The Spanish-American War
between Spain and the United States

Spanish-American War marked the emergence of the United States as a world power. This brief conflict between the United States and Spain took place between April and August 1898, over the issue of the liberation of Cuba. In the course of the war, the U.S. won Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands.

Background of the war

Until about 1860, American expansionists had hoped to acquire Cuba. After the Civil War, interest in annexation dwindled, but Americans continued to be displeased by Spanish misrule. A long and exhausting uprising took place in the 1870's. In 1895, during a depression that made conditions worse, a revolution broke out again and threatened to go on endlessly. The Spanish forces were not powerful enough to put down the insurrection, and the rebels were not strong enough to win.

American newspapers, especially the "yellow press" of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, printed sensational accounts of Spanish oppression, and carried seriously exaggerated reports that a quarter of the population had died. They continually agitated for intervention. Many Americans regarded conditions in Cuba as intolerable and began to demand that the United States intervene. A few felt that the United States should also acquire naval and military bases and become an imperial power.

In November 1897, President McKinley pressured Spain into granting Cuba limited self-government within the Spanish empire. The rebels wanted nothing less than independence, and continued to fight. Meanwhile, pro-Spanish mobs in Havana rioted in protest against self-government. To protect Americans from the rioters, the battleship Maine arrived in Havana harbor January 25, 1898. On February 15, an explosion blew up the ship and killed about 260 persons on board. The outraged American public immediately blamed Spain for the explosion, but today many historians believe it was accidental and occurred inside the ship.

"Remember the Maine" became a popular slogan, but forces already in operation did more to bring about actual war. In March, President McKinley sent three notes to Spain, demanding full independence for Cuba. Spain granted an armistice. On April 19, Congress passed overwhelmingly a joint resolution asserting that Cuba was independent. The resolution also disavowed any American intention to acquire the island, and authorized the use of the army and navy to force Spanish withdrawal. On April 25, the U.S. formally declared that a state of war existed with Spain as of April 21.

Chief events

The first important battle of the war took place in the Philippines. The Asiatic Squadron of six ships under Commodore George Dewey sailed from Hong Kong to Manila Bay. On May 1, 1898, it destroyed the entire Spanish fleet of 10 vessels without the loss of an American life or serious damage to any American ship. Then Dewey blockaded Manila harbor while he waited for U.S. troops to arrive.

Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Squadron under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson had begun a partial blockade of Cuba while scouting in the Caribbean Sea for a fleet that had left Spain under Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete. Finally, on May 28, American ships located Cervera's fleet, which had anchored in the landlocked harbor of Santiago de Cuba, on the southeastern part of the island. While the navy placed a blockading force outside the harbor, the army hastily prepared to send an expeditionary force to assault Santiago by land.

On June 22, Major General William R. Shafter began landing 15,000 troops at Daiquiri and Siboney, near Santiago. The Spaniards offered little resistance during the landing and deploying of troops. Joyful newspaper reports of this helped make celebrities of the Rough Rider Regiment and its commanders, Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

General Shafter launched a full-scale two-pronged assault against Santiago on July 1. He sent nearly half of his men against a small Spanish force strongly defending a stone fort at El Caney. The remainder made a frontal assault on the main Spanish defenses at Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. By nightfall, the Americans had taken the ridges commanding Santiago, but they had suffered 1,600 casualties. Both black and white Americans fought in the campaign. First Lieutenant John J. Pershing wrote: "White regiments, black regiments ... fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color ... and mindful only of their common duty as Americans."

As soon as Santiago came under siege, the governor of Cuba ordered Admiral Cervera to run the naval blockade to try to save his ships. Cervera led the ships out on July 3, heading in single file westward along the Cuban coast. The pursuing American naval vessels, commanded by Commodore Winfield S. Schley, sank or forced the beaching of every one of them. Again no serious damage occurred to any American vessel.

After days of negotiations, Santiago surrendered on July 17. On July 25, Major General Nelson A. Miles began an invasion of Puerto Rico which met almost no opposition. Several contingents of U.S. troops arrived in the Philippines. On August 13, they entered and occupied Manila, thus keeping the Filipino patriots out. The cables had been cut, and Dewey did not realize that an armistice had been signed the previous day.

Results of the war

Sentiment grew within the United States to keep the spoils of war, except for Cuba. In the Treaty of Paris, signed Dec. 10, 1898, Spain granted Cuba its freedom. Spain ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. The United States, in turn, paid Spain $20 million for the Philippine Islands.

Many people in the United States did not like their nation's new position as a colonial power. These anti-imperialists opposed the annexations. They did not wish to hold subject peoples by force, run the risk of becoming involved in further wars, or face competition from colonial products or workers. Their forces were so strong in the Senate that it ratified the peace treaty by only one vote on Feb. 6, 1899.

The United States had to put down a long and bloody insurrection in the Philippines, strengthen its defenses, build more powerful battleships, and reorganize the army to remedy serious weaknesses revealed by the war. The war also showed the need for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, which separated the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish-American War thus led to the building of the Panama Canal.

Contributor: Frank Freidel, Ph.D., Former Prof. of History, Harvard Univ. and Univ. of Washington; Author, The Splendid Little War.

Additional resources

Bradford, James C., ed. Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War and Its Aftermath. Naval Inst. Pr., 1993.

Marrin, Albert. The Spanish-American War. Atheneum, 1991. Younger readers.

Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Macmillan, 1981.


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