Spanish American War

Causes of the Spanish American War

          The Spanish empire had an early stake in the development of the new world. Their contacts with both its northern and southern continents during the 15th and 16th century’s age of exploration left a lasting footprint affecting generations of Americans. Their control of southwestern United States and Florida’s gulf coast extending through the Mississippi valley was a major impediment to the territorial expansion of the United States, and a source of friction.

          By the dawn of the 19th century, declining Spanish fortunes on continental United States were largely determined by European geopolitics. This resulted from their alliance with Napoleonic France and the Mexican rebellion. That is where we will begin.

          Our timeline illustrates a drifting Spanish relationship with the United States that ended with a Spanish American war. The immediate origin was the harsh Spanish rule of Cuba, an island colony 94 miles from United States shores.

After your review of this Spanish American War timeline, we call your attention to the additional links located below this table detailing the decisive elements of this war.

Events Leading to Spanish American War
1800 Spain transfers title to Louisiana territories to France in a coerced receding act, but continues to administer and prohibits free navigation of Mississippi River preventing excess crops reaching the New Orleans market.
1801 France reverses Spanish policy and opens up Mississippi River.
1803 Napoleon accepts 15 million dollar offer from President Jefferson for the Louisiana territory and Spain’s interest limited to Texas territory. The Spanish retain suspicions about United States designs on Spanish territory.
1805 President Jefferson sends secret delegation to Cuba to negotiate with Spain to purchase Cuba. Jefferson believes that Cuba has a strategic location that would protect U.S. Plan, not effected, and is supported by slave interests in U.S. south because Cuba recognizes slavery.
1819 Spain pressured by American rebellious settlers, prompted by U.S. government, agrees to cede Florida to United States
1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams recommends force to prevent Cuba occupation by foreign troops and its ultimate freedom.
Monroe Doctrine (ironically written by John Quincy Adams) promises no interference in colonies already owned by foreign nations, and that new incursions in North or South America would be treated as an aggression against the United States.
1841 U.S. v Amistad: Supreme Court rejects reparations for Spain for slaves freed by United States.
1851 4th attempted filibuster expedition (1848 and 1849) to oust Spanish in Cuba mounted in the U.S. by Narciso Lopez, captured and executed. He attempted to gain U.S. support appealing to Americans by revealing the cruel treatment of Cuban civilians. Some southerners feared a free Cuba would become a black republic.
1854 During a period of heavy investment in Cuba by U.S. entrepreneurs, the U.S. vessel, Black Warrior, was seized in Havana harbor for violation of custom regulations. After pointed criticism from U.S. public, vessel was released. The U.S. Minister Pierre Soule antagonized Spain with an ultimatum regarding Black Warrior.
The Ostend Manifesto proposed by U.S. diplomats offered Spain 130 million dollars for Cuba, and if refused, immediate military action to seize Cuba from Spain. Rejected in the U.S. by a chorus of anti-slave interests.
President Buchanan denounced by “free soil party” for declaring that Cuba was a source of injury to the United States.
1868-1878 Cuban population wages guerilla war for independence from Spain. America, occupied by Reconstruction after the civil war was officially disengaged, but not so was the press and an irate American public.
1873 Virginius Affair: This vessel was leased to Cuban patriots who alternately flew the American or Cuban flag depending on location in the Caribbean. They had on loaded weapons for Cuban rebels and were stopped by a Spanish naval vessel. The Cuban crew and some American crew were executed. The American public was incensed. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish arranged for recovery of the ship and the remaining, living passengers and the families of executed Americans were given reparations by Spain. In 1898, one of the first Americans to die in the invasion of Cuba, Hamilton Fish, grandson of the aforesaid Secretary of State.
1879-1880 A second unsuccessful Cuban rebellion demanding independence.
1895 A third unsuccessful Cuban rebellion.
In response to the third rebellion, Spain dispatches 8,000 soldiers to Cuba.
Spanish general Weyler creates “reconcentration” camps which were an early protoplan of later Nazi invention. Civilians are prisoners in military compounds designed to insulate them from rebel forces and deny the latter aid. Death from starvation and disease, particularly yellow fever, is rampant.
Allianca, ship flying U.S. flag, fired on by Spanish vessel in neutral waters.
American newspapers, particularly the Hearst owned New York Journal, engage in a propaganda blitz pressing an invasion of Cuba. The news reportage was described as “yellow journalism”. It featured stories highlighting cruelties of Spanish repression and the hyper aggressive foreign policy is described as jingoism.
1896 William McKinley, Republican, is elected 23rd president. Although his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, a democrat, was against a war with Spain, he is in agreement. The country is recovering from a depression and McKinley believes a Spanish American war will exacerbate economic conditions. European sentiment is also adverse to a conflict.
1897 A government cadre, including under secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, counsel McKinley to declare war on Spain. Roosevelt is particularly concerned about Germany expansionist moves that threaten Cuba. German navy has threatened Haiti with shelling.
Spanish troops removed from Cuba to meet Philippine rebellion. Following this action, in 1898, General Weyler replaced with more conciliatory Spanish representative who proposes limited autonomy to Cuban rebels. Rejected.
Jan 1898 Responding to news of rioting threatening American lives in Havana, Battleship Maine enters harbor and finds German war vessels at anchor, as the Spanish American War looms closer.
Feb 1898 Purloined letter penned by Spanish diplomat describes McKinley as “weak”. Published by “yellow” press and stirs public to more anti Spanish fervor
Maine explodes while at anchor. Spain denies culpability.
Mar 1898 U.S. Navy Court of inquiry declares cause of explosion “naval mine”. No definitive evidence ever presented as to actual cause which may have been accidental discharge of gunpowder on the ship.
Senator Proctor (Vermont) presses for immediate war action
April 1898 U.S. consulate closes Havana office.
Congresses passes resolution recognizing Cuba sovereignty.
Spanish Parliament responding to demands of Queen Regent declares war on the United States. The United States Congress reciprocates on the next day and the Spanish American War commences.

As with every American war, the Spanish American War was defined and illuminated by thousands of moving parts. In a sense, a war machine is like a huge wheel designed to advance a strategy, a goal, but inherently capable of sudden stops and reversals. You may examine the wheel and its component spokes (links) that propelled the American war machine, all trans-formative, and the human hands that created the turns and pivots that marked this war and our times.

Spanish American War History

Theodore Roosevelt & the War

Return from Spanish American War to History of American Wars Home