One of the forgotten aspects of the American Civil War is the relationship between the United States and Spain, and the impact of America’s fratricidal conflict and Spain’s last-gasp attempt to remain a relevant imperial power in the Americas. In these days it is hard to remember how powerful Spain fancied itself in the early and middle part of the 19th century, as well as how hard its imperialistic ambitions in the Americas died. It is the purpose of this post to at least provide some historical context to the impact of the American Civil War on late Spanish imperialism.
It is commonly recognized that both Russian and Spanish imperialism prompted the United States (and Great Britain) to cooperate in the Monroe Doctrine to help ensure an end to most kinds of imperialism in the Americas (aside from Britain’s own holdings) . The United States was seeking to flex its muscles as a rising power with continental ambitions and Britain desired small nations competing for British industrial goods, and so both sought to keep Spain (and France) out of the Americas, and ensure that Russia’s advance was stopped. Both were ultimately successful in this aim, even though most Americans seem to have forgotten the role of the British in ensuring the protection of the Americas through the sea.
The rise of the United States was seen as a direct threat to Spanish control over its last remaining Caribbean colonies. Long before the Spanish-American War Americans (especially Southerners) had cast their greedy eyes toward Cuba as a place to expand Southern plantation slavery and ensure a new state to help balance out the rise of free states in the North. The 1854 Ostend Manifesto caused massive political problems as a conspiracy to extend slavery received one more piece of evidence, as some of America’s (Southern) diplomats were willing to force war with Spain in order to take Cuba as a slave state . Needless to say, in the political crisis of the 1850’s this goal was not acted on, and it was not until later on that US interests in Cuba led to Cuba’s independence as a puppet state (until the Communist Revolution there, at least).
So, America had an established goal, even before the American Civil War, of seeking the opportunistic takeover of Spanish territory and the denial of their being held by others (especially England). Despite both the fact that the American South and Spain were both nearly equally despotic in their control of minority/native populations and the expropriation of their resources, they were at political cross-purposes, and Spain did not consider itself completely decrepit or out of the running as an imperial power in the mid-1800’s. Neither did it lose its ambitions to regain territory it had lost previously in the 1800’s. Once the Americans were distracted in the Civil War, Spain sought on at least two fronts to increase its holdings and influence in Latin America, even if these efforts have been largely forgotten by Civil War historians, who have mainly focused on the French efforts in Mexico to the exclusion of Spain’s efforts.
Spain’s most notable colonial effort was its accepting of the Dominican Republic as a “voluntary” colony in 1861, as the Dominican Republic’s fear of Haitian invasion and the distraction of the United States left few other options for the insecure nation . Nonetheless, despite Spain’s enjoyment of a returned colony, there was a great deal of hostility and resentment among the people of the Dominican Republic who preferred their own freedom, and started rebelling in mass in 1863. Finally (and not coincidentally) in 1865, Spain withdrew from the Dominican Republic and that nation regained its independence once again, despite having fears of Hatian invasion and a lack of cohesion and economic development even after this.
Nor was the Caribbean Sea the only place where Spain sought to regain its previous influence as a colonial power. Between 1863 and 1866 Spain attempted to attack numerous South American ports against an alliance of South American nations (Peru and Chile chief among them, with Ecuador and Bolivia joining in 1866), attacking the defenseless port of Valpariso, being stood off from Callao and being unable to defeat the Chilean-Peruvian combined fleet at sea . As a result of losing access to South American ports, Spain withdrew from the Chincha Islands and its attempts at imperialism in South America were put to an end. Whether Spain had long term imperialistic aims in South America or not, once the American Civil War was over the Spanish made haste to cut and run from imperialistic efforts in the area.
Why Spain’s imperialistic efforts in Latin America have been so little understood by American historians of the Civil War as a consequence of that war remains somewhat puzzling. Spain’s attempts to increase its imperial holdings were notable, took place in two fronts, and involved it in war against numerous local parties. Those attempts also ended drastically and decisively once America was no longer distracted by the Civil War and was able to present a unified front once again. Spain had imperialistic ambitions in the 1800’s, but recognized that it was no match for a united United States. This is a story that has been forgotten, but it deserves to be remembered.