All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Spanish-American War: Death, Taxes, and Incompetence

Incompetent Generals, Lazy Bureaucrats, and a Confused Secretary of War Are the Stuff of Most Wars

Remember the Maine!” was the battle cry that led America into the Spanish-American War in 1898. The mysterious explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor killed 260 Americans and triggered hostility toward Spain, the suspected culprit. Spain was no threat to U.S. interests, but some Americans wanted to help the Cubans, who were struggling under Spanish rule, and others had visions of creating an American empire.

Exactly one hundred years ago, on December 10, 1898, the United States signed the peace treaty ending its short and victorious war with Spain. What is not widely known is, first, how inept the U.S. government was in organizing the war, and second, how the tax code changed as a result of the war. Those changes—higher taxes—became part of American life ever after.

The war was expensive, and taxpayers were squeezed. Congress hiked taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and also passed the first inheritance tax in American history. Those higher taxes remained in place after the war (except for a brief repeal of the inheritance tax). Internal revenue collections never exceeded $162 million in any year from the Civil War era to 1897. After the Spanish-American War, annual internal revenue collections never fell below $230 million. During the conflict, the United States also recorded its largest deficit since the Civil War years.

Government Ineptitude

The man in charge of organizing an army to fight Spain was the secretary of war, Russell Alger—a Detroit lumber baron and former governor of Michigan. Most historians of the Spanish-American War say that Alger did a dismal job. At one level, he was weak and unprepared. On March 9, 1898, six weeks before the U.S. declared war on Spain, Congress allocated $50 million “for national defense and for each and every purpose connected therewith.” But Alger never insisted that any of it be used to prepare an army to fight.

In April, when the war began, Alger desperately struggled to equip the Army for battles in Cuba. Disaster followed disaster. For example, the soldiers were issued wool uniforms for a summer war in a tropical climate. The mess pans were leftovers from the Civil War. Few soldiers received modern rifles; most ended up with outdated Springfields, and some, like Michigan’s 32nd regiment, had no rifles at all and never made it overseas. Those who did make it to Cuba ate food so sickening that soldiers called it “embalmed beef,” and a special war commission later investigated what was in it.

Alger, of course, blamed the slow-moving bureaucracy, including the legions of political appointees in the War Department, for his problems. Alger himself, however, had to take full responsibility for appointing William R. Shafter as chief general for the Cuban campaign. Shafter, from Galesburg, Michigan, was 62 years old when the war broke out. He moved slowly because he weighed almost 300 pounds. He was ill during most of the fighting, and many questioned his abilities. Teddy Roosevelt, who led the charge up San Juan Hill, said that “not since the campaign of Crassus against the Parthians [over 2,000 years ago] has there been so criminally incompetent a general as Shafter.”

Yet in spite of the snafus and bungling, the United States won the war. The Navy, which was well prepared, joined the Army to force a Spanish surrender at Santiago, Cuba. When the war ended, many Americans demanded a formal investigation of why the war department was so inefficient. Secretary Alger resigned in 1899 under heavy criticism and without clear support from President McKinley. In temporary retirement, Alger wrote a book, The Spanish-American War, to try to explain why so much went so wrong.

Those who are too critical of Alger miss a larger point. Incompetent generals, lazy bureaucrats, and a confused secretary of war are the stuff of most wars. That’s one reason why wars should be avoided, if possible. What offsets the ineptitude is that America has had a free people eager to preserve their way of life and willing to overcome military hardships to do so.

Within four months and one week after Congress declared war, over 274,000 men had volunteered to put on wool uniforms, endure a disease-ridden tropical climate, eat bad food, and risk their lives shooting antique guns at menacing Spanish soldiers. Not all of these men made it to Cuba, but M.B. Stewart, one who did, said it best this way: “We were doing the best we knew and our lack of knowledge was more than outweighed by the magnificent spirit and discipline of both officers and men.”

We have two groups, then: the American soldiers, raised in a culture of freedom and willing to preserve it if called upon; and the politicians, who seemed to care more about protecting their careers or building an overseas empire than they did about the lives of soldiers or the taxes on civilians. Even after the Spanish-American War, politicians missed their chance to balance the scales of justice. In 1902, the Michigan legislators selected Russell Alger to be a U.S. senator, and shortly thereafter they built a bronze bust of General Shafter in his hometown of Galesburg.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network