6 Unexpected Facts About the Spanish-American War

Family History
26 January 2015

Spanish American WarDid your ancestors fight in the Spanish-American War? You may remember the basics of that war: Put simply, Cuba wanted to be free of Spanish rule, the U.S. supported Cuba, and Spain subsequently declared war on the U.S. over it.

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Here, though, are few facts from those months in 1898 you may not know:

  1. Oops, My Bad. The U.S. may have gone to war because of a misunderstanding. It became involved in the war after the USS Maine, a U.S. battleship in Havana to protect American interests, exploded in February 1898 (“Remember the Maine!”). Two hundred sixty-six sailors died, and though the exact cause of the explosion was never discovered, the Spanish were blamed, and this helped encourage the U.S. to take military action against Spain (though President McKinley was trying to keep the country out of war). Today, experts say the explosion that sank the Maine was probably caused by how the ship’s ammunition was stored, its coal bunker, and the ship’s design.
  2. Getting Gitmo. Guantanamo Bay first came under American control during the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. and Cuba took control of it from the Spanish. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a treaty to lease the area from the Cuban government for 2,000 gold coins (roughly $4,000) a year. Although the U.S. still sends the rent each year, the Cuban government refuses to cash the checks.
  3. The Rough Walkers. The legendary Rough Riders consisted of troops ranging from Ivy League athletes to Native Americans, glee-club singers to Texas Rangers, and more. While the group, led by Theodore Roosevelt, did play an important role in the Battle of San Juan Hill, its members did not — despite their name — all ride horses during that battle. When they traveled to Cuba, most had to leave their horses and mules in Florida. So while Teddy Roosevelt did indeed ride his horse, most of the Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill on foot.
  4. Who Forgot to Tell Guam? When American troops captured Spanish-controlled Guam, they were surprised to be welcomed by a friendly Spanish officer who rowed out to meet their ship. He was probably even more surprised when they immediately took him prisoner. Neither he nor any of the 60 Spanish marines on the remote island had any idea they were in the middle of a war that was two months old at that point.
  5. Snatching Victory from Defeat. Spain’s defeat turned out to be a turning point for the country; while it marked the end of its overseas colonial efforts, it was also the start of a literary and cultural renaissance back home and some long-needed attention to economic development.
  6. The Real Cost of War. The three-and-a-half-month war cost the U.S. $250 million and 3,000 American lives, but only 385 of those deaths resulted from battle. The rest died from infectious diseases, primarily typhoid and yellow fever.

You can search for your Spanish-American War ancestor in the U.S. Military Records collection on Ancestry.

(Ancestry also has a searchable index to Compiled Service Records for U.S. volunteers who served in the Spanish-American War. The Army was shorthanded at the time, and Congress passed the Mobilization Act on April 22, 1898, to raise an army of volunteers who served in either state/territorial or federal units. They were called “volunteers” to differentiate them from enlisted, full-time soldiers.)
—Leslie Lang

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