Frank Freidel, a noted biographer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Charles Warren Professor of American History from 1972 to 1981 at Harvard University, and, at various times, the president of the Organization of American Historians set out to tell the unwritten story hidden in the Spanish-American War. In The Splendid Little War, his principal research interests on nineteenth and twentieth-century American political history, notably centered on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had not led him to explore the sources of American imperialism emerging in the 1890s, but the hardships endured by military personnel in times of war. Along with years of rigorous study, Freidel had emerged as an authority on the transition of the United States military from amateurism to professionalism from 1898 to 1945, and the bloody wars it took to create this change in addition to the F.D.R. administration.
In early June of 1898, General William R. Shafter labored frantically at Tampa, Florida to get his anticipated expedition of twenty-five thousand men on board ships designed to hold only eighteen to twenty thousand. The logistics found in Florida were in shambles; Colonel Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Worst Confusion yet. R.R. system is utterly mismanaged. No military at head. Not allotment of transports. No plans (p.64).” After grueling hours of boredom and confusion, most of the expeditionary forces found themselves afloat by within a few days. Just as they had been trapped on land, the officers and soldiers, now aboard cramped boats, found themselves contained for several days with no escape in sight. Roosevelt furiously wrote, “…jammed together under the tropical sun of these crowded troop ships. We are in a sewer; a canal which is festering as if it were Havana harbor (p.70).” On June 14, the largest military expedition that had ever left the United States steamed out of Tampa Bay.
The mismanagement, confusion, and discomfort that accompanied the launching of the Shafter expedition demonstrates how completely unsplendid the so-called splendid war began as. The negligence and distress created by the apparent ineptitude of the War Department only increased as the conflict developed. While the navy held a better record than the army, their victories are due in no small part to the unbelievable incompetence of their enemy. Unlike many scholars who focus on the political, economic, and societal changes found in the United States after the war, Freidel maintains an intense focus on the human element, on the officers and soldiers who fought a publically-perceived “Splendid Little War” in very unsplendid conditions. While Freidel may be particularistic in his examination of the war, he creates a thought provoking publication centered on an aspect of military history that is often overlooked, the common soldier.
By 1958, the common theme surrounding the Spanish-American War in the world of academia consisted of planned imperialism by the McKinley Administration....