The Spanish-American War 1898

The Spanish-American War was essentially a fight over spheres of influence in Cuba and the Caribbean. The Spanish navy was not the powerful Armada of centuries past and the U.S. Navy easily defeated the Spanish fleet in Cuba and the Philippines.

The Spanish-American War

The official date of the Spanish-American War is 1898. It was not a major conflagration but rather a test of will and a fight to establish spheres of influence. Cuba, a Spanish colony, was always a concern to the U.S. due to its proximity to Florida. Cuba had been in a state of revolt since 1868, when native rebels challenged the rule of Spain. Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, convinced President Grant that he hold off on recognizing an independent Cuba.

On October 31, 1873, the Spaniards in Cuba captured the Virginius, an arms running ship. The ship was flying the Stars and Stripes, though illegally, and suspected of transporting weapons to the rebels. Spanish authorities summarily shot 53 of the crew as pirates. Some of the crew was American and Secretary Fish successfully negotiated an indemnity of $80,000 from Spain for the families of those victims.

American interest in Cuba waned after attempts in 1875-76 to contain the outbreak of Cuban rebellion. February 24, 1895 saw a new outbreak of native insurrection against Spanish rule. Spanish oppression had been one cause of the revolt. The other hardship was caused by high U.S. tariffs on sugar introduced in 1894 as a protective trade measure during a prolonged American depression. American sympathies were with the rebels and a joint resolution by the House and the Senate in 1896 offered mediation between Spain and the rebels with an eye to recognition of an independent Cuba. Spain did not accept the offer.

Spain did, however, make important concessions to Cuba in 1898. They recalled General Weyler, who had set up concentration camps for holding suspected rebels and rebel sympathizers; limited autonomy was granted and imprisoned U.S. citizens were freed. The concessions were not enough for the rebels and for loyalists, they were too much. Loyalists held a violent demonstration in Havana on January 12, 1898. The American press was attacking Spain through its editorials. Members of the Republican Party saw Cuba as a key to U.S. domination of the Caribbean.

After the Havana riot, the U.S. battleship Maine was sent to the Havana harbor to protect Americans and their property. On February 15, an explosion destroyed the Maine as 260 officers and men on board were killed. A naval court of inquiry revealed that the ship was struck by a submerged mine. They were unable, however, to point the finger of responsibility at anyone. The public, the Congress and the Republican Party pressured President McKinley to declare war on Spain.

The McKinley administration was antiwar and notified the Spanish government, through U.S. Ambassador Stewart Woodford, that America did not have territorial ambitions for Cuba. What America wanted was a cease-fire in Cuba and to have the concentration camps closed. Spain accepted U.S. demands and cabled their agreement to McKinley on April 10. Before McKinley received the news from Spain he had reversed his antiwar position and called for "forcible intervention" to establish peace in Cuba.

On April 20, 1898, Congress passed a joint resolution that:

(1) Recognized Cuban independence;

(2) Called for the withdrawal of all Spanish military personnel from Cuba;

(3) Gave the President the power to use the American armed forces to ensure that these conditions were met;

(4) Asserted that the Cuban government belonged to its own people. Denied any intention of American expansion into Cuba.

The resolution was served on Spain with the ultimatum that the U.S. would intervene militarily if Cuban independence were not granted. On April 21, Spain severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. On April 22, the U.S. initiated a naval blockade of Cuban ports. On April 24, Spain declared war against the United States and on April 25, the U.S. declared war on Spain retroactive to April 21.

The outbreak of war found the U.S. navy in a state of readiness. There were 2,000 officers and 24,000 men on active duty when the war was declared. The U.S. Asiatic navy presence at Hong Kong had been secretly strengthened two months earlier in anticipation of hostilities. Commodore George Dewey was instructed to take his Hong Kong squadron and engage the Spanish in the Philippines. The U.S. Army, 2,100 officers and 28,000 men was, by contrast, ill prepared for a tropical war. The decisive battles were naval contests and the Spanish navy was outmoded and poorly trained.

The Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, was over in seven hours. The American squadron, consisting of four cruisers and two gunboats, entered Manila Bay during the evening of April 30. The Spanish fleet of 10 vessels was at Cavite Point. Early the next morning, the U.S. squadron methodically cut down the Spanish fleet, boat by boat. 381 Spanish sailors were killed and all of the ships were either destroyed or captured. No American ship was damaged and total U.S. casualties amounted to 8 wounded.

Commodore Dewey lacked the resources for land operations and imposed a blockade on Manila Bay while an American contingent of army was dispatched under General Wesley Merritt. Merritt arrived at Manila Bay on July 25, bringing American strength up to 10,700 men. U.S. troops, supported by Filipino guerrillas, assaulted Manila on August 13. The Spanish surrendered the next day and the Americans maintained a military occupation of the Philippines.

Rear Admiral William T. Sampson was assigned to blockade Cuba's northern coast while Commodore Winfield Schley would patrol the south. Schley's goal was to intercept Admiral Cervera's Spanish fleet before they could re-fuel with coal after their voyage across the Atlantic. Schley was delayed at Key West and did not arrive off Santiago de Chile until May 28. The Spanish fleet was already safe in the harbor, under the protection of shore based cannons. Admiral Sampson assumed command of the blockade with the goal of capturing or destroying the Spanish vessels.

A land force of 17,000 men was assembled at Tampa, Florida. The force was a mix of regulars and volunteers. Among the volunteers was the U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, known as the "Rough Riders" under Colonel Leonard Wood and Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt. They waited for the end of the tropical rains before invading Cuba.

General William Shafter was given command of the force and ordered to reinforce Sampson and capture the port. On June 14, the force sailed from Tampa.

Shafter's force arrived off Santiago on June 20 and began its march to the city on the 30th. The Battle of El Caney lasted the whole day of July 1 as 7,000 U.S. troops captured a fortified village defended by 600 Spanish. The Americans, under heavy fire, seized San Juan Hill on the same day. After 1,572 casualties, the U.S. won command of the heights and was in a position to bombard the Spanish fleet in the harbor.

On July 3, the Spanish ships made a break for open sea and tried to run the U.S. blockade. The American guns were far superior to those of the Spanish and, in a four-hour battle, the enemy fleet was destroyed. The destruction of the Spanish fleet virtually ended all hostilities. The Spanish garrison of 24,000 troops surrendered on July 17. On July 25, U.S. troops under General Nelson A. Miles met little opposition as it occupied Puerto Rico.

On July 26 the Spanish government asked the U.S. to name its peace terms. The Treaty of Paris officially ended the war and the following terms were agreed to:

1) Spain relinquished all sovereignty over Cuba.

2) Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States.

3) Spain assumed responsibility for the $400 million Cuban debt.

4) Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. for a payment of $20 million.

More than 274,000 American men served in the Spanish-American War. 5,462 died but only 379 of the deaths were battle related. The remaining deaths were blamed on disease or other problems. The actual dollar cost of the war for America was $250 million.

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