South America - A Popular History - H. Butterworth

The Cuban Heroes


Columbus discovered the island of Cuba on the morning of October 28, 1492. He declared the land to be the most beautiful that eyes had ever beheld. He named it Juana, from the son of the royal family. Poets later called it the "Isle of June." There was a tall ceiba- or cottonwood-tree near the place where he landed. Here he caused a wooden cross to be raised, and mass to be celebrated. A temple stands on the place now as a memorial of the event. Columbus believed that Cuba was a continent, a part of the enchanted land of far Cathay, whose wonders and glories had been described by Marco Polo. He sailed along the coast, in view of the majestic forests and mountains. He visited again those beautiful shores on his fourth voyage to America. On his death his body was buried in the cathedral near the place where he had first heard mass under the cottonwood-tree. His tomb may be seen in the simple but ancient walls.

The island was conquered by Velasquez in 1511. The conqueror divided the land and the natives among his followers. He founded many towns, among them Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the two mentioned about the year 1515.

The simple inhabitants began to disappear. Hernando Cortez became a governor of Cuba in 1537, under Velasquez. He sent the suffering Indians to the copper-mines. The Indians were killed by the forced service. From this island he went forth to the conquest of Mexico.

Negro slaves were introduced to take the places of the perishing Indians. Great plantations were cultivated, and the island was made to yield rich revenues to the Spanish crown. The trade of the sea was held in slavery, and as a consequence filibusters filled the coasts.

On June 6, 1762, at the period when Charles III. of Spain was at war with Great Britain, there appeared off Havana an English squadron of thirty-two ships and frigates, with two hundred or more transport-vessels. The armament was the largest that had ever appeared in America. It was commanded by the Duke of Albemarle. The English landed a force of twelve thousand men. The Spanish garrison consisted of only twenty-seven hundred men, but received the aid of volunteers. The invading army occupied the heights near Morro Castle and the city, and opened fire upon both of the latter places, but was itself exposed to a fire from the Spanish on the Cabanas. The Spaniards blocked the entrance to the harbor by sinking two vessels in the channel. This was done to protect the Spanish vessels inside of the harbo.1 The precautionary defense proved a snare, for it shut the Spanish in while it shut the English out. This gave the English the advantage of concentrating their force on a land attack. The little garrison defended itself long and bravely. 'It finally surrendered, and was permitted to march out with the honors of war. The English held the fortifications until the peace of Paris in 1763. The "Pearl of the Antilles "was then restored to Spain, and for many years the date of the restitution was observed as a festival.

From this period the island grew in wealth, and its viceregal court in splendor. Slavery increased. The plantations were among the richest harvest-fields of the world.

The creoles began to hear of the struggles for liberty in the provinces of the Andes, but liberty slumbered in Cuba. In 1823 a society, "Soles de Bolivar," made a movement for the freedom of the island. In 1829 the secret society of the Black Eagle made a similar attempt. It was unsuccessful.

In 1844 the condition of the slaves had become intolerable. They planned an insurrection for freedom. They struck and were stricken down.

The expedition of Narcio Lopez, a Spaniard, who sailed from the Southern ports of the United States with a few hundred men, has already been briefly pictured. Lopez was the Miranda of Cuban freedom. His expedition was one of those failures that lead to success, that present ideals that do not fade. His heroic and tragic death was never forgotten.

In 1868 there was a rising of patriots against the tyranny of Spain, led by men of intelligence, character and purest patriotism. These heroes threw to the breeze the banner of liberty. Puerto Principe, another patriotic city of a patriotic province, rose in arms. The rebels were poorly armed, but were inspired by the righteousness of their cause. Fifty thousand Spanish troops and seventy thousand volunteers confronted them. The mountains and marshes were their defenses. They continued the struggle until diplomacy did what force of arms could not do, namely, secured the liberation of the slaves.

Again liberty slumbered, but not as before; it dreamed now. The hope of independence was left. It lived and grew. Spain had promised the patriots justice, but had pursued her old policy. Spanish officers, bent only on making fortunes, filled the places of government. Three fourths of the office-holders were Spaniards. They gorged themselves with the products of others' toil. The system of taxation became unbearable. Human rights were ignored, and the blood of cruelty flowed as of old.

In the winter of 1895 local outbreaks indicated the beginning of another war for liberty. Maximo Gomez, a patriot leader, and the two Maceos were again in the saddle. Marshal Campos attempted to subdue the patriots, but in vain. He was succeeded by Weyler, another Boves. Weyler began a campaign of the trocha. He built a line of fortifications across the island. He compelled the non-combatants, the reconcentrados, as they have come to be called, to be gathered together in fortified cities, and a line to be drawn around them, to pass beyond which was death. Here they were left to starve. Two hundred thousand people, and, according to some writers, a larger number, were, under this policy of concentration, starved to death. The land was covered with heaps of dead bodies.

Excessive cruelty defeats itself. The call of the Cubans to humanity, for help, fell at first upon unbelieving ears, then upon startled ears. Finally it touched the heart. Spain seems to have seen the coming judgment. She withdrew Weyler from Cuba. General Blanco took up the cause of the Peninsula with a more humane heart. It was too late for military success. Of over two hundred thousand soldiers sent by Spain to Cuba more than one half died or returned disabled.

Spain, now seeing the necessity for a change of policy toward the wronged island of Columbus, proposed to the Cubans autonomy, or local self-government. Such a government was formed, but without power.

In the former struggle for liberty a republic had been formed, with Senor Cespedes as President. A new Cuban republic was proclaimed by the patriots of 1895.

The rise and progress of the new republic may best be pictured by narratives of the lives of its leading heroes.

Maximo Gomez, the general-in-chief of the insurgent forces, was born in 1823. He entered the last struggle for Cuban independence when past seventy years of age. "He is a grim, resolute, honest, conscientious, quizzical old veteran," wrote Consul-General Lee in 1898, "now seventy-five years old, who has thoroughly understood the tactics necessary to employ in order to waste the resources of his enemy." He served as a lieutenant in the Spanish cavalry in the revolution of Santo Domingo. The cause of the patriots of Santo Domingo seems to have set him to thinking. He became a republican, and joined the Cubans in their long struggle for liberty. He was one of the heroes of the ten years' war.

His policy in the final Cuban war was to prevent Cuba from affording resources for the Spanish army. He forbade the planters to grind cane, in order to deprive the Spaniards of their revenue. The cane-fields went up in smoke wherever he marched. He believed in sacrificing everything to the cause of liberty, and was fond of relating that the semi-civilized Indians threw their gold into the rivers on the approach of the Spaniards.

He had some sterling qualities. He never allowed the wounded to be deserted. "The wounded are sacred," he said. To him liberty was more than life. Flint relates that Gomez once met a farmer in the fields, and asked him why he was at work. Gomez probably received the answer that the farmer worked to support his family. "To support your family!" Gomez responded. "It were better if you fed them on the roots of the forest or left them to starve, as my men have left their wives and children and parents to starve for the sake of the fatherland. Do you know that you make the land richer for Spain?"

Such was the spirit of Gomez. His faith in the future was perfect; his views were unyielding. Flint reports one of Gomez's officers as saying: "The life of one entire generation is not too great a sacrifice to the prosperity of countless generations to come." Such was Gomez's opinion. War has seldom found so old a hero who was so young in heart, and so full of thought for the welfare of man and of the future that he would never see.

Masso, President of the Cuban republic, was a man of uncompromising integrity and of sublime faith in the success of the patriot cause. In the September elections of 1897 Domingo Mendez Capote had been chosen President. The military chiefs questioned whether or not Capote had the strength of character to resist overtures of peace from Spain in case of great disasters. In the ten years' war the patriots had lost by diplomacy and the acceptance of false promises what they had a right to demand as the results of their valor. They wished to avert a similar fate now. Hence they needed a man of iron. Such a man was Masso. A new election was ordered, and Masso, then about sixty-two years of age, was elected President.

"Let no one enter our camps with any offer of terms of peace from Spain," was the voice of insurgent chiefs. "Independence or death is our unalterable purpose!" Masso was a man of this mold. He was among the first of the Cuban commanders in the ten years' war, and he remained in the field to the last. When the agreement of peace was made he distrusted the Spanish pledges of reform. For this reason he was imprisoned in Morro Castle and deported to Spain. In I 880 he returned to his ruined estates, and became successful as a sugar-planter. In 1895, on his own estates, near Manzanillo, he proclaimed the independence of Cuba. He took command of the patriot volunteers there until the arrival of Maximo Gomez and Jose Marti, who organized the war of liberation. Though firm in his conviction of right, Masso was just and liberal. In a proclamation issued February 24, 1895, entitled "To the Spaniards," he said: "While you remain friendly to us we will consider you and treat you as Cubans, and shall respect your lives, your families and property. What we want is independence for all, a country and liberty!"

It was Marti who organized the new revolution, which may be said to have begun on February 24, 1895. Marti was born of Spanish parents. Liberty was his native air. Early in life he became the friend of political prisoners. He knew the spirit of the old monarchy well, its politicians and bureaucrats who aimed only at robbery. He was exiled from Cuba to Spain. He escaped from Spain to the United States in 1879, about the time that General Calixto Garcia, a Cuban patriot, arrived in New York. The two planned an expedition to Cuba in aid of the cause of independence. Their purpose was delayed, but each became a leader in the movement of 1895.

Near the end of 1896, at the head of a charge al machete, there fell a mulatto general, Antonio Maceo. On his body were twenty-three wounds, received in many engagements. He had been one of the heroes of the ten years' war. This man belonged to a family of heroes of the patriotic province Santiago de Cuba, a province of the Southern seas.

The family tradition of the Maceos of Santiago is a very noble one. The elder Maceo had ten sons. He saw the oppression of the creoles and his own race. He dedicated these ten sons to the cause of liberty. Five of these sons fell in the ten years' war. Of these ten sons two became famous, and did deeds that merit a place among heroes. They broke through the trocha, and made an open way from Santiago to Pinar del Rio. They were Jose Maceo and Antonio Maceo, both of whom came to tragic ends under the most heroic and thrilling circumstances. The death of Antonio Maceo, the greatest of this family of born patriots, is worthy of commemoration in art and song. In the beginning of the winter of 1896 he resolved to lead his cavalry into the province of Havana, to threaten the port city, and to give the Spaniards a surprise at their own doors.

He prepared for this daring and hazardous exploit with consummate generalship. He organized the patriot army of the mountains of Pinar del Rio, and put it under General Rius Rivera, with whom he had fought in the ten years' war. He made strong the prefectures of the interior by provisions which would last for months. Arms and ammunition had been landed, and the Cuban army was in a condition for aggressive work. On December 4, 1896, General Antonio Maceo crossed the trocha, and entered the province of Havana with about fifty raiders, among them his chief of staff and other most ardent and brave officers. Weyler was searching for him:1 the mountains of Pinar del Rio. Antonio's purpose Otis to destroy the suburbs of Havana, and then to join General Maximo Gomez, who was marching from the west, and to arrange with him a plan for the winter campaign. It was a dashing raid on December 5, 1896. The raiders crossed the trocha, and a few days later they were joined by a force of some three or four hundred men. They were opposed by a Spanish force under Major Cirujeda, an officer notorious for his cruelty. Maceo arranged his force to strike the enemy, and said: "This goes well. Al machete!"  He obeyed his own order, and led the way on his fiery war-horse. The patriots were met by a discharge of Spanish rifles. A bullet pierced the head of Maceo; another entered his body. He reeled back and fell dead among his faithful officers, who were falling around him. The greatest of the heroes of the Maceo family was no more. On seeing their leader fall, the Cubans retreated, and the body of the dead Maceo fell into the hands of the Spaniards. The latter robbed it, and, tying it to the tail of a horse, dragged it about. They finally left it on the field and returned to their camp. The command of the Cubans now devolved in part upon General Miro. This officer recovered the corpse of Maceo, and called his officers around him. "We must bury our leader in a secret place, and you must take an oath never to reveal the spot until the cause of Cuban liberty is won." This oath was taken, and the body of Antonio Maceo was hidden, for disinterment in future days. The body was covered with blood. General Miro dipped his handkerchief in the blood that had come from the open veins, and said: "Behold, I shall keep this for an ensign, to rally the people if their faith shall falter. He embodied patriotism and loyalty, and this blood will inspire the patriot to fight until the cause for which he fought is gained."

The death of Jose Maceo, the brother in blood and heart of Antonio Maceo, was almost as dramatic. On July 4, 1897, he and his staff and officers had celebrated the independence of the United States. On the next morning, setting out on a white horse, he led a cavalry charge. He was struck in the breast by a bullet, and was taken from his horse. He was borne in silence to the town of Tiarrba, where he died. His death proved an inspiration to the Cuban soldiers. They won a victory on that day over the Spaniards, who lost eighty in killed and two hundred and sixty in wounded.

These heroes of the Cuban cavalry broke the trocha, which had been deemed invincible, and they held firmly the cause of Cuban independence in its dark and wavering days. They were like bridges over which an army passed to liberty.

What was the personal character of Antonio Maceo, who was an inspiration, a firebrand, a torch in these stern times? He was a Toussaint, and not a Dessalines. His heart was as full of mercy as those of his opponents were full of cruelty. His appeal to the people of the United States is a picture of his nobleness of soul. A part of it reads:

"I would not like them to have to shed American blood for our liberty; we are capable alone—provided that within the laws of nations we can obtain all the elements which we need—to expel from Cuba the ruined power of Spain in America. What only troubles me are the victims which the Spaniards make of poor and innocent families, whom they assassinate daily. I wish that in this sense the Americans would interpose their good offices so that the Spanish wild beasts will cease the butchery of defenseless people. For the sake of humanity this intervention should be favored by all civilized countries and nations interested in the moral and material progress of mankind."

In the great battle of Bayamo (1895), in which General Campos was defeated with great loss, Antonio Maceo was the guiding spirit of the field. Campos hoped to shatter the army of Maceo and kill the revolution. In the engagement Campos was wounded, and his principal general, Santocildes, killed. At a shelter near Bayamo there were found thirteen Spanish officers dead. Campos himself escaped by the stratagem of being carried away with the wounded on a stretcher. He lost three hundred men. The character of Maceo was shown in the hour of his victory over the representative of Spain. He sent to the general the following letter:

"To His Excellency the General Martinez Campos.

"DEAR SIR: Anxious of giving careful and efficient attendance to the wounded Spanish soldiers that your troops left behind on the battle-field, I have ordered that they be lodged in the houses of the Cuban families that live nearest the battle-ground, until you send for them. With my assurance that the forces you may send to escort them back will not meet any hostile demonstration from my soldiers, I have the honor to be, sir,

"Yours respectfully,


As noble was his expostulation with General Weyler when the latter had begun to develop his merciless policy:

"What! must even the peaceful inhabitants (I say nothing of the wounded and prisoners of war) be sacrificed to the rage that gave the Duke of Alva his name and fame? Is it thus that Spain, through you, returns the clemency and kindness which we, the redeemers of this suffering people, have exercised in like circumstances? What a reproach for yourself and for Spain! The license to burn the huts, assassinations like those at Nueva Paz and the villa El Gato, committed by Spanish columns, in particular those of Colonels Molina and Vicuna, proclaim you guilty before all humankind; your name will be forever infamous, here and far from here, and remembered with disgust and horror!

"Out of humanity, yielding to the honorable and generous impulses which are identified with both the spirit and the tendency of the revolution, I shall never use reprisals that would be unworthy of the reputation and the power of the liberating army of Cuba. But I, nevertheless, foresee that such abominable conduct on your part and on that of your men will arouse at no distant time private vengeances to which they will fall victims, without my being able to prevent it, even though I should punish hundreds of innocent persons.

"For this last reason, since war should only touch combatants, and it is inhuman to make others suffer from its consequences, I invite you to retrace your steps, if you admit your guilt, or to repress these crimes with a heavy hand, if they were committed without your consent. At all events, take care that no drop of blood be shed outside of the battle-field. Be merciful to the many unfortunate peaceful citizens. In so doing you will imitate in honorable emulation our conduct and our proceedings.



As noble is the following anecdote given by an American writer:

"On one occasion twenty-six Spanish soldiers were captured in a small engagement near Sagua. They were placed in line in front of the headquarters of General Maceo, and when the chief stepped up in front of them they expected instant death. They had been told various stories of cruelty by their officers, and the limbs of every one, with the exception of a veteran surgeon, trembled with fear. 'Well, there is one of two things for you fellows to do,' said General Maceo; 'you can either stay here or go back to your own people. Now, which do you want to do?' They were struck dumb with astonishment, and several tried to kiss the hand of their preserver. They held a consultation among themselves. The surgeon and fifteen of the soldiers decided they would return to their own forces. The remaining eleven decided to join the forces of the rebels. General Maceo paroled the former, after writing a letter explaining to the Spanish commander the bravery of his men, and how they had been compelled to surrender. He then sent them back rejoicing, accompanied by an armed escort, carrying a flag of truce."

Such was the man who set at naught the trocha, and swept with his raiders from Santiago to the mountains of Pinar del Rio.

The following is a list of the leaders, colored and white, who faced the problem the solution of which was, at last, to make Cuba free:

President and political leader, Jose Marti, white; general-in-chief, Maximo Gomez, white.

First division, comprising the departments of Cuba, Guantanamo and Baracoa: major-general, Antonio Maceo, colored; brigadier-general, Jose Maceo, colored. General officers: Pedro Perez, white; Quintin Bandera, colored; Alfonso Goulet, colored; Felix Ruen, colored.

Second division, comprising the departments of Manzanillo, Bayamo and Cauto: major-general, Bartolome Masso, white; brigadier-general, Jose Rabi, colored. General officers: Amador Guerra, white; Jesus Rabi, colored; Juan Vega, colored; Saturnino Lora, white.

Third division, comprising the departments of Holguin, Magari, Tunas and Guaimero: major-general (vacant); brigadier-general, Francisco Borrero, white. General officers: Jose Miro, white; Luis de Feria, white; Angel Guerra, white; N. Marrero, white.

The Hon. Richard Olney, at that time Secretary of State of the United States, wrote to President Cleveland on December 7, 1896, of this pivotal period of the Cuban contest:

"Confined in the outset, as in the ten years' insurrection which began at Yara in October, 1868, to the eastern portion of the island, where the topography and absence of settled centers especially favored the desultory warfare apparently normal to this class of contests, the present insurrection very early took proportions beyond those of its predecessor, and therewith assumed an aggressive phase, invading the populous central and western districts. Passing the defensive lines, or trochas, traversing the island from north to south, formidable bodies of the revolutionary forces early in the year established themselves in the rich sugar-planting districts of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Matanzas, made hostile forays almost in sight of Havana itself, and advancing westward, effected a lodgment in the fertile tobacco-fields of Pinar del Rio, which has so far resisted all efforts of the Spanish forces to overcome.

"Although statistics of their military strength are attainable with difficulty, and are not always trustworthy when obtained, enough is certainly known to show that the revolutionists in the field greatly exceed in numbers any organization heretofore attempted; that with large accessions from the central and western districts of the island a better military discipline is added to increased strength; that instead of mainly drawing, as heretofore, upon the comparatively primitive population of eastern Cuba, the insurgent armies fairly represent the intelligent aspirations of 'a large proportion of the people of the whole island; and that they propose to wage this contest, on these better grounds of advantage, to the end, and to make the present struggle a supreme test of the capacity of the Cuban people to win for themselves and their children the heritage of self-government.

"A notable feature of the actual situation is the tactical skill displayed by its leaders. When the disparity of numbers and comparatively indefensible character of the central and western Vego country are considered, the passage of a considerable force into Pinar del Rio, followed by its successful maintenance there for many months, must be regarded as a military success of a pronounced character.

"So, too, the Spanish force in the field, in garrison on the island, or on its way thither from the mother-country, is largely beyond any military display yet called for by a Cuban rising, thus affording an independent measure of the strength of the insurrection.

"From every accessible indication it is clear that the present rebellion is on a far more formidable scale as to numbers, intelligence and representative features than any of the preceding revolts of this century; that the corresponding effort of Spain for its repression has been enormously augmented; and that, despite the constant influx of fresh armies and material of war from the metropolis, the rebellion, after nearly two years of successful resistance, appears to-day to be in a condition to prolong indefinitely the contest on its present lines."

On the evening of February 15, 1898, a terrible event occurred in the harbor of Havana. The shadows of nightfall had gathered upon the sea. The lights of the whole city glimmered in the mild air. Suddenly a red column of fire rose into the darkness and sank again. A rain of missiles fell upon the water. The boatmen near the column of fire had heard a dull, sullen roar in the sea, as though the bed of the water had been earthquake-riven. The column of fire had revealed the white ship from which it had seemed to proceed. It was a United States war-vessel, the Maine. Immediately the sea was filled with dying men. Two hundred and sixty-six officers and sailors perished. The ship had gone there, to a friendly port, for the protection of American citizens. She had doubtless been blown up by a secret mine exploded by conspiracy or accident.

The Spanish officials in the harbor who saw the column of flame rise into the darkness could hardly have felt the prophetic import of the event. The destruction of the proud battle-ship was to reveal to the American mind centuries of cruelty, injustice and wrong. It was to lead America, as with one voice, to demand that in the name of humanity and liberty the oppressions of Spain on the continent should forever cease. The judgment-day of three centuries was in it. Whose hand exploded the mine none know or ever will know, but the world saw in the explosion a resemblance to the deeds of the past. That column of flame, like a candle of destiny, made the past clear again, and aroused the human will to decide that in the future such things should not be. From that dark death of the martyrs of the Maine  began an inquiry that gained the cause of all the Cuban patriots who fought for liberty. The Maine  sank helplessly in the still waters; but the sunrise of freedom came in the morning. The hour of the fate of the Maine  was that of the end of the Spanish empire in the western world.