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World of 1898: International Perspectives on the Spanish American War

Valeriano Weyler

General Valeriano Weyler Photographic History of the Spanish American War, p. 33.


Born in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, he was educated there and in Granada. Following in the footsteps of his father, a military doctor, Weyler decided on an army career. He graduated from the Infantry School in Toledo and by age 20 he had attained the rank of lieutenant. He served in Cuba, organizing a squad of volunteers from among the merchants of Havana that was something like a foreign legion. In 1878 Weyler was made a general. In 1895 he was given the Grand Cross of Maria Cristina for his command of troops in the Philippines. In 1896 when rebellion was in full swing in Cuba, Weyler was named governor with full powers to suppress the insurgency and return the island to political order and the sugar industry to greater profitibility.

Initially Weyler was greatly frustrated by the same factors that had made victory difficult for all generals of traditional standing armies fighting against an insurgency. While the Spanish troops marched in regulation and required substantial supplies, their opponents practiced hit-and-run tactics and lived off the land, blending in with the non-combattant population. He came to the same conclusions as his predecessors as well -- that to win Cuba back for Spain, he would have to separate the rebels from the civilians by putting the latter in safe havens, protected by loyal Spanish troops. By the end of 1897, General Weyler had relocated more than 300,000 into such "reconcentration camps," not to be confused with the use of a similar phrase by twentieth-century regimes. Although he was successful moving vast numbers of people, he failed to provide for them adequately. Consequently, these areas became cesspools of hunger, disease, and starvation where thousands died.

Weyler's reconcentration policy had another important effect. Although it made Weyler's military objectives easier to accomplish, it had devastating political consequences. Although the Spanish Conservative government supported Weyler's tactics wholeheartedly, the Liberals denounced them vigorously for their toll on the Cuban civilian population. In the propaganda war waged in the United States, Cuban emigrés made much of Weyler's inhumanity to their countrymen and won the sympathy of broad groups of the U.S. population to their cause.

Weyler's strategy also backfired militarily thanks to the rebellion in the Philippines that required the redeployment by 1897 of some troops already in Cuba. When Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was assassinated in June, Weyler lost his principal supporter in Spain. He resigned his post in late 1897 and returned to Europe. He served as Minister of War three separate times (March 1901 - December 1902, July 1905 - December 1905, December 1906 - January 1907). On November 30, 1929, he celebrated 75 years of military service.