The Spanish-American War story is one of a new generation thirsting for a war of its own after listening to its elders tell of their deeds in the Civil War. It is the story of press lords publishing lurid tales of Spanish atrocities in Cuba while ignoring the outrages of insurrectos there. It is the story of a few influential Americans, both inside and outside government, feeling that the nation's Manifest Destiny did not end when its borders stretched "from sea to shining sea." They were believers in the tenets of Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, who espoused that the Caribbean Sea should be a U.S. lake; that the United States needed to build and control a canal across Central America; and that the United States had a vital interest in lands far across the Pacific Ocean. It is the story of a weak but formerly powerful empire of the Old World whose internal problems and national pride overrode the dictates of common sense. It is the story of a revived U.S. Navy available to carry out the aims of the "imperialists," as the disciples of Mahan were called. Likewise, it is the story of a frontier-constabulary Army almost inadequate for the demands of a war on foreign soil. And in the end, it is the story of a new and powerful entry on the international scene. The United States lost its insularity and became a power to be reckoned with.
The war was the product of a need—whether real or imagined—for humanitarian aid. The finale was a triumph for the aims of the imperialists. After an armistice in August 1898, John Hay, former personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, then-Minister to the Court of St. James and later Secretary of State, wrote to his friend Roosevelt, who had just returned from his personal triumph before San Juan Hill:
It has been a splendid little war; begun with the highest motives; carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune which loves the brave.
The war was splendid only because it was a U.S. victory. It began hardly with the highest motives, although " Cuba libre !" was the ostensive cause, while the imperialists, including Hay and Roosevelt, had other aspirations. That it was carried on intelligently is even questionable. Fortune did not favor just the brave, inasmuch as the Spaniards fought with great bravery as well. Fortune favored military and naval might.
In the 1890s, Spain was a recently restored monarchy, rife with internal problems, when insurrectos in Cuba made another bid for independence. Spain met terrorism with force, and innocent, uninvolved Cubans suffered; conditions were deplorable. Cuban exiles and emigres settled in eastern seaboard cities of the United States. (Sound familiar?)
Their complaints found their way into the sensationalist press, particularly William Randolph Hearst's Journal in New York City. Other papers followed suit, since such stories meant increased circulation. The gist of these accounts was that Spain was the fierce oppressor from the Old World. The fact was, however, that Spain was no longer the Mistress of Empire it had been four centuries before. In the l9th century it had lost its colonies in South America. Mexico had broken free with Spain's North American holdings, only to lose many of them to the United States in 1845. What Spain still possessed was a drain, financially and militarily. Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean were liabilities, especially the turbulent Cuba, but Spanish pride disdained giving in to demands for Cuban independence. In the Pacific, Spain owned the Philippines, the Caroline Islands, and the Marianas (or Ladrones) of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. All Pacific possessions were up for sale, to divest Spain of the burden as well as to replenish a depleted treasury. The prospective buyer was Germany, a late entry into the race for colonies.
In 1897, a distinguished group of like-minded men of public importance met for lunch periodically at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. They discussed with approval and admiration the philosophies of Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Incidentally, Mahan's writings were discussed in the wardrooms of the Royal Navy and the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet. The Kaiser, upon reading Mahan, had ordered copies for all German naval officers.) The Metropolitan Club group included, inter alia , Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, Assistant White House Surgeon Leonard Wood, Medical Corps, U.S. Army, Hay, and Commodore George Dewey of the Naval Inspectorate. During the absence of Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long on summer vacation, Acting Secretary Roosevelt made an important appointment, giving Dewey command of the Asiatic Fleet. The events of the "Splendid Little War" were taking shape.
As 1898 began, tensions heightened. The press was demanding U.S. intervention to free Cuba. The Navy's North Atlantic Squadron concentrated at Key West, except for the battleship Oregon , which was on the West Coast. The battleship Maine was detached from Key West and sent to Havana on a "good-will" visit, which many interpreted as a move to protect U.S. citizens and property there. The Spanish cruiser Vizcaya was scheduled for a reciprocal visit to New York en route to Cuba from Spain. Under international law, a host government is responsible for the safety of visiting warships.
On the night of Tuesday, 15 February, an explosion sent the Maine to the bottom of the harbor with 260 of her crew. A few days later, when the Vizcaya arrived in New York, she was cordoned off.
The immediate effect of the loss was public outcry, fanned by the press, for retaliation against Spain. While Congress and the public were ripe for war, President William McKinley was not. Still, he made prudent preparations for it. He ordered the Oregon to join the North Atlantic Squadron. The Regular Army of about 28,000 men was scattered in detachments in the West or manning coastal defenses in the East. Its deficiencies were many and difficult to overcome. It had no organization larger than a regiment. It lacked a plan for mobilization and employment. Equipment, arms, and ammunition for expansion were in short supply. Most significant, it lacked the machinery for central direction. President McKinley thus ordered his Army into camps.
The Navy, on the other hand, was better off. It had a fair number of modern warships, the result of a naval revival that seemed to be overcoming post-Civil War neglect. And it had the semblance of a plan for employment. Cuba could be blockaded to prevent the reinforcement of the 150,000 troops there—and to starve them out if necessary. Spanish squadrons at sea or in distant ports could be engaged and destroyed. Control of the waters off Cuba would allow the running of arms and ammunition to the insurrectos . The fact that the Army had insufficient supplies for itself was overlooked.
Spain was hardly the epitome of a military or naval power. Its garrison in Cuba and troops in Spain, while outnumbering the U.S. Regulars by more than ten to one, were poorly trained conscripts. Its army was top-heavy with officers. The garrison in the Philippines consisted of native troops whose loyalty to Spain—as opposed to that of Philippine independence—was suspect. Internal politics, with the opposition faction waiting in the wings, was a decided weakness. The biggest liability, however, was Spain's dearth of naval strength. Only one warship was worthy of being called a battleship, but she was undergoing modernization. An antiquated squadron was based in Manila Bay. Several cruisers, built in England and Italy, were plying home waters. Torpedo boats were in various ports in Cuba and Puerto Rico. An older cruiser, the Reina Mercedes , was in Santiago de Cuba on the southern coast. And the Vizcaya had left New York.
In the meantime, Congress enacted a huge military and naval appropriation with which McKinley planned to increase the Regular Army to more than 120,000 and to purchase ships for the Navy from sundry sources.
The public called for regiments of volunteers to serve under elected officers or ones appointed by the governors of their states. McKinley thus cut the expansion of the Regulars to 65,000 and put out a call for volunteers. States could provide regiments, but they were not to be National Guard units called into federal service. Such units could enlist for the war, retaining their original structure, but only under new designations. Thus, the 7th New York Regiment became the 71st New York Volunteers.
While most of the volunteer regiments were raised and identified with a particular state, one raised independently gained the most fame. Although he was partial to the Navy, Roosevelt realized that he did not have the experience for high command at sea. Hence, he applied for a commission in the volunteers and was offered a cavalry regiment. But he felt that it would take him at least six weeks to be able to command a regiment. So he was satisfied to become second in command, if the commanding officer were Dr. Wood, who had served as a contract surgeon on the frontier and took part in the "capture" of the Apache Geronimo. The 1st Cavalry U.S. Volunteers came into existence as the "Rough Riders."
The findings of an inquiry headed by then-Captain William T. Sampson held Spain responsible for the loss of Maine , even though it was not at all in Spain's interest to destroy a U.S. warship. Those with most to gain from the sinking were the insurrectos , and they did.
For more than two months after the Maine went down, the nation drifted toward war. McKinley was trying to avoid it, but Congress was threatening to use its war-making power without the usual request from the President. A joint Congressional Resolution declared Cuba independent and called for removal of Spanish forces. McKinley subsequently forwarded this to Spain with a deadline for compliance set at noon on 23 April. The resolution also authorized the President to use armed force to police the resolution if Spain refused to accept it. A blockade of Cuba was authorized, and the Navy began taking prizes off the coast on 22 April. Lest U.S. altruistic motives be questioned, all designs on acquiring Cuba were renounced by the United States. Nothing was said, however, of other Spanish possessions.
Faced with an ultimatum that begged a decision of disaster or dishonor, Spain chose the former and declared war on 24 April. McKinley asked Congress for a war declaration on the 25th and Congress acted, making it retroactive to 21 April, the day before activation of the blockade.
Once again, during the temporary absence of the Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt acted. He had sent Dewey a cable to stand by in Hong Kong for orders to proceed to Manila and destroy the Spanish warships there. The actual war message came immediately after the declaration, however, the date of receipt was 26 April, owing to the International Date Line. Dewey sailed, slipped past the guns at Manila Bay on Saturday night, and deployed early Sunday morning, facing an anchored Spanish squadron at Cavite southeast of the city of Manila. The engagement was all over by mid-morning. The Spanish ships were sunk, and Dewey blockaded the city, pending arrival of troops to take it.
Halfway around the world, the Spanish Navy was busy. Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete left the Canary Islands with four cruisers, including the Vizcaya and three torpedo boats. News of his sailing brought panic to the cities of the U.S. eastern seaboard. Mayors and citizen committees appealed to the government for warships to protect them. Mahan's naval doctrine dictated concentration, not dispersion, of the fleet. Cervera must be found and defeated at sea. The task fell to the new acting rear admiral commanding the North Atlantic Squadron. Sampson had been promoted temporarily and given command over several of his seniors.
In the meantime, the Army was inundated with volunteers. Some 250,000 exceeded the Army's capacity. Camps sprung up throughout the South. The rationale for the locations was twofold. First, they were near ports for embarkation for Cuba. Second, leaders assumed that the climate was similar to the tropics. Another false assumption on climate concerned recruiting volunteer regiments from parts of the South where tropical diseases were prevalent, on the belief that the men would have built up immunities. These "immunes," when sent to replace original units in the invasion of Cuba, suffered the same diseases.
But the volunteers did not have to go to Cuba or Puerto Rico to contract disease. Thousands found disease in the hastily established camps in the South. The only volunteer unit with a low disease rate competitive with the Regulars and the Marines was the "Rough Riders." That their commander was a physician and their second-in-command a dynamic disciplinarian was probably the Disease was not the only problem in the camps. Railroad cars arrived with equipment but without bills of lading. Troops would be without shoes when a boxcar full of them was nearby, contents unknown. Transportation was another big mess. Major General William Shafter's V Corps at Tampa was typical. It was near the city and about seven miles from the port. A single-track railroad connected them. The pier could take two ships at a time. When they loaded out for Cuba, chaos ensued.
The original plan had been to blockade Cuba and supply the rebels. If an invasion were needed, Regulars were to effect it, while the volunteers remained to protect the continental United States. Politics of the day were soon to overturn the last course of action. Volunteers wanted their share of the fighting glory. (Few saw combat, but pension rolls cost billions for more than 75 years.) So far, Cervera had eluded the Navy. Sampson had kept to the north coast of Cuba. He had made an ineffective bombardment of San Juan in Puerto Rico, and a flotilla of his torpedo boats had been bloodied in an engagement with Spanish torpedo boats at Cardenas about 75 miles east of Havana. Meanwhile, Cervera had slipped in, undetected, to Santiago. The Flying Squadron under Commodore W. S. Schley bottled up Cervera, but the possibility of his escape was pervasive, if bad weather forced the blockaders off station. Sampson rushed to reinforce Schley. Marines landed to capture Guantanamo and provide a refueling anchorage for the ships off Santiago. Sampson was not about to try to force the entrance to Santiago against the guns of the Spanish forts. His abortive attempt to sink a blockship in the channel caused him to ask for help from the Army. He wanted a landing force to take the city from the landward side and force Cervera to sortie.
The task fell to Shafter and his V Corps of 25,000 at Tampa. Shipping could handle only about 17,000, so Shafter was ordered to embark a "representative mix of Regulars and Volunteers" to land near Santiago and move overland to the city. He left behind the horses of the cavalry, except those of officers and those needed to haul wagons. He retained volunteer regiments but cut their size, while Regulars went at full-strength. Only half of the "Rough Riders" embarked. Shafter had three divisions of two brigades each and a separate brigade. A volunteer regiment was in each division, but the separate brigade was all Regulars. After loading at Tampa, which bordered on comic opera, the 30-ship "convoy" left on 14 June and arrived off Daiquiri, about 20 miles west of Santiago, a week later.
Two days passed before the V Corps could get ashore. It advanced west to Siboney, which was a better port than Daiquiri, and started toward Santiago at the end of Camino Real, a fancy name for a dirt road in the jungle barely wide enough for wagons. The Spanish fell back in fighting order, inflicting casualties and buying time. The tropical forest, rain, and mosquitoes began to take their toll on V Corps. The natives' lack of sanitation compounded the problems. Shafter felt he had to attack the city and at least occupy the high ground surrounding it. Camino Real crossed the San Juan Heights, natural defenses to an approach from the east.
Shafter set his attack, in two phases, for early Friday, 1 July. El Caney was a defended town northeast of Santiago and a possible threat to Shafter's right flank, if Spanish reinforcements came from the east. He sent one division to secure it and then to join the main attack in two hours. Spanish resistance was underestimated. The fight lasted until almost dark. The 2d Massachusetts came under fire and refused to advance. Not until the few survivors were out of ammunition did the Spanish surrender.
In the meantime, Shafter could not wait, and the other two of his divisions went forward astride Camino Real with an observation balloon poking above the jungle. The balloon provided an aiming point for the Spanish gunners. Under fire at "Bloody Ford," the 71st New York panicked and ran. The Regular infantry slogged on, as did the dismounted troopers, including the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry commanded by recently promoted Colonel Roosevelt.
On the right flank of the attacking line, Roosevelt led his men up Kettle Hill, a key terrain feature where they supported the advance of the infantry to their left. Also with the "Rough Riders" were the 9th U.S. Cavalry (Colored) and the 10th U.S. Cavalry (Colored). The acting adjutant of the latter was First Lieutenant John J. Pershing. The force that took the San Juan Heights from the left included two Regular infantry regiments of black troops. By the end of the day, V Corps held the heights overlooking the city. One infantry brigade had four commanders in an hour, three having been killed or wounded. By the next day, they had surrounded the heights on all sides, including Sampson from seaward.
Shafter had achieved part of his objective, but sickness was weakening his force. He felt that Sampson's blockade of the entrance should have forced the forts and come to the Army's aid. This was a reversal of the original intent. Sampson agreed to confer with Shafter off Siboney on Sunday morning, 3 July.
But in Santiago, Cervera had decided to make a dash for it. He was not going to be trapped in port. Instead, he would go down fighting at sea. His four cruisers and two torpedo boats would come out early Sunday morning. He had left a torpedo boat at Barbados, and the Reina Mercedes had been stripped of guns and crew to reinforce the harbor forts. He faced six modern battleships, an armored cruiser, Schley's flagship, the Brooklyn , and their consorts of torpedo boats and gunboats. Cervera decided to steam west along the coast. Unknown to him, two battleships were absent from the eastern end of the blockade. Sampson had gone in his flagship, the New York , to confer with Shafter, and the Massachusetts was coaling at Guantanamo. Schley was the officer-in-tactical-command.
When the Brooklyn's lookout spotted the Spanish column coming out, Schley alerted the fleet for action. The sailors were at Sunday routine, and to conserve fuel, most ships did not have all boilers on line. The exceptions were the Oregon and the Brooklyn , which went to full speed immediately, while the others took a while to get up steam. No matter, in less than two hours, six Spanish wrecks were beached and burning. Sampson arrived when it was over.
The rest of the war was anticlimactic. The Spanish commander in Santiago surprised Shafter by his surrender offer, including not only the city's garrison but also all the troops he commanded in the eastern part of Cuba. The Commanding General of the Army, Major General Nelson Miles, landed a force on the southern part of Puerto Rico and began to push across the island to San Juan. His army of mostly volunteers acquitted themselves a bit better than those in Cuba, but they were not up to the discipline and élan of the "Rough Riders." The armistice ended their fighting three weeks after coming ashore.
Dewey was holding Manila hostage to the guns of his fleet, awaiting troops to take the city. While Regulars and volunteers were settling in encampments in the South, Major General Wesley Merritt was organizing VIII Corps around San Francisco. He had Regular regiments and volunteers mostly from the Western states. The ships left for Manila by way of Hawaii in three increments. The first left on 18 May, the second a week later. The last increment sailed under the Golden Gate on 15 June.
Just after the last convoy left Honolulu, McKinley signed a Joint Resolution of Congress annexing Hawaii. Several annexation treaties had been given the "advice and consent" of the Senate, but previous Presidents had refused to ratify them. Another interesting event occurred when the cruiser USS Charleston split off from the convoy and steered to Guam. She fired as she entered the harbor and landed Marines. The Spanish governor, unaware of the war, apologized for not having ammunition to answer the "salute." Guam was to be the first territory to be captured from Spain.
Merritt's Corps landed and, after getting organized, attacked Manila, taking the city on Saturday (Manila time) 13 August. A formal surrender was signed the following day. The irony was that, because of the International Dateline, the surrender of Manila happened technically after the formal signing of the truce and cease fire on 13 August in Washington.
The Treaty of Paris in December 1898 ended the war. Cuba was independent. Puerto Rico and Guam were property of the United States by right of conquest and thus were ceded. The status of the Philippines, however, was different. There, the question concerned its not having surrendered before the armistice. Emotions concerning the Philippines were mixed in the United States.
The best-known man in the United States was Theodore Roosevelt. He was elected Governor of New York; then the political machine in that state foisted him on McKinley as Vice President for his second term. An assassin's bullet made T.R. President soon thereafter.
Except for Guam, which was administered by the Navy, the new acquisitions came under the War Department. Roosevelt selected Elihu Root, an able corporate attorney, to be Secretary of War and to run the new colonies. Root abhorred incompetence and inefficiency and was appalled by the problems he inherited in the Army. With the help of able Army professionals, he reorganized it and reformed it from top to bottom.
Rear Admiral Albert S. Barker said after the war, "An hour or two at Manila, an hour or two at Santiago, and the maps of the world were changed." He could have substituted, "the history of the world and the United States."
So, what if the "splendid little war" had never been? What course would U.S. and world history have taken? Where would the United States be today? Speculating on what would not have happened is decidedly safer than analyzing what could have occurred.
The most obvious eventuality is that the nation would not have had a Theodore Roosevelt presidency. The consequences of that would have been staggering. A canal across Central America might have been dug, but it is doubtful that it would have been American. Would the Navy have expanded, as espoused by Roosevelt? Most probably not. Without a strong Navy, the United States would have remained a third- or fourth-rate power.
What would have been the fate of the Philippines? As with the other Spanish Pacific possessions, they probably would have been purchased by Germany. Thus, they would have been seized by Japan, which was Great Britain's war partner in 1914 as part of the Anglo-American Alliance of 1902, as modified in 1911. This modification made Japan the surrogate of Britain in the Far East against the potential of a U.S. Navy that would be able, after the completion of the Panama Canal, to move fleet concentrations back and forth between the Atlantic and Pacific. Japan already would have held the prizes it had to take from the United States in World War II. If Hawaii had not been needed as a U.S. way station en route to the Philippines, what might have been the fate of Pearl Harbor in 1941?
From a more humanitarian point of view, would the cause of yellow fever and its subsequent control been discovered without the exposure of U.S. troops in Cuba? Walter Reed, William Gorgas, and others identified the cause and attacked the breeding grounds.
The Root Reforms of the Army were a direct result of the mobilization mess of 1898. Had these problems not occurred, no recognized need would have arisen to provide for an expandable, professional Army, a reorganized force that fought and helped win World War I for the Allies. A German victory would have meant no Versailles Treaty, no Weimar Republic, and even no Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.
It is conceivable that had the United States not fought and won the Spanish-American War, it might be just a super-rich version of Canada, isolated in North America. The war launched the United States on the road to international greatness. A century later, it is the foremost nation in the world. Those few hours at Manila and Santiago changed the history of the world. For the United States, it was changed for the better.
Those who vilify the United States and are apologetic for its actions in 1898 cannot deny the results with us today. Spain fell victim to its own pride. It gambled and lost. While Spain looked to the past, U.S. visionaries looked to the future and seized the opportunity for greatness as a world power. Reality has exceeded their wildest expectations. We are products of 1898.
Colonel Hammond is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute publications. He is the former editor of Shipmate magazine .