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  • James Houser

December 10, 1898 - The Spanish-American War & the Root Reforms

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 10, 1898. The United States and Spain sign the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Spanish-American War. It is the end of a war, but the beginning of much else. The United States has gained a number of overseas territories - but the Spanish-American War has revealed deep problems in the U.S. military. The birth of America as a world power begins here, with a guy you may never have heard of: Elihu Root, Secretary of War.

There are a few wars that have slipped my attention this year. I’ve barely touched on the Russo-Japanese War, or the Malayan Emergency, or the War of 1812, and given that my master’s thesis was all about it, I’ve mentioned the Mexican-American War like twice. So, there are some gaps. Blame the calendar, blame my oversight, blame the cruel gods of Fate that have denied you my 4,000-word rant about the death cruise of the Russian Baltic Fleet. If you want to know about it, message me! Maybe I can work it in before the end of the year. (Or in my future podcast, who knows.)

But anyway. So today I’m talking about the Spanish-American War, at least for a bit. But what I really want to talk about is the effect the Spanish-American War had on American military history. Because while we won the Spanish-American War, the American military structure performed so badly even AS they won that the public couldn’t help but notice. This would lead to major institutional change in the American military, the first step in a long rise to global power and dominance over much of the world. Because if America was going to be the superpower, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the America of 1898. So let’s get to it.

In 1890, the United States government officially proclaimed the western frontier closed. The event that marked the closing of the frontier, one of America’s most tragic footnotes, occurred when the last Indian tribe – the Sioux – were finally forced onto the reservation at the “Battle” of Wounded Knee. (More of a massacre. That story comes on the 29th.) The frontier had defined American mindsets and beliefs for so long that its closure seemed to be the end of an age. For so long, the country had been an expansionist powerhouse, constantly colonizing and settling new lands and making more and more territory, well, American. What would happen now, when there were no more lands to conquer on the American continent?

For one man, America’s future lay on the seas. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan is to naval strategy and theory what Clausewitz or Sun Tzu are to land warfare. Mahan’s 1890 book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” advanced the notion that every great world power had been a sea power first and foremost, and declared that the United States needed to seize control of the world’s oceans – both for its own protection and for its future prosperity. This also required the acquisition of bases and depots across the oceans. Mahan’s book was a best-seller and profoundly influenced many world leaders from Winston Churchill to Theodore Roosevelt to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Based on Mahan’s theories, the United States began to build a large seagoing fleet of steel battleships made to match those being built by Britain, France or Germany.

The fleet soon found a purpose. The United States had been interested in the Caribbean for a long time, and revolts against Spanish rule on Cuba had drawn the attention of the public in the 1890s. The Cuban insurgents sought independence, and the Spanish had great difficulty in countering them. The Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, sent to suppress the guerrillas, resorted to brutal tactics. His policies of concentration camps, mass reprisals and crop-burning attracted widespread criticism in the United States. Even though Weyler’s policies had worked, the negative press he received led to his recall, a marker of how sensitive the Spanish were to American pressure. A set of Cuban exiles operating from Florida also generated a massive propaganda campaign in favor of the Cubans. They were assisted in this effort by the “yellow journalism” of men like William Randolph Hearst, who exaggerated and luridly recounted every instance of Spanish atrocity.

President William McKinley was not a warmonger, but the American public was aching for him to do something. To remind the Spanish of America’s economic and political interest in Cuba, McKinley moved the battleship USS Maine to the port of Havana. Much more quietly, though, additional American fleets were stationed in Key West and in Hong Kong, ready to strike at the Spanish Caribbean and the Philippines if something DID pop off. You know. Just in case.

As suspicious as this all looks – America obviously preparing for a war and with the public raving for one, and the Spanish suddenly concerned about American intentions – there is no reason to believe that anything other than a terrible accident occurred on February 15, 1898. On that day, the USS Maine suffered a dramatic explosion, killing 250 American sailors. Immediately the yellow journalists blamed Spain, and when the Navy’s inquiry alleged that an external force had caused the explosion the flames were fanned further. The Spanish claimed the explosion had originated within the ship, and 20th-Century research (1974) since determined that this was far more likely. But ultimately it didn’t matter, because Americans WANTED to believe Spain had blown up the Maine, and pressed for war. On April 21, 1898, the Spanish-American War officially began.

The fighting portion of the war would last three months. The Spanish-American War would be over FAST. Commodore George Dewey’s squadron of modern battleships stationed at Hong Kong in the Pacific, which had been quivering with anticipation for months, darted across the start line as soon as they got news of the declaration of war. On May 1, 1898, Dewey entered Manila Bay and obliterated Spanish resistance, linking up with the Filipino guerrillas and surrounding Manila itself. The Philippines were unconquered but under American domination only two weeks after the war had begun.

In the Caribbean, the American war goal was the liberation of Cuba, and the machinery of war sprang into action. The Navy was expected to take the brunt of the war against Spain, and by June 1898 had blockaded the main Spanish fleet at the port of Santiago on the southern coast of Cuba. But Santiago’s defenses were too tough to be penetrated even by Admiral William Sampson’s modern steel battleships. He had the Spanish fleet trapped, but to take Santiago he needed the Army, and that was going to be an issue.

The United States Army before the war had only consisted of 28,000 men, and was more suited to duty manning frontier posts and fighting Indians than engaging in a long-term expedition overseas. The regular army was soon expanded to 67,000 men, but bringing in and training the new recruits was a slow process. Congress and President McKinley, still big believers in the “citizen soldier” mentality, ordered up National Guardsmen in large numbers to serve in their own state-run units. This National Guard was not today’s Guard, since each state ran its Guard units almost independently with no Big Army supervision. This meant a large number of poorly armed, untrained, confused militia flocking into quickly overcrowded training camps.

The result was near chaos. The existing Army bureaucracy was completely unprepared for this massive, simultaneous influx of Guardsmen streaming in from across the nation. The Army’s training camps often failed completely to outfit the Guard units, nearly rupturing the Army’s primitive logistics systems. They had been good enough to send a few hundred cavalry off to fight the Comanche, but completely broke down when tasked to organize tens of thousands of men to fight the Spanish. Many of the Guardsmen were medically unfit for duty, and proved unwilling to accept military discipline. Finally, the unsanitary conditions of these camps were made dreadfully apparent by the sudden movement of thousands of men across the nation, and dysentery and typhoid were soon rampant. Far more soldiers died of disease in the Spanish-American War than from combat.

Soon General William Shafter had scraped together a force of 17,000 men to send to Cuba as the V Corps. Despite the large number of Guardsmen, the V Corps still consisted mostly of regular troops. Only a few highly capable volunteer units were allowed to come along, in particular the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. These were famously known as the “Rough Riders,” led by Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who had resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to take up arms. By the end of June 1898, Shafter’s force had landed on the southern shore of Cuba and begun their advance towards Santiago to flush out the Spanish fleet.

The American landing and advance, though, were a disorganized disaster that would have collapsed had the Spanish decided to defend the beaches. The incompetent and old-fashioned Shafter had no idea how to mount an amphibious assault, and the disordered landing resulted in many troops paddling sadly ashore on rafts, with horses left to swim ashore on their own. The American landing looked more like the aftermath of a shipwreck than a coordinated assault. A few days later at Las Guasimas, the first skirmish of the war resulted in a small Spanish force sending the larger American units into near panic before order could be restored. This was not an auspicious start.

On July 1, 1898, the Americans assaulted the Spanish defenses to the east of Santiago, with the focus on San Juan and Kettle Hills to the south and El Caney farther north. El Caney’s defenders put up a stiff resistance, blocking that advance, but Wood and Roosevelt decided to assault San Juan Hill without orders. Despite popular perception, the horses of the “Rough Riders” had not made it to Cuba, forcing Roosevelt's men to attack the hill dismounted, though Roosevelt himself WAS on horseback. They were not alone, of course; the other decisive units in the battle were the equally dismounted 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, all-black Buffalo Soldier units. But the capture of San Juan Hill unhinged the Spanish defenses around Santiago.

Shafter was worried, even though he had won the battle and captured the heights. The Spanish still held Santiago, and his army had continued to perform poorly, taking a shocking 1,300 casualties during their assaults on July 1 due to tactical ineptitude and inexperience. But the Spanish backbone was shot, and the fleet tried to escape on July 3. In the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the American battleship squadrons wrecked the Spanish, sending every ship to the bottom for the remarkable price of one American sailor killed and one ship damaged. On July 17, Santiago surrendered to Shafter’s troops. Aside from a brief expedition where the United States captured Puerto Rico, the Spanish-American War was virtually over.

When the truce was signed on August 12, the suffering was not over. The American troops encamped on Cuba were stricken by disease, supply problems, and utter lack of discipline. The poor medical services were profoundly shocking, even worse than those of the Civil War, while the limited numbers of arriving volunteer units strained the situation further. The vast majority of the 200,000 volunteers called to the colors would never even go overseas, but even the troops sitting in camps in Florida would suffer heavily from a total breakdown in military administration. Heat exhaustion and malaria took their toll in Cuba, while dysentery was rampant in the training camps of the Southeast.

Disease ultimately killed 2,000 American servicemen in the Spanish-American War, compared to only 385 killed in combat. This was a lopsided ratio that had never been seen in American history before, with a 5-1 spread of deaths from disease versus deaths from combat. Compare to the American Revolution, with a 3-1 spread, and the Civil War with a 2-1 spread. While any of these ratios would be unacceptable in a modern military, the Spanish-American War’s miserable camps and wretched supply problems were an acute source of public embarrassment. “Yellow journalism” reared its head once again, spinning the story of Army ineptitude into a national scandal. Much like with the Fort Hood crisis of the last year, the press exaggerated the problems – but there WERE problems, and the press performed an invaluable service in bringing them to public attention.

On December 10, 1898, the American and Spanish governments signed the Treaty of Paris, bringing the Spanish-American War to a close. With this short, victorious war finally put in the ground, one would expect that the fighting was over – but one would be wrong. The Treaty of Paris granted the Philippines to the United States as a new imperial possession, but no one had bothered to consult the Filipinos, who immediately declared independence and went into armed revolt. The Philippine-American War, America’s TRULY forgotten conflict, lasted over three years. This brutal guerrilla and counterinsurgency conflict cost over 6,000 American dead and 200,000 Filipino casualties, and saw the United States using in the Philippines the same tactics they had criticized Weyler for using in Cuba. (Note: more Americans died in the Philippines from 1899-1902 than in Iraq 2003-2011.) Once again, the enormous difficulty and high cost the U.S. Army incurred in the Philippines revealed the undeveloped nature of the United States military.

With the Philippine-American War finally put away in 1902, the United States had to take a good, long look at its military capabilities. The Navy had performed brilliantly in the Spanish-American War, fulfilling all the dreams of Captain Mahan, but the Army’s performance had left much to be desired. The unacceptably high number of noncombat deaths, the poor tactical performance, lackluster planning and incompetence of many ranking officers had come out to a dismal showing. The Americans only won the Spanish-American War on land because the Spanish were somehow worse, not because the Americans were good. To help solve these apparent problems, in 1899 President McKinley brought in a new man to head the War Department.

Elihu Root had no military experience whatsoever when he was appointed Secretary of War in 1899. He had been a prominent Wall Street lawyer and New York state senator before his appointment, every inch the urban professional rather than any sort of military or government man. But Root had hidden qualities that belied his lack of public experience. He was an extremely talented administrator, knew the law inside and out, and was able to work with and shepherd his ideas through Congress. Most importantly, though, Root was a shining icon of the American Progressive Era, much like Teddy himself. The late-19th Century Progressive moment called for order and efficiency in business and administration, especially the elimination of corruption and the reform of practices. “Reform” was the watchword of the Progressive Era, and many men of their age applied the Progressive mindset to their fields. Frederick W. Taylor applied it to industry, John Dewey to education, and Theodore Roosevelt to politics. Elihu Root would apply it to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Root served as Secretary of War from 1899 to 1904 for McKinley and for Roosevelt after McKinley’s assassination. He focused on several major reforms designed to bring the United States Army on par with those of European nations. His three key improvements were: the creation of the General Staff system, the establishment of new Army education programs, and the restructuring of the National Guard. All three of these would finally convert the Army from the limited, small force it had been in the 19th Century to the large, flexible, powerful force we know today. All of Root’s reforms are still present within the modern United States Army.

Root drew on a great deal of writing from the 1870s and 1880s, in particular the works of Civil War General Emory Upton and English professor Spenser Wilkinson, in his founding of the Army General Staff. He wanted to build a system like that of Germany, whose General Staff was the envy of modern Europe and had invented the modern military staff system. The German system was vastly superior in planning and organization to other armies of its day, and had been widely mimicked; deficiencies in planning and organization were obvious throughout the Spanish-American War. Root had to overcome outspoken resistance from the Army itself, which feared a loss of prestige. The Army’s commanding general, Nelson A. Miles, openly rejected what he considered an antitraditionalist, meddling mindset.

But Root, with Teddy Roosevelt’s backing, had his way. In 1903, Congress passed the General Staff Act, firmly establishing a staff of 45 officers to serve as the new nerve center of Army command. In addition, Miles would be the last Commanding General of the Army. From now on, the head of the Army would be the Chief of Staff, who would serve as the director of the General Staff and the War Department’s principal military advisor. Root’s reforms had created the modern high command of the U.S. Army.

The second step was to rebuild higher Army education. Many of the Army’s officers had never led anything larger than a company or a battalion in the field, and had next to no understanding of the supply or medical requirements of a large body of men – not to mention how to control large forces. To remedy this massive shortcoming, Root oversaw the establishment of the Army War College in 1901. The Army War College studies strategic warfare, policy-making, and the formulation of large-scale war plans; to this day, it is one of the Army’s premier military schools, with alumni like Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, Creighton Abrams and Norman Schwarzkopf.

In addition, Root also established the Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, where officers would learn about staff work and organizational planning. All of these schools were meant to correct the lack of education or planning experience that the Army had displayed during the Spanish-American War, and today they are all part of a rising officer’s career.

Finally, there was the matter of the Guard. The state militia units called out in 1898 had been badly neglected by their governments, and were little more than boys’ clubs for bored older men rather than real military organizations. Root overcame large-scale resistance from the Senate to convert the National Guard into a true reserve force for the Army. The United States Army assumed administrative control over the Guard and took on responsibility for arming, equipping, and training it; in a further boost to the Guard’s organization, they would be paid as regular soldiers when on active service. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how the National Guard functions today. Root’s reforms transformed the Guard from the embarrassing rabble of the Spanish-American War to the less-embarrassing rabble of the modern day. (Just my little joke at the Guard’s expense. But seriously, the difference is night and day.)

Despite Root’s best efforts, the United States Army was not yet a fighting force on par with European armies, and had a lot more hard lessons to learn in the First World War. The United States in general was not the superpower it is today. But Root had taken the first important steps to modernizing and strengthening the Army’s institutions, and in large part he may be the single most influential person in its long-term history. Without the expanded planning abilities of the General Staff, the educational overhaul of the War Colleges, and the reform of the National Guard, the United States may not have even be able to FIGHT World War I. The Spanish-American War may be the only war in history where a clear-cut victory nevertheless sparked widespread reform within the victorious nation, but it’s a good thing that it did, or we’d have been hurting heading into the 20th Century crisis.

Root would go on to serve as Roosevelt’s Secretary of State from 1905 to 1909 and would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring Latin American nations into the Hague arms limitation treaties. He would later serve as a Senator from New York from 1909 to 1915, supported American intervention in World War I, and founded multiple think tanks revolving around American defense policy, international law, and the League of Nations. One of America’s foremost statesmen in the first two decades of the 20th Century, he did more than almost anyone to turn America into a great power on the world stage and has been called the first “foreign policy grandmaster” in United States history.

So when they rename some of these Army bases, let’s give some consideration to Elihu Root.

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