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Spanish-American 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.

For several 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 been present in Cuba for decades. The Spanish government did not have the financial resources or the manpower to deal with these revolts and thus turned to expedients of building concentration camps (in Cuba) 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. The war was a total war with both Cuban rebel and Spanish troops burning and destroying infrastructure, crops, tools, livestock, and anything else that might aid the enemy. Nevertheless, by 1897 the rebels had mostly defeated the Spanish. They were firmly in control of the countryside and the Spanish were holed up in urban centers.

These events in Cuba coincided in the 1890s with a battle for readership between the American newspaper chains of Hearst and Pulitzer. Hearst's style of "yellow journalism" would outdo Pulitzer's, and he infamously used the power of his press to influence American opinion in favor of war. Often completely fabricated or just simply inflammatory, Hearst published sensationalized tales of atrocities which the "cruel Spanish" were inflicting on the "hapless Cubans". Outraged by the "inhumanity" of the Spanish, Americans were stirred up to pushing for an "intervention", which even the most jaded hawks, like a young Theodore Roosevelt, would treat as a mostly dress-up affair. Hearst is famously quoted in his response to a request by his illustrator Frederic Remington to return home from a uneventful and docile stay in Havana, writing: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

There were, however, more genuine pressures pushing towards war. The United States Navy had recently grown considerably, but it was still untested, and many old war dogs were eager to test and use their new tools. 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 Native Americans 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 United States had felt that Cuba was "rightly" theirs. The so-called theory of manifest destiny made the island just off the coast of Florida seem an attractive candidate for American "expansion". 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 U.S. Some business leaders pushed for conflict as well. In the words of Senator John M. 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 U.S. was an unproven power, while the Spanish navy, however decrepit, had a glorious history, and it was thought it could be a match for the U.S. 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.

On February 15, 1898, the American battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor suffered an explosion and quickly sank 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!". This patriotic belligerent feeling is known as spread-eagleism or jingoism.

Wreckage of USS Maine.

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. While some people still think that the cause could have been some other form of sabotage, they point the finger at Cuban revolutionaries who hoped to draw the U.S. into the war or U.S. operatives on orders to trigger an inevitable war to oust Spain from the Caribbean. Almost all agree, the Spaniards would have no interest in provoking a war.

U.S. 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 have done 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" and disclaiming any intentions on Cuba, demanded Spanish withdrawal, and authorized the President to use as much military force as he thought necessary to help Cuban patriots gain freedom from Spain. (This was adopted by Congress from Senator Henry Teller of Colorado as the Teller Amendment, which passed unanimously.) In response Spain broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. On April 25, 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 first action in Cuba was the establishing of a base at Guantanamo Bay on 10th June by U.S. Marines.

Roosevelt & Rough Riders at San Juan Heights

The American navy met the Spanish Atlantic fleet in Santiago Bay on July 3. Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson was ordered by Admiral Sampson to sink the collier Merrimac. Hobson modified a broken down collier and gathered a small crew of eight volunteers, and rigged the vessel with explosives. The plan was to sink Merrimac in the narrow entry of Santiago Harbor, trapping the Spanish fleet within the harbor. The mission was a failure. Hobson and his crew were captured. They were exchanged on July 6, and Hobson became a national hero.

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 U.S. to land its considerable forces safely on the island.

Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt became a war hero when he led a charge up the Kettle Hill 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 led by General Calixto García. Unbiased reports depict a much less glorified version of events, where demoralized Spanish troops often more quickly surrendered than fought. The U.S. troops had far more problems dealing with heat and disease than with the Spanish forces, and within a month the island was in U.S. hands.

During May 1898, Lt. Henry H. Whitney of the United States Fourth Artillery was sent to Puerto Rico on a reconnaissance mission, sponsored by the Army's Bureau of Military Intelligence. He provided maps and information on the Spanish military forces to the U.S. government prior to the invasion. On May 10, 1898, U.S. Navy ships were sighted off the coast of Puerto Rico. Spanish gunners stationed at Fort San Cristóbal fired the first shot (a 15-cm breech loaded Ordóñez rifle round), missing the USS Yale, an auxiliary ship under the command of Capt. William Clinton Wise. Two days later on May 12, a squadron of 12 U.S. ships commanded by Rear Adm. William T. Sampson bombarded San Juan, Puerto Rico. During the bombardment, many buildings were shelled, terrifying the population of San Juan. On June 25, the Yosemite blocked San Juan harbor.


US Kentucky Volunteers regiment in "Porto Rico" 1898

On July 18, General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the invading forces, received orders to sail for Puerto Rico to land his troops. On July 21, a convoy of 3,300 soldiers and nine transports escorted by the USS Massachusetts sailed for Puerto Rico from Guantánamo, Cuba. On July 25, U.S. troops landed at Guanica, Puerto Rico and took over the island with little resistance.

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, the Treaty of Paris, 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 the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Cuba was granted independence, but the United States imposed various restrictions on the new government, including prohibiting alliances with other countries.

On August 14, 1898, 11,000 ground troops were sent to occupy the Philippines. When U.S. troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country, warfare broke out between U.S. forces and the Filipinos. The resulting Philippine-American War was long, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful in quashing the Filipino nationalists' drive for independence, incurring thousands of military and civilian casualties during its fourteen-year span.

A war that was in part fueled by the American public's desire to end the alleged abuse of Cuban natives would in the end result in three territorial conquests for the U.S., tens of thousands of Spaniards and Cubans killed, and the extermination of a quarter of a million Filipinos.

The Spanish-American War is significant in American history, as it saw the largely pacifist nation emerge as an imperial power, equal at least to any in Europe. The war would mark the beginning of a new American expansionism: over the course of the next century, the United States would have a large hand in various conflicts around the world.

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 (i.e. The War Prayer).

William Randolph Hearst emerged as an institution: the world's first true media baron. The Hearst papers became so extremely successful at agitating public sentiment in favor of war, that he eventually became an archetypal figure in his own right. He had become more influential than even many politicians, and at various levels would be sought after for that influence. Decades later, a young filmmaker named Orson Welles would immortalize the Hearst archetype with Citizen Kane, a portrayal which William Hearst, in later life, would find quite displeasing, though he reportedly never saw the film himself.

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 American Civil War in 1865, and many friendships would have been formed between soldiers of both Northern and Southern states during their tour of duty. The 1890s 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. The 1890s 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.

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.

Over 100 years have passed since the Guanica landing, yet the annexation of Puerto Rico continues to be an intensely debated issue today.

"The voice of Puerto Rico has not been heard. Not even by way of formality were its inhabitants consulted as to whether they wanted to ask for, object to, or suggest any conditions bearing on their present or future political status...The island and all its people were simply transferred from one sovereign power to another, just as a farm with all its equipment, houses, and animals is passed from one landlord to another." This statement was part of a pamphlet titled, "The Case of Puerto Rico", written by Dr. Julio J. Henna and Roberto H. Todd, leaders of the delegation that had previously advised President William McKinley on the prospective invasion of Puerto Rico, as part of the War against Spain.

The Spanish-American War was an unexpected twist in the Antillean revolution, a legacy which had seen prominent figures such as José Martí and Ramon Emeterio Betances not only inspire legions to revolt against Spanish rule in the Caribbean, but to form a federation of the Major Antilles, independent of Spain and the United States.

"I do not want us to be a colony, neither a colony of Spain nor a colony of the United States," wrote Betances.

The people of Puerto Rico have thrice voted to remain a territory of the United States--rejecting measures both for independence and for full statehood within the union. As citizens of a territory, Puerto Ricans are entitled to many of the benefits of statehood but are exempt from Federal income tax and other provisions of Federal regulation.


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