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.