The US Ambassador to Spain

Stewart L. Woodford

By Jose Poncet


Stewart Woodford was one of the more controversial figures of the war. Woodford served as the U.S. Ambassador to Spain in the months leading up to the war. It was Woodford's job to present the changing American policy to the Spanish government. This article concerns Woodford, and his relations with the Spanish government and also the Spanish  press.


Stewart Lyndon Woodford was, born in New York City on September 3, 1835. He studied law and, in 1854, was graduated from Columbia College (now Columbia University), and was admitted to the bar in 1857, commencing practice in New York City.

Woodford was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1860 and assistant attorney for the United States in New York City in 1861 and 1862.

During the Civil War he served in the Union Army; reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel of the One Hundred and Twenty-seventh New York Volunteers in September 8, 1862. It has been said that he was a powerful speaker, and dozens of men of enlistment age came to hear him sermonize on why they should fight for the Union.

In March 3, 1865 Woodford was promoted to colonel of the One Hundred and Third United States Colored Infantry and, two months later, on May 12, 1865, brevetted brigadier general of Volunteers. Woodford left the Union Army with this rank and, on the cessation of hostilities, he resumed the practice of law.

In 1866 Woodford was elected lieutenant-governor of New York on the ticket with Reuben E. Fenton, filling this office from 1867 to 1869. In 1870 was candidate for Governor but without success.

Once more, in 1872 he was delegate to the Republican National Convention and elected as member of Congress from the 3d Congressional District (Brooklyn), serving from March 4, 1873, to July 1, 1874, when he resigned. In 1877 Woodford was appointed United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. and served from 1877 to 1883.

On June 19, 1897 Woodford was appointed United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, and served until September 20, 1898, when he resigned.

Stewart L. Woodford resumed the practice of law in New York City and died there on February 14, 1913; and was buried in Woodland Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut.

Woodford's activities in Spain

McKinley’s policy toward Spain was set down in a letter of instructions, dated on July 16, 1897, from the U..S. Secretary of State, John Sherman, to the new American minister to Spain, General Stewart L. Woodford. This letter strongly required the end of the colonial war in Cuba and on giving some kind of autonomy to the island while canceling the "measures of unparalleled severity". Otherwise, the United States reserved the right to intervene in the conflict.

A few days later, August 4, Carlos O’Donnell, (Duke of Tetuan and Spain’s Minister of State), sent a letter to the US Government qualifying the American points of view as “exorbitant” and “inaccurate”. In addition, he said that, during the American Civil War, the “reconcentration” method had been applied by General Sherman and that, in Cuba, the Insurgents were also destroying the island, and all of the destruction was not the result of Spain's actions. O’Donnell rejected the American accusations and stressed that the “truly and reasonable” way of doing things would be the opposition, “with efficient energy”, of Washington’s Government “to the constant help received by the Insurgents from American citizens, and to the continuous subsistence of the public and organized conductorship that operates from there, without whom the insurrection would be totally extinguished by the arms long time ago”

The Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Canovas, was assassinated by an Italian anarchist on August 8; 1897 and when Woodford reached Madrid in September, a new liberal government was about to take over, headed by Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, who had repeatedly denounced the "barbarity" of the previous governments policy in Cuba.

Woodford was presented  to the Queen of Spain on September 13 and had his first official interview with the Duke of Tetuan on September 18. The US Ambassador did not delay too much in responding to the letter that O’Donnell had sent to the US Government. On September 23, he sent a note to the Spanish Minister of State that was courteous but had the characteristics of an ultimatum. As a curiosity, we have to mention that said note was sent from San Sebastian, a town in the North of Spain, (Basque Country), and not from the American embassy in Madrid, perhaps because that town used to be the summer residence of the Royal Family and Woodford had presented his letters of credence to the Queen a few days before.

Woodford’s note emphasized the negative aspects of the Cuban situation such as the “existence of a devastating internal conflict” near USA, “Spain's inability” to win the war that “entails upon the United States a degree of injury and suffering which can not longer be ignored”. The main aspect of the note was the “friendly suggestion that the good offices of the United States may now be lent to the advantage of Spain”, remarking that these good offices will direct the situation to a “peaceful and enduring result”.

In this occasion, the American note had a precise deadline: “…it is sincerely hoped that during the coming month of October the Government of Spain may either be able to formulate some proposal under which this tender of good offices may become effective or may give satisfactory assurances that peace in Cuba will, by the efforts of Spain, be promptly secured”.

The extraordinary personality of Mr. Woodford was described by Mr. Reverseaux, French Ambassador to Madrid, who on October 10 said: “Mr. Woodford … carefully hides his fingernails, but one can feel claws under his gloves”.

In this point, the situation of the relations between the United States and Spain was so difficult that, on October 18, the British Ambassador to Madrid wrote: “Spain prefers to go to war better than to reach an agreement that could be considered as of mercenary type or cause of disrepute…I’m afraid that the next months will be marked by the disaster”.

However, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Sagasta, immediately removed General Weyler as Cuba’s Governor, and the hopes for a Spanish-American agreement seemed to be good, mainly because on October 23, Sagasta, through a note of his new Minister of State (Mr. Pio Gullon) to the Ambassador Woodford, announced a "total change of immense scope" in Spanish policy in Cuba “which must exercise considerable influence upon the moral and material situation of the Greater Antilla”. He promised to grant local autonomy to the Cubans immediately, reserving justice, the armed forces, and foreign relations to Spain. In this note, Gullon requested that the US Government “should take all necessary measures, with determination and persistency proportionate to the vast means at its disposal, to prevent the territory of the Union from constituting the center in which the plots for the support of the Cuban insurrection are contrived”.

By a decree of Weyler’s successor, Captain-General Blanco, on November 13, war harsh policies were considerably modified. In addition, on November 25, the Queen Regent signed several edicts that meant the creation of an Cuban autonomous government. In other words, Spain had acceded to the American demands.

All these changes in the Spanish colonial policy led the Spanish politicians to an optimistic state that was reflected in the opinion of the Ambassador Dupuy de Lome: “Neither the political situation has never been so good nor my mission so easy since May 1895”. But, four days later McKinley, presented a message to the House of Representatives and condemned again the policy of reconcentration and hinted at likelihood of US military intervention with a wide review of the confrontations of the Cuban island and the mother country but giving simultaneously a hope for the understanding between Spain and the Unites States.

Woodford was conducting negotiations with the conciliatory Liberal government in Madrid, (a benevolent note sent to the Spanish government on December 20 among them), and while there was still hope for peace, a series of fatal incidents occurred and made war virtually inevitable: the famous letter of Enrique Dupuy de Lome, the Spanish minister at Washington, (December 1897), and the explosion in the USS Maine, (February 15, 1898). Spain, in Woodford’s opinion, had gone about as far as they could go; but these two incidents were pushing American public opinion towards war.

McKinley’s objective was beyond Cuba’s pacification, as Woodford informed to the British Ambassador on March 3, 1898: the loss of Cuba by Spain was unavoidable. The United States did not want its annexation in a so complex moment, but there was only a possible dénouement: “As sure as sun rises every morning, sooner or later Cuba will be American”.

On March 17, 1898 the Spanish journals informed that, during the previous day, the Spanish Minister for the Colonies, Segismundo Moret, had a conversation with Mr. Woodford and encouraged him to put his faith in an agreed solution for the Cuban conflict. The newspapers informed that the negotiations, in Woodford’s opinion, could only lead to the purchase of the island by the United States and that the American Ambassador had sent a telegram to the US President with this proposal in order to “avoid the horrors and the cost of a war”. However, following the opinion of the media, the possibility of selling the island was rejected by both, President McKinley and Prime Minister Sagasta.

The Spanish newspaper La Epoca published, on March 25, a Woodford´s declaration saying that “The President wishes peace between Spain and the United States and peace in Cuba. Since I was presented to Her Majesty the Queen Regent in San Sebastian, last September, I have been and will continue working under the direction of my President, and leaded by him towards peace during the time that I am going to be accredited to the Spanish Government. I have been a soldier and know the horrors of war, and earnestly hope that peace will continue in the fatherlands of Columbus and Washington”.

This declaration induced an angry response of Prime Minister Sagasta who said to the Spanish journalists: “Mr. Woodford may have his reasons to believe that President McKinley wishes peace between Spain and the United States and peace in Cuba. The Spanish Government has its own reasons to affirm that facts do no correspond to these words, to believe that the President of the United States does not wish peace in Cuba or with Spain, and to estimate that he has not the minor determination to support them…The Spanish Government has gone as far as it could go. Spain’s measures for peace, her fervent wishes of avoiding the horrors of war, mentioned by Mr. Woodford, are well known. No, it is not the American republic who has tried to keep peace”.

On March 26 the new US Secretary of State, Mr. William R. Day, sent a confidential memo to Woodford with the following content:

"Today the strength of the Cubans nearly double...and occupy and control virtually all the territory outside the heavily garrisoned coast cities and a few interior towns.

There are no active operations by the Spaniards....The eastern provinces are admittedly "Free Cuba". In view of these statements alone, it is now evident that Spain's struggle in Cuba has become absolutely hopeless....Spain is exhausted financially and physically, while the Cubans are stronger"

On March 28 the President released the report of the naval court of inquiry on the Maine disaster but, desiring peace yet afraid of war consequences, McKinley tried to reach his objectives without fighting.

As a consequence of this, on March 29 Woodford presented to the Spanish government a new note demanding that Spain agreed to an immediate armistice, eliminate the Cuban concentration camps instituted by Weyler, and cooperate with the United States to provide relief; Spain was given 48 hours to reply. This new Woodford’s note was a real ultimatum, requiring some kind of unilateral “armistice until October 1. Negotiations meantime looking for peace between Spain and insurgents through friendly offices of President United States”.

The Spanish government, under pressure from the Queen Regent, accepted all American proposals and, consequently, on March 31, Spain communicated the American Ambassador the adoption of the following measures:

1 elimination of the concentration camps;
2 creation of a fund of three million pesetas to resettle the natives;
3 acceptance of submitting the Maine controversy to arbitration; and
4 concession of a truce in case the insurgents requested it.

Spain was meeting all the American requirements but, according to American sources, because the rebels did not asked for a truce, the situation was hopeless. Woodford cabled to Washington: "The ministry have gone as far as they dare go today...”. Nine days later, the Spanish Minister of State informed Woodford that the government had decided to grant an armistice in Cuba immediately.

It was too late. McKinley had decided to declare war on Spain that had conceded everything, but waited too long. This McKinley’s attitude was confirmed by Mr. Barclay, (British Ambassador to Madrid): “I know, through a person to whom General Woodford’s private letters to the US President have been shown, that the latter had long time ago taken the decision of getting Spain out of Cuba, by diplomatic means if possible, but by war if necessary, and that this has been the objective of General Woodford’s in Madrid…”.

The following days were characterized by “movements of retreat” both, at the Spanish embassy to Washington and the US embassy to Madrid. An so, on April 5, 1898  the family of the US embassy's 2nd Secretary left Madrid. One day latter Woodford’s wife and his niece left Madrid “because of their health state and last weeks excitements”. On April 7, it was seen a removal van, transporting Woodford’s goods and chattels from the US embassy to Madrid’s North railway station. The journals commented that, at the US embassy, there was remaining hardly a soul. Woodford was obliged to send a note to the newspapers indicating that, on March 21, the embassy’s 2nd Secretary had gone to Washington to “resume the practice of his profession as a lawyer, and that he had resigned from his diplomatic post”.

From this point onwards, the Spanish press started an acid campaign against the United States and its Ambassador. For example, on April 14 1898, the Spanish journal EL LIBERAL, (ideologically near the government), published a leading article telling to its readers that “Monroe’s doctrine has reached an immense development in US’s spirit… This doctrine has been extended to both Americas, and should (the Americans) feel themselves strong enough, they will modify it in order to transform themselves from Jewish bankers and gold miners into Vandal conquerors…We have seen them, during the problems in Asia Minor, trying to interfere in Istanbul. We have seen them trying to acquire territory an political action in Morocco. We have seen them threatening France... We have seen them in China, in Venezuela... If they are allowed to do what they want, if they are not treated as they were treated by Germany, they will make their way to accomplish their insane plans to define the right to the territorial property in the planet.

Another example of this “acidity” of the Spanish press is that the pig was used as the US mascot by Spanish cartoonists of the era. It often accompanied Uncle Sam as a pet in Spanish cartoons. A regular feature of the Spanish War cartoons was the “American Hog” as a symbol of the United States, and some of the applications of this idea in the satiric magazine Don Quijote were distinctly amusing.

This tense atmosphere obliged the Spanish police to protect the US embassy day and night. By that time the journals informed that Woodford had received the order of passing all the American interests to the British embassy. In addition, on April 21 the journals informed that Woodford had received a note from the US Department of State ordering him to urge Spain to renounce all its rights in Cuba before April 23. The American Ambassador, following said informations, had received the message very early in the morning and decided to contact the Spanish Prime Minister later. However, the Spanish Ministry of State could intercept the message and informed Sagasta immediately. Consequently, the Spanish government ordered Mr. Woodford to leave Spain as soon as possible originating an unofficial war declaration.

Therefore, on April 21 at 03.45 PM, Mr. Woodford, accompanied by Mr. Sickles, (Secretary of the US embassy), his family, the military attaché, the correspondents of The New York Journal, The New York Herald and the French journals Temps and Presse, took the train to Paris at the Madrid’s North station, gave thanks to the officer of the Civil Guard and say “Good bye”. At 04.10 the train left the station. The only member of the foreign legations to Madrid, that went to see Mr. Woodford’s off at the station , was the British Ambassador.

Even after Woodford´s departure some journals continued pouring sulfuric acid over his person. As an example, on April 28 the Spanish republican journal “El Progreso” informed that the US Ambassador was accompanied by a young and handsome Spanish soldier and that Woodford said that the soldier had become an US citizen. Of course, this is another example of how chauvinistic journals can work on the eve of a war.


The Political Graveyard

Bibliographical Directory of the US Congress.

One Soldier's Story.

The President as Decision Maker.

Confidential Memo from William R. Day to Stewart L. Woodford.

U.S. Dept. of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1898 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 558-561. Letter from Secretary of State Sherman regarding the Political Situation in Cuba, 16 July 1897.

U.S. Dept. of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1898 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 568-573. Note of United States to Spain, September 23, 1897.

U.S. Dept. of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1898 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 582-589. Reply of the Spanish Minister of State, Mr. Pio Gullon,  to Mr. Woodford's Note of September 23, 1897. (Please note that this address has an erroneous heading: it mentions the Duke of Tetuan instead of Mr. Gullon).

Cardona, G. El guante y las garras. La Aventura de la Historia. No. 2. pp. 76-81. Madrid. December 1998.

History of the 19th Century in Political Cartoons. Chapter XXXI. The Spanish American War.

Figuero, J and Garcia Santa Cecilia, C. El año en que España perdió su imperio. Series of articles published in the Spanish journal EL MUNDO from March 18 to December 31, 1998.

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