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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

Spanish-American War

On February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded and sank in Cuba's Havana harbor killing 260 sailors onboard. While the cause of the explosion was unclear, many people in the United States sought to hold Spain accountable for the incident. A search on the term, battleship Maine, yields footage of the aftermath in the films, Burial of the 'Maine' Victims and Wreck of the Battleship "Maine," which was shot in Havana harbor two months after the blast.

International relations between the United States and Spain were already tense due to a debate over the island of Cuba and its independence from Spanish colonial rule. In April 1898, the United States proclaimed Cuba free from Spanish rule and declared war on Spain. A search on the phrase, Spanish-American War produces documentary footage and reenactments of the four-month conflict. (Additional footage and information on the war is available in the collection, The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures and in the exhibit, "The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War.")

Documentaries from the war include footage of the first U.S. soldiers arriving on Cuban soil in U.S. Troops Landing at Daiquirí, Cuba and of Cuban Refugees Waiting for Rations. January 1899 footage of a triumphant U.S. Army parading through the streets of Havana in Troops at Evacuation of Havana and in General Lee's Procession is also available.

The risk was far too great for cameramen to film actual battles in the Spanish-American War but studios capitalized on the public's interest by filming reenactments of the conflicts. National Guard troops recreated several scenes in New Jersey, including an attack on a Spanish scouting party in Cuban Ambush and Spanish soldiers executing Cuban rebels in Shooting Captured Insurgents.

  • How do you think that audiences might have responded to the documentary footage of the battleship Maine and of U.S. troops in Cuba?
  • When describing the documentary, Cuban Refugees Waiting for Rations, the Edison catalog explains, "One expects to see just such men as these, after the centuries of Spanish oppression and tyranny. As they come forward, their walk, even, is listless and lifeless." How do the documentaries (and the Edison catalog summaries) depict the Cubans?
  • How are the Cubans portrayed in the reenactments?
  • Are there any differences in the representation of Cubans in the two formats? How do you think that U.S. audiences might have responded to these depictions?
  • What aspects of war are featured in documentaries and reenactments? What do you think are the limitations of each format?
  • Do you think that these films contributed to the U.S. war effort? If so, how?