Ch 8: The Insurgent Government

After the burning of Esperanza, I turned off to overtake the Government, and found them ten miles away, settled in Palmarito, as if nothing had transpired. Travel-stained, unshaven, and filthy, I presented a deplorable appearance; but the officials received me warmly, and first the Vice-President, then General Lacret, and finally the President, placed their quarters at my disposal. There were but few houses in this Cuban village, but they were well-built and commodious, the residents eagerly competing for the honours of hospitality.
   The Vice-President, with whom I stayed, was the guest of a charming Cuban family. They had but one spare bedroom, which Dr. Capote had insisted on relinquishing to a sick officer, Dr. Betencourt, while we slung our hammocks on the spacious veranda. But a few minutes after my arrival President Maso invited me to dine with him. I accepted with alacrity, and not wishing to lose time, plunged into the object of my visit. He at once dispelled any existent doubts as to the absolute rejection of Spain's autonomy by the Cubans in arms. The conversation was carried on entirely in English, for the general understood it perfectly, though with a limited vocabulary, and both his secretaries spoke fluently.
   "Senor Presidente," I said, "I wish to know your exact position regarding the autonomy offered by Spain. There are many in Havana who say the Cubans are ready to surrender, being tired of the war."
   "I am glad you are here," he replied; "we are unable to treat directly with any government, and shut off as we are from the outside world, we can now state our position through the Press. At the close of the ten years' war, I reluctantly gave up my command, accepting the terms of the Zanjon treaty in some degree of faith. My force was the last to disband, but when we surrendered to General Campos and returned home, we found we had been duped. In defiance of the amnesty many officers were seized and killed or deported, and history records the shameful repudiation of every clause of the agreement by the Madrid Government. Not one of the promised reforms was instituted. I protested to the Governor-General, and was flung into a dungeon, held for months without trial, and finally exiled. In 1881, I returned to Cuba, to find affairs had gone from bad to worse; the same corrupt Spaniards held absolute rule, and a reign of terror had been instituted to silence all protestors by deportation without trial.
   "The attitude of Spain in the past guides us now. The offer of autonomy is an explicit declaration of impotency, a bait today to sustain a situation which but yesterday was to be sustained by fire and sword, by extermination. The logical process of this we have seen before. We were once tricked to peace, and the old regime was then re-enforced. Today their strength has failed, and they try again for peace by compromise. The Peninsular Spaniard will rule and control as before, and nothing can guarantee tranquillity but absolute separation, since Spain is Spain."
   In such amicable and open fashion, our interview continued for some forty five minutes, and then we came to my most important question; the very purpose, in fact, for my journey here. "Do you directly favour intervention of the United States in your battle with Spain?"
   The President hesitated a moment. "Yes, for the sake of humanity I do, though I do not anticipate great help from that quarter. President McKinley has many precedents in Europe to follow; the interference of the Powers in Belgium in 1830, and the struggles in Greece, Hungary, and other points in Eastern Europe; but he long allowed Weyler's regime without protest, and is hardly likely to intervene now. Our one hope is to sustain the fight until Spain's rash boast of 'last dollar and last man' has been fulfilled, or the nation realises that it is fruitless to prolong the struggle which has cost her dear."
   While with the Government, I met most of the prominent men of the East, who had come to confer with the President. Reared in every luxury, they still made the best of the life of hardship in the field, but the continuing stress of long marches, battle-weariness and meagre rations was telling greatly on them.
   Owing to the scarcity of resources in the area, the Government, on January 13th, moved to Sabana la Mar, only twenty six miles east of Moron, the terminus of the Trocha. We had a wet and miserable ride; the streams were swollen, and the official archives, loaded on pack mules, were drenched. The river Caunao was crossed with difficulty, and it was late when we reached our destination.
   I swung my hammock wearily where I could keep one eye on the trail that led to the Spanish positions. I was dozing, the practico also, when sudden footsteps coming from that direction aroused me. To cock my Winchester and spring up was the work of an instant; but only a boy in white linen suit hove in sight. Angry at such an absurd alarm, I answered his greeting sharply, "Que! What do you want?"
   "A horse, Senor!" "For the love of God, sir, please give me a horse. Have pity and don't send me away."
   "Who are you? Where do you come from?" The lad nodded his head toward the Trocha and I shouted, "Over there? Then you are a Spaniard."
   His dark eyes flashed at this calumny, and he dropped on his knees, weeping, kissing my hand, and begging for a horse. Then I saw that my visitor was a girl disguised; the delicate features and heaving bosom betrayed the secret. The poor child - she was but sixteen, was worn out by fatigue and excitement, and not until we had let her rest awhile in my hammock, could we learn her story.
   Her name was Rosa Gonzales. Her mother had long been dead; her father had marched East with Gomez, and she feared was killed. Before the war, they owned a small plantation near San Andres; but it was destroyed, and the girl, with a brother and aunt, crossed the Rio Jatibonico, where they lived in a small hut in the hills. But lately the guerilla had infested the neighbourhood; and while the aunt went to the city, Rosa in boy's clothes, and her brother, started to cross the Trocha together to find their father. But they were shot at from the forts and her brother was killed. For two days she had lain hidden; and then, during a heavy rain that drove the patrols to the forts, she clambered over the barbed barricade, waded the ditch, and finally had struck our camp. Her hands were terribly lacerated, and she was completely unnerved by her experiences, but she slept quietly for three hours, and then we marched, Rosa perched on the saddle before me. By nightfall I had my weary protégée in a pacifico's house, at a fertile ranch where there were women to care for her, and food of a sort to eat. When I next saw my little friend, I found her too ill to talk.
   "Silencio! Tiene calentura!" (She has fever), said the motherly old nurse, as I drew aside the raw-hide door, and entered the farmhouse.
   I stooped and kissed the little oval face, now burning with fever, and whispered that Cuba would soon be free, she would find her father, and they would be very happy. My words brought a hopeful light into her beautiful eyes, but destiny seemed universally cruel in Cuba. Next day I fashioned a rude cross for her grave, and wrote across it "Por Cuba."
   On the 21st I joined General Roloff, who was marching across the province. His father was a Russian officer who was forced to flee for a political offence and had married an American. Their son identified himself with the Cuban cause; and both in the ten years' war and the last struggle, he has been a prominent figure, though since his term as Secretary of War has elapsed, he has not held active command.
   With General Roloff and staff we followed a trail through a wild scene of desolation; beautiful haciendas were still smouldering, and the road was strewn with rotting carcasses of cattle wantonly slaughtered to starve out the insurgents. Pueblo Nuevo and a dozen villages were destroyed, and the whole district deserted. We experienced great difficulty in securing food, until Jack and I rode foraging, and I finally stalked a deer which lasted two days. Our route for many miles lay through dense forest; Jack and I rode ahead with a practico to scout. The marching was heavy, and the woods were infested with bandits who gathered in cattle and sold them to the Spaniards, The districts near Spanish cities were very unsafe, and caused me many adventures at various times, though in Cuba Libre travelling was secure, and plateados and guerillas unknown. We encountered one suspicious band, but they saw we were both heavily armed, and kept a respectful distance.
   We reached the highroad of Gerinimo, and then advanced warily toward Puerto Principe. On the Camino Real, near a ruined chapel, Maceo two years before had made one of the fiercest machete charges of the war. Three hundred Spanish soldiers were surprised and cut to pieces by one-half their number of Cubans. Their dry bones lay in the dust as we rode past.
   Near the city we met several wounded men en route for the hospital. One brave lad shot in the chest was obviously dying, and though suffering intense pain, the poor fellow thought only of his mother in the Vedado in Havana. He muttered out a dying message which I promised to deliver. "My poor Mother, she will have no one now!" he remarked sadly, and then the blood gushed from his mouth, and he was dead. I detached the blood-stained scapular from his body before we buried him, but had no opportunity for many months to send the relic to the waiting widow in Havana, and tell her how her boy died for Cuba.
   Crossing a glorious grazing country toward Arroyo Blanco, I rode over to spend a day with General Recio, who was resting his war-worn troops within sight of the city. Here I obtained a guide and escort, and marched down the Santa Cruz highroad to Palma. Turning sharply to the right through an invisible opening in the palmetto hedge, we struck a secret highway that led across one of the Marquis of Santa Lucia's estates at Najaza, sequestered on paper by Spain. Riding through majestic palm-groves across a savannah in which a herd of semi-wild cattle were grazing, we mounted a hill and were abruptly halted by the rebel guard occupying a Spanish fort captured by Maceo. From them we learned that the marquis was visiting his estate; and though the residence was destroyed, we found the ex-president of the republic domiciled in a comfortable, if unpretentious, thatched house. The old gentleman welcomed me warmly in purest English; I went to pay a call and stayed a week.
   He was deeply interested in the welfare of his fair relative, Evangelina, and gladly accepted photographs I had taken of her in prison. This revived old memories, for civil strife divides the most united of families, and ties are rudely snapped never to be rejoined. "Poor child," he mused, "as queenly as her mother. We Cubans have all had sad histories."
   The week passed quickly, for there were many families to visit, and much to see. It was here I met Senorita Iluminada Agremonte, one of Cuba's most devoted daughters. She is happily named for her sweet disposition, and hundreds of Camagueyan patriots invoke a blessing on her for gentle ministrations to the sick and wounded. To the old marquis she is devoted; and a union of this May with December is possible, for Don Salvador is very young for his years, and wishes to leave his estates to the girl he has known from her baby days.
   Here, in the heart of Cuba Libre, I realised even more that the Republic was practically an established fact. In the prefect's house nearby, the children of the district were taught to read and write, and study the history of their country from school books printed in the official press. There were five papers published in the field, the best of which, "El Cubano Libre," the official organ of Camaguey, edited and produced by Captain Ortiz, boasted of tolerable woodcuts, and was unique in the annals of illustrated journalism.
   Parts of Camaguey, especially the eastern borders, and the succeeding country in the Cauto district, are very thickly wooded. The exuberance of the Cuban forest is incredible, and equals the profuse tangle of the African jungle. The ground is covered with decaying leaves and rotting trunks, around which brilliant lizards dart continuously, and pythons of varying size abound. The lower trees form a canopy with the adnascent creepers that circle upward from the dense undergrowth. Royal palms, with smooth columnar stems and finely pinnated leaves, usually fringe the woods, but even they are entwined with the parasitic plants and creepers that tangle the branches of the brighter trees in a vast struggle for existence and upward growth. Wild boar and deer are common in the inner recesses, though cartridges were not, and they were thus seldom molested. The scorpion on land and the cayman or crocodile in the rivers and brooks are alone to be avoided. Cuban snakes are generally harmless, the iguana and chameleon abound. There are birds in abundance, of beautiful plumage; parrots and humming birds are the most common. Vultures, fattened on carrion, make efficient scavengers, and nature has supplied both saprophagans and saprophytes in abundance to deal with the decaying matter of their respective kingdoms. The timber of Cuba is especially valuable, ebony, mahogany, cedar, and other cabinet woods abounding.
   On February 2nd I visited Guimaro, a strongly fortified little city captured by Garcia the previous year. A terrible incident of the siege was related to me here by an ex-Spanish sergeant, captured with the garrison, but who, with eighty others, elected to remain with the rebels rather than be liberated to miserable treatment in the Imperial army. Rita Salcedo, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a loyal Spanish planter, was secretly betrothed to the Cuban administrator of her father's estate near the town. When Weyler's atrocities rang through the island this young man joined his countrymen in the field. Before Guimaro was attacked, he sent unsigned letters to her, by a guard he had known in the days of peace.
   From Guimaro to Bayamo, the road is excellent, and passing south of the historical Zanjon, where the treaty of 1878 was signed, we crossed the Rio Jobabo into Santa Luisa on February 3rd. General Enrique Colazzo was at Santa Luisa, quartered in a palatial residence furnished probably by Maple. For five days previously we had traversed a bad district and suffered many privations through prairie fires. Thanks, however, to my hospitable host, and his chief of staff. Colonel Hernandez, I was soon refreshed in body and mind by a bath, a meal, clean clothes, and sleep. Colonel Charles Hernandez, then of Colazzo's staff, is the typical American Cuban. Retaining the warm-hearted and chivalrous traits of his race, but reared in the free atmosphere of the United States, and untarnished by the environment of Spain's mediaeval civilization, he is a living example of what the true Cuban may be under happier auspices.
   This command led the assault against Victoria de Las Tunas, the fourth city of Santiago. It was captured on September 13th, '97, by Garcia, after three days' hard fighting. Weyler reported the city as impregnable, and its fall caused great chagrin in Spain. Standing in an open plain, it was defended by twenty-one blockhouses, and a heavy stone cuartel, which was alone garrisoned by two hundred men. By throwing up entrenchments at night, Garcia was able to hold his ground with small loss. His tactics might have been profitably followed by Shaffer, both against San Juan and Caney, where infantry were exposed to a galling fire, and positions stormed without artillery support.
   Colonel Funston was in command of the artillery manned by Americans and Cubans. The guns were entrenched within four hundred yards of the city, and for three days the bombardment continued, until the outworks and forts were reduced. The stone cuartel remained standing. The Cubans then stormed the city, the dynamite gun was rushed through a breach in the back of a house, and opened fire through a window against the cuartel just across the street, which was soon in ruins. The garrison then capitulated. The insurgent loss was sixty-three, including an Englishman, Major Chapleau, killed by Funston's side. Of the fifteen hundred defenders, forty per cent were killed or wounded. The latter were well cared for, and all the captured soldiers were liberated on the signed promise of their commander that they should be returned to Spain and no longer bear arms. This promise General Luque never kept, and many of the men, enraged at their return to duty, deserted to the Cubans. The bloody guerillas taken in Las Tunas were tried by court-martial and sixty of them executed. All conscripted Spaniards were spared. The guerilla fiends received no mercy from the Cubans, and though far more equal wars give precedents, I think greater clemency might have been exercised. Men avenging the honour and death of wives and sisters at the hands of such brutes may be excused severity, but despite their crime, an execution of sixty at once was demoralizing to the victorious force.
   At the end of January, '98, General Pando from Manzanillo had planned extensive operations with 35,000 men. Three columns were to march simultaneously against Garcia: General Luque from Holguin; Vara del Rey, killed later at El Caney, from Jiguani; and Linares from Santiago. Thus assailed from all sides, Garcia was to be annihilated. Early in February, Luque and Vara del Rey had joined columns at San Francisco, and though warned that I could not continue my journey, I had no stupendous difficulty in evading the enemy, and seeing the futility of their movements.
   During one running fight that I witnessed, General Luque's son was dangerously wounded, and the whole column placed at fault by four hundred rebel cavalry, who marched and countermarched on the flanks, firing into the ranks, but never fighting a pitched battle against the 12,000 soldiers. The number of Spanish shell fired into the woods without touching this skeleton force, before Luque retired to Gibara, I cannot estimate.
   When riding south to Jiguani a few days later, I went ahead and, through a faulty guide, rode into the enemy, escaping capture only by swimming my horse across the broad and swift Cauto River that threatened every moment to sweep me down stream to be riddled by the forts at Embarcadero. I re-crossed later in safety, and re-joined my escort, who had camped in the woods. As we advanced eastward, cattle grew scarcer, and we should have fared badly but for the fortunate advent of Brigadier Portuondo, who had a stock of smoked beef or pemmican.
   On February 12th, camped in a cow-shed at El Jardin, I was awakened at an early hour by a breathless guide. "Wake up, Senor! For God's sake get out from here! General Vara del Rey is but a mile away; his advance guard is just coming in!" We packed up and rode out rapidly, only to be stopped by a second scout. "Halt if you value your life, Sir! The gringoes are just ahead, camped on that hill." We were between two columns. Portuondo had sent his impedimenta into the woods, and struck across country to the South; but I was anxious to reach General Garcia and complete my mission. To turn off meant days of delay, so I joined a ragged Cuban guerilla preparing to skirmish, hoping to get through during the fight.
   Six Cubans held a dummy position, firing repeatedly at the advance guard. When they retired, the enemy with a loud cry of "Viva Espana!" dashed up to capture the trinchera. In a moment I saw the tactics; the place was mined. A young lieutenant led the useless charge, and I shuddered to think of his fate. The electrician, a French chemist, lay in the grass behind me. "Let her go, my brave" yelled our commandante. A muffled roar followed. It was a moment too soon. The young Spaniard staggered back, blinded by fragments of earth and stone, his face streaming with blood; others were injured, but one only was killed. Fired a second later, the bomb would have blown to pieces the entire company.
   Latin courage is curious; the ardour that after success will lead men to rush unrestrained to death or victory is damped by reverse. Cuban and Spaniard show the same characteristic. The eager Cubans who had waited impatiently to charge into the enemy under cover of the explosion, now hurriedly retired, allowing the Spaniards to camp unchecked.
   The major collected fifteen of his cavalry to escort me three leagues beyond the enemy. We passed the blackened ruins of the town of Baire, the cemetery of which still remained intact, and rode on into an open plain fringed with woods. Though two houses were smouldering, we had no thought of Spaniards there, when a volley rang from the trees. Our jaded horses intelligently responded to the spur, and we crouched in the saddle and galloped madly to cover. But the enemy's aim was execrable. The pentacapsular Mausers fire quickly, and five distinct volleys rang out before we had reached the trees. At eight hundred yards' range, and despite the flat trajectory of the rifles, no one was hit, though the bullets whistled uncomfortably about us.
   It began to rain; we had lost our trail, but we plunged forward through the calamiferous swamps and dense bush, seeking a place to camp. Seeing lights ahead we rode cautiously toward them. To my relief the friendly challenge rang out, "Alto! Quien va?" I was about to reply "Cuba!" when to my utter astonishment the guide yelled "Espana!" and whispering "Spaniards!" galloped madly away. The Spanish outpost, thinking to entrap us, had given the Cuban challenge, and thanks only to the practico who detected the foreign accent, were we saved. The sentry, thinking by the answer that we were a friendly party, loudly shouted to reassure us, saying they were Spaniards, not "mambis," that the challenge was a ruse, and we must come back.
   At a late hour we off-saddled until daylight and then found our road. On the afternoon of the 16th, heavy firing was heard at Descanso. A company of Garcia's infantry was skirmishing with Vara del Key's column, then erecting a heliograph tower and fort on a hill to signal between Santiago city and Jiguani.
   It was nearly dark when we rode round the enemy's flank, and found General Sanchez coolly camped, with his small escort, within a mile of them. We slept that night with spent bullets sputtering around, and at daybreak I reached General Garcia's headquarters, a league distant, at daybreak on February 17th to find the General and his staff heavily engaged in guerilla action against Weyler's troops and in desperate need of assistance
   After my narrow escapes from the heavy columns attempting to hem in Garcia, I expected to see some interesting fighting. But the enemy always seemed to pass our camp by half a league, though the Cuban flag flew in an open district, and the escort of the general was quartered in large sheds of palm-leaf, similar to the camp shelters used by the British army in West Africa. After witnessing the futility of such vast operations against this small force, only two conclusions were possible. The Spaniards either realised that their cause in Cuba was lost, and exertion beyond an aimless march of devastation to mislead the people at home was useless, or the generals were wilfully prolonging the struggle for the spoils accruing, regardless of their country's impending ruin.

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