Shortly after taps on February 15, 1898, the United States battleship Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, taking with it 266 American lives. While the war against Spain did not begin until two months later, this disaster provided the cause that rallied the American public in favor of war. People no longer asked whether war would come but rather when it would start.
Today, that war evokes images of Dewey’s Squadron sailing into Manila Bay and destroying the Spanish fleet or of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in the face of determined Spanish sharpshooters. Yet these images belie the truth. At the beginning of 1898 the United States barely ranked as a third‑rate power and “unconventional wisdom” in Europe weighed the potential conflict in favor of Spain. Indeed, when examining the conduct of the war, had the Spanish been more determined to win, or luckier, the Americans might well have lost.
THE ROAD TO WAR
“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”
‑William Randolph Hearst to Frederick Remington
War with Spain resulted from a long series of provocations, both real and imagined. The source of trouble was the severity of Spain’s colonial administration, aggravated by her unwillingness to cede autonomy or grant basic political and economic freedoms. Cuba had not been as rebellious as the rest of Latin America, but in 1868 that changed. This rebellion was known as the Ten Years’ War. At its end in 1878 Spain promised reform and the end of slavery (finally abolished by 1886). The rebel leaders left Cuba, declared themselves the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and established a headquarters in New York.
Known as the “New York Junta” these professional agitators included Tomas Estrada Plama, Maximo Gomez, Claxito Garcia, and Jose Marti. In the summer of 1894, when the US Congress placed a customs duty on sugar (the Wilson‑Gorman tariff), the Junta’s chance came, for the sugar‑based Cuban economy would shortly collapse.
The new revolution began February 24, 1895. After initial enthusiasm, the revolution died down to sporadic guerilla clashes, mostly in the jungle interior of eastern Cuba. The rebels were led by Maximo Gomez, who had fought in the Ten Years’ War. Known as El Chino Viejo.(The Old Chinaman), Gomez presented an unmilitary appearance but proved shrewd and persistent. Realizing he could never win a pitched battle with the Spanish, he fought a hit‑and‑run campaign of calculated terrorism. By attacking the Cuban economy he could force the population to either join him or seek refuge in Spanish garrisoned towns.
This strategy baffled the Spanish commander‑in‑chief, Martinez Compos, victor of the Ten Years’ War, who found that his force of well over 100,000 regulars could not close for decisive combat. Compos pursued a passive defense policy by dividing the island into military zones behind a system of trochas (fortified lines) designed to restrict rebel movement. These lines instead destroyed his army’s morale by stifling initiative.
Eventually, he was replaced by the more ruthless Gen. Valeriano Wyler y Nicolau.
With such a dirty but colorful little war right on America’s doorstep, the curious did not lack for news. It was the perfect opportunity for every foreign correspondent to make his mark in the field. Many newspapers and periodicals sent reporters, even providing some with chartered yachts for use as private dispatch boats. With competition so stiff, not a few resorted to concocting stories of Spanish “brutalities.” Indeed, such were the hottest items back home, particularly when spiced up with Cuban “eyewitness accounts” or the “indisputable evidence” provided by rebels.
This was competition at its fiercest with the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers as the leading contenders. The only concern was to sell more newspapers and this bias, vulgarity, and sensationalism gave us what today we call “yellow journalism.” (The actual term came from the Hearst newspaper coverage of the sensational Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Bicycle Relay of Aug.-Sept. 1896.) The Yellow Press was directly responsible for aligning public opinion in favor of war to liberate Cuba. Yet the fame of certain writers and correspondents rose above yellow journalism. These individuals include Richard Harding Davis, who also covered the Boer and Russo‑Japanese Wars; Stephan Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage; and painter and illustrator Frederic Remington.
Unfortunately for Spain, Gen. Wyler’s anti‑insurgency policies inflamed American public opinion. Arriving in Cuba in February 1896, Wyler found the economy in chaos and the military situation out of control. Immediately he imposed martial law and the summary execution of terrorists. Already carrying the sobriquet “Butcher”, Wyler did not have to order many executions before the US Senate debated recognition of the Cuban belligerents. Though this debate eventually waned, Wyler was never entirely out of the public view. Indeed, that autumn Wyler nearly became a political issue in the 1896 presidential election when he declared the policy of “reconcentrado” (reconcentration). Wyler intended to relocate the rural population into towns garrisoned by his own troops thus separating loyalists from rebels while expanding the system of trochas. The result was a disaster.
Like Campos, Wyler had negated his great numerical superiority by spreading his forces everywhere. Since the loyal peasants could not produce enough food, the already shaky economy of “the Pearl of the Indies” became a shambles, and the financial drain on Spain was enormous. Worse, the Wyler’s strategy surrendered the initiative to the rebels at the very time the Spanish should have aggressively pursued each rebel band. Antonio Maceo, one of Gomez’s ablest lieutenants, underscored this failure by marching his brigade from one end of Cuba to the other. Although he died in an ambush while leading a new raid (Dec. 1896), Maceo achieved victory despite his defeat in nearly every engagement. By carrying the war to the relatively quiet western Cuba, he forced all Cubans to chose Spain or rebellion.
The general trend of world economic events also worked against Spain. A new industrial colonization had developed. The growing maturity of European markets and coincident rise in productivity impelled the nations of Europe to seek foreign markets. Spain could not equal their expansion with her limited industrial base, and soon found her colonies providing the raw materials for foreign economic development. Cuba produced much sugar, tobacco, and various minerals, but 75% of its exports went to the United States. In the severe world financial panic of 1893, the price of sugar plummeted and trade barriers rose. In the United States, both political parties pursued an active tariff policy which could only bring economic ruin to Cuba. The public had no pressing political interest in Cuba during the presidential election of 1896 and never developed an economic concern. Indeed, Cuba was of only small economic interest to the US.
While the heat of political rhetoric made war with Spain more likely, the recently elected President McKinley shrank from the idea of using force. He sent the Spanish various proposals for avoiding war. These remained unanswered, although Gen. Wyler was replaced in October 1897. With Wyler’s replacement McKinley had his best opportunity to solve the Cuba question. To his credit, he did allow Spain enough time to find a solution, but he was perhaps pressed too hard by jingoists and newspapers to allow Spain to save her honor.
While McKinley maintained a public posture of peace, the newspapers worked for war by keeping conditions in Cuba before the public. The stories they created caused riots in Havana. On January 12, 1898, a mob led by Spanish military officers attacked Havana newspaper offices. While there were no threats to US property, Consul‑General Fitzhugh Lee, who favored war with Spain, requested that a US man-of‑war be sent to Havana. On January 25th Maine arrived with flags flying and the crew at battle stations.
Upon the destruction of the Maine on February 15, McKinley realized that the rush to war was inevitable as the now thoroughly aroused American public clamored for action. He proposed additional funds for national defense and actively spoke against Spain’s policies. At length, as Madrid finally abandoned her reconcentrado policy and complied with some American demands, McKinley called upon Spain to declare an immediate six‑month armistice. Spain granted this and other concessions, but her own jingoists forced the government to hold out for settlement terms which would preserve Spanish sovereignty over Cuba. Soon it became obvious that Spain was playing for time. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for authority to end hostilities on Cuba. On April 20, the final demand was made for Spain to relinquish her authority in Cuba to the United States. On the 21st, the Navy sailed for Cuba and declared a blockade for much of the island beginning the 22nd. On April 25, war was declared, retroactive to the 21st.
THE CALL TO ARMS
The apparent Spanish strength at the outbreak of the war is deceiving. To oppose the US, Spain had on its army list in 1898 some 492,067 men (regulars and volunteers) distributed as follows:
152,284 in Spain
278,447 on Cuba
51,331 in the Philippines
10,005 on Puerto Rico
This list, however, hides the real numbers by retaining the sick and dead. Since the beginning of the insurrection in 1895, the Spanish army had suffered some 2,000 battle deaths and 8,500 wounded. Another 13,000 had died from yellow fever and 40,000 others had died from “other causes.” On February 8, 1897,18,000 lay in Cuban hospitals. By April 1898, the Spanish army in Cuba mustered 155,302 regulars and 41,518 volunteers (plus many thousand irregulars who were mostly ineffective). It already faced an active enemy, had inadequate food, was devastated by tropical disease, could hardly redistribute itself on Cuba, and had little prospect of reinforcement from Spain.
War found the United States with a clear and definite goal. Once Cuba was freed from Spanish dominion, the war would end. Thus, the island would be the main battleground and the logical main objective would be its capital, Havana, defended by some 31,000 well‑entrenched Spanish regulars. A simple strategy, yet the US army entered the war woefully unprepared to prosecute any strategy. On the eve of war it numbered 28,183, who only barely manned 25 infantry, 10 cavalry, and 5 artillery regiments. Some elements of these regiments had to remain in the western states to keep an eye on the Indians. The declaration of war added 33,000 recruits, but of them only a few hundred ever saw any fighting.
Since the US Army was so understrength, the President was obliged to call for regiments of volunteers to fight beside the regulars. Planners considered mobilizing the state militias (the National Guard), totalling some 100,000 men, but later decided to call for volunteers to create a citizens’ war for liberty.
The first call went out for 125,000 men. Each state had a quota, but some were granted increases so that their entire militia organizations could transfer intact to federal service. For example, Pennsylvania was able to transfer all its fifteen militia regiments instead of the allocated ten. This was fortunate as Pennsylvania’s militia was considered the most efficient of all. Since the states usually granted a leave of absence from the militia to each guardsmen who volunteered, militia volunteers comprised the vast bulk of the first call. They were formed into 119 infantry regiments, 5 cavalry regiments, 16 field artillery batteries, and a heavy artillery regiment, plus assorted detachments.
A second call raised 75,000 men, who were used to fill out the first call regiments and, additionally, a few new regiments. Noteworthy was McKinley’s insistence that five regiments of negro volunteers be raised and that the 8th Illinois (colored) regiment was commanded by the first negro colonel in the US Army (Col. John R. Marshall). None of these formations, however, saw combat.
The volunteers were enthusiastic and profoundly convinced of the righteousness of the new citizen’s army. The First Volunteer cavalry regiment, dubbed the “Rough Riders” by the many newspaper correspondents who covered their formation and exploits, was recruited from New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territory. Included initially were about 100 athletes from the Ivy League colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) ‑ others would join later. There were broncobusters, cowboys, sons of confederate veterans, some Texas Rangers, a marshal of Dodge City (Benjamin Franklin Daniels), and a few Indians known only by their nicknames: Cherokee Bill, Happy Jack of Arizona, Smokey Moore, and Rattlesnake Pete. Others gave fictitious names: one individual desired to redeem himself from a murder charge back home.
The regiment was the project of Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant Secretary of the Navy. He declined a political appointment as the regiment’s colonel, citing his lack of experience. Instead, he recruited an acquaintance from the regular army, Captain Leonard Wood, to command, while he became lieutenant colonel. Congress had authorized five volunteer cavalry regiments (three to be in the west) and had allotted 780 men to the regiment, but this number was raised to 1,000 as more of Roosevelt’s friends wanted their sons to join. The regiment was completely mounted while in the US.
Before the war the United States had no permanent military organization higher than the regiment. Volunteer regiments were established at 12 companies of 106 men. In practice most averaged about 1,000 men ‑ large in comparison to the regulars. (Of the 24 regular non‑artillery regiments seeing action at Santiago, 21 had only around 500 men, or even less.) Volunteer regiments were heavy with political appointees; some volunteer officers, however, had been with the regular army, and had been drawn to the volunteers by increases in rank and pay.
The Spanish were organized about the same as the US with 12 companies to the regiment, but each company numbered about 130 men. Including its headquarters and a 47 man band the Spanish regiment numbered 1711 men. At higher levels, Spain followed the European practice of combining two regiments to form a brigade and two brigades to form a division. Each artillery regiment was organized into two battalions, each with two 4‑gun batteries. No undivided infantry regiment was encountered at Santiago.
Regular Spanish units were widely dispersed in battalions and even detached companies, but were often well reinforced with locally raised troops. Those not in static garrisons were assigned to a “column.” Such columns ranged in size from a few companies to three or four battalions. Some commanders had fearsome reputations, but generally, the Spanish army in Cuba behaved with considerable restraint. Unfortunately, graft was widespread. So many Spanish officers were involved in international arms‑sales rivalry that it was said almost every Spanish officer above the rank of major was an employee of Krupp or Vickers. Yet the army was veteran, with seasoned officers and men. It could still mete out damage and continue to function, even after appalling casualties.
US troops suffered from being ill-equipped for campaigning in the tropics. The most noticeable problem was the regulation woolen blue uniform, suitable for campaigning “in Montana in the fall” but certainly not for the summer tropics with the rainy season due. Only the Rough Riders had appropriate light‑weight brown uniforms.
Each man, regular and volunteer alike, was expected to carry his entire kit at all times. The standard kit comprised some 100 rounds of ammunition in cartridge belts slung around his hips, a sheathed bayonet, a canvas‑covered canteen, half a tent, two tent poles, and some clothes. Unfortunately for their health, many soldiers threw away clothes and tents. A few carried the new Meriam packs, a square box‑like canvas knapsack, but most sweated along under the old “horse‑collar” Civil War blanket roll.
A soldier was supposed to carry a five-day ration, but most in the early actions had had little to eat. The standard ration was canned beef, hardtack, dried navy beans, and roasted coffee beans. This diet was too heavy for the tropics and the canned beef spoiled quickly. Even the water was not good, but nearby swamps posed a far more serious threat, yellow fever. American medicine provided no answer save that of moving away from the problem.
In combat the US regular carried the Krag‑Jorgenson rifle. This repeater held five rounds in its magazine and was suitable for rough service. The cavalry carried the carbine version plus a revolver. The US had enough Krags in its arsenal (53,000 plus 15,000 carbines) to equip all new recruits to the regulars but, obviously, not enough for the volunteers. They were equipped with the .45 calibre Model 1873 Springfield rifle, a single‑shot weapon. Unfortunately, most ammunition available for the Springfield used charcoal powder, which produced clouds of smoke. The Springfield, though, was an accurate powerful weapon. It fired a slug weighing 500 grains versus 220 grains for the Krag. Both rifles had about the same range. Since US fire tactics emphasized accuracy rather than volume of fire, it is not surprising that the Springfield enjoyed such wide use. Interestingly, some Rough Riders preferred their personal Winchester rifles.
The Spanish infantryman carried the .45 calibre Mauser, a repeater delivering 15 rounds per minute using smokeless powder. The Spanish favored volume of fire, a tactic that worked well in closed country.
The US infantryman could expect little help from his artillery. The standard piece was a 3.25″ breechloader and, like the Springfield rifle, it discharged clouds of smoke when fired. US artillery performance suffered from poor siting, lack of observation, and lack of coordination with the infantry. The Spanish had efficient Krupp made breechloading pieces with a range superior to the American guns, but few were available and much ammunition proved to be defective. The bulk of Spanish artillery comprised ancient muzzle‑loaders good for little more than close range firing.
To American forces must be added the Cuban rebel army. According to Cuban official records, 53,774 served in the Revolution from 1895 to 1898. When the US invaded, the rebels numbered some 15,000, of whom about 6,500 could be found in the Santiago province, Claxito Garcia commanding. The rest were quite cut off from Santiago. Rebel forces were atrociously equipped, many going into battle barely clad and armed only with machetes. Those who carried arms often had no more than one or two rounds; in fact, Spanish Mauser cartridges were a form of currency in Havana. The rebels could not engage in close combat, as they lacked steadiness and discipline, having lost many of their best officers.