Spanish-American War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Drawn into an unwanted war prompted by Spain’s inability to find a satisfactory settlement with Cuban rebels, the United States won an easy victory over Spain and found itself with a colonial empire that made it an international power.

Summary of Event

Cuba became an issue in U.S. foreign policy after its people staged an unsuccessful revolution against Spain in 1895. The Spanish regarded Cuba as an integral part of their nation. To the Spanish, Cuba was “the ever faithful isle,” and no Spanish government could long remain in power if it accepted the loss of Cuba without putting up a fight. A bitter war ensued, in which the Spanish controlled major cities such as Havana, while the rebels dominated the countryside. In 1896, the Spanish captain general in Cuba, Cuba;and Spain[Spain] Spain;and Cuba[Cuba] Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau Weyler y Nicolau, Valeriano , announced a tough policy of reconcentration. Cuban civilians in certain parts of the island were to be herded into the Spanish-held towns, where they could no longer assist and supply the rebel armies. Thousands of women and children died of disease or malnutrition in these overcrowded camps. U.S. opinion, already sympathetic to the Cubans, was outraged. Popular newspapers in the United States published sensational stories about Cuban suffering and Spanish brutalities that fed discontent with the rule of Madrid. Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)] Cuba;Spanish-American War Philippines;Spanish-American War (1898) Spain;and United States[United States] Cervera y Topete, Pasqual McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] [kw]Spanish-American War (Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898) [kw]American War, Spanish- (Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898) [kw]War, Spanish-American (Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898) Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)] Cuba;Spanish-American War Philippines;Spanish-American War (1898) Spain;and United States[United States] Cervera y Topete, Pasqual McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] [g]United States;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [g]Spain;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [g]Cuba;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [g]Philippines;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [g]Southeast Asia;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-American War[6330] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 24-Dec. 10, 1898: Spanish-AmericanWar[6330] Dewey, George Hearst, William Randolph Sampson, William Thomas Shafter, William Rufus Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Spanish-American War[Spanish AmericanWar]

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President Grover Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and Cuba[Cuba] , who occupied the White House during the first two years of the Cuban rebellion, took the position that Spain deserved the chance to defeat the rebellion and resisted pressure from Congress to intervene in the conflict. By the time that Cleveland left office in March, 1897, his policy had failed to persuade the Spanish of the need to negotiate with the rebels, and he had lost the trust of the U.S. people in his foreign policy.

Cleveland’s successor, President William McKinley, McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and Cuba[Cuba] came into office with two expectations of the Cuban conflict. First, Spain should be allowed to suppress the rebellion, but it had only a limited time to do so. Second, any outcome of the war must be acceptable to the Cuban rebels. The latter condition virtually ensured a conflict between the United States and Spain, because the rebels would accept nothing less than Cuban independence. McKinley played for time, hoping that the Spanish could be persuaded to leave Cuba. Meanwhile, the Spanish stalled, expecting U.S. resolve to falter.

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Spanish efforts to conciliate the United States included a modification of their reconcentration policy in November, 1897, and limited autonomy for Cuba. Spain proposed to retain control over Cuba’s international relations. However, these steps did not resolve the differences between the United States and Spain. Early in 1898, two events pushed the nations closer to war. In February, the Cubans published a private letter from the Spanish minister in Washington, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme Lôme, Enrique Dupuy de , in which the diplomat made disparaging remarks about President McKinley. The letter also revealed that the Spanish were using delaying tactics. After the letter was publicly revealed, Dupuy de Lôme resigned in disgrace.

One week later, the U.S. battleship Maine Maine, USS exploded while docked in Havana harbor, and 260 American sailors were killed. Modern scientific research has concluded that the explosion Explosives;and USS Maine[USS Maine] was an accident caused by an internal problem on the ship. In 1898, however, many Americans believed that Spain had either blown up the ship or failed to prevent its destruction. The episode put the two countries on a collision course toward war. As diplomatic negotiations proceeded, it became apparent that Spain would not grant Cuban independence. The most it would concede was to suspend hostilities, a proposal that neither Washington nor the Cuban rebels would accept.

Theodore Roosevelt (on horse) leading the charge of his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. From a photograph and painting by Frederick Remington.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

Meanwhile, Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];and newspapers[Newspapers] the American public was aroused by sensational journalistic coverage of the Maine Maine, USS incident. William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst, William Randolph New York Journal American New York Journal American fanned the flames of jingoism by claiming that a secret telegram had been discovered that laid the blame for the Maine explosion on Spain. Unfounded reports such as that increased public support for military action and put pressure on McKinley to declare war against Spain.

On April 11, McKinley sent a message to Congress asking for the authority to intervene. and U.S. officials informed Spain that failing to grant independence to Cuba would result in the federal government putting its resolutions into effect. Spain broke relations with the United States, a U.S. blockade of Cuba ensued, and Spain declared war on the United States on April 24. The U.S. president had resisted the popular pressure for war until it became clear that Spain would not yield. The war came about because both nations saw no way out of the diplomatic impasse other than armed conflict. In the United States, this first foreign war in a half century proved popular. Volunteers jammed army and navy Navy, U.S.;Spanish-American War[Spanish-American War] recruiting offices.

The first U.S. victory came on May 1, 1898, when Commodore George Dewey’s Dewey, George U.S. Asiatic Squadron captured the entire Spanish fleet Spain;navy at Manila Bay Manila Bay, Battle of (1898) Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-ruled Philippines. Philippines;and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] The navy attacked the Philippines as part of a long-standing war plan to induce the Spanish to negotiate an end to the war by threatening their valuable colony in Asia. The victory presented Washington with a new challenge of what to do with this unexpected territorial opportunity. The McKinley administration sent reinforcements to Manila and kept its options open about taking all the islands in a peace settlement.

The battleship Maine after it was raised during the early twentieth century.

(Library of Congress)

During June and July, the main focus of military and public attention was on Cuba and the sea and land battles that occurred in the Caribbean. Initial plans for army action in Cuba called for a large-scale landing near Havana during the autumn of 1898. In June, however, the McKinley administration decided to dispatch an expeditionary force of seventeen thousand men to the southeastern Cuban coast. There, in the harbor of the city of Santiago de Cuba, Admiral Pasqual Cervera y Topete’s decrepit Spanish Spain;navy fleet had taken refuge. The U.S. Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Admiral William Thomas Sampson Sampson, William Thomas , was stationed outside Santiago ready to do battle if Cervera ventured out. The revised U.S. strategy called for the capture of Santiago by land invasion, which would force the Spanish fleet to steam out to virtually certain destruction.

Near Tampa Bay in Florida, the bulk of the regular army, under the command of General William Rufus Shafter Shafter, William Rufus , prepared to leave for Cuba. Along with the regulars was the so-called Rough Rider Rough Riders Spanish-American War[Spanish American War];Rough Riders volunteer regiment, of which Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] was second in command. Shafter’s landing along the coast near Santiago was accomplished late in June. Despite logistical difficulties, the U.S. forces moved forward to engage the Spanish on July 1 near Santiago at the twin battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];Battle of San Juan Hill San Juan Hill, Battle of (1898) . Both battles were U.S. victories. Shafter’s troops subsequently occupied the strategic heights above the port city. On July 3, Admiral Cervera, on orders from the government in Madrid, headed out of Santiago harbor and vainly tried to evade the U.S. fleet. By the end of the day, all Spanish ships had been sunk or beached.

Following Cervera’s defeat, the end of the war came swiftly. On July 17, after lengthy negotiations, the Spanish soldiers in Santiago surrendered. Puerto Rico Puerto Rico;and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] was occupied almost without resistance later that month. The Spanish had asked Washington to discuss an end to hostilities during July, and an armistice was declared on August 12. A commission from the United States, led by former secretary of state William R. Day Day, William R. , met with Spanish envoys in Paris in October to arrange peace terms. The Treaty of Paris Paris, Treaty of (1898) , signed on December 10, 1898, recognized Cuban independence Cuba;independence of and ceded Puerto Rico Puerto Rico;U.S. acquisition of Guam;U.S. acquisition of , Guam, and the Philippines Philippines;U.S. acquisition of to the United States. In partial compensation for the territories, the United States paid Spain twenty million dollars.

Significance

The war revealed inadequacies in the U.S. Army’s ability to mobilize to meet a foreign policy crisis. The resulting outcry over shortages and inefficiencies focused the blame on Secretary of War Russell A. Alger Alger, Russell A. . President McKinley appointed a commission to probe these problems, and out of these deliberations came later military reforms. For the most part, the armed forces performed well under McKinley’s leadership. Following the signing of the peace treaty, a bitter struggle over ratification took place in the United States. McKinley effectively mobilized public opinion to secure approval. The outcome of the war left the United States with an overseas empire and new world responsibilities.

The United States entered the Spanish-American War with the ostensible purpose of liberating its Cuban neighbors from European rule. It emerged from the conflict in possession of a distant Philippine empire whose inhabitants then rebelled against U.S. dominance. The war with Spain marked a significant turning point in U.S. history. Acquisition of an overseas empire made the United States a major power on the world stage. Within a few years, however, the people of the United States decided that the expansion achieved during 1898-1899 should not be extended. Disillusionment about the results of imperialism characterized historical memories of the conflict with Spain.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Praeger, 2003. Overview of the yellow journalism era, which was typified by William Randolph Hearst’s sensationalist coverage of the Spanish-American War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971. Scholarly but nonetheless highly readable account of U.S. miliary operations in the Spanish-American War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. The Spanish-American War and President McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982. Brief survey of the major developments of the war that emphasizes the extent to which McKinley’s leadership produced victory for the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, H. Wayne. America’s Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965. Offers a vigorous defense of McKinley’s policies in 1898; provides a clear, concise statement of the origins and consequences of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Offner, John L. An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain over Cuba, 1895-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Makes effective use of the archives of the United States, Spain, and other nations to provide a thorough analysis of how the war came about.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2003. Analysis of McKinley’s presidency that shows how McKinley was beginning to transform the United States into a global military power when his life was abruptly ended by an assassin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Joseph. The Spanish-American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902. New York: Longman, 1994. Surveys the background, causes, and events of the war, with an emphasis on the military history of the conflict. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. New York: Macmillan, 1981. Perhaps the best one-volume treatment of the war and its military impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Traxel, David. 1898: The Birth of the American Century. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1998. Exploration of the most significant events occurring in 1898. Traxel shows how the Spanish-American War and other events of that year transformed the United States from a rural, isolationist society to a major world power. The book includes an account of the Battle of Manila Bay and Dewey’s heroic reception in the United States after his victory.

Cuba’s Ten Years’ War

Rise of Yellow Journalism

Hearst-Pulitzer Circulation War

Cuban War of Independence

McKinley Is Elected President

Philippine Insurrection

Suppression of Yellow Fever

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Stephen Crane; George Dewey; William McKinley. Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)] Cuba;Spanish-American War Philippines;Spanish-American War (1898) Spain;and United States[United States] Cervera y Topete, Pasqual McKinley, William [p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War]

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