Spanish-American War

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History -- Military history -- War

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898, and resulted in the United States of America gaining control over the former colonies of Spain in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Background

For many centuries Spain's position as a world power had been slipping away. By the late nineteenth century the nation was left only a few scattered possessions in the Pacific, Africa, and the West Indies. Much of the empire had gained its independence and a number of the areas still under Spanish control were clamoring to do so. Guerrilla forces were operating in the Philippines, and had, for decades, been present in Cuba. The Spanish government did not have the financial or the manpower resources to deal with these revolts and thus turned to expedients of building camps to separate the rebels from their rural base of support. The Spaniards also carried out many executions of suspected rebels and harshly treated villages and individuals thought to be supporting them. By the end of the 1890s the rebels had mostly been defeated and Cuba was returning to a relative peace. In the long run, however, Spain's position was completely untenable.

These events in Cuba coincided in the 1890s with a struggle for readership between the American newspaper chains of Hearst and Pulitzer. One of the most popular features were tales of great atrocities (some based on fact, some not) which the 'cruel Spanish masters' were inflicting on the 'hapless native Cubans' (see: Black Legend). Cuban. Sections of the American people began pushing for intervention.

There were other pressures pushing towards war. The US navy had recently grown considerably, but it was still untested. The Navy had drawn up plans for attacking the Spanish in the Philippines over a year before hostilities broke out. The end of western expansion and of large-scale conflict with the First Nations also left the army with little to do, and army leadership hoped that some new task would come. From an early date many in the US had felt that Cuba was rightly theirs. The theory of manifest destiny made the island just off the coast of Florida seem very attractive. Much of the island's economy was already in American hands, and most of its trade, much of which was black market, was with the US. Some business leaders pushed for conflict as well. In the words of Senator Thurston of Nebraska: "War with Spain would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce."

In Spain the government was not entirely averse to war. The US was an unproven power. The Spanish navy, however decrepit, had a glorious history and it was thought it could be a match for the US. There was also a widely held notion among Spain's aristocratic leaders that the United States' ethnically mixed army and navy could never survive under severe pressure.


US "1st Kentucky Volunteers" in "Porto Rico", 1898

The Start of the War

On
February 15, 1898 the American battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor suffered an explosion and quickly sunk with a loss of 260 men. Evidence as to the cause of the explosion was inconclusive and contradictory, but the American press, led by the two New York papers, proclaimed that this was certainly a despicable act of sabotage by the Spaniards. The press aroused the public to demand war, with the slogan "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!".

(Expert opinion is still divided; most now consider an accidental explosion of coal fuel to be as likely a reason as any for the ship's fate. Modern analytical tools, especially computer simulations, have all but confirmed this. Few still think a mine could have been the cause. Some believe it could well have been sabotage, but by Cuban revolutionaries who hoped to draw the US into the war. Almost all agree the Spaniards would have no interest in provoking a war.)

US President William McKinley was not inclined towards war, and had long held out against intervention, but the Maine explosion so forcefully shaped public opinion that he had to agree. Spanish minister Práxedes Mateo Sagasta did much to try to prevent this, including withdrawing the officials in Cuba against whom complaints had been made, and offering the Cubans autonomy. This was well short of full independence for Cuba, however and would do little to change the status quo.

Thus On April 11 McKinley went before Congress to ask for authority to send American troops to Cuba for the purpose of ending the civil war there. On April 19 Congress passed joint resolutions proclaiming Cuba "free and independent", demanded Spanish withdrawal, and authorized the President to use such military force as he thought necessary. In response Spain broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. On April 25 US Congress declared that a state of war between the United States and Spain had existed since April 21st (Congress later passed a resolution backdating the declaration of war to April 20th).

The Philippines

The first battle was in the Philippines where on May 1, Commodore George Dewey commanding the United States Pacific fleet, in six hours defeated the Spanish squadron, under Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón, at the Battle of Manila Bay. Meanwhile Philippine nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo attacked the Spanish on land, and many of the Spanish troops surrendered.

Cuba

In Cuba the American navy met the Spanish Atlantic fleet in Santiago Bay on July 3. The Americans defeated the Spanish and gained control of the waterways around Cuba. This prevented re-supply of the Spanish forces and also allowed the US to land its considerable forces safely on the island.

In Cuba Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt became a war hero when he led a charge at the battle of San Juan Hill outside of Santiago as lieutenant colonel of the Rough Riders Regiment on July 1. The Americans were aided in Cuba by the pro-independence rebels lead by General Calixto García.

The ground war had far more problems dealing with heat and disease than the Spanish forces, and within a month the island was in US hands.

On 25 July US troops landed in Puerto Rico.

End of the War

With both fleets incapacitated, Spain realized her forces in the Pacific and Caribbean could not be supplied or reinforced, so Spain sued for peace.

Hostilities were halted on August 12. The formal Peace Treaty was signed in Paris on December 10, 1898 and was ratified by the United States Senate on February 6, 1899.

The United States gained almost all of Spain's colonies including Cuba, The Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Aftermath

On August 14, 1898, 11,000 ground troops were sent to occupy the Philippines. When US troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country, warfare broke out between US forces and the Filipinos. A long and bloody war was fought (unsuccessfully) to quash the Filipino nationalits' desire for independence, with thousands of military and civilian casualties. (See: Philippine-American War)

The Spanish-American War is significant as it saw the US emerge as the equal of any European power. It was also the start of the American Empire in which America would be forced to manage the affairs of several small colonies, much like the Empires of Europe.

Congress had passed a resolution in favor of Cuban independence before the war started, and after debate the USA decided to allow this, although American forces occupied Cuba until January 28, 1909. The USA annexed the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Guam. The idea of the United States as an imperial power with foreign colonies was hotly debated domestically, with President McKinley and the Pro-Imperialists winning their way over vocal opposition. The American public largely supported the possession of colonies, but there were many outspoken critics such as Mark Twain.

The Spanish-American War is also famous for its "yellow journalism." Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst is reported to have responded to a request by illustrator Frederick Remington's to return from a Havana that was quiet, by saying, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." (Orson Welles deliberately mocked this particular quote in the movie Citizen Kane.) The Hearst papers did much to agitate public sentiment in favor of war before it started.

Another interesting but little-noted effect of this short war was that it served to further cement relations between the American North and South. The war gave both sides a common enemy for the first time since the end of the Civil War in 1865. The 1890's were a period of reconciliation between the former Yankees and Confederates, marked by "Blue-Gray" Reunions and increased political harmony between Northern and Southern politicians. The "Lost Cause" myth took hold in the popular imagination and many former Confederate leaders were held in general high esteem nationally, especially Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The 1890's also saw resurgent racism in the North and the passage of Jim Crow laws that increased segregation of blacks from whites, culminating in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court in 1896 that codified the "separate but equal" doctrine into law. The Spanish-American War provoked widespread feelings of jingoistic American nationalism that fused often-divergent Northern and Southern public opinion into a single stream in a manner unseen since the Mexican-American War of the mid-1840's.

According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, Nathan E. Cook, died on September 10, 1992 at the age of 106.


William Glackens: A Street scene at Tampa City
(longer description)

SEE ALSO: Battles of the Spanish-American War

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