Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Spanish War with the United States

The Spanish-American War has traditionally been regarded in the United States as one of the best wars that America has ever fought. It was short, overwhelmingly victorious (the outcome never being in doubt), was conducted with great heroism and gallantry by the fighting men of both sides and resulted in great gains. At least so it initially seemed. For the Kingdom of Spain it should stand as an honorable memory as well as a tragic loss. It was a defeat but, like the Texans at the Alamo, a noble defeat by a Spain that was hopelessly outmatched. It was tragic in that it was the final nail in the coffin of the once grand and global Spanish colonial empire. Yet, the Spanish conducted themselves with great dignity, earning the respect of their enemy which had expected to despise them. The outcome, though it took many, many years to reveal itself, was also one to ultimately vindicate the Kingdom of Spain and prove that while the United States had gained the victory, it was a gain that benefited the United States not at all. The Spanish certainly have nothing to be ashamed of and more than a few Americans, even before the brief conflict had concluded, realized they had been tricked into a war on the wrong side.

Cuba was, and had long been, the source of trouble between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain. In the old days, America’s southern states sought to annex Cuba to bolster the slave-holding bloc in the Union, later concern over Cuba focused around broader economic opportunities (mostly for northern speculators since the south had been crushed in the American Civil War) and a do-gooder attitude regarding the Cuban rebels. The remnant of the Spanish empire had been having plenty of troubles on its own without the Americans getting involved. Cuba had been in rebellion since at least 1868 with minor disturbances going back even farther. Across the Pacific, in the Spanish East Indies, The Philippines was likewise in rebellion with the archipelago becoming increasingly ungovernable beyond the thick walls of the Spanish fortifications in Manila. In 1895 rebellion broke out anew in Cuba and the American warmongers were quick to begin the build-up for war with the Kingdom of Spain. The most important force pushing for conflict was the mainstream media of the day, particularly the New York newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

King Alfonso XIII, Queen Maria Christina
The Spanish reacted with growing concern and undoubtedly the Spanish effort to deal with the problem of Cuba was made worse by the pressure coming from the United States. It was, as was sadly all too common, a very difficult time for Spain. The young King Alfonso XII had recently died, leaving national affairs in the hands of his Habsburg bride Queen Maria Christina of Austria, acting for the child sovereign King Alfonso XIII who was born after the death of his father. Queen Maria Christina did her best under very difficult circumstances. Political malfeasance and the recurring Carlist Wars had practically bankrupted Spain and the Cubans had been forced by this to start borrowing money from the United States which, naturally, caused many American lenders to take a very serious interest in Cuba from then on. The Cuban rebels often threatened American interests as much as Spanish rule but even then, Spain was still blamed for failing to protect the loyal Cubans from the disloyal ones. Queen Maria Christina finally conceded virtually everything but total independence for Cuba. As had previously been done with Puerto Rico, Cuba was given autonomy and the Cubans all the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else in the Kingdom of Spain. When still more concessions were demanded, the Queen had none left to give.

The American print media, the “fake news” of the day, was constantly printing stories of simple, pitiful, virtuous Cuban peasants being raped, massacred, tortured and tormented by arrogant, vicious and cruel Spanish oppressors. The Spanish had little response other than to say it was not true, which most people in the English-speaking world did not believe anyway, having ancestral memories of the “Black Legend” and a popular perception of the Spanish as natural villains. As such, the British took the side of the United States against the Spanish, though they need not and would not become involved directly. Almost the only voice on the world stage speaking up for Spain was the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. He called for solidarity amongst the crowned heads of Europe against the upstart and meddling American republic but was ignored. He sold the latest in German weaponry to the Spanish army but was also looking to possibly scoop up the remnants of the Spanish empire for Germany if the opportunity presented itself. The Kaiser may have warned against an American victory but he was perfectly willing to profit by it if he could.

Spanish army officers on colonial service
Of course, the war in Cuba was not what the American public had been led to believe. The Spanish were, more often than not, the injured party and the Cuban rebels were, more often than not, the real cause of most misfortune on the island which the Spanish treasured as their “Pearl of the Antilles” and, practically speaking, one of the few parts of the Spanish empire that actually still produced profits for the kingdom. One of the first men to see how wrong the popular portrayal of the Spanish was happened to be none other than Winston Churchill. He came to Cuba expecting to see helpless locals crushed under the boot of Spanish rulers but instead found the Spanish officers to be refined, Castilian gentlemen, deeply attached to and concerned for Cuba. He saw plenty of Cubans who were loyal to the Spanish Crown and he saw the rebels behaving as bandits, making life worse for the Cuban people and then blaming it all on “Spanish oppression”. The perception of Churchill had reversed completely when he could actually see the true situation for himself. However, not without justification, he still thought the Spanish were doomed in Cuba. Recurring civil war in instability at home had simply made it impossible for Spain to maintain such a large force at such a great distance for the amount of time necessary to eliminate all rebel resistance. Perhaps America could do better?

The destruction of the USS Maine
Despite Spanish concessions, the media in the United States continued to spread anti-Spanish propaganda. It was actually in response to a large *pro-Spanish* demonstration in Havana that U.S. Consul General Fitzhugh Lee called for some American military presence to protect American interests on the island. Centerpiece of that “presence” was the American battleship the USS Maine. The Spanish were not best pleased by this but were correct and polite, making no trouble about it. Then, on the night of February 15, 1898 the Maine suddenly exploded in a massive ball of fire and quickly sank, taking 266 American sailors with her. The media warmongers now had something to seize on and to use as a pretext to call for war under the ready-made slogan, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” They blamed a Spanish mine for the sinking of the ship. In truth, while there has been some debate about what caused the sinking, we do know for a fact that it was certainly *not* a Spanish mine but was, rather, the result of some internal accident. That, however, was never entertained by the Hearst-Pulitzer media competitors nor did most of the American public hear that the Spanish had reacted quickly to rescue surviving American sailors from Havana harbor and give them every aid and assistance possible. Such a display of Spanish compassion and humanity would not fit the narrative.

Neither government really wanted war, Spain had everything to lose and nothing to gain while the American president, William McKinley, a totally unadventurous man if ever there was one, preferred to focus on domestic issues. Nonetheless, the media-driven war fervor resulted in a half-hearted request by the U.S. President for war authority and on April 19, 1898 the U.S. Congress passed a declaration of war against the Kingdom of Spain. The Spanish, despite having a larger standing army than the United States at that time, knew they stood no chance of winning but were prepared to at least do their best not to lose in a dishonorable fashion. Some, it is often forgotten, did not think the Spanish cause all that hopeless. The geography of the conflict meant that the naval battle would be the decisive battle and many British Royal Navy officers, while sympathizing with the United States, expected the American navy to be crushed by the professional European force of the Spanish Armada. They would be in for a surprise as the Spanish fleet had deteriorated to an alarming degree by the time that the U.S. Pacific fleet under Commodore George Dewey moved to seize control of waters around The Philippines.

Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo
The Spanish island of Guam fell to the Americans quickly and peacefully. The tiny Spanish garrison had no idea war had broken out when an American warship steamed up to the island and fired an opening salvo. The Spanish thought this was simply a salute and rowed out to thank the American sailors and explain that they would like to do the polite thing and return the salute but would need to borrow some powder do so only to be told that the two countries were at war and their surrender of the island was being demanded. A handover ceremony was held the following day. The subsequent Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898 was almost as one-sided. Spanish Rear-Admiral Patricio Montojo was outnumbered and his ships outclassed. He did err in placing his fleet beyond the range of the shore batteries which the American ships were careful to stay out of range of, but there was little he could do in the face of overwhelming American firepower. He attempted to ram the American ships and at least go out in a blaze of glory. The Spanish fleet was shot to pieces with American losses amounting to only one cruiser being damaged and one sailor dead from heatstroke. Eventually, Admiral Montojo would be court-martialed and put in prison for losing this battle and, in a sign of how things tended to go in the Spanish-American War, he was defended by his former enemy, the promoted Admiral Dewey, who maintained that his Spanish opponent had been a valorous foe who had done all in his power for the honor of Spain. Montojo was ultimately absolved.

Meanwhile, American forces were being deployed to the primary front of the war which was the invasion of Cuba. The U.S. forces were under the command of the overweight, ailing and generally lackluster General William Shafter with one of his top subordinates being the former Confederate cavalry leader Major General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler who was old, perhaps a bit senile, but as full of zeal for battle as he had ever been. The American army landed at Daiquiri and quickly made contact with Cuban rebels who were to fight alongside them. The initial landing was uncontested as the Spanish were forced to focus on defending their vital points and had no wish to be caught on the beaches with the Americans in front of them and Cuban guerillas behind them. Any idea that this would be an easy victory for the American forces was soon dispelled. The Spanish were prepared to offer tenacious resistance and many were equipped with superior smokeless German Mausers and the latest German artillery whereas most American units were still armed with black powder rifles that quickly enveloped the shooters in a cloud of smoke upon firing.

Spanish General Antero Rubin
The first major engagement came at the Battle of Las Guasimas where the Americans inadvertently stumbled into a defensive line of 2,000 Spaniards who were actually acting more as a rear guard. The Spanish never intended to hold the area really but were simply fighting a delaying action as their forces pulled back to stronger defensive positions. Although hailed as a great opening victory in the press, thanks mostly to General Wheeler’s aggressive if ill-advised determination to push forward, the truth is that while the Spanish retreated, they had been planning that anyway and the American forces had suffered significantly higher losses with 27 men killed and 52 wounded compared to only 7 killed and 14 wounded for the Spanish who were outnumbered in both men and artillery. The Spanish, led by General Antero Rubin, had delayed the American advance, inflicted heavier losses than they sustained and withdrew in good order, all of which defines a successful rear-guard action. The Spanish, with their smokeless rifles, were able to conceal themselves in the dense greenery and fire at the American soldiers who were easily spotted and had a difficult time determining where their enemy was.

The Spanish defense of El Caney
Nonetheless, the U.S. advance continued and the next focus was the Battle of San Juan Hill, undoubtedly the most famous engagement of the war, at least on the American side. However, in order to advance on San Juan Hill and the subsequent Kettle Hill, the American flank had to be secured by the capture of El Caney and if any fight deserves to be the most famous engagement of the war for the Kingdom of Spain it is doubtlessly the Battle of El Caney. General Shafter dispatched 6,600 men with artillery support to secure this position, defended by no more than a little over 600 Spaniards with no artillery of their own. El Caney was home to a small church where, tradition says, the great Spanish conquistador Cortez had prayed for God’s blessing on his invasion of Mexico, but more than that, it had General Joaquin Vara del Rey y Rubio, a skillful and gallant Spanish officer who was determined to defend El Caney to his last breath and that is exactly what he did. So vastly outnumbered, there was no doubt El Caney would fall eventually, but the stalwart Spanish soldiers repulsed one American charge after another, inflicting ever heavier losses on the U.S. Army. Both sides came to admire each other. The Spanish were amazed by the relentless courage of the Americans who charged forward again and again while the Americans were just as impressed by heroism of the Spanish who stood firm in the face of overwhelming numbers and intense canon fire, throwing back attack after attack. Concentrated American artillery fire finally breached the Spanish lines and General Vara del Rey was killed in the battle but he and his men had held off vastly superior forces for the whole day, inflicting losses of 600 killed and 360 wounded on the American side compared to only 38 killed, 138 wounded and 160 captured for themselves. When it was over, U.S. forces buried General Vara del Rey with full military honors as a final salute to a worthy foe.

General Arsenio Linares
Elsewhere, the same day, July 1, the Battle of San Juan Hill unfolded. The initial stages did not go well for the Americans. The Spanish shot down an American observation balloon and pinned down the Black soldiers of the U.S. 10th Cavalry under future AEF commander John J. Pershing on the jungle road. The largely concealed and well placed Spanish men and guns took a heavy toll on the American forces. One American captain, William “Bucky” O’Neill, stood up and proclaimed that no Spanish bullet could kill him at which point the reckless Irishman was promptly shot right through the head. U.S. forces had to crawl forward, under withering Spanish fire, to the foot of Kettle Hill at which point one, furious charge forward carried the position. The Spanish defenders were led by General Arsenio Linares y Pombo who had taken care to prepare well fortified positions. His mistake, however, was in placing his men on the hilltops rather than the more effective position just below the summit. This caused his men to be more exposed than was necessary and allowed the Americans, if they could make it that far, to get ‘under’ his guns and reach the Spanish lines with a last, mad rush.

Defending San Juan Hill
This, however, was not a determinative factor as the Spanish were so far outnumbered, hundreds of men confronting thousands, that the outcome could not seriously be in doubt but it was a disadvantage for the sons of Spain. The Americans charged forward up San Juan Hill in the face of heavy Spanish fire, though because of their placement the Spanish tended to shoot over their attackers. With Lt. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt (a future President) leading the way with his “Rough Riders” the Spanish were overwhelmed and San Juan Hill was captured. It was a celebrated victory for the Americans but it had been a costly one. Accounts differ with each side downplaying their own losses and puffing up those of the enemy, but none can disguise the fact that American losses were much heavier than those of the Spanish and General Shafter worried that his newly taken positions could not be held if the Spanish launched a determined counter-attack. No such attack was planned though as the Spanish concentrated on fortifying their position in and around Santiago which was much more formidable. The Americans knew better than to launch another all-out attack on such a position and instead started digging in themselves. Once that was done, a message was dispatched demanding the Spanish surrender of allowing for the evacuation of civilians prior to an American artillery bombardment.

Admiral Cervera
The decisive engagement for Cuba and thus the war as a whole came just offshore on July 3 at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba wherein five battleships, and one cruiser of the American navy took on the four cruisers and two destroyers of Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera. It was a futile fight and the Spanish knew it, nonetheless, they bravely steamed out to do battle for the honor of the Spanish Crown. One of the Spanish captains remarked with a tragic sense of history, as the buglers called the men to general quarters that, “The sound of my bugles was the last echo of those which history tells us were sounded at the capture of Granada. It was the signal that four centuries of grandeur were at an end…” The Spanish squadron was wiped out with the American fleet losing only one man killed and another wounded. Nonetheless, the American naval officers were deeply impressed by bravery of their Spanish foes and when the Spanish Admiral Cervera was rescued from the water by an American warship, he was piped aboard with great ceremony, including an honor guard of U.S. Marines as a chivalrous tribute to a fallen foe who had showed such courage.

The Americans had come to realize how grossly they had been misled by the mainstream media portrayal of the Spanish and the Cuban rebels, the “fake news” of the day. Their supposed partners, the Cuban rebels, were more of a hindrance than a help. They stole anything that could be carried off and were a constant drain on American logistics. Likewise, in stark contrast to the honor and dignity of the Spanish forces, it was the Cuban rebels that the Americans witnessed behaving with vindictive cruelty and barbarity. In the aftermath of the Battle of Santiago an outraged American officer witness Cubans murdering the wounded and shell-shocked Spanish sailors who washed ashore. He put an immediate stop to that and threatened to massacre the Cubans himself if they harmed another Spanish sailor. Similarly, once the conflict was over, when the Spanish wished to return the body of their fallen hero, General Joaquin Vara del Rey, to Spain, the Cubans stole his body, to the outrage of the Americans who had gained the highest respect for their fallen foe. The American officer in charge ultimately threatened to shoot the local Cuban leader if the body was not immediately recovered. That did the trick and the body was found and returned home with all due ceremony.

General Toral y Velazquez
The last act of the war in Cuba came at Santiago where a truce had been declared while negotiations were underway for a Spanish surrender. The Spanish officers, led by General Jose Toral y Velazquez (Linares having been wounded in the Battle of San Juan Hill) decided that it would be dishonorable to surrender until their situation was more desperate. As such, a siege ensured and U.S. artillery shelled the city for two days until, with the arrival of reinforcements under General Nelson Miles, the Spanish finally decided that honor had been satisfied and agreed to surrender. Puerto Rico was also taken by General Miles without undue difficulty. The last act of the war was to be played out in The Philippines where the Spanish were simply intent on surrendering to the Americans rather than the Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Such would have been hateful and humiliating and was not really different from the British attitude at the surrender of Yorktown, wishing to surrender to the French rather than the rebel Americans. The Filipinos, asserting their own independence, spoiled the affair and so some bloodshed ensued but, in the end, Manila was taken by the United States, the Spanish surrendered and the rebel natives were kept out of the whole affair.

With their fleet gone and ground forces having surrendered, the Kingdom of Spain had no choice but to sue for peace. The resulting Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898 saw Guam, Puerto Rico and The Philippines become U.S. territories and the island of Cuba become a U.S. protectorate on the path to full independence as the Republic of Cuba. The U.S. government ratified the treaty the following year and while the Spanish government refused to so, the Queen-regent Maria Christina overruled them, knowing that it would be pointless and suicidal to try to carry on a war that had already been lost against an enemy they had no hope of defeating. The Spanish had lost and the last remaining crumbs of the former Spanish empire in the Americas and Asia were gone. However, Spain had nothing to be ashamed of. They had fallen before a superior foe and had fought with great skill and dedication against impossible odds. Their bravery and as much the chivalry and honorable behavior of the Spanish commanders, had won them the admiration of their adversaries.

Surrendering Spanish army in Cuba
Finally, at the end of the day, the American victory could well be seen as being rather hollow and the Spanish could be forgiven for taking some satisfaction in the fact that American gains proved to be rather illusory. In The Philippines, the United States inherited the guerilla war previously waged against the Spanish and it took another war to firmly suppress the Filipino insurrection. The Philippines, previously coveted by the Japanese and the Germans, proved to be a source of more problems than profits for the United States. Even after World War II and the granting of independence to The Philippines, the Filipino leadership evicted the U.S. Navy from Subic Bay and frequently gains popular favor by painting the Americans as their colonial oppressors, even while huge numbers of Filipinos have preferred to leave their independent country to come to the United States. Puerto Rico has likewise been a huge drain on American resources and an occasional source of terrorist attacks. Cuba, as an independent country, originally showed some degree of friendship and gratitude toward the United States only to eventually become a virulently anti-American communist dictatorship that has bedeviled the American government for decades. As such, in the end, while Spain was defeated, the Spanish can look back with pride at how well they resisted inevitable defeat whereas the modern American could be forgiven for wondering just what exactly were the long-term benefits of a victory that seemed so magnificent at the time.
Loyalist Cuban volunteers for Spain

------- For More Information -------

Consort Profile: Marie Christina of Austria

The Many Times the U.S. Almost Fought Spain (But Didn't)

Monarch Profile: King Alfonso XIII of Spain


  1. "Almost the only voice on the world stage speaking up for Spain was the German Kaiser Wilhelm II."

    As "Austrian born", counting place not nationality, wondering : where did Franz Joseph stand?

    After all, Spain had previously been Habsburg ruled and there was some legitimist interest in Vienna (our last rightful king of the older dynasty - I am Swedish by nation of parents - was guest in Schönbrunn).

  2. "He saw plenty of Cubans who were loyal to the Spanish Crown and he saw the rebels behaving as bandits, making life worse for the Cuban people and then blaming it all on “Spanish oppression”."

    Che Guevara famously recommended Ho Chi Minh for this tactic (with a twist : Ho Chi Minh was not relying on US and so had to estrange the people, which he did by provoking conflicts by extortion).

    Was Che shy about taking the Cuban example?

  3. "They blamed a Spanish mine for the sinking of the ship. In truth, while there has been some debate about what caused the sinking, we do know for a fact that it was certainly *not* a Spanish mine but was, rather, the result of some internal accident."

    I am reminded about the story of Oradour sur Glâne.


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