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This Day in History May 1

The ships came in just before midnight, armed and ready for battle, their officers and crews supremely confident in their readiness to bring the wrath of the United States down upon their enemy.

It was the moment George Dewey of the U.S. Navy, commodore of the Asiatic Squadron, had trained all his life for — his first taste of battle since the Civil War, his last chance for fame and prominence, a final opportunity to be something more than just a cipher listed in naval records along with hundreds of other naval officers.

The place was Manila Bay, the Philippines; the enemy was the Spanish fleet; the time, the first minutes of May 1, 1898. The Spanish-American War was about to erupt.

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At issue was the long-standing disagreement between the two governments over Spain's treatment of Cuba, which had flashed over in a moment of searing heat in Havana Harbor in February, as a mysterious explosion destroyed the USS Maine and propelled the two nations toward war.

The Battle of Manila Bay was one of the most lopsided victory's in U.S. Navy history; not a single American was killed in the battle and no U.S. ships were lost, while the Spanish fleet and its crews were destroyed.

The American victory over Spain in 1898 resulted in some of the most interesting exonumia of the turn of the century. The medals and tokens commemorating Dewey's victory at the Battle of Manila Bay are among the most fascinating of the pieces produced from 1898 to 1900, encompassing many different store cards, tokens, medals, badges, and more.

Typical is the illustrated medal, which depicts Dewey on one side and his flagship, the USS Olympia, on the other. This same portrait was used for numerous store cards — merchant tokens that were often issued during Dewey's triumphant tour of the United States after the war's end.

Today, such pieces are frequently encountered on eBay and other auction sites. Many pieces are common; some are rare. All are fascinating mementos of a nearly forgotten war.

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