Past Treasure of the Month – August 2012
One hundred forty-four years ago this month the Spanish-American War ended. While history books often refer to it as the ‘splendid little war’ (a phrase coined by John Hay in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt) the 1898 conflict represents a watershed moment in the history of American foreign policy. To remember this event, Rosenberg Library displayed a number of artifacts including: a sword taken from a Spanish officer in the Battle of El Caney, an American flag flown on the battleship U.S.S. Texas during the Battle of Santiago, and two medals from a U.S. soldier involved in the war as its August Treasure of the Month.
The beautiful steel sword on display was captured by a Cuban rebel from the body of a Spanish officer who was shot during the Battle of El Caney, July 1, 1898. Galvestonian Earl Taylor purchased it from the rebel in Cuba after the war and donated it to Rosenberg Library in 1927. The brass knuckle guard bears the Spanish coat of arms, and the blade is inscribed with an intricate floral design and the date 1870 — the year that it was made.
The Battle of El Caney pitted the 2nd Division — led by Brigadier General Henry Lawton — against five hundred Spanish Forces Regular soldiers and 100 loyalists under the command of General Joaquin Vara de Rey. De Rey was tasked in holding the flank of Santiago against the American forces. Although the Americans had a huge advantage in manpower, the Spanish forces were better equipped. General Lawton’s strategy of continually shifting his battery’s fire had little effect on the Spanish strong point. Eventually Lawton focused battery fire on the El Viso strongpoint and successfully breached its walls creating an entry point for the 12th and 25th Infantry regiments. El Viso was captured and the American-led forces reduced each strong point in turn. At the end of the battle, American and Cuban revolutionaries’ casualties totaled over five hundred, and about three hundred Spanish loyalists were killed, wounded, or captured.
The medals on display, donated by Mrs. Dan Stein in 1924, belonged to Louis Ginsberg, an army veteran who served stateside during the war. One is a Spanish War service medal awarded by Congress to all Army members who served at least three months during the war. The obverse (front) has a sheathed Roman sword — denoting its participant was not in combat — on a tablet surrounded by a wreath. The reverse side features an eagle and the U. S. seal. The second medal was issued by a United Spanish War Veterans fraternal society to all service members. It is topped with an eagle bearing a shield, an American flag (tattered and in poor condition), a cannon, anchor, sword, and a rifle connected to a cross with a circle in the middle.
The United States of America flag at the time had seven red and six white stripes and 45 stars on a field of blue. Measuring 8 ½ feet by 15 ½ feet, the flag was flown by the (pre-dreadnought) battleship U.S.S. Texas in the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish American War on July 3, 1898. It was the first US Naval vessel to bear the name “Texas” and is not the same U.S.S. Texas currently docked in San Jacinto.
The Battle of Santiago was the largest and most decisive naval engagement during the Spanish-American War. The American Navy knocked out Spain’s entire Caribbean Squadron making resupplying to Spanish troops impossible. Galvestonians were fascinated by U.S.S. Texas, and city leaders asked the secretary of the Navy to have the ship stop in Galveston’s port. Upon learning of the visit, Galveston’s schoolchildren raised over three hundred dollars to purchase a bible and sword for the ship’s captain, John Philip (1840 – 1900). During a luncheon held by the YMCA on February 13, 1899, the newly promoted Commodore Philip donated the flag to the Sunday school children of Texas. It was kept by the YMCA of Galveston from then until it was donated to Rosenberg Library on August 20, 1923.
The War in Brief
Since the early years of the Republic, many in Washington sought to annex Cuba as part of the United States, and offers were even made to Spain to purchase the island. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century Americans began investing heavily in the booming Cuban sugar industry. With rising tension and violence between Cubans and the colonial government, an opportunity for intervention soon presented itself.
An emerging trend in newspapers called “yellow journalism” helped fuel public awareness of atrocities in Cuba and the march to war. Yellow journalists sensationalized stories and sometimes used embellished or outright fictional sources and facts. Perhaps the most infamous example was the sinking of U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Both the New York Journal and the New York World gave the event intense coverage, blaming the Spanish for the disaster. The Journal even offered a $50,000 reward for information that led to a conviction of people responsible for the disaster. Later investigations found that an accidental onboard explosion sunk the ship. Those facts aside, public sentiment was firmly against the Spanish regime, and by April 1898 the two sides were at war.
On April 20, 1898 Congress tried to ease fears both in the U.S. and in Cuba that Spanish rule would be replaced by American domination by passing the Teller Amendment. Eventually U.S. military leadership was replaced by the Republic of Cuba; however the Platt Amendment, passed in 1901, limited Cuban sovereignty and also gave Guantanamo Bay to the United States. American financial interests dominated Cuban politics until the 1959 Cuban Revolution in which Fidel Castro and his rebel army overthrew Fulgencio Batista. The War of 1898 also saw the U.S. ‘liberate’ the Philippines from Spain only to find out soon thereafter that many nationalists did not want U.S. interference in the island nation. A protracted conflict ensued in which American forces lost over four-thousand men and over ten thousand Filipinos died. The U.S. also gained Guam and Puerto Rico as unincorporated territories as a result of the conflict.
While this chapter of our past is often maligned and misunderstood, it offers some important lessons to historians and its legacy lives on today. By 1898 America had fulfilled its ‘manifest destiny’ and stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. American intellectuals, military planners, and political thinkers sought out the next stage in American Exceptionalism. Almost all of the great European powers had colonies, but America did not. However, the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the opening of Japan (1850s), the acquisition of Hawaii (1890s), along with a shift to a coal powered Navy, presented an opportunity to tap into the vast market in China and elsewhere in the Pacific. The War of 1898 signaled a new age of American power.