1st Colorado Volunteers occupy Fort San Antonio de Abad in Malate district, Manila

Plan of the City of Manila. Antonio Giménez. Signed by governing general military Jaudenes. 1898. At the end of the 19th century the urban structure of Manila was completed. The original defensive configuration stayed invariable during the Spanish time, and it is conserved at the present time.

Date: 1 May–14 August 1898.

Location: on the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon.

Forces Engaged: American: 10,000 soldiers. Commanders: Commodore George Dewey and General Wesley Merritt.

Spanish: 10,000–15,000 soldiers. Commander: General Fermin Jaudenes.

Importance: American capture of Manila marked beginning of U.S. occupation of the Philippine Islands, as well as the start of a three-year war with local insurgents

Historical Setting

In the late nineteenth century the United States was beginning to take on the duty of spreading the blessings of civilization and the American way to “lesser” peoples around the world. This, according to a famous poem that British poet Rudyard Kipling addressed to the United States, was the “white man’s burden,” which the British had been exercising in India, Asia, and Africa for decades. One of America’s first opportunities to aid “our little brown brothers” was in Cuba, an island the United States had long coveted. In response to reported Spanish brutality against a revolutionary movement beginning in 1895, the United States finally intervened in April 1898. Once war was declared on Spain, all Spain’s possessions became potential targets. Indeed, the first American attack on Spain’s military came not at Cuba, but against their fleet based in the Philippine capital of Manila.

Commodore George Dewey commanded the American Asiatic squadron, anchored in Hong Kong in early 1898. Upon receiving orders from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s six ships sailed for Manila, arriving late on the night of 30 April. Entering Manila Bay just after midnight on 1 May (challenged by a single shot from the island fortress of Corregidor guarding the harbor entrance), Dewey’s squadron proceeded to pound the Spanish fleet into wreckage just after dawn. Although he was able to occupy the naval facilities at Cavite, a few miles south of Manila, he did not have sufficient manpower to hold anything else. That meant that the Spanish garrison in Manila controlled the city and that Spanish troops occupied the remainder of the Philippine archipelago. Still, staring down the gun barrels of a modern fleet, the Spanish commandant in Manila allowed Dewey the use of his telegraph facilities to alert Washington to the victory. Dewey then cut the telegraph cable in an attempt to keep the Spanish from sending for help from home.

Dewey did not know that the Spanish had alternate methods of communicating with Spain. Dewey received communications from Washington via a ship shuttling back and forth to Hong Kong. It was through this avenue that Dewey learned both of American troops being sent to his aid and the alarm that Spanish warships had left their home port in Ceuta bound for Manila. The Spanish fleet outnumbered his own and he could not be sure which would arrive first, American or Spanish reinforcements. In the meantime, Dewey had the assistance of Emilio Aguinaldo. Exiled from the Philippines in 1894 for fomenting revolution, Aguinaldo arrived from exile in Hong Kong aboard an American ship on 19 May. He had arranged with Dewey to raise an army of insurgents to assist the Americans by controlling the countryside and bottling Spanish forces up in a handful of towns and forts. Aguinaldo did all this on the assumption that once the Spanish were defeated, the United States would grant independence to the Philippines. It was not a concept shared by American political leaders. Cuba, indeed, had been promised independence from the outset of the conflict, but American Secretary of State W. R. Day stated: “The United States in entering upon the occupation of the islands as a result of its military operations in that quarter, will do so in the exercise of the rights which the state of war confers, and will expect from the inhabitants … that obedience which will be lawfully due from them” (Freidel, Splendid Little War, p. 280).

The Siege

With Dewey’s ships blockading the harbor and Aguinaldo’s guerrillas hemming in the city, everyone awaited the arrival of American troops. The Spanish fleet that caused initial worry was called back to Spain when it reached the Suez. That sealed Manila’s fate, but larger political considerations were in play. Spanish leaders in Manila hoped that by holding on they could maintain official sovereignty of the islands as a bargaining chip in Spanish-American peace negotiations. The United States (after some discussion in President William McKinley’s cabinet) decided to claim the Philippines as spoils of war. Aguinaldo announced formation of a government and declared independence, neither of which any other country would recognize. Who would become master of the islands?

The first American troops departed San Francisco on 25 May, picking up escort in Hawaii and capturing the Spanish island of Guam along the way. These 2,500 men arrived at Manila Bay on 30 June. Another 3,500 arrived 17 July, and the final contingent of 5,000 arrived at the end of the month. With the final force was Major General Wesley Merritt, in overall command of the army units. As American troops arrived, they moved into trenches around Manila that had been occupied by Filipino insurgents. They improved them and began a lackadaisical siege, with almost random shooting from both defender and attacker. Both sides suffered light casualties while Dewey negotiated through the Belgian consul with the Spanish commandant, General Fermin Jaudenes. Further, the Spanish and American governments were negotiating a cease-fire and opening discussions on the final disposition of the Philippines. Because of the severed telegraph cable, however, Dewey and Merritt had no quick communications with Washington.

Jaudenes knew he could not long resist the power of American naval gunfire, for his batteries lacked the range to return fire. Although commanding some 15,000 men, he was far outnumbered by the combined forces of the Americans and the Filipinos. He and Dewey had some common ground: neither wanted Aguinaldo’s forces to occupy the city. “Thus, at the moment when the American public was debating whether we could honorably ‘give the islands back to Spain,’ Spain was actually holding them for us against the native population; and, most curious of all, the Spaniards had entered into an effective though unofficial alliance with us to assist in the suppression of the patriots while we were concluding that our duty to these same patriots prevented us from leaving them under ‘Spanish misrule’” (Millis, Martial Spirit, p. 357).

Unsure of the pace of negotiations on the other side of the world, Juadenes entered into a strange arrangement with Dewey and Merritt. He could not just surrender the city without a fight, for that would damage his career and that of his officers. At the same time, he knew he could not mount an effective defense. So a mock battle was arranged. On 13 August U.S. ships would open fire on an abandoned fort. After a reasonable bombardment, Dewey was to fly signal flags requesting a surrender. Juadenes would then order a white flag raised over the city walls. Attacking American troops could then advance against meager resistance, occupying the city while keeping Aguinaldo’s men at bay.

The planned attack started well. Fort San Augustin was blasted, then occupied by American troops. Owing to miscommunication or too much fighting spirit, some Spanish troops put up stronger resistance than was expected. There were a few brisk firefights, but for the most part the action went off as planned. Aguinaldo’s men did temporarily occupy parts of Manila, but American troops soon forced them out.


On 14 August Juadenes, Merritt, and Dewey signed the formal surrender papers. No one in Manila knew that the warring governments had signed a cease-fire two days earlier. News of that event arrived on the 16th, upon which Dewey sent Washington a request for direction in dealing with Aguinaldo. The reply: “The President directs that there must be no joint occupation with the insurgents…. The insurgents and all others must recognize the military occupation and authority of the United States” (Freidel, Splendid Little War, pp. 292–293).

While American and Spanish negotiators met in Paris to hammer out a peace treaty, Spanish forces still occupied most of the rest of the Philippine islands. That fact played a major role in the peace talks. While Spain gave up Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States as “spoils of war,” they resisted conceding the Philippines. Eventually, the United States paid Spain $20 million for a peaceful exchange of sovereignty—peaceful between America and Spain, at any rate.

Frustrated at his inability to gain any part of the new power structure, Aguinaldo led his men into the countryside and began a resistance to his new masters. The Philippine Insurrection, as it was called in the United States, lasted until Aguinaldo was finally captured in 1901. By that time, the United States had countered his guerrilla warfare with the concentration camp strategy developed by the Spanish in Cuba, which resulted in the deaths of some 200,000 Filipinos through exposure and disease. The United States had begun forming a national government under American control, and when Aguinaldo was invited to join it after his capture, the insurrection collapsed. Although the United States and the Philippines got off to a terrible beginning, over time they grew into allies. The United States promised independence to the Philippines in 1934 to be granted in 1942, but Japanese occupation during World War II postponed the actual transfer of sovereignty until after the war. In return, the United States received a long-term lease on a naval and air base, which was finally abandoned in the 1990s.


Frank Freidel, The Splendid Little War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958); Walter Millis, The Martial Spirit (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1989 [1931]); David Traxel, 1898: Birth of the American Century (New York: Knopf, 1998).

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