Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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

Americans who learned their history will have at least a passing familiarity with the Spanish-American War. This has sometimes been referred to as the best war America ever fought. The outcome was never seriously in doubt, America was in no real danger, the enemy was gallant and honorable and the gains seemed to far exceed the cost (though this was a false perception as no great wealth came pouring in from Puerto Rico or The Philippines in the years that followed). For the last time, chivalry was still the rule and the U.S. forces repeatedly showed great courtesy to their honorable Spanish adversaries. It was a short, gallant and victorious war, fought on land and sea some distance from the United States. In other words, the ideal conflict. However, most are probably unaware that prior to the Spanish-American War, the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain had come very, very close to going to war with each other and on more than one occasion. Time and time again, an American war with Spain seemed imminent before the two actually came to blows for those few months in 1898.

King Carlos III of Spain
The United States of America came into being, winning their independence, alongside the Kingdom of Spain. However, the two were more like co-belligerents than actual allies. The Kingdom of France and the United States were allies but the Spanish, while supportive of the American war effort, were mostly anti-British rather than pro-American. They fought a common enemy in the form of the Anglo superpower of the day, but the two countries had very little in common. When American independence was secured, neither side had any misgivings about the attitude of the other. Americans had distrusted the Spanish as British colonists and continued to do so as U.S. citizens. The Spanish distrusted Anglos who flew the King’s Colours and continued to distrust Anglos flying the Stars & Stripes. The primary reason Spain had come to the aid of the rebel colonies was not because they sympathized with their cause but that splitting the British empire would lessen the danger to the Spanish empire (or at least, so King Carlos III hoped).

Hardly had the United States been firmly established than did potential war with Spain become a talked about possibility. The first major Spanish-American crisis came in 1785, sparked by a dispute over where the exact border was between the U.S. state of Georgia and the Spanish colony of La Florida. The Yazoo Strip was the disputed ground and the Spanish worked to incite the native American Indians of the region to attack the United States. The Spanish also later banned all American trade with the Spanish West Indies and then cut off all commerce to the western territories by closing the mouth of the Mississippi River to American business. This tended to hurt people on both sides of the border and finally the Spanish government sent over an agent named Don Diego de Gardoqui to negotiate a settlement. He offered to allow U.S. trade with the West Indies in exchange for which the U.S. would not make use of the Mississippi River for 25 years. Obviously, this would be very good for the seafaring merchants of New England but ruinous for those on what was then the western frontier of America.

The U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, was heavily influenced by the eastern merchants and agreed to the Spanish offer. However, it had to be ratified by the Congress (this was the Confederation period) to be a legally valid treaty and the proposal received only 7 of the 9 votes required to pass. Jay was castigated by westerners and the move was so unpopular that Kentucky’s provincial Governor James Wilkinson began conspiring with the Spanish to take Kentucky out of the realm of the United States so they could come to their own agreement. This potential revolt in Kentucky was stopped only when Spanish authorities agreed to reopen the Mississippi to American shipping, though with a hefty duty imposed on them.

Thomas Pinckney
Tensions were still relatively high in 1795 when Spain, recently defeated by the revolutionary French, feared an Anglo-American attack on their territory in western North America. At this time, U.S. politics in terms of foreign affairs tended to be divided into the more revolutionary, pro-French camp represented by Thomas Jefferson, and the more conservative, Anglophile camp represented by Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson wanted to give the French revolutionaries every assistance. Hamilton did not, but would have been perfectly happy to go to war against Spain, alongside Britain, and expand the territory of the United States. The Spanish realized this and were anxious to come to an agreement before they gained a foreign enemy in addition to their problematic relationship with France. So, in 1795 Thomas Pinckney, U.S. envoy to Spain, signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo which granted the Yazoo strip to the United States, settling the Georgia-Florida border dispute and allowed American boats unlimited access to the Mississippi with deposit rights.

The next potential conflict with Spain came in 1819 over American claims that bandits, escaped slaves and renegade Indians were attacking U.S. territory from Spanish Florida. General Andrew Jackson was sent in on a punitive expedition against the largely Seminole Indians in Florida, seizing several outposts and infuriating the Spanish. However, this was so soon after the Peninsular War, in addition to ongoing colonial troubles of their own in Mexico and elsewhere, that the Spanish government could do little to respond. America’s top diplomat, John Quincy Adams told the Spanish that they would be held responsible for the failure to keep order in their own province or Spain could simply shed itself of the problem by turning Florida over to the United States. The Spanish decided this would be the more cost-effective solution after the U.S. agreed to pay $5 million toward the claims of U.S. citizens against the Kingdom of Spain. The Spanish also agreed to relinquish their claim to the Oregon territory and the United States agreed to stop making trouble for Spain in Texas where American land pirates had been teaming up with Mexican revolutionaries to try to break the province away from the Spanish Crown. This agreement was the Adams-OnĂ­s Treaty.

King Fernando VII
Anyone who thought that peace and friendship would follow, were to be mistaken as the old Anglo-Latin rivalry began to appear again very soon after. In the wake of the Peninsular War and a period of seemingly constant civil war and instability in Spain, the Spanish empire began to fall to pieces as one after another country across Latin America declared their independence. Figures such as the South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar were very popular with the American people and the United States was quick to grant recognition to the new Latin American republics. From 1821 to 1823 Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Argentina were recognized by the United States. The British Empire, anxious to see the end of the Spanish imperial monopoly on trade with Latin America, also welcomed the independence of these new countries but, of course, the Kingdom of Spain did not and the restored Kingdom of France was likewise not to happy about seeing their Bourbon royal relatives lose their empire. A plan began to form for King Louis XVIII of France and King Fernando VII of Spain to launch a joint Franco-Spanish military campaign to crush the upstart Latin Americans and restore Spanish rule in Central and South America once and for all.

This caused some alarm in both Washington and London. In 1823 it seemed that, once again, war with Spain and (another) war with France was on the horizon. George Channing, the British Foreign Secretary, called for a show of Anglo solidarity in response and suggested a joint British-American warning for France to mind its own business. John Quincy Adams, America’s top diplomat, sympathized but did not want to be seen as playing second fiddle to the British. Instead, the U.S. adopted the Monroe Doctrine, drawn up by a collaboration of Adams, Jefferson and Madison, which declared the Americas “off limits” to any further European colonial meddling or else there would be trouble with the United States. The British Empire, whose American colonies were secure, backed the Monroe Doctrine and any chance of France aiding Spain in restoring the Spanish empire in Latin America instantly vanished. At the time, the United States could do little to actually enforce the Monroe Doctrine but Britain, with the powerful Royal Navy, certainly could and so with British support the Monroe Doctrine was unassailable.

This put off any potential trouble with the Kingdom of Spain for some time, however, events in Spain and America also played a part. The United States was beset by problems between the states, westward expansion and trouble with one of those breakaway Latin American republics, namely Mexico. Spain, meanwhile, after the death of King Fernando VII, saw Spanish royalists focus all of their attention on fighting each other over the throne with the outbreak of the First (of many) Carlist Wars and any chance of regaining control of Latin America faded into the distance. Nonetheless, tensions and threats of war would return again, more than once, before the Nineteenth Century was finished. Increasingly the focus would fall on Cuba, Spain’s most prized possession in the Caribbean and which, after his foray into Florida, General Jackson had offered to conquer while he was in the neighborhood and all. The U.S. government refused permission for that but many Americans, particularly southern Americans were anxious to see Spain expelled from Cuba and the island annexed by the United States which would add more support for the southern, pro-slavery faction in the U.S. Congress.

Queen Isabella II
Unfortunately for the Spanish, they faced a double threat from American southerners on one side and Cuban rebels on the other. Even though the two often had very different goals, both opposed the continuance of Spanish rule over the island and were pragmatic enough to make common cause against the Queen of Spain. In 1848 U.S. President James K. Polk offered to buy Cuba from the Spanish but Queen Isabella II rejected the offer (and likely thought it rather impertinent as well!) but the southern advocates of an American invasion of Cuba found a powerful ally in the person of Spanish-Cuban dissident General Narciso Lopez. He came, as a refugee, to the United States and quickly gained popularity throughout the south for advocating an invasion of Cuba. This, he promised, would instantly spark a massive popular uprising against the hated Spanish. Actually, even by the time of the Spanish-American War, Spanish rule was not so widely unpopular as the Cuban independence-advocates have always alleged. Invading Cuba became the favorite hobby of American southerners and in no time at all General Lopez had enlisted several hundred volunteers to his cause. However, the U.S. government was another story and wanted no part of this Cuba business and managed to thwart the enterprise.

Colonel Crittenden
General Lopez and his southern backers, however, did not give up so easily and in 1850 another expedition was assembled, again of a few hundred volunteers, and this time they managed to get to Cuba and successfully land their forces at Cardenas. The problem was that there was no massive, spontaneous uprising of Cubans and the Spanish army responded quickly. The American volunteers were given a sound thrashing by the Spanish troops and had to retreat back to sea where they were pursued by a Spanish warship all the way back to America. Nonetheless, Lopez was nothing if not persistent and the American southerners were undeterred by this disaster. In no time at all a third expedition was assembled in 1851. This time there were 500 men, mostly Americans with a sprinkling of Cuban dissidents and again they invaded Cuba. It was bold, it was brave but, once again it was a disaster. Once again, there was no massive Cuban uprising to support them and once again the Spanish army crushed them decisively. This time, there was no retreat, the expedition ending with the survivors being taken prisoner. Lopez, who was legally a traitor, was strangled to death while Colonel William L. Crittenden of Kentucky along with 50 American volunteers were executed. There remained about 162 captives and more than half were U.S. citizens.

Unlike the previous fiascos, this time there were Americans who had been killed but not in battle and Americans being held prisoner. What had started as a private enterprise to spark a rebellion in Cuba, soon turned into an international incident that threatened to escalate to full blown war. Violent anti-Spanish riots broke out in New Orleans (a popular organizing and embarking point for such adventures) where the office of a Spanish newspaper was destroyed and the Spanish consulate was ransacked. Across the country in numerous American cities, mass meetings were held denouncing the Spanish and demanding action from the U.S. government. The Spanish government, understandably frustrated with the continued attacks on Cuba, seriously considered declaring war on the United States. Such a disaster was averted only thanks to the quick diplomatic efforts of President Millard Fillmore’s administration. Secretary of State Daniel Webster offered Her Catholic Majesty his deepest regrets on behalf of the United States for the incident and agreed to pay Spain $25,000 for the property destroyed in New Orleans. The Spanish, in return, released the American prisoners. Once again, war had been averted.

Pierre Soule'
Real peace was not so easy though as the Spanish continued to harbor deep resentment and distrust of the United States, for which they honestly had every justification in this case. Cuba would remain the most sensitive spot for U.S.-Spanish relations. In February of 1854 the Spanish authorities in Havana seized the American merchant ship Black Warrior for failure to show a cargo manifest. This was the law but it was a law that was not usually enforced, the Spanish were just being a little testy. The fact that the law was technically on the side of Spain did not matter much to most Americans who were also feeling testy and likewise tended to dislike the Spanish. This time it was in America that a public outcry for a declaration of war against Spain rose up. Although a foreign war might have been just what the doctor ordered to distract an American public that was about to start killing each other on a record-breaking scale, President Franklin Pierce did not want to go to war with the Kingdom of Spain over one ship. Pierce instructed Pierre Soule, the U.S. minister to the court of Queen Isabella II, to deliver a formal protest over the seizure of the Black Warrior and demand compensation from Spain.

Soule, a French exile who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, zealously set to work to do as he was told. In fact, he was altogether more zealous than diplomatic. Pierce had wanted a formal protest for the sake of public pride, an indemnity and then to forget the whole matter. However, Soule delivered a note that delivered the basic message but had the tone of an ultimatum, with a demand for payment of $300,000 with the Spanish government given forty-eight hours to reply. Such a note could have easily led to war. Fortunately, Secretary of State William Marcy was able to intervene and moderate the American demands so that the incident could be handled in a more diplomatic way. Yet, this was not the end of it as the incident highlighted the danger that Cuba posed to Spanish-American relations. Soule, therefore, met in Ostend, Belgium with the American minister to Britain, James Buchanan, and the American minister to France, James Y. Mason to discuss this situation. The three came to an agreement and issued the Ostend Manifesto which called for the United States to offer to buy Cuba from Spain for $120,000,000. If Spain refused the offer, the U.S. would consider itself justified in invading the island and taking it by force.

William L. Marcy
This was not, needless to say, any sort of official document, just a kind of recommendation for Secretary of State Marcy. However, then as now, anything written down is bound to get leaked to the public and as soon as the Ostend Manifesto made the papers, the abolitionists and much of the northern part of the United States erupted in outrage at what was seen as blatant warmongering on the part of the southern, slave-holding part of the country to add Cuba to their ranks. This caused a huge controversy, the note being published in March, 1855, and Marcy was forced to publicly disavow the Manifesto and Soule was forced to resign. The United States and the Kingdom of Spain each ignored it as it had no official backing but it did serve to enflame the worsening tensions between the northern and southern states in America.

So it was that peace prevailed between Spain and America, however, it was mostly due to the Monroe Doctrine and the most serious European involvement in the Americas came when the United States was engulfed in its own Civil War and thus unable to do much about anything else. Spanish forces participated in the intervention, along with the French and British against the Juarez government, resulting in an extended French conflict on the side of Mexican conservatives against Juarez and the crowning of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. The United States protested but could do little about it so long as the Confederacy remained alive. In 1861 the failing Dominican Republic came under new management and actually requested re-admission into the remnant of the Spanish empire, a request which Queen Isabella II graciously granted. However, that reunion lasted only until the final defeat of the Confederates in 1865 and the month following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, the Queen of Spain annulled the annexation, being in no position to risk a confrontation with the United States.

The Battle of San Juan Hill
The American Civil War also played at least a small part in the eventual outbreak of the actual Spanish-American War in 1898. President William McKinley, himself a Union veteran of the Civil War, appointed four former Confederate generals to command volunteers in the invasion of Cuba; Major General Joseph Wheeler and Major General Fitzhugh Lee being the most prominent. This is a clear indication that President McKinley hoped to use the war with Spain as a way of reuniting the north and south against a foreign foe, bringing the country together. In retrospect, given all that had gone before in Spanish-American relations, it is rather remarkable that when actual war did break out, it was fought without much real animosity. Rather than a vicious, bitter struggle, Americans found out that the Spanish were not the cruel villains they had imagined. On the contrary, U.S. forces were impressed by the valor and gallantry of their Spanish adversaries, which resulted in a number of chivalrous displays that would be increasingly scarce in conflicts going forward.

General Joaquin Vara del Rey
When the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, though this point was never mentioned by the “yellow press” the Spanish reacted quickly to help rescue American sailors from the water. During the war, Spanish Brigadier General Joaquin Vara del Rey with only 550 men held off 12,000 U.S. troops for 10 hours at El Caney, being killed himself during the battle. The American forces were so impressed by his heroic stand that they buried him with full military honors as a final salute to a worthy foe. After the Battle of Santiago, Spanish Admiral Cervera was pulled from the water by the American forces and piped aboard the USS Iowa complete with an honor guard of U.S. Marines. Commodore Winfield Schley, speaking to the men of the USS Brooklyn, said to them, “Admiral Cervera is aboard the Iowa. We have vanquished him today, and I hope you will not cheer, but show your generosity to him for his courage.” It was a classic image of chivalry, of respect for an honorable foe rather than a hated enemy. After so many, many years of animosity, so many occasions when conflict almost erupted, when the two sides did finally meet in battle, they found out that their prejudices did not coincide with reality. Given what was to happen since, the victorious side in the Spanish-American War, may have had just as much, perhaps even more, cause to regret the conflict than the losing side did.

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