At the war’s outset, the McKinley administration had no aim other than forcing Spain to liberate Cuba. In pursuing that objective, the administration soon developed the strategy of attacking Spain where it was weakest—at the hard-to-defend extremities of its far-flung but crumbling empire. “If Spain were faced with determined opposition in several quarters, it might have to accept defeat without forcing the United States to attack its center of power in the Caribbean at Havana or ultimately the [Iberian] Peninsula itself,” historian David F. Trask has written. “Whatever the tactical and logistical failings of the American forces, their strategic design was soundly conceived and well enough executed to obtain victory in a remarkably brief time.”51


As it unfolded, the U.S. strategy meant a two-front war against Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, a strategy that produced the unintended yet lasting consequence of the United States’ becoming a colonial power with its possession of the Philippines.


With the onset of war, the U.S. navy—which generally performed well through-out the conflict—established a blockade of Havana and major cities on Cuba’s north coast. But the first major engagement took place far from Cuba. On 1 May 1898, a U.S. naval squadron commanded by Commodore George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Stunning and thoroughly unexpected, the naval triumph signaled the first move toward a sustained American presence in Asia. The Philippines would be under U.S. suzerainty for most of the next fifty years.


In late April 1898, a Spanish naval squadron headed westward from Cape Verde Islands under the command of Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete. The whereabouts of Cervera’s squadron were unknown for nearly two weeks, causing fear and great consternation along the eastern U.S. seaboard. The fears were aggravated by the failure of U.S. naval patrols to locate the elusive Cervera, who entered the harbor of Santiago de Cuba on 19 May 1898. Despite repeated instructions to move to Santiago, American warships under the command of Commodore Winfield Scott Schley took nine days to arrive off Santiago and bottle up Cervera’s squadron.52


With Cervera sealed in Santiago harbor, the McKinley administration in June ordered the 16,000 soldiers of the U.S. Fifth Army Corps deployed from Florida to eastern Cuba. The Santiago theater became the decisive focus of the war—another unanticipated development. Havana, the seat of Spanish power in Cuba, had been considered the most likely early target of U.S. military action. The arrival of Cervera’s squadron at Santiago altered the equation.


Several thousand American regular and volunteer troops splashed ashore in eastern Cuba beginning on 22 June. Their landings were essentially—and inexplicably—unopposed, the American forces quickly established operational bases east of Santiago. From there they moved on and engaged Spanish forces in skirmishes in late June and in sharp battles on 1–2 July. The war’s most famous land battle took place 1 July, when U.S. forces dislodged Spanish troops on the San Juan Heights near Santiago and from El Caney, a hamlet nearby. Crucial to the Americans’ tactical success at San Juan was the assault by the Rough Riders, a dismounted volunteer cavalry regiment led that day Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. The Rough Riders’ charge was crucial to promoting an ambitious political agenda that catapulted Roosevelt to the White House in a little more than three years.


The Spanish forces launched ineffective counterattacks on 2 July, then retreated to Santiago. On 3 July, Cervera’s squadron tried to run the U.S. blockade. One by one, the six Spanish warships were destroyed. The Americans lost one sailor in the engagement; more than 350 Spanish seamen were killed. The destruction of the squadron off Santiago effectively ended Spanish resistance in eastern Cuba. After two weeks of erratic negotiations and truces punctuated with artillery exchanges, General José Toral, the Spanish army commander at Santiago, gave up. He formally surrendered Santiago, along with much of eastern Cuba, on 17 July 1898.


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51. Trask, The War with Spain, 423.

52. For a discussion of the sluggishness with which U.S. naval forces sealed Cervera’s squadron in Santiago de Cuba, see Musicant, Empire by Default, 316–324.