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Charles Morris

Maceo and the Struggle for Cuban Independence

On the 24th of February, 1895, the people of Havana, the capital of Cuba, were startled by a report that rebels were in the field, a band of twenty-four having appeared in arms at Ybarra, in the province of Matanzas. Other small bands were soon heard of elsewhere in the island. A trifle this seemed, in view of the fact that Cuba was guarded by twenty thousand Spanish troops and had on its military rolls the names of sixty thousand volunteers. But the island was seething with discontent, and trifles grow fast under such circumstances. Twenty years before a great rebellion had been afoot. It was settled by treaty in 1878, but Spain had ignored the promises of the treaty and steadily heaped up fuel for the new flame which had now burst out.

As the days and weeks went on the movement grew, many of the plantation hands joining the insurgents until there were several thousand men in arias. For a time these had it all their own way, raiding and plundering the plantations of the loyalists, and vanishing into the woods and mountains when the troops appeared.

The war to which this led was not one of the picturesque old affairs of battles and banners, marches and campaigns. It displayed none of "the pomp and circumstance of glorious war;" forest ambushes, sudden attacks, quick retreats, and brisk affrays that led to nothing forming the staple of the conflict. The patriots had no hope of triumphing over the armed and trained troops of Spain, but they hoped to wear them out and make the war so costly to Spain that she would in the end give up the island in despair.

The work of the Cuban patriots was like the famous deeds of Marion and his men in the swampy region of the Carolina coast. Two-thirds of Cuba were uncultivated and half its area was covered with thickets and forests. In the wet season the low-lands of the coast were turned into swamps of sticky black mud. Underbrush filled the forests, so thick and dense as to be almost impassable. The high bushes and thick grasses of the plains formed a jungle which could be traversed only with the aid of the machete, the heavy, sharp, cutlass-like blade which the Cuban uses both as tool and sword, now cutting his way through bush and jungle, now slicing off the head of an enemy in war.

Everywhere in the island there are woods, there are hills and mountains, there are growths of lofty grass, affording countless recesses and refuges for fugitives and lurking-places for ambushed foes. To retire to the "long grass" is a Cuban phrase meaning, to gain safety from pursuit, and a patriot force might lie unseen and unheard while an army marched by. In brief, Cuba is a paradise for the bush-fighter, and the soldiers of Spain were none too eager to venture into the rebel haunts, where the flame of death might suddenly burst forth from the most innocent-looking woodland retreat or grass-grown mead. The soldiers might search for days for a foe who could not be found, and as for starving out the rebels, that was no easy thing to do. There were the yam, the banana, the sweet potato, the wild fruits of the woodland, which the fertile soil bore abundantly, while the country-people were always ready to supply their brothers in the field.

Such was the state of affairs in Cuba in the rebellion of 1895. For a time the rebels gathered in small bands with none but local leaders. But the outbreak had been fomented by agents afar, fugitives from the former war, and early in April twenty-four of these exiles arrived from Costa Rica, landing secretly at a point near the eastern end of the island.

Chief among the new comers was Antonio Maceo, a mulatto, who had won a high reputation for his daring aid skill in the past conflict, and who had unbounded influence over the negro element of the rebellion. Wherever Maceo was ready to lead, they were ready to follow to the death if he gave the word, and he soon proved himself the most daring and successful soldier in the war.

He did not make his way inland with safety. Spanish cavalry were patrolling the coast to prevent landings, and Maceo and his comrades had a brisk fight with a party of these soon after landing, he getting away with a bullet-hole through his hat. For ten days they were in imminent danger, now fighting, now hiding, now seeking the wild woodland fruits for food, and so pestered by the Spanish patrols that the party was forced to break up, only two or three remaining with Maceo. In the end these fell in with a party of rebels, from whom they received a warm and enthusiastic welcome.

Maceo was a rebel in grain. He was the only one of the leaders in the former war who had refused to sign the treaty of peace. He had kept up the fight for two months longer, and finally escaped from the country, now to return without the load of a broken promise on his conscience.

The new leader of the rebellion soon had a large following of insurgents at his back, and in several sharp brushes with the enemy proved that he could more than hold his own. Other patriots soon arrived from exile,—Josť Marti, the fomenter of the insurrection; Maximo Gomez an able soldier; and several more whose presence gave fresh spirit to the rebels. The movement, which had as yet been a mere hasty outbreak, was now assuming the dimensions of a regular war, hundreds of patriots joining the ranks of these able leaders, until more than six thousand men were in the field.

Almost everywhere that they met their enemy they were largely outnumbered, and they fought mostly from ambush, striking their blows when least expected and vanishing so suddenly and by such hidden paths that pursuit was usually idle. Much of their strength lay in their horses. No Cossacks or cowboys could surpass them as riders, in which art they were far superior to the Spanish cavalry. Many stories are told of women who rode in their ranks and wielded the machete as boldly and skill-fully as the men, and in this there is doubtless much truth. Their horses were no show animals, but a sore-backed, sorry lot, fed on rushes or colla, there being no other grain, left standing unsheltered, rain or shine, but as tough and tireless beasts as our own bronchos, and ever ready to second their riders in mad dashes on the foe.

The favorite mode of fighting practised by the insurgents was to surprise the enemy by a sharp skirmish fire, their sharp-shooters seeking to pick off the officers. Then, if there was a fair opportunity, they would dash from their covert in a wild cavalry charge, machete in hand, and yelling like so many demons, and seek to make havoc in the ranks of the foe. This was the kind of fighting in which Maceo excelled.

Through 1895 the war went on with endless skirmishes and only one affair that could be called a battle. In this Maceo was the insurgent leader, while Martinez Campos, governor-general of Cuba, a man looked upon as the ablest general of Spain, led the Spanish troops. Maceo had caused great annoyance by attacks on train-loads of food for the fortified town of Bayamo, and Campos determined to drive him from the field. Several columns of Spanish troops were set in motion upon him from different quarters, one of these, fifteen hundred strong, led by Campos himself. On the 13th of July the two armies met, Maceo, with nearly three thousand men, being posted on a stock-farm several miles from Bayamo.

The fight began with a sharp attack on the Spaniards, intended to strike the division under Campos; but by an error it fell upon the advance guard, led by General Santocildes, which was saluted by a brisk fire from the wooded hill-sides. Santocildes fell dead, and a bullet tore the heel from the governor-general's boot.

Maceo, surmising from the confusion in the Spanish ranks that some important officer had fallen, now launched his horsemen upon them in a vigorous machete charge. Though Campos succeeded in repelling them, he felt himself in a critical situation, and hastily drew up his whole force into a hollow square, with the wagons and the dead horses and mules for breastworks. Around this strong formation the Cubans raged for several hours, only the skill of Campos saving his men from a disastrous rout. An assault was made on the rear guard early in the affray, Maceo hoping to capture the ammunition train. But its defenders held their ground vigorously, and fought their way to the main column, where they aided to form the square. Finally the Spaniards succeeded in reaching Bayamo, pursued by the Cubans and having lost heavily in the tight. They were saved from utter destruction by Maceo's lack of artillery, and Campos was very careful afterwards not to venture near this daring leader without a powerful force.

Maximo Gomez, one of the principal leaders in the earlier war, had now been appointed commander-in-chief of the Cuban forces, with Antonio Maceo as his lieutenant-general. He had made his way westward into the province of Santa Clara, and in November Maceo left the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba to join him. In his way lay the trocha, the famous device of the Spaniards to prevent the free movement of the Cuban forces. It may be of interest to describe this new idea in warfare, devised by the Spaniards to check the free movement of their rebel foes.

The word trocha means trench, but the Spanish trochas were military lines cut through the woods and across the island from side to side, and defended by barbed-wire fences, while the felled trees were piled along both sides of the roadway, making a difficult breastwork of jagged roots and branches. At intervals of a quarter-mile or more along this well-guarded avenue were forts, each with a garrison of about one hundred men, it needing about fifteen thousand to defend the whole line of the trocha from sea to sea.

Such was the elaborate device adopted by Campos, and by Weyler after him, to check the Cuban movements. We need only say here that, despite its cost and the number of men it tied up on guard duty, the trocha failed to restrain the alert islanders, Gomez had crossed it in his movement westward, and Maceo now followed with equal readiness. He made a feint of an attack in force on one part of the line, and when the Spaniards had concentrated to defend this point, he crossed at an unprotected spot, without firing a shot or losing a man.

Westward still went the Cubans, heedless of trochas and Spaniards. From Santa Clara they entered Matanzas province, and from this made their way into the province of Havana, bringing the war almost to the gates of the capital. Spain had now sent more than one hundred thousand troops across the ocean, though many of these were in the hospitals. As for the Cubans, the island had now risen almost from end to end, and their force was estimated at from thirty to fifty thousand men. It was no longer a rebel outbreak that Spain had to deal with, it was a national war.

By the end of the year the Cubans were firmly fixed in Havana province, many negro field-hands and Cuban youths having joined their ranks. They fought not only against the Spaniards, but against the bandits also, of whom there were many abroad plundering from both sides alike. These were hanged by the patriots whenever captured. Maceo was the active fighter of the force, Gomez being occupied in burning sugar-cane fields and destroying railroads, so as to deprive Spain of the sinews of war.

In January, 1896, a new movement westward was made, Maceo leading his men into the province of Pinar del Rio, which occupies the western end of the island. Here was the great tobacco district, one into which insurrection had never before made its way. Within a year rebellion had covered the island from end to end, the Spaniards being secure nowhere but within the cities, while the insurgents moved wherever they chose in the country. The sky around the capital was heavy with smoke by day and lurid with the flames of burning fields at night, showing that Gomez was busy with his work of destruction, burning the crops of every planter who sought to grind his cane.

Let us now follow the daring mulatto leader through the remainder of his career. General Weyler had now succeeded Campos, and began his official life with the boast that he would soon clear the provinces near Havana of rebels in arms. But he was hardly in the governor's chair when Maceo was back from the west and swooping down on the city of Jaruco, which he looted and burned.

Weyler sent troops into Pinar del Rio, where they found no one to oppose them, and he was soon able to inform the world by a proclamation that this province was pacified. But the ink was barely dry upon it when Maceo, having burnt the port of Batabano, on the southern coast, was back in the "pacified" province, where he made his head-quarters in the mountains and defied all the power of Spain.

Instead of seeking him here, Weyler now attempted to confine him by building a new trocha, cutting off that end of the island. This took two months to complete, during which Maceo continued his work almost unopposed, destroying the tobacco of loyalists, defeating every force sent against him, and leaving to Spain only four fortified cities in the southern part of the province.

Not until autumn opened did Weyler take the field, marching into Pinar del Rio at the head of thirty thousand men, confident now of putting an end to the work of his persistent foe, whom he felt sure he had hemmed in with his trocha. Between the two forces, Spanish and Cuban, the province was sadly harried, and became so incapable of supporting a large force that Maceo was obliged to dismiss the most of his men.

Leaving the slender remnant under the control of one of his lieutenants, he once more passed the trocha, this time rowing round its end in a boat and landing in Havana province. He had sent orders in advance for a concentration of the Cuban forces in this region, that he might give Weyler a new employment.

The daring partisan leader was near the end of his career, brought to his death by the work of a traitor, as was widely believed. While waiting for the gathering of the forces, he, with the few men with him, was fired on from a Spanish ambush, and fell, mortally wounded.

Thus died the most dashing soldier that the Cuban rebellion called into the field. Dr. Zertucha, of his staff, was charged with treachery in leading him into this ambush, though that is by no means proved. Maceo was one of nine brothers, all soldiers, and all of whom had now died in the great struggle for Cuban independence. His body was recovered from the enemy after a desperate fight; his valiant spirit was lost to the cause. Yet his work had not been without avail, and the country for which he had fought so bravely was left by him on the highroad to liberty.