Prelude To The Spanish-American War--The Cuban Junta, The DeLome Letter, The Sinking Of The Maine

By LtCol David E. Kelley, USMC - Originally Published February 1998

The first article in a series commemorating the centennial of the Marine Corps' service in the Spanish-American War.

Knowledge of the Spanish-American War is clouded, at best, in modern memory. Most Americans know that the USS Maine blew up and sank in Havana harbor in 1898, and that the United States soon afterwards declared war on Spain, fighting to free Cuba with the motto, "Remember the Maine!" Along the way, Adm George Dewey, USN, sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines, and the U.S. Army stumbled into a few small victories before an armistice was declared. When it was all over, Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and the United States gained recognition as a world power. Marine Corps enthusiasts know that a small force of Marines fought in Cuba before the Army landed there, and Sgt John Quick earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits in saving fellow Marines from misdirected naval gunfire.

What is not so well known is the political and diplomatic background to the conflict or the position of the armed forces of the United States at the time. More importantly for the Marine Corps, this conflict served to raise public consciousness of the Corps as no other event had in its previous 100 years of existence. Marines would participate actively in every theater of the war, from manning guns with Adm Dewey, to hoisting the first U.S. flags on Spanish territory in the Philippines and Cuba. The First Battalion of Marines fought well, efficiently, and hard at Guantanamo. The number of Medal of Honor recipients outnumbered deaths in the Corps, and seven future commandants served as company grade officers, both ashore and afloat.

This article is the first of several to commemorate the participation of the Marine Corps in the war with Spain. It will provide a background of the conflict. Later articles will focus on the Corps' contribution to the war and its effects on the modernization of the Corps.

As the last remaining major Spanish colony in the New World, Cuba held a special fascination for many Americans. Some had suggested purchasing the island from Spain, with the possibility of subsequently granting Cuba statehood. American interest cooled somewhat during the Reconstruction period, 1868-1876, but during the latter third of the l9th century many Americans saw the recurrent revolts, dissension, and repression in Spanish Cuba as evidence of the wisdom of the Monroe Doctrine and the corruptness of Madrid's rule. The continued presence of autocratic authorities, appointed by the overseas monarchy of Spain, appeared to demonstrate the importance of keeping America's hemisphere free from European intrigues. Between 1832 and 1855, there were eight revolts in Cuba against Spanish rule. Spain had recently suppressed the "Ten Years' War" in Cuba (1868-1878) with weak reforms that were never fully implemented. In 1895 another revolt broke out. American popular interest in events there was kept alive, in part, due to the efforts of American newspapers of the "yellow journalism" school, that sought to increase their circulations with sensational accounts of Spanish misrule in Cuba. Two large newspaper rivals, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal, vied with each other to report the most sensational, shocking news from the revolt in Cuba. Anti-Spanish propaganda efforts by Cuban exiles in the United States, known as the Cuban "Junta," also fanned the flames of American interest in the revolt.

By the end of 1896, Spain had sent over 150,000 soldiers to Cuba to suppress the rebellion. By 1898 50,000 Spanish soldiers were dead and another 50,000 disabled by disease and wounds. The Cuban rebels, or "insurrectos," unable to carry on conventional combat against the wellarmed Spanish forces, resorted to guerrilla tactics. To combat the insurrectos, Valeriano Weyler, the new Spanish Captain General of Cuba, proclaimed a policy of reconcentration on 16 February 1896. This policy separated rural farmers from the rebels by moving them out of the countryside and into the cities and towns, fortifying these areas so that the rebels would no longer have a base of support. This concentration policy became known to American newspaper readers as "concentration camps." The economy of Cuba (and value of American investments there) suffered greatly due to the rebellion. Exports previously valued at $60,000,000 in 1895 dropped to $15,000,000 in 1896. American President Grover Cleveland worked to keep the United States out of the conflict, proclaiming American neutrality on 12 June 1895. He remained concerned with developments in Cuba, for on 4 April 1896, Cleveland had his Secretary of State, Richard Olney, forward an outline of the American position to Spain. Olney emphasized that America did not have any designs on Cuba, but did want an end to the barbarous war. As part of this official American policy of neutrality, the U.S. Navy sought to prevent Cuban sympathizers in the United States from delivering supplies to the Cuban rebels. Rebels and their supporters had been using boats known as "filibusters" to deliver war supplies to Cuba.

In March 1897, newly inaugurated President William McKinley pledged himself to negotiation and peace, if possible, in the Cuban situation. In the spring of 1897 he appointed a New York Republican lawyer, Stewart Woodford, as minister to Spain. He also sent a trusted political friend, William J. Calhoun, on a fact-finding mission to Cuba in May and June. The U.S. consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee and himself a confederate Civil War hero and former governor of Virginia, was a carryover from the Cleveland Administration. Lee felt that neither the Cuban rebels nor the Spanish government would soon end the struggle, and that the conflict would continue until Cuba was totally devastated. He was doubtful of the possibility that Spain would grant the rebels self government.

McKinley actively continued discussions with Spanish government representatives, both in Washington and Madrid, throughout the summer and fall of 1897. The United States pushed for a form of "autonomy" for Cuba, somewhat similar to the self-rule enjoyed by Canada under Great Britain. In October, Spain's government gained a new cabinet. Enrique Dupuy deLome, the Spanish minister in Washington, sensed a change in relations when his government announced extensive reforms in Cuba, including the end of the concentration camps, the recall of Gen Weyler, and the institution of "autonomy" for the island. On 25 November 1897, the Spanish Queen Regent, Maria Christina, formally proclaimed the Cuban reforms, but the complex autonomy scheme did not really grant the self government for Cuba that both the Cuban rebels and many in the United States sought. In McKinley's December message to Congress, he implied that the United States was willing to take action to help secure a righteous peace for Cuba. McKinley felt that his diplomatic efforts had already born some fruit: Gen Weyler was gone, American prisoners there were freed, the concentration edict was revoked, and the Spanish government had, at least on the surface, promised some sort of autonomy for Cuba. However, two incidents in early 1898 soured feelings in the United States toward Spain, setting the stage for the angry public reaction that would sweep the Nation after the USS Maine sank in Havana in February.

On 12 January 1898, former soldiers of Gen Weyler and many Spanish business owners led riots against newspapers and businesses in Havana that favored Cuban autonomy. Relations between the United States and Spain worsened even more when a letter from Minister deLome, to a personal friend in Cuba, was intercepted by a rebel sympathizer. This letter was forwarded to Junta members in New York and released to the public on 9 February on the front page of the New York Journal. The deLome letter said, among other things, that McKinley was "weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd," and that he (deLome) still hoped for a Spanish military victory over the rebels. The letter ended American public trust in the government of Spain. Minister deLome was forced to resign and the Spanish government sent a letter of apology on 16 February.

The visit of the USS Maine to the city of Havana on 5 February 1898 was intended by the McKinley Administration to help relieve tension between Spain and the United States. The Maine would visit Havana and Spanish ships were welcomed to visit American ports-the Spanish ship Viscaya was sent to New York City at the same time. The Maine also provided highly visible protection for Americans in Havana should riots break out. Townspeople greeted the ship, as Spanish and American sailors mingled ashore, and the officers attended a bullfight.

On the evening of 15 February, two distinct blasts-by some accounts-roared through the Maine, while it rested at anchor in the harbor. Capt Charles Sigsbee, USN, was alone in his cabin writing letters when the explosions occurred. His orderly, Marine Pvt William Anthony, collided with him in the smoke-filled passageway outside his cabin, and informed him that the Maine was sinking. When they got above decks, they saw a tangle of twisted metal, and Sigsbee ordered the survivors into the water. The blasts killed 266 sailors and Marines. After the disaster, Anthony was declared a hero for his "soldierly" attention to duty in getting to the captain of the ship. In Washington the Spanish charge' d'affairs was aroused during the night and delivered his personal condolences to the White House. President McKinley felt that the incident could trigger American intervention in Cuba, especially if it could be shown that the Spanish had something to do with the explosions.

When word of the disaster reached the United States, the "yellow" press went wild with accusations against the treachery of the Spanish. Both the U.S. Navy and the Spanish Navy convened separate boards to investigate the sinking. Despite McKinley's rejection of Spain's offer for a joint investigation, Spanish authorities in Havana allowed U.S. divers and armor experts to examine the ship. The Spanish board eventually concluded that the sinking was due to internal explosions. The U.S. Navy board concluded that the blasts were triggered by an external explosion, but assigned no blame. No evidence of any external explosive device was ever found, but the American public and politicians saw the event as another act of Spanish treachery and blamed Spain for the catastrophe. A 1976 investigation of the explosion, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed by Adm H.G. Rickover, USN, concluded that the explosion was actually due to a spontaneous ignition of bituminous coal dust in the coal bunkers on board, located adjacent to the Maine's forward ammunition magazines.

With congressional and public pressure growing, McKinley informed the Spanish government of an April 15 deadline for Madrid to meet American demands for presidential mediation and other concessions. Spain did not concede to all of the demands, especially fearful of the domestic political repercussions from any hint of weakness. Cuba was, after all, one of the last remaining jewels of its once formidable global empire. McKinley finally sent a war message to Congress on 11 April, perhaps still gambling that Spain would yield to the pressure. Congress approved the joint resolution on 19 April and it reached McKinley's desk on 20 April. The resolution included a provision-the Teller Ammendment-that forbade American acquisition of Cuba. Spain responded on 24 April by stating that war had existed between the United States and Spain since 21 April.

The U.S. Navy was greatly modernized in the 1880s and 1890s. It had war plans in place and received $30 million of a $50 million congressional appropriation for war preparations. In mid April the tiny Marine Corps of under 3,000 officers and men began assembling a battalion to support naval operations in the Caribbean. Approximately 600 officers and men assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to form the First Battalion of Marines under LtCol Robert Huntington. This was not the first time that the Corps had formed a battalion-size force, but it was the first time that a force of that size remained under the sole control of a Marine officer once ashore. On board ships, some 57 detachments of Marines continued to drill on secondary gun batteries-usually 5inch and smaller guns-and with automatic weapons, along with their other shipboard duties. Marine Commandant Col Charles Heywood felt that the war would give his Corps a chance to prove its mettle.

The Spanish Navy, on the other hand, was underfunded and not ready to take on the Americans. Several of its ships were old and in repair facilities. The Spanish Army was decimated by fighting rebellions and disease in both Cuba and the Philippines.

The U.S. Army, approximately 28,000 strong and spread across the Nation in small outposts, had not organized a brigade-size formation since Reconstruction. Most officers had never seen anything larger than a regiment in the field. The Army had focused on policing borders and fighting Indians for the previous 20 years. The call went out for 125,000 volunteers for the Army to prepare for the invasion of Cuba. Political pressures required that volunteer and guard units from various states also participate.

Coordination between the Navy and War (Army) Departments was poor. This caused many problems in planning the invasion of Cuba, including disputes over transporting men and materials to staging areas in southern depots. The Navy hurriedly purchased additional ships from foreign sources and finalized plans for, first, dealing with the Spanish fleet on two oceans, and then preparing for a blockade of Cuba, to isolate it as the Army mobilized the invasion force. A fearful populace on the east coast demanded that the coastline be protected from the threat of a Spanish fleet bombardment. Consequently, despite the unlikeli hood of such an event, resources were diverted to "protect" the coast and calm fears. Old Civil War Monitor-class ships were towed off several American port cities to provide a visible presence. Several Navy ships were formed into a "flying squadron" to search for Spanish ships lurking off coastal waters, and Army coastal defense units manned large gun emplacements.

The War Department attempted to order supplies and provisions for 200,000 soldiers. They planned to invade Cuba after the rainy season was over in late August or September. The general commanding Army forces, MajGen Nelson Miles, felt that it would take that long to form and train an invasion force. He also wanted to avoid the unhealthy climate of Cuba during the rainy season.

Problems arose right from the start. For example, the Army had no tropical uniforms, and the first volunteers arriving at places like Tampa, FL, and Charleston, SC, wore hot, blue wool and flannel uniforms. The quartermaster corps was not equipped for the large scale movement of supplies on such short notice. The Army also had insufficient Krag-Jorgenson rifles, so many new recruits received the old Springfield single shot rifles, and the Nation lacked sufficient facilities for producing the newer smokeless gunpowder in the needed amounts. While the Navy and the Army prepared for war, Col Heywood stripped east coast Marine stations and barracks of men to prepare for the Marines' role in the conflict. While new recruits leavened the ranks, the bulk of the Marines who would serve in the war were trained veterans.

The war McKinley had tried to avoid had begun. Within a fortnight of the declaration of hostilities, the Nation would receive news of the first battle with Spain from an unlikely location. And Marines would be there!

LtCol Kelly is the executive officer of the IMA detachment, Field History Branch, History and Museums Division, HQMC. He is also a high school history teacher.