Aside from our own local Navy Yard museum devoted to battleships and guns that can be clambered over, there is no more attractive place for the 12-year-old boy in body or spirit than the USS Olympia, moored at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.
Unlike the modern Leviathan aircraft carriers of later wars, the Olympia is a boy-sized ship of war, cut to the dimensions of a lad’s imagination. Anyone who stands on the brass plaque on its bridge and looks forward into history’s mists at the Spanish warships arrayed in the distance of Manila harbor simply has to repeat what Commodore George Dewey said to the ship’s captain: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Wow.
Which is to say that the book before us is overdue as a history of a war that tends to be dismissed as something of a comic-opera affair involving embarrassing American histrionics, a derisory enemy, not much blood and longer-run consequences that were more trouble than the struggle was worth.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 is book-ended between the two far more horrific carnages of our Civil War and World War I. But as this meticulously researched and tautly written book shows, the Spanish-American War was as significant as the first unmanned rockets fired into space were to the NASA program that followed; it brought home forcibly how much more America was going to have to learn before it stepped onto the world stage as a power player.
The story veteran journalist Jim Leeke tells is therefore as much about the impact of new technology on warfare as it is about the dramatic battles of Manila in the Philippines and off Santiago, Cuba, that propelled the U.S. Navy forward into its new age as a global weapon - the “Big Stick” that its godfather Theodore Roosevelt brandished before the rest of the world.
It is not too much to say that even a few years before 1898, the United States would have been physically unable to defend its own coastline, let alone to project power in two ocean theaters of operations. At the end of the Civil War, Washington could not dismantle its hastily improvised Navy fast enough. Fully half the Navy was sold off by the end of 1865, and by 1867, there were but 56 warships in commission. For the next 20 years, while Europe’s navies experimented with new designs, armored protection and most especially increasingly accurate firepower, the U.S. Navy was in what Mr. Leeke dubs “the Doldrums.” About all it had going for it was a cadre of stubbornly loyal officers who had learned their trade in the Civil War and then spent the rest of their lives waiting for the chance to put those lessons to use again.
As Mr. Leeke says, “In modern terms, the Navy eventually came to resemble a large, troubled industrial concern faced with upgrading an aging computer network after years of neglect. At some point, it simply becomes cheaper and more efficient to build an entirely new network than to continue with the old one. Having spent almost nothing for years to keep pace with the rest of the world, the Navy could forgo costly upgrades and start anew.”
The Olympia, which was put into service in 1895, was part of that transition; larger and faster than the older generation of cruisers, but not as big as the ones coming off the ways just a few years later. Newly designed vertical triple-expansion steam engines gave it a 20-knot top speed and it was one of the first warships to have electricity and powered steering gear. Just to be on the safe side, it also carried a suit of sails.
The Asiatic Fleet commanded by Commodore George Dewey that steamed into Manila on May 1, 1898, was a mix of newish city-named cruisers (Olympia, Baltimore, Boston and Raleigh) and gunboats that were steel-hulled and carried heavy-caliber guns. The Spanish fleet at anchor in the fortified and mined harbor of Manila had a larger number of older ships, smaller in size and weapons and, worst of all, wooden hulled. Although the Spaniards put up a gallant effort, the destruction of their fleet took the Americans exactly seven hours. The difference was that while American marksmanship turned out to be incredibly sloppy, the accuracy of the enemy’s cannons was simply atrocious. There was only one American fatality during the engagement, and it was attributed to a heart attack.
The impact of Dewey’s victory on the American psyche was dramatic in the extreme for being so total and unexpected. Not so lucky was the Navy’s Atlantic squadron that sailed for Cuba a month later. Its objective was to confront a much larger Spanish fleet coming from the Mediterranean and also to support the planned U.S. Army invasion of Cuba near the port of Santiago.
Dominated by the new generation of state-named battleships (Texas, Indiana, Massachusetts, Oregon and Iowa), the U.S. Atlantic fleet was more numerous, more heavily gunned and armored than the smaller, older cruisers of the Spanish task force that had taken refuge in the fortified harbor of Santiago. Still, public expectations of an equally dramatic victory were thwarted not least because of confusion and rivalries among the Navy’s commanders, exacerbated in part because Rear Adm. William Sampson appears to have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
If Dewey’s ships hit their largely stationary targets in Manila only 2.5 percent of the time, Sampson’s battle wagons scored only 1.3 hits out of every 100 shots fired. Again, while the Spanish fought with spirit and abysmal gunnery, they were slaughtered by the sheer weight of American firepower. By August, a peace treaty was signed and Spain’s Empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean transferred to an American government that frankly didn’t know what to do with it. About the only lasting benefit of the war was that the Navy faced up to its manifest shortcomings.
By 1901, more than 60 new ships of all sizes were under construction. New techniques of range-finding and modern planning for logistical support to fuel and arm a global navy were under way. By 1907, Roosevelt, now president, was able to send his “Great White Fleet” of 16 modern battleships on a world cruise to symbolize America’s entrance onto the world stage.
The rest, as this entertaining and informative book makes clear, is the history of consequences. It is worthwhile to read and ponder.
• James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author. His email is email@example.com.