Puerto Rico and the Philippines: The Lesser Known Campaigns of the Spanish-American War

by Kevin Hymel

When the United States declared war with Spain in 1898, American planning focused on Cuba. The U.S. Army campaigns that followed, however, took on global proportions. Along with the invasion of Cuba, two other corps size expeditionary forces were launched–one to Puerto Rico and the other to the Philippine Islands. While these two campaigns lacked the drama of the actions around Santiago, Cuba, their results were equally important as far as long-term impact on the United States.

The first of the expeditions, the invasion of Puerto Rico was originally considered by Army planners to be the first step before the Cuban invasion. By capturing the small island 500 miles southeast of Cuba, the Army would deny the Spanish a useful base in the Caribbean, and possibly encourage an early surrender, making the invasion of Cuba unnecessary. President William McKinley, however, preferred the direct approach, and ordered the attack on Cuba first.

On 5 May 1898, only ten days after the United States declared war, the War Department ordered Lieutenant Henry F. Whitney to reconnoiter Puerto Rico. Posing as a crewman aboard a British ship, Whitney investigated the island, returning to Washington on 9 June to report his findings.

The campaign plan for conquest of the island was the brainchild of the Army’s Commanding General, Major General Nelson A. Miles, a Civil War hero and Indian fighter who had risen through the ranks on his leadership and tactical skills. From start to finish, the Puerto Rico campaign belonged to Miles. He would, however, consume more time battling his Washington superiors and the U.S. Navy over his plans than the Spanish on that tiny island.

Denied the chance to strike the first American blow by attacking Puerto Rico first, Miles argued for a combined campaign against Havana, while simultaneously attacking Puerto Rico. Secretary of War Russel A. Alger opposed Miles’ plan on the grounds that it was a waste of men and material, since the plan also called for an attack on Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern end of that island. While Alger did see merit in the attack on Puerto Rico, he continued to clash with Miles over his ideas and the administration’s war aims, often leaving President McKinley to step in to decide. Both sides finally agreed that a force under Miles’ personal command would seize Puerto Rico.

As troops for the Puerto Rico campaign assembled in Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina, Miles proceeded to Cuba, where the fighting was already reaching its climax. His purpose was to determine if any of the American troops engaged there could be re-deployed for the Puerto Rico expedition. Upon his arrival, however, he found the troops exhausted and sick with tropical diseases. The fresh troops arriving in Cuba to stage for the Puerto Rico invasion were ordered to stay on their transports rather than risk contracting any disease. As a result of his observations, no soldiers fighting in Cuba would participate in the Puerto Rico campaign.

As the war in Cuba concluded, Miles organized his own plans for the invasion of Puerto Rico. He asked the navy for escort to Fajarto, near the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, on the northeast corner of the island. Miles’ simple and direct plan called for troops embarking from the United States to rendezvous with his transports from Cuba at Fajarto. The combined force would then establish a beachhead before advancing on San Juan.

With American and Spanish forces in Cuba officially set to negotiate a surrender on 17 July 1898, the race was on to capture Puerto Rico before a formal agreement was signed which might leave the island with Spain. On 18 July, Miles was ordered to attack, but it took him three days of difficult discussions with the U.S. Navy commanders in Cuba to get the naval escorts required for the expedition.

Once underway, Miles altered his plans. Realizing that the Spanish might have intercepted his communiqués to Washington detailing his plan of attack, he decided to invade at the port of Guánica, on the southwest corner of the island, and drive north to San Juan. The Army would surround the city from the rear while the Navy blocked the harbor. Although the Navy captain commanding the escort ships complained, the small naval squadron headed to Miles’ new landing site.

The invasion of Puerto Rico commenced on 25 July, with Miles’ mostly volunteer force making its first unopposed landing at Guánica. Troops from Brigadier General George A. Garretson’s brigade advanced north to the town of Yauco. The next morning, they skirmished with Spanish troops, then took the town. With his left flank secured, Miles sent Brigadier General Guy V. Henry’s Provisional Division east to capture the port city of Ponce. On the 27th, the Navy disembarked Major General James H. Wilson’s 1st Division at Ponce. The Spanish retreated rapidly.

When Miles arrived in Ponce from the fast transport U.S.S. Yale, the citizens filled the streets to celebrate their liberation from the Spanish and cheer the columns of American soldiers. After accepting the town’s surrender, Miles told the crowd, “The first effect of this occupation will be the immediate release from your former political relations, and it is hoped a cheerful acceptance of the government of the United States.” The people were so enthusiastic to join their American allies that Army officers accepted surrenders of the local National Guard in four different parts of the town.

On 31 July, 2,900 more men joined Miles at Ponce. Three days later, on 3 August, 5,000 troops from Major General John Brooke’s I Corps landed at Arroyo, forty miles to the east. With these reinforcements, Miles decided on a four-pronged attack into the heart of the island. The first prong, Brigadier General Theodore Schwan’s Independent Brigade, would attack northward and cut off the southwestern part of the island by taking Mayaguez. The second, Garretson’s Brigade, Provisional Division would attack north from Ponce with the hope of splitting the island in the center. The third and fourth prongs, comprised of the 1st and 2nd Brigades of Wilson’s 1st Division, respectively, would jump off from Ponce and Arroyo, meet at the town of Aibonito, fifteen miles inland, and then drive on to San Juan. The plan reflected Miles’ strategic thinking of avoiding frontal assaults by maneuver, just as his surprise landing at Guánica had done.

As the Americans prepared for their advance into the interior, elements of the 2nd Brigade moved west and skirmished with the Spanish. Four Americans were wounded, worrying Brooke that the Spanish would fight tenaciously, but Miles thought otherwise. He knew the Puerto Rican National Guard had either abandoned their positions or were joining the Americans as scouts. He also knew that the Spanish regulars were thoroughly demoralized after the surrender in Cuba. He launched his attack the next day, 6 August.

Schwan’s troops advanced rapidly northwest and encountered 1,400 Spanish regulars garrisoned just south of his objective of Mayaguez. A brief exchange of gunfire resulted in 50 Spanish casualties while the Americans suffered one killed and 15 wounded. The Spanish retreated and Schwan continued north. Meanwhile, Garretson’s force quickly advanced north, using a trail his engineers had improved enough to allow him to bring up artillery.

Brigadier General O.H. Ernst’s 1st Brigade was the first to encounter serious resistance. However, near the town of Coamo, some of his men conducted a night flanking march and attacked the Spanish the next morning, killing 40, including the Spanish commander, and capturing 167 prisoners. The rest of the enemy force fled.

The 2nd Brigade, departing from Arroyo, pushed through token resistance, using light artillery and dynamite guns each time they met skirmishers. The advance continued as far as the city of Cayey, where the advance units discovered the Spanish in strong entrenchments. Brooke halted and prepared to attack.

Meanwhile, Ernsts’s 1st Brigade also advanced on Aibonito, where he was to meet up with Brooke. But there, he too found entrenched forces opposing him. Wilson’s troops, however, found a trail that enabled them to bypass the town and attack it from the rear. Wilson asked Brooke to make a feint against Cayey while he made the main attack. To buy time to permit coordination with Brooke and reconnoiter Aibonito, Wilson sent a single soldier under a flag of truce into the town with a surrender offer. The Spanish refused the offer.

As Wilson readied his troops for the attack on 12 August, word reached him that Spain had signed an armistice in Washington and that all military actions were to cease. The war in Puerto Rico was over. Even though Miles’ forces failed to take San Juan, their ultimate objective, they did hold half the island by the time of the surrender. Puerto Rico would now become a possession of the United States.

The Puerto Rico campaign was a model of U.S. Army operational planning and execution. The surprise landing and constant flanking movements kept American casualties low while inflicting losses on the Spanish and forcing them out of position. No medical problems plagued the Army as had happened in Cuba, partly because the engineers and scouting parties were able to keep the Army moving. While the campaign lost its strategic impact by following the Cuban invasion, it went a long way to demonstrate the U.S. Army’s capabilities. It was also the last time the senior general of the U.S. Army would command troops on the field in a campaign.

On the other side of the globe the U.S. Army was mounting its third invasion of the war. On 19 July, the day after Miles was ordered to depart Cuba for Puerto Rico, troops of the Army’s VIII Corps, 2nd Division under Brigadier General Thomas Anderson landed south of Manila in the Philippines. The glory of the war in the Philippines had already been reaped by the U.S. Navy and Commodore George Dewey on 1 May when Dewey’s squadron destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. But while Dewey had the firepower to deliver a knockout blow to the Spanish fleet, he did not have the manpower to capture and occupy Manila.

From Hong Kong, Dewey had brought with him Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino revolutionary who had been exiled by the Spanish for leading a revolt in 1896. After Dewey’s victory, Aguinaldo went ashore and began to organize Filipino forces to capture Manila and set up an independent government. While his forces did not have the strength to take the city, they were able to surround it. Dewey withheld support from his naval guns for the “insurrectos,” as they came to be called, for fear that the Spanish would surrender to Aguinaldo before the U.S. Army arrived at the end of June. In the meantime, Aguinaldo organized a Filipino national government, and, on 12 June, formally proclaimed Philippine independence. However, Aguinaldo’s actions did not sit well with Dewey or the U.S. State Department. The United States was at war with Spain and had no intention of handing the Philippines over to anyone, especially a group of revolutionaries. As a result, while waiting for the Army to arrive, Dewey and other American officials cooperated with Aguinaldo but never put into writing any agreement with him regarding Philippine independence.

The situation remained a three-way standoff with neither the U.S., Spain, nor Aguinaldo having the strength to take decisive action against the others until 30 June when Anderson’s unit landed south of Manila. The insurrecto positions stood between the Americans and the Spanish. Anderson met with Aguinaldo, who was disappointed to find American troops on the island. As they began coordinating their plans to take the city, their suspicions of each other grew. Aguinaldo correctly suspected the United States wanted to control the islands, while Anderson suspected, incorrectly, that Aguinaldo was trying to negotiate a separate deal with the Spanish inside the city.

On 26 July, the VIII Corps Commander, Major General Wesley Merritt, arrived off Manila to take the command of all troops. He immediately sent an officer to Aguinaldo to negotiate a place in the front lines for the Americans. A deal was soon struck and, on 29 July, Brigadier General Francis Greene’s 2nd Brigade moved into the siege lines along the southern edge of Manila, opposite the Spanish blockhouse No. 14. As Greene’s men improved the trenches, the Spanish opened fire, killing ten Americans, which were more soldiers killed than in the entire Puerto Rico campaign. Another forty-three were wounded.

Merritt chose not to attack. Instead, he waited for Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur’s 1st Brigade to complete landing. By 7 August, bringing the total force up to 8,500 men. Meanwhile, Dewey was negotiating a Spanish surrender and wanted to complete it before any more blood was shed. He told Merritt his naval guns would not support an attack until an answer was received from the Spanish to his conditions of surrender.

Inside the city, the Spanish Governor-General, Don Fermin Jaudenes y Alvarez worried about his own reputation, and feared that the insurrectos might seek reprisals against the Spanish. He informed Dewey that he could only agree to a surrender after a face saving exchange of fire, followed by an exclusive American occupation of Manila. Dewey agreed, keeping the fact the battle was to be a sham secret from most of the American leaders.

With Dewey’s plan in place, Merritt prepared for the assault. MacArthur’s 1st Brigade would attack on the right of the southern line opposite blockhouse No. 14. Greene’s 2nd Brigade would attack on the left. Ten naval vessels firing at abandoned Spanish forts would support the attacks.

At 0935 hours on 13 August, the navy guns opened fire, signaling the commencement of the battle. At 1025 hours, elements of Greene’s 2nd Brigade charged forward, only to find that the Spanish defenders had withdrawn. They advanced past the Spanish position and encountered some entrenched soldiers. In the exchange of gunfire, one American was killed before the Spanish surrendered. Upon hearing fire from his left, MacArthur moved his troops forward and came under heavy fire from blockhouse No. 14. After a sharp fight, the Americans took the position and continued north until encountering resistance at another blockhouse. When this was taken at 1330 hours, the battle for Manila was over.

Unbeknownst to MacArthur, the Spanish had signed a surrender with Dewey at 1100 hours, but word did not reach him in time to stop the battle. Furthermore, unknown to everyone on the archipelago, Spain had signed an armistice one day earlier. News of the surrender did not reach the Philippines until 16 August, three days after the battle had concluded.

With the battle over, American troops quickly occupied and assumed control over the city. Aguinaldo was furious. In addition to being left out of the battle planning, the Americans refused him permission to occupy part of Manila. Nonetheless, Aguinaldo ignored the American orders and took control of strategically important districts of the city while American and Spanish forces were exchanging fire, setting the stage for a future conflict with the Americans.

Militarily, the Philippines campaign was a great success. The American Army had won another victory with minimal casualties. With the Philippines taken, the Army had accomplished all the goals set for it by the McKinley administration. The Army and Navy had made the United States a world power, but with this power came the responsibility of overseeing new acquisitions.

Puerto Rico would prove to be a cooperative possession. The Philippines, however, would not. Within six months of the capture of Manila, the Army would find itself fighting a bloody war against a determined guerrilla force that had to be tracked down in the jungle to be engaged. The United States was about to learn what it meant to have colonies of her own.

For additional information, see: Alan Keller, The Spanish American War: A Compact History; David Trask, The War With Spain in 1898; and Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish American War and the Dawn of the American Century