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"A  Splendid  Little  War"


 

A Chronology of
Medal of Honor Heroism
During
The Spanish-American War


 

Is has been said somewhere that "There has never been a good WAR or a bad PEACE."  War is a horrible human experience, disrupting world harmony and taking the lives of young men and women before their time.  The United States of America was conceived in revolution, tested in a great civil war, and tempered through its westward expansion by armed conflict.  Perhaps Thomas Jefferson best summarized the inevitability of war, as well as its desired outcome, in his letter to William Smith in 1787 when he wrote:

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is it's natural manure."

In the spring of 1898 the United States went to war with the empire of Spain.  It was our Nation's first major conflict since the Civil War, and the first major foreign war in our Country's brief history.  It was a war for which the United States was unprepared militarily, but a war that had been looking for an excuse to happen for a quarter-century.

It was a war that lasted less than a year from declaration of war to signing of the Treaty of Paris ending it.  Violent conflict spanned a period of only 115 days with less than 400 American combat deaths.  It was an unqualified victory for the United States, a success that propelled the young nation to the forefront as a world power.

It was a foreign war that received popular support on the home front, considered by many historians to be our most popular war.  It was glamorized in the media, indeed even instigated to some degree by the leading news publishers of the day.  In the early days before war was declared but when conflict appeared imminent, New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst sent the famous Western artist Frederick Remington to Cuba to sketch Cuban insurgents fighting for their independence from Spain.  After several months, Remington had found little to draw and wired New York, "Everything quiet, no trouble here.  There will be no war.  I wish to return."  Hearst reportedly responded to Remington's appraisal of the situation in Cuba and his request to come home with the following: 

"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

When at last war with Spain did come, a nationalistic press sensationalized the defeats of the enemy and embellished the heroic actions of American soldiers.  Several national heroes emerged "larger than life". Theodore Roosevelt would be propelled into the White House within 3 years, in large part on the basis of the stories of his exploits during the war.   Just before the war began, Roosevelt summarized the sentiment of the American public well in a speech to the Naval War College when he said:

"No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war."

As a direct result of that brief, first major foreign war, the face of America changed forever.  The Spanish American War led to the liberation of Cuba, a continued American presence in the Philippine Islands, American expansion to Guam and Puerto Rico, and the construction of the Panama Canal.   It was a war fought largely by citizen soldiers from the National Guard and led to the reorganization of our reserves under the Dick Act of 1903.  On the fields of combat, lifetime friendships were formed.  Upon their triumphal return, American soldiers were hailed as heroes in their hometowns.  

Indeed, from the perspective of United States history, if ever there were a good war, it was the Spanish American War.  Shortly after hostilities ended in Cuba and the United States entered a period of negotiations for the peace treaty to end the Spanish American War, John Milton Hay was appointed Secretary of State by President William McKinley.  Years later when Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House, Hay wrote the President about that war.  In that letter he summarized the conflict with a quote that came to be linked with the first war of American expansion beyond her borders.  He called it:

"A  Splendid  Little  War"


"We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency.               (President McKinley in his 1897 Inaugural Address)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The assurances of the U.S. President aside, events in Cuba were making war with Spain an eventuality that was destined to occur.

Lying just 90 miles south of the tip of Florida, the sugar-rich island of Cuba was sometimes called the Pearl of the Antilles.   Along with the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, Cuba  was among the last holdings of the aging Spanish empire.  Between the islands lay the independent Republic of Haiti (freed from French rule in 1804) and the Dominical Republic, which declared independence from Haiti in 1844.  The people of Cuba likewise sought independent rule, leading to a quarter-century of unrest.  A short distance away the people of the United States watched events in the Caribbean unfold with great interest.

In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams noted, "The apple severed from the tree must fall to the ground.  Cuba severed from Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union (United States), which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom."  That the United States was interested in acquiring the Caribbean island with its natural port at Havana was no secret.  In 1848 President James K. Polk offered Spain $100 million for Cuba, an offer that was quickly and curtly rejected.  Six years later the American ministers to France, Spain and England joined in writing a confidential memorandum to Washington (known as the Ostend Manifesto) urging President Franklin Pierce to either purchase Cuba or forcefully wrest control of the island from Spain.

In the years following the American Civil War, interest in acquiring Cuba as an annexation to the United States waned, to be replaced by cries for Cuban independence.  During Cuba's Ten Years' War for independence (1868-78), American sympathies lay with the Cuban insurgents who struggled to throw off the last remnants of the Spanish global empire that dated back to Christopher Columbus.  Clandestine support for the Cuban rebels was common, particularly in the South where Filibusters...military expeditions by private adventurers...were encouraged and supported by the American citizenry.  Leaders in the revolt like Jose Marti often operated on American soil as they plotted the overthrow of Spanish rule.  But, after the devastating Civil War, the American populace was not ready to become involved in another war themselves.

In 1873 the Cuban ship Virginius, a vessel of the Filibusters, was captured by the Spanish while fraudulently flying the American flag as it ferried arms to the Cuban insurgents.  Captain Joseph Fry and 52 of his crew and passengers were executed, among them several American and British citizens.  In other times, such an incident might have led to immediate war but, after the devastating Civil War, the US populace was not ready to become involved in another conflict...yet.  Civil War hero Daniel Edgar Sickles, now the US Minister to Spain, was infuriated and might have rendered any negotiations futile.  But Secretary of State Hamilton Fish took negotiations out of Sickles' hand, settling the matter peaceably with Spain which paid an $80,000 indemnity to the families of those Americans executed.

When the Ten Years' War ended in 1878, the Cuban bid for independence had been crushed and Spain continued to tenuously hold its Caribbean asset.  The sad loss could not, however, diminish the desire the Cuban patriots held for independence.  Within 20 years it rose again, with a renewed fervor.  Meanwhile attitudes in the United States were becoming more and more imperialistic and the American people were taking a new view of their nation in the affairs of a world that advances in technology had made much smaller.  Even as rebellion broke out anew in Cuba in 1895, the United States was taking a more active role in events in the western hemisphere.  While intervening in a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain, Secretary of State Richard Olney echoed the growing American sentiment:

"The United States is practically sovereign upon this continent, and its fiat is law upon subjects to which it confines its interposition."

In April 1895 the bid for independence in Cuba was renewed in earnest.  Patriots, willing to expend every energy and even their own lives to oust the Spanish, began arming themselves and conducting bloody campaigns against their oppressors.  In response,  the Spanish government sent General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau to pacify the island in 1896.    General Weyler responded by identifying districts that posed the greatest trouble to maintaining control over Cuba, then herded the civilian populations in those districts to detention camps near military headquarters.  It was a policy he called reconcentrado.  As a result of this action, more than 100,000 Cubans starved or died of disease before General Weyler was recalled in October, 1897.

 

In the United States, two trends of the times contributed greatly to the ultimate end result of the unrest in Cuba.

Manifest  Destiny

As a philosophy, Manifest Destiny was a common belief throughout much of the 19th century, long before it was given a title when Democratic Review editor John L. Sullivan wrote in 1845 that no nation on earth should be allowed to interfere with America's "MANIFEST DESTINY to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."  Sullivan wrote his article in support of annexation of Texas, but the concept that the people of the United States had a sacred obligation to expand its borders to include all of North America (including Canada and Mexico), became the rallying cry... and excuse, for all incursions into new territory. 

Sullivan defined Manifest Destiny in a three-point argument that quickly gained poularity:

  1. God Himself was on the side of those eager to expand the US Territories.    This line of thinking stemmed from the belief following the American Revolution that the United States was the land of a chosen people, delivered from Great Britain's rule and preserved by divine providence and in accordance with a divine plan.

  2. FREE DEVELOPMENT meant that the conquest of new regions, placing them under American rule, was the liberation of previously oppressed people.  In this regard, the philosophy rendered a concept of the United States as the ultimate savior of the western hemisphere, thereby excusing expansionist activities.

  3. Sullivan's third point was the belief that, as the United States population grew rapidly, it was necessary to expand and inhabit new territories to accommodate the needs of the people of this chosen nation.

Yellow  Journalism 

  In 1895 William Randolph Hearst acquired the New York Journal and immediately launched a circulation war against the other giant of newspaper publishing, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.  To compete for readers, the two newspapers  stooped to heavy coverage of scandal and sex-related content beneath glaring headlines designed to capture attention.  In addition to what we would today call "tabloid" journalism, colorful cartoons were used to draw loyal audiences.

R.F. Outcault was a cartoonist for the New York World, creating the immensely popular YELLOW KID cartoons.  In May 1896 World competitor the New York Journal pulled off a journalistic coups when Hearst convinced Outcalult to bring his artistic talents to his own newspaper.  Pulitzer quickly brought in George Luks to keep the cartoon running in the New York World, sparking a battle between the two "yellow kids".

Thus it was that, as the two major newspapers stooped to any means from sensational news reporting to cartoon battles, the battle of the YELLOW KID lent its own name to the process to become known as "YELLOW JOURNALISM".

 

 

The heavy-handed tactics of General Weyler made for sensational reporting in the media of the yellow press.  He became known as the "Butcher", and sensational stories of his brutality ran under blazing headlines that read:  "Spanish Cannibalism", "Inhuman Torture", and worseIn the traditions of David and Goliath, Cuban patriots were portrayed as heroically defending their homeland against a brutal and aggressive enemy with no conscience.  The truth of the news didn't matter as much as the ability of a headline to capture attention..."Amazon Warriors Fight for Rebels"...or the potential of a story to incite the emotions of the reader for more.

The Spanish recall of General Weyler on October 31, 1897 might have otherwise robbed the media of the prime subject of their inflammatory stories were it not for the continued unrest in Cuba.  Building on stories already written and widely known, and with a battery of reporters and artists that included the likes of William Remington, the media survived.  Two years earlier a 25-year old author inspired a nation by reliving the sacrifice and glory of Civil War service with the release of his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage.  Now Stephen Crane joined the battery of writers chronicling the valiant struggle for freedom in Cuba.  Even with the absence of Weyler, tensions mounted and Spain was portrayed as a poor ruler about to leap from the frying pan into the fire of Cuba.

Meanwhile the American consul in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, was becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of American citizens in Cuba.  (A Confederate general in the Civil War and nephew of Robert E. Lee, "Fitz" Lee is often confused by historians of these events with Fitzhugh Henry Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee and also a Confederate general.)  On January 1, 1898 Spain demonstrated its desire to avoid war in the Caribbean when it instituted a limited political autonomy in Cuba.  It was too little, too late for the ardent revolutionaries who would settle for nothing less than full independence.  Meanwhile, the Spanish government had supporters of its own in Cuba, an opposing force of citizens who had supported General Weyler and who now opposed the limited autonomy afforded the island's inhabitants.  On January 12th these Spanish loyalists rioted, prompting new concerns for the safety of American citizens in Cuba.  Five days later Consul Lee requested the President to dispatch an American vessel in a show of American presence in the region of increasingly violent civil unrest.  On January 24th, after clearing such a visit with the reluctant and nervous government in Madrid, the second class battleship U.S.S. Maine was dispatched from Key West, Florida.  The impressive American battleship arrived in Havana the following day.

In the weeks that followed Consul Lee reported to Washington that the presence of the Maine  had a calming effect on the unrest in Cuba.  He requested that the Navy prepare to send another battleship to Havana when it came time to relieve the Maine.  It almost appeared that the situation in Cuba might settle down.  Spain didn't want war...its aging fleet would be no match for the might of the United States Navy.  President McKinley had repeatedly called for negotiations, and in this new year at the close of the century, Spain had provided a limited political autonomy to the people of Cuba.  Then came the first attack.

One might say that the first attack of the Spanish-American War was not made with bullets, but with words.  Back in Washington, D.C. the Spanish Minister Enrique de Lome wrote a letter to a Spanish editor who was traveling in the United States.  The communication was stolen by a Cuban official in the Havana Post office and passed on to the New York Journal, which printed it on February 9th.  In that letter the Spanish Minister expressed his adverse personal reaction to the U.S. President's message to Congress in December of the previous year.  The undiplomatic diplomat stated in his letter that President McKinley was "weak and a bidder for admiration of the crowd...(that he was) a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party."

In fact, President McKinley had been one of the cooler heads in government where the subject of war with Spain was becoming increasingly hawkish.  An American public already incensed by the yellow press, was becoming more and more ardent in their calls for American intervention in Cuba.  Now the citizenry saw the attack by a Spanish diplomat on the US President as the ultimate proof of Spain's disrespect and arrogance towards the United States and events in neighboring Cuba.  De Lome's resignation, and even a reluctant apology from Spain, could not assuage the anger of the American people or the sensational reporting on the incident in the media.

 


With the U.S.S. Maine still at anchor in Havana... 

The unrest in Cuba was about to become a war... looking for an excuse to happen! 

 

 

A Splendid Little War

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