Excerpts from Soldiers of the Nation (Chapter 2)


Puerto Rican a la Americana: 

A Hearts and Minds Campaign


The native soldiers [had become] an object lesson to the communities in the neighborhoods of their posts . . . and from that standpoint, as from many others has undoubtedly been a very potent education influence. Each man of the battalion will be a committee in himself to spread among the natives, stories of American prestige. . . . The soldiers feel a pride in their service and there is an undoubted stimulant by it toward general loyalty.

—Charles H. Allen to Elihu Root, May 19011

In the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War of 1898, the United States engaged in its first extracontinental nation-building projects. As de facto ruler of the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the United States sought to transform the socioeconomic and political structures of these countries into something more in tune with mainstream American tenets. In few places were these efforts as intense and prolonged as in Puerto Rico. As the United States took over Puerto Rico, it immediately began sanitary and relief efforts while building a public education system in the image of New England’s system. The transformation of the island was not limited to humanitarian and educational projects. The American colonial administration sought to change the socioeconomic and political structures in Puerto Rico, too. In essence, colonial authorities intended to mold the Puerto Ricans in the image of Americans. Indeed, the early attempts to “modernize” the island and its inhabitants through a nation-state building project supposedly were guided by “benevolent assimilation” and “compassionate uplifting.”2 These  projects relied heavily, both directly and indirectly, on the military.

The American colonial administrators, however, were not the only actors in this play. The island’s elites (both criollos and peninsulares) initially welcomed the Americans and participated actively. They also developed and championed their own versions of Americanization.3 Furthermore, they pushed for the acceptance of Puerto Ricans into the U.S. military as well as the creation of a native militia to garrison the island.

This chapter explores the role of the U.S. military as part of the metropolis’s colonial project of nation-building and the motivations of the island’s elites for supporting Puerto Rican military service. How did the combination of an American nation-building project and local participation influence Puerto Rican politics and identities? Was the American metropolis successful in reversing perceived patterns of political exclusion among the island’s population? By answering these questions this chapter seeks to underline the links between the military remobilization of the Puerto Ricans, political enfranchisement, and the development of cultural and political identities in the early years of American dominance over Puerto Rico.

The 1898 U.S. Military Campaign

Several factors facilitated the transfer of sovereignty over Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States in 1898 and eased the nation-building project as envisioned by U.S. officials. The war in Puerto Rico was relatively bloodless, which eliminated much of the trauma usually associated with this kind of event. American troops landed in Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898. Their campaign extended until August 12 when Spain and the United States signed an armistice. During this period the U.S. forces engaged the Spaniards on six occasions, suffering thirty-six wounded and seven killed in action, while the Spaniards suffered eighty-eight wounded and seventeen killed in action.4 In addition, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, commander of U.S. troops in Puerto Rico, took great pains not to alienate the local population.5 He went as far as to try to obtain the release of political prisoners in Spain and Africa in an attempt to win the goodwill of the Puerto Ricans.6

General Miles considered the support, or at least the neutrality, of the local population when designing his plan of action. Surprising even his closest aides, he changed the initial landings, scheduled to take place in Fajardo on the northeastern tip of the island, to Guánica, located in the southwest. Military historians have emphasized interservice rivalry and Miles’s obsession with relegating the Navy to a secondary role in this campaign to explain the landing at Guánica. It is more likely, however, that military and political matters  influenced Miles’s decision. As he informed the naval commander of the expedition, the population of the southern part of the island was more inclined to side with the Americans than those near the capital and that landing in the south would take the Spaniards by surprise, tipping their defenses off balance.7

After landing at multiple sites along the southern coast, the invading force moved west and north in four columns advancing without naval cover. It was part of Miles’s plan that the army receive the most exposure during the campaign. He had informed Secretary of War Russell A. Alger of the benefits of marching across the country as opposed to marching under the protection of the fleet’s guns along the coast. He insisted that his troops’ visibility would attract the support of the Puerto Ricans. In this regard, he even opposed the naval bombardment of San Juan on the grounds that it would cause unnecessary harm to civilians and needlessly alienate a population willing to assist the Americans.8 In effect, Miles undertook a campaign for the hearts and minds of the islanders.

The McKinley administration enlisted the help of Puerto Ricans. Before and during the invasion of Puerto Rico, U.S. forces organized three Puerto Rican corps charged with facilitating the invasion and the war effort on the island. The first group, the Porto Rican Commission, was composed of a dozen Puerto Ricans and presided over by an American. The prc mediated between the population and soldiers, explained the aims of the war, and tried to persuade the native population to support the United States. Once in Puerto Rico, General Miles ordered the creation of a volunteer group known as the Porto Rican Scouts. The prs, a cavalry unit of seventy men, was attached to Gen. Theodore Schwan’s brigade. Miles also ordered the creation of the Porto Rican Guards to keep the public order and named a Puerto Rican as the unit’s commanding officer.9 Puerto Ricans volunteered as skirmishers, provided intelligence, and organized small foot and mounted raiding parties across the island that scourged the Spaniards and their allies by burning their plantations and stores and seizing their property.10 These actions hindered the Spanish defense and accelerated Miles’s advance.

Miles’s gamble paid off, as Puerto Ricans sided with the invading force. In early August, the gobernador general of Puerto Rico, Manuel Macías y Casado, complained to the Spanish minister of war: “The majority of this country does not wish to call itself Spaniards, preferring American domination. This the enemy knows and is proven to him by greetings and adhesions in towns that are being occupied.”11

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soldiers of the nation

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