by Michael Bernzweig
The Spanish American War of 1898
Beginning in April 1898, the Spanish American War was a conflict between the United States Forces and Spain. The war resulted from American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence, which had raged since 1895. American involvement began when Cuba's independence movement appealed to the US for help against Spanish rule. The US sent a naval squadron to Cuba in early 1898 in an attempt to forestall a Spanish counteroffensive. This move precipitated the outbreak of hostilities between the US and Spain. The war began on April 25, 1898, when US forces destroyed a Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines. American troops then landed in Cuba and captured the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The United States is not a colonial power, as Washington's lawmakers have always claimed. And to a certain extent, this is true. While there can be little doubt that America is an imperial power and, since the end of the Second World War, has stationed its troops in dozens of countries around the world, throughout its history, the US has typically refrained from actually annexing overseas territory and bringing it directly under its rule. That is except for one brief period in the late nineteenth century. This was the era of the first age of globalization when the advent of steamships and railways saw the European powers battling to take control of virtually all of Asia and Africa. Confronted with ever-growing amounts of the world's map turning red (the British) and blue (the French), the US decided to abandon its antipathy to colonies and got in on the act right at the end of the century. The outbreak of a revolt on the island of Cuba against Spanish colonial rule provided the perfect opportunity to do so. The Cuban War of Independence had been underway since 1895, but it was not until the spring of 1898 that the US intervened on behalf of the Cuban rebels.
The conflict was a foregone conclusion before it ever started. Spain was a decaying colonial power and could not stand up to the US at all. Thus, as American naval expeditions arrived in both Cuba and the Philippines in Southeast Asia, which was also a Spanish colony, Spanish resistance was easily crushed, and American control was asserted in both areas. A further expedition also occupied Spain's colony of Puerto Rico, while Guam was occupied with virtually zero effort as the Spanish had barely maintained any military presence here in the 1890s. The war was over after just three months. The Treaty of Paris saw Cuban independence established, though the island would be closely tied to the US until Fidel Castro's Communists sundered ties in the late 1950s. The Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico were all ceded by Spain to the US. In the Philippines, a war followed between the US and Philippine republicans. America was victorious in 1902, and the Philippines effectively remained a colony until 1946. Both Guam and Puerto Rico, despite American claims to not being a colonial power, continue to be 'unincorporated territories of the United States.
The Treaty of Paris and the Spanish American War
In August 1898, the US and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish American War. The treaty resulted in Spain ceding ownership of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands to the United States. With the US emerging as the world's leading power due to the war, it marked a turning point in US foreign policy. From April to August 1898, the Spanish American War was a conflict between the United States Army and the Spanish Empire. The US supported the Cuban rebels in their fight against Spanish Government rule, and when the US ship USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, public opinion turned against Spain. The US declared war, and although it was a short conflict, it had a lasting impact.
President William McKinley had originally sought to keep the US out of the war. Still, American public opinion was swayed by the reports of journalist William Randolph Hearst, who sensationalized the conflict to sell newspapers. President McKinley also knew that the Spanish American War was also propelled by a desire to secure access to Cuba's sugar market and to protect American interests in the Philippines during this Philippine-American war.
The Philippine insurrection, which began after the Spanish American War, was a bloody conflict where US forces fought against Philippine independence fighters. The war lasted until 1902 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Filipinos and more than four hundred Americans. Hawaii, an independent kingdom since 1887, was also annexed by the United States in 1898. The annexation of Hawaii was largely driven by US economic and strategic interests in the Pacific.
The Spanish American War was a significant event in US history, marking the beginning of the country's rise to power. The war also had a profound impact on the people of Cuba, Puerto Ricans, and the people of the Philippines, who were affected by American colonialism. Lieutenant colonel Theodore Roosevelt was one of the American military leaders during the Spanish-American war. He later became the 26th president of the United States. George Dewey was another American military leader during the Spanish-American war. His achievement at Manila Bay is the highlight of his career. Emilio Aguinaldo was a Filipino independence leader who fought against both Spanish and American forces during the Philippine insurrection. Emilio Aguinaldo is considered one of the national heroes of the Philippines.
American and Spanish Weapons at the End of the Nineteenth Century
The Spanish-American War was the first major war fought by the United States against a foe with modern weapons since the American Civil War. Huge advances had been made in weaponry in the thirty-plus years since, particularly, as we will see below, in terms of bullet types. The most widely used gun on the American side was the Springfield Model 1892 Rifle. This was a bolt-action rifle that had been manufactured for the Springfield Armoury by the Norwegian gunsmiths Ole Hermann Johannes Krag and Erik Jørgensen. Deploying a .30 - .40 Krag cartridge these were highly effective and went through several different versions throughout the 1890s. Eventually, over half a million of them were manufactured at the Springfield Armoury. They were the standard long-arm weapon issued to American troops in Cuba and the other theatres of the war in 1898. On the Spanish side, and consequently, for the Cubans and Filipinos who later got hold of their weapons, the most widely used weapon in some way was the Mauser Model 1893, a bolt-action rifle that was so widely used by the Spanish in the late nineteenth century that it is colloquially known as the Spanish Mauser. It was developed by Paul Mauser, a German weapons manufacturer, for the Spanish military in the early 1890s. Because both it and the Springfield rifles borne by the Americans were bolt-action rifles, they fired faster than US troops had at the time of the American Civil War. Curiously, though, despite this advancement, both sides still used volley fire, where men lined up and deployed volleys of fire while another line reloaded.
Of course, by the late nineteenth century, machine guns had become commonplace throughout the armies of the European and American powers, notably the Maxim Gun and the Gatling Gun. The widespread use of the Gatling Gun in the conflict and its dominance of the battlefields of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico in 1898 was attested to by the future US President, Theodore Roosevelt, a shameless American imperialist who fought on Cuba in 1898, in his account of his exploits there, The Rough Riders, which he published the following year:
"On the morning of July 1st, the dismounted cavalry, including my regiment, stormed Kettle Hill, driving the Spaniards from their trenches. After taking the crest, I made the men under me turn and begin volley-firing at the San Juan Blockhouse and entrenchments against which Hawkins' and Kent's Infantry were advancing. While thus firing, there suddenly smote on our ears a peculiar drumming sound. One or two of the men cried out, 'The Spanish machine guns!' but, after listening for a moment, I leaped to my feet and called, 'It's the Gatlings, men! It's our Gatlings!' Immediately the troopers began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring."
From Roosevelt's account, we get a sense of exactly how critical machine guns were at the time. They dominated the battlefield in a way that the sound of one being fired could signal either loss or victory in an engagement. So powerful were they in an age before armored tanks that fifteen years later, when war broke out across Europe, all sides had to dig trenches into the ground to avoid being massacred by machine-gun fire.
Things You Might Find When Metal Detecting on a Spanish American Battle Site
When you go metal detecting on a Spanish American War battlefield, you might find all sorts of things. Bullets and shell casings are common finds, as are buttons and other small items that soldiers would have carried with them. You might also find larger items like bayonets or knives. See Metal Detectors for Finding Relics. It is even possible to find a sword if you are lucky!
Some items you're most likely to find when metal detecting on a Spanish American battlefield include:
Bullets and shell casings - Weapons used in the Spanish-American war were mostly small arms, so you'll find a lot of bullets and shell casings on the battlefield.
Buttons - Soldiers would have carried their belongings in pockets, so buttons are another common find.
Bayonets and knives - These were common weapons used in the Spanish-American war. Bayonets were often attached to rifles, while knives were carried by soldiers for close-quarters fighting.
Swords - While not as common as other weapons, you might be lucky enough to find a sword on the battlefield. Swords were typically carried by officers and were used for ceremonial purposes.
Personal belongings of African American soldiers - The Spanish-American War was the first major conflict in which African American forces fought. Although segregated into all-black units, these "buffalo soldiers" proved their bravery and skill in battle. After the war, many African American veterans returned to the United States to continue fighting for equality and civil rights.
Unlike other wars the US participated in, i.e., World War I, World War II, the Civil War or the American Revolution, or the Korean War, Spanish American war records are hard to come by. This is because the Spanish American War was not a large-scale conflict like other wars the US has been involved in. The Spanish American War lasted only a few months and saw relatively few casualties compared to other wars. However, despite its size, the Spanish American War was an important conflict for the United States.
Below are a few good resources if you are interested in learning more about the Spanish American War. A list of further reading resources is available on the National Archives website dedicated to the conflict.
Common Places to Find Relics
As with all types of metal detecting, It is important to follow the rules. Be sure that you request permission when hunting on any private property. Learn the law about where you can and can not hunt with a metal detector. Check the local, regional and national laws related to metal detecting before embarking on any adventure.
Battlegrounds - Many items will be found on the ground's surface, especially if the battlefield has not been disturbed since the war.
In trees or buried around trees- Bullets and other small items can become lodged in tree trunks, so be sure to check trees for potential finds.
States where soldiers were deployed - Although the Spanish-American War was only a few months long, the US Army in South Carolina was engaged in raising United States volunteers for regiments and hosting military camps. Soldiers at Camp Fornance in Columbia, South Carolina, fought in Cuba and the Philippines. San Francisco, California naval, was the site of a major base during the Spanish-American War. The US Pacific Fleet was based here, and it played a pivotal role in the US victory at the Battle of Manila Bay.
Important Landmarks - San Juan Hill, the site of one of the most famous battles of the Spanish-American War, is located in Santiago, Cuba. Havana harbor, located in Cuba, was the site of a major naval battle between US and Spanish forces. The US Navy won a decisive victory, which led to the eventual US occupation of Cuba.
Camps/Bases - New Orleans, Louisiana, was the site of a major naval battle between US and Spanish forces in 1898. The US Navy won a decisive victory, which helped to secure US control of the Gulf of Mexico. Guantanamo Bay, located in Cuba, was an important US naval base during the Spanish-American War. The bay served as a safe haven for US ships and provided a strategic location from which to launch attacks on Spanish forces in Cuba.
Bullets at the Dawn of the Machine Gun Age
New guns brought new bullets to the battlefields of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. By the 1890s, ammunition had been revolutionized from what it had been just three decades earlier for American soldiers during the American War of Independence. While the average Union or Confederate soldier had employed paper cartridges containing standard gunpowder, then, in 1898, American and Spanish troops alike used metal cartridge bullets and smokeless powder. The latter had been invented in 1884 by Paul Vieille and had the advantage of not blinding the soldier with smoke from his own gun and also creating less dirt and grit inside the gun itself. The Springfield 1892 Model Rifle used a .30-40 Krag Cartridge. The Mauser 1893 Model typically used the 7.65 x 53mm Mauser Cartridge. Both of these were bottleneck rifle cartridges, so named because they resembled bottles. The same kinds of bullets were employed in the Gatling Guns of the age. The difference was the rate of fire, with the Gatling able to displace over 200 bullets per minute.
Buttons of the Spanish-American War
As we saw in an earlier series of articles on the material culture of the American Civil War, the buttons worn by American soldiers in the nineteenth century varied greatly, with many carrying federal emblems of some kind but others depicting state seals and other logos. By the late nineteenth century, these were becoming more standardized. US Regular Army uniforms also shifted away from the formal Navy blue parade dress to a more practical khaki marine uniform. In tandem, US army buttons were more standardized by this period, with federal emblems and regiment numbers on them. Spanish colonial military uniforms were increasingly made out of rayadillo in the late nineteenth, a blue and white striped cotton or flannel matter. Rayadillo is Spanish for 'striped material.' The jackets made out of this material were typically buttoned in a straight line down the middle with seven largish buttons, though more could be added depending on the soldier's rank. Officers had more elaborate arrangements. Typically speaking, these were brass buttons that bore the Spanish coat of arms and an escutcheon of the Bourbon royal family, an emblem that had been used on Spanish military buttons since the mid-1870s. These jackets were often used by the Philippine revolutionaries there in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and they consequently continued to use the same buttons.
Spanish and American Buckles from 1898
American buckles from the Spanish-American War of 1898, which one might come across while metal detecting, are, like military buttons of the period, more practical than earlier iterations worn by US servicemen, while they would also look somewhat more like modern belt buckles. In addition, because bolt-action rifles could fire at much greater rates than earlier rifles, soldiers needed to carry more bullets. Accordingly, both US and Spanish soldiers in Cuba and elsewhere at the time of the war tended to wear bandoliers of extra bullets. These were effectively belts tied across the chest, the buckles of which were not dissimilar to belt buckles. Spanish belt buckles varied at this time. Some were solid brass pattern plates with the number of the infantry regiment embossed on them. Others that were issued to troops in the Philippines were extremely simple brass frame belt buckles not too dissimilar in shape to a modern belt buckle.
The Spanish American War Memorial is located in Boston, Massachusetts. The memorial commemorates the soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War. United Spanish war veterans, an organization of former soldiers from Latin America, is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The organization provides support and assistance to veterans of the conflict.
The Philippine-American War was an armed conflict between the US and Philippine forces that lasted from 1898 to 1902. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the US annexation of the Philippines resulted in the start of this war. Philippine forces, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, fought against US troops in a bloody and brutal conflict. After several years of fighting, the US emerged victorious, and the Philippines became a US territory.
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