Siege and First Battle of Manila (May 1–August 14, 1898)

The siege of Manila of May 1–August 14, 1898, occurred during the Spanish American War (April 21–August 13, 1898). The battle, which pitted troops of the U.S. Army VIII Corps against Spanish forces, was waged after the Protocol of Peace of August 12 had been signed in Cuba, which ostensibly ended hostilities. At the time, the cable linking Manila with Hong Kong had been cut, so field commanders in the Philippines were unaware of the truce agreement.

Manila, the capital and most important city of the Philippines, is located on the east side of Manila Bay on the island of Luzon. As the capital city, Manila was the center of Spanish power in the archipelago and understandably the focal point of Filipino nationalists’ efforts to overthrow Spanish rule. Following his overwhelming defeat of the Spanish naval squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, U.S. Navy commodore George Dewey realized that Manila could and should be seized. Dewey did take the Spanish naval station at Cavite, but with no available landing force to undertake such a mission, he simply blockaded Manila to await the army’s arrival.

The U.S. Army’s Philippine Expeditionary Force (VIII Corps) reached the Philippines in three contingents, departing from San Francisco as ship availability permitted. The first contingent of 2,500 men, under Brigadier General Thomas Anderson, arrived at the end of June, followed in mid-July by 3,500 additional men under Brigadier General Francis V. Greene. The final contingent, numbering some 4,800 troops and commanded by Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur, reached the islands at the end of July, as did commander of VIII Corps Major General Wesley Merritt.

At the end of July, the Spanish still controlled Manila and much of its environs. The city proper was split by the Pasig River, south of which stood the old walled city of Fort Santiago. The Spanish defensive line, known as the Zapote Line, was located 1.5 miles to the south from where a large blockhouse, Number 14, on the Pasay Road extended west to a stone structure known as Fort San Antonio de Abad, located near the shore of Manila Bay. A line of entrenchments connected these two strong points.

Opposing the Spanish positions were some 10,000 Filipino nationalist troops under the overall command of General Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy, who had formally proclaimed the Republic of the Philippines on June 12. Through the early summer, the nationalists had managed to isolate Manila from its source of supplies, in effect leaving it a city under siege. In Manila, food was scarce and mainly consisted of a little horseflesh and some water buffalo. At night the nationalists and the Spanish defenders maintained lively fire between the two lines but undertook no serious offensive movements.

During the course of the U.S. buildup, Greene’s troops constructed a series of entrenchments and moved into some of the works created by the nationalists, who abandoned these positions only reluctantly when Greene persuaded them to do so. The arrangement was irregular, however. In places the nationalist forces actually occupied trench works in between the Americans and the Spaniards.

During the two weeks preceding the attack on Manila, heavy rains of the monsoon season had drenched the area. The period was also characterized by frequent exchanges of artillery and rifle fire between the Americans and the Spanish, with Greene’s units sustaining a number of casualties. In addition, relations between the Americans and Aguinaldo’s men, at first cordial, began to deteriorate, as the latter had grown increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions in the islands.

During the latter part of July, Dewey, now a rear admiral, became convinced that the Spanish would surrender Manila through negotiations. Thus, he met first with Captain-General Basilio Augustín y Dávila and later with his successor, Fermín Jáudenes y Alvarez, to explore possible arrangements. Nevertheless, Greene urged naval gunfire on Spanish positions to relieve the pressure on his command. His troops had dug a line of trenches south of Fort Abad and were taking casualties from Spanish fire every day. General Merritt supported Greene in this request. Dewey, however, was reluctant to open fire from his warships, fearing that doing so would destroy any chance of securing the city by negotiation, an arrangement that he still believed to be entirely possible. Dewey suggested that perhaps the troops could be withdrawn from the trenches until a general attack became necessary. The admiral, however, did agree to support Greene should this prove absolutely necessary. In that eventuality, Greene was to burn a blue light on the beach, and the ships would open fire. Dewey hoped that it would not be necessary.

Merritt had arrived in the Philippines under orders from President William McKinley not to involve the nationalists in taking Manila because to do so would mean including them as partners in future treaty negotiations with Spain. Fermin Jáudenes y Alvarez, who had recently replaced Basilio Augustín as Spanish commander in Manila, had taken over with orders to hold the city. Inasmuch as peace negotiations were about to get under way, Spain’s bargaining position would be weakened by a surrender of the city.

On August 9, 1898, Merritt and Dewey sent an ultimatum to Jáudenes demanding that he surrender Manila. They warned that if he did not, U.S. forces would attack. Jáudenes responded by convening a meeting of his subordinate commanders, putting the issue to a vote. Seven voted in favor of immediate negotiations for a surrender, while seven were opposed. Jáudenes broke the tie, with a decision to continue the present delaying tactics. He informed the Americans that he had no authority to surrender and asked to be able to communicate with Madrid through Hong Kong. On August 10, Dewey and Merritt rejected the suggestion.

In the meantime, Dewey pursued separate negotiations with Jáudenes, working through Belgian consul in Manila Edouard André. Jáudenes then agreed to consider surrendering Manila to U.S. forces but insisted that it would have to appear that a genuine effort had been made to defend the city in order to salvage Spanish honor. Perhaps most important, the Filipino nationalists could not be allowed to enter the city, as Jáudenes feared that they would show no mercy to the Spanish defenders. He also did not want to make it appear as if Spain were surrendering to the Filipinos. Thus, Spain and the United States each had its reasons for wanting to keep Aguinaldo’s men from entering Manila.

Finally, the two sides agreed that the Spanish would offer a token defense of their outer works but not of the walled city itself. However, neither of the U.S. commanders who were to lead the attack, Generals Greene and MacArthur, had been made aware of the pact because General Merritt feared that if they had known of the arrangements, their respective attacks would have lacked authenticity.

Following expiration of the 48-hour truce, Merritt’s forces prepared to move. The axis of their attack would be south to north in two essentially parallel columns. Greene’s brigade would advance along the northern flank nearest Manila Bay, while MacArthur’s brigade was to move along the southern flank. By prearrangement, Dewey’s flagship, the Olympia, would fire a few token rounds at the heavy stone walls of Fort San Antonio de Abad before raising the international signal flag calling for Spain’s surrender.

On the morning of August 13 amid a heavy rain, reveille was sounded. Following the naval bombardment, directed against Fort San Antonio de Abad as agreed, the American artillery opened fire, and the assault moved forward, with the troops advancing under what had turned into a drenching deluge. The Spanish resistance turned out to be heavier than Merritt had expected although not sufficient to thwart the advance. The Spanish defenders gradually fell back, and Greene moved into the city unopposed to accept the Spanish surrender.

On the right flank MacArthur found the going much tougher, exacerbated by Filipino nationalists determined to be involved in the capture of the city. As MacArthur’s troops moved north along the Singalong Road, Spanish infantry positioned in a blockhouse inflicted numerous casualties on a regiment of Minnesotans. MacArthur’s biggest challenge, however, was in keeping the nationalists from entering the city. As his troops moved closer to Manila, their ranks became increasingly intermingled with those of the Filipinos, and MacArthur was compelled to have his commanders hold the nationalists back from the city.

By the end of the day, U.S. troops had occupied all of Manila proper, but outside the city, Aguinaldo’s troops, angry at being denied entrance, were in an ugly mood. Fortunately, for the Americans, the heavy tropical storm served to help defuse the hostile mob. On August 14, a joint group of American and Spanish officers agreed to a formal capitulation agreement supplementing a preliminary agreement signed by Merritt and Jáudenes the day before.

The capture of Manila yielded some 13,000 Spanish prisoners. In addition, the United States garnered 22,000 stands of small arms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, and 70 pieces of artillery. Because Manila had been seized after the Protocol of Peace had been signed, Spanish negotiators in Paris during the autumn of 1898 argued that the U.S. capture of Manila was not valid, a point that the U.S. peace commissioners countered successfully. With Germany anxious to acquire the Philippines, the McKinley administration decided to take possession of the islands, paying Spain $10 million for them. This decision gave the United States an excellent base in Southeast Asia but brought on the Philippine-American War of 1899–1902 and set up a future confrontation with Japan.

Further Reading

Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 1899–1902. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Wolff, Leon. Little Brown Brother: America’s Forgotten Bid for Empire Which Cost 250,000 Lives. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1970.