaron was contemplating his alternatives, none of which looked particularly good. Montojo had been in the Spanish navy for forty-seven years, having obtained his commission three years before Dewey had entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was a proud man who loved his country, but he was sufficiently realistic to appreciate that his aging squadron of two small cruisers and five gunboats had virtually no chance against the newer, bigger, and faster American warships. From the start, therefore, it was evident to him that his role was not so much to win as it was to lose honorably, and if possible heroically. Three years earlier, in contemplating a war with the United States, the Spanish governor general of Cuba had declared that “honor is more important than success,” and that could well have stood as Montojo’s motto.
Unlike Dewey, Montojo had a secure base from which to operate, and that should have given him a significant advantage, but no one in the Spanish chain of command, from the governor general on down, seemed willing to undertake the kind of energetic measures necessary to prepare for the coming fight. The correspondence from the Ministry of Marine and the governor general was characterized more by banal generalities than realistic planning. They proclaimed their confidence that Montojo would do his best without ever suggesting what that might involve. Typical of such documents was a broadside penned by the archbishop of Manila that was intended to inspire resistance to the pending American attack. He referred to the United States as a country “without a history” whose leaders were men of “insolence and defamation, cowardice and cynicism.” Such a country dared to send “a squadron manned by foreigners, possessing neither instruction nor discipline . . . with the ruffianly intention of robbing us” and forcing Protestantism on a Catholic population. Such swaggering fatuousness not only failed to inspire resistance, it gave the Americans increased determination, since a copy of it found its way to Hong Kong and eventually to Dewey, who had it read aloud on board each of the American vessels during the transit from Mirs Bay, provoking predictable vows of revenge.
Montojo was equally complicit in the general malaise, offering little guidance to his subordinates beyond a general instruction to “do everything possible to guard the honor of the flag and the navy.” Whether from conviction or fatalism, the Spanish leadership clung to the notion that the old values of personal bravery and heroic behavior would be sufficient to overcome the technological advantages of America’s “New Navy.”
Even if the Spanish had been more focused in their preparations, it would probably have made little difference, for Montojo’s ships were hopelessly overmatched. His newest and biggest vessel was the 3,500-ton cruiser Reina Cristina, whose six 6.2-inch guns were the largest in the Spanish squadron, but which could be easily outranged by the eight-inch guns on the Olympia, Boston, and Baltimore. Montojo’s second largest ship was the much older 3,260-ton Castilla, which was built partly of wood, had no armor, and had ancient engines that had broken down completely. Her carved and gilded woodwork gleamed in the sunlight, but she was, in fact, no more than a floating battery that had to be towed from place to place. The rest of his squadron consisted of five small gunboats of just over a thousand tons each, none of which had a gun larger than 4.7 inches.
Early on, Montojo concluded that if he had any chance at all, it was to fight the Americans from the protected anchorage at Subic Bay, some thirty miles up the coast from Manila.† As war clouds gathered following the explosion of the Maine in February, he ordered that four 5.9-inch guns originally intended for Sangley Point near the Cavite Navy Yard in Manila Bay be sent instead to Subic Bay and installed there to provide support for the fleet in case the Americans attacked. He placed this crucial duty in the hands of Captain Julio Del Rio, but, having given the orders, he did not bother to follow up on them or exercise any personal oversight, and predictably the work lagged. On the very day that Dewey left Hong Kong for Mirs Bay, Montojo took his own squadron to sea, steaming out the Boca Grande and then turning north along the coast of Bataan for the anchorage at Subic Bay, the Castilla towed by the transport Manila. En route, the Castilla began taking on water through her propeller-shaft bearing, and her crew had to fill the bearing with cement. That stopped the leak, but it also ensured that her engines would never work again.
When Montojo arrived at Subic Bay he learned “with much disgust” that none of the four guns he had sent there had been mounted and that no mines had been laid. Very little at all, it seemed to him, had been done to prepare for the coming fight. For a few hours he nursed the hope that it might still be possible to complete the work before the Americans arrived, but the very next day he learned that the Americans had left the China coast and were already en route. Confronted with this reality, Montojo called a council of war on board the Reina Cristina, where to a man his captains voted to return to Manila Bay and fight the Americans there. It is a measure of Spanish fatalism that the decisive argument in this discussion was that the water in Manila Bay was shallower than it was at Subic, so when the Spanish ships were sunk, the crewmen would have a better chance of surviving. With such logic ruling the day, Montojo resignedly led his squadron back to Manila Bay, where it arrived late on April 29, one day ahead of the Americans.
At Manila, Montojo assessed his few remaining options. One—undoubtedly his best—was to anchor his fleet under the walls of the city of Manila. A sprawling metropolis of some three hundred thousand, Manila sat on a coastal plain where the Pasig River flowed into the bay, and it was well fortified on both its landward and seaward sides by fifty-foot-thick masonry walls thirty to forty feet high. Atop those walls were a total of 226 heavy guns. Most of them were old muzzle-loaders of little practical use against modern ordnance, but there were also four 9.4-inch rifled guns, two of which faced the bay. They were the biggest guns in the theater and could outrange even the eight-inch guns of the Americans. If Montojo wanted to even the odds between his ornate but elderly cruisers and Dewey’s more modern armored ships, his best bet was to anchor under the guns of the city. But that would mean that overshots from the American fleet would land in the city itself, with the result that hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians would die. Montojo, therefore, rejected the idea. “I refused to have our ships near the city of Manila,” he wrote, “because, far from defending it, this would provoke the enemy to bombard the plaza.”
Montojo’s second option was to fight a battle of maneuver with the Americans. But there was no hope that this ploy would be successful: the Castilla could not move at all, and even the fastest of the Spanish ships was slower than the slowest American vessel. His only remaining option, then, was to fight from anchor, and if he could not (or would not) do so from Manila, his only other chance was to anchor his fleet near the Cavite Navy Yard, on the southern edge of the bay, where two 5.9-inch guns and one 4.7-inch rifle could add their weight to the coming fight, though only one of the 5.9-inch guns faced the bay.
Montojo anchored his seven ships in the traditional line-ahead formation stretching out in a gentle curve from Sangley Point, which enclosed Bacoor Bay on the southern shore of Manila Bay. He moored several lighters filled with sand alongside the immobile Castilla to give that unarmored vessel some protection, ordered the topmasts taken down, removed the ship’s boats, had the anchors buoyed, and all in all prepared his doomed command for combat. As he made these preparations, the telegraph brought the news that the Americans had stopped to look into Subic Bay and, finding nothing there, had shaped a course for Manila. The day passed with no further news, but then at midnight Montojo heard the sound of gunfire from the Boca Grande as Dewey’s squadron ran into the bay. It would be only a matter of hours now. “I directed all the artillery to be loaded, and all the sailors and soldiers to go to their stations for battle.”
It was 5:00 A.M. and the sun was rising above the hills behind Manila when the American cruisers arrived off the city. Dewey had not moved from his position on the Olympia’s starboard bridge wing, and as he surveyed the waterfront, it was evident even without the reports from the lookouts that the Spanish fleet was not there. The Manila batteries opened fire from long range, most of the shots falling well short, though one of the shells from a 9.4-inch gun landed directly in the wake of the Olympia as it steamed past. Boston and Concord replied with two eight-inch shells each, which landed near the Spanish batteries, but it was little more than a gesture, since Manila was not Dewey’s target, and in any case he wanted to husband his ammunition. As the sun spread its light across the “misty haze” of the bay, lookouts on the Olympia spotted “a line of gray and white vessels” four miles to the south anchored in “an irregular crescent” off Sangley Point, near Cavite Navy Yard. Dewey immediately ordered the Olympia to turn toward them and increase speed to eight knots. The Baltimore, Raleigh, Concord, Petrel, and Boston all followed in the Olympia’s wake, large battle flags flying from every masthead, and with bands playing patriotic airs on at least two of the ships. The three transports remained behind, beyond range of the Spanish guns, but close enough to tow crippled ships out of the battle line if necessary.
Dewey’s battle plan was a simple one. The Olympia would lead the American warships past the Spanish vessels, each firing in turn, and then it would circle back to pass the enemy again on the other tack. He was determined to come as close to the Spanish as he could without running aground. He remained concerned about his squadron’s limited ammunition and wanted to make sure that every shot counted. The Americans had a chart of the bay, and it showed plenty of deep water up to within two thousand yards of the Spanish position, but Dewey was taking no chances. From the Olympia’s bluff bow, a leadsman regularly hurled a weighted line out in front of the ship, reeled it in after it struck bottom, and called out the depth of water under the hull.
At a few minutes past five, the Spanish battery on Sangley Point opened fire, though the shots fell well short. The Spanish had a virtually unlimited supply of ammunition and could afford to be wasteful. Dewey held his fire. Still attired in his dress white uniform, the constricting collar buttoned up to the chin, Dewey was the very picture of stoicism, though others on the Olympia had made pragmatic adjustments to their clothing. The gunners had stripped to the waist in the tropical heat, and they stood silent in the tension-filled run-up to battle. One participant recalled that there was no sound but for the steady chunk, chunk, chunk of the engines and “the monotonous voice of the leadsman.” Down below, in the engine room, the stokers fed the fires, ignorant of what was happening topside except for infrequent updates shouted down to them by thoughtful sailors. They had been allowed a break at 4:30 A.M., but once the action began they would remain “shut up” in their “little hole” until the battle was over.
At about 5:15 the Spanish ships opened fire, the 6.2-inch guns of the Reina Cristina throwing up large plumes of water in front of Olympia, the shells landing closer now, but still well short. The American ships remained silent for another fifteen minutes—a passage of time that seemed like hours to the waiting gunners. Finally at about 5:40, with the two fleets nearly parallel to one another and about five thousand yards apart (two and a half nautical miles), Dewey turned to the Olympia’s captain and said laconically: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” Gridley passed the order, and the eight-inch guns of the Olympia’s forward turret spoke. Immediately the guns on every U.S. ship opened as well. A witness on the Olympia recalled that the Americans poured out “such a rapid hail of projectiles” that it seemed to him that “the Spanish ships staggered under the shock.” Down below in the Olympia’s engine room, the stokers were aware that the battle had been joined at last. “We could tell when our guns opened fire by the way the ship shook,” recalled stoker Charles H. Twitchell. “We could scarcely stand on our feet, the vibration was so great. . . . The ship shook so fearfully that the soot and cinders poured down on us in clouds.”
Like the battles on Lake Erie and at Hampton Roads, the Battle of Manila Bay was a gun duel. Neither mines nor torpedoes played any important role in the fight, nor did any of the opposing warships get close enough to ram one another. Early in the battle, two small vessels came out from behind the main Spanish battle line, and one of them steamed toward the Olympia with apparent hostile intent. The Americans concluded that it was a torpedo boat bent on a suicide mission. A hailstorm of American shells sank it, and the other vessel turned back and ran itself aground near Sangley Point. Except for that, both sides relied exclusively on gunfire. The American ships cruised slowly past the Spanish battle line, the guns of the port side battery firing as fast as the gunners could load them, both sides firing at will.
When the entire fleet had passed, Dewey ordered the Olympia to make a 180-degree turn to port and retrace the same course back again, this time a little closer to the target and with the starboard batteries firing. His plan was to run back and forth in a figure-eight pattern in front of the Spanish fleet, moving closer at each pass and firing alternately from the port and starboard batteries until the Spanish surrendered or were destroyed. The noise was tremendous, and visibility was soon significantly limited due to the clouds of smoke that roiled up from the opposing battle lines. Both sides were using black powder, which generated great clouds of white smoke. That, mingled with the black smoke from the funnels of the American ships and the mist of the morning fog, enshrouded the scene of battle with a smoglike haze. From a range of nearly two miles, it was hard to tell what effect, if any, the guns were having. Near misses sent geysers of water onto the decks of the American vessels, overhead wires and signal halyards were sheared, and a few shells actually struck the American ships, though none of them found a vital target.
For the most part, the Spanish remained anchored in their stationary battle line. At one point, Montojo’s flagship, the Reina Cristina, made a short-lived effort to come out and attack the Americans, more, perhaps, for the sake of honor than because it promised any tactical advantage. But as soon as the Reina Cristina moved from its anchorage, it became the target of every gun in the American squadron and was battered by a number of hits, including one from an eight-inch shell that tore through the vessel bow to stern, killing a score of men and wrecking the ship’s steering gear. Afire in two places, the Cristina ran aground off Sangley Point, and Montojo shifted his flag to the Isla de Cuba.
Showing no concern for the scarcity of ammunition, the American gunners loaded and fired as fast as they could. The routine of firing the big naval guns had changed a bit in the three and a half decades since Hampton Roads. One change was that the guns were now loaded at the breech rather than at the muzzle. After each round, it was the responsibility of the gun captain to unlock and throw open the breech block. He then stood aside while others washed off “the powder residue from breech block and the bore” and shoved another round of shell and powder into the chamber. The second captain then closed and locked the breech “with a heavy clang,” put in a new primer, and reported the gun ready. But at this point, the routine reverted to the time-honored practice of navies past. As a contemporary noted, “each gun was loaded and fired independently,” and it was up to each gun captain to select a target, determine the range, aim, and fire his weapon.
As in the Age of Sail, the gun captains at Manila Bay leaned over the gun barrel, sighting with the naked eye. The difference was that now they sighted on a target that was as much as two miles or more away. Determining the range to the target was a matter of sighting on cross bearings while glancing at a chart. Though the target was motionless, the U.S. ships were under way, and as a result each gun captain had to wait for the target to pass across his line of vision. At the same time, the American ships were also rising and falling as they responded to the gentle swell in the bay, and the target therefore swam before the gunner’s eyes, moving up and down as well as right to left. As each gun captain watched and waited for the right moment, he called out a series of orders to the men of the gun crew, who trained the gun to the right or left using a series of hand wheels connected to gears. “Right!” he would call out as the target moved across his line of sight, then perhaps as the result of a slight shift in the helm of his own vessel, he would shout, “Left!” Finally, when “the line of sight strikes the target,” the gun captain would jump aside and yank the lock string in his hand. At once there was “a thunderous crash” and a great “stifling cloud of smoke,” and the gun’s recoil sent it flying backward “as if it were a projectile itself.” But thanks to a hydraulic cylinder, it quickly slowed and stopped, and the whole process started over again as the gun captain flung open the breech block to receive the next round.
It is not surprising that American marksmanship was terrible. One American officer admitted candidly that “in the early part of the action, our firing was wild.” Lacking any more effective way to determine the range or aim the guns except by line of sight, hitting a target at five thousand yards was more a matter of luck than skill. The fact was that the range of the naval guns had outstripped the ability of the gunners to put their ordnance on target. On Lake Erie, and especially at Hampton Roads, the gunners had fired into targets so close they could hardly miss, even with smooth-bore iron cannon. On Manila Bay, the rifled steel guns dramatically increased the range, but without any way to coordinate the fire or put the guns on target, most of the shots flew high or wide. Moreover, firing by ricochet, skipping the shells across the surface of the water as the ironclads had done at Hampton Roads, was no longer practical; a gunnery officer on the Olympia noted that although direct hits were difficult, “ricochet effects were worthless.” He recalled a sense of “exasperation” as he noted “a large percentage of misses from our well-aimed guns.”
It was hot work—literally as well as figuratively. The men at the guns had stripped off their shirts even before the action had begun, and they fought now with their heads bound up in water-soaked towels. Those who served in the steel-jacketed gun turrets, where the air was stagnant and the heat all but unbearable, stripped to their undershorts, a few keeping on only their shoes to prevent their feet from burning on the hot deckplate. Down below in the engine room, where the temperature neared two hundred degrees, it was so “unbearably fierce at times,” one stoker recalled, that “our hands and wrists would seem on fire, and we had to plunge them in water.” The oppressive conditions did not stifle enthusiasm. On the Raleigh, a junior officer went down into the fireroom to check on the stokers and found the men singing “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” as they worked. On the Olympia, however, three of the stokers passed out from the heat and had to be hoisted unconscious up to the deck.
After the third pass, the Americans had come to within two thousand yards (one nautical mile) of the Spanish battle line. From this range, the American guns should have been doing serious damage, and in fact they were. But that was not immediately evident to the knot of senior officers watching from the bridge of the Olympia. As one of them reported later, “At that distance in a smooth sea, we ought to have made a large percentage of hits; yet, so far as we could judge, we had not sensibly crippled the foe.”
Though Dewey’s stoic expression never changed, he was growing increasingly worried. If the Spanish fleet remained intact after the Americans fired off all their ammunition, it would not matter if his own ships remained substantially unhurt; he would have to abandon the contest and withdraw. The Olympia had been hit five times already, one shell striking the hull just below the bridge where Dewey was standing, though by fate or by chance none of those shells had done any serious damage. But Dewey did not know the condition of the other vessels in the American squadron. As far as he knew, they had suffered grievous casualties, and the Spanish ships continued to fire defiantly. One American officer noted that “the Spanish ensigns still flew and their broadsides still thundered.” An American sailor wrote simply that “they fought like beasts at bay.” By the time the American ships began their fifth pass, just after 7:00 A.M., there were still “no visible signs of the execution wrought by our guns.”
Then at 7:35, after two hours of battle, Gridley approached Dewey with a startling piece of information. He had just been informed that the Olympia had only fifteen rounds of five-inch ammunition left. Fifteen rounds could be fired away in a matter of minutes. The Olympia would still have her four big guns, but without the five-inch guns, its rate of fire would fall off dramatically. And if the five-inch ammunition was so badly depleted, how long before the eight-inch ammunition began to run out? This was the scenario Dewey had feared most. His ships would be out of ammunition, with no way of getting any more, in the face of a still-defiant Spanish fleet possessed of unlimited quantities of ammunition and ready for battle. He would be helpless. “It was a most anxious moment for me,” he later recalled. “So far as I could see, the Spanish squadron was as intact as ours. I had reason to believe that their supply [of ammunition] was as ample as ours was limited.” He saw no option but to call off the fight and withdraw out of range in order to redistribute ammunition among the ships and perhaps reassess the situation. He ordered the fleet to “withdraw from action.”
The Olympia turned away from the roiling smoke and led the American squadron off toward the center of the bay. Though he retained his characteristic impassive expression, his mood was dark. A volunteer officer on the bridge wrote later: “I do not exaggerate in the least when I say that as we hauled off into the bay, the gloom on the bridge of the Olympia was thicker than a London fog in November.” Ironically, while the mood on the bridge reflected disappointment and despondency, the men at the guns were upbeat and optimistic. The embedded journalist, Acting Lieutenant Joseph Stickney, while making the rounds of the ship, was stopped frequently by the smoke-blackened gunners, who wanted to know why they were breaking off the action. Not wanting to depress their obviously high morale, he told them that “we were merely hauling off for breakfast.” When Stickney returned to the bridge and reported what he had said to Dewey, the commodore replied that he could give any reason he wanted except the real one.
But Dewey’s dark mood soon improved. Once the fleet had hauled off and some of the battle smoke lifted, it became evident that the Spanish fleet had been considerably damaged after all. He could see flames rising from both of the Spanish cruisers, and occasional muffled explosions aboard both ships indicated that they had been badly hurt, perhaps fatally so. Then Dewey got even better news. It turned out that the previous report about the scarcity of ammunition had been in error. It was not that there were only fifteen rounds left; rather, only fifteen rounds had been expended! There was plenty of ammunition left, more than enough to continue the battle and finish off the Spanish fleet. Dewey needn’t have broken off the battle at all, for he was clearly winning. Having done so, however, he now issued the order for the crews to go to breakfast and for commanding officers to report their casualties. He still did not know how much damage his own squadron had suffered.
As the American captains came aboard, one by one, they reported the absence of any casualties. Most of them offered this information diffidently, even apologetically. Raised in the age of wooden ships and iron men, they had become accustomed to the notion that the heroism of a ship’s crew could be measured by its butcher’s bill of killed and wounded. Perry’s victory on Lake Erie had been particularly glorious in part because the casualties had been so heavy. Now each of Dewey’s captains reported that they had suffered no fatalities—none at all—and no serious damage to their ships. The ship that had suffered the most damage was the Baltimore. Montojo had incorrectly identified her as a battleship and had ordered his gunners to concentrate on her. In consequence she had been hit six times, though not seriously. Indeed, the hand of Providence seemed to have guided the flight of some of the shells. In one case, a five-inch armor-piercing shell had passed through two groups of sailors on the Baltimore without hitting any of them, struck a steel beam, and was deflected upward through a hatch cover, hitting the recoil cylinder of the port six-inch gun. Then it fell to the deck, where it spun like a top before it finally skittered over the side, all without exploding. The Boston had been hit four times, and one 6.2-inch shell had exploded in the officers’ wardroom, but since the room had been unoccupied at the time, there had been no injuries.
It was all right, then. The ships of the American squadron were uninjured, there was plenty of ammunition on hand, and the Spanish fleet was seriously damaged. As soon as the men had a chance to grab something to eat, Dewey could renew the action and finish the job. The sailors munched away happily, though many of them passed up the opportunity to eat in order to grab a few moments of sleep. The breakfast laid out by the stewards in a corner of the officers’ wardroom went largely untouched. One reason, perhaps, was that the sardines, canned beef, and hardtack lay on the same table as the surgeon’s knives, saws, and probes, since the ward-room served as the surgeon’s cockpit during battle stations. All this time, fires continued to burn out of control on the Spanish ships, and even from a dozen miles away, the men on the American vessels could hear “frequent explosions” from deep inside the hulls of their adversaries.
The second round of fighting began at 11:15. By now there was no doubt left about the outcome. The Baltimore led the American battle line, which closed to within less than two thousand yards to finish off the badly crippled Spanish vessels, all but a few of which had retired behind Sangley Point. Spanish fire was slow, irregular, and inaccurate, and the few vessels still able to resist at all fired only about a dozen shells while being pounded by the American warships.
If American casualties were minimal, Spanish casualties were horrific. The grounded Reina Cristina was hit seventy times, and out of a complement of 493 men, some 330 were either dead or missing and another 90 had been wounded—a casualty rate of over 80 percent. The unarmored Castilla, her wooden hull still painted peacetime white, burned out of control. The Don Antonio de Ulloa continued to fight until she sank at her moorings, colors still flying. The shore batteries, too, were soon silenced, and white flags were raised above their parapets. By noon it was all over: white flags flew above the batteries ashore, and virtually all the Spanish vessels were on fire or sinking.
Dewey sent the Petrel into Bacoor Bay to secure the prizes. The Petrel was the only American vessel with a shallow enough draft to enter the bay, and there were a few anxious moments as the little gunboat ran into the bay unsupported. Her commander, Lieutenant Edward M. Hughes, sent the ship’s two whaleboats inshore to round up the few undamaged small boats as prizes and set fire to the abandoned hulks that were not already burning. There was no resistance, and Hughes signaled the main fleet: “The enemy has surrendered.”
After that, the Olympia, Baltimore, and Raleigh steamed slowly northward for Manila, where the American ships dropped anchor off the city as if they were making a routine port visit. The heavy guns of the city’s battery, which had kept up a desultory fire all morning, were now silent. Dewey dropped anchor well inside their effective range and sent Consul O. F. Williams ashore to inform the Spanish governor general that any fire against American vessels from those guns would compel Dewey to bombard the city. The governor agreed at once to a cease-fire.
Once it was evident that the shooting was over, curious civilians began to gather along the waterfront to stare at the American warships that had humbled their navy. As the sun set and the late afternoon breezes cooled the tropical air, the crowd grew. The Olympia’s band assembled on the ship’s foredeck and began to play. A witness recalled that “the ramparts were filled with a gaily dressed throng eagerly listening to the strains of ‘La Paloma’ and other Spanish airs which were being played for their benefit.” As the music wafted over the city, the Spanish colonel who commanded the city’s batteries, denied by the governor’s orders a chance to fire his guns in defense of the city, locked the door to his office and shot himself in the head.
The American victory was complete. Indeed, it was the most complete naval victory in the history of the nation, more complete even than Perry’s on Lake Erie eighty-five years earlier. This time Dewey had not only destroyed the enemy fleet but suffered virtually no casualties in doing so, aside from a few men lightly wounded on the Baltimore. And like Perry, Dewey was eager to communicate the news of his victory. He asked the Spanish if he could use the submarine telegraph cable from Manila to Hong Kong to report the outcome of the battle. Understandably, perhaps, the Spanish refused. Dewey therefore ordered the Zafiro to drag the bottom of the bay, find the telegraph cable, and cut it, thus isolating Manila from the outside world. At the same time, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Perry’s message to William Henry Harrison, he penned a quick note to Secretary Long that he had “engaged the enemy and destroyed the following vessels,” naming the eleven ships sunk in the action. He was pleased to be able to add: “The squadron is uninjured. Few men slightly wounded.” The only note of concern was his urgent request to “send immediately from San Francisco [a] fast steamer with ammunition.” He entrusted the note to the captain of the McCulloch, who steamed off to Hong Kong, from where it could be communicated to Washington. The McCulloch returned six days later with the news that Dewey had been promoted to the rank of rear admiral.
As the master of Manila Bay, Dewey was also the master of Manila itself, though the Spanish flag continued to fly over the walled city. But having destroyed the Spanish fleet and gained control of the bay, what was he to do next? The justification for attacking the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the first place had been to fulfill the Mahanian doctrine that a nation’s first objective in war was to seize command of the sea by defeating its opponent’s main battle fleet. Montojo’s little squadron was not Spain’s main battle fleet, but as long as it existed, it posed at least a theoretical threat to American naval supremacy. Having now accomplished his mission, Dewey might have decided simply to steam away, though where he might go was problematic, for neutral ports were still closed to him as long as the war lasted. Months later, in the midst of a national debate about the Philippines and their future, one witness claimed to have overheard President McKinley mutter: “If Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.” That McKinley ever uttered such words is doubtful. Still, the comment suggests that the most important thing about Dewey’s victory was not that it had demolished a small Spanish squadron and thereby secured a kind of theoretical American command of the sea, but that it opened the door for a reconsideration of America’s role in the Far East.
Though this was an issue of the greatest national significance, it did not become a matter of national debate until after many of the critical decisions had already been made. The first was Dewey’s decision to remain in Manila Bay after the battle and effectively blockade the city. His decision was partly pragmatic; since the United States and Spain were still at war and neutral ports were still closed to him, there was literally no place for him to go. But in addition to that, Dewey believed that at some level his victory had made him, and by extension the United States, responsible for the Philippines, or at least for the security of Manila Bay. In his autobiography, he noted that his first thoughts after the battle were to ensure that “American supremacy and military discipline must take the place of chaos.” He therefore sent parties ashore to assume control of the Cavite Navy Yard; he assigned all foreign ships to designated anchorages in the bay; and although he allowed warships of other powers to enter the bay (ostensibly to check on the well being of their foreign nationals in the city), he made it clear that they did so at his sufferance. He even sent to Washington for “one or two battleships” to intimidate any foreign government that might be tempted to take advantage of the volatile environment to expand its own interests. And most importantly, he requested the dispatch of an army of occupation.
Dewey’s request for an occupying force was crucial, for it fundamentally changed the nature of his original mission. Moreover, his request seems to have sprung not from any real or perceived chaos in Manila itself but from Dewey’s own notion that, having conquered Manila, the United States was somehow entitled to possess it. Commander Nathan Sargent, who later wrote the semiofficial version of the campaign, wrote that his commander’s “fortunate isolation” in Manila Bay was a blessing because it “forced the Navy Department to leave matters to his discretion.” Reflecting the operational commander’s traditional view of the relationship between political and military authority, Sargent asserted that “governments rarely recognize the fact that their agents at a distance, if at all worthy of confidence, are infinitely better capable of forming correct judgments in emergencies than the home authorities probably thousands of miles away; yet the temptation to interfere is ever strong and can rarely be resisted.” Whatever the merits of such a view, there was no direct cable connection to Washington, and so it was left to Dewey to make the initial decisions about the future status of the Philippines in general and Manila Bay in particular, and among them was his decision to send for an army of occupation. Once that decision was made, much of what followed appears as inevitable.
Of course, McKinley did not have to accede to Dewey’s request. The president later claimed that “when the Philippines dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know what to do with them.” He even claimed that he had no idea where they were. “I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2000 miles,” he wrote. When news of Dewey’s victory arrived, he had to look up the location on a globe. But once he received Dewey’s request for an army of occupation, it seemed to him, as it did to Dewey, that the United States bore some responsibility to fill the power vacuum that Dewey’s victory had created. Without a great deal of thought about the long-term political consequences, the president acceded to Dewey’s request and ordered four thousand soldiers to Manila under the command of Brigadier General Wesley Merritt.
While these decisions were being made, news arrived in Washington of a second spectacular naval victory over the Spanish. On July 3, U.S. naval forces virtually annihilated Spain’s Atlantic Fleet off Santiago de Cuba. In even less time than it had taken Dewey to destroy Montojo’s squadron in Manila Bay, the combined forces of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley destroyed all six ships of Admiral Pascual Cervera’s fleet as they attempted to escape the Bay of Santiago, where they had been trapped. Besides losing four cruisers and two destroyers, the Spanish also lost 300 men killed, 150 wounded, and more than 1,800 taken prisoner, including Cervera himself; American casualties totaled a single man killed and another wounded. Spain still had the ships of its Home Squadron, which were even then steaming eastward across the Mediterranean for the Suez Canal, presumably en route to the Philippines. But the news of Cervera’s disaster led Spain’s leaders to recall them and accept the inevitable. Two weeks later, on July 18, they asked for a cease-fire.
That same day, the first elements of an American army of occupation went ashore south of Manila. Just as the Spanish request for an armistice marked a change in the course of the war, the arrival of American troops in the Philippines dramatically changed the political circumstances in those islands. If it was a stretch to explain Dewey’s attack on the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay as an essential part of a war to liberate Cuba, it was even more difficult to explain why an American army of occupation in Manila had anything at all to do with the liberation of Cuba. The arrival of American ground troops was questioned not only by the Spanish but also by a twenty-nine-year-old Filipino named Emilio Aguinaldo, who had arrived at the Cavite Navy Yard two months earlier on board an American steamer from Singapore. Before the outbreak of the war, Aguinaldo had led a resistance movement in the Philippines known as the Katipunan. Though he liked to present himself as a freedom fighter in the mold of George Washington, he was in fact an individual with a keen eye for the main chance. In 1897 he had accepted a substantial monetary payment from the Spanish to go into exile. He later claimed that he had accepted the offer in return for Spanish promises of reform, but his enemies asserted that he simply took a bribe. Now he returned to the Philippines with the expectation of filling the vacuum of authority created by Dewey’s victory.
Almost at once Aguinaldo sought an audience with Dewey. There is no record of their conversation, and different versions emerged over time, but for the moment they agreed to cooperate in the effort to drive the Spanish from Manila, each very likely believing that he was using the other. Dewey agreed to supply Aguinaldo with arms, and Aguinaldo agreed to cooperate in the American siege of the city. Within days, however, Aguinaldo declared himself ruler of the Philippines, and on June 23 he proclaimed the establishment of the “First Republic of the Philippines” and issued a call for local elections. A week later, the first elements of an American army of occupation arrived. Now, instead of a vacuum of authority, there were two authorities—three, if one counted the Spanish, whose days were clearly numbered.
Dewey’s decision to accept and even encourage the cooperation of Aguinaldo’s irregulars in the siege of Manila gave the Filipino nationalist a certain legitimacy. Aguinaldo himself later claimed that Dewey had at least implied that in exchange for this help, the United States would recognize Philippine independence. It is unlikely that Dewey made any such pledge, but it is also easy to see how Aguinaldo might have assumed it. In any case, Aguinaldo’s troops virtually surrounded Manila, and when Merritt’s soldiers arrived, the erstwhile allies cooperated to the extent of agreeing upon zones of responsibility.
As American soldiers and Filipino nationalists closed in on Manila, the Spanish in the city became terrified that Aguinaldo’s natives would break in and pillage the city. Like Hull at Detroit in 1812, they feared a massacre by their foe’s undisciplined allies more than they feared the ignominy of surrender. In secret negotiations with the Americans, they agreed to a kind of charade in which the Americans would launch a realistic-looking assault that would allow the city’s defenders to surrender to them with their honor intact. The Spanish agreed to this only on the condition that the Americans agreed to keep Aguinaldo’s forces outside the walls, a condition the Americans accepted. This charade was carried out in the second week of May, and the city “fell” to the Americans. Soon afterward news arrived that an armistice ending the war had been signed.
That same day Dewey wired Washington for a clarification of American policy. Now that Manila was in American hands, how should the United States deal with the nationalists who had claimed their independence? The answer came back four days later in a cablegram from the War Department declaring that “insurgents and all others must recognize the military occupation and authority of the United States.”
Spain’s request for an armistice was an admission of defeat. National pride had prevented the Spanish from surrendering to American demands without a fight, but the destruction of both her Pacific and Atlantic fleets compelled her to ask the French government to act as intermediary in arranging a cease-fire. Spanish authorities knew that it meant the loss of Cuba—and Puerto Rico, too, since the Americans made that a condition of a cease-fire. But the armistice agreement left the future of the Philippines unresolved. The Americans would continue to occupy Manila during the treaty negotiations in Paris in which the political future of the Philippines would be decided.
That fact triggered a national debate in America about what role, if any, the United States should play in the future of the Philippine archipelago. Naval authorities wanted an American port facility in the islands, preferably at Subic Bay, where Montojo had hoped in vain to conduct his defense of the islands. Possession of such a port would give the U.S. Navy the ability to operate in the Far East without depending on the hospitality of either the Japanese or the British. Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who had resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to serve as the lieutenant colonel of a cavalry regiment in Cuba, believed the United States had a right to take the entire archipelago by right of conquest. Roosevelt’s former boss, Secretary Long, eventually came to agree that the United States should take possession of the Philippines, but for very different reasons. “To abandon the Philippine Islands,” he wrote in his diary, “is to return them to Spain,” a country that had already demonstrated its incapacity for just stewardship by its tyrannical behavior in Cuba. Long’s conclusion was that “our whole affair should be to Americanize and civilize them [the Filipinos] by the introduction of American institutions.”
Other Americans recoiled at the idea that their country, founded on the principle of self-government, should embrace imperialism. Wasn’t colonialism exactly what the Founding Fathers had rebelled against? Hadn’t the United States gone to war in the first place to relieve Cuba of the burden of colonialism? Was the United States now simply to replace Spain as the colonial master of the Philippines? Eventually those who found American imperialism distasteful rallied around William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1900, who made it the centerpiece of his campaign.
In Paris, the U.S. claim to the Philippines derived from a variety of pressures. The Navy continued to press for a coaling station and naval base. But taking only part of the Philippines struck many as awkward. If the United States took only Subic Bay, or even all of Luzon, what was to be done with the rest of the archipelago? Most Americans agreed with Secretary Long that returning it to Spain was unacceptable. Both Japan and Germany informally expressed a willingness to step in and occupy the islands, but the United States viewed both of those nations as rivals in the Pacific. A few suggested that the Philippines, like Cuba, should become independent, though most Americans regarded the Filipinos as “not ready” for independence. After agonizing over these various options, McKinley finally decided that the only responsible position for the United States was to assume responsibility for the entire archipelago in the name of “duty and humanity.” Indeed, the president suggested that American annexation of the Philippines was somehow fated, an inevitable outcome of circumstances that were beyond his control. “The march of events rules and overrules human action,” he wrote. The war had brought “new duties and responsibilities” to the country, and it was time for the United States to step up and accept those responsibilities “as becomes a great nation.”
Having virtually no bargaining position left, Spain reluctantly but necessarily acceded to the American demands, accepting a $20 million payment as a balm for the loss of its overseas empire. The treaty was signed in November 1898, and although some Americans continued to argue that imperialism was inappropriate for a democracy, Bryan’s defeat at the polls two years later by an even wider margin than in 1896 effectively ended the anti-imperialist movement.
The fighting in the Philippines, however, was not over. Only days after the American occupation of Manila, Aguinaldo’s army began erecting fortifications facing the city. General Merritt negotiated a temporary truce in exchange for vague promises of American “beneficence.” But Merritt soon left to take part in the negotiations in Paris and was replaced in command by Brigadier General Elwell S. Otis.* In December McKinley ordered Otis to carry out “the actual occupation and administration of the entire group of the Philippine Islands,” in order to achieve what the president called the “benevolent assimilation” of the archipelago, “substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” Aguinaldo recognized at once that assimilation, however benevolent, left no room for him, and the result was that open warfare broke out on February 4, 1899, between the U.S. troops in the Philippines and Aguinaldo’s ragtag army of nationalists.
While theoretically sympathetic to the principle of self-government, McKinley was disinclined to grant it to a people who resisted America’s helping hand. To him, and to most Americans, Aguinaldo was not George Washington, he was Geronimo. “It is not a good time for the liberator to submit important questions concerning liberty and government to the liberated,” McKinley declared, “while they are engaged in shooting down their rescuers.” For the next three years, therefore, the United States fought a bloody and increasingly vicious war to suppress the Philippine independence movement and secure its outpost in the Far East.
It was an ugly little war, one in which the putative rules of combat gradually gave way before the realities of fighting an elusive enemy that depended in part on guerilla tactics. For all the outrage Americans had felt toward General Weyler (“the Butcher”) in Cuba, American troops in the Philippines soon adopted tactics that were nearly identical. Moreover, given the prevailing racist character of American society in that era of Jim Crow, it is not surprising that American soldiers in the Philippines routinely referred to their darker-skinned opponents as “niggers” and seldom accorded them the rights of a belligerent. Indeed, the United States prosecuted the war with a thoroughness and vehemence that often outstripped Weyler’s. In southern Luzon, the United States gathered the loyal population into concentration camps (called “zones of protection”), where thousands died of disease, and U.S. forces conducted lengthy sweeps through the countryside that denuded whole islands of both crops and villages. On the island of Samar, Major W. L. T. Waller of the Marines sought to turn the island into a “howling wilderness” and ordered his men to regard every male over ten years old as an enemy combatant.
U.S. Army soldiers battle Filipino insurrectos outside Manila. The long and bloody war of pacification in the Philippines lasted far longer, and claimed far more lives, than the war against the Spanish. (Photograph by Frank R. Roberson in Murat Halstead, Life and Achievements of Admiral Dewey)
News of such tactics did not go unnoticed in the United States. The Philadelphia Ledger noted the irony that “the same policy” pursued by Weyler in Cuba was now “adopted and pursued as the policy of the United States.” The less restrained New York Evening Journal expressed its outrage at Waller’s conduct on Samar with a headline that shouted: “Kill All: Major Waller Ordered to Massacre the Filipinos.” As Max Boot has noted, “the Philippine War was a rude awakening for those Americans who imagined their country to be morally superior to the sordid Europeans.”
The U.S. Navy played a crucial role in the war, ferrying troops from island to island, interdicting supplies of the rebel bands (mainly rice boats), and intercepting arms shipments. Inevitably in this guerilla war, U.S. Navy vessels sometimes opened fire on the wrong target. In September 1901 a pro-American rally brought a thousand or more Filipinos to a public meeting. The commanding officer of the U.S. gunboat Arayat, unaware of the planned event, opened fire on the crowd.
Though such events made pacification more difficult, U.S. forces eventually triumphed not only by overwhelming the Filipinos with firepower but also by engaging in what later generations would call “nation building”—constructing roads, schools, and hospitals. It was, as Brian Linn has pointed out, a different kind of war for Americans, one in which “army officers would have to devote at least as much attention to civic projects, public works, government, and education as they would to military operations.” Though no one knew it at the time, it was a template for many of America’s twentieth-century—and twenty-first-century—wars.
The Philippine War (or Philippine Insurrection, as it is often labeled) lasted over three years, cost over forty-two hundred American deaths (more than eleven times the number killed in the war with Spain), and ended officially on July 4, 1902, though sporadic resistance continued for decades, and indeed never ended completely.
The assertion that Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay in 1898 marked a turning point in American history is hardly novel. To some it was a “metamorphosis” or “rite of passage.” Others noted that it plunged America “into the maelstrom of world politics,” even “into the role of superpower and conqueror.” Redfield Proctor, the Vermont senator who had urged Dewey’s appointment, declared, “It is almost a creation or a new birth.” Observers in Europe also noted its significance. Writing in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a German editorialized that Dewey’s victory marked “a new epoch in history, not only for the United States, but likewise for Europe,” since in consequence “the United States now reaches beyond the American continent, and claims its share in the conduct of the world’s affairs.” More than a few in that racist age saw it as a victory of Anglo-Saxon superiority over the weaker races of the world. Henry Cabot Lodge declared confidently that the American triumph marked the final victory of Englishmen, Dutchmen, and their American descendants over the ruins of the empire of Philip II. To him, there was a direct historical link between the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Dewey’s victory in 1898. Spain collapsed, in Lodge’s worldview, because it was “unfit” and “for the unfit among nations there is no pity.” That same year, Rudyard Kipling published his poetic plea to America to take up “the white man’s burden” by bringing the enlightenment of Western values to the darker races.
Even those Americans who questioned such explanations saw in Dewey’s victory a new opportunity for America to reassert its role as a “city on a hill”—a model for the less enlightened. If democracy by example was not enough, Americans now accepted the notion that it was justifiable to use force to extend the blessings of democracy to others. McKinley himself defended the American occupation of the Philippines as an altruistic act, declaring that in later years, the Filipinos would “bless the American republic because it emancipated and redeemed their fatherland.” Like a father who knows best, McKinley predicted, in essence, “You’ll thank us later.”
The final peace treaty negotiated in Paris gave the United States not only the Philippines and Puerto Rico but also Guam in the Ladrones (Marianas) and tiny Wake Island, halfway between Guam and Midway (which was also a U.S. possession, having been acquired by purchase in 1867). Separately but simultaneously, the United States decided to annex the Kingdom of Hawaii. McKinley had submitted a treaty for Hawaiian annexation before the war, but he had not pushed it in Congress. It was the war that made annexation a matter of urgency. Three days after Dewey’s victory, a new annexation bill was introduced in the House. McKinley came out openly and enthusiastically for it in June, and it passed both houses of Congress within weeks by more than a two-to-one margin.
No longer would U.S. Navy forces in the Far East have to operate seven thousand miles from a friendly port. From Hawaii to Midway, Wake, Guam, and finally the Philippines, the United States now possessed a string of islands that stretched across the Pacific Ocean like beads on a string—or, more appropriately perhaps, like stepping stones—to support America’s commercial and naval presence in the Far East. Of course, those possessions brought new responsibilities as well as new opportunities. American occupation of the Philippines extended the nation’s territorial responsibilities some seven thousand miles westward. It not only gave the United States a presence in the Far East, it made the United States a Pacific power.
The war liberated Cuba from Spain, but that war-torn island became “independent” only in the most nominal sense. Though the Teller Amendment to the declaration of war had prohibited the United States from acquiring Cuba for itself, another amendment—the 1901 Platt Amendment, which was inserted into the Cuban constitution—gave the United States the right and the responsibility to intervene in Cuba whenever, in the view of the American government, it was appropriate to do so. The initial U.S. occupation of Cuba ended in 1902, but American forces continued to intervene periodically. In 1906 an American “army of pacification” arrived to suppress another rebellion, and it remained there until 1909. Other interventions occurred with some regularity until the introduction of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1934.
In addition to the acquisition of an overseas “empire,” another consequence of the astonishing success of the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American War was that it prompted a dramatic increase in the size of the fleet. On December 7, 1900, a month after McKinley’s reelection victory at the polls, the government invited bids from contractors for the construction of five new battleships and six new armored cruisers, a force that would more than double the size of the Navy. All of the new ships would be significantly larger than the ships of the existing fleet. It was, as a contemporary noted proudly, “the largest single addition to our armored ships ever advertised for at one time.”
McKinley never lived to see it. He was shaking hands in a receiving line in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901 when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz stepped forward and fired two shots into his chest. The mortally wounded president lingered for over a week before he died, leaving the office to his new vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, who presided over the subsequent naval expansion and who dispatched the so-called Great White Fleet on its global circumnavigation five years later.
As for Dewey, his great popularity after the victory in Manila Bay led to a short-lived “Dewey for president” boom. But the stoic and phlegmatic naval officer made a poor candidate, and the boomlet soon faded. Dewey lived out the rest of his professional career as chairman of the prestigious but only modestly influential General Board of the Navy. In the end, Dewey’s place in history—his fifteen minutes of fame, to employ the modern euphemism—depended on a single event, and the phrase most closely associated with him is the not-quite-heroic command he gave to the Olympia’s captain on the morning of May 1:“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
The man to whom those words were addressed, Captain Charles V. Gridley, having lived to participate in a great naval battle, surrendered command of the Olympia and started home soon afterward. He never made it. The ill health that had plagued him for months, exacerbated perhaps by the pressure of recent events, claimed his life before he made it as far as Japan.
Montojo returned to Spain to face a court-martial. Accused of dereliction of duty, the wounded veteran argued that his squadron had been defeated not because of any failure on his part or that of his men, but because they were simply overmatched by Dewey’s newer and larger force. At Montojo’s request, Dewey wrote a lengthy letter acknowledging that Montojo had fought bravely, as befitted the great Spanish Navy, but he stopped short of admitting that the American force had been vastly superior. That, after all, would demean his own accomplishment. It probably didn’t matter, because someone needed to take the fall for the humiliation of Spain’s once proud navy. Montojo was found guilty and expelled from the service.
Though some scholars have attempted to suggest that American imperialism in the Pacific and the Caribbean was the product of a deliberate conspiracy by industrialists and expansionists who sought to turn the United States into an empire, a more likely explanation is that the Battle of Manila Bay triggered a sequence of events that led all the participants down a road that few had foreseen and for which even fewer were prepared. For most Americans, the rhetoric of 1898 was real; to them liberating Cuba was a noble and unselfish goal. But in the process of achieving it, forces were unleashed that led the United States into an entirely new chapter of its national history. Sympathy for Cuban rebels had led to war; Mahan’s theories of naval supremacy had led Dewey to Manila Bay; the destruction of Montojo’s fleet had created a vacuum of authority in the Philippines; America’s decision to fill that vacuum led to a brutal war of conquest. In the end, the United States emerged from the war as an acknowledged world power. Given America’s circumstances, this moment would surely have come sooner or later even if Dewey had never steamed into Manila Bay. But as it happened, his victory there was the milestone event that signaled this turning point in American and world history. The United States was a world power, a status from which there would be no retreat.
The Spanish-American War, and the Battle of Manila Bay in particular, marked not only the advent of an American empire in territorial terms, but also the first manifestation of American efforts to remake the world in accordance with its notion of what constituted proper government. In that respect, it marked a critical redefinition of America’s place in the world and an appropriate beginning to what subsequent historians would label “the American century.” As the London Times put it four weeks after Dewey’s victory: “This war must in any event effect a profound change in the whole attitude and policy of the United States. In future America will play a part in the general affairs of the world such as she has never played before.”
In Soviet and Russian habit, bomber aircraft have been divided into two basic categories. Tactical, or so-called Frontal, bombers were tasked with attacking targets located in the operational-tactical depth of a Front, in other words at ranges beyond the reach of fighter- bombers. Strategic bombers, classed as long-range and, later, intercontinental, were designed to attack targets beyond the boundaries of one or more theatres of military operations. The ‘frontal’ bomber of the 1970s was the Su-24, whose nominated successor is the Su-34. As with ‘Ilya Muromets’, Su-34 betrays some peculiarly Russian characteristics. The robust undercarriage allows the use of unsurfaced runways. The elegant nose section contains a side-by-side cabin for the two crew members; the cabin is armoured, with up to 17mm of titanium to give protection against conventional antiaircraft fire at low levels. Similar armour protection is also disposed around the fuel tanks and engines. In a unique provision for long-range flight, the cabin is of such dimensions that the crew can walk about upright inside it; it is equipped with a toilet, and with a level of pressurisation that allows the crew to work unmasked.
The Su-34 long-range fighter-bomber (istrebitel bombardirovshchik) is a sophisticated derivative of the Su-27. Carrying an 8 tonne warload, it has a combat radius of 1,130km at low level and a maximum unrefuelled ferry range of 4,500km. Practical maximum range with one air-to-air refuelling is a staggering 7,000km.
Due to its carefully shaped nose, which blends elegantly (and quite stealthily) into the canard foreplane and wing leading edge, the Su-34 has acquired the unofficial nickname of ‘Platypus’. Armament on 10 external stores pylons (under each intake duct, on each wingtip, three under each wing) can be Kh-31A/P (AS-17 ‘Krypton’) ASMs under ducts, R-73A (AA-11 ‘Archer’) AAMs on wingtips; a 500kg laser-guided bomb inboard, TV/laser-guided Kh-29 (AS-14 ‘Kedge’) ASM on central pylon and RVV-AE (R-77; AA-12 ‘Adder’) AAM outboard under each wing.
The Su-34 was supposed to replace all in-service Su-24s by 2005, although this timetable now appears highly unlikely; reconnaissance and EW versions are reportedly under development. Its side-by-side cockpit has formed the basis of the proposed Su-30-2 long-range interceptor and the Su-33KUB carrier combat trainer. From 2005 it is intended to fit Su-34 with AL-41F engines equipped with thrust vectoring.
Compared with the Su-27, the Su-34 possesses a completely new and wider front fuselage containing two seats side by side; wing extensions taken forward as chines to blend with the dielectric nose housing nav/attack and terrain-following/avoidance radar; deep fairing behind wide humped canopy; small foreplanes; louvres on engine air intake ducts reconfigured; new landing gear; broader-chord and thicker tailfins, containing fuel; no ventral fins; and a longer, larger diameter tailcone. This has been raised and now extends as a spine above the rear fuselage to blend into the rear of the cockpit fairing. It houses at its tip a rearward-facing radar to detect aircraft approaching from the rear. The landing gear is retractable tricycle type; strengthened twin nosewheel unit with KN-27 wheels, tyre size 680x260mm, farther forward than on Su-27 and retracting rearward; main units have small tandem KT-206 wheels with tyres size 950x400mm, carried on links fore and aft. Twin cruciform brake-chutes repositioned in spine to rear of spine/fairing juncture.
The power plant is two Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F turbofans; each 74.5kN (16,755 lb st) dry and 122.6kN (27,557 lb st) with afterburning. Later, two AL-31FM or AL-35F turbofans, each 125.5-137.3kN (28,220-30,865 lb st) with afterburning. Additional fuel is housed in the tailfins. Retractable flight refuelling probe beneath port windscreen.
Accommodation for the two crew is side by side on K-36DM zero/zero ejection seats. Access to the cockpit is via a built-in extending ladder to a door in the nosewheel bay. The area is protected with 17mm of titanium armour (the total weight of armour plating to protect the cabin, engine bays and fuel tank area is 1,480kg). The dual-control cabin is uniquely spacious for an aircraft in this class, and is designed to ensure maximum crew comfort and efficiency on extended missions. Cabin height and layout allows the crew to stand at full height and move around freely, to visit their toilet and galley installed inside the deep fuselage section aft of the cockpit. At altitudes up to 10,000m the cabin is pressurised to 2,400m, which allows the crew to operate unmasked. The avionic suite includes Leninetz multifunction phased-array radar with high resolution; and a rearward-facing radar in tailcone. Instrumentation is by MFDs. There is a self- defence internal ECM fit. Su-34’s armament consists of one 30mm GSh-301 gun, as in the Su-27. Twelve pylons for high-precision self- homing and guided ASMs and KAB-500 laser-guided bombs with ranges of 135 n miles (250km; 155 miles); R-73 (AA-11 ‘Archer’) and RVV-AE (R-77; AA-12 ‘Adder’) AAMs. Believed to be the principal platform for Vympel’s rearward-firing R-73.
Su-34M modernised version will feature a new electro-optical infrared targeting pod, a Kopyo-DL rearward facing radar that can warn the pilots if missiles are approaching, combined with automatic deployment of countermeasures and jamming.
The Russian Air Force Su-34 modernization program, also referred to as Su-34M, is aimed at making the Su-34 platform more survivable in the 2020s environment. So far, the development effort focuses on the Tarantul electronic warfare (EW) system that will render the aircraft or a group of aircraft immune to detection by hostile radars as well as improved performance avionics that could help improve flight qualities. Another item that may be integrated into the Su-34M is a laser jamming system to blind infrared guided missiles and electro-optical sighting systems. The Su-34M weapon system may include a new modification of the Kh-35 anti-ship missile (Kh-35UE) and a new generation of aero ballistic missiles. The modernization program is slated to begin before the end of 2018 with the Su-34M cleared out for operational deployment by 2020.
Powder soaked but ferocity unabated. Lee’s picked force of dismounted dragoons takes advantage of the garrison’s confusion to force the drawbridge at Paulus Hook with clubbed muskets and the bayonet. The British had previously sent out a foraging party of their own, for whom Lee’s advancing force was mistaken – with disastrous results.
The British grip on New York, won at a staggering cost to the Americans in a series of battles in late 1776, remained a hindrance and a threat to the Continental cause until the final British withdrawal in November of 1783. British vessels of war prowled up the Hudson as far as the great American bastion of West Point, while soldiers and supplies took advantage of Manhattan’s superb harbour and transportation system.
Neither Washington nor his subordinate commanders were willing to leave matters as they stood. The isolated British and Loyalist bastion across the Hudson allowed the British to control access to the river, but it also offered an inviting target. ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee’s brilliantly successful raid on the outpost at Paulus Hook kept the British nervous and uncertain in the very heart of their strongest position in their former colonies.
The British in the American War of Independence sought to employ Alexander’s strategy in Afghanistan – immobile forces scattered in penny packets across the disputed territory. Such outposts certainly restricted the movement of American rebels in the northern colonies, but they also enabled a mobile force that had amassed temporary superiority to swoop in – with disastrous results at Paulus Hook. For any organization to take advantage of an opportunity or to respond to an onslaught, information is as vital a factor as mobility – and mobility allows the transmission of vital news and a prompt response to it. The role of horsemen in battle is as much to prevent intelligence of their side’s actions as it is to acquire knowledge of the position, strength and intentions of the enemy. Henry Lee (1756-1818) dismounted his dragoons at Paulus Hook for a sudden descent on his target garrison – while screening forces along the roads stood ready to limit British awareness of his raid.
Battle of Paulus Hook: 19 August 1779
George Washington appreciated the value of intelligence, and ran a sophisticated espionage network that kept him aware of British movements and vulnerabilities, much to the profit – and survival – of his cause. The advantages offered by mounted soldiers were too obvious to be ignored, and by the summer of 1779 there were enough rebels on horseback to become a considerable part of the strategic equation.
Two earlier incidents in the war show the versatility of the mounted combatant. Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton (1754-1833) of the 1st Dragoon Guards was perhaps the finest British cavalry officer of the war: skilled, resourceful and legendarily ruthless. His favoured use of his troopers’ mobility was to spread terror and anxiety throughout the rebellious colonies. More than one incident prompted the phrase ‘Tarleton’s Quarter’, meaning that prisoners would not be spared. Luck enhanced his reputation: in a duel with George Washington’s distant cousin, Colonel William Washington (1752-1810), Tarleton escaped after Washington’s sword broke at the hilt; in the process, he wounded Washington and his horse with a pistol shot.
Tarleton also favoured what would now be called ‘decapitation strikes’. In March 1781, he launched a raid on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the hope of capturing Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), then governor of the state. As a Brigade Major in 1776, he diverted a scouting party under his command to capture Colonel Charles Lee (1732-1782) in a New Jersey tavern. Lee was one of the very few American officers who had ever served the British crown – in the very regiment that captured him! Tarleton may have, inadvertently, done the Americans a favour: Charles Lee was a dour and pessimistic officer and, after an exchange secured his release, he nearly lost the battle of Monmouth in 1778 out of his conviction that the Continentals could never prevail against British soldiers.
Another Lee was the far more capable Henry Lee, Light Horse Harry’ to his peers and his soldiers. Lee made his reputation from his own ability to appreciate and take advantage of an opportunity – a trait for which his considerably more famous son Robert E. (1807-1870) is legend.
In perhaps the strangest use of cavalry during the war, Lee and his Virginian Dragoons were instrumental in feeding the Continental Army during the terrible winter of 1777-78. Washington forbade the confiscation of forage from the friendly Pennsylvania farm country, and his men suffered greatly. An early and heavy run past Valley Forge of small, fatty fish called shad offered hope – more, certainly, than was offered by Washington’s desperate letters to Congress asking for food. Men plunged into the water with nets, buckets, pitchforks, anything to toss the shuddering fish on shore. Seeing that the shoal was about to move past the desperate Continentals, Lee ordered his dragoons to charge into the Schuylkill River. The churning of the horses’ legs in the water frightened the fish back into the nets and the clutches of the starving soldiers. There was even a surplus, which would help in the lean weeks that were to follow.
A String of Outposts
By 1779, the War of Independence had entered nearly its final phase. Washington’s army, including the infant cavalry arm, emerged from Valley Forge with a confidence and level of drill that enabled them to face the regulars of General Sir Henry Clinton (1730-1795) in pitched battle – as they demonstrated despite Charles Lee’s misgivings at Monmouth. Clinton accordingly held his army in the port and city of New York, the most economically and strategically valuable territory in the Colonies, with a chain of outposts to secure communications and movement throughout eastern New York and New Jersey. The British offensive effort in subsequent years would be concentrated in the southern colonies, with ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton leading British and Loyalist forces on raids throughout the South until Tarleton’s conclusive defeat at Cowpens in January of 1781.
Defended enclaves can pacify a considerable portion of surrounding territory if they can support each other – as the United States has recently demonstrated in the urban environments of Iraq. The difficulty lies in establishing how far apart such outposts can be placed, in order to maximize the area of territory while still leaving them capable of mutual support and rapid relief in the event of a major attack. In August 1779, Major Lee, then 23 years old, took advantage of the absence of Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786), Washington’s quartermaster at Valley Forge, to approach Washington and express his belief that Clinton had made a major mistake in the positioning of his outposts.
A Penny Packet
The modern site of the battle of Paulus Hook is a street corner in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1778, it was a peninsula jutting out from the New Jersey shore, directly opposite New York City and the Hudson. That July, Clinton led out a powerful force from the peninsula towards the American bastion of West Point. General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne (1745-1796) had earlier captured the British outpost at Stony Point after Clinton retreated back down the Hudson. Lee suggested to Washington that a similar such sudden onset might take an additional bastion directly under Clinton’s nose.
The fort at Paulus Hook was essentially a fortified beachhead on the New Jersey shore, onto which the British could land and from which they could move out to exert their control over the nearer countryside. The fort’s garrison consisted of 200 men of the British 64th Regiment, under Major William Sutherland, plus 200 Loyalists, enclosed within tremendously strong fortifications. Traffic could ford the creek in front of the peninsula at only two points.
As a second line of defence, British engineers had cut a moat across the neck of the isthmus, the only access being through a barred drawbridge gate. In between the drawbridge and the actual stockade itself were the entanglements of the day, abatis – lopped trees felled and cut in a manner calculated to impede or halt an attacker’s movement under the garrison’s fire.
Behind that were three batteries of cannon, commanding the Hudson and the countryside, as well as a central bastion with barracks, plus the fort’s magazine and six cannon. At some distance, there were an additional infantry redoubt and a blockhouse. The British rear lay safe under the guns of the British fleet in the Hudson, and Clinton had established a set of lantern codes and signal guns to summon aid from New York.
Lee’s plans for a swift descent upon the fort were fleshed out by a diet of information provided by Captain Allen McLean, commander of a force of mounted rangers. These long-range scouts lurked in the salt-water marshes at the base of the peninsula and transmitted a fairly accurate ongoing report of the numbers and status of the fort’s garrison. Even today, a horse’s ability to traverse swamp, water and road compares favourably with mechanized transport.
An additional example of the efficacy of horses in difficult terrain is provided by the career of the legendary ‘Swamp Fox’ – General Francis Marion (1732-1795). He earned his sobriquet by lurking in the South Carolina swamps. With his troopers using and feeding their own horses in the course of their raids and forays, Marion made British control of the region uncertain even after the disastrous American capitulation at Charleston in May 1780. Eventually Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) sent Tarleton himself to bring the ‘Swamp Fox’ to bay, but Marion’s intelligence network, and his use of the rivers to move and conceal his cavalry, proved more than Tarleton’s celebrated ferocity could overcome.
Washington approved of Lee’s raid, on certain conditions: there would be no effort to hold the post. Lee was to capture the garrison, disable the cannon, blow up the magazine and retreat to a fleet of pontoon boats in the nearby Hackensack River before the British could counter-attack. Lee accordingly dismounted his own dragoons and used McLean’s mounted rangers to control the roads leading into Paulus Hook. Colonial horsemen would prevent warning of Lee’s attack from reaching the bastion, or any messages for aid from reaching any British detachments on the Jersey shore.
Lee’s choice to put his troopers on foot was a difficult call, but one necessitated by his bargain with Washington. The circular route planned for the attack was a 22.5km (14-mile) march through the marshes into the post, then a shorter rush with the prisoners out to and across the river and safety. Ferrying horses under pursuit was too great a risk for Lee’s own command, and his mounted forces were relegated to screening and reconnaissance duties.
Captain McLean’s surveillance had been quite intensive, but the aftermath of the battle revealed that his scouts and one disguised spy had missed two vital elements in the situation. The first, which would hinder Lee, was the arrival of a force of 40 Hessians sent over from New York to bolster the garrison. The second determined the ultimate success of the onslaught, for on the night of Lee’s attack Major Sutherland sent 132 of the Loyalists in a foraging party out into the Jersey countryside. The British sentries, accordingly, were expecting a large number of men coming stealthily towards their post – friendlies.
By 1779, the Americans had captured considerable cavalry equipment from the British, which they used to equip their own units. A great many of the heavy sabres taken from British troopers in 1778 wound up in American hands. The British had provided their own forces with lighter carbines and musketoons, which meant that Lee and his men carried full-size British Brown Besses’ and French Modele 1763 Charleville muskets. Lee divided his force of approximately 400 men into three columns delineated by their origins: a force of McLean’s dismounted rangers, a company of the 16th Virginia and two Maryland companies. The three forces were to arrive simultaneously at the objective by three different routes, an early example of the traditional American preference for columns converging on a single objective. In the event, optimism and synchronicity failed.
The combined force set forth with a wagon train in the early evening of 18 August as a deception aimed at lurking British spies. The hope was that they would mistake the formation for a supply convoy. The three columns divided once they entered a woodland, and the Maryland force and the Virginians got utterly lost in the darkness, reducing Lee’s forces to the 200 men under his own direct command. Long experience of travel had its uses, for Lee’s horsemen continued on towards the distant garrison while avoiding the roads where detection would be the most likely. Instead they waded chest-high through creeks and canals until they reached the British moat, their cartridge belts and muskets utterly soaked. The time was now 3 a. m.
Lee broke his remaining men into a vanguard and reserve, and ordered his men to fix bayonets and ford the British ditch at a shallow spot located by one of his lieutenants. The initial force struggled through the water, up the slope, and into the abatis, through which they pried their way with their bayonets. As the British sentries began to realize that this was not their foraging party and began to fire, Lee’s reserve column rushed up through the area cleared by the vanguard and carried the gate into the fortification with a bayonet charge. About 12 of the British were killed before the bulk of the garrison surrendered.
Success and Withdrawal
Major Sutherland and 26 of the Hessians managed to barricade themselves into the smaller of the two infantry redoubts. From there, they peppered the Americans with largely inaccurate fire and sent alarm signals to the British in New York. These were answered by ships in the Hudson and cannon from Manhattan, and Lee knew that his time was running out. Lee found his men surrounding 156 surrendered British soldiers and three officers. Darkness, confusion and the need for haste kept Lee from disabling the post’s cannon, a procedure usually performed by thrusting a bayonet into the gun’s touch-hole, rendering the cannon briefly or permanently unable to fire.
Humanity frustrated two more of Lee’s objectives. As his men moved to burn the British barracks and fire the fort’s magazine, they found the families of some of the garrison and sick men cowering inside the buildings. Lee accordingly rounded up his captives and made for the main road out of the post, only to find that his plans continued to go relentlessly astray. Lee availed himself of a horse and rode ahead to the appointed rendezvous with the boats on the Hackensack. No boats waited there, the commander having assumed as the sun rose that the attack had been cancelled. Lee rode back to his men and their prisoners on the road, finding 50 of the missing Virginians on the way, their cartridges still dry.
Lee had no choice, accordingly, but to retrace the original route of the attack. This was exposed in the daylight to British observation and interdiction, potentially trapping Lee’s force: the Loyalists were returning from their foraging expedition and the Hessians and Major Sutherland were pursuing from the fort, while reinforcements were already on their way across the Hudson. The Loyalists, under the hated Colonel Van Buskirk, met the column at the ferry road and opened fire, drawing a return volley from the Virginians and from the 200 reinforcements providentially sent to Lee by the American commander in New Jersey, General William Alexander (1723-1786). Lee’s prisoners could march, and his own casualties were extremely light: two killed, three wounded.
McLean’s horsemen had done their work well in restricting information of the raid. (The descendants of one little girl would later record her memories of being detained by the rangers screening Lee’s movements as the assault force passed.) Coming down the road from the fort, Major Sutherland ran into Lee’s reinforced rearguard and retreated back to his empty bastion, concluding the raid in the Americans’ favour. The fort at Paulus Hook would be re-garrisoned and held until the final British retreat from North America, but from now on it was a beleaguered liability, not a useful foothold. ‘Light Horse Harry’ would receive a medal from the Continental Congress and further opportunities for daring exploits in the successful War of Independence.
The great international hope of the Italian patriots was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Known as Napoleon III (though Napoleon II, like the boy Louis XVII, had never been crowned), his credentials were promising. His paternal uncle (Napoleon) had been King of Italy, his maternal uncle (Eugène) had been Viceroy of Italy, and he himself had spent childhood winters in Rome, where his mother had taken her sons after separating from their father, the former King of Holland. Italy thus became a second homeland to him. As a youth he considered himself an Italian patriot, planning an insane plot in Rome in 1830 and participating a year later in insurrections further north. Thereafter he turned his conspiratorial attentions to France, where, following a couple of farcical attempted coups, he became President of the Second Republic and four years later, in 1852, Emperor of the French. Although in 1848 France had for once stayed out of a conflict in Lombardy, the prospect of one day fighting on the soil of the first napoleonic triumphs remained a temptation difficult to discard.
Cavour was desperate for Napoleon’s help, convinced that the emperor was the one sovereign in Europe prepared to assist the project he persistently referred to as ‘the aggrandizement of Piedmont’. Since his fruitless adventure in the Crimea, the prime minister had become increasingly bellicose, talking repeatedly about expelling the Austrians from Italy and marching on Vienna. By the late 1850s, Napoleon was eager to promote the first part of this scheme, though he made various annoying demands of his putative ally. After Felice Orsini, a former Mazzinian, had tried to blow him up in Paris in early 1858, he insisted that Piedmont impose a censorship stricter than Cavour wanted, and as a result a small and harmless republican journal in Genoa was closed down. Earlier he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British to expel Mazzini from London although he, who had himself once been a refugee in England plotting conspiracies for the continent, might have felt some empathy with the Italian revolutionary.
Napoleon had a number of motives for bringing a French army back to the plains of northern Italy. One of them may have been atavistic: warfare in the Po Valley between the great Catholic powers of Europe was a tradition going back so far that it seemed almost a normal form of international behaviour. A more important one was national and political. France’s military prestige after Waterloo had not been sufficiently restored by its campaign in the Crimea, and it required a more solid victory on a more traditional battleground to regain pre-eminence in Europe. Such an outcome might bring a further bonus in the shape of territory, in particular Nice and Savoy, which Cavour was prepared to concede if he obtained Lombardy and Venetia. A third motive, also important, was the emperor’s own need for prestige. Determined like his uncle to establish the Bonaparte dynasty among European royalty, he insisted that Victor Emanuel’s young and high-minded daughter Clotilde should marry his middle-aged and dissolute cousin Prince Napoleon. Although not nearly as military or militarist as the first Napoleon, he also felt the need for a little personal gloire to increase his popularity at home. In this particular quest he succeeded, his victories against the Austrians in 1859 and the subsequent peace being celebrated with bonfires across his empire.
Yet there was another, more altruistic motive. Remembering his youth in Italy, he came to share some of the country’s patriotic aspirations, even if he hoped that a future north Italian state would depend on France as an ally. Unusually for anyone, especially a sovereign, his attempted assassination made him feel more sympathetic to the cause of the aspiring assassin. He tried hard to save Orsini from the guillotine and, when this proved politically impossible – Orsini’s bombs had missed their target but killed eight bystanders – he asked the Italian to appeal to him in a public letter to support the patriotic cause. Thereafter Napoleon was willing to fight for that cause so long as Cavour could make it appear that Austria was the aggressor.
In July 1858 the French emperor and the Piedmontese prime minister met secretly at Plombières, a spa town in Lorraine, where they broadly agreed on how a future Italy might be organized. After their war with Austria they envisaged that the peninsula would have three sizable states: Piedmont, expanded to include Parma, Modena, Lombardy-Venetia and the Romagna; Tuscany, enlarged by the addition of Umbria and the Papal Marches; and the Two Sicilies, where the Bourbons might be removed and replaced by the emperor’s cousin, Lucien Murat, a son of King Joachim. It was not an impossible plan though it was naive to expect the Marches, with few historic links to Tuscany, to submit to Florence on the other side of the Apennines. Apart from Austria, the chief loser in the scheme would be the papacy, which would be deprived of most of its territories, but the pope, as a compensatory gesture, might become president of an Italian confederation.
Yet none of this plan could be implemented if a pretext could not be found for starting a war. And how, wondered Cavour, could you provoke a conflict that your enemy didn’t want while pretending it was you yourself who was reluctant to fight? Another difficulty was that public opinion in France and Piedmont was opposed to a war. There was little enthusiasm even among the patriots of Lombardy, where, after a repressive period in the early 1850s, Austrian rule had become more tolerant under the new viceroy, the Archduke Maximilian, later to be the ill-fated and short-reigned Emperor of Mexico. In England as well people were opposed to the idea of a conflict that was looking increasingly like a simple land-grab. When in January 1859 Victor Emanuel told the parliament in Turin about ‘the cry of anguish’ he was hearing from all over Italy – a phrase inserted at the request of Napoleon – the British were not impressed, suspecting rightly that the cries, if they existed, were extremely muffled. The leading figures of the Whig government that came to power in 1859 – Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone – were indeed supporters of Italian independence: Gladstone found it outrageous that the Austrians, ‘glaringly inferior in refinement’, were arbitrarily ruling ‘a race much more advanced’, while Palmerston, the prime minister, remarked that the Austrians had ‘no business in Italy’ and were ‘a public nuisance there’. Yet they did not think Vienna’s occupation of Lombardy merited a European war, and they were concerned that Cavour seemed interested less in Italian freedom than in the expansion of Piedmont.
Alarmed by international opposition, Napoleon lost his nerve and suggested delaying the campaign for a year. Cavour was enraged, especially with the British, whom he accused of egotism and pettiness. When in March the Powers suggested a conference to discuss the situation, he rushed to Paris, harangued the French and threatened as revenge to ally Piedmont with England. He also declared himself ready to start a wider conflagration, to ‘set Europe alight’ to get his own way. One scheme was to encourage an uprising against the Austrians in Hungary, but the 20,000 rifles he sent the rebels by boat up the Danube arrived after the revolt was over.
International pressure persuaded Victor Emanuel and most of his cabinet to accept disarmament, but the prime minister held out until mid-April when France forced him to back down too. Although Cavour’s dreams seemed to have dissolved, they were revived the following week when the Austrians lost their heads and delivered an ultimatum insisting that Piedmont reduce its army and disband its volunteers. On hearing of this blunder, Cavour was so euphoric that, unmusical though he was, he apparently flung open his study window and sang an aria from Il trovatore. In the eyes of a Europe astonished by the Austrian provocation, he had suddenly become the beleaguered statesman rather than the calculating aggressor. Furthermore, the much-desired war could now be fought against an enemy that had forfeited international sympathy and support.
The Habsburg government made a more honourable blunder by waiting three days for its ultimatum to expire and thus missing the chance to capture Turin before the French army arrived. The outcome of the campaign was decided by two battles in Lombardy in June, which ended in victories for France but in which its Italian allies played undistinguished parts. One of them, Magenta, was so sanguinary that it gave its name to the artists’ colour magenta, but little Piedmontese blood helped inspire the name since the army did not arrive at the battlefield until nightfall, after the struggle was over. At the other, Solferino, the sight of wounded soldiers left to die was so horrifying to one Swiss witness that he went home and founded the International Red Cross.
At Solferino the Piedmontese did take part, fighting on the French flank near the village of San Martino. Yet this second contest was also a victory won by Napoleon’s divisions; the Battle of San Martino was at best a draw between Victor Emanuel’s army and a much smaller Habsburg force. For all their country’s martial traditions, the Piedmontese commanders seemed to have no idea how to fight a battle. An artillery barrage and a concerted infantry assault might have compelled the Austrians to retreat. Yet much of the artillery was stationed too far away to be of use, and the infantry brigades, instead of combining in a massed attack, took it in turns to advance, charging with the bayonet and failing to break through.
The poor Piedmontese performance can be partly attributed to Victor Emanuel who, despite his lack of military experience, insisted on his constitutional right to be commander-in-chief. The king possessed courage and exposed himself to the enemy but he demonstrated no qualities relevant to generalship. Officers at the battle found him confused, indecisive and lacking any understanding of the geography of the battlefield. He galloped across the terrain, pursued by his staff, so that his field commanders could not tell where he was when they needed reinforcements. When one of them suggested he position himself on a height so that he could both see the battle and be seen by his troops, he seemed astonished by the idea.
The Piedmontese could claim success, however, because in the evening the Austrians, after repulsing attacks all day, were obliged to fall back in line with their comrades whom the French had defeated; the villages the Italians had failed to capture in combat were thus occupied as the enemy withdrew, and a mighty victory was soon proclaimed. The battle acquired the status of a sort of Italian Austerlitz and was duly consecrated in textbooks and commemorated on site by a Risorgimento museum and a huge tower with a spiral staircase and frescoes of episodes from the ‘wars of independence’. As in most memorials of the era, Victor Emanuel dominates both the frescoes and the sculptures: one painting depicts him being ushered into the Forum by a Roman legionary, as if he were about to join a pantheon with Caesar and Scipio Africanus. Close by is an ossuary containing on one wall of its nave the names of all Italian soldiers killed in 1859; at the east end their skulls are piled high on shelves above layers of human bones.
A fortnight after the battle, Napoleon suggested a truce and a meeting with his opposite number, the Habsburg Franz Josef. The two emperors met at Villafranca near Verona and, without consulting Victor Emanuel, agreed on the terms of a peace. Austria would retain Venetia; Piedmont would acquire Lombardy except for the fortified towns of Mantua and Peschiera; the Habsburg rulers of Tuscany and Modena would return to the thrones from which they had recently been deposed; and an Italian confederation would be established which would include Austria in its role as a ruler of Italian territory.
After his two victories Napoleon might have carried on the war with the expectation of conquering Venetia. Yet he lacked his uncle’s imperviousness to the sight of casualties and he was sickened by the carnage of Magenta and Solferino. He was also alarmed by signs that Prussia might enter the war on Austria’s side if the conflict continued. A third factor in his decision was disillusionment with his Piedmontese allies. Led to believe that he would be fighting a war of liberation, he was disappointed to find that the Lombards seemed unanxious to be liberated. He was also disgruntled with the military performance of the Piedmontese. After Solferino he had planned to continue eastwards to the four Austrian fortresses known as the Quadrilateral, and he had allotted the task of capturing the north-western one, Peschiera, to his Italian allies. The Piedmontese should have been well equipped for the job because they had recently bought a siege train from Sweden, but unfortunately they had forgotten to bring it with them on campaign. After Napoleon learned of the oversight and was informed the artillery would not arrive for another three weeks, he decided to end the war.
The fiasco over the siege train was not the only error for which Cavour, acting as minister for war as well as prime minister, was partly responsible. Perhaps his most egregious mistake was his failure to prevent his unseasoned and incompetent monarch from commanding the army. Other shortcomings were apparent in his handling of supplies and administration. The Piedmontese did not possess enough horses, and those they did have often went lame because there were not enough horseshoes. The army had neither reserves nor enough uniforms nor even proper maps of Lombardy; its soldiers were shod in boots that baked in the summer heat, making them feel they were wearing wooden clogs. At Plombières Cavour had offered Napoleon an army of 100,000 but in the event he could provide only half that number. The Piedmontese had also boasted that the cause would attract 200,000 volunteers, but only a tenth of that figure turned up – and there were not nearly enough weapons even for them. Those 20,000 rifles sent to the Hungarians would have been more useful at home.
Victor Emanuel accepted the armistice, but Cavour reacted so violently to its terms that observers believed he had become unhinged. He ranted at the king and tried to force him to carry on the war without the French. When Victor Emanuel rejected this lunatic idea, his prime minister resigned and retired to his estate at Leri, where he settled down to study Machiavelli. Regretting the impetuosity of his actions, he was soon plotting a return to power.
While planning the campaign against Austria, Cavour had simultaneously been preparing expansion into central Italy. His project was greatly advanced by a strange day in Florence, 27 April, when a peaceful demonstration of local patriots, supported by some soldiers, led within a few hours to a revolution and the fall of the Habsburg–Lorraine dynasty. Leopold II, the grand duke, had lost some of his popularity in 1849 when an Austrian army brought him back to power and quartered itself in Tuscany for several years at the state’s expense. Yet the grand duchy’s regime remained benign and tolerant enough to annoy the pope, who often rebuked Leopold for being too kind to Jews and Protestants. On the morning of the 27th few of the grand duke’s subjects wanted him overthrown except for some radicals and republicans concentrated in Florence and Livorno. Even moderate patriots, headed by Baron Ricasoli and other liberal aristocrats, were happy to keep him if he was prepared to ally his duchy with Piedmont. At noon on that fateful day, Leopold accepted this condition. Alarmed by the size of the demonstration and the hoisting of the tricolour flag, he even agreed to join the war and appoint a government of liberal conservatives. As these concessions did not assuage the demonstrators, moderate leaders suggested that the grand duke might prevent revolution and save his dynasty by abdicating in favour of his son. We cannot know whether this tactic would have worked because Leopold refused to try it: instead of abdicating, he decided to leave the duchy altogether. After two dynasties and more than three centuries of grand dukes, Tuscans watched the departure of their last sovereign with much bewilderment and some sorrow.
In Tuscany the situation was thus ready to be exploited, but Cavour knew he needed evidence of popular support there and elsewhere in central Italy if his expansionist policy were to be acceptable to the rest of Europe. Lombardy had proved to be an embarrassment: Milan had not been engulfed by the patriotic fervour of 1848, and there had been no ‘Five Days’ of heroism and self-sacrifice on the barricades. The correspondent of the London Times saw no unrest in Lombardy and was unable to see signs of anti-Austrian sentiment even in parts of Piedmont: in Piedmontese country districts he even witnessed people welcoming the Austrian troops, helping them cross a river and reproaching them for not arriving earlier; they abhorred their own government, they explained, because it overloaded them with taxes to maintain an army they did not want and could not afford.
Determined to conjure a better display of patriotism in the central duchies, Cavour ordered Giuseppe La Farina, the secretary of the National Society, to arrange ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of support for the Italian cause. Although La Farina assured the prime minister that he could do this, the National Society proved incapable of organizing such affairs in the cities of the Po Valley. To the consternation of Cavour and the frustration of Napoleon, who felt he had been duped, patriotic enthusiasm in the summer of 1859 was neither strong nor widespread.
Austria’s defeat at Magenta and the withdrawal of its garrisons from the Papal States had, however, created a revolutionary situation. The rulers of Parma and Modena fled their capitals, and in their duchies, as well as in Tuscany and the Romagna, provisional governments led by local patriots were established. These then organized assemblies of more patriots who rejected the terms of the Franco-Austrian agreement at Villafranca, formally deposed the ducal dynasties and demanded annexation by Piedmont. The crucial figures were Bettino Ricasoli in Florence and Luigi Carlo Farini in Modena, who acquired dictatorial powers in their cities and, at a time when Cavour was sulking on his estate, managed to undermine the armistice and maintain the momentum of the patriotic movement. Well-timed support for them soon came from the Whig government in London, which sanctimoniously rejoiced at ‘the gratifying prospect of a people building up the edifice of their liberties, and consolidating the work of their independence, amid the sympathies and good wishes of Europe’.
Cavour was still so much the dominant politician of Piedmont that in January 1860, despite the reluctance of the king, he was back in office. With his extraordinary talent for improvising and adapting to circumstances, he saw a chance to discard the provisions of both Plombières and Villafranca and by means of plebiscites of annexing central Italy to Piedmont. He disliked Ricasoli, who was haughty and principled and disrespectful of himself, but he realized that his cooperation was essential. With Tuscany, Piedmont would become the kingdom of northern Italy; without it, it would be just a bigger Piedmont.
Ricasoli was a Florentine patriot who had long supported the idea of Italian unification. Yet he wanted a genuine union – what he called ‘fusion’ – rather than mere annexation by Piedmont. Many Tuscans felt, as he did, that they were more Italian and more civilized than the Piedmontese, and they did not want to play a subordinate role in the new entity. Cavour tried to calm these anxieties by promising them autonomy, but Ricasoli remained hesitant about holding a referendum on annexation. A proud and high-minded man, his austerity tempered only by his pleasure in making Chianti wine, he had a fateful decision to make. The choice was between a ‘finis Etruriae’, the ending of a long tradition of independence, or preserving it and risking Tuscany’s reduction to an unimportant statelet, perhaps a sort of Monaco surrounded by a new country that might become one of the great nations of Europe. Ricasoli agonized over the dilemma but he stuck to the national patriotic cause. Yet even after Tuscans had voted by a large majority to accept annexation, he was in a melancholy mood, wondering whether his fellow countrymen might one day curse the union he had brought about. Later he said he found the Piedmontese ‘yoke’ more antipathetic than the Austrian one because the new rulers could not understand how Tuscans wished ‘to be Italian and to feel a new Italian spirit’.
In the spring of 1860 patriotic fervour in northern and central Italy was undoubtedly stronger than it had been the previous summer. In the Tuscan plebiscite only 15,000 people preferred a separate kingdom to annexation by Piedmont, and in Farini’s Emilia – a new region consisting of Modena, Parma and the Romagna – the minority was officially only 756, an impossibly low figure. Further plebiscites were held in Nice and Savoy, which had been promised to Napoleon first at Plombières and later in return for French support for the Italian annexations. Cavour had been forced to pretend that no promise had been made partly because Nice was Garibaldi’s home town and partly because it would have been awkward to explain to Savoyard soldiers, whom he needed for the war, that they would be fighting for the privilege of exchanging their nationality. When the plan became public in March 1860, Garibaldi denounced it, pointing out that ‘in 1388 Nice joined itself to Piedmont on condition that it should never be alienated to any foreign power’. The most famous of all Nizzards also allowed himself to become involved in a daft plot with an English adventurer called Laurence Oliphant. On the day of the plebiscite, the two men decided to sail to Nice with 200 volunteers, smash the ballot boxes in the city and burn the voting papers, after which, according to Oliphant’s unverified and unreliable account, Garibaldi would have declared himself president of an independent Nice. Fortunately for the great man’s reputation, the plan was thwarted by a summons to Sicily and a journey to immortality. Oliphant went by himself to Nice, where he noticed that the polling station he visited was devoid of ‘no’ voting papers. In that city those voting for annexation by France outnumbered those against it by 100 to one, while the ratio in Savoy was more than 500 to one. As in Emilia, only pressure and manipulation could have obtained affirmative majorities of 99 per cent.
In September 1939, it seemed clear to the British and French Allies that the Soviet Union and Germany were allies. The Soviet Union was able to occupy the eastern part of Poland some weeks after the German invasion that started the war. It was clear that the two countries had agreed a division of territory in the east, while Germany was heavily reliant upon the Soviet Union for many items including timber, food and, most important of all, oil.
Finland was next to feel the might of Soviet ambition and military strength as the two countries were at war throughout the winter of 1939–40 but although far stronger, the Soviet Union was unable to break Finnish resistance. In the end, Finland was forced to make some territorial concessions to the Soviet Union, but retained most of its territory.
All of a sudden, this changed overnight with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The Soviet Union had been supplying Germany with many of its vital war needs up to the day before the invasion. To observers in the West it was no surprise, and indeed they had done their best to warn the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, of German intentions. Warnings had come from elsewhere as well; however, Stalin refused to heed any warnings. Russia’s armed forces were largely equipped with weapons, aircraft, vehicles and ships that were obsolete, while pre-war purges and trials had removed half the senior officers, especially from the army and air forces (of which there were several, including Frontal Aviation), meaning a great loss of experience. Even the more modern Soviet equipment was inferior to that of the other belligerent nations.
Operation BARBAROSSA, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had been delayed by the need for Germany to assist Italy in Yugoslavia and Greece, although a late thaw and wet spring also played a part as the terrain was too soft for a massive armoured thrust. This delay was to affect the success of the operation as it proved impossible to take the main objectives before the Russian winter set in and, as Napoleon had discovered almost 130 years earlier, ‘General Winter’ was Russia’s most successful general! As it was, the actual attack came as a surprise to the Russians and it caught most of their aircraft in the west on the ground and troops not deployed in the right defensive positions.
In the years of war that followed, the Soviet Union was to be heavily dependent on the United Kingdom and the United States for supplies and for upgrading the country’s armed forces. It proved to be a difficult relationship. Stalin was a demanding and unreliable ally. He fully expected the Allies to ease the pressure of the Germans fighting the Russian armies by opening a so-called ‘second front’, ignoring the practical problems that this entailed, and also ignoring the fact that the Allies were first engaged in fighting in North Africa and then in Italy, and at the same time fighting at sea, not least in protecting the vital convoys across the Atlantic, and that from December 1941 the United States was also engaged in war against Japan.
On the plus side, the start of Operation BARBAROSSA eased the pressure on the British. The blitz on British towns and cities ended, far too soon from the point of view of the Luftwaffe, and the pressure on Malta eased as well. On the debit side, Soviet preoccupation with Germany also allowed Japan to concentrate on fighting the Americans. While the Soviet Union did not declare war on Japan until August 1945, Japan’s presence in China had been the cause of much friction.
On balance, the British welcomed their new-found Russian allies. It also eased the political situation in the United Kingdom where many on the left of politics and who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union had been lukewarm in their support for the continuation of the war against Germany. The British felt the need to support their new ally and stiffen Russian resolve. There were fears that Stalin might have been tempted to cede territory to the Germans in order to make peace; this would have freed German forces to return to their attacks on the British Isles and Malta, as well as in North Africa.
Petsamo and Kirkenes
German occupation of the ports of Petsamo and Kirkenes, north of the Arctic Circle, made it more difficult for supplies to be sent. The most direct route, through the Baltic, was out of the question. Kirkenes was a key location at the northern tip of Norway; Petsamo (or modern Pechanga) in Russia was originally part of Russia before passing to Finland, but was ceded to Russia again as part of the price of peace in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40, and then regained when Finland joined Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union, which to the Finns was a continuation of the ‘Winter War’.
Given the distances involved, the only possible means of making an impact on the German forces invading the Soviet Union lay with the Royal Navy and especially with naval air power. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, was urged by Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, to carry out an attack that would be ‘a gesture in support of our Russian allies to create a diversion on the enemy’s northern flank’. At the time, an aerial attack on the two ports seemed to be the only way forward. The Royal Navy deployed one of its newest aircraft carriers, Victorious, and its oldest, Furious .
Aircraft for the attack were Fairey Albacore torpedo-bombers, complemented by Fairey Swordfish, escorted by Fairey Fulmar fighters. Victorious sent twenty Albacores from Nos 827 and 828 Naval Air Squadrons, escorted by Fulmars from 809 NAS. Furious sent nine Swordfish of 812 NAS and nine Albacores of 817, escorted by the Fulmars of 800 NAS.
Unlike the raid on Taranto, the operations had to take place in daylight because of the almost twenty-four-hour summer daylight of the far north. German aerial reconnaissance was far more methodical than that of the Italians; the carriers soon became known to the enemy and the nature of the operation also became clear. The final approaches to the targets were also far more difficult than at Taranto.
Aircraft were flown off late on the afternoon of 30 July 1941, with those from Victorious going to Kirkenes, while Furious sent her aircraft to Petsamo. The operation was jeopardized from the start as the aircraft from Victorious had to fly over a German hospital ship en route to the target and were ordered not to attack it, although, of course, those aboard could warn the authorities ashore. The approach to Kirkenes was over a mountain at the end of the fjord, before diving into the bay where they found just four ships. After enduring heavy anti-aircraft fire from gun installations on the cliffs, the attackers were themselves attacked by German fighters and most of them had to jettison their torpedoes in a desperate bid to escape. They managed to sink just one cargo vessel of 2,000 tons and set another on fire. The slow and lumbering Fulmars did well to shoot down four Luftwaffe aircraft. Petsamo was even worse, for the harbour was empty. Frustrated air-crew could do nothing more than aim their torpedoes at the wharves, hoping at least to do some damage.
Afterwards the attackers attempted to escape, which was easier said than done, especially for the torpedo-bombers that were obviously much slower than the German fighters. Swordfish and Albacore pilots and aircrew were trained in a defensive drill that entailed taking their aircraft as low as possible over the water and waiting to be attacked. The telegraphist-air-gunners would watch for the cannon shells hitting the water and at the last second call out to the pilot ‘hard-a-starboard’ or ‘hard-a-port’. Flying just above the surface of the water also forced the fighters to pull out early or risk a high-speed dive into the sea.
Inevitably, even when these defensive measures worked, they could only last so long if the aircraft were to return to their ships. Altogether forty-four aircrew were lost; seven of them killed and the remainder taken prisoner. Had the losses at Taranto been on a similar scale, seven aircraft would have been lost rather than just two. ‘The gallantry of the aircraft crews, who knew before leaving that their chance of surprise had gone, and that they were certain to face heavy odds is beyond praise,’ remarked Tovey. ‘I trust that the encouragement to the morale of our allies was proportionately great.’
The Arctic Convoys
Grimmest of the many Second World War convoy routes were those to Russia, sailing past enemy-occupied Norway and north of the Arctic Circle where the weather was as much of an enemy as the combined efforts of the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe. Not for nothing are the veterans of these convoys singled out at Remembrance Day parades with their distinctive white berets. The Malta convoys were also grim but the weather was less cruel and, of course, far fewer ships and personnel were involved. A total of 811 ships sailed in the Arctic convoys to Russia, of which 720 completed their voyages, another 33 turned back for one reason or another, and 58 were sunk, giving a loss rate of 7.2 per cent. Of the ships that reached Russia, 717 sailed back (some were being delivered to the Soviet Union), and of these 29 were sunk, a loss rate of 4 per cent. This was the price of delivering some 4 million tons of war stores, including 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft. The sinking of a 10,000-ton cargo ship was the equivalent, in terms of matériel destroyed, of a land battle.
The problems of keeping the Soviet Union, industrially and technologically backward and ill-prepared for war, in the conflict were many. Both the United States and the United Kingdom went to great lengths to keep the Soviet Union supplied. Most of the aid went via the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and then overland from an Iranian port, with Soviet troops occupying Northern Iran. Very little took the short route from the west coast of the United States to Siberia, partly because the Soviet Union did not enter the war with Japan until August 1945, and partly because of the limited capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railway to move matériel to the western USSR where it was most needed against German forces. Most attention has centred on the Arctic convoys from Scotland and Iceland to Archangel and Murmansk.
In summer, the almost constant daylight left the ships open to attack from the air and from U-boats and surface raiders. In winter, the almost constant darkness provided just three hours of weak twilight in the middle of the day, and the weather was another hazard. One naval officer having difficulty eating a meal as his cruiser rolled to angles of 30 degrees consoled himself with the thought that life must be even more difficult in the destroyers and corvettes, which rolled as much as 50 degrees and sometimes even more! For the airmen, life was hard. The cold meant that they had to wear as much as possible, limited only by their ability to get in and out of the cockpit. Metal became so brittle that tail wheels could break off on landing.
The first convoy to suffer heavy losses was PQ13, which sailed on 20 March 1942 and was attacked not just by U-boats and aircraft but also by destroyers based on Kirkenes. Despite Ultra intelligence warning of the impending attack, which led to one German destroyer being sunk and two damaged by the cruiser Trinidad, the convoy lost five ships. The scale of the Luftwaffe attacks was considerable, with Convoy PG16 being attacked by no fewer than 108 aircraft on 27 May 1942, contributing to the convoy’s overall loss of seven ships.
Most famous of the Arctic convoys was the ill-fated PQ17, which sailed from Hvalfjordur in Iceland on 27 June 1942 without an aircraft carrier among its escorts which might have prevented the tragic events that occurred. The original cause of the disaster was the German battleship Tirpitz that was lying in Norway’s Altenfjord and was observed moving by Norwegian resistance who thought that she was preparing to go to sea on 4 July, although in fact she was simply moving from one berth to another. In London, the Admiralty had been aware that an attack was likely and the convoy was given a heavier escort than usual, but with nothing heavier than cruisers in the distant escort, Ultra intelligence had revealed that the cruisers Admiral Scheer and Hipper and possibly Scheer ’s sister ship Lutzow were also in the Altenfjord.
Faced with the strong possibility that this powerful force could overwhelm the convoy escorts, First Sea Lord (the service head of the Royal Navy) Admiral Sir Dudley Pound ordered the convoy to scatter and the escorts to return to base. This left the thirty-seven ships of the convoy at the mercy of U-boats and the Luftwaffe. In the ensuing attack, just eleven ships of the thirty-seven originally in the convoy reached their destination. This meant the loss of 153 lives, 2,500 aircraft, 430 tanks and almost 1,000 lorries and other vehicles. Tirpitz meanwhile had remained in harbour, believing that a British battleship was included in the distant escort. When aerial reconnaissance confirmed that no battleship was present, she left port with the other ships during the afternoon of 5 July, but returned to her berth when it was clear that the convoy was already destroyed.
The order to scatter the convoy remains one of the most controversial of the war, especially the war at sea. With hindsight, the entire convoy should have been turned back and brought under the protection of the heavy units of the Home Fleet. On the other hand, had it tried to continue without scattering, the entire convoy and its escort would have been at the mercy of the Tirpitz battlegroup which would have destroyed both the convoy and the escort.
The disaster was a clear indication that the convoys, and not just those on the Arctic run, needed good air support and that meant having an aircraft carrier present at all times.