The Cause of the War With Spain


Many causes led up to the Spanish-American war. Cuba had been in a state of turmoil for a long time, and the continual reports of outrages on the people of the island by Spain greatly aroused the Americans. The “ten years war” had terminated, leaving the island much embarrassed in its material interests, and woefully scandalized by the methods of procedure adopted by Spain and principally carried out by Generals Campos and Weyler, the latter of whom was called the “butcher” on account of his alleged cruelty in attempting to suppress the former insurrection. There was no doubt much to complain of under his administration, for which the General himself was not personally responsible. He boasted that he only had three individuals put to death, and that in each of these cases he was highly justified by martial law.

Finally The Attention Of The United States was forcibly attracted to Cuba by the Virginius affair, which consisted in the wanton murder of fifty American sailors–officers and crew of the Virginians, which was captured by the Spanish off Santiago bay, bearing arms and ammunition to the insurgents–Captain Fry, a West Point graduate, in command.

Spain would, no doubt, have received a genuine American thrashing on this occasion had she not been a republic at that time, and President Grant and others thought it unwise to crush out her republican principles, which then seemed just budding into existence.

The horrors of this incident, however, were not out of the minds of the American people when the new insurrection of 1895 broke out. At once, as if by an electric flash, the sympathy of the American people was enlisted with the Insurgents who were (as the Americans believed) fighting Spain for their liberty. Public opinion was on the Insurgents’ side and against Spain from the beginning. This feeling of sympathy for the fighting Cubans knew no North nor South; and strange as it may seem the Southerner who quails before the mob spirit that disfranchises, ostracises and lynches an American Negro who seeks his liberty at home, became a loud champion of the Insurgent cause in Cuba, which was, in fact, the cause of Cuban Negroes and mulattoes.

Fitz Hugh Lee
General Fitzhugh Lee

General Fitzhugh Lee, of Virginia, possibly the most noted Southerner of the day, was sent by President Cleveland to Havana as Consul General, and seemed proud of the honor of representing his government there, judging from his reports of the Insurgents, which were favorable. General Lee was retained at his post by President McKinley until it became necessary to recall him, thus having the high honor paid him of not being changed by the new McKinley administration, which differed from him in politics; and as evidence of General Fitzhugh Lee’s sympathy with the Cubans it may be cited that he sent word to the Spanish Commander (Blanco) on leaving Havana that he would return to the island again and when he came he “would bring the stars and stripes in front of him.”

Belligerent Rights To The Insurgents Or Neutrality became the topic of discussion during the close of President Cleveland’s administration. The President took the ground that the Insurgents though deserving of proper sympathy, and such aid for humanity’s sake as could be given them, yet they had not established on any part of the island such a form of government as could be recognized at Washington, and accorded belligerent rights or rights of a nation at war with another nation; that the laws of neutrality should be strictly enforced, and America should keep “hands off” and let Spain and the Insurgents settle their own differences.

Much Money And Time was expended by the United States government in maintaining this neutral position. Filibustering expeditions were constantly being fitted up in America with arms and ammunition for the Cuban patriots. As a neutral power it became the duty of the American government to suppress filibustering, but it was both an unpleasant and an expensive duty, and one in which the people had little or no sympathy.

Spain tries to Appease public sentiment in America by recalling Marshal Campos, who was considered unequal to the task of defeating the Insurgents, because of reputed inaction. The flower of the Spanish army was poured into Cuba by the tens of thousands–estimated, all told, at three hundred thousand when the crisis between America and Spain was reached.

Weyler The “Butcher,” was put in command and inaugurated the policy of establishing military zones inside of the Spanish lines, into which the unarmed farmers, merchants, women and children were driven, penniless; and being without any visible means of subsistence were left to perish from hunger and disease. (The condition of these people greatly excited American sympathy with the Insurgents.) General Weyler hoped thus to weaken the Insurgents who received considerable of supplies from this class of the population, either by consent or force. Weyler’s policy in reference to the reconcentrados (as these non-combatant people were called) rather increased than lessened the grievance as was natural to suppose, in view of the misery and suffering it entailed on a class of people who most of all were not the appropriate subjects for his persecution, and sentiment became so strong in the United States ]against this policy (especially in view of the fact that General Weyler had promised to end the “Insurrection” in three months after he took command) that in February, 1896, the United States Congress took up the discussion of the matter. Several Senators and Congressmen returned from visits to the island pending this discussion, in which they took an active and effective part, depicting a most shocking and revolting situation in Cuba, for which Spain was considered responsible; and on April 6th following this joint resolution was adopted by Congress:

“Be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, that in the opinion of Congress a public war exists between the Government of Spain and the Government proclaimed and for some time maintained by force of arms by the people of Cuba; and that the United States of America should maintain a strict neutrality between the contending powers, according to each all the rights of belligerents in the ports and territory of the United States.””Resolved further, that the friendly offices of the United States should be offered by the President to the Spanish government
for the recognition of the independence of Cuba.”

The Insurgents gained by this resolution an important point. It dignified their so-called insurrection into an organized army, with a government at its back which was so recognized and treated with. They could buy and sell in American ports.

General Antonio Maceo
General Antonio Maceo

General Antonio Maceo about this time was doing great havoc along the Spanish lines. He darted from place to place, back and forth across the supposed impassable line of Spanish fortifications stretching north and south across the island some distance from Havana, and known as the trocha. Thousands of Spaniards fell as the result of his daring and finesse in military execution. His deeds became known in America, and though a man of Negro descent, with dark skin and crisp hair, his fame was heralded far and wide in the American newspapers. At a public gathering in New York, where his picture was exhibited, the audience went wild with applause–the waving of handkerchiefs and the wild hurrah’s were long and continued. The career of this hero was suddenly terminated by death, due to the treachery of his physician Zertucha, who, under the guise of a proposed treaty of peace, induced him to meet a company of Spanish officers, at which meeting, according to a prearranged plot, a mob of Spanish infantry rushed in on General Maceo and shot him down unarmed.

It is said that his friends recovered his body and buried it in a secret place unknown to the Spaniards, who were anxious to obtain it for exhibition as a trophy of war in Havana. Maceo was equal to Toussaint L’Overture of San Domingo. His public life was consecrated to liberty; he knew no vice nor mean action; he would not permit any around him. When he landed in Cuba from Porto Rico he was told there were no arms. He replied, “I will get them with my machete,” and he left five thousand to the Cubans, conquered by his arm. Every time the Spanish attacked him they were beaten and left thousands of arms and much ammunition in his possession. He was born in Santiago de Cuba July 14, 1848.

The Spirit of the Insurgents did not break with General Maceo’s death. Others rose up to fill his place, the women even taking arms in the defense of home and liberty. “At first no one believed, who had not seen them, that there were women in the Cuban army; but there is no doubt about it. They are not all miscalled amazons, for they are warlike women and do not shun fighting. The difficulty in employing them being that they are insanely brave. When they ride into battle they become exalted and are dangerous creatures. Those who first joined the forces on the field were the wives of men belonging in the army, and their purpose was rather to be protected than to become heroines and avengers. It shows the state of the island, that the women found the army the safest place for them. With the men saved from the plantations and the murderous bandits infesting the roads and committing every lamentable outrage upon the helpless, some of the high spirited Cuban women followed their husbands, and the example has been followed, and some, instead of consenting to be protected, have taken up the fashion of fighting.”–Murat Halsted.

Jose Maceo, brother of Antonio, was also a troublesome character to the Spaniards, who were constantly being set upon by him and his men.

Weyler’s Policy and the Brave Struggle of the people both appealed very strongly for American sympathy with the Insurgent cause. The American people were indignant at Weyler and were inspired by the conduct of the Insurgents. Public sentiment grew stronger with every fresh report of an Insurgent victory, or a Weyler persecution.

Evangelina Cisneros
Evangelina Cisneros

Miss Evangelina Cosio Y Cisnero’s Rescue helped to arouse sentiment. This young and beautiful girl of aristocratic Cuban parentage alleged that a Spanish officer had, on the occasion of a raid made on her home, in which her father was captured and imprisoned as a Cuban sympathizer, proposed her release on certain illicit conditions, and on her refusal she was incarcerated with her aged father in the renowned but filthy and dreaded Morro Castle at Havana.

Appeal after appeal by large numbers of the most prominent women in America was made to General Weyler, and even to the Queen Regent of Spain, for her release, but without avail, when finally the news was flashed to America that she had escaped. This proved to be true–her release being effected by Carl Decker, a reporter on the New York Journal–a most daring fete. Miss Cisneros was brought to America and became the greatest sensation of the day. Her beauty, her affection for her aged father, her innocence, and the thrilling events of her rescue, made her the public idol, and gave Cuba libre a new impetus in American sympathy.

Spain and Havana felt the touch of these ever spreading waves of public sentiment, and began to resent them. At Havana public demonstrations were made against America. The life of Consul General Lee was threatened. The Spanish Minister at Washington, Señor de Lome, was exposed for having written to a friend a most insulting letter, describing President McKinley as a low politician and a weakling. For this he was recalled by Spain at the request of the American government.

Protection to American citizens and property in Havana became necessary, and accordingly the Battleship Maine was sent there for this purpose, the United States government disclaiming any other motives save those of protection to Americans and their interests. The Maine was, to all outward appearances, friendly received by the Spaniards at Havana by the usual salutes and courtesies of the navy, and was anchored at a point in the bay near a certain buoy designated by the Spanish Commander. This was on January 25, 1898, and on February 15th this noble vessel was blown to pieces, and 266 of its crew perished–two colored men being in the number. This event added fuel to the already burning fire of American feeling against Spain. Public sentiment urged an immediate declaration of war. President McKinley counseled moderation. Captain Siggsbee, who survived the wreck of the Maine, published an open address in which he advised that adverse criticism be delayed until an official investigation could be made of the affair.

The official investigation was had by a Court of Inquiry, composed of Captain W.T. Sampson of the Iowa, Captain F.C. Chadwick of the New York, Lieutenant-Commander W.P. Potter of the New York, and Lieutenant-Commander Adolph Marix of the Vermont, appointed by the President. Divers were employed; many witnesses were examined, and the court, by a unanimous decision, rendered March 21, 1898, after a four weeks session, reported as follows: “That the loss of the Maine was not in any respect due to the fault or negligence on the part of any of the officers or members of her crew; that the ship was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her forward magazines; and that no evidence has been obtainable fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons.”

Responsibility in this report is not fixed on any “person or persons.” It reads something like the usual verdict of a coroner’s jury after investigating the death of some colored man who has been lynched,–“he came to his death by the hands of parties unknown.” This report on the Maine’s destruction, unlike the usual coroner’s jury verdict, however, in one respect, was not accepted by the people who claimed that Spain was responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the explosion, and the public still clamored for war to avenge the outrage.

Congress also Catches the war fever and appropriated $50,000,000 “for the national defence” by a unanimous vote of both houses. The war and navy departments became very active; agents were sent abroad to buy war ships, but the President still hesitated to state his position until he had succeeded in getting the American Consuls out of Cuba who were in danger from the Spaniards there. Consul Hyatt embarked from Santiago April 3, and Consul General Lee, who was delayed in getting off American refugees, left on April 10, and on that day the President sent his message to Congress. He pictured the deplorable condition of the people of Cuba, due to General Weyler’s policy; he recommended that the Insurgent government be not recognized, as such recognition might involve this government in “embarrassing international complications,” but referred the whole subject to Congress for action.

Congress declares war on April 13 by a joint resolution of the Foreign Affairs Committee of both houses, which was adopted, after a conference of the two committees, April 18, in the following form:

Whereas, the abhorrent conditions which have existed for more than three years in the island of Cuba, so near our own borders, have shocked the moral sense of the people of the United States, have been a disgrace to Christian civilization, culminating as they have in the destruction of a United States battle ship, with 266 of its officers and crew, while on a friendly visit in the harbor of Havana, and cannot longer be endured, as has been set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress of April 11, 1898, upon which the action of Congress was invited: therefore,Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the
United States of America in Congress assembled:First, that the people of the island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent.

Second, that it is the duty of the United States to demand, and the government of the United States does hereby demand, that the government of Spain at once relinquish its authority and government in the island of Cuba, and withdraw its land and naval forces from Cuba and Cuban waters.

Third, that the President of the United States be, and he hereby is, directed and empowered to use the entire land and naval forces of the United States, and to call into the actual service of the United States the militia of the several states to such extent as may be necessary to carry these resolutions into effect.

Fourth, that the United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination when that is completed to leave the government and control of the island to its people.

The President signed this resolution at 11:24 A.M. on the 20th of April, 1898. The Spanish Minister, Señor Luis Polo y Bernarbe, was served with a copy, upon which he asked for his passports, and “immediately left Washington.”

Edward Savoy
Edward Savoy

“This is a picture of Edward Savoy, who accomplished one of the most signal diplomatic triumphs in connection with recent relations with Spain. It was he who outwitted the whole Spanish Legation and delivered the ultimatum to Minister Polo.””Edward Savoy has been a messenger in the Department of State for nearly thirty years. He was appointed by Hamilton Fish in 1869, and held in high esteem by James G. Blaine.””He was a short, squat, colored man, with a highly intelligent face, hair slightly tinged with gray and an air of alertness which makes him stand out in sharp contrast with the other messengers whom one meets in the halls of the big building.””Of all the men under whom ‘Eddie,’ as he is universally called, has served he has become most attached to Judge Day, whom he says is the finest man he ever saw.””Minister Polo was determined not to receive the ultimatum. He was confident he would receive a private tip from the White House, which would enable him to demand his passports before the ultimatum was served upon him. Then he could refuse to receive it, saying that he was no longer Minister. It will be remembered that Spain handed Minister Woodford his passports before the American representative could present the ultimatum to the Spanish Government.”

“Judge Day’s training as a country lawyer stood him in good stead. He had learned the value of being the first to get in an attachment.”

“The ultimatum was placed in a large, square envelope, that might have contained an invitation to dinner. It was natural that it should be given to ‘Eddie’ Savoy. He had gained the sobriquet of the nation’s ‘bouncer,’ from the fact that he had handed Lord Sackville-West and Minister De Lome their passports.”

“It was 11:30 o’clock on Wednesday morning when ‘Eddie’ Savoy pushed the electric button at the front door of the Spanish Legation, in Massachusetts avenue. The old Spanish soldier who acted as doorkeeper responded.”
“‘Have something here for the Minister,’ said Eddie.”

“The porter looked at him suspiciously, but he permitted the messenger to pass into the vestibule, which is perhaps six feet square. Beyond the vestibule is a passage that leads to the large central hall. The Minister stood in the hall. In one hand he held an envelope. It was addressed to the Secretary of State. It contained a request for the passports of the Minister and his suite. Señor Polo had personally brought the document from the chancellory above.”

“When the porter presented the letter just brought by the Department of State’s messenger, Señor Polo grasped it in his quick, nervous way. He opened the envelope and realized instantly that he had been outwitted. A cynical smile passed over the Minister’s face as he handed his request for passports to ‘Eddie,’ who bowed and smiled on the Minister.”

“Señor Polo stepped back into the hall and started to read the ultimatum carefully. But he stopped and turned his head toward the door.”

“‘This is indeed Jeffersonian simplicity,’ he said.”

“‘Eddie’ Savoy felt very badly over the incident, because he had learned to like Minister Polo personally.”
“‘He was so pleasant that I felt like asking him to stay a little longer,’ said ‘Eddie,’ ‘but I didn’t, for that wouldn’t have been diplomatic. When you have been in this department twenty-five or thirty years you learn never to say what you want to say and never to speak unless you think twice.'”

“Wherefore it will be seen that ‘Eddie’ Savoy has mastered the first principles of diplomacy.”–N.Y. World.

A copy of the resolution by Congress was also cabled to Minister Woodford, at Madrid, to be officially transmitted to the Spanish Government, fixing the 23d as the limit for its reply, but the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs had already learned of the action of Congress, and did not permit Minister Woodford to ask for his passports, but sent them to him on the evening of the 21st, and this was the formal beginning of the war.

A fatal step was this for Spain, who evidently, as her newspapers declared, did not think the “American pigs” would fight. She was unaware of the temper of the people, who seemed to those who knew the facts, actually thirsting for Spanish blood–a feeling due more or less to thirty years of peace, in which the nation had become restless, and to the fact also that America had some new boats, fine specimens of workmanship, which had been at target practice for a long time and now yearned for the reality, like the boy who has a gun and wants to try it on the real game. The proof of the superiority of American gunnery was demonstrated in every naval battle. The accurate aim of Dewey’s gunners at Manilla, and Sampson and Schley’s at Santiago, was nothing less than wonderful. No less wonderful, however, was the accuracy of the Americans than the inaccuracy of the Spaniards, who seemed almost unable to hit anything.

While accrediting the American Navy with its full share of praise for its wonderful accomplishments, let us remember that there is scarcely a boat in the navy flying the American flag but what has a number of Colored Sailors on it, who, along with others, help to make up its greatness and superiority.

Johnson, Edward A. History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and other items of Interest. 1899.

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