On the Great Highway
On the Great Highway
Claims of Terrorism Spur the Spanish-American War.
By: James Creelman
Source: Excerpt from On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent, by James Creelman (Boston: Lothrup, 1901), chapter 9, "Familiar Glimpses of Yellow Journalism."
About the Author: James Creelman was born on November 12, 1859, in Montreal, Canada, but moved to New York City in 1872. After studying both law and divinity, he decided to pursue a career in journalism and joined the staff of the New York Herald in 1876. He became one of the Herald's most valued reporters, traveling widely, gaining interviews with elusive public figures, and often putting himself in personal danger to get adventuresome or controversial stories. In 1894, he went to work for Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World, then in 1897 William Randolph Hearst hired him as a special correspondent for the New York Journal. In this capacity he covered the Spanish-American War in 1898. He continued to write for various publications until his death on February 12, 1915.
The Spanish-American War lasted from mid-April to mid-August in 1898 at a cost of 379 American combat deaths. Relations between the United States and Spain had been strained since mid-decade because of reports of Spanish brutality against Cuban insurgents fighting for independence and, from 1896 to 1898, the deaths of as many as 100,000 civilians among the many thousands more the Spanish had herded into fortified towns to prevent them from aiding the insurgents. The insurgents' base of operations, the so-called Cuban Junta, was the United States, and they received both material and moral support from American sympathizers.
President Grover Cleveland and his successor, William McKinley, tried to avoid war, and to that end McKinley dispatched the battleship Maine to Cuba on a friendly mission. The ship, however, blew up in the Havana harbor, killing 266 people, and while the explosion was accidental, many outraged Americans believed that it was an act of Spanish terrorism. "Remember the Maine!" became the U.S. battle cry.
The Spanish-American War has often been termed "the Newspapers' War" because of the prominent role played by American journalists such as Richard Harding Davis and James Creelman, as well as by illustrators such as Frederic Remington. The war was a boon to William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, which for years had been carrying on a cutthroat war for circulation through a mixture of sex and scandal in their pages.
These and other papers gleefully reported on Spanish atrocities, real and imagined, as a way to attract readers. Some historians believe that the war was spurred on by the so-called yellow press as a way for the Journal and the World—as well as America's other 1,900 daily and 14,000 weekly newspapers—to boost circulation. An apocryphal story started by Creelman was that after Hearst dispatched Remington to Cuba, a bored Remington wired back: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return"–to which Hearst replied, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Typical of the stories sent back from Cuba was one by Davis, published on February 12, 1897. Davis had been sent to Cuba to report on Spanish atrocities, and he found one in the story of a young woman who had allegedly been strip-searched on board an American vessel by Spanish authorities who believed that she was aiding the rebels by carrying documents and letters to Cuban sympathizers in the United States. The Journal headlines read: "Does Our Flag Shield Women? Indignities Practiced By Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels: Richard Harding Davis Describes Some Startling Phases of the Cuban Situation–Refined Young Woman Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag on the Ollivette." This type of story about the "brutal" and rapacious Spaniards continued to whip up popular sentiment against Spain.
In August 1897, Hearst found another sensational story involving a young, pretty girl, Evangelina Cisneros, the daughter of the president of the Cuban Republic, who reportedly had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for aiding political prisoners who had come to her aid as she resisted the sexual advances of a Spanish colonel. In his 1901 book On the Great Highway, Creelman describes the incident, the popular American response, and the girl's dramatic rescue.
The incident which did more to arouse the sentimental opposition of the American people to Spain than anything which happened prior to the destruction of the Maine, was the rescue of the beautiful Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison by the Journal's gallant correspondent, Karl Decker. There is nothing in fiction more romantic than this feat of "yellow journalism." And the events which led up to it are worth telling.
One sultry day in August, 1897, the proprietor of the Journal was lolling in his editorial chair. Public interest in Cuba was weak. The Spanish minister at Washington had drugged the country with cunningly compounded statements. The government was indifferent. The weather was too hot for serious agitation. Every experienced editor will tell you that it is hard to arouse the popular conscience in August. Perspiring man refuses to allow himself to be worked into a moral rage. The proletariat of liberty was in a hole. The most tremendous headlines failed to stir the crowd.
An attendant entered the room with a telegram, which Mr. Hearst read languidly–
"Evangelina Cisneros, pretty girl of seventeen years, related to President of Cuban Republic, is to be imprisoned for twenty years on African coast, for having taken part in uprising Cuban political prisoners on Isle of Pines."
He read it over a second time and was about to cast it on his desk—but no! He stared at the little slip of paper and whistled softly. Then he slapped his knee and laughed.
"Sam!" he cried.
A tall, shaven, keen-eyed editor entered from the next room.
"We've got Spain, now!" exclaimed Mr. Hearst, displaying the message from Cuba. "Telegraph to our correspondent in Havana to wire every detail of this case. Get up a petition to the Queen Regent of Spain for this girl's pardon. Enlist the women of America. Have them sign the petition. Wake up our correspondents all over the country. Have distinguished women sign first. Cable the petitions and the names to the Queen Regent. Notify our minister in Madrid. We can make a national issue of this case. It will do more to open the eyes of the country than a thousand editorials or political speeches. The Spanish minister can attack our correspondents, but we'll see if he can face the women of America when they take up the fight. That girl must be saved if we have to take her out of prison by force or send a steamer to meet the vessel that carries her away–but that would be piracy, wouldn't it?"
Within an hour messages were flashing to Cuba, England, France, Spain, and to every part of the United States. The petition to the Queen Regent was telegraphed to more than two hundred correspondents in various American cities and towns. Each correspondent was instructed to hire a carriage and employ whatever assistance he needed, get the signatures of prominent women of the place, and telegraph them to New York as quickly as possible. Within twenty-four hours the vast agencies of "yellow journalism" were at work in two hemispheres for the sake of the helpless girl prisoner. Thousands of telegrams poured into the Journal office. Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the widow of the Confederate President, wrote this appeal, which the Journal promptly cabled to the summer home of the Queen Regent at San Sebastian:
"TO HER MAJESTY, MARIA CRISTINA, Queen Regent of Spain:
"Dear Madam: In common with many of my countrywomen I have been much moved by the accounts of the arrest and trial of Señorita Evangelina Cisneros. Of course, at this great distance, I am ignorant of the full particulars of her case. But I do know she is young, defenseless, and in sore straits. However, all the world is familiar with the shining deeds of the first lady of Spain, who has so splendidly illustrated the virtues which exalt wife and mother, and who has added to these the wisdom of a statesman and the patience and fortitude of a saint.
"To you I appeal to extend your powerful protection over this poor captive girl—a child almost in years—to save her from a fate worse than death. I am sure your kind heart does not prompt you to vengeance, even though the provocation has been great. I entreat you to give her to the women of America, to live among us in peace.
"We will become sureties that her life in future will be one long thank-offering for your clemency.
"Do not, dear Madam, refuse this boon to us, and we will always pray for the prosperity of the young King, your son, and for that of his wise and self-abnegating mother.
"Your admiring and respecting petitioner, "VARINA JEFFERSON DAVIS."
Then Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," wrote this appeal to the Pope, which the Journal cabled to the Vatican:
"TO HIS HOLINESS, LEO XIII:
"Most Holy Father: To you, as the head of Catholic Christendom, we appeal for aid in behalf of Evangelina Cisneros, a young lady of Cuba, one of whose near relatives is concerned in the present war, in which she herself has taken no part. She has been arrested, tried by court martial, and is in danger of suffering a sentence more cruel than death—that of twenty years of exile and imprisonment in the Spanish penal colony of Ceuta, in Africa, where no woman has ever been sent, and where, besides enduring every hardship and indignity, she would have for her companions the lowest criminals and outcasts.
"We implore you, Holy Father, to emulate the action of that Providence which interests itself in the fall of a sparrow. A single word from you will surely induce the Spanish government to abstain from this act of military vengeance, which would greatly discredit it in the eyes of the civilized world.
"We devoutly hope that your wisdom will see fit to utter this word, and to make not us alone, but humanity, your debtors.
"JULIA WARD HOWE."
The mother of President McKinley signed a petition to the Queen Regent. The wife of Secretary of State Sherman gave her name to the appeal, and soon the most representative women of the nation joined the movement. Fifteen thousand names were cabled by the Journal to the palace of San Sebastian. The country began to ring with the story of Evangelina Cisneros. Hundreds of public meetings were convened. The beautiful young prisoner became the protagonist of the Cuban struggle for liberty. Spain was denounced and the President was urged to lend his influence to the patriot cause of Cuba. The excitement grew day by day. It stirred up forces of sympathy that had lain dormant until then. The wily Spanish minister at Washington was in a trap. He did not dare to attack a movement supported by the wives and daughters of the great leaders of every political party in the United States.
How we worked and watched for poor Cuba in those days! How the tired writers stuck to the fight in those hot, breathless nights! And how the palace officials in Spain and the Captain-general in Cuba cursed us for our pains!
Presently there came a message from Cuba. Karl Decker had carried out his instructions. "Yellow journalism" had broken the bars of the Spanish prison. The beautiful young prisoner was safe on the ocean and would be in New York in a few days.
Not only had the girl been lifted out of the prison window through the shattered iron barriers and carried from rooftop to rooftop in the night over a teetering ladder, but she had been secreted in Havana in spite of the frantic search of the Spanish authorities and, disguised as a boy, had been smuggled on board of a departing steamer under the very noses of the keenest detectives in Havana.
"Now is the time to consolidate public sentiment," said Mr. Hearst. "Organize a great open-air reception in Madison Square. Have the two best military bands. Secure orators, have a procession, arrange for plenty of fireworks and searchlights. Announce that Miss Cisneros and her rescuer will appear side by side and thank the people. Send men to all the political leaders in the city, and ask them to work up the excitement. We must have a hundred thousand people together that night. It must be a whale of a demonstration—something that will make the President and Congress sit up and think."
Hearst was successful in his petition drive. By August 23, 10,000 people had signed a petition demanding Cisneros's freedom; by the 26th the number had risen to 15,000, one of which was President McKinley's mother. Reports detailing the girl's escape began to appear in October under the byline Charles Duval, who turned out to be Journal correspondent Karl Decker. When she arrived in New York she was a sensation, and she later visited Washington, D.C., where she met President McKinley. The following year she married a Cuban dentist who had helped Decker engineer the escape.
The Spanish made some attempts to avoid war. In the same month that the Cisneros story broke, August 1897, the conservative prime minister of Spain, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, was assassinated by an Italian anarchist and was replaced by the more liberal Práxedes Sagasta. The new government reviewed its Cuban policy and replaced the repressive military governor, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (nicknamed "the Butcher"), with General Ramón Blanco, who adopted more benign policies. In late 1897 Spain announced that it was granting Cuba autonomy, but the Cuban insurgency had taken on a life of its own, and the sensational reporting of Hearst and Pulitzer stoked war fever in the United States, which erupted in April 1898. The war boosted the reputation of future president Theodore Roosevelt, who led his Rough Riders, a force made up of a combination of cowboys and Ivy League students, up San Juan Hill outside Santiago.
When the war ended, the United States annexed Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. For the first time the United States, which for a century had heeded George Washington's warning against "entangling alliances," was something of an imperial power with interests across the globe. Many Americans decried the war, which they saw as naked imperialism; American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered to buy the Philippines for $20 million and return it. Many other Americans, though, believed that the war was one more step in the nation's Manifest Destiny.
Goldstein, Donald M., et al. Spanish-American War: The Story and Photographs. Dulles, VA: Potomac, 2000.
Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.
Creelman, James. On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent. <http://www.cardinalbook.com/creelman/highway/iso8859/chap9.htm> (accessed May 16, 2005).
Giessel, Jess. "Black, White and Yellow: Journalism and Correspondents of the Spanish-American War." The Spanish-American War Centennial Website. September 12, 2004. <http://www.spanamwar.com/press.htm> (accessed May 16, 2005).