Russell Alger and the Spanish-American War

Exactly 100 years ago, on December 10, 1898, the U. S. signed a peace treaty ending its short and victorious Spanish-American War. "Remember the Maine," was the battle cry that led America to declare war against Spain earlier that year. The mysterious explosion of the U. S. S. Maine in Havana harbor killed 260 Americans and triggered hostility toward Spain, the suspected culprit. The state of Michigan eagerly supported the war—not only by sending thousands of troops to fight it, but through Secretary of War Russell Alger, the man in charge of winning it.

How well did Alger—a Detroit lumber baron and former governor of Michigan—do his job as Secretary of War? Most historians of the Spanish-American War believe that Alger turned in a poor performance. At one level, he was weak and unprepared for war. 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 the money 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. Unfortunately, disaster followed disaster. For example, the soldiers received 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 Few soldiers received modern rifles; most ended up with outdated Springfields, and some, like Michigan’s 32nd regiment, had no rifles at all and never made it overseas.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 studied it to find out what was in it.

Soldiers were not the only ones suffering. Wars are expensive and taxes are often raised to pay for them. Once higher taxes are in place, they rarely come down. Congress hiked taxes on tobacco and alcohol and also passed the first inheritance tax in U. S. history. These higher taxes, once in place, remained high after the war was over (except for a brief repeal of the inheritance tax). The U. S. also recorded its largest budget deficit since the Civil War years.

Alger, of course, blamed the slow-moving bureaucracy, including the legions of political appointees in the War Department, for his problems. But Alger himself 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 and 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 U. S. won the conflict. The navy, which was well prepared, joined the army to force a Spanish surrender at Santiago, Cuba. When the war was over, many Americans demanded a formal investigation to study 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. Fortunately, 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 embalmed beef, 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."

Without these soldiers, raised in a culture of freedom and willing to preserve it, America could not have won any war, especially the Spanish-American War.