The Sham Battle Of Manila

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During these chaotic spring weeks of 1898, while we slashed at Spain with one hand in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and with the other prepared to strike ten thousand miles westward, Dewey and Aguinaldo had been in personal contact. The Admiral (a rank bestowed upon him by Congress eight days after his victory), insofar as he had any political awareness, was embarrassed by his position. He sympathized vaguely with the Filipino insurgents (”… these people are … more capable of self-government than the natives of Cuba, and I am familiar with both races”); but from a practical standpoint his mission was clear enough. It was, to put it bluntly, to stall off Aguinaldo until Merritt arrived. Not surprisingly, therefore, his consultations with the Philippine president reflected a distressing ambivalence. What Dewey said, what Aguinaldo claims the Admiral said, what Washington told Dewey, what assurances (if any) were given Aguinaldo —all are wrapped in some mystery even now.

By late May the insurgent army had sealed off Manila from the rest of Luzon Island, while the sea entrance continued to be blocked by Dewey’s men-of-war. Inside the great city, thirteen thousand Spanish troops under General Fermin Jaudenes had come near the end of a long road which stretched back to Ferdinand Magellan and the year 1521.

In America big business, Congress, and the Protestant Church joined hands to advocate “forward-looking” measures. And while the flagship Olympia swung gently at anchor beneath a burning sun, Admiral Dewey watched and waited from a wicker chair on her forward deck. Soon to come were two regiments of regular infantry and a few batteries of light artillery. Behind this embryonic force lay War Department plans for much larger operations. Against whom? For a brief moment the answer to this crucial question was shrouded in obscurity.

So in Manila Bay the weeks passed in somnolence, for it was understood that if Spanish shore batteries did not bombard his fleet Dewey would also hold fire. Each evening the greenish-black sheet of water between the warships and the shore lay deathly still, pierced by searchlights. In the morning it turned twinkling blue, while faint breezes tiptoed in from the mainland. The American sailors changed watches, yawning and joking in low tones. Another new day had dawned in the Philippines. Would it prove to be a tempestuous one?

Far from these placid scenes, in another milieu where Congress and the citizenry were clamoring for immediate invasions and victories, former Civil War General Russell A. Alger, now Secretary of War, was attempting to place almost nonexistent American armies upon the soil of Cuba and the Philippines. That spring the regular establishment consisted of only 28,183 men. In Cuba, Spain had about 100,000 effectives; in Manila nearly 13,000. President McKinley called for 200,000 volunteers. In short order he got them, and more—the majority lifted intact from the National Guard, the balance untrained; and after lying somnolent since the Civil War, Mr. Alger’s department now faced the appalling prospect of feeding, clothing, arming, and equipping a quarter of a million men almost overnight.

The Philippine expeditionary force, which gathered in a damp, sandy camp near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was commanded by a sixty-four-year-old West Pointer, one of the Civil War “boy generals.” As a cavalryman in that conflict, Merritt had been brevetted six times for gallantry. Under Custer he later earned a reputation as an outstanding Indian fighter. A cool, contemplative officer tending toward fat, with hard gray eyes and wavy white hair, he had asked for the Philippine assignment. Now he regretted having done so. He was not friendly with the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Nelson A. Miles, and his request for 14,400 troops, 6,000 of them Regulars, had been denied somewhat too brusquely. Outranking everyone in the Army except Miles, he also had become obsessed by a conviction that the Philippine operation was a side show unworthy of his status. There is evidence that he requested a transfer (which was refused) to the Cuban expedition shortly after reaching San Francisco.

Camp Merritt, named after its commander, was not calculated to improve his disposition, resembling as it did a vast picnic ground—disorganized and unsanitary —rather than a military establishment. Only the 23rd Infantry, some artillery, and fragments of the 14th Regiment—all Regulars—contrasted with the chaos of their surroundings. Nevertheless, by the third week of May, Merritt managed to charter three commercial vessels, the City of Peking , the Australia , and the City of Sydney , convert them into troopships, and schedule the departure of the first contingent for late May. It was commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Anderson and numbered about 2,500 men, including all the artillery and regular infantry, plus volunteers from California and Oregon.

 

At dawn on departure day the men broke camp, laughing and chattering like magpies, and under forty pounds of equipment marched through the city toward the Pacific Mail dock. Throngs of civilians lining the streets began to infiltrate the ranks of the ist CaIifornians as they wheeled up Van Ness Avenue. Soldiers and onlookers burst into tears; women flung themselves upon their men; fathers joined the march and carried their sons’ blankets and haversacks. “The march of the regiment was not a glorious spectacle,” reported the San Francisco Bulletin . “It was piteous.”