Model (scale approximately 1:48) based on the Seal of Dover in use in 1284. The Seals of the Cinque Ports are almost the only contemporary information available. The ships of the 11th and 12th centuries differed little from Viking longships. As more reliance came to be placed on sail power the vessels were built with increased beam and depth to carry the larger sail. During the 13th century, fore and aftercastles were added to these ships for fighting purposes. This ship was about 75 ft in length and 25 ft wide. The Cinque Ports are first mentioned in an English Royal Charter of 1155. They were five ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings) which, in return for certain privileges, guaranteed to provide the Crown with ships in times of national strife or crisis.
It has long been an axiom that, as an island, Britain’s best defence was to attack the enemy at sea and for many centuries the warships and sailors from the Cinque Ports of Sussex formed part of England’s coastal defence.
The Cinque Ports were a maritime confederacy whose privileges and duties were legally defined by a Royal Charter of 1278. In return for the defence of the coast against sea-borne incursions and the provision of fifty-seven armed ships and crews for fifteen days each year for the Royal fleet, the confederation was granted certain rights and privileges. These included exemption from many taxes, the rights of wreckage (an important, if irregular, source of income) and Honours at Court. If the ships were required for longer than the fifteen days the king had to pay for their services.
The original five ports were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich with Winchelsea and Rye as attached members of Hastings. The full title of the confederation was the Cinque Ports and Two Ancient Towns. At various times throughout the Middle Ages other towns and ports, from as far as Brightlingsea in Essex to Seaford in Sussex (and including Pevensey and Bulverhythe), were affiliated with the confederation, forming one of the most important naval forces in England. At the height of its power and influence the confederation numbered no less than forty-two towns and villages.
The ports had been active as a confederation long before their position was legally established. It is known that the Cinque Ports’ fleet sailed up the eastern coast in support of King Harold’s march to York to face Hardrada’s Vikings in 1066. Unfortunately for Harold these vessels were still in the north when William sailed from Normandy and the Conqueror found the coast undefended. Ironically it was the loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 which thrust the south coast and the Cinque Ports into the front line defence of England.
Their first recorded large-scale battle occurred early in 1213 when the Cinque Ports’ fleet attacked Dieppe and destroyed French ships which had been assembling in the Seine estuary in preparation for an attack upon England. In May of the same year the Cinque Ports’ ships formed part of an English naval force which defeated the French at the Battle of Damme where, it was claimed, the Portsmen captured 200 enemy vessels.
In 1216 Rye and Winchelsea opened their gates to the Dauphin of France in his unsuccessful bid to wrest the English throne from the hated King John. The French also occupied Chichester Castle. The following year the Castle was recaptured and the Cinque Ports’ fleet, having been bribed to change sides, defeated the French navy in a battle off Sandwich. So that Chichester Castle could never be used again by the French it was pulled down in 1225.
In 1242 the Cinque Ports were granted permission to ravage the French coast but it was during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) that the men and the ships of the Cinque Ports were most frequently in action. This conflict was a continuation of the confusion that arose after William the Conqueror divided his Anglo-Norman empire between his sons. From that moment on, the leading men in England and France were locked in seemingly endless disputes over the rights to property on both sides of the Channel. Often this took the form of legal debate but sometimes the arguments were decided by the force of arms. So when Phillip VI seized Gascony in 1337 the English king – Edward III – went to war to regain his Gascon possessions and to assert his own claim to the throne of France.
The first battle of the Hundred Years War was at sea. Edward, with a massive fleet of ships, including a large contingent from the Cinque Ports, achieved a great victory off Sluys. French losses were claimed to have reached 25,000 men. The significance of this victory, and of another success by the Cinque Ports’ fleet at the Battle of Les Espagnols-sur-Mer off Winchelsea in 1350, was that Edward’s army was able to cross the Channel and most of the fighting of the Hundred Years War took place in France.
Inevitably the French fleet felt obliged to retaliate and the Sussex coast, particularly the Cinque Ports, came under attack. Winchelsea was first assaulted in 1337 when around a hundred houses were burnt to the ground. Rye suffered a similar raid in 1339 when fifty of its houses were destroyed.
Twenty years later, on Sunday 15 March 1359, some 3,000 Frenchmen landed whilst the townspeople were in Winchelsea’s Church of St Giles celebrating Mass. The French broke into the church killing and raping. Forty of the inhabitants were murdered before help came. In the ensuing conflict some 400 English were drowned in the harbour. When the French sailed away they took with them thirteen well-laden ships.4
Exactly one year later, on 15 March 1360, Rye and Winchelsea suffered another raid, with both ports and the surrounding countryside being ravaged and burnt. A retaliatory raid was made by the Cinque Ports’ fleet a few months later.
The largest French raid came in the summer of 1377. Rye was overrun by a considerable force of possibly 4,000 men in 120 ships led by Admiral Jean de Vienne. At the sight of such a large force the inhabitants fled. All the wooden buildings in the town were burnt. Rye’s small castle, the Badding’s Tower, which had been built in the time of Henry III, proved incapable of defending the town against such attacks and it was clear that Rye would have to be properly fortified. With the help of Royal grants a stone wall was subsequently erected around the town with impressive strong-points in the form of the Land Gate and the Strand Gate. Baddings Tower was sold to a private individual, John de Ypres, in 1430 and has been known as the Ypres Tower ever since.
The French raiders then moved against Winchelsea. But the Abbot of Battle, having learnt of the French incursion, armed his men and sent them to help man the town’s defences. The raiders were driven off. Winchelsea’s defences were formed when the new town was built on its present site at the end of the thirteenth century. The walls were partly wood and earth, with stone only being used at key locations. The whole of the eastern side was surrounded by a wide ditch.
Undeterred by their repulse at Winchelsea, the French continued along the coast, ransacking Hastings and destroying its churches. Hastings was no longer the major port in the region. Hastings heads the list of the Cinque Ports and at its height in the twelfth century it contributed twenty ships to the king’s fleet. By the early thirteenth century Hastings’ contribution to the confederation was no more than half-a-dozen vessels. Hastings Castle had also declined in importance and as early as 1339 the town and the castle had been ransacked by one of the first raids of the Hundred Years War.
The French attackers continued westwards and, sighting a gap in the cliffs, de Vienne decided to make landfall – they had arrived at Rottingdean. The ships anchored or ran aground and the French troops advanced inland, only to be met by a volley of arrows from the locals. Though outnumbered, the archers were able to delay the French long enough to allow their women and children to escape. One man was sent by horse to alert the people of Lewes.
Meanwhile the rest of the French force made its way ashore. They looted the houses and set fire to the church of St Margaret. As de Vienne prepared to extend his raid further inland one of his scouts reported that an English force of some 500 men was approaching. The French admiral planned an ambush.
The English force was led by John de Caroloco, the Prior of the St Pancras Priory at Lewes. The Prior had no idea that the French were ashore in such large numbers and when he saw the small advance force on the edge of the village, he led the English into the attack. De Vienne, however, had stationed the majority of his troops on the wooded slopes of Beacon Hill, from which vantage point they could watch the English rushing into their trap.
The small French body turned and ran back to the beach, luring the English with them. At a pre-arranged signal, de Vienne unleashed his men who charged down upon the rear of the unsuspecting English. A handful of the English managed to cut their way through the French ranks but Prior de Caroloco was captured and around 100 men were killed.
Having beaten the local militia, de Vienne was now free to plunder the local area and it is possible that the French got as far as Lewes only to find the gates closed and the walls manned. After five days the French took to their ships again, eventually returning to France. It is said that John de Caroloco was taken back to France and ransomed. It has been said that he was released after a ransom of 300 marks had been handed over.
Ecclesiastical establishments of the Middle Ages played an important part in local defence, especially as places of refuge. The great gatehouses of places like Battle Abbey and Michelham Priory, as well as the moats dug around churches, such as that at West Tarring, were genuine defensive structures.
In retaliation for the raid of 1377 the men of Rye and Winchelsea attacked the French coast the following year. They captured all the wealthy people that could be held to ransom and they recovered the church bells of the two towns which had been taken by the French the previous year.
The French attacked the Sussex coast again in 1380. Led by Admiral Jean de Vienne, the Cinque Ports of Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings were once more the main targets of the raiders. The final French raid of the Hundred Years War was against Rye in 1448.
The repeated French attacks prompted a number of important landowners living close to the coast to build castles.
Amongst those was Bishop William Rede who sought a license to crenellate his house at Amberley after the raid of 1377. Though Amberley is more than six miles from the sea, it is less than a mile from the Arun which French ships could easily navigate. With curtain walls reaching forty feet in height the castle was protected by a moat along its southern face and the extensive marsh land of the Wild Brooks to the north and west. Its most impressive feature was its twin-towered gatehouse, built with a drawbridge and portcullis. Amberley Castle was attacked only once, in 1643 during the Civil War, when it was captured without a struggle by the Parliamentarians.
Around the same time that Amberley Castle was being fortified, Roger de Ashburnham also received permission to strengthen his manor house at Scotney. Until the nineteenth-century boundary changes Scotney was in Sussex, but is now in Kent. A few years later, on 21 October 1385, Sir Edward Dalngrigge received a licence to crenellate his property at Bodiam. Like Amberley, Bodiam Castle is near to one of Sussex’s major rivers. In this instance the Castle overlooks the River Rother, close to an ancient harbour which had been in use since Roman times.
Bodiam, one of the most picturesque castles in England, was built within a huge rectangular moat, some eight feet deep, which measures 542 feet by 340 feet. Rising to forty-one feet above the level of the water, the short curtain walls are flanked by four circular drum towers at each corner of this virtually square building. Midway along each of the southern, eastern and western walls is a rectangular tower and the northern wall boasts an impressive gatehouse. The towers stand twenty feet higher than the walls. Bodiam is classified as a courtyard castle which means that the internal buildings are set around a central courtyard.
The towers of the gatehouse flank the entrance which was built with three portcullises and a drawbridge which led to a barbican gate. A second drawbridge led to a small octagonal island which was reached by a bridge from the western side of the moat. It is also known that the castle was armed with a 15-inch “bombard”, one of the earliest types of artillery piece, as one of these guns was found in the moat. This weapon is now on display in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich.
With such defences, the castle would have been virtually unassailable, yet the only occasion that it was attacked – during the Civil War – it appears to have been given up without a fight. Bodiam was also besieged in 1483 but nothing is known about the event.
Herstmonceux Castle was built in the penultimate decade of the Hundred Years War by Roger de Fiennes who made his fortune fighting, and plundering, the French. Though the castle is not near a navigable river it does command the exposed Pevensey Levels. Despite its impressive double-parapeted gatehouse and water-filled moat, Herstmonceux is considered to be more a fortified manor house than a true castle.
During this period of unrest Pevensey Castle was garrisoned with around twenty or thirty men, usually consisting of ten men-at-arms, twenty bowmen and a watchman. However, in 1372 the Castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and he refused to defend the Castle against the French raids. His failure to provide troops to garrison the Castle during the 1377 raid (claiming that if the Castle was damaged he could afford to re-build it!) made the Duke an unpopular figure. During the Peasant’s Revolt four years later the locals had their revenge and a mob broke into the Castle and burnt the court rolls used for assessing the Poll Tax. A similar attack was made at this time upon Lewes Castle.
In 1394 John of Gaunt went to Ireland and he entrusted the Constableship of Pevensey Castle to Sir John Pelham. When, five years later, John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, clashed with Richard II, Pelham remained loyal to the Gaunt family and Pevensey Castle found itself under siege for the final time in its history. On this occasion the Castle, held by Pelham’s wife Joan, was not taken and after Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV, Pelham received the Castle and Honour of Pevensey as his reward.
With the ending of the Hundred Years War, the military importance of the Cinque Ports faded. Their decline was due in part to the growth of the Royal Navy but also to the silting up of the harbours. Only Dover, with aid from the state, has managed to keep its harbour open. The Cinque Ports were called to defend the realm just one more time when England faced its severest test since 1066. This time, though, it was not from France that the would-be invaders came, but from Spain.
Religion, which has so often whipped up the storm of international conflict, was the wind behind the sails of the magnificent armada of war ships that departed Spain in 1588 intent upon the subjugation of liberal England. Catholic Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, numbered the Netherlands (present-day Belgium and Holland) amongst its possessions. The growing Protestant movement in the Low Countries worried the severely orthodox Spanish monarch, Philip II, and he decided to end the advance of the heretics and enforce strict Catholicism upon his wayward Dutch and Flemish subjects.
A strong force of mercenaries from Spain’s Italian provinces, led by the Duke of Alva, was despatched to the Netherlands in the summer of 1567. Alva arrested the province’s leading figures and instigated a reign of inquisitorial terror against the defenceless Protestants. Many fled the Inquisition by crossing the North Sea. The Low Countries had long been England’s commercial inlet into Europe and the Flemish weavers and Dutch merchants received a friendly welcome from their old trading partners in Protestant England.
Tension between England and Spain was heightened the following year with the capture of an English fleet of ships in the Caribbean by the Spaniards, and by the retention of the cargo from a Spanish convoy that had sought shelter in the ports along the south coast. That cargo was gold bullion which had been destined to pay the troops occupying the Netherlands. Firstly Spain and then England responded by placing embargoes on each other’s trade with the Low Countries.
Relationships between the two countries deteriorated even further when Mary Queen of Scots attempted to seize the English throne with the assistance of the Spaniards. Mary’s Catholic supporters captured Hartlepool to allow Alva’s men a secure disembarkation but the Spaniards lacked the naval strength to ensure a safe crossing of the North Sea and the rebellion was quickly quashed.
By contrast, northern Europe continued to experience great civil unrest amidst Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It was, therefore, in England’s settled shires that industry could flourish in peace.
In Sussex the Wealden forests glowed with the fires of the gun foundries. Firstly for the ships of the Royal Navy and then for the forts and castles of the shores, the cannon of Sussex armed the nation – and none too soon. For the dare-devil actions of English privateers on the Spanish Main and open support for the Dutch rebels had enraged Philip and he would tolerate England’s interference no longer.
The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled HERE.
Philip planned to crush England with overwhelming force. An armada of transport vessels and warships, led by Medina Sidonia, would sail into the Channel and drive the Royal Navy from its home waters. At the same time the army in the Netherlands, now under the command of the Duke of Parma, would cross the North Sea on flat-bottomed barges taken from the waterways of Flanders.
Elizabeth, and her advisers, were well aware of Philip’s preparations and whilst all effort was to be concentrated upon stopping the Spaniards at sea, consideration was also given to the defence of the coast.
Firstly, a chain of fire beacons was established along the entire southern and eastern coastlines. They were formed in pairs. Lighting one beacon was to indicate a small raid which might be repelled by local men; lighting both beacons meant that a full-scale attack was imminent.
In Sussex these were located at: West Wittering, Bracklesham, Selsey, Sidlesham, The Trundle, Pagham, Felpham, Littlehampton, East Preston, Kingston, Ferring, Goring, Worthing (Heene Mill), East Worthing, Lancing, Aldrington, Brighton, Rottingdean, Seaford (Bishopstone), Wilmington, Willingdon, Beachy Head, Cross-in-Hand, Burwash, Cooden Down and Fairlight.
From the coast the alarm could be passed all the way to London with beacons on Highdown Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Ditchling Beacon, Firle Beacon and Crowborough Beacon transmitting signals to the North Downs and from there to the capital. The maintenance of the beacons, which were pitch-filled iron baskets on top of wooden poles, was the responsibility of the community and five householders were to oversee each pair. These householders had to ensure that at least two of them were home at all times and no one living on or near the coast was allowed to move home without permission. The beacon system was supplemented by a relay of post-horses which were held in readiness along the coast.
Secondly, batteries were to be built or restored and armed with cannon, especially along the flat, open beaches between Brighton and Selsey. Brighton, a frequent target of raids from the sea, already possessed a gun garden and blockhouse. Situated on what was once a low cliff between the present-day Black Lion Street and Ship Street, the gun garden fronted the sea with the circular blockhouse standing to a height of eighteen feet placed behind it. Initially sixteen guns were housed in the garden and blockhouse but by the time of the Armada this had been reduced to just six. Trenches already existed at Whitehawk Hill and others were planned for Saltdean.
Further to the east, Newhaven, East Blatchington and Cuckmere Haven were to be provided with more substantial earthworks and Birling Gap was to be “rammed up”. Alfriston, Eastbourne and Hastings were all to receive defensive works or ordnance. A two-gun battery was formed inside the outer bailey of Pevensey Castle, and Camber Castle was kept in good condition and was well-armed. At Rye, still an important port, the Gun Garden was furnished with artillery as was the Land Gate and the Strand Gate.
At Shoreham a small defensive work for three guns was raised on the east bank estuary of the Adur. Further west, at Littlehampton (then still known as Arundel Haven) it is possible that a fort was erected on the east bank of the Arun to house four medium-calibre cannon. At Kingston (near East Preston), Goring, Worthing and Lancing defensive trenches were dug but they do not appear to have been armed with artillery.
Pagham Harbour was particularly well defended with a battery at, or near, East Beach (East Norton) to accommodate three guns, with another three pieces mounted on the eastern arm of the harbour entrance. The height of the former Norman ringwork at Church Norton overlooking the southern edge of the harbour was raised and used as a lookout post.
Responsibility for the defence of the coast from Kent to Dorset was placed in the hands of “Black” Sir John Norris with the defence of Sussex delegated to Lord Howard of Effingham – the Lord Admiral of England – who held the title of Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Surrey. He was assisted by the Queen’s cousin Lord Buckhurst.
Lewes, situated in the middle of the county, was selected as the military headquarters and Buckhurst moved into the town. The house where he stayed still stands and is now “Shelley’s Hotel” in the High Street. The county’s reserve artillery and munitions store was also at Lewes.
It was intended that the Spanish landing would be met only by local forces with the main English armies concentrated further inland. It has been estimated that in the south and south-west the shoreline would have been held by some 21,000 local militia, armed with whatever weapons they might possess. The Elizabethan militia was intended to be a formation of all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty. These men had to be prepared to turn out in the defence of their shire at an hour’s warning. In each district a number of men were given military training.
These “trained bands” were well-armed and were the backbone of the local defence force. In Sussex there were supposed to have been 2,000 trained men. Of these, 800 were to have carried firearms and the remainder equipped with halberds or pikes. The bow was still considered a weapon of war though its place on the battlefield was being usurped by the matchlock musket.
To protect the south-east and the Thames estuary two small armies, one of 12,000 men and the other of 6,000 men, were to be stationed at Tilbury and Sandwich respectively. Away from these coasts a force of some 27,000 to 34,000 men from the trained bands of the counties would be assembled and another army, 36,000 strong, would be held in reserve to protect the Queen.
This last body would be composed of men from the court, from the City of London and the Home Counties. Sussex was expected to find 260 horse and 4,000 foot of which 2,500 were sent to join the main army in the interior. Against these numbers Philip sent 130 ships with 30,000 men who would join forces with the Duke of Parma’s 30,000 troops waiting on the Flemish coast.
The Sussex militia were first assembled in the summer of 1586 when fifty ships were sighted off Brighton. Lord Buckhurst responded immediately by bringing together 1,600 men between Brighton and Rottingdean. They camped out on the edge of the Downs that night and they were joined by more men the next day. It proved to be a false alarm as did a similar scare the following summer when horsemen were placed along the coast after reports that an invasion fleet was approaching through the Channel.
With the prospect of invasion becoming increasingly likely Buckhurst was ordered by the Privy Council to round up all “recusants”. A recusant is someone who refuses to attend their parish church which effectively meant, and was intended to mean, all Roman Catholics. They were to be placed in the care of the clergy or other people of rank, but if this was not possible the Catholics were to be jailed.
From the outset the Armada ran into difficulties. Storms delayed its departure and further bad weather struck the great fleet before it had even left Spanish waters. Eventually, on the morning of 19 July 1588, the Armada passed the Lizard to head up the Channel. The warning beacons were lit: “Swift to East and swift to West the ghastly war-flame spread,” a contemporary poem ran. “High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone: it shone on Beachy Head.”
The English fleet put to sea and the following night slipped round the Armada to place itself windward of the Spanish vessels. Though outnumbered, the English could now control the coming battle. Amongst Lord Howard’s ships was a vessel from Rye. The 60-ton vessel William was hired from a French privateer and was manned by fifty-eight sailors captained by William Coxson. Four cannon from Rye were added to whatever armament the ship already carried.
Another ship, the Ann Bonaventure of 70 tons and a crew of forty-nine, was supplied jointly by Hastings and Winchelsea. A third ship from Sussex was provided by Lord Howard with the cost being shared by all six rapes of the county. Hundreds of other sailors were recruited from the Sussex ports to fight with the navy, leaving some parts of the coast dangerously short of defenders.
For the next five days the two fleets fought periodically. The Armada moved in a crescent, or concave, formation, covering a distance of seven miles, with the largest ships at the tips of the crescent. It is often assumed that the battle in the Channel was conducted by an overwhelmingly large number of big Spanish galleons against a weaker force of small, but more manoeuvrable, English warships. The reality was far more complicated.
The disparity in numbers was not very great, with the combined fleets of Howard and Sir Francis Drake producing a total of only twenty to thirty less vessels than the Spaniards. In general the tonnage of the ships of the two nations was also roughly the same but the English vessels were of a far more modern design and carried a heavier weight of cannon.
The success of the Spanish land armies meant that the military predominated over the navy to such an extent that their ships were manned by three soldiers to every sailor. In the English ships there were three sailors to every soldier. The English ships did not dare approach too close to the Spanish vessels packed with soldiers for fear of being boarded but their guns, which far out-distanced the Spanish cannon, could inflict little damage upon the stout hulls of the Armada from long range.
On the 25th the Armada passed Selsey Bill and Buckhurst was ordered to see that the militia was mustered and posted at the chosen places along the coast and at important points of communication throughout the county. But by the 26th, the Spaniards had reached Beachy Head and it seemed unlikely that the great fleet would attempt a landfall in Sussex.
With day after day of running battles the English fleet soon became desperately short of powder and shot. Buckhurst was ordered to furnish Lord Howard with as much ammunition and food as the ships required. Gunpowder from the Lewes arsenal was sent down the Ouse to Newhaven and then shipped out to Howard’s supply vessels. Hastings, assisted by Pevensey, Winchelsea and Seaford, also helped to keep the fleet supplied.
On the 27th, the Armada sailed past Rye and, four days later, Buckhurst allowed the militia to stand down.
In the fighting the Spaniards lost just three ships, but these were amongst their most important galleons and their loss seriously affected the morale of the fleet. By the 28th, the Armada, damaged but still largely intact, was approaching Dover where the rest of the Royal Navy, under Seymour, was guarding the Strait, waiting for this very moment.
The Armada, its numerical advantage now lost, anchored in the Calais Roads to await news from the Duke of Parma. Despite ample notice of the Armada’s approach, the Duke’s troops were not ready to embark and Parma declared that it would be two more weeks before his men could join the invasion fleet. Medina Sidonia knew that he could not remain at anchor for such a period of time with the English fleet able to attack the stationary Spanish vessels at will. With the Spanish ships packed close together under the Calais defences they presented an ideal target for fireships.
This was a common naval tactic and a highly effective one. At midnight on 7 August, eight fireships sailed into Calais. Although the Spaniards had been expecting just such an attack, they cut their anchors and put out to sea in utter confusion.
The following day the English fleet attacked the broken and disorganised Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. It was the final battle of the campaign. With little possibility of reaching Parma’s men at Dunkirk, and with his ships damaged and his men discouraged, Medina Sidonia turned for the north to round Scotland and return through the North Atlantic to Spain. Of the 130 or so ships that set sail from Corunna in July almost half were lost.
Almost 100 years after the defeat of the great Armada, the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, which put a Dutch Protestant monarch (William of Orange) on the English throne, led to further trouble with Catholic Europe. On 30 June 1690, a powerful French fleet of seventy-eight men-of-war plus twenty-two fireships, met a combined Anglo-Dutch force off Beachy Head.
Despite the fact that the allied fleet numbered just fifty-six vessels, it was the Dutch and British ships which attacked first. The battle raged all day until the wind dropped late in the afternoon. During the night the allied fleet – commanded by Lord Torrington – decided to retire.
The French gave pursuit the next day and one English ship, Anne, was driven onto the shore at Winchelsea where it was attacked by French fire-ships. The fleet escaped eastwards but allied losses amounted to eight ships and hundreds of men. The Battle of Beachy Head was, without question, a defeat for the Royal Navy and Lord Torrington was duly sent to the Tower and court-martialled.
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 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.
Changes in the distribution of sea-power among the states of Europe affected large areas outside Europe more directly than ever before. For Europe’s sea communications had encompassed the world. Besides the regular trans-Atlantic routes, little-frequented ones went across the Pacific to the Philippines and from the East Indies to Macao, Formosa and Japan. Commercial exchanges with Europe might require a cycle of as long as five years, quantities were minute, in some of these cases only one ship a year reached the final destination, but a regular pattern of trade existed. Originally the Portuguese had established themselves in the East thanks to a margin of technical superiority in sea- fighting, but by the late sixteenth century they were accustomed to peaceful trading in almost unarmed ships. After 1600 both they and the native traders were to suffer from the competition and incursions of heavily armed Dutch and English ships. In particular the heavier armament, superior organization and better seamanship of the Dutch East India Company enabled them to establish a commercial supremacy in Indonesia by 1650, despite prolonged and sometimes effective resistance by the Portuguese and others. Europeans did not control the trade of the Indian Ocean or Indonesia, even the Dutch never held a completely effective monopoly of the spice trade. Nevertheless they dominated important and profitable trades, because ultimately their naval power was greater than that of the native states. If Iberian power was eclipsed in the East, their monopoly of trans-Atlantic trade, still virtually intact in 1600, was also broken. By 1621 over half the carrying trade of Brazil was in Dutch hands, by the 1650s the Dutch and English were permanently established in the Caribbean and were establishing treaty rights in Brazilian and Portuguese trade.
Distribution of sea-power was itself changed by changing distribution of trade and also by technical developments in shipbuilding and the con- duct of war. Heavily armed ships from north-western Europe began to dominate the trade and warfare of the Mediterranean. The traditional galleys were still used in war, but together with sailing ships which more and more dominated the battles. By the 1650s the battle-fleets of the English and the Dutch were dominated by specialized fighting ships with two or three gun-decks, designed for inboard-loading and for increasingly heavy and controlled broadside fire, which in turn involved the gradual adoption of line-ahead formations. There was increasing professionalization of naval officers, though in wartime seamen from the merchant marine were essential to man the fleets which still also included merchant ships. Naval strategy turned more than ever on the protection and destruction of trade, and sea-power as always depended upon both trading and fighting fleets. But the maintenance of a fighting fleet was more expensive than ever before, requiring a larger permanent organization which could design, build and maintain specialized ships, unsuitable for trade. In 1639 before the Battle of the Downs Tromp’s strength had been trebled in a matter of weeks by fitting out merchant ships. Before 1642 hired merchantmen had usually made up more than half the numbers of English fleets. Their proportion in the Parliamentary fleets during the Civil War was much smaller; in the Dutch war Blake wished to keep it down to a fifth and in fact it seldom exceeded a third. After 1653 hired merchantmen might still play a decisive part in the war between Venice and the Turks but not in wars between great naval powers.
By the 1650s the distribution of sea power had changed decisively. In 1600 the Iberian kingdoms might still claim to be the greatest maritime power, their merchant fleet was second only to the Dutch and their combined naval strength greater than that of either the Dutch or the English. Even in the 1620s Spain was the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic and could hopefully plan to challenge the Dutch in their home waters. The Habsburgs could even dream of dominating the Baltic in alliance with a revivified Hanseatic League. By 1659 Spain was weaker in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean than England or Holland and was soon to be outstripped by France. The technical changes of the period seem to have largely passed Spain by. In the 1630s the English and Dutch built the Sovereign and the Aemilia, prototypes of the heavy and medium ships of the future battle lines. The Spaniards still built relatively undergunned galleons, just as they failed to adopt newer types of fishing vessels and cargo carriers, although they were more receptive to the Dunkirkers’ example in developing fast frigates. Spain’s fleets were chronically short of gunners and seamen so that their ability to fight and even to survive the ordinary hazards of the sea were both impaired. Matters were even worse for the Portuguese on the Cape route, since they persisted in using unwieldy carracks of 1,000 tons or more, though well aware smaller ships would be more seaworthy. They then persistently overloaded and overcrowded them, despite regulations to the contrary and a shortage of seamen. Losses from shipwreck increased in the late sixteenth century and continued to be heavy until 1650, after- wards the rate dropped steeply; from 1590 to 1635 some 220 sailings from Lisbon resulted in the loss of thirty-four ships, while some 130 from India lost thirty-three.
The decline of Iberian sea-power did not happen because statesmen were blind to its importance, though the general contempt for sailors and their profession found in both Spain and Portugal may have contributed to it. As with so many problems which beset Spain, the need to maintain her power at sea was understood and analysed, but the resources for effective action were lacking. To renew the war against the Dutch Spain had to accept continental commitments and communications, sending troops and money from north Italy overland to the Netherlands. To secure these communications Spain had to subsidize and assist allies in the empire whom she could neither control nor afford. Spain’s maritime resources had to be concentrated on keeping her Atlantic communications open for her treasure-fleets and the western Mediterranean safe for the transfer of funds and troops to Genoa for Milan, Germany and Flanders. The failure to continue the land campaign against the Dutch with real success after the capture of Breda (1625) meant that the risk of the Dutch wearing down Spain’s Atlantic communications by the organized attacks of the West India Company increased. To counter this pressure Olivares wanted to erode Dutch sea-power by destroying her trade. Like his predecessors he would have liked to close the Straits of Gibraltar to the Dutch and English, but there was no real prospect of establishing an effective blockade. Hopes of a potentially much more decisive counter- stroke caused the revival of projects for attacking the Dutch in the most vital area of their maritime and commercial hegemony, the Baltic. In 1624 Olivares proposed to found a company with Flemish and Hanseatic participation which would have a monopoly of Iberian trade with the rest of Europe, thus undermining the entrepot trade of Amsterdam as well as providing a fleet of twenty-four ships to challenge the Dutch from bases in East Friesland. After 1626 this last objective was changed and the fleet was to be based in the Baltic in order to harry Dutch trade there. Sigismund III of Poland had long wished to build up a fleet and was anxious to ally himself with Madrid, but none of the Hanseatic towns would entertain the project for fear of offending the Dutch. In 1628 the arrival of Wallenstein on the Baltic coast roused fresh hopes, but he refused to accept Madrid’s terms for subsidizing a fleet. He was determined to keep complete control of it himself and to use it against the Danes rather than the Dutch. The Spanish envoys did buy some ships from the Hanse, but in 1629, to the fury of Sigismund, they were sent to Flanders. The main result of these projects was to disillusion Sigismund about Habsburg plans and promises and to encourage him to make his truce with Sweden. The only real damage to Dutch trade was done by the Dunkirkers. They seldom had more than thirty ships at sea at one time, but the admiralty records show that from 1626 to 1634 they captured 1,499 ships, sank another 336 (two-thirds or more may have been Dutch), and sold booty for £1,139,000 sterling, while losing fifteen royal ships and 105 privateers to the enemy. From the late 1630s the Dutch blockade may have been more effective in reducing losses, but it was never more than partially effective.
Although Spain beat off the first Dutch attacks on Brazil and the English attack on Cadiz, her Atlantic power suffered a great disaster when Piet Heyn captured and destroyed the treasure-fleet at Matanzas in Cuba in 1628. This not only financed the West India Company’s successful conquests in Brazil, but also destroyed about a third of the ships employed in Seville’s Atlantic trade. Between 1623 and 1636 the company took or destroyed 547 ships worth some 5,500,000 gulden. Spain made a last great effort to reconquer northern Brazil in 1638, when twenty-six galleons and twenty other ships were sent from Lisbon in September, later reinforced at Bahia to a total of eighteen Spanish and twelve Portuguese galleons, thirty-four armed merchantmen and twenty-three small ships. This armada was frustrated by unfavourable weather and irresolute com- mand and was scattered by the Dutch in January 1640 without achieving anything. This final failure to protect Brazil and the Caribbean from the Dutch was overshadowed by Tromp’s annihilation of the last Spanish fleet to challenge Dutch sea-power in the Channel at the Battle of the Downs in October 1639.
This Spanish effort was a last desperate gamble by planners who had lost touch with the realities of both Dutch and Spanish sea-power. Both before and after 1639 troops were taken to and from Flanders by sea, but this was done by taking risks and evading the Dutch, not by challenging them to battle. The fall of Breisach in 1638 and the consequent closing of the land route doubtless made some attempt at reinforcement by sea essential in 1639, while the French fleet’s incursions against the Biscayan ports also needed checking. But it was reckless to scrape together all available ships from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and then in- struct the admiral, Oquendo, when encumbered with the transport of 10,000 troops, to give battle if he met the Dutch, and stake everything on destroying their fleet. Of the seventy-odd ships which sailed from Corunna some thirty had been hired from foreigners (from Ragusa, Lubeck and Hamburg, apart from at least eight English transports). In all there were some fifty warships, as usual short of gunners and seamen; Tromp with twenty-four ships established such a decisive superiority in sailing and gunnery that he drove the Spaniards to take refuge off the English coast. In the final attack the Dutch had superior numbers, but the Spaniards mostly ran their ships aground without a fight, losing forty-three ships and 6,000 men. Ironically most of the troops and treasure did reach Dunkirk along with the only efficient part of the fleet, the original Dunkirk squadron; a result which could have been achieved without destroying a large part of Spain’s navy and all its reputation.
The composition and fate of Oquendo’s armada is only one symptom of Spain’s declining sea-power. The trend of Seville’s trans-Atlantic trade suggests even more serious structural changes; comparing 1616-20 with 1646-50 the tonnage employed had decreased by about half. In the later period only some forty per cent of the ships were Spanish built, roughly the same number were American built, while some seventeen per cent came from northern Europe; before 1610 most of the ships used had been built in northern Spain. In the late sixteenth century ships from northern Spain had predominated in the fisheries off Newfoundland; their share declined rapidly in the seventeenth century and was insignificant by 1650, as was their share in Spain’s European trade. The main source of Spain’s maritime strength had begun to fail even before being subjected to further stress by war. Dr Andrews has recently suggested that this failure was due to the Elizabethan war against Spain’s shipping. Although this never seriously interfered with the trans-Atlantic routes, by forcing Spain to concentrate all her resources on protecting them, it left shipping on shorter and coastal routes, especially on the approaches to Galician and Biscayan ports, unprotected against privateers. The losses in ships and seamen were certainly serious and, whether or not it decisively undermined Spain’s sea-power, it may well have contributed to the decline of her northern ports, along with shortages of timber.
When the revolts of Catalonia and Portugal followed less than a year after Oquendo’s defeat, it might have seemed dubious whether Spain could defend her own coasts. Luckily France, her nearest enemy, was not strong enough at sea to exploit the situation. Richelieu had been at pains to build up the French navy but he started from scratch; in the 1620s the crown had to hire foreign ships against La Rochelle, in 1635 there was a Channel fleet of some thirty-five sizeable ships, though many of them were foreign-built and the Mediterranean fleet had been increased from thirteen to twenty-two galleys. By concentrating her resources, especially those of the royal squadron from Dunkirk, first in Biscay, then in the western Mediterranean Spain held the French in check. French strength in the Channel declined after 1642 and Spain was able to concentrate more effectively in the Mediterranean so that the French were usually outnumbered. Despite much hard fighting in the 1640s they were never able to get command of the sea, or seriously interrupt Spanish communications. Spain’s superiority at sea helped her to reconquer Catalonia and prevented the French establishing themselves in Tuscany and exploiting the revolt of Naples. Consciousness of France’s growing naval inferiority to Spain after 1648 made Mazarin the more anxious to secure either a Dutch or an English alliance.
By the 1650s the decline of Spain and the failure to achieve a lasting revival of the French navy meant that the relative preponderance of the Dutch and English was greater and affected a greater geographical area than had been true of leading sea-powers in the past. There were now purely local balances of power between the states bordering each of Europe’s inner seas, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, but these ultimately depended upon the new powers of Atlantic Europe. The most striking local changes were in the Baltic. There Denmark had long been the dominant naval power, but Gustavus Adolphus built up the Swedish navy to protect his communications and control the Prussian ports. After his death its growth continued and in 1644 it decisively shook Denmark’s supremacy, though both sides also hired Dutch ships. Local supremacy passed to Sweden and Charles X wished to convert this into an absolute control of the Baltic, which would have been fatal to Dutch commercial hegemony. From 1649 the Dutch supported the Danes and in 1658 their fleet defeated Charles’ ambitions. The English were always jealous of Dutch power in the Baltic, but it was also against their interest to allow any local power absolute control. Thus in 1659 the local balance of power was dictated by the Dutch and English fleets’ ability to keep the area open to their influence.
In the western Mediterranean, as we have seen, Spain was still able to enforce her interests against her local rivals. In the eastern Mediterranean the Turks had been at war with Venice for control of Crete since 1645. In the first years of the war the Turkish fleets consisted almost entirely of galleys and the mixed fleets of the Venetians were more successful. In the 1650s the Turks used mixed fleets, but they suffered a severe defeat off the Dardanelles in 1656, losing forty-six ships and forty-seven galleys. However, the Venetians were unable to maintain an effective blockade of the Dardanelles and they never established command of the Aegean for any considerable period, while the effort of maintaining fleets there contributed to the final eclipse of Venice as a commercial and maritime power. If either the English or the Dutch put their naval strength, or even part of it, into the Mediterranean they could outclass any of the local powers. All they needed, as Blake and De Ruyter showed, was the use of ports which local rivalries could be relied on to provide.
But the local balance of maritime trade had changed long before the mid-seventeenth century. In the long period of official truce between Spain and the Turks after 1580, Dutch and English ships entered the Mediterranean in increasing numbers. They not only dominated the trade between the Mediterranean and north-west Europe, but also captured an ever-increasing share of trade within the Mediterranean. They introduced a new type of ship, known there as the berton, and a new phase of warfare. The berton was smaller, but more heavily armed and built, faster and more manoeuvrable than the Mediterranean argosies which were similar to the Portuguese carracks. Around 1600 the northerners engaged in both trade and piracy, as opportunity offered, making the sea unsafe for native shipping. After about 1604 northerners who specialized exclusively in piracy began to appear. They mostly operated from Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Sallee and they taught the Muslims there to use bertons. Before 1620 their pupils had become so apt that the golden age of the Barbary corsairs began, at its height they may have had 150 ships. They raided throughout the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic as far as Cape Verde, Iceland, the Azores and the Great Banks, though they usually concentrated on the approaches to the Straits and the Channel. But even after the first generation of northern captains had gone, piracy was not an exclusively Muslim enterprise; the. dukes of Savoy and Tuscany provided bases for privateers at Villefranche and Leghorn, while the knights of Malta and San Stefano took prizes indiscriminately. In these conditions only heavily armed ships, like those of the English Levant Company, could trade safely and the worst sufferers were native traders, especially the Venetians. Venice not only provided the richest prizes in the Levant, but was often unable to protect her shipping in the Adriatic from the local pirates, the Uscocchi. Piracy helped to weaken Venice and to make her increasingly dependent on northern shipping.
The amount of shipping using the port of Venice increased from 1587 to 1609, but the proportion of foreign-owned and -built ships also grew. By the early 1620s the total volume was barely half that of 1607-9 and the decline continued; interrupted during the 1630s, it became very steep during the Cretan war and the relative share of foreign shipping probably increased. The main reason for hiring foreign ships was that they were better able to protect themselves. Venice had to hire Dutch and English ships to meet the challenge of Osuna, the Viceroy of Naples, in the Adriatic in 1617-18. Both sides in the Cretan war made extensive use of foreign- built and -hired ships. Of course the northerners were not immune to piracy; from 1617 to 1625 the Algerines took some 200 Dutch ships. But the northerners increased their trade, while that of Venice declined, and in the long run they were more successful in forcing the Barbary states to respect their flags. In the mid-1650s the English and Dutch had squadrons in the Mediterranean partly for this purpose. England made treaties with Sallee, Algiers and Tunis from 1655 to 1658. After the English squadron withdrew in 1658 there were difficulties, but after 1661 the treaties were observed.
If only well-armed ships could usually trade securely in the Mediterranean, conditions in the North Sea and Baltic were different. The main cargoes of the Baltic and Scandinavian trades were bulky ones, grain, timber, salt, wine and fish. The Dutch had long dominated these trades and by the last years of the sixteenth century had developed a type of cargo carrier, the fluit, which perpetuated their domination. This was a slow, lightly built, virtually unarmed ship, with a long keel, bluff bows and a relatively flat bottom, needing only a small crew to manage its relatively small area of sails. Its cheap building and running costs meant cheap freight rates which ensured Dutch supremacy in the carrying trades so that in 1669 Colbert enviously guessed that they owned three-quarters of Europe’s total tonnage. The Dutch themselves in 1636 estimated that they had 1,050 ships trading to the Baltic, Norway and south-west France averaging a hundred lasts, 250 ships (of 120-50 lasts) in the Mediterranean and Archangel trades, 450 of 20 to 40 lasts in the Channel and North Sea as well as 2,000 fishing busses and 300 ships in the extra-European trades. This would suggest a total of 4,500 to 4,800 ships with a tonnage of 600,000 to 700,000, four or five times that of England. The basic Dutch trades were very vulnerable to the Dunkirkers so that they flourished most in peacetime. In war they were checked by losses which meant high insurance and freight rates. With the Peace of Westphalia trade boomed and the customs figures suggest that from 1648 to 1651 it reached a level which was possibly never surpassed in the seventeenth century, while Dutch shipping threatened to eliminate all rivals from the Baltic, North Sea and Atlantic trades.
This triumphant position was partly founded on the eclipse of the Hanseatic towns’ ability to assert any effective power, either collectively or individually. Their share of Baltic trade had declined in the sixteenth century. About 1600 they had about 1,000 ships amounting to some 90,000 tons, about one-third belonging to Hamburg (7,000 lasts) and Lübeck (8,000 lasts). Lübeck’s fleet was still growing in the early seventeenth century; its first fluit was built in 16182 and its shipbuilding only declined decisively after 1648. Hamburg’s fleet doubled to about 14,000 lasts between 1600 and 1650. But the shipping of Danzig declined, as did that of Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund. These last had been heavily involved in trade to Norway which after 1625 was completely dominated by the Dutch and Danes. Hamburg and to a lesser extent Lübeck were able to increase their trade to southern Europe after 1621. Although Hamburg sustained a flourishing entrepdt trade, it was dominated by foreign merchants, while after 1648 Sweden levied tolls of 350,000 thalers a year on the other Hanseatic towns, a revenue approaching that of the Sound tolls. Thus Lübeck’s and the Hanse’s rejection of Spain’s offers in 1628 lost them their last dubious chance of reversing their decline at the expense of the Dutch. The decline of Iberian sea-power meant increasing exploitation by foreign merchants. First Cromwell forced Portugal to grant privileges to English merchants both there and in the Brazil trade. Spain later tacitly acquiesced in the exploitation of her trade by Dutch, English and French merchants. The failure of the Hanseatic towns to find effective allies and their inability to mobilize naval power condemned them to exploitation by Sweden, under which only Hamburg prospered, having 277 ships (42,000 tons) by 1672.
If by 1650 the Hanseatic towns were powerless to avoid exploitation by the victors at Westphalia, the English were not. Their reply to the Dutch was war.
English shipbuilders had never attempted to imitate the fluit. Their topical product was the ‘defensible’ ship of sixty tons and upwards more heavily built, with finer lines, faster, needing a larger crew and carrying a number of guns proportionate to its size. Even colliers in the Newcastle trade conformed to this type, so that foreign ships dominated in the export of coal. Such ships were very suitable for dangerous Mediterranean waters and for privateering, but in most other trades they could not compete with the Dutch in peacetime. Nevertheless the tonnage of English shipping had probably doubled between 1582 and 1624 but the opportunity provided by the Dutch being at war after 1621 was spoilt initially by England also being involved in war from 1625 to 1629. England lost some 300 ships amounting to well over 20,000 tons and may have taken rather more prizes herself. In 1629 England’s total tonnage was 115.000 and it may have risen to about 140,000 by 1640. Until then the greatest expansion since 1600, apart from the Mediterranean and the coastal coal trades, was in the Newfoundland fisheries which came to be dominated by the English. In the early 1630s the East India Company had 9,000-10,000 tons of shipping. If the Dutch dominated the North Sea fisheries, the English held their own to a greater extent off Iceland and in whaling off Spitzbergen. After 1640 direct English exploitation of all these fisheries declined. To compete successfully even for the carrying trade of their own ports, English ships needed either government protection or the advantages of neutrality when the Dutch were at war.
The Civil War obviously hindered trade and shipping, but it increased England’s naval strength. From 1642 to 1647 Parliament sent thirty to forty warships to sea every summer and kept a winter-guard of some twenty ships, so that the fleet was more continuously manned than ever before. Then the Commonwealth expanded the fleet from 1649 to 1651 and forty-one new ships were added, almost doubling it. The ships were used to pursue the ships which had joined the Royalists in 1648, to secure the trans-Atlantic colonies and enforce respect for the Commonwealth’s flag in European waters. These efforts, meant long voyages to Portugal, the Mediterranean and America. The French not only assisted the Royalists, but also placed an embargo on English cloth. This produced an embargo on French wines and silk in 1649. Both sides proceeded to seizures of goods and ships. Convoys were needed for English ships in the Mediterranean and the Dutch became the neutral carriers of Anglo- French trade. The Navigation Act, searches of Dutch ships for French goods and exaction of salutes all annoyed the Dutch. By February 1652 the States General, alarmed by the growth of the English fleet, resolved to fit out 150 ships in addition to the 76 already available. The expansion of the English fleet continued even after the end of the Dutch war; from 1650 to 1656 80 new ships were built and many prizes added to it. In 1625 the navy had about 30 ships, in 1640 about 40, in 1651 about 95 and in 1660 about 140. Probably many fewer large merchant ships were built in the 1650s compared with the 1630s, so that the naval building may only have made up this difference.
Although Dutch resources in shipbuilding and seamen were so much greater, their ability to transform them into effective naval power was limited. The fact that they had far more trade to protect and that Britain lay across the vital routes nourishing their Baltic trade were severe handicaps. Their naval administration suffered from decentralization among five boards of admiralty and from friction between the provinces. The English had more very large ships and in general their ships were more heavily built and armed with heavier guns. They were also quicker to see the advantage of line-ahead formations and made greater efforts to found their battle tactics upon them. All these factors helped to give them the balance of advantage in the whole series of battles. The English attempt to blockade the Dutch coast in 1653 was not completely successful, but the Channel was closed to Dutch shipping from February 1653. The Dutch economy depended on the sea far more than the English and for the first time they were fighting an enemy whose naval strength was ultimately more effective. The truth of this can be seen not by claiming the last battle off the Texel as a decisive English victory-both sides could have put powerful fleets to sea again in 1654, if they had not chosen to make peace-but in the fact that the war was disastrous for Dutch trade. The English took between 1,000 and 1,700 Dutch prizes (a figure nearer the lower one seems more likely) and lost few of their own ships. The English having failed to build economical cargo carriers had now captured them in abundance. They appeared to have checked the growth of Dutch trade which had been so evident after 1647 and had acquired the means to survive in the carrying trade; it is probable ‘that between 1654 and 1675 foreign built ships were never less than a third of the total tonnage in English ownership . . ..
The immediate consequences of the effective mobilization of so much naval power were not altogether happy for English trade. Despite the Navigation Act, English trade to the Baltic remained depressed and the Dutch continued to carry a large part of English colonial trade. One of the reasons for undertaking the Western Design against the Spanish Indies was that Cromwell’s council were mostly anxious to find a use for the large navy which had been created and hoped the venture would pay for itself, as the Dutch West India Company had done in its heyday. The resulting war with Spain demonstrated the greatness of English sea-power, since Spain’s Atlantic communications were far more effectively cut than they had ever been by the Dutch. But the gains were disappointing; instead of delivering a death blow to the Spanish Empire, Jamaica was captured; Blake destroyed the silverfleet, but failed to capture the treasure. English sea-power commanded the approaches to Spain, but the Dutch as neutral carriers monopolized Spanish trade, while the English suffered severely from privateering. Anti-Cromwellian propaganda put the loss as high as 1,800 ships, more probably about 1,000 were lost as against some 400 captured by the English; in three months, May to July 1656, the Dunkirkers claimed to have taken over 100 English ships.
Cromwell’s acquisition of Dunkirk not only removed a real threat to English shipping, but also reinforced the command of the Channel, already asserted in the Dutch war. By 1659 an equilibrium existed; if Dutch naval and commercial power still dominated the Sound, they had to respect English interests there; if the English dominated the Straits of Dover more completely than before, the Commonwealth’s hopes of mobilizing naval power to destroy or capture Dutch commercial supremacy and the Protectorate’s dreams of using it to destroy the Spanish Empire in America had both proved equally illusory. Nevertheless England was enabled to share naval, though not as yet commercial, hegemony with the Dutch and to assert her power and interests in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Temporarily England might even claim to be the strongest naval power in Europe, though this would be challenged again by both the Dutch and the French. Her achievement had altered the balance of power in Europe and was part of the process whereby power was being concentrated in north-western Europe at the expense of the Iberian and Mediterranean states.
If England had become one of the two greatest naval powers by 1660, in terms of merchant shipping her relative position is less clear, but despite losses in the Spanish war the total may have been about 200,000 tons. In 1664 French shipping, including fishing boats, amounted to about 130,000 tons. This total was probably little larger than it had been about 1570, when it was perhaps twice as great as that of England. The total of the German ports had probably fallen slightly since 1600, when it was about 120,000 tons; 2 that of Spain and Venice must have declined drastically. The years 1600-60 seemed to show men such as Colbert and Downing that the prosperity of trade and shipping depended more closely than ever on possession of effective naval power. The changes in the tactics and in organization of armies between 1560 and 1660 were so considerable that they have been held to amount to a military revolution. For sixteenth-century lansquenets war had been a seasonal occupation, for the soldiers of the Thirty Years War it was a full-time one. By 1650 many states were heavily in debt to tax-farmers and military entrepreneurs, but the future did not belong to entrepreneurs, such as Wallenstein, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, or Charles IV of Lorraine, who raised whole armies. As the organization of armies became more elaborate, so they came more and more completely under the control of the state. In France Le Tellier had endeavoured since 1643 to reform military administration and to give the crown real control over its officers and regiments, though he did not begin to achieve anything appreciable until after the peace of 1659, when royal control grew rapidly. Taxes continued to be farmed out to contractors, but not armies and regiments. As long as naval power could be farmed out to entrepreneurs such as the West India Company and as long as hired merchant ships were a major part of battle-fleets, direct and continuous control by the state was restricted. While privateering remains an obvious exception, the growth of professionalism and specialization in naval forces in the 1650s can be seen as part of a general process in which states were beginning to exercise much more rigorous and effective control over their armed forces.