Skip to Main Content

World of 1898: International Perspectives on the Spanish American War

Overview Essay

The Spanish-American War

by David Trask

Between 1895 and 1898 Cuba and the Philippine Islands revolted against Spain. The Cubans gained independence, but the Filipinos did not. In both instances the intervention of the United States was the culminating event.

In 1895 the Cuban patriot and revolutionary, José Martí, resumed the Cuban struggle for freedom that had failed during the Ten Years' War (1868-1878). Cuban juntas provided leadership and funds for the military operations conducted in Cuba. Spain possessed superior numbers of troops, forcing the Cuban generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, to wage guerrilla warfare in the hope of exhausting the enemy. Operations began in southeastern Cuba but soon spread westward. The Spanish Conservative Party, led by Antonio Cánovas y Castillo, vowed to suppress the insurrectos, but failed to do so.

The Cuban cause gained increasing support in the United States, leading President Grover Cleveland to press for a settlement, but instead Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler to pacify Cuba. His stern methods, including reconcentration of the civilian population to deny the guerrillas support in the countryside, strengthened U.S. sympathy for the Cubans. President William McKinley then increased pressure on Spain to end the affair, dispatching a new minister to Spain for this purpose. At this juncture an anarchist assassinated Cánovas, and his successor, the leader of the Liberal Party Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, decided to make a grant of autonomy to Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Cuban leadership resisted this measure, convinced that continued armed resistance would lead to independence.

In February two events crystallized U.S. opinion in favor of Cuban independence. First, the Spanish minister in Washington, Enrique Dupuy de Lóme, wrote a letter critical of President McKinley that fell into the hands of the Cuban junta in New York. Its publication caused a sensation, but Sagasta quickly recalled Dupuy de Lóme. A few days later, however, the Battleship Maine, which had been sent to Havana to provide a naval presence there exploded and sank, causing the death of 266 sailors. McKinley, strongly opposed to military intervention, ordered an investigation of the sinking as did Spain. The Spanish inquiry decided that an internal explosion had destroyed the vessel, but the American investigation claimed an external source.

The reluctant McKinley was then forced to demand that Spain grant independence to Cuba, but Sagasta refused, fearing that such a concession would destroy the shaky Restoration Monarchy. It faced opposition from various domestic political groups that might exploit the Cuban affair by precipitating revolution at home. Underlying strong Spanish opposition to Cuban freedom was the traditional belief that God had granted Spain its empire, of which Cuba was the principal remaining area, as a reward for the conquest of the Moors. Spanish honor demanded defense of its overseas possessions, including Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Spain sought diplomatic support from the great powers of Europe, but its long-standing isolation and the strength of the U.S. deterred sympathetic governments from coming to its aid.

On 25 April Congress responded to McKinley's request for armed intervention. Spain had broken diplomatic relations on 23 April. The American declaration of war was predated to 21 April to legitimize certain military operations that had already taken place, particularly a blockade of Havana. To emphasize that its sole motive at the beginning of the struggle was Cuban independence, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, the Teller Amendment, that foreswore any intention of annexing Cuba.

Neither nation had desired war but both had made preparations as the crisis deepened after the sinking of the Maine. McKinley, having opposed war, hoped to end it quickly at the least possible expenditure of blood and treasure. The U.S. possessed a small well-trained navy, but the army was composed only twenty-eight thousand regulars. Spain had large garrisons in Cuba and the Philippines, but its navy was poorly maintained and much weaker than that of the U.S. Prewar planning in the U.S. had settled upon a naval blockade of Cuba and an attack on the decrepit Spanish squadron at Manila to achieve command of the sea and preclude reinforcement and resupply of the Spanish overseas forces. These measures would bring immediate pressure on Spain and signal American determination. The small army would conduct raids against Cuba and help sustain the Cuban army until a volunteer army could be mobilized for extensive service in Cuba. Spain was forced to accept the U.S. decision to fight on the periphery of Spanish power where its ability to resist was weakest.

The war began with two American successes. Admiral William Sampson immediately established a blockade of Havana that was soon extended along the north coast of Cuba and eventually to the south side. Sampson then prepared to counter Spanish effort to send naval assistance. Then, on 1 May, Commodore George Dewey, commanding the Asiatic Squadron, destroyed Admiral Patricio Montoyo's small force of wooden vessels in Manila Bay. Dewey had earlier moved from Japan to Hong Kong to position himself for an attack on the Philippines. When news of this triumph reached Washington, McKinley authorized a modest army expedition to conduct land operations against Manila, a step in keeping with the desire to maintain constant pressure on Spain in the hope of forcing an early end to the war.

On 29 April a Spanish squadron commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera left European waters for the West Indies to reinforce the Spanish forces in Cuba. Sampson prepared to meet this challenge to American command of the Caribbean Sea. Cervera eventually took his squadron into the harbor at Santiago de Cuba at the opposite end of the island from Havana where the bulk of the Spanish army was concentrated.

As soon as Cervera was blockaded at Santiago (29 May) McKinley made two important decisions. He ordered the regular army, then being concentrated at Tampa, to move as quickly as possible to Santiago de Cuba. There it would join with the navy in operations intended to eliminate Cervera's forces. Also on 3 June he secretly informed Spain of his war aims through Great Britain and Austria. Besides independence for Cuba, he indicated a desire to annex Puerto Rico (in lieu of a monetary indemnity) and an island in the Marianas chain in the Pacific Ocean. Also the United States sought a port in the Philippines, but made no mention of further acquisitions there. The American message made it clear that the U.S. would increase its demands, should Spain fail to accept these demands. Sagasta was not yet ready to admit defeat, which ended the initial American attempt to arrange an early peace.

Major General William Shafter then conducted a chaotic but successful transfer of the Fifth Army Corps from Tampa to the vicinity of Santiago de Cuba. The need to move quickly caused great confusion, but it was a reasonable price to pay for seizing the initiative at the earliest possible moment. The navy escorted his convoy of transports around the eastern end of Cuba to Santiago de Cuba, where he arrived on 20 June. After landing at Daiquirí and Siboney east of the city, he moved quickly toward the enemy along an interior route, fearful of tropical diseases and desirous of thwarting Spanish reinforcements on the way from the north.

The navy urged a different course, suggesting an attack on the narrow channel connecting the harbor of Santiago de Cuba to the sea. An advance near the coast would allow the navy's guns to provide artillery support. Sweeping of mines in the channel and seizure of the batteries in the area would enable the navy to storm the harbor entrance and enter the harbor for an engagement with Cervera's forces. Shafter rejected this proposal, perhaps because of army-navy rivalry. The Spanish commander did not oppose Shafter's landing and offered only slight resistance to his westward movement. He disposed his garrison of ten thousand men along a perimeter reaching entirely around the city to the two sides of the harbor channel, hoping to prevent Cuban guerrillas under General Máximo Gómez from getting into the city. Three defensive lines were created west of the city to deal with the American advance. The first line was centered on the San Juan Heights, but only five hundred troops were assigned to defend the place. The Spanish intended to make their principal defense closer to the city.

Shafter's plan of attack, based on inadequate reconnaissance, envisioned two associated operations. One force would attack El Caney, a strong point of the Spanish left to eliminate the possibility of a flank attack on the main American effort, aimed at the San Juan Heights. After reducing El Caney, the American troops would move into position to the right of the rest of the Fifth Corps for an assault in the San Juan Heights that would carry into the city and force the capitulation of the Spanish garrison. Shafter's orders for the attack were vague, leading some historians to believe that Shafter intended only to seize the heights.

The battle of 1 July did not develop as planned. Lawton's force was detained at El Caney where a Spanish garrison of only five hundred men held off the attackers for many hours. Meanwhile the rest of the Fifth Corps struggled into position beneath the San Juan Heights. It did not move against the Spanish positions until the early afternoon. Fortunately a section of Gatling guns was able to fire on the summit of San Juan Hill, a bombardment that forced the Spanish defenders to abandon the position to the American force attacking on the left. Another group on the right that included the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, commanded that day by Theodore Roosevelt, moved across an adjacent elevation, Kettle Hill. The Spanish retreated to their second line of defense, and the Fifth Army Corps, exhausted and disorganized, set about entrenching itself on the San Juan Heights. Having failed to seize the city, Shafter considered abandoning this position, which was exposed to enemy artillery fire, but mandatory orders from Washington led instead to the inauguration of a siege, soon supported by the arrival of U.S. reinforcements.

The partial success of 1 July produced consternation in Havana. The commander in Cuba, General Ramón Blanco, ordered Cervera to leave Santiago de Cuba, fearing that the Spanish squadron would fall into American hands, to face the concentrated fire of all the American vessels outside, a certain recipe for disaster. Blanco persisted, and on 3 July Cervera made his sortie. Admiral Sampson had just left the blockade, moving east to compose differences with General Shafter. This movement left Commodore Winfield Scott Schley as the senior officer present during the naval battle. Schley had earned Sampson's distrust because of his earlier failure to blockade Cervera promptly. This concern was justified when Schley allowed his flagship to make an eccentric turn away from the exiting Spanish ships before assuming its place in the pursuit. Cervera hoped to flee west to Cienfuegos, but four of his five vessels were sunk near the entrance to the channel. The other ship was overhauled over fifty miles westward where its commander drove it upon the shore to escape sinking.

This destruction of Cervera's squadron decided the war, although further fighting occurred elsewhere. Sagasta decided to capitulate at Santiago de Cuba and to inaugurate peace negotiations at an early date through the good offices of France. He also recalled a naval expedition under Admiral Manuel de la Cámara that had left Spain earlier, moving eastward through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal to relieve the garrison in the Philippines. The navy had organized a squadron to pursue Cámara, but his recall ended any requirement for it.

After the Spanish forces at Santiago de Cuba capitulated on 17 July, a welcome event because the Fifth Army Corps had fallen victim to malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases, the Commanding General of the Army, Nelson Miles, led an expedition to Puerto Rico that landed on the south coast of that island. He sent three columns northward with orders to converge on San Juan. These movements proceeded successfully, but were ended short of the objective when word of a peace settlement reached Miles. Meanwhile the fifth Army Corps was hastily shipped to Long Island to recuperate while volunteer regiments continued the occupation of Cuba commanded by General Leonard Wood.

The last military operations of the war were conducted at Manila. An expedition under Major General Wesley Merritt arrived during July and encamped north of the city. Preparations for an attack were made amidst increasing signs of opposition from Filipino insurrectos led by Emilio Aguinaldo. He had become the leader of a revolutionary outburst in 1896-1897 that had ended in a truce. He established himself in Hong Kong, and in May 1898 Commodore Dewey transported him to Manila where he set about re-energizing his movement. During the summer he succeeded in gaining control of extensive territory in Luzon, and his forces sought to seize Manila. Dewey provided some supplies, but did not recognize the government that Aguinaldo set up.

Dewey hoped to avoid further hostilities at Manila. To this end he engaged in shadowy negotiations with a new Spanish governor in Manila and the Roman Catholic Bishop of the city. An agreement was reached whereby there would be a brief engagement between the Spanish and American forces followed immediately by surrender of the city, after which the Americans were to prevent Aguinaldo's troops from entering Manila. General Merritt was suspicious of this deal, but on 13 August, after the American troops moved through a line of defenses north of Manila, the Spanish garrison surrendered to Dewey. The guerrillas were denied access, and the American troops occupied the city. Continuing American failure to recognize the Aguinaldo government fostered increasing distrust.

Meanwhile, negotiations between McKinley and the French ambassador in Washington, Jules Cambon, came to fruition. The string of Spanish defeats ensured that the U.S. could dictate a settlement. On 12 August, McKinley and Cambon signed a protocol that provided for Cuban independence and the cession of Puerto Rico and an island in the Marianas (Guam). It differed from the American offer of June only in that it deferred action on the Philippines to a peace conference in Paris. The cautious McKinley hoped to limit American involvement with the Philippines, but a strong current of public opinion in favor of the annexation of the entire archipelago forced the President's hand. He developed a rationale for expansion that stressed the duty of the nation and its destiny, arguing that he could discern no other acceptable course. The Spanish delegation at the peace conference was forced to accept McKinley's decision. The Treaty of Paris signed on 10 December 1898 ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in return for a sum of $25 million to pay for Spanish property in the islands.

When the treaty was sent to the Senate for approval, anti-imperialist elements offered some opposition, but on 6 February 1899 the Senate accepted it by a vote of 57 to 27, only two more than the necessary two-thirds majority. Fatefully, two days before the vote, armed hostilities broke out at Manila between the American garrison and Aguinaldo's troops, the beginning of a struggle that lasted until July 1902. Although Cuba received its independence, the Platt Amendment (1902) severely limited its sovereignty and stimulated a dependent relationship that affected the evolution of Cuban society. This dependency leads some historians to maintain that the events of 1895-1898 were simply a transition (la transición) from Spanish imperialism to American imperialism. Eventually the U.S. rejected the expansion of 1898, which included the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, canceling the Platt Amendment, granting independence to the Philippine Islands, and admitting Hawaii into the Union. The war heralded the emergence of the United States as a great power, but mostly it reflected the burgeoning national development of the nineteenth century. World War I, not the American intervention in the Cuban-Spanish struggle of 1895-1898, determined the revolutionized national security policy of the years since 1914. These policies, in keeping with American values, were decidedly anti-imperialistic in both the formal and informal meanings of the term.