The United States made great strides in the 1890s to modernize itself and become an expansionist beyond the mainland, entering the crowded world of colonization. With the efforts of Roosevelt, the philosophies of Alfred Thayer Mahan and other expansionists, the United States was readying itself for a leap beyond its coastal borders.

The reasons behind the expansion are numerous; there are those who claim economic reasons, security or prestige. Usually it isn’t any singular reason. People, and nations, are rarely so simple. As Beisner noted the words of John Hobson in the early 1900s, it is unlikely that J.P. Morgan encouraged the United States to go to war against Spain in order to open a port in Manila.1 While there were economic incentives, there was also the issue of security and prestige. Japan at the time was becoming a rising power and had been focusing on its navy for decades. Likewise there was fighting over control of islands like Hawaii, questions around Samoa, Easter Island and later, the attempted purchasing of the Galapagos Islands.

Nationalism, however, was also on the rise. As taken from a speech, Senator Beveridge spoke in Boston:

“…we are a conquering race… we must obey our blood and occupy new markets, and, if necessary, new lands.

“American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written out policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours… American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores higherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.

“…in the Pacific is the true field of our earliest operations. There Spain has an island empire, the Philippine Archipelago. It is poorly defended. Spain’s best ships are on the Atlantic side. In the Pacific the United States has a powerful squadron. The Philippines are logically our first target.”2

It is almost needless to say that most Americans, or even Europeans, had no idea where the Philippines were. While there were articles, magazines and other cheap media which were becoming cheaper for the average person to consume, the education level was relatively mild.

In terms of threat, Samoa woke up America to the realization that there were further threats overseas if she wished to expand. When the Germans and Americans had their standoff over the space in 1889, Captain Mahan said that it had, “…roused [Americans] from sleep…” Mahan wasn’t alone, for as Beisner notes that another officer commented that “U.S. isolation would soon ‘cease to exist.”3 After the essential taking of Samoa, this left the possibilities open to further expansion particularly since China had been fractured and Japan and other European powers were filling the void. Often it is said that the Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe, but, Spain was the sick man of Asia and her colonies, particularly the Philippines, were ripe for plucking from any number of empires, European or otherwise.

A failure in Spain and her colonies was also a threat to the structure of the overseas world. There were questions to who would control these regions, would the upstart rebels cause problems, would the new controlling powers alter the way things had been done? Questions was not only bad for business, but it was bad for security. Questions also promote fear which is one of the prime driving forces of war.

Beginning the 1890s, President Benjamin Harris wrote about his personal beliefs. While he proclaimed himself to be “anti-imperalist,” he wrote to Blain, “You know I am not much of an annexationist though I do feel that in some directions, as to naval stations in points of influence, we must look forward to a departure from the too conservative opinions which have been held heretofore.”4 In this instance, Beisner notes that Harrison was specifically referencing an isthmus canal or acquisitions in the Caribbean or Pacific. But the seeds had been planted with much of the midwest pacified.

Nelan, Charles, Artist. Our modern Don Quixote / Ch. Nelan. , 1898. [New York: New York Herald]

Even beyond Harrison and into the second half of the Grover Cleveland campaign, plans were made for attacking the Philippines should war occur between the United States and Spain. McKinley became aware of these plans by September 1897 and sent such plans to Dewey for potential enaction.5 This comes around the same time where McKinley commented, “I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles.”6

The USS Maine had blown up due to a boiler explosion off the coast of Cuba, which had been sent there to protect US interests in the area. However, the United States had assumed, incorrectly at the time, that the explosion and sinking of the Maine was due to Spanish interference. This is the moment where the Americans had obtained their reason for war and where they were finally going to put their war plans into place a few months later.

While there were questions of how or why the Maine had sunk, this didn’t stop Congress on 9 March 1898 to appropriate $50,000,000 for “national defense.”7 However, this was not intended for offensive purposes. It is questionable how the United States was meant to wage a war against Spain without taking offensive maneuvers.

While much of the Spanish-American War has attention in it’s Caribbean, particularly within its Cuban theatre, the actions taken in Asia are just as, if not more interesting. In Asia was George Dewey who graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1858 and assigned to the USS Mississippi by the time the US Civil War erupted. He was promptly assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron which was lead by David Farragut. This is particularly important as Farragut was noted as being bold and aggressive, a pair of traits which lent itself well to the later Mahan theory and which Dewey firmly bought into based on the successes he saw off of New Orleans. In a later meeting, which Dewey was permitted to sit in on, he listened to an exchange between a junior officer and Farragut on an explanation of how a Confederate gunboat had snuck by as the junior officer explained, “I could have rammed her, sir, only I was awaiting orders.” Farragut replied, ” Young man, you had the opportunity to make a great name for yourself in your profession, but you missed it. I doubt that you will get another.”8 Seizing the initiative was a note which Dewey remembered.

George Dewey, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, ca. 1899. Photograph.

Dewey’s plans, as they were written in 1895, meant that the U.S. Asiatic Squadron had to seek and destroy the Spanish Navy in the Philippines. This would mean that Dewey would be roughly 7000 miles from his nearest base which would cause issues for not only coal, but also ammunition, and reserves. Neutral ports, should the United States declare war, would also be closed to him which would limit his capabilities.9 This was especially important for Hong Kong and Japan which would be natural stopping points on the way into the Philippines.

Therefore, before war was declared, Dewey moved on toward Japan before moving toward Hong Kong on 11 February 1898. He’d reach Hong Kong six days later where he learned of the sinking of the USS Maine. The issues with communication and information were par for the time. Intelligence was scant and Dewey resorted to contacting Oscar Fitzalan Williams, the American consul in Manila for information in fortifications, mines, defenses and the location of the Spanish squadron in the Philippines.10

Dewey still had much work to do. One such thing was gathering his entire fleet together; some, such as the USS Petrel was in the Bering Sea for fishery protection services.11 However, all of his ships had arrived by 22 April, two days before the governor of Hong Kong asked the US ships to leave due to neutrality issues.12 At this time Dewey received information from the Philippines and with his officers acting as tourists in Hong Kong, Dewey discovered that there were six new heavy guns at Corregidor, that there were mines in Manila Bay, obtained information on tidal currents in Manila and Subic Bay, along with Spanish fortifications.13 Gathering all of this intelligence, Dewey send a cable on 31 March with accuracy that he could take Manila within a day.

Additionally, before having to leave Hong Kong and attaining Navy Secretary Long’s approval, Dewey purchased British merchant ships Nanshan, McCulloch and Zafiro, registering them as merchant ships with a home port in Guam and retaining their British crew. Due to the laws and structure at the time, even after a declaration of war and even though the ships had recently be bought by the United States, they would not be thrown out of Hong Kong even after war would be declared. Furthermore, they’d be free to resupply in Japanese and Chinese ports.14

Dewey had also assumed that a fractured China wouldn’t be able to enforce the official neutrality laws, a case which he proved when steaming thirty miles away from Hong Kong and into Mirs Bay.15 It was here, on 27 April, where Dewey learned of the declaration of war through a cablegram, ordering him to the Philippine islands to combat the Spanish ships. He was ready and set forth within three hours; Hong Kong, meanwhile, warned Spanish of the oncoming American ships.

Dewey was looking for his moment to strike. Therefore when he was told to advance and combat the Spanish navy, according to one newspaperman, Dewey said, “Thank the Lord, at last I’ve got the chance and I’ll wipe them off the Pacific Ocean.” Although later he wrote more plainly, “We were ready to obey.”16

When combating the Spanish, Dewey had recognized his advantage in armament where he had 53 “large guns” (above four inches) versus the 31 of the Spanish.17 The worry, however small, was that the Spanish did have more ships. They carried seven ships of the line compared to Dewey’s six; the Spanish also threatened with 25 small gun-boats. Victory was in question so much so that in the Hong Kong Club the betting odds were against the Americans. A British officer had even said, “What a very fine set of fellows. But unhappily, we shall never see them again.”18 It is likely, based on this information, that many British officers had lost money on their bet.

It ought to be added that the numbers do give the Spanish a hint of an advantage but the quality of the ships were drastically set apart. Spain’s Admiral Patricio Montojo’s prized ship was the Reine Christina, a 3,400 ton unarmored cruiser. While there were six more, three of those six were made of wood and one had to be towed. In total, the ships weighed 12,000 tons whereas Dewey’s ocean-going ships, who had already proven they didn’t need towing, weighed more than a third of the Spaniard’s fleet at 19,000 tons with four armored cruisers, one unprotected cruiser, one gunboat and a revenue cutter. Perhaps if intelligence had been better, so many fairweather British officers wouldn’t have felt a sense of foreboding for their fast American friends.19

Dewey still had the confidence, however. And it was soon discovered that the worry over active Spanish mines was unfounded. This may have been the reason for the concern as it certainly wasn’t with the Spanish ships around the Philippines. There were fourteen mines but they didn’t have fuses or cables and some torpedoes were even lined up near Caballo island but they were in a position where they wouldn’t have to worry about being struck.20 Neither were the landshore batteries manned as Spanish merchants refused to permit the Spanish military from defensive duties for fear of retaliatory American fire.

Montojo moved his ships into Cavite which was in the most shallow water near Sangley Point. It is said by Wolff that this was done so that after the ships were sunk, the crewmen could hold onto masts and other structures until they could be rescued. 224 of these sailors wouldn’t have to worry about such a thing as they deserted as soon as they had heard war was declared. The Spanish, as is written, were simply looking to gracefully lose in the Philippines.21

While many of the shore batteries had been abandoned, once Dewey reached Corregidor on 1 May, a battery fired on him from El Fraile where shots had been traded. Dewey had still worried about mines but encountered none along the way and by 4 AM the entire fleet reached Manila Bay at four knots. When Dewey hadn’t encountered the Spanish, he turned toward Cavite where the Spanish fleet opened fire. As the Olympia closed within five thousand yards, Dewey turned the ships starboard to parallel the Spanish line as he said, “Take her close along the 5-fathom line, Mr. Calkins,”he said to the navigator, “but be careful not to get her aground.”22 American gunners stood by their guns in nothing more than shoes and pants.

Dewey was silent until 5:41 AM when he called, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The day was going to be hot and without wind, so much that Chief Engineer Randall had collapsed and died of heat prostration. But the Olympia fired when ready. Firing shuddered the Bay for two hours and smoke hovered over the water. Over this time the Americans had made five passes, coming closer each time, the smoke obliterating the chance of real accuracy for either side. Even though the Spanish had weak ships compared to the Americans and were poorly trained, sailing aimlessly and getting in one another’s way, no damage had been recorded after two hours of firing.23 Dewey was also told that he was running low on ammunition. Dewey had decided to leave the Bay in order to have breakfast.

A gunner called out for Dewey to continue firing. It had soon returned that Dewey’s information about running low on ammunition was incorrect and instead of breakfast, the Americans began firing upon the Spanish once more. The Americans had proven much more effective this time around and by noon each of the seven Spanish ships had been sunk along with other auxilliary vessels which had been scuttled or captured. Three hundred and eighty-one Spaniards were wounded or dead while Dewey’s ships had only received minor damage with eight men wounded. The only casualty was the Chief Engineer of heat stroke before the battle was underway.24 The worst damage on the American side was that of a broken deck beam on the Baltimore.

Through the battle some of the Manila shore batteries had been firing at Dewey. After the naval battle had ended, Dewey sent a note to the shore that he would bombard the city if the firing didn’t cease. As soon as the note had been received, the shelling on Dewey’s ships had stopped.

Dewey soon demanded the cable to contact Hong Kong but was refused. In return, Dewey cut the line which was Manila’s only way to contact the outside world.25 The Philippines was now more isolated than it had been in modern history although before the wire had been cut but a partial message had already been sent to Madrid: “Our fleet engaged the enemy in brilliant combat, protected by the Cavite and manila forts. They obliged the enemy, with heavy loss, to [maneuver] repeatedly. At 9 o’clock the American squadron took refuge behind the foreign merchant shipping.”26

The Battle of Manila had been fairly straight forward. There were a series of supposed threats which had never materialized from the mines, to efficient shore battery firings, to the complete lack of training and preparedness by the Spanish navy. It is easy to reflect and agree with Dewey when he commented, “This battle was won in Hong Kong Harbor.”27 Gathering intelligence, preparing for the advance, and Dewey’s intellect and securing his position through Japan and into Hong Kong were necessary keys to victory. If Dewey hadn’t followed Farrugut’s advice to an unnamed junior officer, not only would Dewey not have been in position to take the Spanish fleet, but he may not have been in charge at all.

Dewey can further be commended for permitting the press mostly free reign, especially during war time. The Press had said as much. And Dewey responded in kind, “It is necessary for us to remember that we are making history. If we left in words which implied no respect for noncombatants, women and children and property, we would be censured for it by the future historian.”28

Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher, Hart, Edward H, photographer. U.S.S. Raleigh, Spanish gun captured at Battle of Manila Bay.[Between 1899 and 1901] Photograph.

Immediately after the battle, Spanish General Don Basilio offered to surrender his men to Dewey, however, Dewey rejected the surrender as he worried that he wouldn’t have enough men to occupy the newly won land. There was also a continuing Filipino insurgence against the Spanish and he feared the Filipino people would massacre the unarmed Spaniards and understood his inability to properly defend them and the city.29 Dewey was going to wait until the arrival of expeditionary troops under the leadership of Major General Wesley Merritt.

Emilio Aguinaldo, a native Filipino, trailed the Americans and arrived in Manila Bay. He offered the Americans to help create a native, independent government with American advisors. While Dewey didn’t commit one way or the other, refusing to be the politician, he did grant Aguinaldo and his insurgents Spanish guns and ammunition who ultimately pushed 13,000 Spaniards out of their garrison on 29 May and into Manila. After this success, Aguinaldo went further, proclaiming himself as dictator and establishing the First Republic of the Philippines.30 The power vacuum had succumbed in the Philippines. Multiple people and nations were now laying claim to the title over the land from Aguinaldo, his opponents, the Spanish and potentially the Americans. it was a recipe for chaos.

Meanwhile, the politicking back int he United States over the islands was worrying. There were questions on what to do with the islands. McKinely was leaning further toward annexation but there were considerations of only taking part of the islands, particularly the important ports. However, once it was learned that many of the islands were close enough to be shelled with artillery, it had been decided that annexing the islands as a whole was the best option. It was considered that holding only Luzon would be indefensible without the rest of the islands. Even Aguinaldo had ultimately agreed with this notion, not wanting to see the Philippines split. Guam hdd been added later as an additional Pacific holding.

Before final decisions had been made, American troops were on their way. While there was an initial request to order 5,000, this was raised to 10,000 by 11 May and by 29 May it had reached 20,000.31 This was as much as a desire to pacify Manila and its dangerous situation as it was a show of force against Spain who, even after the near-predictable loss in the Philippines, had continued with the war.

After US Major General Wesley Merritt had arrived with the American expeditionary force, he conducted a three month siege in Manila. Again, as with the battle on the sea, the Spanish line was that they had wanted to save face and thus what became known as the “Mock Battle of Manila” occurred, resulting in the Spanish surrender in the Philippines on 13 August 1898.32 This surrender would also deny nationalist Filipnos from obtaining political recognition.

The “Mock Battle” is unfortunate as, like with the Battle for New Orleans nearly a century before, it occurred shortly after peace between the nations had been signed. News of the peace between the nations wouldn’t reach Manila until 16 August.33 But the Americans were hardly finished. Now that the Spanish had been officially pacified, more attention had to be paid to the Aguinaldo uprising.

What followed was nearly a decade of war or insurrection. It was a guerrilla type of conflict carrying many correlations which America would see roughly sixty years later in Vietnam. Immediately after the war General MacArthur had taken control until William Howard Taft, future president of the United States, quickly became civilian governor of the islands. But the toll on Americans was great in the acquisition of the Philippines. Money and men poured into the islands.

A soldier who had traveled from the United States to the Philippines for duty wrote of the horrible conditions. Freeman writes, “We had a rough voyage, not on account o the weather, but because the transport was so packed and crowded that a man did well to walk from one end of the ship to the other. We were crowded like a cargo of animals bounds for a slaughter pen.”34 He spoke additionally of battling “gray backs” which were one-fourth of an inch long and climbed into their clothing on board the ships. Furthermore, the troops were fed rotten prunes and fruit which gave most of the men worms.

This was all before they had to land in the Philippines in order to patrol, fight and pacify the islands. Subterfuge and guerilla warfare was common. In one moment the Filipinos had claimed an epidemic and caskets were allowed through the gates of Manila without having been checked. It was only when suspicion on the number of caskets leaving Manila had been raised was one coffin inspected and it was found to be filled with Mauser rifles.35 This coincided with Aguinaldo’s repeated raids against the city. The Filipino would even set fire to places in Manila and then cut the water hoses meant to put out the fires. The Americans had certainly inherited the Spanish problems. Although the Americans had ended slavery on the Islamic island of Mindanao.

William McKinley. , 1891. [New York, Boston] Photograph.

McKinley, even before peace had been officially declared, had noted that he would aim for “benevolent assimilation” in the Philippines. Through the war that followed, roughly 130,000 US troops served in the war with 70,000 there at its climax; 4000 Americans were killed with 2800 wounded. The Filipinos lost roughly 18,000 with 100,000-200,000 noncombatants dying from destroyed villages, famine or war-related diseases. Concentration camps further aided the death toll.36 As an aside, Taft worked to rebuild the Philippines during the first stages of annexation by building up the education system, rebuilding harbors and infrastructure. He had even met with the Pope which resulted in granting land rights from the Spanish friars back to tens of thousands of Filipinos. The actions of the US Government and Military were ironically drastically different from that of Taft’s work in the Philippines.

John Hay called the Spanish-American War a “splendid little war.” While the war hadn’t cost much in the name of manpower, its after effects certainly had. However, it removed Spain as a weakened nation in Asia and parts of the Caribbean. There was no longer a question of what would happen to the Philippines, if it would succumb to Germany, the United Kingdom or Japan which would’ve dramatically altered the history of the future world wars. Likewise, Mahan’s philosophy was put into action for not the first time and was hailed as a success before it was ultimately thrown out as an erroneous belief by most by the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie said it succinctly when talking about the new America, “The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail’s pace [but the United States] thunders past with the rush of the express.”37 The United States had managed to build a fleet worthy of taking on a weak European power and was beginning its colonial expansion. It was growing across the country and now overseas. It was also engaging in important international dialogue.

Theodore Roosevelt is partially to blame for the advancing of America. From the expansion of the navy to the expansion of Presidential powers and the bloating of government. America had joined the European powers at the table as colonizer and controller of foreign and distant lands. She had also properly fended off the Germans in Samoa and a number of other supposed powers over the Philippines while absorbing Puerto Rico. The Battle for Manila and the Spanish-American War had thrust the United States into the future. No longer were there contests to connect the borders of the United States, rather now it was about securing overseas possessions or protectorates which could add to the security, economy and prestige of the United States of America and the politicians who led the charge.

Works Cited

1 Beisner p 16

2 Wolff, Leon p 63

3 Beisner p 79

4 ibid. p 97

5 ibid. p 134

6 Granger, Derek B. p 5

7 ibid. p 4

8 ibid. p 7-8

9 ibid. p 4

10 Leeke, James Chapter 6 Paragraph 6

11 Granger, Derek B. p 11

12 p 11

13 p 11

14 ibid pp 10-11

15 ibid p 13-4

16 Leeke, James Chapter 6 Paragraph 43

17 Granger, Derek B. p 5

18 ibid. p 6

19 Wolff, Leon p 55

20 ibid. p 55

21 ibid. pp 55-6

22 ibid. 57

23 ibid. 58

24 ibid. p 58

25 ibid. p 59

26 ibid. 59

27 Granger, Derek B. p 3

28 ibid. p 19

29 ibid. p 16-7

30 ibid. p 17

31 Beisner p 134-5

32 “The Evolution of Manila.”

33 Ward, Kyle. p 4

34 Freeman, Needom N. loc 218

35 ibid. loc 330

36 Beisner p 140

37 Paterson, Thomas G. p 343


Beisner, Robert L. From the Old Diplomacy to the New: 1850-1900. Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1986.

“The Evolution of Manila.” Presidential Museum and Library Republic of the Philippines. Accessed September 16, 2022.

Freeman, Needom N. A Soldier in the Philipines, 2008.

Granger, Derek B. “Dewey at Manila Bay: Lessons in Operational Art and Operational Leadership from America’s First Fleet Admiral.” DTIC. Accessed November 14, 2022.

Leeke, James. “Manila and Santiago: The New Steel Navy in the Spanish-American War.” Accessed September 14, 2022.

Paterson, Thomas G. “United States Intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpretations of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War.” The History Teacher 29, no. 3 (1996): 341–61.

Ward, Kyle. “The Thirteenth Minnesota and the Mock Battle of Manila.” Military Historical Society of Minnesota, 2016.

Wolff, Leon. Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Islands at the Century’s Turn. New York, NY: History Book Club, 2006.


Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher, Hart, Edward H, photographer. U.S.S. Raleigh, Spanish gun captured at Battle of Manila Bay. , None. [Between 1899 and 1901] Photograph.

George Dewey, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly right. , ca. 1899. Photograph.

Nelan, Charles, Artist. Our modern Don Quixote / Ch. Nelan. , 1898. [New York: New York Herald]

The battle of Manila, fought on Sunday morning, May 1st. , ca. 1898. June 22. Photograph.

William McKinley. , 1891. [New York, Boston: publisher not transcribed] Photograph.