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Challenges in Irregular Warfare: U.S. Strategic Messaging and the Cuban Revolution of 1898

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Challenges in Irregular Warfare: U.S. Strategic Messaging and the Cuban Revolution of 1898

Daniel M. Frickenschmidt

The American public reacted with intense outrage in the aftermath of the violent and mysterious sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in February of 1898.  Anti-Spanish sentiment was further fed by inflammatory rhetoric in the "Yellow Press" blaming Spain with slogans such as “Remember the Maine” and “To hell with Spain![i]”  Within three weeks anti-Spanish U.S. domestic opinion called for the liberation of the Spanish possession of Cuba.  Changing diplomatic precedent, the American public demanded their government to support and assist a guerrilla war inside the sovereign territory of a European democracy.  Only ninety miles from Florida, America’s entry into the age of Irregular Warfare had arrived and would find a permanent place in strategic policy, planning and funding.

The first Cuban Insurrection, also known as the Ten Years War, spanned from 1868 to 1878.[ii]  Aided by American sympathizers and Cuban exiles, the Cuban insurrectionists, or ‘Insurrectos,’ fought to gain their independence from Spain, which had controlled the island since 1492.  U.S. sea-going arms smugglers supplied the Insurrectos but also ran the risk of being caught and severely punished by the Spanish navy. 

In 1873, the Spanish Corvette La Favorita intercepted the heavily laden weapons smuggling vessel Virginius (a former Confederate blockade runner) near the port of Santiago, Cuba.  The Virginius was carrying 300 Remington Rifles, 300,000 cartridges, 800 daggers, 800 machetes, shoes and gunpowder.[iii]  Due to the nature of the cargo, justice was swift and ended in the execution of the Captain and five members of the Virginius’ American crew.  Unable to respond, the weakened post-Civil War United States concluded the Virginius incident with Spain through the ratification of the Treaty of Zanjon and narrowly avoided a war.[iv]

Following the failure of the Insurrectos to gain their independence in 1878, an uneasy peace prevailed in Cuba until 1895.  During that seventeen year span rich American planters developed numerous large sugar plantations across the island.  Interested in economic development, Spanish authorities in Cuba did not deny the ‘Americanos’ the opportunity to support agricultural growth and prosperity on the island.  However, by 1895 the fervor for independence among the Cubans ignited the Second Cuban Insurrection that would ultimately drag America into the war in 1898. [v]

The leadership of the new revolutionary Cuban army, Jose Marti, Maximo Gomez and Antonio Maceo commenced conventional offensive operations on the island in April 1895.  Marti believed that a short-focused conventional fight would preempt any U.S. interference possibly in support of Spain. Unfortunately, this small cadre lost a considerable amount of munitions and logistical support needed to raise a conventional army as a result of being intercepted by the U.S. navy prior to embarkation from Florida.[vi]

Further complicating the start of the revolution was the unfortunate death of the insurrection’s leader, Jose Marti, in an ambush only two weeks into the revolt.  Due to Spain’s overwhelming troop strength, General Gomez decided to change tactics and adopt a guerilla, or Insurrecto strategy in order to exhaust the Spanish army and lead the island into an economic crisis.  Between May of 1895 and March of 1897 the Cuban insurrection experienced a balance of victories and defeats.  By the time of President McKinley’s inauguration on March 4, 1897 the Insurrectos had acquired heavy cannons and were preparing to lay siege to the fortified town of Jiguani Oriente in eastern Cuba.[vii]

New York City’s daily “Yellow”[viii] presses of William Randolph Hurst’s “Journal” and Joseph Pulitzer’s “World” newspapers grew rich and famous by retelling titillating stories such as disasters, suicides, murder trials and love triangles.[ix]  Expanding on the growing American public’s expansionist longings, Hurst and Pulitzer recognized that the tribulations of the Cuban Insurrectos provided ideal bloody and lurid tales for their readers who were hungry to repulse another European power from the Americas.[x]  Building upon rumored atrocities carried out by the Spanish military against the Cuban rebels, Hurst sent his best journalists and artists (such as Frederick Remington) to provide detailed daily accounts of the war.  In stiff competition with Joseph Pulitzer, Hurst told Remington, “Freddie, you provide me with the sketches and I’ll provide you with the war.”[xi]  The press for war had begun!

In 1897 Spanish General Valairano Weyler issued the Cuban Reconcentrado Orders and was therefore after branded the “Butcher” by William R. Hurst.  The Reconcentrado Orders required all Cubans move onto ‘concentrados’ or concentration camps so that loose Insurrectos could be distinguished from regular citizens in an attempt to pacify the countryside.[xii]  By December of 1897, despite the Reconcentrado Orders and with assistance from the Yellow Press and private donations from a sympathetic U.S. public, the Insurrectos under the command of General Calixto Garcia were slowly winning.  Garcia’s successes came in spite of the deaths of prominent Insurrecto leaders such as Jose Marti and Antonio Macco.[xiii]

By January 17, 1898 rioting inside and fighting outside of Havana had grown fierce.  Worried American sugar plantation owners and anxious distribution network staff contemplated their safety in the event of a Spanish military defeat.  As a result of significant concerns for U.S. citizens and property, Mr. Fitzhugh Lee, the senior U.S. Consul General in Cuba and former General in the Armies of the Confederate States of America, requested that President McKinley dispatch a battleship to Havana Bay in support of a possible evacuation.  The Spanish Government finally granted the request and the U.S.S. Maine with a crew of 374 embarked upon its final and fateful cruise to Havana Bay, Cuba.[xiv]

Expectedly, rioting inside of Havana subsided after the arrival of the battleship Maine on January 25th. Despite the appearance of U.S. and Spanish cordiality regarding this naval gesture, a diplomatic gaff two weeks later would serve as an accelerant in degrading that appearance.[xv]  On February 9th, the Spanish Minister in Washington D.C. with the Portfolio of Cuba, Senor Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, sent a diplomatic cable to Madrid in which he described President McKinley as “…weak and catering to the rabble,” with regard to matters of the Cuban insurrection.  Somehow the cable was intercepted and immediately published by Hurst’s New York Journal.  Senor de Lôme was recalled to Madrid and eight days later the U.S.S. Maine exploded in the Havana harbor killing 260 of her crew.[xvi]

On February 17th, the President ordered a naval board of inquiry to investigate and determine the cause of the loss of the USS Maine.  During the five agonizing weeks of the official inquiry Hurst and Pulitzer wasted no time in stirring the public opinion with provocative headlines and a $50,000 reward “for the detection of the perpetrator of the Maine outrage!”[xvii]  Such was the national fever that on March 8th the U.S. Congress hawkishly approved a $50 million war fund to support the Insurrectos and prepare for war.[xviii]  Finally, on March 21st the naval board of inquiry presented its results to the President that an underwater Spanish mine had been the culprit.[xix]

In early April Spain finally refused to recognize Cuban independence and the U.S. Congress, in an interesting diplomatic move, declared Cuba independent.[xx]  On April 11th the President addressed Congress asking for permission to intervene in Cuba in order to bring peace to the island.  He did not ask for a declaration of war.  Congress approved his request on April 21st.  The president ordered the commencement of a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba to begin on April 22nd.  As a result of the commencement of the blockade, which is an overt act of war, Spain formally declared war on the U.S. on April 23rd.  Two days later, on April 25th, the U.S. Congress declared war on Spain and back-dated its declaration to the 22nd in order to legally assuage any questions of legitimacy in the conduct of the blockade.[xxi]

Originally conceived as a naval campaign, the Army was the final factor addressed in the strategic context of the war with Spain.  Although he had not conducted any significant planning for a ground war in Cuba, Army Chief of Staff General Nelson Miles, best known for his successful prosecution and conclusion of the Geronimo Campaign, estimated that the standing Army was not large enough to conduct a ground campaign.  He believed that the Department should authorize him to raise and train an army of 80,000 volunteers over the next six months and prepare that force to provide the conventional forces to augment the Insurrectos. [xxii]

The war was through its first week when General Miles finally met with the President to discuss potential ground operations.  In that meeting, General Miles presented his estimate that the War Department should authorize him to raise and train an army of 80,000 volunteers over the next six months.  These volunteers would be trained in all aspects of military life and would receive special training so that the invasion of Cuba would complement the Insurrectos.  Employing the lessons learned from the British invasion of Cuba in 1762, Miles logic was simple; once the Spanish Navy had been destroyed by early November, the Army would be ready and the rainy hurricane season would be over.[xxiii]  (The British had invaded in the late summer of 1762 during the height of the rainy season and had suffered unsustainable losses due to sickness and storms.) President McKinley approved the concept and General Miles commenced his strategic planning process.[xxiv]

Unfortunately, the careful timeline agreed to by the President and the Army Chief of Staff was not in keeping with timelines as understood by the Secretary of the War Department, the Yellow Press or those Congressmen up for re-election.  The national clamor for war had risen to a fever pitch.  The President and General Miles were moved to accelerate the ground invasion of Cuba forward from November to May and assume the risk of potentially imperiling the military campaign for the sake of political campaigns.[xxv]

Secretary of War Russell Alger (immediate predecessor to Elihu Root) was constantly at odds with General Miles and other senior officers.  According to Jerry Keenan in his Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American War, Secretary Alger was regarded by some to be “the most militant member of McKinley’s cabinet and an outspoken promoter of war with Spain.”[xxvi]  General Miles had advised Secretary Alger that the campaign should begin in Puerto Rico, not Cuba.  Additionally, he recommended that it was inherently impractical to quintuple the size of the army and employ it “virtually overnight” into a guerilla war at the start of the rainy hurricane season without asking for a horrible disaster.  Alger ordered Miles to proceed against the odds with a rapid timeline for the invasion of Cuba.  The Army was not trained and was ill-prepared to effectively support the Cuban irregular way of war.[xxvii]

Despite the initial odds, and much to the relief of the U.S. Army and Insurrectos, President McKinley’s strategic decision for the accelerated invasion timeline was a resounding success.  However, in an interesting twist of fate, while the U.S. had supported and nurtured the Cuban revolutionaries, it was simultaneously being lured into a counter-guerilla war against a similar group of anti-Spanish revolutionaries in Philippines.  The nation would quickly learn the schizophrenic nature of irregular warfare, with victories and defeats on both sides of the ‘coin.’

In conclusion, the Spanish-American War is an historical example of the way that public opinion can rapidly reshape a nation’s strategic messaging, international identity, its national strategy and the means and ways to carry it out.  America’s entry into the age of Irregular Warfare arrived when President McKinley and the Congress overtly supported guerrilla warfare inside of, and then conducted an invasion of the sovereign Spanish possession of Cuba.  Since April 1898 Irregular warfare has had a permanent place in U.S. strategic policy, planning and funding and will continue to be an important unconventional warfare future focus.

End Notes

[i] Richard Hamilton, President McKinley War & Empire  (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006) p. 161

[ii] Ibid, p. 105


[iv] Jerry Keenan, Spanish-American & Philippine-American Wars (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2001) p.381

[v] Hamilton, p. 106

[vi] Keenan, p. 109

[vii] J.G.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984) p. 86

[viii] The term “Yellow Press” refers to highly popular comical child-like caricatures in the New York newspapers of the late 1890s who mimicked the radical comments of the news editors and enflamed public opinion on social issues.

[ix] O’Toole, p. 77

[x] Keenan, p. 173

[xi] Ibid, p. 162

[xii] Hamilton, p. 105

[xiii] O’Toole, p. 76

[xiv] Ibid, p. 12

[xv] Hamilton, p. 180

[xvi] Keenan, p. 218

[xvii] William Randolph Hurst,  New York Journal Headline, February 17, 1898 (New York)

[xviii] Keenan, p. 85

[xix] O’Toole, p. 12

[xx] Benton, p. 87

[xxi] Benton, p. 95

[xxii] O’Toole, p. 197

[xxiii] O’Toole, p.197

[xxiv] Ibid, p. 197

[xxv] Keenan, p. 259

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 10

[xxvii] Keenan, p. 258


About the Author(s)

Colonel Daniel M. Frickenschmidt is currently serving as the Assistant Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.  Prior assignments include Division G2 and Commander of the Abu Risha Federal Police Transition Team (al Anbar, Iraq).  COL Frickenschmidt is a graduate of the National War College and the Joint Forces Staff College.