Black, White and Yellow

Journalism and Correspondents of the Spanish-American War
Part Two
By Jess Giessel

On January, 13th, 1898, Conservative forces in Cuba rioted in opposition to the Autonomy plan. Fearing that Americans would be threatened by the violence, American Consul General Fitzhugh Lee sent a pre-arranged signal to have the Battleship MAINE come to Havana. He later canceled the request, but Washington decided to send the ship anyway. Due to a communications snafu, Captain Charles Sigsbee took his ship to Havana before the Spanish government or local authorities had been informed of the visit, arriving on the morning of January 24th. For nearly a month, she rode peacefully at anchor in Havana Harbor, but was at the eye of a growing storm. To reciprocate this "friendly" visit, Spain announced the Armored Cruiser VIZCAYA would call at New York. The local papers lost no time in assigning the most sinister motives to the visit.

On February 9th the JOURNAL added more fuel to the fire by publishing a private letter written by Enrique Dupay de Lome, the Spanish Ambassador to Washington. The unofficial document, stolen by the Cuban Junta, made many unfavorable remarks about American leaders and called President McKinley "stupid" and a "low politician". The Ambassador was forced to resign and US -Spanish relations chilled further.

The evening of February 15th was calm and cloudy in Havana. It was the second night of Carnival, and the bars and cafes were lively. Rea and Scovel were seated with Scovel's wife in a cafe near Central Park when the city was rocked by a massive explosion. The bay was "lit up with an intense light" Rea later wrote. Making their way to the docks, the correspondents learned the MAINE had blown up. Telling officials they were Officers of the ship the pair got into a boat heading for the still exploding ship. They went aboard the American Steamer CITY OF WASHINGTON where Captain Sigsbee and some of the other survivors were taken. The captain was patient but guarded with the journalists. He later asked Rea to take his dispatch to Washington reporting the destruction of the ship to the cable office.

In his dispatch, Sigsbee stated that "public opinion should be suspended until further report". But the papers had other ideas. Upon learning of the explosion, Hearst called the editor of the Journal. He asked what else was planned for the front page. The editor replied "just the other big news". There is not any other big news..." said Hearst, "...please spread the story all over the page. This means war!" Over the coming days, as the MAINE dead were buried and the investigations into the sinking began, no one was sure what had caused the disaster, except the writers for the yellow press. It was, they said, an outright act of Spanish treachery. The WORLD, the JOURNAL and others fell over one another with "solutions" to the mystery and "exclusive" stories about witnesses to Spanish duplicity. By the17th, the EVENING JOURNAL's headline shouted:


The yellow press was not alone in beating the War Drum. The following weeks were difficult and exciting for correspondents in Cuba. As war seemed more and more likely, some left the island, others were arrested by panicky Spanish officials. President McKinley tried to calm the storm, but after the US Naval Board of Inquiry reported that the MAINE was destroyed by an outside explosion, the President could no longer resist the wave of popular support for war. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba. Ten days later war was declared.

While the majority of reporters joined the swarm of recruits at hastily opened training centers, shipped out with the Atlantic Squadron, or tried to get out of or in to Cuba, the first journalistic scoop of the war was unfolding half a world away. Admiral George Dewey liked to say that his dog Bob knew as much about politics as he did. But the Admiral was politician enough to understand the value to a commander of a favorable press. When Dewey sailed from Hong Kong for Manila Bay three correspondents were with his fleet.

Joseph J. Stickney of the New York HERALD was an ex-Naval officer and an experienced foreign correspondent. In Japan on assignment when the MAINE exploded, Stickney wired Dewey in Hong Kong on April 9th and asked to join the fleet. Two days later, having received an affirmative reply, the reporter boarded the cruiser BALTIMORE which was in Yokohama on its way to join Dewey. Upon reaching Hong Kong, he transferred to the flagship OLYMPIA.

Edwin W. Harden, and John T. McCutcheon had become friends while working on rival Chicago papers. They were passengers on the round the world cruise of the US Treasury's new Revenue Cutter McCULLOCH. When war broke out and the cutter was assigned to join Dewey, the pair arranged to send dispatches to the states. Harden represented the New York WORLD and McCutcheon, a well known artist, wrote and drew for his regular employer the Chicago RECORD.

Stickney asked Admiral Dewey if he could observe the attack on the Spanish fleet from OLYMPIA's bridge. "Oh, I think you'll be satisfied" was all the commander said. Later, he told the reporter that, as the fleet was short of officers, he was appointing Stickley to be his aide during the attack, thus freeing up an officer for gunnery duty.

All three journalists were first hand observers of the battle on May 1st. But Dewey had ordered the telegraph cable cut, so they could not send their dispatches. Finally, five days later, the McCULLOCH was ordered to Hong Kong and the three reporters went along. The Admiral had made them promise to send his official report to Washington before sending dispatches to their papers. Harden cheated, however, by sending a bulletin to the WORLD at the far higher "urgent" rate. It arrived in New York at 4:40 AM. Because of the difference in time zones, the Chicago TRIBUNE, which purchased the WORLD's news service, was the first paper in the nation to break the story of Dewey's incredible victory, 12 hours before the official dispatch arrived in Washington.

The country soon went "Dewey Mad". The three journalists on the scene wrote thousands of words about the battle, and millions more were written in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Peoria, Chattanooga, Tacoma, Conestoga, Emporia and every other large and small town in the nation. McCutcheon gave the nation its first visual impression of the action. The Admiral inspired a rash of bad poetry, cheap souvenirs and instantly forgettable songs that remains unequaled to the present day.

Reporters with the fleet in the Caribbean theater were having a far less thrilling time then those at Manila, and therefore puffed up every captured Spanish merchant ship, bombarded shore battery and small landing party as a major event. Several reporters, including Davis, were taken aboard warships, while others sailed on the legion of newspaper dispatch boats which swarmed about the fleet. Many of these were old filibusters, such as the celebrated veterans DAUNTLESS and THREE FRIENDS, now racing correspondents' reports to Key West or Mole St. Nicolas. Admiral Sampson often made use of these boats for dispatch, agent landing and war prize duties. Both Davis and Scovel undertook scouting and spying activities for the Navy and were rewarded with exclusive stories. 

To Be Continued

(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Brands, H.W., The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. New York: St. Martins Press, 1995.

Brown, Charles H., The Correspondent's War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.

Freidel, Frank, The Splendid Little War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.

O'Toole, G.J.A., The Spanish War : An American Epic--1898. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1984).

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