It’s February 15th, 1898 in Havana Harbor, just off the coast of Cuba.
On the deck of a cargo ship called the City of Washington… some American officers play cards, smoke cigars, and enjoy the evening air. Among them is the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Frank Stevens.
Frank glances out across the water at another American ship nearby: the USS Maine. Frank’s ship is just a cargo vessel. But the Maine is a naval warship, and it's been sent here to protect American interests in Cuba. Since the Cuban War of Independence began three years ago, the US has supported the Cuban insurgents against their Spanish rulers. Back in January, riots broke out in the streets of Havana, and the local Spanish government resorted to extreme methods to stop the violence. In response, the US sent the USS Maine into Havana Harbor to curb Spanish aggression.
Tonight, though, Frank and his men do their best to ignore the ongoing tensions and just relax. But then… the dark quiet night is lit up by a gigantic explosion, close enough for Frank to feel the heat on his face. Frank looks out across the water and sees a fireball plume into the sky above the USS Maine.
Frank’s crew cry out in alarm as debris shoots up into the air.
Fragments of wood, steel, and concrete rain down on the surrounding boats, including theCity of Washington. Frank and his crew watch with horror as thick black smoke pours out of the Maine.
Then, Frank hears a series of smaller explosions from inside the Maine. He can see men hurling themselves overboard to escape the furnace.
Frank knows he must do something…
So he gives his crew orders to dispatch lifeboats to the blazing ship and save as many people as they possibly can. But soon, a grim report reaches the captain’s ears. The lifeboats are being combled by still falling flaming debris that can't navigate well and the rescue attempts are suffering. Frank will be left to watch as the smoldering Maine sinks below the surface of the inky black waters.
After the sinking of the USS Maine, American military leadership is divided. Some think the explosion was an accident. But most believe it was a deliberate attack carried out by the Spanish Government.
Many in the American press have already made up their minds. They indulge in sensationalist “yellow journalism”, and cast Spain as the obvious villain without evidence. Publications like the New York Journal,owned by wealthy media magnate William Randolph Hearst, employ eye-catching headlines and gross exaggerations to push anti-Spanish sentiment onto the American people, many of whom are already biased against Spain.
Soon, many Americans, and their elected representatives, will demand a war of revenge, rallying around the aggressive slogan: “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” Though there is no evidence to prove Spanish involvement, the US Congress will ultimately declare war, pushing America into a brief but consequential military conflict that will topple one empire, and create another, after fighting comes to an end on August 12th, 1898.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 12th: The End of the Spanish-American War.
Act One: How it Started
It’s March 2nd, 1897, in Washington DC; less than a year before the sinking of the USS Maine.
In the White House, President-Elect William McKinley sits across from current President Grover Cleveland.
In two days' time, McKinley will be inaugurated as America’s 25th president. Today, he’s come to the White House for a cordial visit with the outgoing commander-in-chief. McKinley and Cleveland are from different political parties. McKinley is a Republican. Cleveland a Democrat. But the two ideological foes will soon share a bond that only presidents can understand. McKinley listens as Cleveland offers him words of advice, one leader to another. And soon, the conversation turns to a subject of great importance: global expansion.
In their meeting, Cleveland warns McKinley about the expansionist agenda of many in Congress. Cleveland implores McKinley to take care that he is not pushed into a war of conquest. McKinley appreciates the advice, but he assures Cleveland it’s the last thing he wants. McKinley was a veteran of the Civil War. He knows what hell it is and believes war should only be used as a last resort after all efforts for peace have failed. But McKinley knows not everyone in America agrees.
Because many are chomping at the bit for a war of expansion. Major European countries like England, Germany, and France have been aggressively expanding their empires in places like Africa and Asia. Many feel the US should follow suit in the Americas, which is currently dominated by Spain. But the once mighty Spanish Empire is on the decline, leaving the United States an opportunity to move in and take Spain’s place.
McKinley knows that if Spain retreated from the region, its trade routes, mineral deposits, and land would all be up for grabs. But he also knows the reality of war.
McKinley has seen enough of it for a lifetime. But he will soon see more, as a tragedy will drop conflict right in his lap.
Just under a year later, at 1 AM on February 16th, 1898, President McKinley emerges from his bedroom, still dressed in a nightgown.
He’s just been roused from his sleep by a staff member who hands the bleary-eyed president a note. As McKinley reads the words, his hands tremble. In shock, he mutters to himself: “The Maine blown up!”
McKinley is bewildered to learn that the USS Maine has sunk to the bottom of Havana Harbor.
The cause of the explosion is uncertain. But that doesn’t stop rampant speculation in the press. Not long after, the cover of theNew York Journal declares that “the Maine Was Destroyed By A Spanish Mine”. It’s a baseless claim, but such sensationalist lies in the media quickly whip up the nation into a frenzy. Pressure mounts on McKinley to call for a declaration of war against Spain.
But McKinley exercises restraint. He wants to find out the facts before he does anything. So he orders the Navy to convene a court of inquiry to launch an investigation and determine the cause of the explosion.
While he waits for an outcome, McKinley is wracked with anxiety about the prospect of war. But the cacophony of voices calling for action is deafening – in the media, in congress, and in McKinley’s own cabinet. Finally, on March 20th, the court of inquiry determines that the USS Mainewas likely blown up by an underwater mine and that the Spanish are the likely culprit.
McKinney feels he has no choice. He is unable to forestall the wishes of the public, or those of his own party, any longer. On April 11th, 1898, McKinley asks Congress for a declaration. Not long after, he receives a joint congressional resolution authorizing the use of military force in Cuba against Spain.
Critics of the declaration claim the war is solely one of conquest. To answer these accusations, Congress also passes the Teller Amendment, which limits the conflict to solely aiding Cuba in its rebellion and prohibits Cuba’s annexation.
On May 1st, 1898, just ten days after the declaration of war, the US will prove its Naval might against the Spanish. But the first engagement of the War does not happen in Cuba, but in the waters of Manila Bay, in the Philippines; the location of one of Spain’s largest squadrons of ships.
In a matter of hours, America’s modernized warships overwhelm the once mighty Spanish fleet, which sinks to the bottom of Manila Bay, symbolizing the coming demise of the entire Spanish Empire. The following month, in June, 17,000 American troops will land in Cuba. And once again, the Americans will overpower the Spanish. And in a few weeks' time, the Spanish-American War will be over just as abruptly as it began.
Act Two: San Juan – The Last Battle
It’s July 1st, 1898, in Cuba; and the Spanish-American War has been raging for just over a month.
A spry, white-haired Civil War veteran, Brigadier General Hamilton Hawkins, leads his troops through a dense jungle toward the foot of a hill.
Hawkins is the commander of the 1st Cavalry Brigade, part of the US war effort to defeat the Spanish in Cuba. He and his men are advancing toward Santiago, the last major stronghold of Spanish power on the island. Hawkins knows that if Santiago falls, the war will be as good as over.
But to reach the city, Hawkins and his troops first have to traverse a hilly ridge that surrounds it. The ridge is known as the San Juan Heights and is composed of two heavily fortified areas of elevated ground: Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, both guarded by hundreds of Spanish soldiers. The Americans’ plan is to split into two divisions, with each one taking a hill.
Hawkins is leading the assault on San Juan Hill – the largest of the two. But as soon as he and his soldiers emerge from the tree cover, they’re peppered with fire from the Spanish howitzers. Amid a hail of shells and bullets, the Americans frantically dismount and hurl themselves to the ground.
Hawkins realizes that he and his troops are caught in the open and he’s reluctant to give the order to charge. Hawkins knows the danger of advancing on an entrenched enemy; and besides, he hasn’t yet received the charging orders from Major General Shafter, the officer in charge of the US Army in Cuba.
So, for now, the First Brigade must hold their position.
But some of his men are not content with waiting, one of them is Lieutenant Jules “Gary” Ord. Jules is a volunteer in the 10th Cavalry Regiment, a segregated unit composed largely of Black servicemen, or Buffalo Soldiers. But Jules isn’t African American. He joined the 10th because he’s hungry to prove himself on the battlefield.
Addressing his officer, Jules screams above the roaring howitzers: “General, if you will order a charge, I will lead it.” Hawkins looks up the hill at the flashing muzzles of the Spanish. He turns back to Jules and says: “I will not give permission but I will not refuse it."
At this, Jules readies his bolt-action rifle and leaps from cover, charging up the hill toward the Spanish fortifications with men from the 10th Cavalry Regiment close behind.
By midday, the American troops are within feet of the hill’s summit. But they will be met with fierce resistance. Before long, Lieutenant Jules Ord will be killed, shot through the throat. Brigadier General Hamilton Hawkins will be badly wounded and forced to retreat.
But meanwhile, at the foot of Kettle Hill… another unit of American soldiers is trapped under Spanish gunfire. The regimental captain has ordered his men to hold their position. They are pinned down with nowhere to run. But then, from a nearby jungle, a spectacled man on horseback emerges from the trees and heads toward them. More cavalry and men on foot follow behind.
It's the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, a ragtag group of frontiersmen, Ivy League athletes, Texas Rangers, and Native Americans; otherwise known as the Rough Riders. The man leading them is Theodore Roosevelt, and he is determined to take Kettle Hill and all the glory that comes with it.
When Roosevelt reaches the trapped American forces, he jumps off his horse, grins at the beleaguered officer, and says “Captain, me and my boys are here to help.” But the Captain, like Hawkins moments earlier, has not received any orders to advance.
Roosevelt isn’t deterred. He informs the Captain that they’ll never take San Juan Heights by firing from a distance. The only way to victory, Roosevelt says, is to rush the enemy. Roosevelt looks the Captain in the eye and asks him if he wants his men to die here, at the bottom of the hill. When the Captain admits he doesn’t, Roosevelt responds: “Then let my riders through!”
When Roosevelt starts his charge up the hill, he is joined by Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. Together, the group of white, black, and native American soldiers resolutely spring up the hill, cheering and running forward between shots.
A reporter who observed Roosevelt’s charge will later describe the scene as: "A miracle of self-sacrifice, a triumph of bulldog courage, which one watched breathless with wonder.”
Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Buffalo Soldiers will soon summit the hill. The Spaniards will flee, and the San Juan Heights will be secured, leaving a clear path through to Santiago.
Two days later, US forces will destroy the Spanish fleet there. The city will fall, and the Spanish will lose their last major stronghold on Cuba. Left with no other choice, the Spanish will be forced to surrender.
Act Three: The Day
It’s August 12th, 1898, in Washington D.C.
In a room that overlooks the South Lawn of the White House, President McKinley has a smile on his face. He never wanted war. So today, he is happy to see the fighting come to an end. He stands to the side of a large wooden table and looks on as his stone-faced Secretary of State takes the seat across from a diplomat representing Spain.
It’s been just three months since America declared war. But already, the Spanish military has been decimated. Tens of thousands of Spanish troops are dead, and the once mighty Spanish fleet has been sunk. Realizing victory was impossible, the Spanish sued for peace. And now, both sides meet in Washington to sign a peace protocol.
The protocol requires Spain to relinquish all claim of sovereignty over and title of Cuba to the United States. It also states that the US will occupy and hold the city of Manila, in the Philippines, including the bay and harbor, until the conclusion of a formal peace treaty. It will be another two months before the so-called “Treaty of Paris” is drafted and signed. But today, McKinley watches with satisfaction as the two diplomats sit together and stop the fighting with the stroke of a pen.
The conclusion of the Spanish-American war marks the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of American imperialism. The war was relatively small in scope; it lasted just a few months and cost the U.S. only about 400 casualties. But the consequences of the so-called “splendid little war” are immense. Cuba is now free. And though the Teller Amendment prevents the annexation of Cuba, the spoils of war are monumental for the United States. As part of the terms of peace, Spain cedes Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam to the United States, and Spanish rule is removed from the Philippines. The American Empire is born; an outcome that was set in motion when the fighting between America and Spain came to an end on August 12th, 1898.
Next onHistory Daily: August 15th, 1969. Over 400,000 people attend one of the most pivotal events in popular music history: the first day of Woodstock.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.