Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 10 in Today I Learned: Capture of Guam

History is littered with an array of battles and wars that seem impossibly stupid – the Pig War between the United States and the United Kingdom, the Australian Emu War, the War of Jenkin’s Ear between Britain and Spain, the Fourth Crusade where Christian crusaders sacked their own cities, the Battle of New Orleans between the United States and British after the war had concluded, the Battle of Karansebes where the Austrian army attacked itself, the Battle of Castle Itter, an unnamed battle where the Austrian army ended up with more men then when they started, the Falklands War, and any battle the Italians ever fought. I could (and may still!) write about all of them, but for my money, the Battle/Capture of Guam stands alone as a particularly baffling moment in history that ultimately is the reason the United States still maintains the tiny territory of Guam despite being situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The year was 1898 and the United States was at war with the Spanish for truly hazy reasons that even Donald Rumsfeld would consider flimsy. If you aren’t familiar, American battleship USS Maine was sunk in the Havana, Cuba port, then under control of the Spanish during the Cuban revolution, which was very intriguing to American politicians at the time as a possible future imperial conquest. The Maine was sunk under questionable circumstances, and resulted in the chant “Remember the Maine!”, which is ironic because no one remembers Maine. American politicians used this opportunity to push for war with Spain, because it’d been a minute and America was hankering for some casual warfare, still decades prior to the rise of the military industrial complex.
Despite being a war essentially about the liberation of Cuba/acquisition of Cuba by America, most of the clashes occurred in the Philippines, because why would forces battle in the territory they were actually squabbling over? While sparring in the Philippine islands, the US Navy sent the USS Charleston to lay siege to the island of Guam, a tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean under Spanish rule since 1668, obviously of critical military importance (note – there was probably some military importance, but as we’ll see, no one really recognized it). Captain Henry Glass prepared his ship for battle, expecting over a thousand combatants dug in for defense and familiar with the terrain only to show up and see a Japanese trading ship and no Spanish ships; records note the sailors were “disappointed” in the lack of ships to engage. Guys in the 19th century were far ballsier than I am.
Residents of the island showed up on the ports and beaches to see the ship, because there was no internet and they live in goddamn Guam so what else are they going to do besides look at a ship. The USS Charleston, in order to make it’s intentions known, fired upon a Spanish fortress, resulting in no damage. The residents figured the ship was saluting them and, seeing as how they had absolutely no artillery, scrambled to find something to blow up in return (note – you are free, nah, ENCOURAGED to blow things up whenever I arrive somewhere). During this time, the biggest merchant, a local surgeon and the port captain boarded a ship to welcome the US to their shores, only to find out they were under attack, and now prisoners of war after accidentally sharing the tiny bit of knowledge slip that they had no defenses at all. In fact, Guam had no idea Spain was at war with anyone, let alone the US. Who knew being a seagull shit splattered rock in the middle of the ocean was prohibitive to keeping abreast of international affairs in 1898?
If this couldn’t be a stupider affair, the boat supplied by the merchant to parlay? Owned by Francisco Portusach, an American, and flying the American flag on his way to the USS Charleston. Upon a skeptical discussion with the crew ultimately resolved once a reporter on the Charleston recognized Portusach, the American was released to bring Guam’s governor aboard for surrender. After returning ashore, a letter for Portusach was waiting from the governor saying. “If you give any assistance to the American men of war, you will be executed tomorrow morning on the beach”, to which Portusach allegedly giggled.
The next morning, Portusach was NOT executed, but instead, installed as the new, AMERICAN governor of Guam after the Spanish governor surrendered once Captain Glass realized there was no one else around who could be installed on behalf of the Americans to maintain the island. The USS Charleston hung out in Guam for roughly a day and a half, curious as what the next step for the island was as they expected to do more than wait patiently for the governor to surrender. They sought to dismantle the fortress they had originally fired upon, only to realize it was so far into disrepair it wasn’t worth the hassle. The Americans, dejected with victory, left Portusach in charge of the island and returned to the Philippines for some actual killin’.
And that’s how Guam became a US territory. During a war in which none of the residents were aware of, the Americans fired upon (and missed) a Spanish fortress which the citizens cheered as though they were watching fireworks, accidentally surrendering upon revealing there were no defenses anywhere on the island, and left an American expatriate merchant in charge after realizing they had no one else around. Fun Fact! Portusach was quickly overthrown by a Filipino Spaniard, who was quickly overthrown by the native population, resulting in the Americans being forced to return in order to restore their rule. It’s only suitable the stupidest American territory became such by the stupidest means possible.
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