The Story of the Battleship Battle That Helped Make America a Powerhouse

June 26, 2019 Topic: History Region: America Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: BattleshipsWarU.S. NavyAmericaWorld Power

The Story of the Battleship Battle That Helped Make America a Powerhouse

Some lost history.

The United States Navy investigation into the February 15, 1898, sinking of the battleship Maine was a difficult undertaking. The nation’s press had been inciting the American people with war hysteria headlines. It was almost impossible for the naval officers conducting the inquiry not to be influenced by public opinion, the enormity of the tragedy, and a thirst for revenge.

There were only two possibilities for the loss of the Maine. Either the ship had been destroyed by an accidental internal explosion or by a deliberate act of sabotage. If it was an accident, then the commanding officer, Captain Charles Sigsbee, was required to explain how it occurred on a ship for which he was responsible. But if the act had been carried out by Spanish authorities, dissident Spaniards, or Cuban insurgents, then Spain was to blame.

The assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, was convinced that the fault lay with the Spanish. He was positive that the explosion was no accident, and that the Maine was a victim of “dirty treachery.” Thus, comments supporting the accident theory were a particular worry to Roosevelt; he was a constant advocate of a strong Navy, and Republican congressional leaders had stated that “the [Maine] disaster proved the United States must stop building battleships.”

Teddy Roosevelt countered by saying that this reaction was weak and cowardly. He argued that “battleships were delicate instruments, and even the most advanced naval powers had accidents—they were as inevitable as losses in war. The men who live aboard these ships recognize and accept the hazard. The nation which they defend cannot do less. The loss of the Maine was the price the country must pay to assume its role as a great power.”

Unleashing the Fox in the Chicken House

On the afternoon of February 25, Secretary of the Navy John Long departed his office early, thereby leaving Roosevelt “in charge”—the fox was loose in the chicken house. The assistant secretary began to issue fleet orders as fast as the telegrapher could handle them. A general alert was sent to all ships, stations, and fleet commanders throughout the world ordering them to have their ships fueled and ready to leave port immediately.

Even before the Maine disaster, Commodore George Dewey had sailed with his flagship, the cruiser Olympia, from Nagasaki, Japan, to Hong Kong, closer to the Spanish-held Philippines. But the rest of Dewey’s squadron was still at Nagasaki.

Roosevelt changed that in a hurry. He telegraphed Dewey: “Order your squadron, except the Monocacy, to join you at Hong Kong. In event of declaration of war against Spain, your duty will be to see that Spanish ships do not leave the Asiatic coast, and then begin offensive operations in the Philippine Islands.” When Secretary Long returned to his office, he was surprised and upset at the actions Roosevelt had taken. But the orders to Commodore Dewey were not rescinded.

On Friday, March 25, the final report on the cause of the Maine disaster was delivered to the White House. The following Monday, President McKinley announced to the world that the Maine had been destroyed by a mine. This was the news that the American public had been waiting to hear. The nation’s press called for war, and the cry, “Remember the Maine” quickly healed the festering wounds of the recent Civil War.

The American people became united in a common cause. Only “war” could satisfy their hunger for revenge—the flames of which were fanned by the rival newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer. Brewing in the wind was a newspaper circulation war in the States, and a shooting war on the high seas.

The loss of the Maine was not the only issue provoking a nationalistic spirit in the United States. The issue of Spanish misrule in Cuba had acquired an importance equal to that of who was to blame for the destruction of the battleship.

President McKinley’s Secretary of State, William R. Day, declared that Spain must accept responsibility for the loss of the Maine. This was not all; Spain should make reparations to the United States, and also grant Cuba her independence. The president, on the other hand, strove for neutrality and sought concessions from Spain in order to satisfy America’s lust for war. But “flag-waving” Congressmen demanded retribution, and continually exerted pressure on McKinley to act militarily against the Spanish.

Declaring War with Spain

Secretary of War Russell A. Alger told the president that Congress was hell-bent for revenge and would declare war in spite of McKinley’s pleas for calmness and cool heads. The war hawks finally prevailed. On April 19, Congress passed a resolution demanding that Spain relinquish her authority and government in Cuba—and McKinley was authorized to use the armed forces to effectuate the decree. Except for a formal declaration, the United States was at war with Spain.

Within a few days, President McKinley ordered a naval blockade of Cuban ports, and a call went out for 125,000 Army volunteers. Then, on April 25, Congress passed a joint resolution that a state of war existed between the two countries.

George Dewey had entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1854, aged 17. He was just beginning his Navy career at the time of the Civil War, and participated in the capture of New Orleans—serving as a lieutenant aboard the USS Mississippi. When Commodore Dewey was assigned to the Asiatic Squadron in January 1898, he was already 60 years old and looking forward to retirement.

On Friday, April 22, Dewey’s fleet was riding at anchor in the British port of Hong Kong. Navy Secretary Long cabled the commodore that the United States had begun a blockade of Cuban ports, but that war had not yet been officially announced. Later that afternoon, the cruiser Baltimore (dispatched by Roosevelt) arrived from Honolulu loaded with powder and ammunition for Dewey’s flotilla. On April 24, because of British neutrality regulations, the American Asiatic Squadron was ordered to leave Hong Kong. While Dewey’s ships steamed out from the British port, military bands on English vessels played the “Star Spangled Banner,” their crews cheering the American sailors.

Commodore Dewey anchored his fleet about 30 miles down the Chinese coast at Mirs Bay and awaited further instructions. During the weeks that Dewey was in Hong Kong, his days were spent in consultation with the various ship captains under his command. All possibilities and eventualities of conflict with the enemy were discussed. He called upon his men to express their opinions freely, and all ideas were given careful consideration. Also while the American squadron was anchored at Hong Kong, Spanish agents played a cat-and-mouse game with Dewey. The Spaniards continually spread rumors concerning the mining of channels surrounding the island of Corregidor and portions of Manila.

America’s Uncomfortable Analysis

Because of all the misinformation he was receiving, Dewey had established his own spy network. He had assigned his aide, Ensign F.B. Upham, to pose as a civilian interested in the sea and ships. Upham would interview crews attached to vessels arriving from Manila. Additional important data was obtained from an American businessman living in Hong Kong who made frequent trips to the Philippines and reported his observations to the commodore. Surprisingly, actual U.S. Naval intelligence was so lacking that Dewey was forced to buy charts of the Philippine Islands at a Hong Kong store.

After as many facts as they could gather were in and sorted out, the final picture they pieced together was not comforting. Approximately 20 Spanish naval vessels were in the Manila area, though most of these were gunboats and small torpedo craft. The largest ships were two cruisers, the Reina Cristinaand Castilla.

Actually, it was the Spanish coastal defenses that worried Dewey the most. The island of Corregidor divided the entrance of Manila Bay into two channels. The north passage, between Corregidor and the Bataan peninsula was called Boca Chica and was only two miles wide. The southern channel, Boca Grande, was five miles wide. Strong fortifications mounting high- power German-made Krupp guns had been constructed on the island and mainland. Both channels had been mined by the Spanish. The narrow passage was the shallower of the two, and potentially more dangerous. Dewey was of the opinion that mining the deep channel at Boca Grande would be a much more difficult undertaking, and he doubted the Spanish could have accomplished the feat successfully. Other information relayed to the American fleet reported heavily armed fortresses at Cavite and Manila itself.

Another disturbing problem confronting Dewey was the knowledge that no reinforcements, nor assistance of any kind, had been dispatched by Navy Secretary Long to support the Asiatic Squadron. There was also the realization that in case the battle was not decisive and his fleet was forced to retire from the action, there was no place to go if any of his ships needed repair. Neutrality laws worked against the Americans in all Asian ports—and the United States was 8,000 miles away. Thus, by steaming to Manila, Dewey was burning all his bridges behind him. He had to be victorious. If the mission failed, the likely result was hopeless retreat and eventual annihilation of his squadron.