Skip to main content

American Heritage Book Selection

The Sham Battle Of Manila

May 2024
31min read

To most Americans, in 1898, the Philippine Islands seemed as remote as the Land of Oz. But suddenly, after Commodore Dewey’s smashing victory at Manila Bay, they appeared to be ours for the asking. But matters were not so simple, for the Philippine people were in revolt against the Spaniards, who had been their masters for three and a half centuries. When American troops finally landed near Manila, they faced not only the Spanish garrison but hostile and suspicious Filipinos. The result was eventually to be a really serious shooting war, but for the moment it was pure comic opera. The following account is taken from Leon Wolff’s book, Little Brown Brother, to be published in January by Doubleday.


During the evening of February 4, 1899, Private William Grayson of the 1st Nebraska Volunteers, on patrol duty in a suburb of Manila, shot and killed two Filipino soldiers who were intruding upon his outpost area. The incident was similar to others which had preceded it, with the exception that this one touched off a war which lasted over three years, caused the deaths of over 200,000 Americans and Filipinos, and marked America’s first armed entry upon the imperial stage. As to the Philippines, only a few months previously our own people (in the phrase of Mr. Dooley) had scarcely known whether they were islands or canned goods. What was Private Grayson doing there?

The train of powder leads back to the late 1860’s. With the Civil War just ended, a peace reaction would seem inevitable; instead there followed a remarkable period of bellicosity that brought the United States to the brink of war several times in a generation. This is no place to assess the blame, or to evaluate the incentives, concerning the jingo debaucheries which crowded each other out of the headlines in such rapid succession; it is enough to observe in retrospect that the United States almost seemed to be looking for trouble. When the unhappy Cubans rebelled against Spain in 1895, when “Butcher” Weyler slapped them down with unprecedented harshness, when trade between this country and the island almost stopped—all this and more was serious enough; and now America’s “yellow press” played its famous part in emotionally galvanizing Congress and the public. The sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor was the catalyst that precipitated McKinley’s war message of April, 1898. Der Tag , at long last, had arrived.

One of the few Americans who knew that Spain owned the Philippine Islands as well as Cuba was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt; he had, in fact, ordered Commodore Dewey of the Asiatic Station in advance to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila, should hostilities arise. So it was that Dewey’s squadron did duly and spectacularly triumph there on May 1. Having done so, he and his ships brooded ominously in the bay outside the capital city, unable to capture it but showing no sign of going away. Something more than the mere annihilation of an antiquated and utterly harmless enemy fleet had motivated Washington; something was in the air, and its name was Benevolent Assimilation, otherwise known as Manifest Destiny.


Spain had been exploiting the Philippines with characteristic brutality and ineptitude for over three centuries. Many had been the fruitless native revolts against Castilian misrule, and especially against the friar orders which dominated not only the Islanders but Spanish civil and military authorities as well. Only two years earlier, the biggest of all Filipino uprisings had broken out under the leadership of a hard, calculating, twenty-nine-year-old nationalist named Emilio Aguinaldo. But it followed a pattern far different from that in Cuba; it was stunningly successful, and by the time Dewey prevailed at Manila Bay the insurrectos had gained almost total control over the land mass of the archipelago. Little more than the Old (walled) and New cities, which together comprised the capital, held out against an inchoate mob of some thirty thousand natives, a tenth of whom were armed with rifles.

To complicate matters, Aguinaldo had already proclaimed Philippine independence. A democratic provisional government had been put into effect—on paper. Native legions were ready and anxious to storm Manila. Theoretically his army and ours were allies, although the Philippine expeditionary force under Major General Wesley Merritt had not yet left San Francisco. Furthermore, the Filipinos neither wanted nor needed Merritt’s men; they could take Manila easily enough by themselves with the static assistance of Dewey’s blockade. As the American Eighth Corps prepared to sail, suspicions grew in many landsSpain, England, France, Germany, the Philippines- and in the minds of some U.S. citizens that Uncle Sam was contemplating the chain of islands in a manner not wholly chivalrous. They were certainly very rich, very beautiful islands, and their commercial potential had barely been tapped by Spain.

Few realized, however, that by inheriting the Philippines legalistically (so to speak) from Spain we might also have to acquire them militarily from the over-wrought little brown Malays who lived there. Aguinaldo and other top Filipinos in the provisional government had become increasingly alarmed over the possible turn of events. Time and again they warned Washington through indirect channels that they would fight rather than exchange one master for another. All too plainly the stage was being set for a massive aberration in traditional U.S. foreign policy.

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.”

For two anticlimactic days the loaded troopships sat in the bay, and it was not until Wednesday afternoon, May 25, 1898, that the blue “proceed” signal was broken out on the forepeak of the flagship Australia. Anxiously watched by thousands of eyes ashore, the first armed expedition ever dispatched by the United States to conquer and annex a foreign land was under way. One month later, after a triumphal stopover in Honolulu and the comic-opera conquest of tiny, Spanish-held Guam, the expedition crept slowly into Manila Bay and anchored near Dewey’s flagship off Cavite.

Not an American in Manila Bay, with the exception of Dewey and a few newspapermen, was acquainted with the Philippine Islands or understood exactly what was to be done there. The name Aguinaldo was even less familiar to them. And what it all had to do with Cuba was another mystery, which few even tried to comprehend. Until very recently General Anderson had been a colonel in Alaska, and his ignorance of politics and problems in the land he was to invade was probably more monumental than any commander in history under similar circumstances. On July i, nonetheless, he started landing his men to fight another war in his long and martial career.

The first contacts between American and Filipino troops were wary and disquieting. In the dirty, narrow streets of Cavite, menacing bands of insurgents held sway, and the outnumbered Americans felt like intruders in a quarrel that was none of their business. All the larger Spanish homes and mansions were occupied by Aguinaldo and his aides. A few antiquated barracks had been condescendingly turned over to Anderson’s force, close to the shore line, where the sickening odor of Spanish corpses bubbled to the surface, a memento of Dewey’s smashing victory. Meanwhile the insurrectos paid little attention to the americanos . They yearned and plotted to get at the Spaniards in Manila, and they intended to do so shortly with or without their new allies.

While the insurgents prepared to attack, the Americans under Anderson could do nothing momentarily but occupy their one small base. The rainy season had begun, with intermittent downpours throughout July; and during this interlude the little body of men unhappily hung on and awaited reinforcements.

On June 15 a contingent of 3,500 men commanded by Brigadier General Francis V. Greene had left San Francisco. Twelve days later Merritt and his staff set sail. And the fourth and final expedition of the summer left the same day with 5,000 men under Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur, father of young Douglas MacArthur. By late July some 12,000 American land troops were in the Philippines; and already it had become clear that U.S.-Filipino relations lacked that camaraderie usually present between military associates. One reason for the strain was described by an American major in an official report: “Almost without exception, soldiers and also many officers refer to the natives in their presence as ‘niggers’ and natives are beginning to understand what the word ‘nigger’ means.”

A more deep-seated cause of Filipino resentment grew out of conversations between Aguinaldo, Dewey, and various U.S. generals which invariably mirrored a painful discrepancy in interests. Dewey summarized matters for Anderson the day the latter arrived: “If the United States intends to hold the Philippine Islands, it will make things awkward, because just a week ago Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippine Islands from Spain and seems intent on establishing his own government.” They decided to see him the following morning. Upon leaving the Olympia the Admiral said to Anderson, “We’ll make this call just as unofficial as possible, no sidearms, no ceremony, give no indication to Aguinaldo that we take his government seriously.”

At insurgent headquarters they found the Filipino surly and withdrawn. He bluntly asked Anderson whether the United States would recognize his government. Taken by surprise, the General replied lamely that as a mere soldier he was not empowered to recognize any government. Aguinaldo declined to attend an American Fourth of July celebration to be held in Cavite, because the written invitation addressed him as “general” rather than “president.” It was not an auspicious beginning.

After a few days Aguinaldo returned the visit. Pointedly to indicate his status, he brought along his entire cabinet, military staff, and the inevitable military band. After a minimum of small talk, he asked, “Does the United States intend to hold the Philippines as dependencies?”

Caught in the middle, still trying to reconcile Aguinaldo’s avowed intentions with his own orders, Anderson tried a new and slightly more plausible tack: “I cannot answer that, but in 122 years we have established no colonies … I leave you to draw your own inference.”

Reflectively Aguinaldo said, “I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States and in it I find no authority for colonies, and I have no fear.”

That very day the insurgents arrested two American officers for encroaching upon their lines. Upon hearing of this, Anderson dispatched a note to Aguinaldo recommending that the Filipinos keep their hands off American personnel. But the problem of separating the two armies was becoming difficult, for Anderson had already commenced expanding his holdings. During the middle of the month he ferried most of his men across the bay and landed them near Tambo, a village on the east shore three miles below Manila. Here they dug in, their left flank on the shore, their trenches facing the rice paddies and swamps which lay between them and the walls of the Old City. So now, with the insurgents holding the entire perimeter of the bay above and below the capital, and with Anderson’s command clinging precariously to two beachheads, the insurgents on land surrounded not only Spaniards but Americans; thus, to attack Manila the latter would have to penetrate, bypass, or co-operate with the Filipino army, which in that sector numbered 10,000 men. To the Filipinos the arrival of more and more U.S. troops seemed ominous. Aguinaldo could not help wondering “whom the Americans expected to fight.”

With sarcasm Anderson advised Aguinaldo on July 22 that “your fine intellect must perceive … that I cannot recognize your civil authority.” The Filipino replied that the Philippine Republic existed, whether America liked it or not, and that henceforth no more troops were to be landed without his written permission. To this serious pronouncement there was no answer at all, while Americans continued disembarking almost daily for two more weeks. Aguinaldo seethed. The honeymoon was quite obviously over; and Dewey warned Washington: “Situation is most critical at Manila. The Spanish may surrender at any moment. Merritt’s most difficult problem will be how to deal with insurgents under Aguinaldo, who has become aggressive and even threatening towards our Army.”

The only American whom Aguinaldo really respected—that protective father-image, Admiral Dewey —now exerted personal pressure on him to shift the insurgent forces eastward to make room for U.S. regiments; and reluctantly the Filipinos complied. But could even Aguinaldo enforce more such withdrawals? Already he was being sharply criticized by his generals for this concession, which, they said, would lead only to more humiliations. Separated by a third of the circumference of the globe from their source of supply, half encircled by Filipino troops, the Americans continued to entrench near Tambo, at Camp Dewey, a former peanut farm. The heat was oppressive, and rain kept falling. At times the trenches were filled with two feet of water, and soon the men’s shoes were ruined. Their heavy khaki uniforms were a nuisance; they perspired constantly; the loss of body salts induced chronic fatigue. Prickly heat broke out, inflamed by scratching and rubbing. Within a week the first cases of dysentery, malaria, cholera, and dengue fever showed up at sick call.


The men fretted. They had volunteered to fight Spaniards gloriously in Cuba, and a dreary siege operation thousands of miles from home was not to their liking. On and off, for twenty-four straight days in July alone, it rained. The troops went to bed wet, woke up and donned clothes that were still damp, only to be soaked all over again. In July and August the incredible total of twenty-eight inches of water fell, and heroic countermeasures were called for—frameworks built two feet above the ground, laced with bamboo strips, and then covered by a pup tent, a blanket, and soggy masses of banana leaves. The contraptions resembled a Rube Goldberg cartoon, but they worked.

Nauseous “gold-fish” rations (Alaska canned salmon) had been furnished in overgenerous quantity by the War Department, under the impression that it would be ideal for the tropics. So oily that it burned like a torch when dry, it was traded whenever possible (the natives actually liked it) for fruit, rice, and eggs.

By early August communications between Aguinaldo and the American commanders had dwindled to a bare minimum. No longer did the rival commanders visit each other, nor did Aguinaldo offer his services, nor did the Americans make further overtures. Aguinaldo had moved his headquarters to Bacoor, ten miles away, and from there continued to obstruct American efforts to acquire labor and supplies.

Armed with instructions from McKinley to establish supreme political control over the natives of the Islands, Merritt arrived July 25 just in time to catch the full force of a southwest monsoon. For eight endless days, unable to debark, his expedition sat off Tambo beach.

In disgust Merritt abandoned Tambo as a landing area, and men and supplies were taken off more smoothly during high tide near the mouth of the Paranaque River, a mile from Camp Dewey. Frigid and bored, the General remained on the Newport with his staff. Neither he nor Aguinaldo bothered to call on each other. His relations with Dewey were also meager and formal: from the start they disliked each other. He visited Cavite and Camp Dewey only once. No longer the dashing cavalry commander of old, he confided to his aides that he was tired of the Army and wanted to retire or enter the diplomatic service.

Persuading the reluctant insurgents to move their lines eastward one more time, the Americans now controlled the vital Pasay-Manila road and had worked up to within eight hundred yards of the Spanish powder-magazine fort and outer trench zone. Along a fairly broad front Merritt was now ready for an independent assault upon the Philippine capital.

Surrounded and blockaded for ten weeks, Manila was nearing the end of its endurance. Its only meat was horseflesh and a little buffalo beef. Bananas were twenty-four cents each; flour, rice, and mangoes were practically gone; and only the rich dined adequately, although at enormous cost. The poorest ate dogs, cats, and rats. Thousands of evacuees had been quartered in churches and college buildings. Nobody knew when the Filipinos and Americans were coming, and nerves were taut.

Many Spaniards, nonetheless, clung to their dreams. Surely, they thought, there would be no annexation. Mañana the nord americanos would go away; senor and señora would promenade on the Luneta at dusk, just as they had always done, and the Filipinos would step aside to make way for them. But the natives refused to step aside, and many ugly incidents occurred. It was racism and discrimination turned upside down.

Three times Aguinaldo presented surrender terms to the Spanish governor, Basilio Augustin. Hoping for reinforcements from the mother country, he refused them. In July Augustin cabled Madrid by roundabout means that his situation was doomed. In reply he was instructed to turn over his command to General Fermin Jaudenes, who assumed the governorship (an unusually empty honor) on August 5.

During the day all was quiet. At night the city became sparklingly alight, almost normally so, and around ten o’clock sputtering rifle fire started up between the Spanish and insurgent lines in the suburbs. After about an hour it stopped. Except for these exchanges, during which nobody advanced, there were no more battles. The insurgents served sporadically. Between periods in the line they went home for a week or two, handing over their positions and rifles to other soldiers when they left. Sometimes when their ammunition gave out they walked away in a body to get it replaced. It was all quite casual, and everyone knew that the Americans would soon call the tune.

If nothing else, the Spaniards had prodigious amounts of small-arms ammunition, which they expended in volleys whenever insurgent and American skirmishers revealed themselves. One evening the Spaniards opened up with heavier volleys and a few 3.2-inch guns. Although the Spaniards had never left their trenches, this false alarm resulted in the first U.S. casualties and the useless expenditure of 60,000 rounds of rifle ammunition. The Americans were instructed not to return enemy fire unless Spaniards could be seen advancing from their trenches; and one newspaperman quoted a sergeant thus: “Now you fellows, look-a-here! You’re not to load your guns unless I order you to, and if we begin to fire I don’t want to see you sittin’ down on your hunkers in the mud … I want you to prance right up on top of the breastwork and give them dagos hell!”

The Americans grumbled, but endured three more such “attacks” and ten more casualties without firing back. After August 3 the firing died down to nearly nothing. Americans, Filipinos, and Spaniards rested, watched, and passively awaited the denouement.

Why the United States seemed so intent on a key role in the capture of Manila was not clear at the time. Aguinaldo co-operated in hopes of avoiding antagonisms that would prejudice the recognition of his government. Dewey and Merritt were simply under orders to take the city and establish American sovereignty. They did not know whether such sovereignty was to be temporary or permanent, nor was it their business to know. Yet even the apolitical Admiral had not been born yesterday, and he understood as well as anyone that the Philippine Islands faced a historical crisis. Perhaps Washington did intend to acquire part or all of the Islands, or did intend to make treaty arrangements with them. It was not his to reason why; but in any event, by August it was no secret that some degree of association or assimilation was inevitable. Henry Lodge summed it up in a July letter to Roosevelt: “I had a long talk with the President. … He is not giving much consideration to the Philippines but the question in his mind is how much he will take there. I think his imagination is touched by the situation, and I think he grasps it fully.”

If, however, the United States should ultimately decide to step aside, other nations were ready to move in. Germany wanted naval bases in East Asia, and her open acquisitiveness explains why Number 10 Downing Street was anxious to settle for American possession of the archipelago, though Britain—along with France, Russia, and Japan—would have preferred Spain to retain possession, since her weakening grip on the Islands spelled opportunity for everyone else.

The scene that summer, all in all, was reminiscent of wolves surrounding a wounded stag. They all wanted a morsel. Thus it came about that in Manila Bay a queer wrangle took place between Admiral George Dewey and Vice-Admiral Otto von Diederichs of the Imperial German Navy.

With Teutonic thoroughness, Vice-Admiral von Diederichs and six of the seven warships which comprised his Asiatic Squadron had arrived to safeguard German interests—a grand total of one import firm. English, French, and Japanese naval detachments were also at the scene, but the German concentration was stronger than Dewey’s, and its actions were, to say the least, disconcerting. As early as May the Raleigh had been forced to fire a shot across the bows of a German ship which ignored an identification pennant. When von Diederichs called personally to demand an apology, Dewey pointed out that a war was going on and that his blockade regulations governed the shipping in Manila Bay. He also observed that the German naval force seemed disproportionate to that nation’s responsibilities there. Von Diederichs responded stiffly and not quite relevantly, “I am here by order of the Kaiser, sir.” He could not confess that those orders were to negotiate with the Spaniards for an invitation to mediate between them and the Americans.


So he crudely intruded, while Dewey sat in his wicker chair under the Olympia ’s forward guns, and watched, and smoldered. When German vessels persisted in knifing through his flotilla without saluting, he dispatched this curt message: “Don’t pass the American flag again without seeing it.” But von Diederichs’ men-of-war continued to behave as if they controlled the bay, anchored where they pleased, saluted only the Spanish flag on shore, and landed sacks of flour for their beleaguered friends. When the German cruiser Irene went so far as to prevent insurgent troops from capturing the Spanish naval post on Grande Island, Aguinaldo complained to Dewey, who sent the Raleigh and Concord to chase the Irene away. The consequences were twofold and unexpected. For it was the Americans—not the insurgents—who proceeded to occupy Grande Island. And again it was von Diederichs who protested. Dewey listened passively to the German emissary and then exploded, “Do you want war with us?”

“Certainly not.”

“Well, it looks like it, and you are very near it.” And he added that “as we are in for it now, it matters little to us whether we fight Spain, or Germany, or the world; and if you desire war, you can have it right here. You need not cable to Berlin, nor need I to Washington; you can just have war here and now.”

Back home the affair was splashed across front pages; and America showed that her martial spirit was still in full bloom. The New York Times said editorially, “Expansion is a new idea with us. The defense of our rights is an old habit.” And the Atlanta Constitution welcomed war with Germany as another step toward delivering the peoples of Europe from oppressive, outmoded monarchies.

It might have been the year 1917. The violence of the reaction, plus the fact that Captain Chichester, commanding the strong British squadron at Manila, had gone out of his way to show support for Dewey, startled the German chancellory. As spring and early summer waned, the leaden mind of Vice-Admiral von Diederichs slowly came to realize that Dewey and Merritt were not there to free the Philippines and then set them adrift, nor solely to whip the Spaniards, nor to round out the Cuban crusade. And when the extent of American interests in the Islands was suggested by John Hay to the German ambassador in London, the interfering tactics of von Diederichs ceased, much to the regret of our yellow press.

No longer distracted, Admiral Dewey was now able to assist General Merritt in creating another and even more unusual tableau—the capture of Manila by a battle which was not to be a battle.

Seated gloomily beneath a large mango tree in Camp Dewey, General Anderson asked Father William McKinnon, “Why in the name of common sense don’t some of you Catholics enter Manila and tell that archbishop of yours to call this thing off?” The Californians’ chaplain remarked, “I believe I could walk right down the beach and into Manila without any trouble at all.” On the spur of the moment he started off. A torrent of rifle fire sent him scurrying back. He tried again. Halfway across the eight hundred yards of sand between the American and Spanish trenches, a bullet went through his hat. He kept walking. Upon entering the enemy lines, he was taken to Archbishop Nozaleda. The conference came to nothing: Governor General Jaudenes declined to end hostilities just yet. For some time he had been negotiating desultorily with the American commanders, while both sides waited for U.S. troops to arrive. By early August the first three expeditions had landed, and the fourth was preparing to do so. Still, Jaudenes’ problems involved something more than merely putting out a white flag.

One was to let the Americans in while keeping the Filipinos out. The other was to salvage both Jaudenes’ neck and Spain’s honor. In solving these simultaneous equations, the Americans and Spaniards drifted into an alliance against the insurgents, and, as U.S. troops poured in, everything began to fall into place. Jaudenes promised that he would not use his artillery if the Americans refrained from shelling Manila. He reiterated that, if the insurgents were excluded, Spanish resistance would be noisy but nil. In turn, Dewey and Merritt intimated that the mildness of their terms would depend upon the superficiality of such resistance. These preliminary exchanges took place in secret the first week of August, through the intermediation of M. Eduoard André, the Belgian consul. Then came a flurry of open communications largely designed for the ultimate salvation of Senor Jaudenes.

On August 7 Dewey and Merritt advised him that their bombardment might begin within forty-eight hours. “This notice is given in order to afford you an opportunity to remove all noncombatants from the city.”

The Governor replied bleakly that he was “without place of refuge for the increased numbers of wounded, sick, women and children who are now lodged within the walls. Very Respectfully and Kissing the Hands of Your Excellencies …”

It would be regrettable, the Americans pointed out, if the helpless city had to suffer a bombardment that could be avoided. They asked for its outright surrender, including the Spanish troops therein.

In response Jaudenes alluded to his dire straits—“which unfortunately I have to admit”—and asked for time to consult Madrid.

On August 10: “In reply we respectfully inform your excellency that we decline to grant the time requested.”

Fixed (so to speak) or not, the fight could not be long delayed. The Governor talked matters over with the British vice-consul, Mr. Ramsden, and the German consul, Herr Kruger. Ramsden felt that Jaudenes could surrender with an easy conscience. Kruger advised him to hold out.

Ramsden, Jaudenes reflected, was absolutely right. The case was hopeless; he had done all that was humanly possible without reinforcements; there were the noncombatants to consider. Then, too, Dewey and Merritt had just delivered another forty-eight-hour ultimatum, and this time they meant it. Above all, there were the insurgents— los diablos negros —who would surely loot Manila and massacre his countrymen if given the chance. It was fortunate indeed, he reflected, that Washington entertained the same humanitarian sentiments as he did. He sent for the Belgian consul.

That afternoon the mock battle was arranged. The Navy would assume positions opposite Fort San Antonio Abad at nine the following morning, August 13, and would shell only that structure and the impregnable walls of the Old City. Simultaneously the Spaniards would withdraw, the insurrectos would be checked, and the Americans would advance. After having fired a proper number of shots, the Olympia would steam forward, flying the international surrender signal “DWHB,” whereupon the Spaniards would hoist a white flag and officers of both armies and fleets would meet on the shore to formalize the surrender terms. “It is intended that these results shall be accomplished without the loss of life,” Merritt wrote his brigadiers. And to deal with the Filipinos, who had waited three hundred years to enter Manila in triumph, General MacArthur’s brigade, “in the event that it can pass the enemy line on the road leading to Singalon, will leave a force in the Spanish trenches at this point of crossing with instructions to permit no armed bodies other than American troops to cross the trenches in the direction of Manila.”

Such token forces could not in themselves restrain a 3o,ooo-man army; but once again the pen would prove itself mightier than the sword.


Some harmony had existed between Aguinaldo and the Americans until the arrival of General Merritt. At this point it virtually disappeared. Merritt claimed that he had been ordered not to deal with the insurgents. No such instruction appears in any existing document. Indeed he had been told, “No rupture with insurgents; this is imperative.” His mode of complying, however, was unique; he simply ignored them for two weeks. Aware that arrangements of some sort were being consummated without him, Aguinaldo reacted as may be imagined. Mr. Oscar Williams, the former American consul in Manila, thought it advisable to cable Washington of “the exceedingly embarrassing situation which confronts General Merritt through the officiousness of the insurgent chieftain, Aguinaldo. According to all accounts this young man’s success has completely gone to his head.” The young man in question, more uneasy than Mr. Williams guessed, sent a staff officer to ascertain the details of the impending attack. No answer having been elicited, he telegraphed American headquarters several times. None of these queries was acknowledged.

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.

The American army in the Philippines had been JL formed into a single division of 8,500 assault troops under General Anderson, split into two brigades commanded by Generals Greene and MacArthur. General Merritt himself had never visited the U.S. front lines, and suspicions mounted that he would not be there during the attack. War correspondent Frank Millet writes: “This confirmed the impression which was rapidly gaining ground, that the enemy was expected to make no resistance, but would yield at once on the proper display of force on our side.” The statement needs qualifying. Dewey and various generals were the only Americans who knew officially that the fight had been prearranged. A few others (including the newspapermen) may have had their suspicions; but unquestionably the enlisted men and most junior officers anticipated a costly battle. Spanish blockhouses and entrenchments outside the capital comprised an excellent defense system, and the last obstacle—the huge walls of the Old City—was certainly nothing to joke about. When the Utah and Astor batteries, the California, Oregon, Colorado, and Nebraska Volunteers, and the Regulars moved into position the evening of August 12, the air was tense with excitement, some apprehension, and relief that the long rainy weeks of waiting were at an end.

As bugles rasped out reveille at four o’clock next morning, a fine drizzle was descending. In the haze, signal communications between ships and shore broke down. Shortly after dawn heavy thunderstorms struck, pelting the thousands of khaki-clad, slouch-hatted troops and converting the roads into porridge. With heavy booms, insurgent cannon on the Pasay road opened up. The Spaniards did not reply, and it was seen that the muzzles of their field guns within Fort San Antonio had disappeared. “This was significant, and did not look like business,” commented Mr. Millet. Out in the bay, the British battleship Immortalité struck up Dewey’s favorite march, “Under the Double Eagle,” and Captain Chichester quietly moved his ships between the German and American squadrons. The gesture was much appreciated. By nine-thirty Dewey’s fleet had steamed into its assigned battle positions, and the Olympia opened fire on the fort with her five and eight inch guns. The others followed suit.

After about ten minutes one officer said to the captain of the Petrel , “Captain, I shouldn’t be surprised if this whole performance was a sham. Don’t you notice how slowly the Olympia is firing? And I don’t think she is firing her eight-inch at all. Besides I just saw a signal from Manila, and I have not seen the Monterey fire at all, and no one has fired at us.”

Commander Wood smiled and replied, “Yes, I shouldn’t be surprised if it were all a sham.”

The naval shelling soon ceased. Now the land batteries went into action, the infantrymen hauled themselves out of their muddy entrenchments, and in dense, straggling ranks proceeded through the suburbs of Malaie and Ermite toward the walled city.

The Colorado Volunteers (three hundred of them still without shoes) on the extreme left of Greene’s brigade had been assigned the capture of Fort San Antonio. Their route led along the beach, crossed a ford, and traversed patches of marshland. They splashed along, shouting happily, followed by their regimental band. Led by a fat bandmaster with a cornet, it was playing “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” There was scarcely any Spanish resistance, and the men found war wonderfully simple and amusing. The fort being empty—which seemed quite natural that dreamlike day—it was captured without much difficulty. When the full brigade reached the Luneta, a deserted and wet and gloomy expanse, they found a white flag flying from the walls and some seven thousand armed Spaniards standing on them. It was plain that these men and those in the nearby blockhouses were not firing at the Americans—”a mystery,” writes Aguinaldo sardonically.

During these innocuous events, MacArthur’s men on the right were engaged in something like actual fighting. Several dozen casualties were suffered in passing through Singalon, after which the brigade entered Manila by way of the Paco district.

Certain elements of confusion had attended these operations. The Spanish surrender flag, hoisted since eleven o’clock, had little effect upon the attackers for two hours. Few of the enthusiastic Americans, jostled and elbowed by throngs of insurrectos also determined to get into the city, could see that signal hanging limply in the murky air. The battle, they thought, had scarcely begun. On they surged, and the alarmed Spaniards began firing back. Near Santa Ana insurgents collided with Spanish troops, whereupon a savage little skirmish took place. On MacArthur’s right flank, Americans and Filipinos began exchanging shots, for both U.S. brigades had been instructed to drop off detachments at various road junctures to keep the natives back.

It was at about one o’clock—with Spaniards retreating from the trench zone, Americans advancing, Spaniards surrendering, insurgents hurrying along the roads in company with U.S. troops, Americans trying to restrain the Filipinos, the two allies in a state of swirling excitement, firing and swearing at each other, the Spaniards’ huge, dirty white sheet fluttering listlessly atop a corner of the hoary old wall, rifles crackling from all directions—that General Greene finally cantered up to the Puerta Real gate. His raincoat splashed with mud, he galloped through to take the Spanish surrender in the Governor General’s office—too late. Flag-Lieutenant Brumby and Colonel Whittier, representing Admiral Dewey and General Merritt respectively, were already in conference with the authorities. Feeling somewhat unnecessary, Greene departed. The capitulation seemed well in hand anyway, and all that remained to be done was to stop the war. A good deal of scattered shooting was still going on, but as the afternoon passed, such irregularities were ironed out.

All this time the naval guns had been silent. The sailors watched the fight as it unfolded dimly through smoke and rain. They had lunch; meanwhile they kept their guns trained on the enemy batteries. The Spanish flag still waved unaccountably over the city. Two hours passed. At 2:23 Lieutenant Brumby’s launch returned. He climbed the sea ladder at the Olympia ’s quarterdeck and shouted to the Admiral, “Well, they’ve surrendered all right.”

“Why don’t they haul down that flag?”

“They’ll do that as soon as Merritt gets 600 or 700 men in there to protect them.”

Dewey said, “Well, you go over and tell General Merritt that I agree to anything.”

Except for fifty American casualties, the engagement had been consummated according to plan. The Americans were in the city and the insurgents were not. Through some miracle, U.S. troops and Filipinos had not drifted into a full-fledged showdown.

A sham battle which saves hundreds of lives is preferable to a real battle. On the other hand, six Americans and forty-nine Spaniards had died to salvage Sefior Jaudenes’ reputation. Since Dewey and Merritt could have received the surrender of the city unconditionally and without even a demonstration had they insisted, they became the object of some muted criticism at the time, and some not-so-muted criticism afterward.

But Governor Jaudenes’ efforts went for nothing. The elaborate plan cooked up between him and the Americans had tragically miscarried. In Madrid the public prosecutor, after an investigation, brought the unlucky little general to public trial and demanded his imprisonment for life for state treason. And this was not the least of the curiae involved in the capture of Manila. It need not have been captured at all, for Spain had already capitulated in the Caribbean and the Spanish-American War was over.

The provisional Philippine government had begun falteringly to function, backed by all of the natives. Under these circumstances, the continued presence of U.S. arms appeared to the Filipinos provocative and anomalous in the extreme. And still more and more white troops poured in. To inflame matters, the peace protocol between Washington and Madrid contained a clause to the effect that we would “hold the city, bay and harbor of Manila”—temporarily, of course. As both U.S. troops and the insurrectos prepared openly and hurriedly for war, relations between the two armies became abnormally tense, with knifings and shootings along the border zone occurring almost daily.

Only the fact that a Spanish-American peace treaty had not yet been signed prevented a new outbreak. It was still possible that we might spurn the Far Eastern apple of temptation, a possibility strengthened by the emergence of formidable anti-imperialist sentiment in Congress and at the grass-roots level. The Treaty of Paris signed in December, however, showed how the wind was blowing. Gone was the idea of our holding only Manila. Shelved was a subsequent plan of McKinley to annex only the island of Luzon. Instead we purchased the entire archipelago from Spain for $20,000,000—two dollars per head per inhabitant, as one commentator acidly put it.

Across the Pacific a morose, undisciplined American army faced a fanatic foe whose numbers had grown to some 60,000, of whom fully a third now possessed modern rifles. The killings, the kidnappings, the bolo-ings, the brawls went on; but Aguinaldo restrained his more radical colleagues, hoping that the U.S. Senate would defeat the treaty. Months of tension finally ended almost with relief when Private Grayson fired those two fateful shots from his ancient Springfield. Next day, February 5, the Senate ratified the Paris treaty with one vote to spare. The war of words was over; the real war had begun.

Like most altercations in the tropics, it was fought with disturbing ferocity. The slaughter of prisoners, the “water cure”—these and other horrors staggered the American public, which had also been misled into believing that Aguinaldo was a mere bandit chief whose criminal resistance would be terminated within a week or two. Instead, the war dragged on; 1899 and 1900 passed, while the American force reached its peak of 70,000 men. Casualties mounted in the thousands, the Filipinos losing three or four to every invader who died of wounds or disease—mostly disease.

Once-picturesque provinces were converted into a wasteland of disease and starvation, of homeless women, children, and old men whose fields and villages had been devastated. Resistance continued unabated until November, 1900, when McKinley was re-elected over Bryan; it was the end of hope, and the native government began to fall apart. Judge William H. Taft arrived to assume civil control of the Islands and to do right, in his words, by “our little brown brother.” And in 1901 Brigadier General Frederick Funston captured Aguinaldo by a ruse which deserves a place in one of Hollywood’s more improbable scenarios ( see “Funston Captures Aguinaldo,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1958). On July 4, 1902, the insurrection was declared officially over by President Roosevelt, who had taken office upon the assassination of Mr. McKinley.

What followed was a curiosity in the annals of colonialism, for by and large we proceeded to treat our new wards with astonishing decency. The United States contributed much to the well-being of the Filipino people—almost complete self-rule, education, sanitation, roads, law and order, medical care, relative prosperity—even baseball, jazz, and Ford automobiles. How many of these sudden, alien forms of progress the natives truly welcomed is a question that may be argued interminably; but in any event much good came of this, the most enlightened colonial occupation in world history.

Today one of the original insurrectos is still alive in Kawit, Cavite province, the town where he was born ninety years ago. His name is Emilio Aguinaldo.



We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.