Spanish-American War

Given the average duration of human conflicts the Spanish-American War did not last very long; it did, however, have global implications for both the United States and Spain.  The Treaty of Paris (1898) compelled Spain to relinquish its claims on Cuba, and cede its sovereignty over Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands.  It was a gain for the United States because it made the United States a predominant power in both the Caribbean and Pacific regions.

One may recall that the conflagration that erupted in 1898 between the United States and Spain was preceded by three years of fighting among Cuban revolutionaries and Spanish loyalists.  From 1895–1898, violent conflict in Cuba captured the attention of Americans because of economic and political instability in a region with close geographical proximity to the United States. Moreover, the US held a longstanding interest in removing European colonial powers from the Western Hemisphere[1].  Biased press or not, the Spanish did treat the Cuban people harshly and it was this treatment (whether accurately reported) that outraged the American people.

On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley asked Congress for authorization to end the fighting in Cuba between the rebels and Spanish forces, and to establish a “stable government” that would “maintain order” and ensure the “peace and tranquility and the security” of Cuban and U.S. citizens on the island.  A congressional resolution on April 20 acknowledged Cuban independence and demanded that Spain relinquish control of the island.  Concurrently, Congress forswore any intention on the part of the United States to annex Cuba, and authorized McKinley to use whatever military measures he deemed necessary to guarantee Cuba’s independence.

Spain rejected America’s ultimatum and immediately severed diplomatic relations with the United States.  McKinley responded by implementing a naval blockade of Cuba on April 22 and on the following day he issued a call for 125,000 military volunteers.  Spain declared war on the United States on the same day; Congress responded by voting to go to war with Spain on April 25.

Future Secretary of State John Hay described the conflict as a “splendid little war.”  The first battle was fought on May 1, in Manila Bay, Philippine Islands: Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish navy in one fell swoop.  On June 6, U. S. Marines landed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  After isolating and defeating the Spanish Army garrisons in Cuba, the U.S. Navy destroyed the Spanish Caribbean squadron on July 3 as it attempted to escape the U.S. naval blockade of Santiago.

President McKinley also used his splendid war as a pretext to annex Hawaii.  In 1893, a group of Hawaii-based planters and businessmen led a coup de etat against Queen Liliuokalani and established a new government. They promptly sought annexation by the United States but President Grover Cleveland rejected their requests.  In 1898, however, President McKinley was more favorably disposed toward acquiring the islands.  Supporters of annexation argued that Hawaii was vital to the U.S. economy, that it would serve as a strategic naval base that could help protect U.S. interests in Asia, and argued that other nations were intent on taking over the islands if the United States did not.  At McKinley’s request, a joint resolution of Congress made Hawaii a U.S. territory on August 12, 1898.

I doubt that anyone in Washington could have anticipated the consequences of seizing the Philippines.  For many months after the war with Spain, American forces in the Philippines were up to their ears in native agitators.  In September 1901, insurrectionists and local townspeople massacred 48 soldiers assigned to Company C, 9th US Infantry, then on outpost duty at Balangiga.  The massacre prompted the military governor of the area to call for reinforcements.  He got them: a battalion of U. S. Marines soon arrived under the command of Major L. W. T. Waller[2].

The Marines were assigned responsibility for pacifying the entire southern end of Samar; they immediately proceeded to clear the area of all rebellious forces.  Moving up the Sohoton River, Waller and his Marines attacked and destroyed a native fort on the bluffs that had been under preparation for years.  No white troops had ever penetrated this far into the interior of the island.

In October, the military governor requested that a communication line be run across the island giving Major Waller the authority to decide the route such a communications line should follow.  (See also: He Served on SamarMajor Waller’s Court, and Sergeant Major Quick).  The battalion was divided into two groups with Waller taking 50 men and bearers of the first group to scout a route.  The party started up river from Lenang in boats but had to abandon them because of treacherous rapids.  The men continued on foot, crossing and re-crossing the river continuously.  Rations were cut in half, and as the Marines marched through the jungles and over the mountains they contracted illnesses, their clothing was torn, and their feet swollen and bleeding.  The trail was soon lost.

Major Waller decided to keep pushing on with Lieutenant Frank Halford and 13 of the most able-bodied men, leaving the less-fit men under Captain David Porter.  Porter’s orders were to follow in trace as soon as the strength of his men permitted.  A few days later, Waller’s advance party captured some rebels, and from them, learned about the direction of the old Spanish trail to Basey.  At Banglay on the Cadacan River they came upon the camp set up by Captain Dunlap.  Joining Dunlap was the remainder of Waller’s second group, arriving by sea and ordered to await Major Waller’s advance party.  Over 29 days, Major Waller’s men had marched through torrential downpours, dense jungle and raging floods.  The Marines were in such bad shape that at the time of their rescue, they wept or laughed uncontrollably; they were barefoot, cut, torn, bruised, diseased and starved.

A relief party started back immediately to find the rest of the column under Capt. Porter.  Despite his weakened condition Major Waller accompanied them.  Their search was unsuccessful because many of the former camp sites and trails were under water and the route was blocked.

In the meantime, Captain Porter had started to retrace the trail to Lanang.  Many of the men were unable to march and they were left with Lieutenant Williams as Porter and the seven who were most fit went on ahead for relief.  Facing slow starvation, Lieutenant Williams and the remaining Marines moved slowly back over the trail. The weakest men died one by one, by the wayside.  One of Williams men went insane and the native bearers attacked the party with bolo knives.  Ten Marines died before the relief party from Lanang could reach them.

The entire march across Samar covered over 190 miles; Major Waller had covered 250 miles in his return with the relief party.  The Marine battalion was relieved by Army troops in March 1902, leaving behind it a story of heroic sacrifice and hardship seldom equaled in the performance of duty.

Thus, two deadly marches in the Philippines have been burned into the memories of U. S. Marines. The Death March of Bataan took many lives and serves as a testament to Japanese cruelty during World War II; the march across Samar occurred 40 years earlier, which earned this tribute to its survivors: “Stand gentlemen; he served on Samar.”


[1] President James Monroe proclaimed the Americas as within the United States’ sphere of influence in 1823.  It proclaimed the western hemisphere free of all attempts of European expansion.  To Europeans interested in doing just that, it was an amusing document, for there was no way the Americans could enforce its own declaration.  The Monroe Doctrine was a dead letter when it was issued and it remained so for some 80 years.  In 1898, Cuba became the focal point for a new American policy toward Latin America.  In 1901 the Platt Amendment forbade Cuba to enter into any agreement that might endanger its independence.  In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted American interests into the internal affairs of Latin American nations.  Revisionists looking at history through 21st Century glasses would argue that this was an outrageous usurpation of national sovereignty; they would conveniently overlook the numbers of innocent people murdered by Latin American caudillo … and we are talking about tens of thousands of victims.  We might even argue that while Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary demonstrated compassion for the plight of the average Latino, Franklin Roosevelt, in issuing the so-called Good Neighbor Policy demonstrated no compassion at all.  Of course, FDR was a Democrat, so …

[2] Littleton “Tony” Waller Tazewell Waller was a career Marine Corps officer who served in the Spanish-American War, in the Caribbean, and in Asia.  He was appointed a second lieutenant on 24 June 1880.  I will write more about this officer in subsequent posts.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.