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Cuban-Spanish-American War, 1898

For those Cubans who wanted independence, it was a long struggle. People on the island, mostly descendants of Africans, raised tobacco and sugar for export. Cuban sugar plantations supplied close to a third of the world's supply. The masses had little role in anything political. They were kept ignorant because a docile labor force was preferable. Within the planter class and the few who serviced it, there was a split opinion about independence. Most fared well by being part of distant Spain, which helped keep the masses in control. There were others who wanted to run their own affairs, which meant an independent Cuba. Cubans and US citizens led by Narciso López tried three times between 1849 and 1851 to launch independence movements. They were stopped the first time by US authorities. He landed on the island in 1850 but had to flee. Finally, in 1851, he and 51 US citizens were caught and executed in Cuba. Years later, in 1868, Málimbo Góme and Antonio Maceo began a revolt (the Ten Years' War (1868-78) which failed when the upper class began to fear the lower classes. Some in the US advocated intervening to help the rebels but the US had its own problems such as Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 (which lasted until 1879). The Spanish tightened their control on their rebellious colony but conspiracies continued as rebels constantly sought some means to force the Spanish to leave. U.S. neutrality laws were constantly violated, for the rebels used Tampa and New York as conspiracy centers.

In 1895, José Martí founded the Revolutionary Party and, with Málimbo Góme and Antonio Maceo, started another independence revolt with Martí landing a small invasion force from the US and Góme and Maceo fighting elsewhere on the island. Martí was killed shortly after he began, thus becoming a martyr to the cause. The Spanish army, over 50,000 strong, could not defeat the 600-800 rebels because they stayed in the mountains except when they used his and run tactics. Spain poured more troops into Cuba, trying to preserve the last vestiges of its once enormous empire. It had been reduced to Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Morocco in Africa, and the Philippines in Asia. The fighting was nasty as both sides committed atrocities. By 1897, the rebels were winning. Although the Spanish had 150,000 troops on the island, they were stymied. Spain tried to buy the Cuban rebels off by granting the island more autonomy in October, 1897. By early 1898, Spain could no longer guarantee the safety of foreign nationals. The US sent a warship, the U.S.S. Maine, to Havana harbor to protect its nationals.

United States citizens interest in Cuba had fluctuated in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson had wanted it for his "Empire of Liberty." Pro-slavery forces in the Ostend Manifesto (1854) argued that Spain should cede the island to the US and that the US should make it into one or two slaves states. Some Cubans rebelled against the terrible rule of Queen Isabella II but lost. Spain promised to abolish slavery and make other reforms but Spanish rule had been so compromised that José Martí and others began plotting a new Cuban War for Independence. This war, a civil war, began in 1895.

As is usually the case with civil wars, the population was divided in its sympathies. Many people just tried to stay out of the way of the fighters. Conservatives supported Spanish rule, for either they benefitted from it or believed that established authority should be obeyed. The Spanish government counted on these two groups. Those who opposed the 50,000 Spanish troops under the command of General Valeriano "Butcher" Weyler often resorted to the hit and run tactics of guerrilla war. Because civilians often gave tacit support to the guerrilleros and it was difficult to determine which were combatants, Weyler resorted to the policy of reconcentrado (concentration camps) to isolate the guerrilleros from the population. The theory was that those not in the camps were guerrilleros and should be shot in site. (The US would adopt a similar policy with the Strategic Hamlet program of the Vietnam War.) Spain and its Cuban allied did not foresee that concentrating such large numbers of people in the same place caused sanitation, disease, and nutrition problems. The camps were unhealthy and people suffered. Disease ran rampant and many died. Spain blundered in this policy because it alienated public opinion in the US.

U.S. citizens became very sympathetic to the rebels not only because of their suffering but also because they identified with a subject people revolting against a European mother country. Some of the U.S. press, the "Yellow Press," wrote sensationalistic stories, some with an element of truth and some completely false, which stirred emotions and encouraged bellicose sentiments. The U.S. also saw itself as having economic and strategic interests in Cuba. That was the view of Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Alfred Thayer Mahan (author of The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1600-1783). Mahan argued that the US should take Cuba, other Caribbean islands, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands and that great powers needed colonies. The U.S. Navy had grown to the point where it could beat the Spanish navy and some naval advocates wanted to prove that the large naval appropriations bills in the 1870s and 1880s had paid off. Moreover, many US citizens wanted to "Christianize" the world according to their version of Christianity. Protestants often did not concede that Roman Catholics (which Cubans were) were Christians and wanted to wrest the island from Spain's grasp so they could convert. McKinley in his war message gave this as one reason to declare war.

The immediate cause of US entry into the war was emotionalism. The "Yellow Press" kept people stirred up. Suppression of anti-Spanish riots in Havana in 1898 gave some a reason to want to punish Spain. The Spanish ambassador to the United States, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, wrote a private letter to the editor of the Madrid Heraldowho happened to be visiting Cuba. In the letter, he made derogatory comments about McKinley (with which many US citizens would have agreed!). Rebels stole it from the post office and smuggled it to the "Yellow Press," which promptly published it and claimed that it was the worst insult ever to the United States. De Lôme apologized and resigned but the damage was done. More damaging was the explosion of the warship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. the "Yellow Press" immediately blamed the Spanish Even Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who should have known better but was so anxious to have a war, said the Spanish had done it. Any sensible person would have realized that the Spanish had everything to lose by attacking a US battleship and that the rebels were the ones who would benefit. As it turned out, a US investigation found the Spanish innocent but it was too late. Even concessions by Spain granting almost everything that the US demanded proved futile. Bloodlust, testosterone poisoning, and the desire to show that the US was a great power carried the day. McKinley sent a war message to Congress on April 11, 1898. Congress passed a joint resolution giving Spain an ultimatum on April 19th but with the Teller Amendment attached. This amendment authored by Henry Teller of Colorado stated that the US would not annex Cuba and would leave as soon as the war was over. War was declared on April 25th

The war was popular in the United States. Ex-Confederates joined their old enemies, the US Army and US Navy, as comrades in arms. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic and Populist Parties presidential candidate in 1896, assumed command of the 3rd Nebraska Regiment. Teddy Roosevelt resigned his subcabinet post, ordered a uniform from Brooks Brothers, a premier clothier, and organized the "Rough Riders," composed of cowboys, scholars, land speculators, Native Americans, sons of rich men, and African Americans. As Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography, recruiting people was easy. McKinley had to call for volunteers because the US only had 28,000 regular troops in its army and the Spanish had at least 150,000 battle-trained veterans with better arms than the US could provide. The US regular army had only been fighting small-scale wars against American Indians. Congress increased the Army to 61,000 regular troops. The US had many volunteers, and by November, 1898, the Army had reached 223,000.

The War Department was incapable of organizing the war effort in a timely manner. It could nor supply the troops with modern weapons, clothing, and food. Some of the food was tinned meat left over from the Civil War. Some said that more soldiers died from spoiled meat than Spanish bullets. Nor could it handle the necessary logistics. It took seven weeks to get 17,000 men to Cuba. Half of the regular army plus some volunteer regiments had been shipped to Tampa, Florida to embark for Cuba.

The navy was in much better shape. The US had a navy three times as large as that of Spain with four first class battleships and one second class battleship. Spain, on the other hand, had one disabled first class battleship and other ships in poor condition. The US Navy easily defeated the Spanish fleet. To win the war in Cuba, the US had only to blockade the island but that, of course, would not allow the soldiers to cover themselves with glory.

The fighting began not in Cuba even though the ostensible reason for the war was driving the Spanish off the island but in the Philippines over 12,000 miles away. Roosevelt had ordered Admiral George Dewey to proceed to the Philippines Islands and lay off Manila Bay to await the order to attack. Roosevelt and his friends wanted a base from which to penetrate China and Spain's problems with its colonies was the opportunity. The Grito de Balintawak began the battle by filipinos to drive the Spanish out. In 1897, Emilio Aguinaldo was elected president of the Balintawak Republic. By December, Spain had negotiated a peace with Aguinaldo and his rebels; they went into exile in Hong Kong. But in April, 1898, before the US had declared war on Spain, Aguinaldo started the rebellion again because Spain had reneged on its promises. Although the filipinos were aware of Spain's problems with the US, they wanted neither country to rule them; they wanted independence.

So Aguinaldo viewed the US invasion of Manila Bay on May 1st with mixed emotions. Dewey raked the Spanish ships as they lay at anchor, five times, destroying the Spanish fleet. Then he destroyed the shore batteries. Eight US sailors were injured slightly but 381 Spaniards were killed or injured. Dewey then waited almost two months for the US army to arrive. Aguinaldo's task was made easier by Dewey's action but he would have to fight the US for three years. McKinley, in his Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation claimed the Islands for the United States, ignoring their desires of the filipinos and giving the lie to the assertion that the US had warred on Spain to free its colonies. In January, 1899, Aguinaldo was proclaimed president of the Philippine Republic by a constitutional convention. The Philippine-American War lasted until 1901 and took a higher toll than the Cuban war for the US suffered 10,000 casualties. Filipinos and Americans died in great numbers with about 16,000 soldiers and 200,000 civilians dying. Aguinaldo agreed to pledge allegiance to the United States in return for his life. He never lost his animus towards the US, however.

The US Navy was equally effective with the Spanish naval forces in Cuba. In preparation for war, the battleship U.S.S. Oregon left San Francisco on March 19th for the Caribbean. As the two nations moved closer to actual fighting, the Spanish mined Guantánamo Bay on April 21st; a US fleet sailed from Key West to Cuba on the 22nd; and Spanish Admiral Cervera was despatched from the Cape Verde Islands to the Caribbean. The US could not find his fleet until it sailed into Santiago harbor on May 19th; it could go no farther because it had run out of coal. Cervera was trapped. The US Navy decided to await the arrival of the army.

The embarkation at Tampa, Florida of the army was farcical. Half of the regular army and some volunteer regiments had been waiting there since the beginning of the war because the War Department had been unable to coordinate the arrival of the troops and the ships necessary to transport them. General Leonard Wood, the commander of the Rough Riders, had officers commandeer a ship for his soldiers and he and Lt. Colonel Roosevelt loaded them onto the ship. Their impatience was to no avail for the ship stayed in harbor for a week until the War Department gave permission for the ship to sail on June 13th with the 16,000 soldiers. So the 18 regular infantry regiments, six cavalry units (without horses because of a SNAFU), and two volunteer infantry regiments (from New York and Massachusetts) finally headed for Santiago in eastern Cuba where they would join the US fleet. With this addition, the US had 153 ships.

Lt. General Calixto García of the Cuban insurrectionary forces met with the American admiral and General William Shafter on June 20th to plan the joint campaign. The Cuban army was to occupy the areas west, east, and northwest of Santiago. García told the US forces to disembark at Daiquiri, eighteen miles east of Santiago harbor; they did but with great difficulty. They had neither the proper equipment nor the experience at putting so many men and horses ashore. Two men died and horses were thrown overboard. Shafter did not leave the ship; they could not figure a safe way to get his 400 pounds off the ship. Once ashore, the troops moved to Ciboney, eight miles west.

The Spanish fought valiantly against the invaders. They made General Joe Wheeler's men pay with 16 lives and 52 wounded at Las Guasimas before they retreated. At El Caney, 81 men lost their lives and 360 were wounded before Lawton's men took the village after 12 hours. The Spanish had delayed him 10 hours, causing an impatient General Jacob Kent to lay down an artillery barrage which accomplished little but telling the Spanish where the US army was. After the barrage, Wheeler's dismounted cavalry and Kent's infantry advanced towards Kettle and San Juan Hills. The troops were split so that each hill could be attacked separately. African-American cavalry troops and Roosevelt's Rough Riders were assigned to take Kettle Hill. They charged on July 1st but the Spanish had withdrawn to San Juan history. By the time Roosevelt's forces reached San Juan Hill, the Spanish were retreating. The way was open to the City of Santiago.

Admiral Cervera decided that honor demanded that they be defeated instead of surrendering but their effort to leave the harbor failed when their fleet was sunk with the loss of many lives. By the 15th of July, the Spanish army in Santiago surrendered. For all practical purposes, the war in Cuba was over. Fighting in the Philippines continued until August 13th.

The United States had decided to take the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and establish a protectorate over Cuba. The Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris by 52-27 on February 6, 1899. The United States had violated the Monroe Doctrine for in Monroe's 1823 sppech to Congress he had promised that the US would not bother existing European colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba and Puerto Rico were. The Cuban-Spanish-American War was only the first serious sally into imperialism. Roosevelt would work to acquire the right to build a canal across Panama. Roosevelt was aggressive in his foreign policy.

© 2003  Donald J. Mabry