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The Spanish-American War - Lessons Learned

The Spanish-American War was the first major war that the United States fought against an overseas power without territory contiguous to the United States itself, observed the Army's "History of Military Mobilization." That made it considerably different from the Mexican War of 1846-48. "The Army's campaigns around Santiago [Cuba] and Manila on opposite sides of the world were undertaken to supplement and aid naval campaigns," stated the historical pamphlet.

Here's what the Spanish-American War accomplished besides securing Cuba's independence. The United States gained certain recognition as an international military power, thanks to naval victories against Spanish fleets in the Philippines and Cuba and because of the Army's eventual victory over the Filipinos. America became a colonial power -- although not on a par with Great Britain, France and Germany -- when it annexed Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The Army began evolving from a small frontier force into an organization capable of projecting itself anywhere in the world. The National Guard was recognized as an integral part of the Army organization. Women's participation in the war effort paved the way for their future service in the military.

Yet, for all of its influence on America's political influence and future changes in the Army, the Spanish-American War was primarily a naval conflict. The United States gained ports of call in the Caribbean and Pacific, and the Navy established coaling stations in Asia and Hawaii.

The lessons of the Spanish-American War were many. The army underwent reforms on sanitation, equipment, and structure in the post-war years. Under Secretary of War, Elihu Root, the structure of the entire volunteer system was changed. In 1903, Congress passed the Dick Act and officially recognized the National Guard as the "organized militia." The Militia Act of 1903 made the National Guard subject to federal training and mobilization guidelines and eligible for federal funds. It replaced the Uniform Militia Act of 1792 that had made the states responsible for maintaining their militia units and made the federal government responsible for the National Guard.

The Army had a lot to learn. "The situation found the country unprepared with any large stock of arms, ammunition, clothing, supplies and equipment," charged the Dodge Commission's "Report on the Conduct of the War." In the prewar period no long-range plans or preparations had been made to move a sizable body of troops by water. The United States did not possess a single troopship.

In December 1898 Nelson A. Miles, the Commanding General of the Army, made a sensational public charge that refrigerated beef supplied to the Army during the Spanish-American War had been "embalmed" with harmful preservative chemicals. Miles also criticized canned boiled beef that the troops universally reviled for its poor quality, tastelessness, and often nauseatingly spoiled condition. Official inquiries found no evidence of harmful chemicals in either type of beef but concluded that use of the easily spoiled canned beef in the tropics was a serious mistake. Despite these findings, the myth of embalmed beef persisted in the public imagination.

The Army also was unprepared for a sudden increase in personnel. Just three decades after the Civil War, the regular Army numbered 28,000 soldiers patrolling the West and pulling garrison duty in 80 posts. The National Guard had the men -- 114,000 of them. They were not highly trained, nor did they have good equipment. But they were available, even if the Constitution prevented them from fighting outside of the country. President William McKinley made them federal volunteers. Many of the participating National Guard regiments kept their state identities by reporting at full strength and then appointing their own officers.

The "Rough Riders," initially commanded by Col. Leonard Wood, was one of 16 special federal volunteer regiments authorized from the nation at large. The Army's ranks swelled to 168,929 men in May. By August, 274,717 men were in uniform.

As a result of the war, the Army replaced the position of commanding general, which had no direct ties to the troops in the field, with the General Staff Corps that could directly deal with matters such as training, supplying and mobilizing soldiers. The chief of staff became the Army's top soldier in 1903. The Army War College was created that same year to, among other objectives, "regulate and develop existing means of military education and training." Women became official members of the American military for the first time when the Army Nurse Corps was formed in 1901, wrote Judith Bellafaire in a paper for the new Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The Navy Nurse Corps was formed in 1908.

The Spanish-American War showed that the US Navy was much better prepared to fight than the US Army. Within a short time, naval victories in the Philippines and Cuba, coupled with the landing of the US Army in Cuba, led to the end of the war. A peace treaty between Spain and the United States was signed in December, 1898. Cuba was granted its independence, but the United States decided to keep the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico for a few years. America now had an overseas empire.

Three US Navy Rear Admirals and Commodores had combat commands during the Spanish-American War. In the western Pacific, Commodore George Dewey led the Asiatic Squadron in the 01 May 1898 Battle of Manila Bay as well as during subsequent operations in the Philippines. The Navy's main force in the Caribbean campaigns, the North Atlantic Squadron, was under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. In view of the possibility of war with Spain, a Flying Squadron was formed on 18 March 1898 for mobile operations in the defense of the the eastern seaboard in the Atlantic and in the Caribbean, Commanded by Acting Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, the squadron consisted of USS Brooklyn (ACR 3), USS Massachusetts (BB 2) and USS Texas, USS Columbia (C 12) and USS Minneapolis (C 13). Schley was senior officer present during most of the 03 July 1898 naval battle off Santiago de Cuba. However, Sampson had made the arrangements under which the battle commenced and arrived on the scene toward the end of the fight. All three officers received post-war honors, with Dewey being advanced to the senior rank of Admiral of the Navy.

The intensification of international rivalries led most of the Great Powers to seek additional protection and advantage in diplomatic alliances and alignments. By the early years of the twentieth century, the increasingly complex network of agreements had resulted in a new and precarious balance of power in world affairs. This balance was constantly in danger of being upset, particularly because of an unprecedented arms race, characterized by rapid enlargement of armies and navies and development of far more deadly weapons and tactics. While the United States remained aloof from "entangling alliances," it nevertheless continued to modernize and strengthen its own armed forces, giving primary attention to the Navy - the first line of defense.

The Navy's highly successful performance in the Spanish-American War increased the willingness of Congress and the American public to support its program of expansion and modernization. For at least a decade after the war, Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and other leaders who favored a "Big Navy" policy with the goal of an American fleet second only to that of Great Britain experienced little difficulty in securing the necessary legislation and obtaining the funds required for the Navy's expansion program.

For the Navy another important result of the War with Spain was the decision to retain possessions in the Caribbean and the western Pacific. In the Caribbean the Navy acquired more bases for its operations such as that at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The value of these bases soon became apparent as the United States found itself intervening more frequently in the countries of that region to protect its expanding investments and trade. In the long run, however, acquisition of the Philippines and Guam was even more significant, for it committed the United States to defense of territory thousands of miles distant from the home base.

American naval strength in the Pacific had to be increased immediately to insure maintenance of a secure line of communications for the land forces that had to be kept in the Philippines. One way to accomplish this increase, with an eye to economy of force, was to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, so that Navy ships could move more rapidly from the Atlantic to the Pacific as circumstances demanded. Another was to acquire more bases in the Pacific west of Hawaii, which was annexed in 1898. Japan's spectacular naval victories in the war with Russia and Roosevelt's dispatch of an American fleet on a round-the-world cruise lasting from December 1907 to February 1909 drew public attention to the problem. But most Americans failed to perceive the growing threat of Japan to United States possessions in the western Pacific, and the line of communications to the Philippines remained incomplete and highly vulnerable.

The Navy fared much better in its program to expand the fleet and incorporate the latest technological developments in ship design and weapons. The modernization program that had begun in the 1880's and had much to do with the Navy's effectiveness in the Spanish-American War continued in the early 1900's. Construction of new ships, stimulated by the war and Roosevelt's active support, continued at a rapid rate after 1898 until Taft's administration, and at a somewhat slower pace thereafter. By 1917 the United States had a Navy unmatched by any of the Great Powers except Great Britain and Germany.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:35:25 Zulu