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Spanish-American War

the war that marked the emergence of the United States as a world power

Background of the War

Beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain was the first European nation to colonize the Western Hemisphere. At its greatest extent, the Spanish Empire in the Americas stretched from Virginia on the eastern coast of the United States south to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America, excluding Brazil, and westward to California and Alaska. Across the Pacific, it included the Philippines and other island groups. By 1825, however, most of this empire had fallen into other hands and, in that year, Spain acknowledged the independence of Mexico and most of its other possessions throughout the Americas. The only remnants that remained in the empire were Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and the Carolina, Marshall, and Mariana Islands (including Guam) in Micronesia.

Cuban Nationalism

Cuban nationalists fought a long and hard battle for independence in the 1870's, but were eventually defeated. In 1895, during a depression that made conditions in Cuba even worse, a new revolution broke out that threatened to go on endlessly. The revolution's leader, José Martí, was killed early in the fighting, but the rebels refused to give up. The Spanish forces were not powerful enough to put down the rebellion, nor were the rebels strong enough to win. A stalemate seemed imminent.

Philippine Nationalism

About the same time Spain was fighting rebellion in Cuba, the Philippines began its own revolution. In 1892, José Rizal founded a political group dedicated to a peaceful transition to independence. He was rapidly exiled by the Spanish government, however, and was replaced by Andrés Bonifacio, who advocated a violent overthrow of Spanish rule. Bonifacio in turn was replaced by Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy, who in 1897 had his predecessor arrested and executed. Aguinaldo subsequently negotiated a deal with the Spanish, who then exiled him to Hong Kong with enough money to buy weapons and resume the fight.

Puerto Rican Uncertainty

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans were divided in their loyalities. Some sought complete independence for the island, while others preferred an alliance with the United States. Spain proclaimed the autonomy of Puerto Rico on November 25, 1897, but the proclamation did not reach the island until January 1898; a new government was established on February 12, 1898.

The "Yellow Press"

Prior to the Civil War, American expansionists had hoped to acquire Cuba. After the Civil War, interest in annexation dwindled, but many Americans continued to be dismayed at how Spain was treating its colonies, especially Cuba. American interest in Cuban affairs grew even stronger after the country was placed under martial law in 1896 and property owned by American sugar interests came under threat.

American newspapers, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, printed sensational accounts of Spanish oppression in Cuba and carried seriously exaggerated reports of deaths and injuries. Those articles were read by millions of Americans, many of whom demanded that the United States do something to help the Cubans. Some even suggested that the United States needed to acquire naval and military bases and become an imperial power, and that intervention in Spanish colonial affairs was the best way to start that process.

The USS "Maine"

In November 1897, President William McKinley pressured Spain into granting Cuba limited self-government within the Spanish empire. The rebels, however, wanted nothing less than full 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 on January 25, 1898. On February 15, an explosion tore through the ship and killed about 260 sailors on board. Although the cause of the explosion was never officially determined, the American public immediately blamed Spain. "Remember the Maine" became a popular slogan, and newspapers across the country demanded that the United States retaliate for what the public believed was an act of sabotage.

The Maine as is looked prior to the explosion.
the USS Maine

The wreckage of the Maine after the explosion.
the ruins of the Maine in Havana harbor

Front page from the New York Journal after the explosion.
newspaper headline

Declarations of War

In March, President McKinley sent three notes to Spain demanding full independence for Cuba. Spain granted an armistice, and, on April 19, Congress overwhelmingly passed a joint resolution declaring that Cuba was independent. The resolution also disavowed any American intention to acquire the island, and authorized the use of the U.S. military to force Spanish withdrawal. On April 23, Spain declared war on the United States. On April 25, the United States formally declared that a state of war had existed with Spain since April 21.

Chief Events of the War

Manila Bay

On April 27, 1898, the U.S. Navy's Asiatic Squadron of six ships under Commodore George Dewey sailed from Hong Kong to Manila Bay, in the Philippines. On May 1, the squadron destroyed the entire Spanish fleet of 10 vessels without the loss of a single American life or serious damage to any American ship. Dewey then blockaded Manila harbor and awaited the arrival of more U.S. troops.

Cuban Blockade

While Dewey was busy in the Philippines, the North Atlantic Squadron under Rear Admiral William T. Samspon began a partial blockade of Cuba while scouting the Caribbean Sea for a fleet that had left Spain under Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete. On May 28, Sampson located Cervera's fleet, anchored in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. While the navy blockaded the harbor, the army prepared to send an expeditionary force to assault Santiago by land.

Capture of Santiago

On June 22, Major General William R. Shafter began landing 15,000 troops at Daiquirí and Siboney. The Spaniards offered little resistance during the landing, and by June 24 he had taken Las Guásimas.

On July 1, Shafter launched a full-scale two-pronged assault on Santiago. He sent nearly half of his men against a small Spanish force strongly defending a stone fort at El Caney, while 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 at the cost of 1,600 casualties. The assaults made celebrities of the Rough Rider Regiment and its commanders, Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

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 his fleet out of the harbor on July 3 and headed westward along the Cuban coast, but Commodore Winfield S. Schley's fleet sank or beached every single Spanish ship, with no American vessel taking any serious damage.

After days of negotiations, Santiago surrendered on July 17.

The Santiago battle 'arena'.
the Santiago battle 'arena'

Other Major Actions

On July 25, Major General Nelson A. Miles began an invasion of Puerto Rico, which met almost no opposition.

Toward the end of July, several contingents of U.S. troops arrived in the Philippines. On August 13, they entered and occupied Manila. Because the cables had been cut during the blockade, Admiral Dewey did not know that an armistice had been signed with Spain the previous day.

On its way to the Philippines, the cruiser Charleston stopped at Guam and accepted its surrender from its Spanish Governor, who was completely unaware that his nation was even at war with the United States.

Results of the War

In the Treaty of Paris, signed December 10, 1898, Spain granted Cuba its freedom, and ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. The United States, in turn, paid Spain $20,000,000 for public property in the Philippines. The treaty faced stiff opposition in the United States. Many Americans did not believe the United States should become a colonial power. 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. The anti-imperialist forces were so strong in the Senate that it did not ratify the peace treaty until February 6, 1899, and did so by only one vote.

Although the war had lasted less than five months, it forced the United States to strengthen its defenses, build more powerful battleships, and reorganize the army to remedy serious weaknesses revealed during its course. The war also showed the need for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama.

Print Source

World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

Internet Sources

The Spanish-American War Centennial Website
The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War

See Also

Christopher Columbus
Puerto Rico
José Martí
José Rizal
Civil War
Joseph Pulitzer
President William McKinley
George Dewey
William T. Samspon
Pascual Cervera y Topete
Rough Riders
Leonard Wood
Theodore Roosevelt
Winfield S. Schley

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The Robinson Library >> William McKinley's Administration

This page was last updated on December 07, 2018.