Monuments, Cemeteries, Spanish-American War

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On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion shattered the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 260 men. Although the exact cause is unknown, the sinking was widely attributed to deliberate sabotage by Spain. By April 1898, public pressure was such that despite all his efforts to hold back the tide of pro-war sentiment in the United States, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war. Stirred by the slogan, "Remember the Maine," the Spanish fleet in the Philippines was sunk in retaliation for the American deaths. Although the Spanish-American War, known as the "splendid little war" for the United States, was short in duration it resulted in territorial gain, the occupation of the Philippines, and a bloody insurrection by the Filipinos that lasted more than three years and cost thousands of lives.

Americans had traditionally resisted becoming involved in the affairs of other nations, so it was necessary to justify the war as something other than an imperialist action by a bellicose military force. The war was portrayed as a necessary conflict that had strengthened the nation, but many Americans remained doubtful about what had been accomplished. The efforts of their army and navy were exalted, particularly the triumph of Admiral George Dewey, which was seen as appropriate revenge for the cowardly attack on the Maine. A grateful nation welcomed Dewey's victory with ceremony and a parade through a victory arch in New York. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, consummate hero of the Rough Riders, used this moment of national exuberance to praise the war as a national and essential unifying force. The nation was quick to honor its dead with memorials erected in Arlington National Cemetery, including a special monument to the legendary Rough Riders; but Roosevelt's rhetoric sharply contrasted the tension and disunity that followed those short months of glory.

No national monuments were built by the federal government to honor the American troops that fought in the subsequent Philippine Insurrection, as it proved to be extremely controversial among the American public. Many opponents of intervention believed the bloody campaign against the Filipinos was immoral. When the McKinley administration decided to retain the Philippines and govern it as an American possession, further fierce debate ensued within the United States, for such imperialist actions were thought contrary to the true American ethos. The nation's involvement in the insurrection was soon forgotten. The Dewey Arch in New York was torn down as the admiral's fame and reputation quickly diminished in the aftermath of the unpopular conflict.

Despite public derision, memory of the Maine persisted as efforts were introduced to have the ship raised. Congress appropriated funds in 1910 and two years later Americans across the country paid tribute to those who died upon the sunken vessel. New York streets were crowded, bells tolled, flags were lowered, and coffins containing the sailors' remains were carried through the streets in solemn procession. Burial took place in Arlington Cemetery beneath the ship's recovered mainmast, which became part of the funerary memorial to those who had lost their lives aboard the ship. Other relics of the ship were incorporated in monuments across the country. Throughout the early 1900s, the annual anniversary of the sinking, on February 16, continued to invoke memorial services in New York and elsewhere.

"Time served to transform the Maine from a crass jingoistic symbol into a more ambiguous and tragic one" (Piehler, p. 91). To many Americans this symbol was an image of American military might as a tool for humanitarian causes, rather than one of aggression. Some used it to argue for preparedness and felt it supported the notion that war was a noble and heroic enterprise, while others believed the Maine and the conflict it represented should serve as a reminder that war must be avoided at all costs.

Ambiguity surrounding America's participation in the Spanish-American War continued to influence public opinion in the years preceding the First World War. The same tension that existed between America's rise to power and its traditional reluctance to become involved in imperialistic action was a key factor in the widespread move toward isolationism. Ultimately, this contributed to the nation's decision to avoid participation in the League of Nations following the Armistice.


Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Renehan, Edward J., Jr. The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Samuels, Peggy and Harold. Remembering the Maine. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Lisa M. Budreau

See also:Monuments, Cemeteries, World War I; Monuments, Cemeteries, World War II.

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