By Naval History and Heritage Command
It lasted less than four months. Yet the Spanish-American War is among the top three key naval conflicts that defined the modern U.S. Navy, along with the War of 1812 and World War II.
“The Navy’s performance in those wars resonated with the public, and established the reputation the U.S. Navy enjoys today,” said Dennis Conrad, an historian for the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Called a “splendid little war,” by Secretary of State John Hays, it began “with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.”
The war, which was actually declared April 25, 1898, was backdated to 116 years ago today to coincide with the blockade of Cuba’s Havana Harbor on April 21.
American Interests in Cuba
Twenty-five years earlier, Cuba was a colony to Spain with the rumblings of independence beginning to rupture peace. The U.S. had business interests in Cuba, so American ships were often poking around in the harbor to protect those interests.
It was a repurposed Civil War ship that would fan the flames of anger toward the Spanish government. An American with ties to the Cuban rebellion bought the old Civil War ship for the rebel leader, Jose Marti. For three years, the Virginius ran men, ammunition and supplies from the United States to Cuba. But since the ship was flying the American flag (illegally), it fell under the protection of the U.S. Navy.
The Spanish were suspicious of the blockade runner and by October 1873, were in full pursuit of the ship. By the time Virginius fell to the Spanish, her crew was made up of mostly young and inexperienced British and American citizens, some as young as 9 to 13.
The Spanish government in Cuba was swift in its retribution, accusing all 144 crew members of being pirates. Attempts by the United States to give aid to American citizens were ignored. Four members of the Virginius crew were immediately executed. The rest were tried and found guilty. The British vice-consul at Santiago requested assistance from the British navy to stop further executions. But upon hearing the British were sending the sloop HMS Niobe to do so, Cuban commander Juan Burriel ordered the shooting of 37 more crew members, who were then decapitated and their bodies trampled with horses. Among the dead were boys as young as nine and the Virginius captain, Commodore Joseph Frye, a former U.S. naval officer before joining the Confederates. Another 12 were later killed for a total of 53 before Niobe arrived, threatening to bombard Santiago if the executions didn’t stop.
The American public was outraged by the executions and support rose in favor of the U.S. recognizing the Cuban rebellion. Negotiations by Secretary of State Hamilton Fish reigned in the rhetoric to go to war, and within a few weeks, the Virginius and the remaining 91 crew members were handed back over to the U.S. Spain would later pay the United States $80,000 in reparations for the deaths of Americans. The ship itself, with the American flag now removed, sank while it was being towed. Burriel died before he was tried and sentenced for his crime in executing the 53 crew members.
Modernizing a Tired Fleet
During the flurry of furor over the Virginius executions, it was noted a Spanish ironclad was anchored in New York Harbor. With the government still recovering from the Civil War, the Navy had no ship capable of stopping it. U.S. Secretary of War George M. Robeson determined it was time the United States upgraded its fleet and Congress agreed to contracts for the overhaul of five partially-completed Civil War-era ironclads USS Puritan (BM 1), USS Amphitrite (BM 2), USS Monadnock (BM 3), USS Terror (BM 4) and USS Miantonomoh (BM 5).
Modernization began during the administration of President Chester Arthur in the early 1880s, according to Mark L. Hayes, another NHHC historian. It was during Arthur’s first annual message to Congress when he concluded: “I cannot too strongly urge upon you my conviction, that every consideration of national safety, economy, and honor imperatively demands a thorough rehabilitation of the Navy.”
Two years later would be the Navy Act of 1883, authorizing the construction of the steel cruisers Atlanta, Boston and Chicago and the dispatch vessel Dolphin, followed by armored battleships USS Texas and USS Maine.
The eventual settlement of the 1873 Virginius Affair might have stemmed the public outcry for Cuban independence, but that distrust just simmered under the surface for years. It was now 1898, the Spanish government had changed several times, and the U.S. continued to send American warships to protect their interests in Cuba.
Just two months into the year, supporters of an independent Cuba got their hands on a letter written by the Spanish minister in Washington that was critical of American President William McKinley. Once published, it began to resurrect resentment toward the Spanish government.
Then the unthinkable happened. The battleship USS Maine, which was sent to Havana as part of a naval contingent, blew up while it was in harbor, killing 266 Sailors. A Spanish inquiry determined it had been an internal explosion, but on March 25 an American inquiry blamed the loss of USS Maine and most of her crew on a mine.
“Remember the Maine” was a unifying cry that brought together a nation that just a few years earlier had been split by war and seethed during reconstruction afterward.
McKinley demanded Spain provide reparations for the loss of life and the ship, as well as giving Cuba its independence. Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, the leader of the Liberal Party in Spain, instead offered autonomy to Cuba and Puerto Rico, rather than independence. The Cuban leadership turned down the offer, determined their armed resistance would gain their freedom.
Sagasta sought support from European nations that also wielded power over their colonies. But despite sympathetic leanings, none came to Spain’s aid, thanks to the Spanish country’s long-standing isolationism and the emerging power of the United States.
Preparing for the possibility of war, Adm. William Sampson ordered a blockade from Havana to the south side of Cuba on April 21. By the time Spain realized they were at war with the United States, Havana Harbor was already buttoned up.
Out in the Pacific, Commodore George Dewey, on his flagship USS Olympia, and the rest of his fleet were poised to strike from Hong Kong. Given a heads-up about the possibility of war by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt on Feb. 25, Dewey and his officers spent the next month developing plans, working scenarios, and then training their crews.
On April 22, the Secretary of the Navy sent Dewey a telegram that the U.S. had begun the blockade of Havana Harbor. Britain, already hearing about the possibility of war between Spain and the United States, ordered the Americans to leave Hong Kong.
By the time Dewey’s fleet sailed into the Bay of Manila on May 1, following a well-prepared and trained operation, it was too late for the Spanish fleet caught there. At 5:40 a.m., Dewey called out “You may fire when ready, Gridley!” The United States steel navy blew away the Spanish wooden ships, killing 381 Spaniards with no Americans killed in action and only eight wounded. The Battle of Manila Bay was over by 12:30 p.m., which included a three-hour meal break by the Americans.
Back in Europe, Spanish Adm. Pascual Cervera was ordered to sail for the West Indies to support Spanish forces in Cuba. Leaving April 29, his squadron sailed into Santiago de Cuba at the end of May. His squadron was immediately blockaded by the United States on May 29. Six weeks later, Cervera decided to make a break for it on July 3 during Sunday morning services. Giving chase, the American ships wiped out the rest of the Spanish Atlantic fleet within 90 minutes. American troops on the ground, led by Rough Riders, bottled up Spanish forces in Santiago harbor. A month later, the war was over.
The Treaty of Paris gave Cuba its independence, but also the Philippines to the United States, along with Guam and Puerto Rico. Spain got $20 million for the loss of its former colonies.