U.S. opinion gradually coalesced in favor of the insurgent cause, but only the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898 led to vast popular support for armed intervention on behalf of the Cubans. McKinley proved reluctant to go to war. He attempted to obtain Cuban independence by diplomatic measures. The Spanish government balked. It recognized that the United States would most likely prevail in battle, but Sagasta and his colleagues, after unsuccessfully seeking assistance from other European powers, decided that failure to defend the Pearl of the Antilles might lead to revolution at home. An unsuccessful war appeared preferable to overthrow of the established order. On 25 April, the United States declared war, retroactive to 21 April.
Spain had a large army in Cuba and a strong garrison in its other insular possession, the Philippine Islands, but its navy was largely based in home ports. A weak squadron defended Manila. There were no significant naval forces in Cuban waters. In an attempt to retain its principal overseas colonies, Spain adopted a defensive strategy, depending on troops already in the field to fend off American attacks. The navy would reinforce and resupply threatened locations.
The United States fielded a small regular army of only 28,000 men, although it would eventually mobilize an impressive volunteer army to support the efforts of its modest but well‐prepared navy. Prewar preparations envisioned a naval blockade of Cuba and command of the Caribbean Sea—an achievement that would permit land operations when the U.S. Army was sufficiently mobilized to take such action. A secondary naval campaign would take place in the western Pacific. The Asiatic Squadron would attack the Spanish Squadron at Manila to preclude commerce raiding and to exert maximum pressure on Spain.
On 21 April, Adm. William Sampson took the North Atlantic Squadron to Havana and established a blockade, and on 1 May, Commodore George Dewey smashed Adm. Patricio Montojo's squadron in Manila Bay. Sampson extended his blockade to other Cuban ports while awaiting the arrival of a Spanish squadron under Adm. Pascual Cervera. Dewey remained in Manila Bay, unable to take further action until land forces came to his assistance. Early in May, the McKinley administration decided to send troops under Gen. Wesley Merritt to seize Manila and to prepare for eventual land operations at Havana. The Eighth Army Corps assembled at San Francisco finally reached Manila.
Plans for operations in Cuba changed when Cervera's squadron, reduced to six vessels, arrived at Santiago de Cuba, only to be blockaded in port by 28 May. This event led McKinley to organize a force at Tampa composed mainly of regular army regiments. It was ordered to Santiago de Cuba to help destroy Cervera's squadron.
Gen. William Shafter hastily transferred the Fifth Army Corps, 17,000 men strong, to Santiago de Cuba, arriving there on 20 June. Admiral Sampson urged him to attack the batteries defending the entrance to the harbor. When these were reduced, he could sweep naval mines from the channel and steam in to engage Cervera. Shafter had different ideas. He decided upon an interior line of operation, proceeding westward from a beachhead in the Daiquirí‐Siboney area to Santiago de Cuba, depriving himself of much needed naval gunnery support. After landing virtually unopposed, the Fifth Corps moved toward the San Juan Heights, the principal bulwark in the first of three defensive lines around the city. Spanish artillery supported this position from a second line of defenses. The only opposition to the advance occurred at Las Guásimas, where a small skirmish gave the Fifth Corps its baptism of fire (24 June).
Shafter chose to form three divisions in line for the attack on the San Juan Heights, which would roll over the hills and move on to capture Santiago de Cuba. To protect his right flank, he asked Gen. Henry Lawton, commanding one of his divisions, to seize the Spanish fortifications at El Caney before moving into the line of battle at the heights. The Spanish commander, Gen. Arsenio Linares, played into Shafter's hands: he distributed his force of 10,000 at various points around the perimeter of Santiago de Cuba instead of concentrating at probable points of attack. Only 500 men defended the heights.
Shafter attacked on 1 July, but the engagement did not develop as expected. Lawton encountered difficulty from a garrison of a mere 500 Spaniards at El Caney. After considerable delay, Shafter decided to attack the heights without Lawton. After a difficult deployment under Spanish artillery fire, the dismounted cavalry division under Gen. Joseph Wheeler attacked up the northeastern extension of the heights, a rise known as Kettle Hill, and the infantry division to its left commanded by Gen. Jacob Kent assaulted the principal elevation to the southwest. Fortunately, a battery of Gatling guns positioned at El Pozo about 600 yards to the rear was able to drive the Spanish defenders off the heights. Fifth Corps struggled into the Spanish positions and hastily entrenched. All thought of continuing on to Santiago de Cuba was forgotten. American casualties for the day were 1,385, with 205 killed, about 10 percent of the troops engaged. The Spanish suffered less—593 casualties, with 215 killed, about 35 percent of some 1,700 troops in good defensive positions. Theodore Roosevelt's ability to publicize his exploits as a commander of The First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—the Rough Riders—during the Battle of San Juan Hill helped propel him into the governorship of New York and later the vice presidency.
After the action of 1 July, Cervera received orders to leave Santiago de Cuba. On 3 July, the reluctant admiral complied. His six ships—four cruisers and two destroyers—began their exit from the channel at 9:00 A.M. Sampson had left the blockade to meet Shafter, leaving Commodore William Schley as the senior officer present. The American vessels were able to concentrate their fire on each Spanish ship as it emerged from the channel. Only one, the Cristóbal Colón, managed to avoid immediate destruction or beaching. It fled for about seventy miles westward toward Cienfuegos, but the pursuing Americans finally obtained its range, and the Spanish commander drove his vessel onto the shore. After the war, a controversy erupted over credit for the victory between Schley and Sampson, dividing the officer corps for many years.
Shafter decided to besiege the city, a measure that forced its capitulation on 17 July. The Fifth Corps meanwhile fell victim to tropical diseases. Early in August, it was evacuated to Long Island for recuperation and other troops arrived to continue the occupation.
The victory at Santiago de Cuba forced the Spanish government to inaugurate peace negotiations, but during this process, the army undertook two more campaigns. One was an expedition to Puerto Rico, led by the Commanding General of the Army, Gen. Nelson Miles, which landed on the south shore of the island and advanced against token opposition toward San Juan. The other was an attack on the city of Manila. The land operations of the Eighth Corps amounted to a sham battle because Admiral Dewey managed to arrange a Spanish capitulation that took place after a brief engagement satisfied Spanish honor. A third operation, a naval sortie into Spanish waters by a detachment of Sampson's fleet designated the Eastern Squadron, did not occur because Spain finally agreed to a protocol signed on 12 August that ended hostilities.
The protocol settled all major issues except the disposition of the Philippine Islands. Early in June, the United States signaled its war aims to Madrid through a third party. They included independence for Cuba, the cession of Puerto Rico in lieu of a monetary indemnity, the cession of a port in the Ladrones (Marianas), and a port in the Philippines. In the protocol, Spain agreed to the first three demands. A peace conference was arranged to confirm this agreement and to decide the disposition of the Philippines. McKinley eventually instructed the American peace commission to obtain the entire archipelago, responding both to a burst of annexationist sentiment and to the lack of a viable alternative. Spain reluctantly accepted a payment of $20,000,000. On 6 March 1899, the Senate gave its consent to the treaty, and on 19 March, the queen regent of Spain overrode opposition in the Cortes and agreed to ratification. Ratifications were exchanged on 11 April 1899.
The acquisition of the Philippines led to a long insurgency that was finally quelled by July 1902. McKinley and his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, were able to exert sufficient force to bring down the Filipino insurgents while overcoming an active but ultimately ineffective protest from anti‐imperialists who offered constitutional, political, economic, and even racial arguments against annexation. The imperialist impulse proved short‐lived. As early as 1916, Congress began preparations for Philippine independence, a process that was completed in 1946.
Although the United States triumphed during the Spanish‐American War, inefficiency, waste, and even scandal characterized the army's mobilization efforts, especially the supplying of troops. Widely investigated by the newspapers and the Dodge Commission, appointed by the McKinley administration, these problems prompted calls for a restructuring of the War Department and reconsideration of the relationship between the regular army and the National Guard. During the tenure of Secretary of War Elihu Root, a series of reforms were implemented.
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Cuba, U.S. Military Involvement in; Militia and National Guard; Philippine War]
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David F. Trask