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Tarpeian Rock

An Annual Literary Magazine

"Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit
aurea nunc, olim siluestribus horrida dumis."

                    --Virgil's Aeneid, VIII, l. 347-8
Articles from
the 2019 issue...

The Kisses That Killed Prejudice

La Pucelle

"It's Either Surrender or Fight!"

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“It's Either Surrender or Fight!”
An account of the battle of Manila Bay, May 1898

Taken from the memoir Three Years Behind the Guns by John B. Tisdale

At eight bells—four o’clock in the morning—coffee was served, and once more quarters were sounded.
     At a pace of six knots the Olympia took the lead, and with every man in the fleet at his post we steamed toward the mouth of the Pasig River, where masts and spires were forming silhouettes against the dawn, which hastened to show us our mistake (they were foreign merchantmen) and to disclose the enemy.
Three Years Behind the Guns     The Spanish squadron, protected by great booms hung with chains, and by lighters of stone and water, lay in line from Sangley Point to Las Pinas, and we swung our course and rode into the fray for already they were shelling us from the forts) with a leisurely grace of maneuver that we could not have excelled on a Presidential review. And our hearts were threatening to burst from an intensity of desire as we listened to the calling of the ranges, and writhed under the order that passed along the line, “Hold your fire until the bugle sounds.
     Two bells were striking—it was five o’clock in the morning. The amethyst of an earlier dawn had paled before God’s golden crest as it faltered on the hilltops, seemingly listening for the Sabbath bells that for centuries had greeted its coming.
     The sun flashed his beams like a benison on the breaking of battle-flags from every flag halyard of America’s fleet, and her seamen hurrahed until they were hoarse as they slowly continued the advance and the orders still ran down the line, “Hold your fire until the bugle sounds,” and an eleven-inch shell from the city’s bastion passed over our quarter-deck. It sounded for all the world like a heavy freight-train going at full speed over a high trestle, but it did no harm. “A range-finder,” someone said, and in the silence that followed, every one was thinking what might have been had the projectile sped ten feet lower. And still there was no order to answer this salute!
     With cutlass and revolver buckled about his waist every man was at his station. Moments seemed hours. I sat upon the gun-seat repeating to the rhythm of the engine’s throb, “Hold your fire—hold your fire—hold your fire until the bugle sounds,” while my fingers grew numb upon the spark.
     Everywhere shells were flying and mines were bursting, while we, with guns trained to deal death and destruction, were only on parade.
     Through the peephole that held the hair-sight of my gun, I saw the Spanish battle-flag break on the enemy’s batteries, and we cheered, for they had an- swered our defiance, and still the orders came faster, “Hold your fire!”


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      For less than a moment I would close my eyes for rest, for I was gun-pointer. The hair cross in the sight was growing indelible upon my vision, and then in the calling of the ranges I heard distinctly, “Twenty-one hundred yards,” and following it like an echo the bugles sounded “Fire!
      My eye was on the sight, my hand upon the bulb. That choking thing in my throat fled before the flare of the bugle, and I pressed the spark with as little concern as I was wont to do at target practice.
     A quiver ran through every nerve of the ship as we on the pivot guns joining the starboard battery let loose a broadside into the enemy’s fleet and left the Olympia in a cloud of white smoke that clung to us and enveloped us like a bank of fog.
     The great gun, with a recoil of thirty-six inches, had belched her pent-up venom. Riding back on her trunnions, she slid again into battery as No. 2, with crank in hand, stepped out to meet her; and for the first time it occurred to me to count the turning of the crank—one—two—three— four—five—six—seven—eight—nine— ten—eleven turns of the crank made by a stalwart arm, and the breech-block flew open.
     Leaning down from my seat, I picked the spent electric primer from the breech and tucked it away in the folds of the necker- chief tied about my head—(a souvenir of the first shot our gun crew fired).
     A gentle morning breeze had fanned away the veil of smoke; and, catching a glance through the gun-port, I saw the Spanish ships with masts tilted and lopped away pouring a stream of fire and steel to- ward us. The water was hissing from their contact, and we cheered the sight while the tub of water beneath the gun-breech turned inky from the swabbing. And up the hoist came fresh charges.
     The carriage stopped at the breech. No. 5 shoved in the shell. Another turn, and the first charge of powder stopped to follow the shell; another, and the second charge; and the truck ran back into the ammuni- tion room below as I counted eleven turns of the crank and the breech was again closed upon a full charge. The kid took a fresh primer from his belt, and, adjusting it, signaled with his hand, “Ready!” and again we fired. So perfectly did each man know his part that our division officer had only to sit in the turret and look on.
     We were going bow-on toward the enemy when the Reina Christina, flag-ship, cut loose her barge, swung away, and came to meet us. We cheered her, and the order came, “Concentrate your fire on the flag-ship.” We sent an eight-inch shell from stem to stern, through and through her, and still, like an enraged panther she came at us as though to lash sides and fight us hand to hand with battle-axes, as in the olden Spanish wars.
     Our ship had made its turn and the port batteries were manned, when an order came to train the big guns on the forts. We were aching for one more at the Reina, but our first shot at the fort dismounted one of her guns, exploded a magazine, and set fire to the arsenal. The strident echoes of the explosion sounded through the din of the combat, and we yelled with delight. Oh, it was great! and again I turned and counted eleven twice—when the breech- block opened, and when it closed—again the white veil shut out the picture.
     When it lifted our gun was out of training, and I had leisure to look out. I noticed that the admiral’s flag was gone from the Reina Christina and that boats were pull- ing away from her, and then I saw the flag break on the foremast of the Castilla. It was the signal that withdrew our attack from the Reina, and then—great heavens! What was it? We were struck!
     Under our own broadsides we had quivered; now we reeled, we careened. Were we sinking? Had they fired us? But the firing was incessant, and the ship, righting herself, was making the second turn. When I had counted eleven twice again it was all forgotten, and we were literally pouring destruction upon the enemy. The Castilla was sinking. A madman, leaving her by the lee side, returned to the Reina Christina with his flag, while a cry arose on our ship, “Here comes a torpedo-boat!”
     “There—there—here—no—there—she’s gone—no, here she comes the smoke! Where is she? There, rounding the Castilla!” and a five-inch shell struck her amidship, broke her back, and she went down, bow and stern sticking out of the water like a bent straw with ends protruding from a goblet. Then, while I watched a tattooed arm fly undulating with the brawny muscles on the back of No. 4 of the port gun, I twice again counted eleven when a second torpe- do-boat, undaunted or maddened by the fate of its sister, came at us, and we drove her back and beached her.
     Slowly we advanced upon our enemy; gallantly they came to meet us. The destruction we were dealing grew momentarily more visible, and when the newness of battle passed (as it does in an in conceiv- ably short time), I began to wonder what they had been doing to us. When I had counted eleven twice again and our gun could no longer be brought to bear upon the enemy, I nerved myself to look into the dead faces of my shipmates. Going up out of the turret, I ran along the sun-scorched sanded decks and when I had made the round I thought I must be dreaming, for every man was fighting at his post!
     I stopped to watch the onset—just as a projectile struck and burst against our aft turret. It made a dent like the concave side of a washbowl in her armor-plate. A warm stream trickled down my leg as I felt the ship turning, and returned to my gun just as the bugle sounded, “Cease Fir- ing!” Someone in crossing the bridge had remarked that they (the enemy) must have ammunition to burn.
     In the confusion of noises only one word, “Ammunition,” caught an ear, and we ceased firing and all steamed out into the middle of the bay to inventory shells—and incidentally to breakfast.
     I found time to pick out a bit of steel and another of shin-bone, where I had felt the warm blood, and I bound it up without reporting to the sick-bay. (I never felt a pain until three days later, and then I was quite unable to stand upon the injured leg)....
     I do not believe that one half of the horrors of that day can ever be told; and for deeds of courage and daring—on our own ship, in the hottest of the fight, a cleaning- stick broke inside one of the main batteries guns, and it had to be trained in, in order to poke the broken bits out: it was its officer who went outside of the sponson to do the deed, although his command could have sent any man from his crew, and he would never have been thought a shirk or a coward. History writes more about the life and doings of one monarch than of all his subjects, but that is no reason why I, in this my private journal, should not jot down these simple facts about people in lowly station.
Before high noon a white flag hung from the shears on Cavite's wall, and an hour later, when Admiral Montejo, under a similar flag, came on board, he would have parlayed with the little Commodore; but Dewey demanded stoutly:
     “Do you surrender?”
     “Conditionally,” was the answer. “Our cap-i-tan he die, he speaka fighty—fighty for Spain.”
     “It’s either surrender—or fight!” exclaimed Dewey; and Montejo, bowing with the air of a cavalier of old, said, “I surrender.”

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John B. Tisdale ran away from a comfortable existence in late 19th century San Francisco to sign up for the US navy. He found himself on the flagship of the Asiatic Squadron, the cruiser Olympia. His account of his time aboard this famous ship, now berthed as a museum in Philadelphia, is told in his memoir, Three Years Behind the Guns, available from Arx Publishing.

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