The Spanish-American War:
American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents
W. Joseph Campbell
The Spanish-American War in 1898 was a brief conflict of sweeping consequence. In just 114 days, American forces operating in two theaters separated by thousands of miles destroyed two Spanish fleets, forced the surrender of a Spanish army in eastern Cuba, and compelled the capitulation of the Spanish garrison in Manila. These victories signaled an end to four centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the Western hemisphere and, more important, announced the rise of the United States as an unambiguous global power.
The war in many respects was infused by irony and defined by unexpected turns. The United States went to war in April 1898 to fulfill a moral and humanitarian imperative—that of ending the abuses created by Spain’s failed attempt to quell an island-wide rebellion in Cuba. While conditions there were the primary cause of the Spanish-American War, the conflict’s first and the last important military engagements were fought not in the Caribbean but in the distant Philippines. When the two-front war ended in August 1898, the United States had in effect become an imperial power, with new dependencies in the West Indies, Asia and the Pacific—an outcome wholly unanticipated four months before.
It was said to have been a “splendid little war.” But splendid scarcely characterized the war’s logistical dimensions, which were ineptly managed by American military and civilian leaders of uneven competence and limited planning ability. As a result, far more American servicemen died from tropical disease during the Spanish-American War than from battlefield wounds.
To an extent unmatched in other conflicts, American journalists figured prominently in the prelude to the Spanish-American War, in the war’s conduct, and in its aftermath. “Never, before or after, were correspondents so conspicuous for audacity and daring—and interference in matters not their business,” Charles Brown, a media historian, has perceptively written.1 The antics, exploits, and accomplishments of American correspondents offer a ready frame by which to consider the Spanish-American War. Some journalists—including William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher and single most prominent figure in American journalism of the late 1890s—injected themselves into the story of the war in ways that would be regarded as unthinkable and unethical by professional standards of the early twenty-first century. The examples of their audacity and recklessness were many and included:
• Correspondents firing on Spanish forces: During the U.S. invasion of Cuba, at least two war correspondents—Richard Harding Davis and Edward Marshall—took up weapons and fired on Spanish soldiers.2 Davis, a reporter for the New York Herald, was perhaps the war’s most prominent correspondent. Marshall, who wrote for the New York Journal, was shot and severely wounded while firing at the Spanish.
• Correspondents collecting intelligence for the U.S. military: Some American journalists conducted low-level intelligence-gathering missions in Cuba for the U.S. military. Notable among them was the New York World’s flamboyant Sylvester Scovel, who made no secret about his several reconnaissance missions in Cuba for the American naval commander in the Caribbean, Admiral William T. Sampson.3 Scovel, one historian has written, seemed to feel it was as much his duty to collect information for the American military as it was to report for his newspaper.4
• Correspondents aboard press boats positioning themselves close to the war’s climatic naval battle off Santiago de Cuba in July 1898: Hearst, who steamed to Cuba aboard a lavish, converted fruit steamer he chartered, covered the smashing U.S. naval victory off Santiago, and took twenty-nine Spanish sailors prisoner.
• Correspondents capturing towns: During the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in the war’s later stages, correspondents sometimes found themselves ahead of advancing U.S. forces and in at least two cases, reported that towns had surrendered to them. The American journalists who figured in such “captures” were Davis and Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage who covered the Puerto Rico campaign for Hearst’s Journal.5
• Correspondents challenging senior army officers: In one of the most astonishing press-military encounters of any American war, Scovel of the New York World, berated and threw a punch at Major General William Rufus Shafter, the U.S. army commander, during a ceremony in July 1898 to accept the surrender of Spanish forces at Santiago de Cuba. Scovel was expelled from Cuba and dismissed by the World. He was later rehired, however. Shafter’s high-handed ways were exceedingly unpopular among U.S. correspondents.
• Correspondents participating in a prewar jailbreak: Six months before the Spanish-American War, Hearst’s New York Journal organized the successful jailbreak of a nineteen-year-old political prisoner, Evangelina Cossío y Cisneros. She was a Cuban imprisoned in Havana in a suspected conspiracy against the Spanish military. While some newspapers deplored the case of “jail-breaking journalism,”6 the Journal celebrated the rescue as “the greatest journalistic coup of this age.”7 It claimed that Cisneros’ imprisonment was emblematic of Spain’s routine mistreatment of Cuban women, a theme that resonated powerfully in American public opinion. Tens of thousands of people turned out for receptions honoring Cisneros in New York City and Washington, DC.
While certainly startling, such episodes do not suggest that American correspondents were all frivolous or inclined to treat the war as farce or comic opera. Many correspondents reported earnestly, imaginatively, and well, often at considerable risk to their health and safety. Many of them fell ill with tropical diseases and three died from yellow fever or typhoid. Others suffered battlefield wounds.
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1. Charles H. Brown, The Correspondents’ War: Journalists in the Spanish-American War (New York: Scribner’s, 1967), vii.
2. See Arthur Lubow, The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1992), 177.
3. [Sylvester Scovel,] “Cervera’s Squadron Discovered by World,” New York World ( 20 June 1898): 1.
4. Brown, Correspondents’ War, vii.
5. See Lubow, The Reporter Who Would be King, 193, and Richard Harding Davis, “How Stephen Crane Took Juana Dias,” in R.W. Stallman and E.R. Hagemann, eds., The War Dispatches of Stephen Crane (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 196–199.
6. See “Jail-Breaking Journalism,” Chicago Times-Herald ( 12 October 1897): 6.
7. Charles Duval [Karl Decker], “Evangelina Cisneros Rescued by the Journal,” New York Journal ( 10 October 1897): 45.