Major Battles of the Spanish-American War

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  • 0:02 War!
  • 1:06 Manila Bay
  • 2:02 San Juan Hill
  • 3:49 Santiago de Cuba
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Despite the fact that it had major effects on American foreign policy, even continuing today, the Spanish-American War was decided by only a small number of battles. This lesson explains three of the most important.


By 1898, it was clear that the United States was on a path towards war with Spain. Spain was the only European country with significant colonies left in the Americas, and those colonies were urging for their own independence. An American warship, the USS Maine, was stationed in Havana harbor and experienced a mysterious explosion that killed many onboard. Soon, the American public was clamoring for war.

However, a war with Spain would be different than the wars that the United States had fought in the past. At no point was there a real threat to Spain itself, but instead the American efforts focused on stripping the Spanish of their last colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean. By the end of it, Spain would be reduced to a third-rate power while the United States would have an empire that rivaled those of the French or British. Three major engagements helped define the outcome of the war.

Manila Bay

The first major battle of the Spanish-American War happened halfway around the world from Madrid and Washington in the Pacific Ocean. Here, Spain's oldest Asian colony had been clamoring for independence for decades while all attempts were put down by the Spanish authorities. Then on May 1, 1898, the American Asiatic Flotilla, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, steamed into Manila Bay, literally days after war was declared. Finding the Spanish Pacific fleet there, the Americans proceeded to open fire. Within the course of the afternoon, the Spanish were destroyed at the cost of only one American casualty. With this engagement, the Americans had essentially gained control of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Dewey was promoted within days as news reached the United States.

San Juan Hill

However, the war was never really about the Philippines or anywhere else in the Pacific. In the American mindset, the pleas of the Cuban people, coupled with a desire for revenge about the USS Maine, meant that the majority of the war had to be fought in Cuba.

In the summer of 1898, the Americans landed several thousand men with orders to conquer southern Cuba. By the end of June, they had fought their way to the principle city of the southern end of the island and were fighting the Spanish in the toughest fights of the war. The Spanish had the latest rifles, while the Americans had older equipment. Combined with the fortifications of the Spanish, it seemed that the Americans would face an impossible fight.

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