Study Guide

The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War Introduction

The 1890s were a transitional decade for the United States. After nearly three centuries of American pioneering on the continent, the lines between settled and unsettled territory had vanished. The destiny of the nation, long rooted in the spirit of exploration and expansion, suddenly seemed uncertain.

But politicians and businessmen in the U.S. had had their eyes on the Caribbean for a while. They thought, "You know, Florida and Louisiana are pretty rad. They've got sugar fields, they've got some fruit going on, they've got beaches, they're pretty much rocking it. Wouldn't it be great if the United States had more places like Florida and Louisiana?" 

And so, we became ever more involved in Caribbean politics. The ultimate goal was for the Caribbean to become independent from Spain and become either U.S. territory or, at the very least, open to U.S. commercial developers.

At the time, Cuba was in open revolt against Spain. And, to be frank, Spain was being a real piece of work about it. Massacres, prison camps, unkind words, pretty much every bad thing you could do. 

America decided to get involved and support the rebels for both humanitarian and imperialist reasons. So, we stuck our big Uncle Sam nose into it and supported Cuban independence, leading to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Great. It had been 25 years since we had a war. We were overdue. As Theodore Roosevelt told a friend in 1897, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."

America fought Spain in a whole bunch of places. It invaded Cuba, shelled Puerto Rico, and led an uprising in a Spanish colony in the Pacific called the Philippines. Perhaps you've heard of it? 

When the dust settled, Cuba was independent...ish. It was independent from Spain, but guess what? Now the U.S. was calling the shots. And Puerto Rico and the Philippines were annexed by the U.S. 

Go, go American imperialism! Just call us Sam the Great and scrub that guy Alexander out of the textbooks.

What is The Spanish-American War About and Why Should I Care?

Why wouldn't you want to know everything there is to know about the Spanish-American War?

"Wait," you may be thinking, "aren't you talking about 'the splendid little war', the one that lasted, like, three weeks or something? What's the big deal?"

Yeah, that's the one. Except it lasted four months to be exact, but most certainly was a big deal. That might not be entirely clear at first glance. We admit that on the surface, this brief conflict doesn't seem so epic. Our American history books never allot more than a few sentences for it, and we haven't seen much mention of heroic battles, dramatic military campaigns against tyrannical enemies, or great heroes with the fate of the nation in their hands. 

So, why should we spend any more time on this topic? Because 1898 was a pivotal moment in American history. Not only was a new century approaching, but the nation, in intervening in the Cuban revolutionary struggle against Spain, was embarking on a new global mission: new imperialism. That's huge.

The Spanish-American war was also a significant period in Cuban history. You'd never know it from the title, but this war was fought in Cuba alongside thousands of Cuban freedom fighters. And really, the "splendid little war" might not have been so "splendid" or so "little" had Cuban revolutionaries not spent three full years fighting the Spanish colonial forces before the arrival of the first U.S. soldier. So, 1898 was a pivotal year for the Cuban people, but not for the reasons you might think.

Now, why wouldn't you want to know everything there is to know about the Philippine-American War?

"Are you sure the U.S. fought against the Filipinos?" you're saying. "Are you sure you're not pulling my chain?" you ask. 

Yes, we're sure. The U.S. did in fact fight a war against the Filipinos. Didn't you learn about this in your U.S. history courses? (That's okay, neither did we.) The Philippine-American War is one of those moments in American history that's often skipped over, or plain forgotten. Like the Spanish-American War, it's easy to dismiss because it was waged on foreign soil and resulted in relatively few American casualties. 

But upon closer inspection, this conflict reveals a great deal about the nation the United States was becoming at the turn of the century. And it wasn't pretty.

The Spanish-American War Resources

Books

Willard Gatewood, ed., Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire: Letters From N**** Soldiers (1987)
Throughout the course of the Spanish-American War, African-American soldiers wrote home to describe their experiences and to tell of their accomplishments on the battlefield. Many sought to refute accusations made by Theodore Roosevelt regarding their competence as fighters, and to prove that Black soldiers were "among the bravest and most trustworthy of this land."

Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898 (1963)
American historian Walter LaFeber seeks to prove that the Spanish-American War was hardly an accident or an absent-minded adventure. Instead, he argues, American elites believed war would bring economic relief and, more importantly, launch the U.S. as a world power.

José Martí, José Martí: Selected Writings (2002)
Cuban poet, philosopher, and freedom fighter José Martí wrote essays about his homeland, his mixed heritage, American democracy, racial injustices, and his day-to-day observations while serving in the Cuban war for independence. Although Martí died before the Spanish-American War, his essays offer some clues as to the outcome of the conflict.

Louis Pérez, Jr., The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (1998)
Cuban historian Louis Pérez explains the ways in which American politicians and historians have erased Cubans from the Spanish-American War. A provocative—and highly readable—book that will inspire you to dig deeply into the familiar narratives of history.

José Rizal, Noli Me Tangere (1887)
Upon completing this work in 1887, Jose Rizal described Noli Me Tangere to a friend: "The Novel is the first impartial and bold account of the life of the tagalogs. The Filipinos will find in it the history of the last ten years." His gripping and controversial tale of Spanish colonial injustice awakened national consciousness among Filipinos and contributed to the rise of the Filipino independence movement.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (1899)
In this memoir, Theodore Roosevelt chronicles the recruitment, training, and frontline experiences of the Rough Rider Regiment, a volunteer cavalry comprised of men from all walks of life, including Harvard graduates, farmers, Native Americans, ex-Confederate soldiers, and African Americans. Roosevelt's account has served as one of the key primary texts used by American historians to describe "the splendid little war."

Music

Ric Ickard, Popular Guitar Music of the Philippines (2006)
Classical Filipino guitarist Ric Ickard presents a number of traditional compositions from the Philippines.

Various Artists, Hecho en Cuba: The Complete Collection (2005)
Get to know the fantastic musical traditions of Cuba with this collection of classic and contemporary Cuban artists, including Celia Cruz, Eliades Ochoa, Ruben Gonzalez, and the Afro Cuban All Stars.

Various Artists, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922 (2005)
This collection, featuring pioneering African-American recording artists and musicians (as well as Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Speech), showcases the distinctive styles of post-Civil War music and offers a powerful perspective on the early recording industry.

Various Artists, The 1890s, Volume 2: "Wear Yer Bran' New Gown" (2002)
Volume 2 of Archeophone's series on the 1890s offers 30 original recordings from the decade that witnessed the Chicago World's Fair, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the Spanish-American War.

Various Artists, The 1890s, Volume 1: "Wipe Him Off the Land" (2001)
With songs including the Edison Male Quartet's "My Old Kentucky Home," J.W. Myers' "The New Bully," and Edward Favor's "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby," this collection hints at the rapidly changing physical, technological, and cultural landscapes of the old American frontier. 

Images

"The Spanish Brute"
"The Spanish Brute," a caricature of the Spanish Empire printed in the American journal Judge, July 9th, 1898.

Roosevelt's Rough Riders
Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders Regiment on San Juan Hill, 1898.

Buffalo Soldiers
Members of the African-American volunteer regiments serving in the Spanish-American War, 1898.

Charge of the Rough Riders
American painter Frederic Remington's 1898 masterpiece, Charge of the Rough Riders.

"The White (?) Man's Burden"
A political cartoon entitled "The White (?) Man's Burden," published in Life, 1899, comments on the relationship between colonizers and their colonies.

"Dewey Smashes Spain's Fleet"
The front page of the American newspaper The World, May 2nd, 1898.

Emilio Aguinaldo
Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino independence movement.

Filipino Revolutionaries
A group photo of Philippine's insurgent troops, circa 1900.

The U.S. and the East
A historic map showing routes and distances between the United States, Hawaiian Islands, Philippine Islands, and China, circa 1898.

Movies & TV

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James in this loosely fact-based film about the life and death of the man considered one of the more notorious outlaws of the Wild West during the last 19th century.

The Buffalo Soliders (1992)
This made-for-television documentary offers a glimpse at the unique role of the "Buffalo Soldiers," the Black troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War, and in the development of the western frontier.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Although a somewhat campy interpretation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's early century adventure novel, Greystoke is perhaps one of the most entertaining modern Hollywood films to allude to imperial power and hierarchies of race. In other words, there's more to this story than actor Christopher Lambert's guttural grunts and chest thumping.

Cimarron (1931)
This classic Hollywood Western tells the story of a couple that heads West in the late-19th century to settle in the Oklahoma territory. Can those who yearn to explore the American frontier and seek to discover their “manifest destiny" ever be satisfied?

Websites

Yellow Journalism and the Spanish American War
PBS presents an interactive feature on yellow journalism in the United States and its influence on the American public. See how sensational accounts of events in Cuba in the New York World and the New York Journal led to an American declaration of war against Spain.

Through the Eyes of the Rough Riders
A comprehensive collection of documents by and about the Rough Riders regiment, this site includes gripping first-hand accounts of battle, the original text of daily newspaper reports about the war, and several biographies.

The History of the Buffalo Soldiers
The Historic Presidio of San Francisco presents the history of Buffalo Soldiers and Black volunteer servicemen who fought in the Spanish-American War.

The Life and Work of José Martí
This fairly well-organized collection of historical information on Cuba includes letters, essays, and poetry written by José Martí, a revolutionary leader of the Cuban Independence movement.

The Philippine-American War
This educational website presents several primary source documents from the Philippine-American War, including many of Emilio Aguinaldo's statements and official proclamations.

Historical Documents

The De Lôme Letter
Full text of the controversial De Lôme letter. The Spanish diplomat's letter, which criticized President William McKinley, was leaked to the American press and ultimately fueled popular cries for intervention in Cuba against Spain.

"The White Man's Burden" According to Kipling
Be sure to check out our learning guide on Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," written in 1899.

The "Strenuous" Life of Theodore Roosevelt
This site—a collection of primary source documents by and about Theodore Roosevelt—includes the full text of Roosevelt's speech, "The Strenuous Life," delivered in 1899.

Platt Amendment
Psst: we've got an entire learning guide on the Platt Amendment.