War with Spain - Charles Morris

The Reconcentrados and the Military Prisons

In the present chapter we propose to consider the principal causes of American interposition in the war, this being the savage Weylerian policy of concentration and the barbarous treatment of American citizens in Spanish prisons. General Weyler paved the way for intervention in his famous "Reconcentrado" order. Finding the rebels when he came to the government stationed in every part of the island, and failing to dispossess them as he bad engaged to do, he sought to starve them out by cutting oft what he supposed to be their main source of food-supply. By laying waste the country, and depriving them of the food they had been obtaining from the country-people, he fancied that he could through sheer starvation force them into submission.

The result was one without a parallel in the military history of the nations, —the deliberate enforcement of a plan of action which brought starvation to the bulk of the inhabitants of a country, and which had no just claim of efficacy to warrant it. All the pacificos, as the non-combatants were called, were ordered into the cities and towns, —namely, the old men, women, and children, as the brutal order forced most of the young men into the rebel ranks. All their food-plants were then uprooted, their dwellings burned, and their animals driven away. The helpless people were gathered within a line drawn one hundred and fifty yards around a town, or were collected around the forts. They were thus in a great measure prevented from tilling the ground; they had no means of obtaining food beyond the little the town-people could spare in charity; death by bullet was their lot if they ventured to cross the dead-line, and death by disease or starvation was inevitable if they remained.

"War is war," was Weyler's excuse for this barbarous order; but the order was in no proper sense a war necessity, since its effect was to drive the able-bodied into the fields to fight and leave the helpless behind to die. It was "worse than a crime, it was a blunder," for it failed in its original purpose, the insurgents proving able to find what food they required, and having little need of the shelter of the burned huts. The order failed to distress those against whom it was aimed, while it brought the deepest misery to thousands of innocent and helpless people who were crowded into the towns, without food or shelter, and under most unsanitary conditions. As a result, disease and starvation vied with each other in sweeping them away, until, in the words of Consul-General Lee, of the four hundred thousand innocents herded where they could obtain no food no less than two hundred thousand died of starvation. Small-pox, yellow fever, and other dread diseases aided hunger in this fearful work, the people being forced to live amid a filth which in that hot climate, especially in the rainy season, could not but cause pestilence to run rampant over the land.

General Weyler had issued a reconcentration decree upon his arrival in Havana. This it was not convenient to put into effect at that time, and it was deferred until he took the field in person against Maceo, when a new decree was promulgated, under date of October 21, 1896. He gave the pacificos eight days to come in to the fortified places, stating that all who remained in the country after that interval should be treated as enemies,—that is, should be killed wherever found. Zones of cultivation were marked oft, adjoining the towns and villages, which the pacificos were to have permission to cultivate; but this part of the decree seems never to have been carried out, or so imperfectly as to be useless. Such is the statement of travellers, who also state that low-lying and swampy ground was selected for the reconcentrados, —the most insalubrious situations that could well be chosen.

In Jaruco, as described by Richard Harding Davis, the filth lay ankle-deep in streets and plaza, and made its way into a church which was occupied as a barrack. The pacificos occupied closely-built rows of huts, holding from four to six persons each, while ten feet away were cavalry-barracks, occupied by sixty men with their horses, and left in a state of dangerous uncleanliness. No one was vaccinated, and small-pox swept like a consuming fire through huts and barracks alike. Decency of any kind was out of the question. Utter, hopeless dejection was the aspect of the pacificos, most of whom were incapable from weakness of cultivating the ground and waiting for the slow return in food. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, half-clad in rags, they sat listless and hopeless, too dejected even to lift their eyes when money or food was handed them. At Cardenas he saw "babies with the skin drawn so tightly over their little bodies that the bones showed through as plainly as the rings under a glove. They were covered with sores, and they protested as loudly as they could against the treatment that the world was giving them, clinching their fists and sobbing with pain when the sore places came in contact with their mothers' arms."

As time went on the horrors of the situation increased. President McKinley, in his message of April II, 1898, states that a year earlier reconcentration had been extended over all but the two eastern provinces, more than three hundred thousand of the country-people being herded in the vicinity of the towns, without shelter or means of support, poorly clad, and under most unsanitary conditions.

"As the scarcity of food increased with the devastation of the depopulated areas of production," he continues, "destitution and want became misery and starvation. Month by month the death-rate increased in alarming ratio. By March, 1897, according to conservative estimates from official Spanish sources, the mortality among the reconcentrados from starvation and the diseases thereto incident exceeded fifty percent of their total number. No practical relief was accorded to the destitute. The overburdened towns, already suffering from the general dearth, could give no aid. So-called zones of cultivation that were established within the immediate area of effective military control about the cities and fortified camps proved illusory as a remedy for the suffering. The unfortunates, being for the most part women and children, or aged and helpless men enfeebled by disease and hunger, could not have tilled the soil without tools, seed, or shelter, to provide for their own support or for the supply of the cities. Reconcentration worked its predestined result. As I said in my message of last December, it was not a civilized warfare, it was extermination. The only peace it could beget was that of the wilderness and the grave."

In March, 1898, a party of Congressmen visited Cuba with a partly official purpose, that of seeing for themselves and reporting to the government the actual condition of affairs in the island. Among them were Senators Proctor of Vermont, Gallinger of New Hampshire, and Thurston of Nebraska. What they saw and described in eloquent language to Congress was of a soul-harrowing character. Their description of the hopeless, unspeakable misery of the famishing reconcentrados and the frightfully-desolated condition of one of the most fertile islands under the sun roused the American people as they had rarely been aroused before, awakening a pity and indignation which rendered speedy intervention inevitable. So great, to one of sympathetic nature, was the shock of the suffering observed, that the wife of Senator Thurston, who was in delicate health, received her death-stroke from the dreadful scenes witnessed by her on this journey.

The result of it all was, that while General Weyler was living in the utmost luxury at Havana, and boasting of being surrounded by conditions of wealth and ease unequalled in the land (we quote from an interview reported by Mrs. Masterson), nearly or quite a quarter of a million of human beings were perishing of starvation and disease, the result of his brutal order, and under conditions of misery too horrible to contemplate.

This was not the only barbarity practised. That meted out to the "suspects" was quite as brutal. The mass of these were disposed of summarily by the aid of the rifle-shot or the machete. But many were thrown into prison, and kept there under maddening conditions, being held incommunicado ("without communication") in dark little cells, where for days and months they were not permitted to hear a human voice, have book or paper to read, or any alleviation of their suffering. Among them were a considerable number of American citizens, men of Cuban birth who had become naturalized in this country, and some of them of American ancestry. Among these were the Competitor prisoners, a number of men captured on the filibustering vessel of that name, who had been taken May 8, 1896, tried by a Spanish court organized to convict, and sentenced to death on the testimony of the captain of the Spanish gunboat that had made the capture. The execution of this unjust sentence was prevented by the intervention of the United States, but the prisoners were kept in a state of painful imprisonment until the end of Weyler's term of office.

Consul-General Lee earnestly and vigorously protested against the detention of American citizens under such circumstances as a violation of the treaty between the United States and Spain, which, he stated, limited imprisonment incomunicado to seventy-two hours. Weyler replied that his declaration of martial law superseded the treaty; a claim which Lee strenuously denied. Americans, he stated, had been arrested without any declared charges and without the knowledge of their friends and relatives, and put in little eight-by-ten cells, dark and with floors of stone, where they were kept for days, seeing none but their jailers and speaking to no one. Lee protested that every man was by law considered innocent until he had been proved guilty, but he found it difficult to penetrate Weyler's thick moral cuticle with the arguments usually effective among civilized people.

A final case came when Dr. Ruiz, an American dentist of Guanabacoa, a town about four miles from Havana, was arrested, with others of the place, in consequence of an insurgent attack on a railroad train. It was charged that the rebels had received information from these prisoners. Dr. Ruiz could easily have disproved this, but he was given no opportunity to do so, being thrown into prison and kept there for three hundred and sixty hours. He was an athletic man, in perfect health, but the horrors of the incomunicado prison-cell crazed him. While calling pitifully for his wife and children, he was struck on the head with the baton of a brutal jailer, and died in consequence.

This cruel act, which could not be concealed, caused widespread indignation, and General Lee determined that such treatment of United States citizens should cease. Finding that another American, named Scott, was in prison under similar conditions, he demanded his release in words whose import there was no mistaking. Weyler complied; and from that time forward every American arrested was turned over to General Lee, who sent all such to the United States.

This respite applied only to Americans. Cuban suspects had no alleviation of their sufferings except the final one that came from the fusillade of the firing-party. Of those who escaped execution, many suffered exile under aggravating circumstances. A letter from Senor Carpio says of the Cuban exiles who, disembarking at Cadiz, were sent on foot to the distant castle of Figueras: "The unfortunate exiles pass here barefooted and bleeding, almost naked and freezing. At every town, far from finding rest from their fatigue, they are received with all sorts of insults; they are scoffed and provoked. I have two sons who are fighting against the Cuban insurgents, but this does not prevent me from denouncing those who ill-treat their prisoners. I have witnessed such outrages upon the unfortunate exiles that I do not hesitate to say that nothing like it has ever occurred in Africa."

The act of barbarity of the Spanish authorities that excited most interest in the United States was the imprisonment of Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful and cultured girl related to the venerable president of the Cuban republic. The interest in her fate was largely increased by the romance attending her escape. She was arrested upon some slight suspicion, incarcerated for months among prisoners of the criminal and degraded class, and subjected to such indignities as to arouse a world-wide demand for her release or a mitigation of her sufferings. The queen-regent of Spain was applied to, but declined to interfere. Finally, the publisher of the New York Journal, who had been one of the most active advocates for her release, decided upon more radical measures. He sent Mr. Carl Decker, a reporter of his staff, to Havana to aid her in escaping. Mr. Decker was successful in this perilous enterprise. On the night of October 6, 1897, Miss Cisneros escaped with his aid through the broken bars of her cell window, and soon after, disguised as a boy, passed the Spanish officials unsuspected to the deck of an American vessel. In this she was conveyed to the United States, where she was received with a decided ovation.

We have not completed the story of Spanish barbarity. General Lee says that it is "difficult to comprehend the cruelties and enormities of Spanish rule, especially during the last few years," and this remark is well borne out by the facts. The Turkish barbarities in Bulgaria, which called for Russian intervention and brought on a war that almost swept the Turkish empire from the map of Europe, and the later barbarities in Crete, which resulted in European intervention between the combatants, were in no sense worse than those which forced the government of the United States to intervene between the combatants in Cuba. Despite the accusation made in Europe that selfish interest was at the basis of the American intervention, it could easily be shown that the provocation here was quite as great as in similar cases in Europe, and the cruelties as marked as those in Armenia, which the selfish fears of European statesmen permitted to go on unchecked.

We have already, perhaps, said sufficient concerning the massacres of Cubans by the Spanish soldiery under the guise of war. In evidence of this, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly  published in December, 1896, a picture showing the corpses of six Cuban pacificos, firmly bound, their bodies mutilated by machetes, and their faces hacked out of all human aspect. The portrait was also given of their murderer, Benito Cerreros, who had found them working in a field near Sagua, had murdered them, and then brought their bodies to town and had them photographed. His claim was that he had killed them in battle; but he had been stupid enough to forget to remove from their arms and legs the ropes that told the truth of the story.

The people of Sagua celebrated by a public dinner another victory of this worthy. A colonel in the insurgent army who was dying of consumption had captured a Spanish spy, whom he had set free on condition of bringing him some medicine from Sagua. An American was with him in the hut in which he lay concealed. The spy proved a traitor, and revealed the hiding-place of the Cuban to Cerreros, who sought the hut with abundant care for his own safety, as he took with him no less than forty-four men. These shot the two inmates through the windows, and then hacked their bodies with machetes. It was in recognition of this gallant exploit that the Spanish sympathizers of Sagua tendered the victor a dinner.

These will serve as examples of barbarities of which there seem, unfortunately, to have been far too many instances in Cuba. While these cruelties to the people were in progress, those to the land continued night and day, the smoke of its torment being forever in the air. Both parties were active in this work of desolation; the result being that the smoke of burning buildings and cane-fields hung heavily everywhere. In railroading through the country the heat of burning districts would at times render the journey intolerable, sparks and cinders coming through every open car-window, while in the distance the flames of burning buildings could be seen ascending redly towards the sky.

The Spaniards burned the dwellings of the pacificos and the Cubans the cane and tobacco crops and the sugar-mills, and between them they turned a fertile country into a desert of ashes. The grinding of cane was not prevented by the Cubans alone, since Weyler seems to have secretly aided them in this. Suspecting that the planters were playing a double game, and assisting the insurgents in secret while professing to be strongly in favor of Spain in public, he took covert steps to prevent grinding. Consistency would not let him forbid it openly, but it was easy to stop it by arresting the laborers as suspects, seizing the draught oxen for army use, and by other methods, —the result being that the planters who were seemingly under Spanish protection were placed in as serious straits as those exposed to the operations of the insurgents.

Nothing more seems necessary to say in depicting what President McKinley truthfully designated as an "intolerable situation," and in showing the need of intervention of some strong party to prevent the combatants from destroying one another by the cruelest of means, and utterly ruining the fair island on which they were conducting a strife that they sadly miscalled "war." And as the United States stood guarantee for Spain that no other nation should set hostile foot on her island colony, the task of suppression remained for this country to take in hand, in the sacred name of humanity.