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The Spanish-American War in Cuba

In 1845, Spain enacted the Law of Abolition and Repression of the Slave Trade which forbade importing any new slaves and declared that all slaves introduced to Cuba after 1820 were entitled to their freedom. In spite of this, the slave trade flourished in open defiance of Spanish law. The Cuban elite, i.e., the landowners, were disenchanted with Spain who charged them high taxes and attempted to ban slavery which they needed to raise their crops. This elite class saw annexation by the United States as a way to maintain slavery. Also, Cuban production of sugar and tobacco could be increased to serve the United States, duty-free. North of Cuba, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had taken hold and Cuba was on the list of possible additions to U.S. territory. President James Polk offered Spain $100 million for Cuba in the early 1850s and President Franklin Pierce offered $130 million in 1854. Spain declined on both accounts.

In Cuba, slavery was gradually losing favor among everyone including the land owners who had found newer sources of cheap labor in Asians and poor Whites coming from an economically crippled Spain. In 1865, a political group known as the Reformist Party wrote a memo to the Spanish parliament citing these demands: Cuban representation in Spanish parliament; a reformed tariff system; Cuban natives afforded the same rights as Spanish-born; and the permanent abolition of slavery in Cuba. In response, the Spanish denied Cubans parliamentary participation, they banned political meetings, raised colonial taxes, and imposed protectionist duties on all foreign products.

The masses rebelled against Spain, launching a bloody civil war lasting a decade. In 1868, the Ten Years' War began as a nationalist uprising by the Cubans against Spanish imperialism. Gradually, Spanish forces on the island were built up and a blockade imposed. The Spanish destroyed the sugar mills, torched the land, and conducted mass executions. The Cubans were not successful in this war, but the freedom fighters continued to plan for Cuba's eventual independence.

After a period of relative peace, a second insurrection began on February 24, 1895. Cuban revolutionaries set out on a "scorched earth" policy, which aimed to drive the Spanish out of Cuba by burning plantations and making investment in Cuba unprofitable. Despite Spain's increased military presence, the revolutionaries continued in hope of American intervention and support. American business interests were anxious for a resolution -- with or without Spain -- of the insurrection. Moreover, public opinion in the United States had been aroused by newspaper accounts of the brutalities of Spanish rule.

After the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1897, American attention increasingly focused on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from Florida. Spain was trying to stop the rebellion in Cuba using harsh methods. Continuing newspaper reports of Spanish atrocities caused American feelings toward Spain to turn hostile. At the same time, the rebellious Cubans were demanding concessions from their Spanish overseers.

On January 25, 1898, the battleship Maine arrived in Havana to demonstrate an American presence in the Caribbean. On the evening of February 15, an external mine exploded, detonating the ship's powder magazine. All told, 264 sailors and 2 officers were killed aboard the Maine. Within hours, news of the tragedy had spread throughout the United States and its citizens called out for reparations.

On April 20, the United States sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding that the hostilities in Cuba cease and that Spain withdraw its military forces. Spain responded on April 24 with a declaration of war on the United States.

As the news of the Maine's explosion spread, many Americans felt compelled to take action. A generation of young men whose fathers and grandfathers had fought in the Civil War was coming of age, and these men sought to prove their courage, attain glory, and honorably serve their country in their own war. To take advantage of the incredible number of young men wanting to serve in the impending war, Regular Army ranks needed to be supplemented by volunteers. On April 22, 1898, President William McKinley made his first call for 125,000 volunteer troops, restricted to the National Guard of each state.

The priority for a successful land campaign was to locate and contain the Spanish fleet. Adm. Cervera's fleet had taken refuge (29 May 1898) in Santiago Bay. Once the fleet was discovered in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, a blockade was imposed and the American military shifted its focus from Havana to Santiago. The American Navy had asked the Army to reduce the defenses guarding the entrance. The War Department, eager to get the Army into action, directed Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter to embark his loosely organized V Corps, which had been assembled around Tampa, and sail for Cuba. After many delays, and in an atmosphere of the utmost confusion, the embarkation of some 17,000 men began on 11 June 1898, lasting four days. On 20 June the convoy reached a point off Santiago, but it was two days before Shafter could make up his mind where to land the troops. Rear Adm. William T. Sampson wanted them to land near the entrance of the bay, where a powerful fort dominated the area, and to storm the positions guarding the sea approaches. Shafter considered this plan too dangerous and followed the advice of Gen. Calixto Garcia, a Cuban insurgent leader, who recommended Daiquiri, 18 miles east of Santiago Bay, as a landing site.

Camp life was often unbearable. The men slept in leaky tents which caused their clothes and belongings to remain soaked for days at a time. Poor sanitation, swampy campsites and spoiled food caused many of the men to suffer from diseases such as dysentery, malaria and typhoid. Soldiers attempted to combat this invisible enemy through good personal hygiene and diet. Another shortfall was the uniforms and equipment issued to the soldiers. Instead of the modern bolt-action Springfield Krag-Jorgensen rifle, volunteer troops were issued the outdated Springfield "Trapdoor" rifle. Similarly, while the pattern 1898 khaki uniform was issued to regular troops, volunteer soldiers continued to wear a woolen uniform, inappropriate for the tropical environment of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Spanish soldiers were typically 20 to 23 years old, uneducated peasants or conscripts from the urban working classes. For these soldiers, the conditions in Cuba were harsh and compounded by inadequate food, housing and medical care. However, the Spanish were extremely proficient at counter-insurgency warfare and made good use of entrenched positions. They often constructed small bases of permanent earthworks, with barbed wire and machine guns.

The campaign got under way with a confused landing operation which, fortunately for the Americans, was unopposed. About 6,000 troops were landed on the first day, 22 June, and the march on Santiago began at once. On the following day Brig. Gen. Henry W. Lawton, commanding the forces ashore, easily captured the town of Siboney. As Lawton paused to reorganize, Brig. Gen. Joseph W. ("Fighting Joe") Wheeler stole a march on him by pushing ahead toward Santiago with his dismounted cavalry division. At Las Guasimas Wheeler ran into a sharp fight with the rear guard of a retiring Spanish force. The Americans suffered a loss of 16 killed and 52 wounded, and the Spaniards lost 12 killed and 14 wounded. This action only slightly delayed the main advance, since the Spaniards had not planned to make a determined stand until the Americans reached Santiago's outer defenses.

The most important of those defenses were along a series of ridges known collectively as San Juan, and in the village of E1 Caney to the north. Shafter decided to attack E1 Caney first and then follow with a frontal assault on the San Juan positions. General Lawton was assigned to take El Caney, which was defended by about 500 Spaniards, and Maj. Gen. Jacob F. Kent was in charge of a larger force assigned to take the San Juan position, which was held by about 1,200 Spaniards. Lawton's and Kent's attacking forces totaled some 8,000 men.

Shafter launched his attack on 1 July 1898, which was the critical day when 5,400 U.S. troops stormed the fort at El Caney and 3,000 others seized the San Juan Heights, including Kettle Hill. Gatling-gun fire drove the Spaniards off San Juan Hill. After considerable confusion and some temporary reverses, Kent's forces stormed and took the Spanish positions on the southern half of the ridge, while dismounted cavalry forces under General Wheeler took the northern end, including Kettle Hill where Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his "Rough Riders" distinguished themselves.

Ordered to seize Kettle Hill in support of the main attack, the Rough Riders fought their way to the top despite heavy enemy fire. New Mexico's E and G Troops were among the first to reach the top of Kettle Hill. After taking the hill, the Rough Riders continued their attack, seizing the heights overlooking the city of Santiago.

The attack on E1 Caney made little headway at first against determined Spanish resistance, but success was finally achieved after the supporting artillery was moved forward to positions where it could place effective fire on the enemy. The Spanish forces dropped back half a mile to a second line of defense, and except for a heavy exchange of artillery fire on 2 July there was no more fighting. In the engagements at San Juan and E1 Caney there were 1,475 American and more than 550 Spanish casualties.

On 3 July 1898 Admiral Cervera attempted to escape from Santiago Bay with his fleet. A dramatic running fight with the American fleet ensued. All the Spanish ships were destroyed, with a loss of about 600 men. The Americans lost only one man killed and one seriously wounded.

Following Cervera's disaster, Gen. Jose Toral, defender of Santiago, where near-famine conditions existed, entered into negotiations with General Shafter. On 16 July he signed terms of surrender, which provided for the unconditional surrender of 11,500 troops in the city and some 12,000 other troops stationed elsewhere in the province of Santiago.

The Cubans launched a public relations blitz to ensure that the US would agree to recognize an independent Cuba. The people of the United States sympathized with the Cuban cause. In 1906, the Platt Amendment was passed transferring control of Cuba to its own government, however, with stipulations. The US reserved the right to intervene in order to preserve Cuban independence; the US could maintain naval stations on the island, and the Cuban government could not enter into any treaty or engagement with any foreign power that might interfere with the independence of Cuba.

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