Spanish-American War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The United States entered the Spanish-American War to liberate its Cuban neighbors from foreign rule. It emerged from the conflict in possession of a distant Philippine empire whose inhabitants 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.

The United States entered the Spanish-American War to liberate its Cuban neighbors from foreign rule. It emerged from the conflict in possession of a distant Philippine empire whose inhabitants 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.

Cuba

Cuba became an issue for the United States after Cuba’s residents staged a revolution against Spain in 1895. The Spanish regarded Cuba as an integral part of their nation. It was “the ever faithful isle,” and no Spanish government could long remain in power if it accepted the loss of Cuba without a military struggle. 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, Valeriano Weyler, 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 outrage. Popular newspapers in the United States published sensational stories about Cuban suffering and Spanish brutalities that fed discontent with the rule of Madrid.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of the</sc> S<sc>panish</sc>-A<sc>merican</sc> W<sc>ar</sc>Feb. 24, 1895-Apr. 13, 1898Cuban war of independence.Apr. 24, 1898Spain declares war on the United States.May 1, 1898Battle of Manila Bay: Commodore George Dewey and the U.S. Asiatic Squadron rout the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines.May 21, 1898U.S. Navy takes control of Guam.June 29, 1898Engagement between U.S. and Spanish troops at Las Guásimas, near Santiago, Cuba.July 1, 1898Battle of San Juan/El Caney: The United States seizes Santiago. The collapse of Santiago causes Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s fleet to flee the harbor and face destruction by the U.S. Navy.July 25, 1898U.S. forces land in Guánica, Puerto Rico.Aug. 12–13, 1898Armistice between the United States and Spain.Dec. 10, 1898Treaty of Paris formally ends the war. The treaty recognizes Cuban independence and cedes Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. By way of partial compensation, the United States pays Spain twenty million dollars.Feb. 4, 1899Philippine insurrection begins. Early U.S. attempts at colonial administration mark the tenuous beginnings of U.S.-Philippine relations and set the Philippines on a path toward independence.

President Grover Cleveland, 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. He resisted pressure from Congress to intervene in the Caribbean. 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 over foreign policy.

Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, came into office with two main reactions to the fighting. First, Spain could try to repress 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 ensured eventual fighting 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. The Spanish stalled on their side, expecting U.S. resolve to falter.

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

A week later, the United States battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. Two hundred sixty men of the U.S. Navy were killed. Modern scientific research has concluded that an internal cause probably produced the explosion. In 1898, however, many in the United States decided 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.

Hull of the battleship Maine after it was raised from the bottom of Havana Harbor in early 1912. After the ship was examined and bodies and various artifacts were removed, it was towed out to sea and resunk with military honors. (Library of Congress)

Cuba during the Spanish-American War

United States Declares War

On April 11, McKinley sent a message to Congress asking for the authority to intervene (April 20), and officials informed Spain that failing to grant independence to Cuba would result in the United States’ putting the resolutions into effect. Spain broke relations with the United States, a U.S. blockade of Cuba ensued, and Spain declared war on April 24. The president had resisted the popular pressure for war until it became clear that Spain would not yield. After Congress passed resolutions to grant the president the right to intervene, Spain declared war and Congress followed suit. The war came about because both nations saw no way out of the diplomatic impasse other than armed conflict. In the United States, the war was very popular. Volunteers jammed U.S. Army and Navy recruiting offices.

The first U.S. victory came on May 1, 1898, when Commodore George Dewey and the U.S. Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines. The Navy attacked the Philippines as part of a longstanding war plan to induce the Spanish to negotiate an end to the war by threatening their possession 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.

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, the White House 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 Pascual Cervera y Topete’s decrepit Spanish fleet had taken refuge. The U.S. Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Admiral William T. Sampson, was stationed outside Santiago ready to do battle if Cervera ventured forth. 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 R. Shafter, prepared to leave for Cuba. Along with the regulars was the Rough Rider volunteer regiment, of which Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt 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. 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 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.

The Battle of Manila Bay may have been the most one-sided major naval engagement in history. The United States captured the entire Spanish squadron without the loss of a single ship or sailor. The victory made Admiral George Dewey a national hero and nearly propelled him to candidacy for the presidency. (F. R. Niglutsch)

End of the War

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 was occupied almost without resistance later that month. The Spanish had asked Washington to discuss an end to hostilities during July, which culminated in an armistice on August 12. A peace commission from the United States, led by former Secretary of State William R. Day, met with Spanish envoys in Paris in October to arrange peace terms. The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, recognized Cuban independence and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. By way of partial compensation, the United States paid Spain twenty million dollars.

Under the command of Admiral William T. Sampson, the U.S. fleet pursues Spanish admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s fleet off Santiago, Cuba. (F. R. Niglutsch)

U.S. scouting party advancing on Santiago in June, 1898. (U.S. Army War College)

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. 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.

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