The USA spreads its wings – The Spanish-American War in the Philippines & Puerto Rico (Part IV)

Meanwhile, in the Philippines Admiral Dewey was continuing to tread a difficult tightrope. Throughout May and June, the American naval commander waited for the arrival of the ground forces he had requested, and during this same period kept in constant touch with Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino rebels occupying the area round Manila and thereby keeping General Jaudene’s 13,000-man garrison bottled up in the city. Though the Americans and the Filipino rebels shared a common cause, namely the defeat of the Spanish, relations between the two allies deteriorated steadily over the weeks. The most significant reason for this was a difference of longer-term objectives. The Filipinos already controlled most parts of the Philippine archipelago other than the areas immediately round the larger towns, and looked for complete independence. The tide of public and political opinion in the USA was swaying against this view, and McKinley himself favoured American possession of the Philippines. As soon as this became known to the Filipinos, Aguinaldo sought to strengthen the position for independence by establishing an interim Filipino government with himself as president. On 6 August, this government asked foreign governments to recognise the independence of the Philippines.

The US Army had meanwhile completed its preparations to support Dewey in the Philippines. Sailing from west coast ports, mainly San Francisco, Major General Wesley Merritt’s VIII Corps had reached the islands by 30 July with a strength that eventually reached 2,000 regular soldiers (mostly the 14th and 23rd Infantry Regiments) and 13,000 volunteers before Major General Elwell Otis’s second wave arrived early in August. The troops had loaded their equipment and themselves without confusion at their embarkation ports, and disembarked at Cavite in the same effective fashion. Despite the long sea crossing, the men were enthusiastic and fit, and could therefore move without delay toward Manila.

By a time early in August, Merritt had some 8,500 of his men in position to the south of Manila, immediately behind the lines occupied by part of the 10,000-man rebel force investing the city. Aguinaldo had been ready to attack so long as Dewey would provide him with gunfire support from ships cruising close inshore, but Dewey had delayed until the US land forces were ready. The Spanish governor was already prepared to surrender, but wanted to hand the city and his forces over to the Americans rather than the Filipinos. The situation was further complicated by the insistence of the Spanish government in far-off Madrid that there would be no surrender until the garrison had made at least a token show of resistance.

Dewey and Merritt finally persuaded the Filipinos into a compromise allowing the Americans of Brigadier General Anderson’s 2nd Infantry Division to pass through the rebel lines when the ‘fighting’ began to the south of the city. Aguinaldo agreed to the compromise only with great reluctance, for he had been asked to pull back his forces as the American units passed through them.

The Battle of Manila
On the morning of 13 August, Dewey’s ships launched a short bombardment against the Spanish defences, and the 2nd Infantry Division started to move through the rebel positions in two columns centred on the brigades of Brigadier Generals Greene (left) and Arthur MacArthur (right). At the best of times such a manoeuvre is difficult, and as it involved poorly trained Filipino units in this instance, it is hardly surprising that American and rebel units became mixed. It is no more surprising that some of the rebel units then began to fire on the Spanish positions just to their north. Such an episode could have threatened the intention of the Spanish to offer only token resistance, and American officers moved quickly to end the firing. The Spanish surrendered as the Americans advanced into Manila, and American losses in the Manila campaign were therefore restricted to 17 dead and 105 wounded.

The formal surrender was signed on the following day. Dewey had cut the telegraph cable to the islands when he first entered Manila Bay, and both sides were unaware of the fact that two days earlier the Madrid government had signed a protocol ending hostilities.

The capture of Puerto Rico
The last episode of the Spanish-American War was the occupation of Puerto Rico. Miles had sailed here with 5,000 men after the surrender of Santiago, his intention being to land at Punta Fajardo, on the eastern end of the island where there was known to be a small Spanish garrison, and then to advance on San Juan, the capital, where the bulk of the island’s 7,000 defenders were grouped.

But after leaving Cuba, Miles changed his plan. In part this stemmed from the general’s desire to avoid a combined army/navy assault operation of the type that had caused problems in the Cuban campaign, and in part to secure tactical surprise. The landing spot now chosen was Guanica, an ungarrisoned spot toward the western end of the island’s south coast, and here an unopposed landing was made on 25 July. Miles had already called for reinforcements, and on 4 August units of Major General Brooke’s I Corps landed at Guanica and at two points farther to the west. The whole campaign was a minor masterpiece of planning and execution, and the American forces advanced north against minimal opposition. The news of the war’s end arrived in time to halt operations on 12 August before Miles’s 15,200-man force was faced with the main Spanish strength outside San Juan.

Negotiations between the USA and Spain continued through the autumn of 1898 in Paris, the capital of France, and the Spanish-American War was brought to a formal end by the Treaty of Paris, signed on 10 December 1898. By the terms of the treaty Spain renounced all claims to sovereignty over Cuba, which thus became an independent country, ceded Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam to the USA, and sold the Philippines to the USA for US$20 million. The Spanish-American War was dubbed ‘the splendid little war’, and did indeed catapult the USA onto the world stage. It also highlighted many organisational and technical deficiencies, especially in the army, and was also very expensive. As a side note to the war, it is interesting to note that of the 275,000 men mobilised as a result of public pressure, perhaps as few as 20,000 ever fired a shot. Even so, as late as 1959 some 100,000 men, together with an equal number of dependents, were receiving pensions totalling about US$150 million per year.

From bad to worse in the Philippines
There was only a brief respite in Philippine operations after the surrender of the Spanish, for bad relations between the Americans and Filipinos continued to deteriorate. This process accelerated in December 1898 after news had been received of the USA’s purchase of the islands.

After the capture of Manila, Aguinaldo had established a provisional republic with its capital at Malolos, north-west of Manila. Here a congress began the task of preparing a republican constitution. In January 1899 the USA formally declared its ownership of the Philippines and its plan to extend American political control over all the islands of the archipelago. In response the Filipino congress ratified its constitution to establish a Filipino state, and prepared to resist the Americans.

On 4 February 1899, the day before the Congress was due to ratify the Treaty of Paris, an American soldier fired on and killed a Filipino soldier, and the Philippine Insurrection began. The circumstances of this spark are still obscure, but it is probable that a Filipino patrol deliberately challenged an American guard post in the hope of causing an incident that could be used for Filipino propaganda, or alternatively that the volatility of the situation got out of hand.

The Philippine Insurrection
Now under the command of Otis, the VIII Corps responded quickly and effectively. Otis had a nominal strength of 21,000 against an estimated 40,000 Filipinos under Aguinaldo’s military commander, General Luna. But only 12,000 of these US troops could be committed as the other 9,000 were volunteers scheduled for return to the USA. Even so, their superior training and weapons allowed the Americans to take the offensive over the next two days. This was a conventional infantry battle, in which the Americans enjoyed the advantages of naval gunfire support, and for the loss of 337 of their own men (59 killed and 278 wounded) the Americans drove the Filipinos right back from Manila with the loss of between 2,000 and 5,000 dead.

The Filipino forces fled to the north. This persuaded some US military and political leaders into the belief that it signalled the approaching end of hostilities, but this was in fact very far from being the case. The campaign rapidly spread throughout the island of Luzon and then stretched out southward to the islands round the Visayan Sea. Aguinaldo had already planned an urban uprising within Manila, but Otis suspected that something of this nature was in the offing, and prompt action in the city soon ended all hope of any success here in the heart of the growing American power structure.

The Americans responded to the spread of the insurrection by sending out task forces to find, fix and destroy: they found very little, fixed virtually nothing, but did manage to destroy many Filipino villages. This senseless tactic had no effect other than to strengthen Filipino resolve and to provide copy for US journalists whose increasingly despondent reports soon began to reveal the true nature of Philippine events to the American public.

The real nature of the Philippine problem was neatly encapsulated by a Mr Bass of Harper’s Weekly: ‘…various expeditions have taken place, principally in the island of Luzon. These expeditions resulted in our taking from the insurgent government certain territory. Some of this territory we have occupied; the rest we have returned [i.e. abandoned] to the insurgents in more or less mutilated condition, depending on whether the policy of the hour was to carry on a bitter war against a barbarous enemy, or to bring enlightenment to an ignorant people, deceived as to our motives.’ Bass then concluded that the outlook was ‘blacker now than it has been since the beginning of the war’ for several reasons, including the fact that ‘the whole population of the islands sympathizes with the insurgents; only those natives whose immediate self-interest requires it are friendly to us.’

Wrong tactics
The Americans also had high hopes from the capture of Malolos, which was taken by MacArthur’s brigade at the cost of 550 casualties. But one place was as good as any other to a revolutionary government such as that headed by Aguinaldo, and nothing concrete was achieved by MacArthur’s operation as there was no vital administrative centre to capture and as the beaten insurgent army dissolved, flowed north, and then reassembled once it was beyond the immediate reach of the Americans.

By a time late in spring, it was clear that the Americans were going to have a hard time of it before they could crush the insurrection. The problem was appreciated at first hand in the Philippines by Otis and his increasingly despondent men, and also in Washington by McKinley’s administration. It was clear that the first requirement was additional troops in the islands, and here the War Department acted with commendable speed: it ordered the immediate despatch of more regular troops, and also set about raising 10 additional volunteer regiments. By the late summer of 1899, the VIII Corps had been swelled by an extra 35,000 men, and more men were on their way. It is worth noting, though, that more than 100,000 men served in the Philippines before the insurrection was ended.

Guerrilla warfare
The Filipinos were short of all military supplies including small arms and ammunition. After a few early encounters, the Filipinos avoided open clashes with the American forces, instead relying on the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Thus the war became one of ambushes and surprise attacks, where the Filipino bolo (a short sword with a blade between 12 and 18 in/30.5 and 46 cm long) and other traditional weapons proved very effective. Such warfare also allowed the Filipinos to exploit their knowledge of the jungle and mountain terrain where most of the fighting took place.

Despite their large overall strength, the American soldiers found that the nature of the enemy and the terrain, which lacked roads and was generally very difficult, forced them to revert to the type of fighting familiar from the Indian wars. Once again, therefore, field forces of small size became standard, and the rifle and bayonet were once more the fighting man’s main weapons. The Americans also discovered to their cost that the Filipinos did not abide by any conventional ‘rules of war’, and were therefore happy to torture and kill prisoners, launch ambushes under cover of a flag of truce, and approach unsuspecting American troops wearing captured uniforms. Unfortunately, the Americans responded at times by lowering their own standards, and this did much to alienate the Filipinos still further.

The VIII Corps nevertheless kept the Filipinos under constant pressure, using its overall strength and better organisation to keep the rebels, already badly disorganized and lacking co-ordination, off balance and on the defensive. Slowly the Americans began to extend their control over Luzon and the other important islands. From April 1899 the men of VIII Corps undertook a series of carefully co-ordinated offensives designed to produce control of Luzon’s main lines of communication and population centres, which was an essential first step in restoring stability of administration and normalising the economic life of the islands. Steps of this nature had already been made with the initial sweep of February that captured Malolos and secured the lines of the Pasig river, which cut the the main line of communication between the Filipino forces in the northern and southern half of Luzon.