BOOK REVIEW: Manila and Santiago – The New Steel Navy in the Spanish-American War


by Jim Leeke, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2009).

Reviewed by JJ Ahern

Theodore Roosevelt referred to the Spanish-American War as a “splendid little war.” It is the shortest declared war in United States history – lasting only four months – and catapulted the nation to colonial power with the acquisition of territories in the West Indies and Pacific Ocean.  It also put the U. S. Navy in the spotlight following decades of neglect. With two stunning victories over an aging Spanish Navy, the theories of those who supported a strong navy were proven to the nation.

In Manila and Santiago: The New Steel Navy in the Spanish-American War, Jim Leeke looks at the principle participants and events in U. S. naval history leading up to the two battles and the effects of their outcome. Leeke organizes his work into three parts: Part One: Thirty-Three Years (1865-1898), Part Two: Manila, and Part Three: Santiago. In the first part, we are introduced to two of the leading naval officers at the battle of Fort Fisher in 1865: George Dewey as a young lieutenant in USS Colorado, and Robley Dunglison Evans serving in USS Powhatan. From there Leeke charts the careers of Dewey, and Evans through the post-Civil War Navy; the state of the Navy, and the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana. In all cases, the reader comes away with a solid, if brief, introduction to the state of the fleet and the life of the two men who would prominently lead the ships into battle in 1898.

In Part Two, we follow Dewey as he is named commander of the Asiatic Squadron (with help from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt), and introduced to the ships and officers of the force he commands.  Leeke provides the reader with a solid picture of the Spanish Fleet and its officers at Manila, and compares them with U.S. and European navies. While today the outcome of the war seems obvious, at the time there were those who thought that Spain might defeat the United States. As Leeke notes, “The American star was ascending, while that of the Spanish was clearly in decline – although just how precipitously wasn’t apparent to most observers” (47). Through the rest of the chapters, the author provides a sound narrative of events, with commentary from both American and Spanish participants.

The final part of the book shifts to the Atlantic Ocean, and events around Cuba. Again, Leeke nicely describes both the American and Spanish participates in the coming battle at Santiago. The reader is given an account of political events in both the U. S. and Spain, in addition to the movement and state of both commanders. In particular the reader sees the commander of the Spanish fleet, Admiral Don Pascual Cervera y Topete, more as a noble tragic figure and less as an enemy. Leeke also provides a nice balance in describing the relationship (or lack there of) between Evans, Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, and Admiral William T. Sampson. The description of the Battle of Santiago is a well written narrative, with voices from both fleets, and a review of the aftermath of the engagement.

From a scholarly viewpoint, Manila and Santiago does not break any new ground in the interpretation of the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American War. All of the sources that Leeke consults are published primary and secondary works – in particular the autobiographies of Dewey, Evans, and Schley. Though this does not detract from the value of the work, Leeke excels at weaving together the naval, social, and political aspects of the War together. Anyone looking for a well written, concise narrative of the naval aspects of the Spanish-American War will be more then pleased by Manila and Santiago.

Joseph-James Ahern, senior archivist at the University Archives and Records Center of the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in U.S. naval and military history and the history of technology.

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