The USA spreads its wings – The Spanish-American War in Cuba (Part I)

In the 1890s the Spanish conceded the need to change the autocratic and unjust manner in which they governed Cuba, but steadily failed to implement any such changes and in fact maintained a policy of great severity in their administration. This kept Cuban discontent at the simmer, and the suspension of constitutional guarantees in February 1895 brought matters to a head in the form of open rebellion sparked by the seaborne arrival of insurgent forces from Costa Rica and Santo Domingo. The Spanish launched a campaign of bitter retaliation, but this was unsuccessful in crushing the rebellion, which soon settled to a campaign between 8,000 rebels and perhaps 50,000 Spanish troops, the latter soon swelled considerably in number. At first war was confined mainly to the Oriente province of eastern Cuba, but soon spread to all parts of the island.

Many Americans demanded US intervention, but the administration of President Grover Cleveland already had problems with the British over a border dispute with Venezuela and wished no further involvement with a European power at this time. This left the Spanish with a free hand, and when their initial measures had failed to crush the Cuban insurrection in 12 months, they resorted to harsher measures implemented by a new Captain-General of Cuba, Valeriano Weyler. This able soldier arrived in Havana during February 1896 with additional troops. Weyler quickly decided that the only realistic way to defeat the rebels was a policy of isolation in which the island would be divided by trochas. These were lines of barbed wire, entrenchments and, in the narrowest parts of the island, blockhouses, to contain rebel forces in given areas which could then be swept in search and destroy operations. At the same time Weyler organised a policy of reconcentrado, in which women, children, and the old were herded from the countryside into detention camps and garrison towns. This policy was effective in the purely military sense, as it deprived the rebels of support in the countryside, but caused the deaths of many thousands of people from starvation and disease in the appallingly badly administered camps.

The power of the press
President William McKinleyThese twin policies swayed the tide of the campaign toward the Spanish, but served to inflame public opinion in the USA. Here ‘yellow journalism’ had become acceptable, and popular newspapers made much of the cruelty of the Spanish policy in Cuba. Weyler was depicted as an inhuman butcher using tactics of the utmost savagery to suppress high-minded patriots fighting only to secure basic freedom from the oppression of an old-fashioned but highly authoritarian European power. The emergence of this newspaper-led antagonism to Spanish policies in Cuba coincided with popular sentiment, and in 1896 both houses of the Congress adopted resolutions urging that the USA confer the status of belligerents on the Cuban rebels, and at the same time use its international influence to persuade Spain to grant Cuban independence.

Politicians saw the Cuban insurrection as a means of gaining support in the 1896 elections. Many others saw the situation as a chance for the USA to secure a naval base in Cuba and so open the Caribbean to American economic and political penetration. Cleveland had not wanted war with Spain, and neither did the new president. In his inaugural speech of March 1897, William McKinley said that ‘We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.’ However, the Republican platform on which McKinley had won the 1896 election committed the president to use the nation’s ‘influences and good offices to restore peace and give independence’ to Cuba. Despite steadily growing political, public, and press pressures for war, McKinley tried patiently to find a diplomatic solution, one that would meet the demands of the Cuban rebels yet avoid war between the USA and Spain. At one time McKinley even offered an American purchase of the island for $300 million. The USA demanded that Weyler be replaced, and in the spring of 1897 Spain agreed, though Weyler did not in fact return home until October of that year.

In February 1898 there was serious rioting in Havana, and The New York Journal secured and published a private letter written by the Spanish minister in Washington to a Spanish editor then travelling in the USA. The letter condemned McKinley’s December 1897 message to the Congress, and expressed the minister’s opinion that the president was ‘weak and a bidder for admiration of the crowd… a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while trying to keep on good terms with the jingoes in his party.’ This slur on the president was too much for most Americans, even though the Spanish minister resigned as a consequence, and US indignation with Spanish policies in Cuba reached a new pitch of anger. Yet McKinley was determined that an essentially private matter such as this should not lead the USA into war, and was therefore inclined to accept the Spanish apologies that had been demanded.

The Maine Incident
At this point fate intervened. At the urging of the American consul in Havana, the administration had reluctantly sent the battleship Maine to Cuba on the pretext of a courtesy visit, though the real reason was protection of American citizens in Cuba should the situation so demand. Lying at anchor in Havana harbour, the Maine was destroyed by a huge explosion on 15 February 1898, with the loss of 260 lives. A naval investigation committee was appointed by the president. On March 25, this committee announced that the explosion had been external, suggesting to all Americans that the ship had been sunk by the Spanish.

McKinley again refused to be rushed into hasty action, and on 27 March sent to Madrid a plan for the peaceful solution of the Cuban problem. Only four days later the Spanish replied, agreeing to end the policy of reconcentrado and to arbitrate the Maine disaster, but prevaricating about the grant of an armistice to the rebels, and also refusing to promise eventual Cuban independence or to accept McKinley’s offer of mediation. Despite this discouraging response, McKinley did not yet admit defeat and moved only slowly toward war, always leaving the possibility open for last-minute negotiation. Twice McKinley postponed his war message to the Congress, but with most sectors of American opinion now firmly committed to war the president finally had to follow. On 11 April the president’s way message was finally delivered the message to the Congress. Eight days later, the two houses of the Congress passed a joint resolution affirming the independence of Cuba and authorising the president to take all measures necessary to expel the Spanish from the island. It is interesting to note, however, that the resolution contained an amendment proposed by Senator Teller of Colorado forbidding any US annexation of the island.

The Spanish-American War
McKinley was now committed, and acted with considerable speed to order an immediate naval blockade of Cuba. A squadron of US Navy warships promptly took up position off Havana. On 24 April the Congress declared that a state of war had existed between the USA and Spain since 21 April.

So began the Spanish-American War which Cleveland and McKinley had tried so hard to avoid. The declaration of war found the USA badly prepared for military operations, despite the fact that military action had been on the cards for several months and had indeed been mooted for the last two years. This overall lack of military preparedness differed to a marked degree in the two major services. In the 10 years leading up to the Spanish-American War, the US Navy had achieved considerably more than the US Army. This resulted in part from the navy’s strong corps of professional officers, and in part from the efforts of career naval officers such as Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce and Captain Alfred T. Mahan, who were supported by able administrators such as Benjamin Tracy, Secretary of the Navy in the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.

The highly professional capabilities of the navy’s more senior officers resulted from the creation in 1885 of the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, at the instigation of Luce. The college played a major part in developing higher command skills and strategic thinking based on the classic doctrines of sea power evolved by Mahan. These men were able to capitalise on the needs of growing overseas trade at a time of relative prosperity to extract considerable funding from the Congress. This level of funding had allowed the navy to undertake a programme of major construction and modernization to create the so-called New Navy, which got off to a slow start but later developed considerable momentum.

During the Civil War (1861/65), the US Navy had grown greatly through new construction and the purchase of commercial vessels. Most of these ships were seen as superfluous after the war, and therefore discarded. Thus the strength of the navy weakened as the USA relaxed from the pressure of the Civil War and turned its attention toward matters such as the settling of the West. The Congress refused to allow the appropriation of funds for the construction of new ships, and indeed the existing ships fell into states of considerable disrepair for lack of adequate maintenance funds. In order to maintain even the semblance of a combat capability, the navy was reduced to the subterfuge of completely rebuilding ships under the guise of repairs to produce new vessels that retained only the name of their predecessors.

By the early 1880s, most of the navy’s ships were obsolete. Most people thought that the navy’s main strength lay with its monitors, but though these had been revolutionary when first placed in service during 1862, they were now old, small, weak, and poorly suited to anything but coastal defence. They were in general armed with obsolete smooth-bore guns lacking the range, accuracy, and penetrating power of current rifled guns. Their protective armour plates were ineffective against modern projectiles, and were in any case laid over timbers that were now rotten as they had been built into the ships while still green. The situation was no better with the navy’s cruising ships: some had been built before the Civil War without armour plate and with only short-range guns, while others built during and after the Civil War were obsolete by comparison with foreign cruisers offering superior performance and firepower.

In 1881 the situation had become so bad that Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt appointed a committee, chaired by Rear Admiral John Rogers II, to report on the state of the navy. The committee reported that the US Navy ranked only twelfth in the world, behind the navies of China, Chile, and Denmark. The sea-going navy of the time comprised one frigate cruiser, 14 screw sloops, 20 second-class sloops, and four gunboats, all but the last made of wood and all requiring repair. The coastal forces comprised 14 single-turret monitors that had been out of commission for 15 years, and five twin-turret monitors still on the stocks after years of leisurely and interrupted construction since 1874.

The committee recommended that 38 cruisers and 25 torpedo boats should be built immediately. This was altogether too expensive and revolutionary for the Congress to accept. So William E. Chandler, Hunt’s successor, was able to begin construction of the new navy with a programme of just three cruisers and one despatch boat. At the same time, the Congress banned the repair of any wooden ship whose overhaul would cost more than 20% of the purchase price of a new vessel of the same type and size. This meant the immediate disposal of 46 ships.

The New Navy
The first of the New Navy ships were ordered in 1883, but the accelerating pace of the programme meant that up to 1898 some 110 ships (including six battleships, two protected cruisers, 13 cruisers, and numerous gunboats and torpedo boats) were ordered. Thus the fleet disposition of the US Navy in May 1889, just after the beginning of the Spanish-American War, was in four effective squadrons. The North Atlantic Squadron comprised the New York (flagship), Indiana, Iowa, Puritan, Amphitrite, Terror, Detroit, Cincinnati, Marblehead, Montgomery and Dolphin. The Flying Squadron comprised the Brooklyn, Massachusetts, Texas, Minneapolis, Columbia, New Orleans and Scorpion. The Asiatic Squadron comprised the Olympia (flagship), Baltimore, Raleigh, Petrel, Concord, Boston and McCulloch. The Pacific Squadron comprised the Mohican, Monadnock, Monterey, Philadelphia, Wheeling, Bennington and Albatross. Finally there was the Oregon, which was en route from the Pacific Squadron to the Atlantic Squadron.

The US Army was not in as fortunate a position. During the past 25 years it had averaged a strength of about 26,000 officers and men, and at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War it numbered 28,183. Most of this strength was scattered across the country in company- and battalion-sized packets. The individual infantryman and cavalryman was well trained, competently skilled in minor tactics, and a good marksman with the new Krag-Jorgensen rifle. This was an adequate weapon in 0.3-in (7.62-mm) calibre and firing a smokeless cartridge, but it was let down by its cumbersome five-round sidebox magazine, which had to be loaded with single cartridges at a time when most European nations were already using clip-loaded vertical magazines. Because of its standard peacetime deployment all over the USA, the army had been unable to train and practise manoeuvres at organisational levels higher than the regiment. To make matters more difficult, it was hard for the army to gather these scattered units as it lacked an overall mobilization plan. Even when the units had been gathered for the creation of brigades and divisions, the army lacked the command staff and the combined organizational and tactical skills to make effective use of such formations. Another failing was any experience or concept for undertaking joint operations with the navy.

Actual numbers of men in the field could have been bolstered by the use of the National Guard, currently something over 100,000 men strong. Admittedly, these men lacked the tactical skills of their regular counterparts, and in a fashion almost calculated to compound American logistical problems, most National Guardsmen still used the Springfield rifle firing a black powder cartridge. Even so, the National Guard might have been of use in Cuba fighting alongside the regular army. But there were factors that made it difficult to send National Guard units to overseas theatres at short notice. The National Guard organisation varied from state to state, and most National Guard units had a deep-seated objection to serving under regular army command. More significantly, it was not clear under existing law whether or not it was legal to send National Guard units to fight outside the USA. The Department of War therefore planned to create a new force of federal volunteers under officers appointed by the president, but this move was strongly opposed by the National Guard. In these circumstances compromise was inevitable, and the mobilisation act passed by the Congress on 22 April 1898 ordained a wartime force of regular and volunteer units grouped into brigades, divisions, and corps. This act also had the effect of allowing some National Guard units to serve: if enough men of a state unit came forward together, they were kept together as a federal volunteer unit.

Too large an army
The act called for 125,000 volunteers, but the popularity of the war soon forced the Congress to increase this total to 200,000 and to authorise extra special volunteer forces including the so-called Immunes, some 10,000 men from the southern states, and therefore supposedly ‘possessing immunity from diseases incident to tropical climates’. At the same time the Congress authorised a regular establishment of 65,000 men, more than double the existing figure. By the end of the Spanish-American War in August 1898, the strength of the army stood at 275,000 men including 59,000 regulars and 216,000 volunteers.

The regular army had to leave part of its current strength in the west against the possibility of renewed trouble with the Indians, but needed larger forces for operations in Cuba, where there were about 25,000 rebels under arms. These were generally reckoned by the US military to be of little real fighting value, though important for scouting and security purposes.

Major General Nelson A.Miles, the commanding general of the army, thought that 80,000 trained men would be sufficient to take Cuba from the Spanish. Ultimately the army had to provide for a force more than three times what it reckoned necessary for the war, and this imposed a terrible burden on the army’s planners, who lacked not only the required equipment but also the organisation and the production machinery to create it. There was confusion at every administrative level, severe epidemics broke out at several camps, and the whole situation was worsened by the apparent delight of the press in pointing out the mistakes that did, in certain cases, reach quite scandalous proportions.

The situation was complicated still further by disputes about the way in which mobilisation should be carried out, and then the basic strategy that should be followed. Here the American problem was compounded by a lack of accurate maps of Cuba, and a similar deficiency in accurate intelligence about the strength and disposition of the Spanish troops in Cuba.

Lack of overall strategic planning
Overall strategic planning therefore seemed to alter day by day, though the agreed basic scheme comprised a naval blockade of the island while rebel forces continued their campaign of harassment against the Spanish, who were known to be well armed and supplied with other modern equipment. What the American planners did not appreciate, however, was that the Spanish in Cuba were short of ammunition and other basic supplies, and that their senior commanders were for the most part incompetent and pessimistic.

Supporters of this basically naval grand strategy, including Mahan, believed that in itself this would force the eventual surrender of the Spanish as their supplies ran out and their morale crashed. The clear advantage of the strategy was that it avoided any direct clash between American and Spanish ground forces, for the latter would arrive in Cuba as occupation forces only after the Spanish had surrendered.

It was in line with this strategy that Miles proposed to assemble, equip, and train his 80,000-man force round the nucleus of the available regular army units. Miles believed that there would be sufficient time to train his force during the period it took the naval blockade to sap the determination and supplies of the Spanish, and he also believed that no landing should be undertaken before the end of the unhealthy rainy season in October. As a first step in this process, Miles planned to concentrate regular army units at Chickamauga Park in Georgia for a period of intensive training in combined-arms operations. These would be necessary in any Cuban operation, but had been impossible to practise earlier because of the regular army’s dispersed nature.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *