Spanish-American War: History, Causes, Outcome, & Effects

Wars can drag on for years, claim many lives but change very little. However, wars can also be the absolute opposite and help greatly, like the brief and relatively bloodless Spanish-American War. On the other hand, the consequences of it altered the balance of power between the two superpowers involved significantly. Here, we’ll take an in-depth look at the history of the Spanish-American War, discussing its origins, major battles, and other interesting facts.

America’s Early Non-Intervention Policy

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, European countries began to compete for control of overseas territories in Asia and Africa. Many in the United States argued that the country, which was then under President William McKinley’s rule, should join this game of empires and demonstrate to the world its increasing military power.

However, U.S. officials didn’t want to be a part of it and even declined to help American sugar plantation owners overthrow Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii and conquer the Hawaiian Islands in 1893. This begged the question of how long these moral reservations would last?

Since the United States hadn’t been involved in a major international conflict since its war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848, the Spanish-American War could be regarded as a pivotal point in the rise of the United States as a superpower and a force to be reckoned with.

Causes of the Spanish-American War

  • Disturbing reports from Cuba began to trickle in shortly after the coup in Hawaii in 1893. It is worth noting that that Cubans had been under Spanish rule since the 1500s, but unfortunately an uprising broke out in 1895. The Spanish attempted to put down the rebellion by rounding up Cubans and placing them in detention centers, where they suffered from poor hygiene and eventually died in the thousands.
  • With the thirst to boost sales, newspapers in the United States stirred up public outrage against the Spanish by publishing many stories about the plight of the oppressed Cubans, who, it was claimed, were suffering at the hands of European tyrants. Some newspapers even reported that the Cubans’ plight was far worse than  the one the United States had suffered under British rule prior to the American Revolution. It was this type of emotion-filled and exaggerated reports that gave rise to the term “Yellow Journalism”.
  • Then-United States President William McKinley sent the cruiser USS Maine into Havana harbor to safeguard American citizens and their property during the mayhem. Nine days after arriving in port, the USS Maine was destroyed in an explosion that claimed the lives of 267 American servicemen. The Spanish said that the explosion was caused by a technical problem on board, which they later confirmed to be true, but the Americans were certain that the Maine had been blown up by Spanish sabotage. And so, the anti-Spanish rhetoric and the calls for war increased to alarming proportions.
  • The New York Journal and the New York Times’ publications only further added more fuel to the fire with somewhat fabricated stories. Similarly, other American publications reported the story in a way that made the public grow comfortable with the thought of the U.S. waging war against the Spanish Empire.
  • Renowned journalists like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were just some of the few publishers whose stories call on the U.S. to wage war against Spain. Their stories on the issue were anything but well-researched. Those articles were very sentimental and often exaggerated the atrocities committed by Spain in order to infuriate the readers. And soon lawmakers on Capitol Hill and political leaders joined the cry for war against Spain.
  • Finally, it has been stated the U.S. went to war with Spain because it feared being overpowered by rising imperial nations, especially those in Europe. Advocates of the war, like Theodore Roosevelt, saw the war as a way to expand the U.S. influence in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

After Cuba and the United States signed a trade agreement in 1894, Spain broke it off. When the economically struggling Cubans were hit with new tariffs and trade restrictions in 1895, they once again took up the cause of independence. Spain relied on Cuba for both prestige and trade, and it also exploited the island as a military base. And like many colonial powers of the time, Spain did indeed abuse and oppress its Cuban colony. Image: An American cartoon published in Judge, February 6, 1897

Congress declares war on Spain

The United States declared war on Spain on April 21, 1898

With public outcry too loud to ignore, the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. The declaration came after several failed attempts at mediation with the Spanish Prime Minister, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta and his forces. The Teller Amendment, introduced that same year by Congress in an attempt to prevent the US colonization of Cuba, stated that the US would aid the Cuban people in achieving independence from Spain but would not conquer the island afterward.

Both President McKinley and a sizable portion of the population had been increasingly irritated by Spain’s harsh repression and abuse of the Cubans, and although he might have had some ulterior motives, the President was focused on helping the Cuban people.

The public mood was dominated by the two countries’ respective war preparations as well as the U.S.’s need for the emancipation of Cuba. Full declaration of war was made later in April; however, the real war began in June, following a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba and the mobilization of over 125,000 service personnel. The U.S. Navy was very confident that they could easily defeat the Spanish navy in the naval battle of Santiago Bay.

What really happened during the War?

Tropical sickness caused more deaths among American troops fighting in the tropics than did Spanish firearms. Cuba presented more of a difficulty than Puerto Rico because of the island’s larger Spanish defense force. It’s true that the new navy set for war was formidable, but its ships were largely untested, which worried McKinley.

The American troops were also somewhat inexperienced and fewer than thirty thousand troops and sailors were at the country’s disposal, as many of them were ill-equipped to face off against a dangerous foe. However, with McKinley’s appeal for all able-bodied males, over a million American men swiftly responded, many of them without uniforms and with their own rifles. Despite being subjected to segregation and other impediments, about 10,000 African American men enlisted to fight in the war.

American military planners viewed the fight as a war for the empire, which caught the Spanish by surprise given that they expected the conflict to be depicted as a war for Cuba. Military commanders wanted to gain more naval bases in the Pacific Ocean more than they wanted to liberate Cuba or preserve American interests in the Caribbean.

Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders’ involvement in the war

Before resigning his position to join the U.S. cavalry as a veteran, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered an attack on the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. This was because the Philippines were a central part of a chain of islands ruled by Spain. Since Cuba was too far away, the first major military confrontation occurred in the Philippines.

The U.S. Navy, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, achieved a resounding success, destroying all of the Spanish vessels with minimal casualties to its own ranks. By mid-August 1899, the U.S army had successfully taken the islands from Spain after having deployed a force there a month earlier.

In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt along with Army Colonel Leonard Wood formed the first United States Voluntary Cavalry during the Spanish-American War. They were popularly known as the Rough Riders. Their efforts played a significant role in helping the United States claim victory over Spain. Roosevelt was praised for his brave actions and awarded (posthumously) the Medal of Honor in 2001. Image: Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the top of the hill following their victory at the Battle of San Juan

It took a little longer to achieve victory in Cuba itself. Seventeen thousand American forces arrived in Cuba in the month of June. Even though they encountered little resistance from the Spanish at first, by the beginning of July, intense combat had broken out near the Spanish headquarters in Santiago.

The Rough Riders, an all-volunteer cavalry unit led by Theodore Roosevelt, were made up of thrill seekers fresh out of college, war veterans, and cowboys from the American Southwest. They led the attack up Kettle Hill, which was adjacent to San Juan Hill, and eventually surrounded Santiago.

The Spanish fleet attempted a desperate sea escape, but they were met by an American naval blockade and were utterly destroyed. Spain soon lost control of Puerto Rico due to a lack of naval support, allowing American forces to advance with little opposition.

After around 10 weeks of fighting, it was evident that the United States had accomplished its purpose of aiding Cuba’s liberation from Spanish control.

How many died as a result of the Spanish-American War?

The war was declared over by the close of July. Fewer than 350 American soldiers  were killed in combat, another 1,600 were wounded, and nearly 3,000 men lost their lives to disease throughout the conflict’s brief lifespan.

The Spanish, on the other hand, lost more than 700 of their soldiers during the war. And more than 14,000 Spanish troops died as a result of diseases.

The 1898 Treaty of Paris

After months of fighting between Spain and the United States, the Spanish-American War was officially declared over on December 10, 1898, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Spain gave up all claims to Cuba, surrendered up Guam and Puerto Rico, and gave the Philippines to the United States in exchange for $20 million. The 1898 Treaty of Paris significantly reduced the influence the Spanish Empire wielded not just in the Americas but around the globe.

The United States, on the other hand, emerged from the war as a powerful nation as it displayed to world its military might.

Interestingly, during the peace talks, no Cuban nor Filipino delegates were allowed to take part. The fate of Cuba’s independence hinged on whether the United States would keep its promise to protect the island nation’s democracy or instead become a distant oppressor, like Spain.

However, although the United States did not formally seize Cuba, it did compel Cubans to recognize American sovereignty in the country’s new constitution.

America’s Gains from the War

As a result of its participation in the Spanish-American War, the United States reaped many benefits. The victory was especially beneficial to America’s reputation given that it joined the war with the selfless goal of freeing the Cuban people. The withdrawal of Spanish forces from Cuba aided America’s sugar industry as well as other business sectors. There is now a permanent U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay due to a Platt Amendment in 1901 which helped establish America as a superpower both economically and financially.

Dark Effects of the War

The outcome of the war was like a cruel prank for Filipinos who had joined forces with the United States to end Spain’s dominance over the island. The United States did not want the Philippines to continue under Spanish rule, but it also did not want to grant Filipinos their independence since it was believed at the time that the population was not capable of running the country on its own.

Filipino rebels swiftly shifted their focus from Spain to the United States when they realized they had simply swapped one imperial power for another. It took the United States two years of fighting, using the same strategies that the Spanish had employed against the Cuban insurgents, to finally crush the Filipino uprising.

The United States of America brutally crushed Philippine insurgents and claimed the islands for themselves in 1901. It was not until 1946 that the United States granted the Philippines its independence. Then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman issued Proclamation 2695 of July 4, 1946 and officially recognized the independence of the Philippines.

Other Interesting Facts about the Spanish-American War

In an attack headed by Commodore George Dewey, the United States Navy was able to defeat the Spanish navy in Manila Bay eleven days after the war began. U.S. President McKinley, unaware of Dewey’s victory, ordered military planners to prepare an invasion against Manila. Image: The Battle of Manila Bay

Due to the fact that Spain had not fully prepared it military adequately enough to go against a powerful military as that of the U.S., the Spanish-American War ended up being a complete humiliation for Spain. As Spanish rule in the Americas was wiped away following the war, the U.S. rose to staggering prominence in the globe. The U.S. went on to take possession of Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

Here are a few more interesting facts about the war:

  • More than 280,000 American sailors, marines, and soldiers participated in the Spanish-American War. The total number of Spanish troops in the war was slightly above 300,000.
  • Less than two weeks after the U.S. had declared war on Spain, the U.S. naval squadron, led by Commodore George Dewey, decimated Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines. The U.S. lost less than a dozen servicemen, while Spain suffered more than 360 casualties.
  • Between 1899 and 1902, during the Philippine-American War, the United States lost 10 times more men than it did during the Spanish-American War.
  • Although it was believed back then that a Spanish mine caused the sinking of the USS Maine, it remains very doubtful that Spain had any involvement in the ship’s sinking. Regardless of the inconclusive evidence, newspapers plastered sensational headlines pointing finger at Spain.
  • Roosevelt’s famous volunteer cavalry, the Rough Riders, played a key role in the war. But unbeknownst to many people, the Rough Riders spent more time fighting on foot than riding their horses during battle.
  • Yellow fever and other diseases were the leading cause of death on both sides. The disease killed 20 times more people than the actual battle.
  • About two months into the war, the U.S., with the help of Cuban forces, were able to seize control of Guantanamo Bay from Spain. The U.S. would go on to secure a lease deal with Cuba for the harbor in 1903. Since then the U.S. has made annual payments to the Cuba for the area. Today, Guantanamo Bay holds the record of being the oldest foreign military installation of the United States.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *