American troops were soon en route to Spain’s other important Caribbean possession, Puerto Rico, and landed on the island’s southern coast on 25 July. The invasion was in keeping with the U.S. strategy to intensify pressure on Spain’s peripheral possessions until Madrid sued for peace. As transports carrying the U.S. invasion force neared Puerto Rico, Spain began an intricate diplomatic demarche to ask the Americans for peace terms. The French ambassador in Washington, Jules Cambon, represented Spain in negotiations that produced a ceasefire armistice, which was signed in Washington on 12 August 1898. By then, U.S. ground forces had swept across southern and central Puerto Rico, where inhabitants received them warmly. In the Philippines, plans were well advanced to attack the Spanish garrison in Manila. The assault took place on 13 August, before word of the armistice had reached the Philippines. After a brief skirmish, the outgunned Spanish—who “lacked fortifications, artillery, and naval support to counter the Americans”—surrendered Manila.53




With that, the war was over: The American armed forces had prevailed on every front, with losses in combat of fewer than three hundred lives. It was, the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “the most complete and easiest-bought victory in the world’s history.”54 Horace Porter, the U.S. ambassador in Paris, wrote, “No war in history has accomplished so much in so short a time with so little loss.”55 And John Hay, then the chief U.S. diplomat in Britain, famously declared it “a splendid little war.”


In truth, however, the war effort—especially the deployments in the Caribbean theater—had been plagued by missteps and missed opportunities. U.S. naval forces had failed to intercept the Cervera’s naval squadron as it sailed from Cape Verde to the Caribbean. Cervera’s warships entered the harbor at Santiago de Cuba unmolested and undetected for more than a week. In early June, the Navy attempted to seal the Spanish vessels inside Santiago harbor by scuttling the Merrimac, a collier, in the harbor channel. However, the Merrimac came under Spanish fire and drifted too far up the channel to be a serious obstruction.56


The U.S. navy commanders off Santiago—Admiral Sampson and Commodore Schley—feuded about who deserved the credit for destroying the Spanish squadron in the ill-fated attempt to run the American blockade. Sampson, who had established the blockade, was absent when the Spanish warships tried to escape, having left for a conference with the U.S. Army commander in the Santiago theater. Schley was in charge during the battle. But a maneuver he ordered early in the engagement nearly caused the collision of two U.S. warships. The Sampson-Schley controversy sputtered for years after the war, ultimately giving rise to a formal Court of Inquiry that rebuked Schley, and seemed to stain the reputations of both men.


Commanding the American ground forces in the Santiago campaign was a rotund and gout-ridden major general, William Rufus Shafter, whom correspondents openly disparaged as incompetent. Shafter was often ill and seldom went to the front near Santiago. The general’s judgment was clouded at critical moments. After the hard-fought tactical victory on the San Juan Heights above Santiago, Shafter proposed pulling back his forces several miles—a suggestion the McKinley administration rejected.


Tropical disease—malaria and typhoid, principally; yellow fever to a lesser extent—nearly devastated American forces in the aftermath of the Spanish surrender of Santiago. At the peak of contagion in late July 1898, nearly 4,300 American troops—more than one-quarter of the Fifth Corps’ strength—were reported ill in eastern Cuba. “The Cuban climate played a part” in spreading debilitating fever in the army’s ranks, “but only a subordinate part,” George Kennan, a Red Cross official, wrote. “The chief and primary cause of the soldiers’ ill health was neglect, due … to bad management, lack of foresight, and the almost complete breakdown of the army’s commissary and medical departments. If there be any fact that should have been well known, and doubtless was well known, to the higher administrative officers of the Fifth Army-Corps, it is the fact that if soldiers sleep on the ground in Cuba without proper shelter and drink unboiled water from the brooks they are almost certain to contract malarial fever.”57


Conditions deteriorated to the point where Shafter’s senior officers warned him in a “round robin” letter that if the U.S. troops were not promptly withdrawn from eastern Cuba, they risked a devastating outbreak of yellow fever. The letter was made public in early August 1898 and the troops were ordered almost immediately to begin leaving for the United States. But the letter’s disclosure angered McKinley as it threatened to undercut the delicate negotiations with Spain on reaching an armistice.58 But Spain’s negotiating position was quite weak and Madrid agreed to American terms for a ceasefire protocol that as signed in Washington on 12 August 1898. The protocol called for Spain to vacate Cuba and cede Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. Final disposition of the Philippine islands was to be determined by U.S. and Spanish negotiators who were to convene in Paris by October 1898 to negotiate a formal peace treaty.


The Paris talks began as scheduled but proceeded fitfully, as Spain was disinclined to surrender the Philippines. The demand for the Philippines was quite controversial in the United States, but McKinley faced few appealing options. Returning the archipelago to Spanish control was clearly out of the question. Extending a measure of local autonomy under a U.S. protectorate was likewise unacceptable to Washington. Taking a portion of the archipelago—perhaps Manila and the Luzon island—would invite a partition of the Philippines, and Britain, Germany, and Japan had made clear their intentions of stepping into any political vacuum created in the Philippines. McKinley, moreover, considered the Philippines unprepared for self-rule. The most prominent Philippine leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, had shown himself during the Manila campaign to be mercurial and not entirely trustworthy. Thus, claiming the entire archipelago emerged for McKinley as the best of an unenviable set of options.59 Spain’s negotiators in Paris—recognizing they were in no position either to resume the war if talks broke down or expect concessions from the Americans—finally agreed to give up the Philippines. The United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million, ostensibly for Spanish infrastructure in the archipelago.


Almost immediately, the U.S. presence in the Philippines was beset by complications. Aguinaldo, whom the Americans had brought back to the Philippines from Spanish-imposed exile, was little inclined to cooperate. Soon after his return to the Philippines in July 1898, Aguinaldo took command of the insurgents who had intermittently fought the Spanish and soon declared himself head of a provisional Philippine government. Relations between the Americans and Aguinaldo deteriorated through the summer of 1898 as troop transports dispatched from the West Coast of the United States bolstered the American military presence in Manila. Fighting broke out between U.S. forces and Aguinaldo’s insurgents in February 1899, just as the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on the Treaty of Paris, which provided for U.S. annexation of the Philippine archipelago.


The Philippine insurrection was a nasty conflict, marred by allegations of brutality on both sides. The capture of Aguinaldo in March 1901 signaled the eventual collapse of the insurgency. In July 1902, the United States declared the rebellion quelled. Also that year, the U.S. military occupation of Cuba ended and an elected Cuban government—headed by President Tomás Estrada Palma—took power.



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53. Trask, The War with Spain, 420.

54. “Peace in Sight,” Philadelphia Inquirer ( 31 July 1898): 8. The Inquirer’s editorial also said: “The administration has won a victory that will be famous in all history. To-day President McKinley occupies the most enviable position on earth.”

55. Cited in Musicant, Empire by Default, 597.

56. See Trask, The War with Spain, 134–136.

57. George Kennan, Campaigning in Cuba (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1971, reprint of 1899 ed.), 215–216.

58. Trask, The War with Spain, 432.

59. For an insightful discussion about the choices McKinley faced on the issue of the Philippines, see Lewis L. Gould, The Spanish-American War and President McKinley (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1982), 104–111,