The Spanish-American War

"A Splendid Little War"

USS Olympia leads the US Asiatic Squadron during the Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Fought between April and August 1898, the Spanish-American War was the result of American concern over Spanish treatment of Cuba, political pressures, and anger over the sinking of USS Maine. Though President William McKinley had wished to avoid war, American forces moved swiftly once it began. In rapid campaigns, American forces seized the Philippines and Guam. This was followed by a longer campaign in southern Cuba which culminated in American victories at sea and on land. In the wake of the conflict, the United States became an imperial power having gained many Spanish territories.

Causes of the Spanish-American War

Loss of USS Maine
USS Maine explodes. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Beginning in 1868, the people of Cuba commenced the Ten Years' War in an attempt to overthrow their Spanish rulers. Unsuccessful, they mounted a second rebellion in 1879 which resulted in a brief conflict known as the Little War. Again defeated, the Cubans were granted minor concessions by the Spanish government. Fifteen years later, and with the encouragement and support of leaders such as José Martí, another effort was launched. Having defeated the two previous insurrections, the Spanish took a heavy hand in attempting to put down the third.

Using harsh policies that included concentration camps, General Valeriano Weyler sought to crush the rebels. These horrified the American public which had deep commercial concerns in Cuba and who were fed a constant series of sensationalist headlines by newspapers such as Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. As the situation on the island worsened, President William McKinley dispatched the cruiser USS Maine to Havana to protect American interests. On February 15, 1898, the ship exploded and sank in the harbor. Initial reports indicated it was caused by a Spanish mine. Incensed by the incident and encouraged by the press, the public demanded war which was declared on April 25.

Campaign in the Philippines & Guam

Dewey's victory at Manila Bay
Battle of Manila Bay. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Anticipating war after the sinking of Maine, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed Commodore George Dewey with orders to assemble the US Asiatic Squadron at Hong Kong. It was thought that from this location Dewey could quickly descend on the Spanish in the Philippines. This attack was not intended to conquer the Spanish colony, but rather to draw enemy ships, soldiers, and resources away from Cuba.

With the declaration of war, Dewey crossed the South China Sea and commenced a search for Admiral Patricio Montojo's Spanish squadron. Failing to find the Spanish at Subic Bay, the American commander moved into Manila Bay where the enemy had assumed a position off Cavite. Devising a plan of attack, Dewey and his largely modern force of steel ships advanced on May 1. In the resulting Battle of Manila Bay the Montojo's entire squadron was destroyed (Map).

Over the next few months, Dewey worked with Filipino rebels, such as Emilio Aguinaldo, to secure the rest of the archipelago. In July, troops under Major General Wesley Merritt arrived to support Dewey. The following month they captured Manila from the Spanish. The victory in the Philippines was augmented by the capture of Guam on June 20.    

Campaigns in the Caribbean

Battle of San Juan Hill
Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt & members of the "Rough Riders" on the San Juan Heights, 1898. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

While a blockade of Cuba was imposed on April 21, efforts to get American troops to Cuba moved slowly. Though thousands volunteered to serve, issues persisted in equipping and transporting them to the war zone. The first groups of troops were assembled at Tampa, FL and organized into the US V Corps with Major General William Shafter in command and Major General Joseph Wheeler overseeing the cavalry division (Map).

Ferried to Cuba, Shafter's men began landing at Daiquiri and Siboney on June 22. Advancing on the port of Santiago de Cuba, they fought actions at Las Guasimas, El Caney, and San Juan Hill while Cuban rebels closed on the city from west. In the fighting at San Juan Hill, the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry (The Rough Riders), with Roosevelt in the lead, gained fame as they aided in carrying the heights (Map).

With the enemy nearing the city, Admiral Pascual Cervera, whose fleet lay at anchor in the harbor, attempted to escape. Steaming out on July 3 with six ships, Cervera encountered Admiral William T. Sampson's US North Atlantic Squadron and Commodore Winfield S. Schley's "Flying Squadron". In the ensuing Battle of Santiago de Cuba, Sampson and Schley either sank or drove ashore the entirety of Spanish fleet. While the city fell on July 16, American forces continued to fight in Puerto Rico.

Aftermath of the Spanish-American War

Treaty of Paris signing
Jules Cambon signing the memorandum of ratification on behalf of Spain, 1898. Photograph Source: Public Domain

With the Spanish facing defeat on all fronts, they elected to sign an armistice on August 12 which ended hostilities. This was followed by a formal peace agreement, the Treaty of Paris, which was concluded in December. By the terms of the treaty Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. It also surrendered its rights to Cuba allowing the island to become independent under the guidance of Washington. While the conflict effectively marked the end of the Spanish Empire, it saw the rise of the United States as world power and aided healing the divides caused by the Civil War. Though a short war, the conflict led to protracted American involvement in Cuba as well as spawned the Philippine-American War.  

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "The Spanish-American War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). The Spanish-American War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The Spanish-American War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).