Start Your Visit WithHistorical Timelines
General Interest Maps
The Spanish-American War was a four-month conflict between Spain and the United States, provoked by word of Spanish colonial brutality in Cuba. Although the war was largely brought about by the efforts of U.S. expansionists, many Americans supported the idea of freeing an oppressed people controlled by the Spanish. At war's end, America emerged victorious with newly acknowledged respect as a world power.
Reasoning for war
Until the 1890s, ambivalence about overseas possessions had restrained America's drive to expand overseas. Suddenly, near the turn of the 20th century, inhibitions collapsed and American power thrust its way to the far reaches of the Pacific. The occasion for that explosion of imperialism lay neither in the Pacific nor in the quest for bases and trade, but to the south in Cuba. The chief motive was a sense of outrage at another country's imperialism.
It revived only briefly during a 10-year Cuban insurrection from 1868 to 1878. After the insurrection was brought under control in 1878 by the Spanish, American investments in Cuba, mainly in sugar and mining, rose to about $50 million. The United States in fact traded more with Cuba than Spain did.
On February 24, 1895, insurrection broke out again. Simmering discontent with Spanish rule had been aggravated by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894, which took sugar off the free list in the midst of a depression already damaging to the market for Cuban sugar. Public feeling in the U.S. lay with the rebels, and many Americans extended help to the Cuban revolutionary party that organized the revolt from its headquarters in New York.
The insurrectionists' strategy was to wage guerrilla warfare and to damage the island's economic life, which in turn would provoke the concern of American investors. The strategy employed hit-and-run attacks on trains, railways, and plantations. Ordinary Americans were more than ready to look upon the insurrection in the light of their own War of Independence.
Pressure for war
The American press had a field day with many of the events leading up to and during war with Spain. William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World became major contributors to the sentiment for conflict with imperialistic Spain.
On April 6, 1896, The Second Cleveland Administration attempted to negotiate with Spain, urging that empire to seek peace in Cuba on the basis of home rule. The Spanish politely refused.
The direction of official neutrality changed sharply when William McKinley assumed office. He had been elected on a platform that endorsed independence for Cuba, as well as American control of Hawaii and of a Panama canal. On January 25, 1898, as a "courtesy call," but actually for the protection of American citizens and property in Cuba, the battleship USS Maine arrived in Havana harbor.
Meanwhile, on February 9, a private letter written by Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister to Washington, surfaced in the U.S. press. The letter disparaged President McKinley, thus provoking more anti-Spanish sentiment.
On February 15, the Maine exploded in the harbor and sank with a loss of 260 men. Immediately afterwards, the American press sparked a nationwide uproar, and flung various unproven accusations of sabotage at Spain — giving rise to the slogan, "Remember the Maine!"
A month later, under mounting pressure from the American people, President McKinley obtained a joint resolution of Congress: It declared Cuba independent and demanded a withdrawal of Spanish forces. It also included an amendment that disavowed any U.S. plan to permanently occupy the island. The resolution was then sent to Spanish authorities with unconditional compliance to occur by April 23, 1898. On April 22, McKinley announced a blockade of Cuba's northern coast and the port of Santiago. Rather than give in to an ultimatum, the Spanish government declared war on April 24. The U.S. Congress — determined to be first — declared war on April 25, retroactive to the April 21 resolution signing.
However, the U.S. Army was not prepared for war. Following the Civil War, the nation had drastically reduced the size of its army. Most army units were scattered throughout the West, where they had fought and subdued Native Americans. Volunteer and National Guard units quickly assembled in Tennessee. Regular army divisions, filled with new recruits, rushed to Florida in anticipation of the invasion of Cuba.
Captain Henry Glass, commander of the cruiser USS Charleston, was on the way to Manila when he received orders instructing him to proceed to the island of Guam and wrest it from Spain.
On June 20, Captain Glass and his anxious sailors arrived off the shore of Guam. When the Charleston got within range, it fired upon fortifications on the island from three of its port-side cannons. Shortly after the cannon explosions — with little harm done — a ship flying the Spanish flag approached the Charleston, its crew completely unaware of any war taking place. In fact, a Spanish officer climbed aboard the Charleston and asked for gunpowder to return what they believed to be a salute.
Governor Juan Marina was then notified by an American courier from the Charleston that a state of war existed between the two countries. The Spaniards could not mount a serious defense; Governor Marina was compelled to surrender the island of Guam without so much as a murmur. Captain Glass flew the red, white, and blue off the coast of Guam as he made way for Manila.
Dewey takes Manila
The first battle of the Spanish-American War occurred in the Philippines. On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, pulverized Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasar’s Spanish forces at the Battle of Manila Bay without losing a man. The Spanish force lost 381 men, while Dewey's squadron sustained only eight wounded.
While the Americans were handily capturing Manila Bay, Filipino nationalist Emilio Aguenaldo and his guerilla force pursued the Spanish by land. The Americans then staged their own land assault at the Battle of Manila — ultimately forcing the surrender of Manila to the Americans.
At the beginning of war with Spain, the Americans preparation was spotty. They navy was fit, but the army could muster only an ill-assorted force of 28,000 regulars and about 100,000 militiamen. Altogether during the war about 200,000 more militiamen were recruited, mostly as state volunteers. The armed forces of the U.S. suffered badly from both inexperience and maladministration, with the result that more died from disease than from enemy action. The United States' salvation was that the Spanish forces were even worse off.
On April 29, Spanish admiral Pascual Cervera left the Cape Verde Islands with four cruisers and three destroyers, turning up in Santiago de Cuba where the U.S. Navy put the Spanish fleet under a blockade. Then a force of some 17,000 troops hastily assembled at Tampa, Florida, under the command of General William Shafter. One significant element of that force was Colonel Leonard Wood's First Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the "Rough Riders," and best remembered because Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was second in command. Roosevelt, always active, got his regiment ashore quickly. "We disembarked with our rifles, our ammunition belts, and not much else," he remembered. "I carried some food in my pocket, and a light coat which was my sole camp equipment for the next three days."
The major land action of the Cuban Campaign occurred on July 1. About 7,000 Americans took the fortified village of El Caney from about 600 of the enemy garrison. While a much larger force attacked San Juan Hill, a smaller unit, including the dismounted Rough Riders, together with black soldiers from the Ninth and 10th Cavalry, seized the enemy position atop nearby Kettle Hill.
On July 3, Admiral Cervera made a run for it, but his ships were little more than sitting ducks to be picked off by a sturdy American navy. The casualties were as one-sided as at Manila: 474 Spaniards were killed and wounded and 1,750 were taken prisoner, while only one American was killed and one wounded. Santiago surrendered with a garrison of 24,000 on July 17.
Puerto Rico and war's end
On July 25 a force under General Nelson A. Miles and his convoy of 3,300 soldiers and nine transports (escorted by the USS Massachusetts) moved into Puerto Rico against minor resistance — easily taking the island. The day after General Miles landed, the Spanish government sued for peace through the French ambassador in Washington. After negotiations lasting two weeks, an armistice was signed on August 12, less than four months after the war's beginning.
The peace protocol specified that the U.S. annex Puerto Rico and one island in the Ladrones (later called the Marianas), and should occupy the city, bay, and harbor of Manila pending disposition of the Philippines. Among more than 274,000 Americans who served during the war and the ensuing demobilization, 5,462 died, but only 379 in battle. The total wounded numbered 1,704.
In February 1899, the Treaty of Paris received the necessary two-thirds ratification in the U.S. Senate by a single vote. America had once again overcome adversity in victorious fashion.
The United States annexed the former Spanish-ruled colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. However, some Americans did not like the idea of the United States playing the part of an imperial power with foreign colonies. President McKinley and the pro-imperialists did, however, win their way over the majority public opinion. Such men as Mark Twain heavily opposed this act of imperialism, which inspired him to pen The War Prayer.
Even though the Americans had liberated a Spanish ruled Philippines, insurrection broke out once again, which put McKinley in another rough spot. With help from God and country, McKinley's decision for reform in the Philippines was one of humanity and American heart.
Overall, the Spanish-American War became a stepping stone to conciliation between America's still-bitter North and South. The war had provided a common enemy and fostered a sort of rapport that helped to repair bad relations following a bloody American Civil War.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding Spanish-American War.
By George Dewey
You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.
Instruction to the commanding officer of his flagship, USS Olympia, in Manila Bay (May 1, 1898), opening hostilities in the Pacific.