A brief conflict between the United States and the Spanish Empire in 1898, the Spanish–American War, saw the United States transformed from an isolationist country to a global power. The 10-week conflict gave the United States de facto control of the Caribbean and the Pacific territories of Guam and the Philippines. Considering just how unprepared the United States was for war, her victory was nothing short of miraculous.
By any metric, the United States Navy was inferior to most European navies. At this time, a nation’s military power (Great Britain, France, Germany) was measured in its ability to project sea power to protect colonial assets. While European powers competed to build bigger and better navies, the United States found itself in a naval arms race with Brazil. The British designed and built battleship Riachuelo (1883) and slightly smaller Aquidabã (1885) made Brazil the dominant naval force in the Americas.
The acquisition by the United States of the armored cruisers USS Maine and USS Texas was a direct response to the perceived Brazilian threat. Although construction of both ships began in the 1880s, building delays combined with design changes meant they were obsolete upon completion. Despite there shortcomings, the Maine and Texas represented the pinnacle of American warship design and the pride of the Navy.
Fortunately for the United States, Spain was even less prepared for war. During the Victorian Age, Spain’s military forces struggled to maintain the fragments of a once vast empire. The Spanish Navy, a mix of mostly antiquated warships, were scattered across the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Caribbean. To make up for their naval inadequacies, the Spanish augmented their Caribbean and Pacific fleets with shore batteries. These batteries, much like the fleets they were meant to protect, proved offensively useless.
On May 1, 1898, the first naval engagement took place. The American Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron stationed at Manila Bay. When the battle was over, the Spanish had lost its entire fleet of seven ships. There were 77 dead and 271 Spanish personnel wounded. Casualties would have been higher, but the Spanish fleet positioned itself in shallow waters, which allowed shipwreck survivors to swim to safety.
The July 3, 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba saw the complete annihilation of Spain’s Caribbean fleet. Once again, the Spanish Navy were hindered by their dilapidated ships and poorly trained crews. Six Spanish vessels, including the relatively modern armored cruiser Cristóbal Colón, were either sunk, scuttled, or grounded. Nearly 300 Spanish sailors were killed, another 150 wounded, and over 1,800 sailors and officers taken prisoner.
The Spanish-American War drastically altered the balance of power in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Spanish Empire had never really recovered from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century and was unable to effectively field combined military forces. Spain’s defeat in 1898 stripped it of all colonial possessions in the Americas. Spain would never again be a major colonial power.
The United States’ victory over the Spanish catapulted it into an imperial power and a major force in world affairs. Investments by the United States in its navy culminated in the creation of two squadrons consisting of 16 battleships, which circled the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The Great White Fleet showed that America could globally assert its military power.
The Spanish-American War transformed the United States from a second-rate power into a global force and redefined its national identity. And it happened because the United States was fortunate enough to fight an opponent weaker than itself.