5 Things You Didn't Know About the Spanish-American War

On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war against Spain. Find out the five things you didn’t know about the Spanish-American War, which lasted from April to August 1898.


The U.S. May Have Gone to War Because of a Misunderstanding. The United States 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. 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.

The Rough Riders Didn’t Really Ride 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.


Gitmo Came About From the Spanish-American War Guantanamo Bay was captured by Cuban and American forces during the Battle of Guantanamo Bay in June 1898. This victory proved to be strategically important to protect the U.S. Navy during hurricane season. Several years later, in February 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a treaty with Cuba’s new government that leased the area to the United States for 2,000 gold coins (roughly $4,000) a year. (Though rent is still paid to this day, the Cuban government refuses to cash the checks.) Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, sometimes called Gitmo, is now America’s oldest overseas military installation.

Residents of Guam Welcomed the Invasion 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. As it turned out, neither the 60 Spanish marines stationed on Guam nor the island’s civilians had any idea that war had broken out two months earlier.

Few of the Soldiers Died in Battle The Spanish-American War claimed the lives of 3,000 Americans, but only a small fraction of these soldiers died in combat. Yellow fever and typhoid decimated entire units, swiftly spreading through camps in the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. After the war, After the war, scientists conducted experiments outside Havana that proved for the first time that mosquitoes spread the potentially fatal sickness. Only 379 U.S. soldiers died in combat during the war.