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NHHC Announces Spanish-American War Documentary Project

June 20, 2014 | By Dennis Conrad, Ph.D., Histories and Archives Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
Members of the Navy Court of Inquiry examining Ensign Wilfrid V. Powelson, on board the U.S. Light House Tender Mangrove, in Havana Harbor, Cuba, circa March 1898. Those seated around the table include (from left to right): Capt. French E. Chadwick, Capt. William T. Sampson, Lt. Cmdr. William P. Potter, Ensign W.V. Powelson, Lt. Cmdr. Adolph Marix. Photograph copied from Uncle Sam's Navy, 12 April 1898.
There are two wars that defined the modern U.S. Navy: World War II and the Spanish-American War. While the Navy's performance in World War II gets lots of attention from the media (for example, the History Channel), historians, and history-buffs, its equally impressive record in the Spanish-American War is largely forgotten. A new documentary project from the Naval History and Heritage Command, entitled The United States Navy's Involvement in the Spanish-American War, aims to change that.

Naval History and Heritage Command historian Dennis Conrad, PhD.

We are now preparing a new documentary history, to be e-published, that will capture the drama and heroism of what one contemporary called "that splendid little war," which lasted less than four months but catapulted the U.S. Navy to world prominence. No longer an obscure, back-water, fifth-rate sea force, it had become a naval power of the first rank and demanded respect as such. It also marked the transition from a navy of wood and sail to one of steel and steam. That war also tore away the shroud of isolation that had hidden this country from the rest of the world and immeasurably broadened its frontiers to lands far removed in Asia, while defining the role the U.S. Navy was to play into the future, to operate forward and protect and defend the country's access to lands and trade routes far from its shores.

The first topics will be posted this summer and concerns the run-up to the war. Tentatively titled "Pre-War Planning," the topic covered refutes the idea that the Navy went into war unprepared and unaware. It also takes on the popular idea that only Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had done any pre-war planning and therefore American naval success was exclusively the product of his genius.

A second topic of documents concerns the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor - the incident that led to the declaration of war and cost this country almost as many dead as the war would. Documents in this topic group will explore why the Maine was sent to Havana, the impact of the disaster in the U.S. and in Spain, and the question of whether the Navy's Court of Inquiry, held days after the disaster, was a real attempt to learn the truth or a sham exercise with a pre-determined outcome.

The third topic grouping will look at the Navy's mobilization effort. How prepared was the Navy when the fighting began? What kinds of things were done? Was its stellar performance the product of luck or preparation and, finally, was it truly much better prepared than the Army, whose performance became the subject of criticism and investigation.

If you have any thoughts on what you would like to see in this Spanish-American War edition, documentary collection, please respond in the comments below.  
NHHC historian Dennis Conrad, Ph.D, works on the text for a 3-topic documentary on the Spanish-American War that will be released on the internet soon.