The Puerto-Rican Naval Campaign, 1898

(Spanish American War)

Part 1

by Mark R. Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Archeologist, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office

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This paper will discuss the U.S. Navy's campaign around the island of Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War, including the bombardment of San Juan, the engagement between the USS ST. PAUL and the Spanish torpedo boat destroyer TERROR, and the sinking of the blockade-runner, ANTONIO LOPEZ.


For 113 days in the spring and summer of 1898 the United States waged its first overseas war with a European state.  This war, generally referred to as the Spanish-American War, was a worldwide conflict that would gain for America possessions in the Far East, the Pacific, and the Caribbean.  In the Caribbean the primary objectives were the defeat of Spanish forces on the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.  Cuba, for tactical naval reasons, would be the first Spanish colonial Caribbean possession invaded by the United States.  The blockade of the Spanish fleet at Santiago de Cuba and the investment of that town by American naval and land forces, respectively, would occupy most of the time and effort of the American military in the Caribbean.  As for Puerto Rico, for all but the last 19 days of the Spanish-American War, the United States Navy was solely responsible for engaging Spanish forces on Puerto Rico.  The American Navy enforced a blockade that saw the bombardment of San Juan, the destruction of a Spanish blockade runner, and a minor naval engagement.

The Spanish-American War was a war of several firsts for the United States.  It was the first projection of American military power overseas with the intention of securing and holding islands in the Far East, the Pacific, and Caribbean as colonial possessions.  It was the first American war conducted under a naval-based plan rather than an army plan, utilizing the planning accomplished by the Naval War College.  It was the first modern war for the United States and also the first war that provided practically instant media coverage to the American public by means of telephone, telegraph, illustrations, stereoviews, books, photography, newspapers, and motion pictures.

In the view of late nineteenth-century American policy makers, the Monroe Doctrine was basis for American intervention in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine states, "that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by European powers," which was originally intended to serve as a moral statement of support for emerging Latin American republics.  By the late nineteenth century, the United States was now powerful enough to back up its words with military strength.  When the British government entered into negotiations with Washington to resolve a Venezuelan boundary dispute "it thereby accepted the new interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine" (Reuter 1924:44).  Thus, the Monroe Doctrine became the framework for American intervention in the Western Hemisphere leading to the dispatch of the USS MAINE to Havana.  The sinking of the USS MAINE, presumably by the Spanish, was viewed by the American public and its government as a threat to the nation requiring military intervention.  And, the United States government was able to invoke the Monroe Doctrine to attack all Spanish holdings in the Caribbean, and by extension in the Far East and the Pacific.

Although the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish was the overt goal at the start of the war, war planners and politicians, such as Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, soon began to appreciate the importance of the island of Puerto Rico to the United States.  As he stated in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt, in May of 1898, "Porto Rico is not forgotten and we mean to have it" (Trask 1981:341).  The strategic role of Puerto Rico was appreciated by the American military as an advantageous position for the United States that must be taken from the Spanish as a future forward base to the envisioned Panama Canal.  Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote that Puerto Rico, "would be invaluable to the mother country [Spain] as an intermediate naval station and as a base of supplies and reinforcements for both her fleet and army, . . .if left in her undisturbed possession, it would enable her practically, to enjoy the same advantage of neatness to the great scene of operations that the United States had in virtue of our geographical position" (Trask 1981:339).

The fact that Puerto Rico and the other Spanish possessions were islands meant that the United States Navy would be leading any action against the Spanish.  The Spanish-American War was evidence of several decades of growth of the modern United States Navy and modern naval theory as advocated by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan.  This theory presented the navy as the nation's primary overseas offensive military force.

Well before the war, planners at the Naval War College had determined that the only way to conduct the war with Spain efficiently was by 1) blockading the Spanish Caribbean islands, 2) sinking Spanish fleets sent to protect the islands, and 3) only then landing troops on the islands.  By fighting the war primarily as a naval action, rather than attempting to split authority between different military branches, the United States was able to claim undisputed naval superiority in the Western Hemisphere after its victory.

Historical Background:

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the United States had both economic and territory expansion interests in the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean.  The United States traditionally had good relations with the Spanish government, which had supplied manpower, arms, and money to the Americans equal to that of the French during the American Revolution (Thomson 1976).  There was generous trade between the Spanish islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba and the United States, and by the late nineteenth century, much of the expansion of the sugar agriculture on Cuba and Puerto Rico was due to the investment of American capital.  The United States had approached the Spanish government on several occasions about the possibility of acquiring one or both islands (Millis 1931:10).

However, since the First Cuban rebellion of 1868-1878, popular feeling against Spain had been growing in the United States.  During the First Cuban Revolt (1868-1878), the Cuban rebels had established a junta, or government in exile in New York, where funds were raised to outfit ships to carry arms to the rebels in Cuba (Millis 1931:11; Nofi 1996:25).  This activity almost caused a war between Spain and the United States, when the Spanish vessel TORNADO captured the American-registered ship VIRGINIUS in international waters, with the subsequent shooting of fifty-three of the crew and passengers. War was averted and the Spanish government issued an apology and paid reparations to the families of the dead men (Nofi 1996:26) (To read more about the VIRGINIUS Affair, click here)


In January of 1876, Alfonso XII became the King of Spain and provided the leadership to implement a peaceful solution to the conflict in Cuba (Nofi 1996:26).  General Martínez Campos, the military governor of Cuba, induced the rebels

 . . . to lay down their arms by a promise of amnesty and of the concession of to Cuba of the same governmental system as that enjoyed by Porto [Puerto] Rico.  At nightfall on February 10, 1878, the 'Pact of Zanjón' was signed in a ruined farmhouse in Camaguey; the [rebel] chieftains immediately departed to inform their scattered bands that they were to turn in their arms, an emissary was dispatched to New York to notify the junta, and the Ten Years' War was over.  It developed later that when the Pact of Zanjón was signed neither side knew what the governmental system enjoyed by Porto Rico really was! [Millis 1931:16].
However, an end to the First Cuban War did not end anti-Spanish feeling in the United States.  Anti-Spanish feelings, were fed by sensational, even fictional newspaper articles, of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, in William Randolph Hearst's Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's World (Millis 1931:42-43).  And, among the Cuban exile communities, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, in New York, New Orleans, and Ybor City, Florida, October 10th -- the beginning date of the First Cuban Revolt -- was annually celebrated by mass rallies calling for the liberation of Cuba (Millis 1931:17).

The spread of new communication technology, in the forms of telephones, telegraph, film, newspapers, and photography, allowed the American people almost daily access to the conditions on Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico.  However, the information provided to the American public on these islands was often slanted against the Spanish by the "Yellow Journalist" presses of Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Tribune.  America's population, now united after the Civil War, was becoming indignant about what they perceived as human rights violations in their Caribbean backyard.

While a democracy demands action at the instigation of citizens, it does not require interference in the situations of other countries.  The Monroe Doctrine would be called upon to modify the traditional isolationist stance of the American government.  The American government, supported by its people, could claim that any action on its part against Spain was at the insistence of not only its citizens but also official policy.  The "shrinking" of the world through technology and ready information helped facilitate the coming together of the social conscious and political agenda of the United States.  The technological shrinking of the world also fostered an environment that was conducive to diplomatic relations between the United States and countries across the Atlantic.

On February 24, 1895 the Second Cuban Revolt erupted.  The revolt, planned by Cuban Revolutionary exiles in the United States, had inadvertently been aided by our government which had imposed heavy tariffs on Cuban sugar, creating widespread unemployment and discontent against continued Spanish rule of that island (Nofi 1996:28).  Led by General Máximo Gómez, the revolutionaries realized they were too weak militarily to win their independence from the Spanish.  Therefore, the strategy of the Second Cuban Revolt was to avoid major battles with the Spanish Army and wage a guerrilla war of short quick attacks, which through attrition would wear down the Spanish resolve.  Key to this strategy was the destruction of the sugar economy of Cuba, which made the island so valuable to the Spanish as a colony. American business and political interests became allied in support of the Cuban rebels' independence movement, or any measures that would preserve American interests in Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar fields. Gómez’s hope was that the destruction of American business interests would ultimately lead to American intervention on the side of the rebels.

In January of 1896, the Spanish government appointed General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, to destroy militarily the Cuban rebels.  He vigorously pursued this goal by arranging the reconcentration of the Cuban peasants into government controlled camps to prevent them from aiding the rebels, resulting in the deaths of between 200,000 and 400,000 Cubans over the next two years.  Stories of the suffering of the Cuban people were broadcast by the Partido Revolucionario and greatly exaggerated by the "Yellow Press" papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who called General Weyler "Butcher Weyler" (Nofi 1996:30-31).

While the Republican Party was publicly warning Spain of its intentions, General Alfred Thayer Mahan was laying out a comprehensive plan for American world power based on maritime supremacy and overseas trade.  Graham Cosmas, author of An Army for Empire noted,

 His [Mahan's] system depended upon a fleet of armored, steam propelled battleships able to command the sea approaches to both coasts of the Western Hemisphere and, if necessary, to attack distant enemy shores.  To provide places of refuge and coaling stations for the fleet and for the merchant marine that he considered its necessary complement.  Mahan urged the acquisition of bases in strategic areas like the Caribbean and the Western Pacific - not large colonial territories but small, advantageously located islands with deep, spacious, and easily fortified harbors.  Above all, he stressed that the United States must control the future Central American canal.  Given such a military-geographic position, Mahan argued, the United States could enforce the Monroe Doctrine, expand her commerce, and maintain her vital interest in a shrinking, increasingly competitive world.  Mahan brought together in systematic and persuasive form ideas that were already current among Navy reformers and civilian expansionists, and he outlined an international posture that was attractive to many Americans.  In response to the doctrines he articulated and to the pressures he helped bring to focus, the congresses and administrations of the late eighties and the nineties began to seek foreign bases and to build armored battleships and cruisers.  Almost every year Congress authorized new warships.  By 1898 a respectable fleet had come into being, and the Navy Department was organizing it and planning its wartime deployment on the principles Mahan had outlined [Cosmas 1971:36].
In the American view, preventing war between the United States and Spain required the granting of true liberal reforms to the Cubans.  At the insistence of the United States and the aspirations of its own peoples, on November 28, 1897, Puerto Rico and Cuba were granted autonomy by Spain (Wagenheim & Wagenheim 1994:54).  For Cuba it was a case of too little too late.  The rebel forces had gained too much momentum to be ignored.  However, the autonomy of Puerto Rico was more than the islanders had believed possible.  Autonomy as granted by Spain included:
1. An irrevocable charter authorizing the appointment of a Governor-General with relatively limited powers to preside as the representative of Spain over the government of Puerto Rico.

2. An elected insular parliament would exercise real influence in affairs, and from its ranks a cabinet would be selected to provide executive direction.

3. The Governor-General could not issue an order that lacked the signature of a local elected official.

4. The insular government had authority to make treaties with foreign governments.  Puerto Rico was to be subject only to those Spanish treaties that its parliament chose to accept [Trask 1981:337].

After the Spanish-American War, the German Naval Commander Hermann Jacobsen noted that pre-war Puerto Rico had very different social conditions than Cuba.  An abortive revolt, in the same year as the First Cuban Revolt began had been attempted by a group of Puerto Ricans on September 23, 1868.  Known as "El Grito de Lares," this short-lived revolt of Puerto Rican Creoles against Spanish authority and economic policies which hindered the island's development was quickly put down within just a few days (Wagenheim 1993:114-116).  For the next thirty years, by utilizing well distributed military posts throughout the island the Spanish were able to maintain order and safety on Puerto Rico (Jacobsen 1899:20).  This constant military presence and continuing economic problems in the sugar and coffee areas of the southern part of the island was, however, resented by the Puerto Ricans even after the granting of autonomy.  Eventually, Spanish-imposed order based on might rather than justice began to rankle the population of Puerto Rico (Jacobsen 1899:20).  In addition, Spain had called up some of the best Puerto Rican militia units for service in the increasingly unpopular war in Cuba.  During the American attack on San Juan Hill the Rough Riders would engage Puerto Ricans in combat (Nofi 1996:333).

The granting of autonomy for Puerto Rico and Cuba was the opening that the United States needed to instigate positive negotiations with Spain to resolve the Cuban problem.  President McKinley began the negotiation process with Spain. The United States now agreed to give the Spanish government what it decided was a reasonable amount of time in which to test autonomy in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  However, they also made it clear intervention was a course of action open to the United States should Spain's efforts fail to restore order in Cuba (Nofi 1996:37-38).

Some Spaniards, however, could not be threatened by American pressure.  The new Spanish Governor of Puerto Rico, General Manuel Macias y Casado, who arrived in San Juan on February 2, 1898 believed war between the United States and Spain was inevitable, and he intended to fight.  When, on April 21, 1898, he declared martial law on the island, he issued a stirring proclamation calling for resistance against the American interventionists, stating,

 Providence will not permit what in these countries which were discovered by the Spanish nation the echo of our language should ever cease to be heard, nor that our flag should disappear from before the eye . . . long live Puerto Rico, always Spanish.  Long live Spain [Trask 1981:338, footnote 4].

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