The seeds of the Spanish-American War
Background to the Modern Navy
There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War. There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations. These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships. The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy. But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline. The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy. Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.
In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels. Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics. One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”
The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890. Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany. Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.
Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire
Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.
Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence. After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state. It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain. The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.
In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course. Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.
The Plot to Aid Cubans
On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War. True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement. In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.
As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press. The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents. One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard. The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner. Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.
At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests). While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.
In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius. Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy. After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.
At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs. Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness. The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive. Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.
Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British. Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion. Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14. In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work. While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him, they would very likely have him executed. Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.
In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals. A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her. On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase. Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water. Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed. After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship. Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy. The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.
The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged. Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him. As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship. Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.
The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others. An additional eight men were executed on 8 November. However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.
Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position. The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas. Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain. The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.
The United States’ Response
After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda. Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.” On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.
At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible. Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew. He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed. On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair. On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations. Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.
On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner. On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.
The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely. The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States. Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.
On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership. President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals. Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership. A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.
On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda. Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest., 
Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December. Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy. The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water. On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag. He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.
In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano. Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor. Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain. Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions. By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.
In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations. In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700. When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American. Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand. However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.
Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen. Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.
At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs. During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet. Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
War with Spain (1898)
In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline. It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876. Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism. Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.
In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states. The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies. Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state. Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.
After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba. In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain. Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.
Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma. His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba. Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism. No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico. There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.
In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States. The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it. The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti. Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.
In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it. Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion. President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.
No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal). They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.” Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York. As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt. Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.
The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels. For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it. Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.
As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor. Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida. Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.
At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank. Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives. Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war. All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them. Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States. Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba. Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.
The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull. No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.
So, America went to war.
- Allin, L. C. The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair. American Neptune, 1978.
- Auxier, G. W. The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898. Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
- Bradford, R. H. The Virginius Affair. Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
- Calhoun, C. W. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace. University Press of Kansas, 2017.
- Campbell, W. J. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
- Carr, R. Spain: 1808-1975. Clarendon Press, 1982.
- Hudson, R. A. Cuba: A Country Study. Library of Congress, 2001.
- Karnow, St. In our Image. Century Publishing, 1990.
- Nofi, A. A. The Spanish-American War, 1898. Combined Books, 1998.
- Soodalter, R. To the Brink in Cuba, 1873. Military History Press, 2009.
 While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846. In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy. Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841. Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861. He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida. During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.
 Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor. He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers. He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.
 In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House. Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key. Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder. His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.” The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.
 Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.