Remember the Maine:
War Comes to the Caribbean
The Spanish-American War did not begin with the explosion of the “battleship” Maine (actually an outdated armored cruiser) in Havana’s harbor in February 1898. American expansionists had lusted for the Spanish-ruled island of Cuba for decades, seeing it as part of their divinely-ordained Manifest Destiny. Spain had held Cuba for more than four centuries, divinely appointed to its rule as outlined in the Requerimiento of 1513.
Somehow, one of these holy commandants would have to be broken.
The immediate crisis began in 1895, with the outbreak of an anti-Spanish rebellion in Cuba followed by extremely harsh measures by the Spanish garrison to suppress it. While American newspapers sensationalized the atrocities committed by the Spanish, the U.S. administrations of Grover Cleveland and William McKinley were little moved by their histrionics.
The racial aspect of the Cuban revolution worried Cleveland and his consul in Havana, the former Confederate cavalry commander (and pardoned traitor) Fitzhugh Lee. The rebels overwhelmingly came from the Afro-Cuban and mixed-race segment of the population: of the island’s 1.6 million people, about 500,000 had African ancestry, about 150,000 were peninsulares born in Spain, and the remainder Creoles descended from peninsulares. Cleveland made an offer to buy both Cuba and Puerto Rico, but the Spanish declined.
Spanish repressive measures grew ever harsher, leading to an estimated 200,000 deaths. In January 1898, the McKinley administration again offered to buy Cuba; the Spanish Prime Minister Mateo Sagasta again declined. McKinley then sent the Navy’s least-useful warship, the armored cruiser Maine, to Havana. By this point, Spain had deployed 140,000 regulars to Cuba, supplemented by 60,000 locally-raised militia; waist-deep in the quagmire, Sagasta could not retreat.
Cuban provinces in 1898, and their populations.
When Maine exploded on 15 February, probably thanks to a bunker fire setting off her secondary magazine, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt – in effective control of the service, due to poor health and professional disinterest on the part of his boss – immediately began to prepare for war. Both the Asiatic and North Atlantic Squadrons went to a war footing, and North Atlantic Squadron commander Capt. William T. Sampson, soon promoted to Rear Admiral, began planning for a campaign against Spain.
At the opening of hostilities, Sampson wanted to use his own armored cruisers to seek out an engage the two Spanish armored cruisers then stationed in the Caribbean and thought to be based in Puerto Rico. But Roosevelt and his chief John Long placed a Naval War Board over him to micro-manage the conflict from Washington. The Board, consisting of Rear Adm. Montgomery Sicard, Commodore Arent Crowninshield (chief of the Bureau of Navigation) and the retired Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan (re-hired as a consultant), would control all aspects of the war at sea, including where Army troops would land and when, and their logistics. The board considered Sampson’s gambit and the immediate blockade of northern Cuba that would accompany it to be too risky. Once war began the American naval campaign would be slow, methodical, and safe.
McKinley – described by Roosevelt as possessing “the spine of a chocolate éclair” – and his big-business supporters sought to avoid war. The United States still had not recovered from the Depression of 1893 (what would be called the “Great Depression” until a greater one came along), and war did not promise to make the American economy any better. Wall Street had not joined the war fever, and McKinley dispatched his ally Sen. Redfield Proctor (R-Vermont) to assess the situation on the ground in Cuba.
Proctor, a former Secretary of War, returned from Cuba to deliver a speech on the Senate floor on 17 March describing inhumane conditions, concentrations camps and widespread misery. The United States, he declared had a moral obligation to intervene.
Battleship Oregon drydocked at Bremerton, just before receiving the call.
Over the following weeks, many of the religious and business leaders who had opposed war came around in favor of intervention. McKinley saw himself increasingly in a minority position, and finally on 11 April he asked Congress for authority to intervene in the Cuban civil war – not for a declaration of war against Spain. The president intended for Congress to push him to war, rather than the other way around, and they of course obliged. A joint resolution demanded a Spanish withdrawal from Cuba and authorized McKinley to accomplish this by force if Spain did not comply; an amendment added by Sen. Henry Teller of Colorado, looking to protect his state’s sugar-beet growers from competition from cheap Cuban cane sugar, forbade American annexation of the island.
The ultimatum, signed by McKinley, went to Spain on 20 April. The Liberal Sagasta, with his own party demanding that he fight for Cuba and the Conservative opposition screeching for a war “to the last drop of blood,” rejected the demands and broke off diplomatic relations on the 21st. The Americans responded by declaring a naval blockade of Cuba. Spain declared war on the 23rd, and the U.S. Congress responded in kind on the 25th. The Spanish-American War was on, and it seemed that neither side was especially dedicated to winning it.
The Spanish fleet passes in review at Ferrol, 1897.
Despite years of tension over Spanish policies in Cuba, the Spanish Navy remained unprepared when the conflict finally broke out. The Spanish recalled their two armored cruisers from the Caribbean, to join one more sister ship in the Portuguese-ruled Cape Verde Islands off equatorial Africa plus a new cruiser completed without her main armament. All four needed extensive overhauls, and cleaning of their boilers and hulls. Their crews had little training, and their ammunition loads included numerous defective shells and even some practice rounds loaded with sawdust, as not enough actual shells were available. Three destroyers rounded out the force, commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete with his political rival Capt. Fernando Villaamil (the inventor of the destroyer type) in charge of the destroyers.
Cervera repeatedly predicted a disaster: his ships were out-gunned and out-numbered, and his crews poorly trained and not ready to face an enemy in battle. The Ministry of Marine in Madrid would hear none of it: Spanish soldiers were fighting for a province that had belonged to the crown for four centuries. Spanish sailors could do no less.
The Americans had their own problems. The fleet would concentrate at Key West, off the southern tip of Florida. The U.S. Army, which had charge of the tiny island’s defenses, promptly started laying minefields close to the shore, restricting the available anchorage, and forcing many ships to moor within sight of the bobbing mines. No one had been placed in charge of the newly-established base; Commodore George C. Remey finally took command on 6 May. Remey had administrative experience but performed with staggering incompetence – coal, food, and sailors to round out wartime crews failed to appear. But armed Marines did stand guard over Key West’s whorehouses, and Remey managed to convince Washington not to base still more warships at Key West.
The still-burning wreck of Infanta Maria Teresa.
No accommodations were made for the naval staff, who were simply told to rent a room somewhere. But American newspapers had already snapped up all of the actual hotel space. Cadet George Webber, yanked from Annapolis and sent to war, was charged $4 per night for a tiny, cramped room with a cot; Webber made $41.96 per month.
Roosevelt, who should have had responsibility for those arrangements, instead abandoned his post and, in essence, ran off to join the circus. He founded a volunteer cavalry regiment, the so-called Rough Riders, made up of Ivy League frat boys, American Indians, boxers, cowboys, and football players. While Roosevelt played soldier, the Navy stumbled on. The American plan would begin with a blockade of Cuba, followed by troop landings to capture the major cities.
To strengthen the available forces, ancient coast-defense monitors were hauled out of reserve, while the battleship Oregon was recalled from Bremerton, Washington where she was undergoing an overhaul, to steam to San Francisco to take on ammunition. The Americans knew that the Spanish squadron had concentrated in the Cape Verde Islands, but had no clue as to its intentions.
On 1 May, George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish flotilla stationed in the Philippines, and that would provoke naval action in the Caribbean. Spain’s Navy Ministry ordered Admiral Pascual Cervera’s cruiser squadron to steam for Cuba and challenge the Americans.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. His Iron Dog, Leopold, could swim very well.
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