CHAPTER VIII. Dewey And Manila Day
War had begun, but the majority of the American people had hardly considered seriously how they were to fight. Fortunately their navy already existed, and it was upon it that they had to rely in the opening moments of hostility. Ton for ton, gun for gun, it stood on fairly even terms with that of Spain. Captain, later Admiral, Mahan, considered that the loss of the Maine shifted a slight paper advantage from the United States to Spain. In personnel, however, the American Navy soon proved its overwhelming superiority, which was due not solely to innate ability but also to sound professional training.
The Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, had a thorough appreciation of values. Although Congress had not provided for a general staff, he himself appointed a Naval War Board, which served many of the same purposes. Upon this Board he appointed Rear Admiral Sicard, who but for ill health would have commanded the main fleet; Captain A. S. Crowninshield; and, most important, Captain A. T. Mahan, whose equal as master of the theory and history of naval warfare no navy of the world could show. The spirit of the fighting force was speedily exhibited by such exploits as that of Lieutenant Victor Blue in boldly plunging into the Cuban wilderness to obtain information regarding the position of Admiral Cervera's fleet, though in this dangerous sort of work the individual palm must be given to Lieutenant A. S. Rowan of the army, whose energy and initiative in overcoming obstacles are immortalized in Elbert Hubbard's "Message to Garcia," the best American parable of efficient service since the days of Franklin.
Efficient, however, as was the navy, it was far from being a complete fighting force. Its fighting vessels were totally unsupplied with that cloud of servers - colliers, mother ships, hospital ships, and scouts - which we now know must accompany a fleet. The merchant marine, then at almost its lowest point, was not in a position entirely to fill the need. The United States had no extensive store of munitions. Over all operations there hung a cloud of uncertainty. Except for the short campaign of the Chino-Japanese War of 1894, modern implements of sea war remained untested. Scientific experiment, valuable and necessary as it was, did not carry absolute conviction regarding efficient service. Would the weapons of offense or defense prove most effective? Accidents on shipboard and even the total destruction of vessels had been common to all navies during times of peace. That the Maine had not been a victim of the failure of her own mechanism was not then certain. Such misgivings were in the minds of many officers. Indeed, a report of the total disappearance of two battling fleets would not have found the watchful naval experts of the world absolutely incredulous. So much the higher, therefore, was the heroism of those who led straight to battle that complex and as yet unproved product of the brain - the modern warship.
While negotiations with Spain were in their last stages, at the orders of Secretary Long a swift vessel left San Francisco for Honolulu. There its precious cargo was transferred to the warship Baltimore, which then made hurriedly for Hongkong. It contained the ammunition which was absolutely necessary if Commodore George Dewey, in command of the Asiatic squadron, was to play a part in the war. The position of his squadron, even after it received its ammunition, was indeed singular. After the war began, it was unable to obtain coal or other supplies from any neutral port and at the same time it was equally unable to remain in any such port without being interned for the duration of the war. There remained but one course of action. It must not be forgotten that the Spanish empire stretched eastward as well as westward. Already William Pitt, when he had foreseen in 1760 the entrance of Spain into the war which England was then waging with France, had planned expeditions against both Cuba and the Philippines. Now in 1898 the Navy Department of the United States, anticipating war, saw in the proximity of the American squadron to the Spanish islands of the Philippines an opportunity rather than a problem. Commodore George Dewey, the commander of the Asiatic squadron, was fully prepared to enter into the plan. As early as the seventies, when the Virginius affair* threatened war between Spain and the United States, Dewey, then a commander on the west coast of Mexico, had proposed, in case war were declared, that he sail for the Philippines and capture Manila. Now he was prepared to seek in the hostile ports of those islands the liberty that international law forbade him in the neutral ports of Asia. How narrow a margin of time he had in which to make this bold stroke may be realized from the fact that the Baltimore, his second vessel in size, reached Hongkong on the 22d of April and went into dry dock on the 23d, and that on the following day the squadron was ordered either to leave the port or to intern.
* A dispute between the United States and Spain, arising out of the capture of the Virginius, an American vessel engaged in filibustering off the coast of Cuba, and the execution at Santiago of the captain and a number of the crew and passengers. The vessel and the surviving passengers were finally restored by the Spanish authorities, who agreed to punish the officials responsible for the illegal acts.