Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Spanish American War ---A.K.A. Teddy's War


In the late 1800’s American citizens owned about 50 million dollars' worth of Cuban property, primarily in the sugar, tobacco, and iron industries.  Spanish rule in Cuba had become harsh and revolution broke out in 1895. President William McKinley was under public pressure to defend U.S. interests on the island. In early 1898 the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, with a loss of 260 men justified U.S. involvement in the eyes of the public. The Maine was there on a "goodwill visit", and although a board of naval officers determined the cause to be a submarine mine, popular opinion escalated against Spain.

President McKinley signed a resolution demanding that Cuba be freed of Spanish reign and sent a Navy blockade to Cuban ports. On April 23, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States.
The United States Army was not prepared for war. After the Civil War, the country had drastically reduced its army. Most army units had been involved in the Indian Wars in the west. Volunteer and National Guard units and Regular-army divisions, filled with new recruits, rushed to Florida to await a potential invasion of Cuba
The Pacific fleet was visiting Hong Kong when the war broke out. Commodore George Dewey quickly readied his ships and sailed off to attack the Spanish colony in the Philippines.
Dewey found the Spaniards in Manila Bay. Dewey’s flagship Olympia led the fleet in single file toward its enemy. The Spanish opened fire long before the Americans were within range. When the American fleet reached effective range, it opened fire on the Spanish fleet.
Just two hours after the beginning of the battle when the smoke cleared, the Spanish fleet was battered and on fire. The battle had been won with only eight casualties for the Americans.
When the news of the stunning victory reached home Dewey became an instant national hero.  Few Americans knew where the Philippines were, but the press assured them that the islands were a welcome possession.
Despite Dewey's quick victory, the war in the Caribbean was getting off to a slow start.  Soldiers gathered in Florida and waited impatiently for supplies and transportation. Some individuals organized and outfitted their own regiments. One such individual, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, resigned his post and formed a volunteer regiment of cavalry.
Roosevelt got his regiment ashore quickly. The soldiers moved off through the thick jungle toward the city of Santiago struggled against the heat. After a few brief skirmishes, the armies met. The Spanish defended the San Juan hills, a long ridge east of Santiago. The Americans, staged in the valley below fired uphill at the defenders.
Roosevelt, who had managed to obtain a horse, rode up and down the lines anxiously. Finally he decided to attack up the hill. Roosevelt ordered the charge, pushing his horse forward. The Rough Riders followed on foot, and the Ninth Cavalry, an African American regiment, rushed forward beside them. As Roosevelt reached the crest of Kettle Hill, he saw its defenders retreating.
There is some confusion between Roosevelt’s description of the events that occurred that day, and the description of Sergeant William Payne, a member of the African Americans involved in the battle.  Roosevelt’s description credits his troops—the Rough Riders—for reaching the hilltop first—actually pushing through other, slower moving units.  He does mention the black troopers and “the usual confusion, and…discussion as to exactly who had been on the hill first.” Payne describes the actions of his outfit as “the second time we came to the rescue of the Rough Riders.” He describes that his unit “…drove the enemy from their stronghold” giving the impression that the African Americans were actually the spearhead of the successful charge up the San Juan heights.
That night the Americans repelled a Spanish counterattack. In the morning the Americans demanded that the Spanish commander surrender. The Governor General of Cuba received Shafter's demand. He responded by ordering his fleet to attack the American ships blockading Santiago harbor. His fleet commander disagreed. Attacking a force four times the size of his own was suicide. Nevertheless, he followed orders and attacked.
The Americans were ready. Four first-class battleships, two cruisers, and several smaller ships enclosed the mouth of the harbor in a half-circle. The USS Oregon fired the first shot of the battle and by one o'clock the battle was over. The Spanish fleet was destroyed.
Another American force attacked Puerto Rico, conquering the island and its few Spanish defenders easily and Spain agreed to an armistice ending the Spanish American War.