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February 20, 2013

A Look Back At The War With Spain

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Early in the morning of last Friday, I found myself pondering a watershed moment in American history in the middle of a cemetery plot for the battleship U.S.S. Maine located in the Key West Cemetery, Key West, Florida.


The sunrise revealed hallowed ground that was dedicated on March 15, 1900, as a memorial to 19 crewmen who perished 115 years ago in the waters of the harbor in Havana, Cuba.


The cemetery’s ‘Maine Memorial area’ is surrounded by an ornate wrought iron fence, and features “The Lone Oarsman,” a moving six-foot bronze sculpture of a sailor looking out to sea for his lost shipmates.


The Key West Cemetery was established in 1847 according to information from literature published by the cemetery, when the city “purchased a 100-lot tract in the center of town for $400.”


The current cemetery sprawls over 19 acres beside Solares Hill, which soars to a height of 18 feet above sea level – the highest land elevation in the heart of the historic district of the tiny eight square mile island, population: 30,000.


The unique and quirky cemetery is laid-out with all the caskets and final resting places for the dead located on top of the ground, not unlike those in New Orleans.


Burials beneath the ground are nearly impossible because the coral which lies inches below the surface is astonishingly hard and, according to a couple of city workers I had the opportunity to speak with on site, the water table is barely three-feet below ground.


In addition to the memorial area dedicated to the U.S.S. Maine, the cemetery is the final resting place of approximately 100,000 people. At times, the cemetery appears to the uninitiated as haphazard. It contains notable epitaphs, such as “At Least I Know Where He’s Sleeping Tonight,”and “devoted fan of Julio Iglesias.”


My favorite is the plaque for B.P. “Pearl” Roberts – “Pearl Roberts was believed to be a hypochondriac,” according to a history of the cemetery published by the Key West government; “but she had the last word when she died at 50 and had her husband erect the marker saying, ‘I told you I was sick.’ On the same family mausoleum you will see Gloria M. Russell's memorial, ‘I'm just resting my eyes.’”


The cemetery is also the final home of a section for Cuban freedom fighters," A Los Martires de Cuba" (To the Cuban Martyrs,) denotes a symbolic 1892 memorial to heroes of the 1868 Cuban revolution.


“Sloppy” Joe Russell, one of Key West’s better-known barkeeps and author Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide for many years in the 1930, is also buried in the cemetery.


According to the city’s history, a sheriff’s deputy named Frank Adams is also buried there… “Adams was the first black sheriff's deputy and the first sheriff's deputy to die in the line of duty when he was shot to death in 1902. His burial location was traced and a memorial stone was placed on it in 2006.”


However, as the sun came up last Friday, my thoughts drifted back to the night of February 15, 1898, when approximately 260 crewmen lost their lives when the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana Harbor.


Not often reported is the fact that 33 African-American seaman also died in the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine. In subsequent military actions, African-Americans gained a great deal of respect among military elite for their conduct and valor during the war with Spain that followed the disaster.


As with many conflicts in history, the war between United States and Spain may have resulted from a flashpoint, however, the tensions had been mounting for years.


Spanish rule in Cuba, barely 90 miles from Key West, had become progressively repressive and harsh and Cuban efforts to gain independence had broken out into armed conflict in 1895.


For my great-grandfather’s generation, the sinking of the Maine was a startling and unexpected life-altering event not unlike Black Tuesday, the day of The Great Wall Street Crash of October 29, 1929, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001.


The disaster quickly led to a series of events that cascaded to the U.S. declaring war on Spain on April 25, 1898. After the Maine sunk, all attempts at diplomacy failed, partly because neither Spain nor any of the powerful nations of the day took the United States seriously.


The war with Spain continued for three months, two weeks and four days into the summer of 1898. On August 12, Spain and the United States signed a peace protocol which ended the open hostilities. The “Treaty of Paris,” which formally ended the conflict was signed in Paris on December 10, 1898 and ratified by the Senate on February 6, 1899.


When the treaty “came into force” on April 11, 1899, the United States had affected “regime change” by armed intervention for, what many historians believe to be, the first time. Total combat casualties for the United States were 379 troops lost; however, over 5,000 American military personnel died from disease.


The Spanish-American War had just as many complicated ramifications as it did causes. Spain, which had been in economic chaos before the war, never recovered and after over four centuries of world influence, the war ended its role as a super-power.


However, the Spanish-American War is most significant as it shocked the major powers of Europe at the time and marked the sunrise of the United States as a world power.


. . . . .I’m just saying. . . .


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