Easy Does It

On August 12, 1898, the guns of Spanish and American battleships fell silent. The two sides, warring in the Pacific and Caribbean, came to a cease-fire and the Spanish-American War came to a close. (If you’d like to see the New York Times article announcing the peace agreement, the paper republished it on their “Learning Network” website, here.) A few months later, the two sides agreed to the Treaty of Paris of 1898. Per the agreement, among other things, Spain agreed to give control of Guam to the Americans, a small island the Spanish Empire had held for centuries prior.

And they may have held onto it longer if they sent a few more letters.

In 1895, Spanish-held Cuba began to rebel against their imperial masters. The Cuban War of Independence captured the attention of Americans — many saw Cuba as ripe for the taking, while others believed that Spain was committing various atrocities in Cuba and the U.S. had a moral obligation to stop them. (Those reports of atrocities, as Wikipedia notes, were almost certainly trumped up by newspaper magnates with their own agendas.)  In February of 1898, the USS Maine sank off the coast of Cuba; many blamed the Spanish and their Cuban loyalists for the tragedy. In response, on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war against Spain. The Spanish-American War had begun.

While Cuba (and therefore, the Caribbean) was the focus of the war, the U.S. sent part of its navy into the Pacific to capture the Philippines. One of those ships was the U.S.S. Charleston, a cruiser carrying roughly 300 men. Along the way, from San Francisco to the Philippines, though, the Charleston made a detour. Its orders: to take Guam, using whatever force necessary.

The Charleston arrived at Guam on June 20, 1898 and found it relatively unguarded — there were no Spanish ships nearby. There were, however, a few forts on the island, and the Charleston opened fire on one, sending thirteen rounds of ammunition at the the encampment. The fort was unharmed and the Spanish did not return fire. Instead, they sent a messenger to another fort, asking for artillery. The fired-on fort didn’t have any of their own.

But they wouldn’t have fired back anyway. That’s because, as Wikipedia explained, the Spaniards didn’t realize they were under attack. The Spanish contingent on Guam hadn’t heard from the Spanish authorities for months. The last communication from Spanish leadership was dated April 14, 1898 — nearly two weeks before the American declaration of war. Guam’s governors, therefore, had no idea that they were at war with America, nor that the cruiser was the enemy. Instead, they thought the American ship was saluting them; the reason for requesting the artillery was so that they could respond in kind. And to make matters even more absurd, three Spanish officials responded to the bombardment by boarding a boat and setting off for the Charleston to welcome their American friends. The trio instead learned the truth — and were taken as prisoners of war.

The Spanish military contingent — 54 strong — surrendered without a fight, and Guam fell into U.S. control where it remains today. No one on either side of the “battle” was killed or injured.

Bonus Fact: The Spanish-American War lasted roughly ten weeks. Officially, the war claimed the lives of 2,910 American servicemen. But only 345 of them died in combat, and therefore, at the hands of the Spanish. Many more fell to mosquitos. The vast majority of the American war dead — more than 2,500 — died of various disease, with Yellow Fever being a cause of many of those deaths. Yellow Fever is a mosquito-borne illness; the U.S. invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War coincided with a period of high mosquito populations in the area, enabling the spread of the disease among American servicemen.

From the ArchivesThe Price of Freedom: Philippines after the Spanish-American War came with a big price tag — and a similarly big offer of philanthropy.

Related: “Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam” by Robert Rogers. 13 reviews, 4.6 stars.