The Spanish-American War: The Forgotten Beginning of Waging Modern War

By Lindsay Harlow, U. S. Army Heritage and Education CenterApril 8, 2011

The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection are important conflicts in United States military history that are barely, if ever, mentioned in history classes around the country. Though both the war and insurrection go hand-in-hand, between the sinking of the USS Maine on February 15, 1898, and the Philippine Insurrection against the U.S. in February of 1899, the United States Army significantly changed how it evaluated and responded to the situations where much of the local population was openly hostile towards our armed forces and where public opinion at home was not always positive in regard to American involvement in distant affairs. And yet, the influence of the Army's actions and choices during this time can still be seen in operations conducted today. After the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war with Spain in December of 1898, the insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo, who had worked alongside the United States against a common enemy, expected the U.S. to immediately hand over the country to him for absolute Filipino independence. Complete self-government was his ultimate goal throughout the entire war against Spain. However, as the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain, Aguinaldo felt that the U.S. was not going to hand over the country to him but would instead replace Spain as the sovereign power. Tension rose between the two forces in country, and Aguinaldo began to instigate bands of insurgents to rise up against United States forces in February of 1899.

His Insurrectos initially tried to fight conventional warfare against the United States -- a big mistake on their part. The U.S. Army readily broke out of Manila, handily defeated Aguinaldo's forces, and chased them northward. The Insurrectos then switched to guerrilla tactics, a style of warfare which the American military was much less prepared to fight, in the beginning. According to reminiscences of American Soldiers who fought at this time, it was hard to determine which Filipinos were friend and which were enemy. However, the hostilities began to subside after Aguinaldo was captured on March 23, 1901, resulting in less fighting as well as Filipino civilians moving back into their towns and villages. At the end of the conflict, almost all of the U. S. Soldiers who served in the Philippines believed that their goals were accomplished. They were sent to the islands to put down the insurrection, and by the time they left there was little trouble.

The Army's influence and duty went beyond actual combat and suppression of the uprising. Although they were forced to act against the insurgents, there were moral actions dedicated to improving the lives of Filipino civilians that occurred while fighting still raged and after it had died down. Frank Ashworth, of Battery C, 5th U. S. Field Artillery, served in the Philippines in 1908 after the majority of the fighting was over. Even though his company spent time doing maneuvers under wartime conditions, the bulk of his duty was spent building roads, improving sanitation, establishing schools, teaching the Filipinos how to be good citizens, and providing basic needs to the local population. Ashworth was involved in sanitation improvement, which included blocking off perimeters and teaching the natives to clean up after themselves more effectively and then to continue keeping an area sanitary. This gave the natives an appreciation for a cleaner environment at a time when little was known about hygiene and disease prevention. The Army also enforced different disease quarantines around the Philippines, such as the quarantine station in Manila, where nearly everything was fumigated. Anything made of cloth was put through a dry steam chamber, and all the natives in that area would take baths with medicated soap, in order to improve hygiene and keep tropical diseases at bay, which was important not only to the civilians but to U. S. Soldiers as well. Other improvements included the Army sending teachers over to improve education, and teach the natives English. The Army even built ice plants in the country as well.

The actions and goals of the United States Army during 1898-1908 heavily influenced operations into the twentieth century and can still be seen in current operations. The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection solidified the United States' responsibility for involvement in international affairs when necessary. In the twentieth century the United States Army became involved in fighting alongside her allies to end World War I, to stop genocide in various countries in World War II, to contain Communism during flashpoints of the Cold War, and to improve conditions in the Middle East in more recent years. In the 1960s, towards the beginning of the Vietnam War, scholars and political figures referred to the Philippine Insurrection as an example of successful counter-insurgency and pacification in Southeast Asia. More recently, our Soldiers are busy teaching Iraqi and Afghan police forces to perform duties which will help them sustain their government and country after U. S. forces depart. Even though the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection are rarely mentioned in the overall history of the United States, the legacy lives on everyday in the conduct of our Soldiers.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website:

Related Links:

Philippine Insurrection

Spanish-American War