The Price of Freedom: Americans at War Home Collection Search

Spanish American War


America went to war against Spain to free Cuba from Spanish domination. But the war provided the United States an opportunity to seize overseas possessions and begin building an American empire. After ousting Spain from Cuba, the United States seized Puerto Rico. And subsequently it annexed the Philippines, Samoa, Guam, and Wake Island, followed by Hawaii.

Facts / Statistics

Dates: 1898-1902
Troops: 306,760
Deaths: 2,446

A New Navy, A New War

After the Civil War, the United States neglected its navy, which ranked twelfth in the world by 1880. Although the United States had no overseas colonies to protect, business and government leaders realized that a strong navy was essential to defend trade and growing international interests. Beginning in 1881, Congress supported a modernization program that would make the American navy effective. The new ships would have steel hulls, steam engines, and large, rifled guns. At first, the ships still used sails as a backup to steam power. But by the 1890s, the U.S. Navy had converted to all-steel and -steam, and ranked among the top five navies in the world. Naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan stated, “Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it . . . .”

This Means War!

On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion sank the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor, triggering a war between the United States and Spain.

The Maine had come to Cuba to protect American citizens while Cuban revolutionaries were fighting to win independence from Spain. The United States supported their cause, and after the Maine exploded, demanded that Spain give Cuba freedom. Instead, Spain declared war, and America quickly followed suit, moving Commodore George Dewey into position in the Phillipines and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley into Santiago Bay.

War fever was fanned by the press, particularly publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Although the United States claimed it had no designs on Cuba, many believed the war would be an opportunity to seize other overseas possessions and begin building an American empire. Newspapers printed maps to help Americans follow the war. The United States now entered an era of overseas expansion.


Exhibition Graphics

Sinking of the battleship Maine

Sinking of the battleship Maine

Alfred Thayer Mahan, leading American naval strategist and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, 1890

Alfred Thayer Mahan, leading American naval strategist and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, 1890

Protected cruiser Atlanta, first ship of the new steel navy, which used sail power as well as steam power

Protected cruiser Atlanta, first ship of the new steel navy, which used sail power as well as steam power

Sailors in an engine room on USS Massachusetts

Sailors in an engine room on USS Massachusetts

Cuba Libre! from Harper’s Weekly

Cuba Libre! from Harper’s Weekly

Headline from the New York Journal

Headline from the New York Journal

Strategic map of our war with Spain

Strategic map of our war with Spain


Related Artifacts

Naval Jumper
Sailmaker Ratings Badge
Machinist Ratings Badge
Gun Pointer Ratings Badge
USS Maine Nameplate

The War in Cuba

To win in Cuba, the United States had to defeat the Spanish Navy. As the war began, Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera concentrated his small squadron in Santiago Bay to help protect the forts. The United States Navy, commanded by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, trapped the squadron when it blockaded Santiago along with other major Cuban ports. American land forces began to attack the city from the north on July 1, 1898. Cervera was ordered to try to break out of the harbor to save his ships. Although realizing this maneuver would probably fail, Cevera attempted it early on July 3. All of his ships were destroyed, one after another.

The Cuban Land Campaign

Like the naval campaign, the land campaign in Cuba centered on Santiago. On July 1, 1898, General William Shafter attacked the San Juan heights that overlooked Santiago. In a series of fierce engagements, the Americans pushed the Spanish off the hills. The American troops were better equipped and employed the decisive use of Gatling guns, which had multiple barrels revolving around a central axis and were fired rapidly by turning a crank. Having suffered heavy losses, the Americans now besieged the city rather than attack it further.

The fall of Santiago on July 17 convinced Spain to concede defeat in Cuba. Following the victory, the person who attracted the greatest public attention was not General Shafter, but Theodore Roosevelt, a flamboyant “Rough Rider” who had charged up San Juan Hill.


Exhibition Graphics

Admiral Pascual Cervera

Admiral Pascual Cervera

Commodore Winfield Scott Schley

Commodore Winfield Scott Schley

New York Journal

New York Journal

Naval battle of Santiago

Naval battle of Santiago

Buffalo soldiers in Tampa, Florida

Buffalo soldiers in Tampa, Florida

Gatling Gun

Gatling Gun

The storming of San Juan Hill

The storming of San Juan Hill

Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with the Rough Riders

Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with the Rough Riders

Cuban revolutionaries

Cuban revolutionaries


Related Artifacts

Fused Gold Coins
 Rough Riders Guidon
Colonel Leonard Wood's Jacket and Hat
Colt Model 1892 Revolver
Krag-Jorgensen Carbine

Defeating Spain in the Philippines

The opening battle of the Spanish American War took place in the Philippines. As soon as the United States declared war, Commodore George Dewey led his Asiatic squadron from Hong Kong to the Philippines. With the words, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” Commodore Dewey ordered Captain Charles V. Gridley to fire on the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. On May 1, 1898, Dewey decisively defeated the Spanish squadron in Manila Bay, sinking or capturing every Spanish ship with no loss of American life. It was dramatic evidence that the United States was now a major naval power.

Celebrating Dewey

Following his victory at Manila Bay, Commodore George Dewey became an overnight sensation in the United States. His picture appeared everywhere, and young people, like those seen here, honored and emulated him.

Becoming an International Power

The United States relied greatly on assistance from Filipino revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo, who already controlled much of the countryside and had proclaimed a Philippine republic. American troops did not arrive in large numbers until July. They negotiated Spain’s surrender of Manila in August, as the war ended. But, instead of liberating the Philippines from Spanish domination, the United States chose to annex the islands and begin building an American empire.

A Filipino-American War

Many Americans strongly opposed this new trend of imperialism, as did the Philippine revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo. He turned from fighting Spain to resisting American domination. Defeating Aguinaldo’s guerillas took longer than defeating the Spanish. The United States combined tactics of pacification and social improvement with brutal military strikes. Aguinaldo was captured in 1901, and then in 1902 President Roosevelt officially declared an end to the conflict. However a Filipino-American War continued on until 1915. In years to come, Americans remained divided over the nation’s actions and imperial ambitions.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick

Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty-sixth president after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt strongly supported American expansionism, and increased the size of the military to implement it. His policy was epitomized in the phrase, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Following the fall of Cuba, the Spanish possessions of Puerto Rico, Samoa, Guam, and Wake Island became American territories.


Exhibition Graphics

Captain Charles V. Gridley

Captain Charles V. Gridley

Battle of Manila Bay, off Cavite

Battle of Manila Bay, off Cavite

Newspaper headline celebrating Dewey’s victory

Newspaper headline celebrating Dewey’s victory

Map of U.S. possessions

Map of U.S. possessions

Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine independence movement, 1899

Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine independence movement, 1899

Dead Filipino insurgents, 1899

Dead Filipino insurgents, 1899

Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States, August 12, 1898, by Theobald Chartran.  President McKinley is standing to the left.

Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States, August 12, 1898, by Theobald Chartran. President McKinley is standing to the left.

Philippine nationalists

Philippine nationalists

Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean, 1904 by William Allen Rogers

Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean, 1904 by William Allen Rogers


Related Artifacts

Admiral Dewey Banner
Spanish Flag
Captain Charles Gridley’s Coat and Cap
Admiral Dewey’s Chapeau Bras
Krag-Jorgensen Rifle
Notice of Justice
Handmade Filipino Gun


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