The Sham Battle Of Manila


Williams was neither an important nor a brilliant diplomat, but he knew his Filipinos from years of experience, and in his glum, practical way he could see that the situation was taking an alarming turn. He advised Aguinaldo to cool down and accept a “union” (the term was left vague) between the Philippines and the United States. Aguinaldo’s reply is worth quoting: I congratulate you with all sincerity on the acuteness and ingenuity which you have displayed in painting in an admirable manner the benefits which … would be secured by the union of these islands with the United States of America. … Aguinaldo personally conceded that many benefits might flow from such an association. But: Will my people believe it? I … do not dare assure you of it … I have done what they desire … because acting in any other manner they would fail to recognize me as the interpreter of their aspirations and would punish me as a traitor, replacing me by another more careful of his honor and dignity. If the United States intended to annex the Islands, he went on, why not recognize its legal government first and then “join with it?” Why not co-operate with the Filipino armed forces? Already his compatriots complained that the “labor, fatigue, blood, and treasure” of the Filipinos had been used cynically by the American commanders to further their own aims. But I do not believe these unworthy suspicions. I have full confidence in the generosity and philanthropy which shine in characters of gold in the history of the privileged people of the United States. …

Mr. Williams failed to report these sentiments to his government, nor their plain implication that the natives would fight rather than be annexed.

Up to then there had been no direct threats; but now Dewey showed his hand. Fearing that if the insurgents took Manila, gross injuries to the city and its Spanish inhabitants would follow, he ordered the Filipinos not to cross the Manolele River between their front and the city. If they did, he warned, he would send the Petrel into the stream to bombard their lines. Scarcely had this been swallowed by the native high command when General Greene requested that American field guns and their personnel be permitted to occupy certain forward Filipino entrenchments. With some restraint, Aguinaldo asked for a written memorandum. It would follow, Greene replied, but to save time it would be best to emplace the guns first and write the note later. The transfer occurred so quickly that American artillerymen were in and the Filipinos were out before Aguinaldo’s volatile subordinates got wind of it. So far so good.


Those were dangerous days, smelling of crisis and death; and even George Dewey, as he negotiated with the pliant Spaniards, was in an edgy mood. His orders to subordinates early in August have a brief and peremptory flavor. The Filipino flag on every little launch and casco hustling cheerily about the bay struck him as an affront to the dignity of the American fleet. One day he swept up all the Filipino skippers and on the Olympia ’s deck lectured them to the effect that their national emblem was worthless and their “mosquito fleet” an annoyance. When one Tagalog muttered something under his breath, Dewey asked for a translation. The interpreter said, “He says, sir, he will get even with you.”

“Throw that man overboard,” responded the Admiral. The deed was done, and Aguinaldo had a new outrage to protest. But who, after all, was Aguinaldo? A Tagalog nonentity, leading a mob of savages who would take to their heels at the sound of American rifle fire. And that first week in August, before the war with Spain was over, before Manila had been attacked, before any negotiations, conciliatory or otherwise, had been opened with the native government, the journal Public Opinion reached the end of its patience: There has been enough trifling with Aguinaldo … He has been tolerated and meanwhile has been undergoing a sort of civil service examination to decide whether he and his followers are capable of administering the government of the islands wisely and well. … The first test of ability to command is a willingness to obey.

The acid test of Aguinaldo’s willingness to obey occurred some twelve hours before the scheduled attack. From his office aboard the Newport , General Merritt sent a signal officer ashore in a pounding surf to deliver a message to General Anderson. The latter was to instruct Aguinaldo to stay out of the city. On the spot he composed and telegraphed the following message to insurrecto headquarters at Bacoor: “Do not let your troops enter Manila without the permission of the American commander. On this side of the Pasig River you will be under our fire.”

One pictures the consternation which attended the arrival of this bombshell, confirming the significance of Dewey’s earlier warning not to cross the Manolele; and one regrets that there is no written record of the undoubtedly picturesque dialogue between the Filipino gentlemen in Aguinaldo’s office late that balmy evening. We only know that the Philippine president at length decided to comply, but without telling Anderson so. Thus the Americans were left wondering if, after all, they would have to take Manila by actual force—and from their so-called allies.