Beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, American politicians routinely argued for the purchase or annexation of Cuba from Spain. Geographically, Cuba was vital to protecting the trade of American goods via the Mississippi River. Cuba’s sugar economy also encouraged planters in the American South to see the island’s slave owners as allies in their own efforts to resist the growing movement for abolition. In the tense decades before the Civil War, calls for annexation, with Cuba joining the United States as a slave state, grew more fervent.

When Cuban insurgents began fighting against Spanish colonial rule in 1868, many Americans openly embraced calls for “Cuba Libre,” and welcomed exiles such as José Martí as freedom fighters. When the fight for Cuban independence resumed in 1895, however, Americans were divided as to whether their impending intervention in the conflict represented a humanitarian mission or a prelude to annexation. Bolstered by a rabid press calling for American men to defend and rescue Cuba from Spanish brutality, at the same time American imperialists openly questioned whether Afro Cubans and racially mixed Cubans, who were key members of the insurgency, were capable of governing independently.

Shortly after the United States declared war on Spain, American forces occupied Guantánamo Bay. Peace negotiations at the end of the war found Spain surrendering to the United States rather than to revolutionary forces from its former colony. Cuba was left extremely vulnerable to further American manipulation in its economy and politics, as subsequent treaties would prove.

Staged at the start of the War of 1898, Guerin’s photograph depicts a Confederate and a Union officer liberating Cuba, represented by a white girl. White Americans celebrated the conflict as an occasion to heal sectional differences while demonstrating the United States’ new global power.