Bravery in the Spanish-American War

Bravery in the Spanish-American War is remarkable since so many men were recognized for a war that was so short. Hostilities in the Spanish-American War lasted less than four months before an armistice was signed. The number of patriots that volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War is notable. The number of men recognized for their courage for such a short duration in U.S. history is astonishing.

2018 marked the 120th Anniversary of the Spanish-American War. While the war was short, the outcomes were profound. Not only did the war change the global stage. The personal sacrifice and acts of courage, on all sides of the war, are impressive.

“Brave men and women are not born that way. They become that way through their acts.” William J. Bennett


Kettle Hill, Santiago, Cuba, July 1, 1898, 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a.k.a. “Rough Riders” Painting by Mort Kunstler

Setting the Stage for Bravery in the Spanish-American War

Despite an American political thirst for power on the international stage, there was an altruistic generosity among the American public in 1898. The circulation battle between the editors of the New York Morning Journal and New York World resulted in the emotional involvement of the American people regarding Cuba, then a Spanish colony. Each publication aimed to outdo the other with fantastic tales of hunger, disease, pitched battles, and Spanish atrocities. Many stories were based on half-truths, while others were simply fabricated.

American generosity helped support the oppressed people of Cuba against the cruelty of Spanish led concentration camps. Americans actively supported an insurgency in the Spanish colony of Cuba with donations from 1895 to 1898. When war broke out between Spain and the United States, many men were quick to volunteer under the guise of freeing the oppressed. To put this in context as to why the response, it may help to understand the ramp up to war.

Striking the Match

Spanish rule in Cuba progressively deteriorated with an insurgency supported by funds garnered by Cubans in America. Spain strengthened its resolve by imposing concentration camps and hampering the production of crops to gain control of the colony. This policy created starvation and disease among Cuban colonists.

As a show of force under a veil of friendship with Spain, the battleship USS Maine sailed into Havana Harbor, Cuba in February 1898. Not long after arriving, the USS Maine exploded on February 15, 1898, killing 266 men on board. The battleship sank to the bottom of the harbor. It was believed at that time that the ship was destroyed by Spain. Subsequently, the U.S. declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898.

Massive Mobilization

The U.S. Army consisted of only about 26,000 Officers and men in active service when the war was declared. There were about 100,000 men in the state National Guard units. The declaration of war called for a massive mobilization of an initial 125,000 additional men which later increased.

First Battle in the Philippines

While not publicized, U.S. strategic aims of the war were the Spanish colonies located in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. The fighting began in the Philippines with Admiral Dewey defeating Spanish navels forces during the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. After a relatively short battle, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet stationed there. However, Dewey did not enough manpower in the Philippines to secure it. It wasn’t until July 1898 when 15,000 troops arrived to seize the islands.

Operations in Cuba

The brunt of U.S casualties with the war in Spain occurred in Cuba. U.S. forces landed in Cuba with 17,000 troops on June 24, 1898. A portion of the force landed in Guantanamo Bay with the majority landing at Daiquiri near Santiago.

After skirmishes during the last week of June, the culminating event occurred on July 1-3, 1898 known as the Battle of San Juan Hill on the outskirts of Santiago, Cuba. Acts of personal courage, compassion, and ingenuity led to the capitulation of Spanish forces.

Subsequently, the Spanish fleet attempted an escape of the Santiago Harbor on July 3, 1898. The U.S. fleet made quick pursuit and destroyed the Spanish fleet in a massive display of naval power. With the fleet destroyed and Santiago under siege, Spanish authorities surrendered Cuba on July 16, 1898.


U.S Army Surgeon attending to the wounded with the American Red Cross, Cuba 1898 Source: American Red Cross

War Comes to an End

Following the capture of Cuba, U.S. forces assaulted Puerto Rico. The islands fell quickly with little Spanish opposition and bringing an end to the hostilities between the U.S. and Spanish forces across the globe.

Spain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, eight months after war was declared. Yet, open hostilities lasted only four short months before an armistice was signed. As a result, Spain lost the remains of her empire: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines Islands, and Guam.

Popular heroes of the Spanish-American War

As result of aggressive journalism and an American appetite for heroes, many men and women became popular as a result of their brave acts during the war. One of the most popular men from the war was, of course, Theodore Roosevelt. He led the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a.k.a “Rough Riders,” in the charge up San Juan Heights.

John J. Pershing served with the 10th U.S. Cavalry in Cuba and was part of the assault on San Juan Hill with Roosevelt. His stature rose and went on to lead the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The artist Frederic Remington took personal risk to put pen to paper to bring images of the war for American newspapers. The writer Stephen Crane who wrote the Civil War novel “Red Badge of Courage” sent dispatches from the front while under Spanish sniper fire. The Civil War nurse Clara Barton led doctors and nurses from the American Red Cross in Cuba. While there, she coordinated relief efforts on the beaches of the U.S. landing in Cuba with follow-on aid to Cuban civilians in Santiago and Guantanamo and the surrounding villages.

The one thing these men and women had in common was that their acts are what made them brave.

1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry “Rough Riders” San Juan Hill, Cuba Spanish-American War 1898

Bravery Awarded

The acts of personal courage numbered in the thousands for a small military for short period. Many of them were recognized for their bravery with an award. The Medal of Honor is the highest award a servicemember in the U.S. can receive for actions in battle. It is notable that a total of 113 Medals of Honor were bestowed for those who served in the Spanish-American War of a total of 3,500 awarded through 2017.

One story of the many acts of heroism involves four men from the 10th US Cavalry. The article “Why Valor is Colorless” describes their actions that led to Medals of Honor.

Not all patriots of the Spanish-American War were awarded medals. Theodore Miller fought and died in Cuba. He was later recognized by his alma mater, Harvard University. The article, “Selfless Service of Theodore W. Miller” tells his story.

Many men and women volunteered to support and defend freedom and provide relief to suffering during the war. Their life stories of bravery in the Spanish-American War inspire all of us to be better citizens. Whether one chooses to serve in the armed services or not, their stories their stories remind us of the cost of freedom through their sacrifices.

10th US Cavalry in Cuba

To learn more about bravery in the Spanish-American War check out these stories:

Selfless Service of Theodore W. Miller

Clara Barton, Virtue of Compassion

Why Valor is Colorless

If you want to learn more, check out these resources.

The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War, Library of Congress

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

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