Our War With Spain For Cuba's Freedom

by Trumbull White



The Object of the Plan--Slaves of Spain--The Massacre of the Innocents--Deserted Fields and Farms--A Fearful Mortality--The Cubans the Oldest Americans of Caucasian Blood--Women and Children Doomed to Die--An Appeal for Help--Our Manifest Duty.

When General Weyler promulgated his policy of reconcentration he hypocritically claimed that it was intended to protect the noncombatant peasantry of the island, but his sole object was to compel them to put themselves wholly in the power of the Spanish officials. No one knew better than the "Butcher" that the Cuban peasant, no matter what he might publicly profess, was bound with all his heart to the cause of free Cuba, and that he never lost an opportunity to aid the insurgents by every means in his power. And when he formulated the plan compelling them to abandon their homes in the rural districts, and to herd like sheep in the cities and towns which were still under his rule, it was to prevent them from giving aid and information to the rebels. He must have known that the enforcement of this edict meant certain starvation to thousands of the inoffensive inhabitants, but no thought of the misery and injustice which he thus wrought upon them deterred him in his determination to crush the unhappy people, and keep them still the slaves of Spain.

The order found a very large proportion of the working classes absolutely destitute of money, and the men, knowing there was no work for them in the towns, hesitated about going with their families, while they did not dare to remain in their poor homes, where, at least, they could be sure of food. The consequence was that thousands of homes were deserted. The women and children were sent to the towns to look out for themselves as best they could, while the men joined the insurgent army. In a number of cases wives refused to be separated from their husbands, and followed them into the ranks of the revolutionists, where they fought like the Amazons of old. Some of them found a melancholy pleasure in nursing the sick and wounded, others fought side by side with the men, and the fear of death was not half as strong as the thoughts of the horrors which awaited them at their homes, or among the reconcentrados in the towns. Marriages have been solemnized, and children have been born upon the fields of battle. Spain is nursing a forlorn hope when she counts on subduing patriots like these.


Hon. C. W. Russell, an attache of the Department of Justice of the United States, went to Cuba shortly after the order for reconcentration went into effect. It was his purpose to learn by personal observation how much or how little truth there was in the reports that had come to this country regarding the terrible suffering among the reconcentrados. He states the result of his investigations as follows:

"I spent just two weeks in Cuba, visited Havana, went south to Jaruco, southwest to Guines, northeast to Matanzas, eastwardly about two hundred miles through the middle of the country to San Domingo, Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande. I visited Marianao, a short distance west of Havana, and saw along the railroad thirty
or forty towns or stations. In Havana I visited the Fossos, the hospital prison at Aldecoa, where I talked with the father of Evangelina Cisneros, and a place called the Jacoba. I found reconcentrados at all three places, and begging everywhere about the streets of Havana.

"The spectacle at the Fossos and Jacoba houses, of women and children emaciated to skeletons and suffering from diseases produced by starvation, was sickening. In Sagua I saw some sick and emaciated little girls in a children's hospital, started three days before by charitable Cubans, and saw a crowd of miserable looking reconcentrados with tin buckets and other receptacles getting small allowances of food doled out to them in a yard. In the same city, in an old sugar warehouse, I saw stationed around the inside walls the remnants of twenty or thirty Cuban families.

"In one case the remnant consisted of two children, seven or eight years old. In another case, where I talked to the people in broken Spanish, there were four individuals, a mother, a girl of fourteen, and two quite small girls. The smallest was then suffering from malarial fever. The next had the signs on her hands, with which I had become familiar, of having had that dreadful disease, the beri-beri. These four were all that order of concentration had left alive of eleven. At San Domingo, where two
railroads join, the depot was crowded with women and children, one of the latter, as I remember, being swollen up with the beri-beri, begging in the most earnest way of the few passengers.

"San Domingo is little more than a railroad station in times of peace, but at present it has a considerable population, living in cabins thatched with the tops of royal palm trees, composed of the survivors of the reconcentrados. The huts are arranged close together in a little clump, and the concentration order required and apparently still requires these people to live within a circle of small block houses, commonly dignified in the dispatches by the name of forts. They had no work to do, no soil to till, no seed to plant, and only begging to live on. I do not know the exact measure of the dead-line circle drawn around them, but there was certainly nothing within it upon which a human being could subsist. Practically they were prisoners. At every one of the numerous stopping places along the road a similar collection of huts could be seen, and at most of them beggars, often nice looking women and beautiful children, invaded the cars. Between the stations, although I traveled always by daylight, as the
trains do not run at night, and I was observing as carefully as possible, I saw no signs of the reconcentrados going away from the forts. If they had gone, it takes seed, instruments, land, and three or four months to raise the vegetable which could be soonest produced, and nowhere away from the block houses was there any sign of vegetables growing. Near the larger towns the circle of concentration seemed to be somewhat larger, and some planting of vegetables, tobacco, etc., seemed to be going on. At this a very few persons, possibly some of the reconcentrados, found employment.


"All along the railroad, as far as could be seen, were stretches of the most fertile and beautiful country, with very few trees, even on the low mountains, and most of these royal palms. I saw many dozens of burned canefields, and one evening, going from Guines to Havana, saw the sky all lighted up along the road with fires, principally of the tall grass of the country, but partly of cane. The whole land was lying perfectly idle, except that I saw two or three or four sugar mills where cane was growing, but in
all such instances the mill and cane were surrounded by forts, manned by soldiers, who are paid, I was told, by the owners. Except in the cities, I saw no indication that any relief whatever was being afforded to the starving people. Neither in Havana nor elsewhere did any priest, religious woman or other person seem to be paying any attention to the wants of the starving, except that at the Fossos, and some other places, charitable Cubans were nursing the sick. The Church, being a state institution, was, so far as I could see, leaving the victims without either bodily or spiritual relief. In fact, the general air of indifference to suffering which seemed to prevail everywhere was astonishing.


"As the country was stripped of its population by the order of concentration, it is easy to believe that 400,000 persons were gathered behind the forts without being given food, medicine, or means of any kind to earn a living, except where in the larger cities some few could find employment in menial offices. Judging by the orphans I was shown at Jacoba, Aidecoa and elsewhere, and from all I saw and heard, I believe that half of the 400,000 have died as the result of starvation. I know from the official
register of the city of Santa Clara, which ordinarily has a population of about 14,000, that the deaths for November were over 1,000, and the number of deaths for December was over 900, and showed an increase, considering the loss of the former 1,000, from its total population. The exact figures for December are 971. At
that city the government was distributing 500 single rations per day out of a total appropriation for the purpose of $15,000. This was not relief, but a mere prolongation of the sufferings of a small part of the reconcentrados of the city.

"So far as any evidence of relief was visible to my eyes or was even heard of by me in all my talks on the island, the surviving 200,000 people are in the same condition and have the same prospect of starvation before them as had their kindred who have died. There is as much need of medicine now as food, and they are getting neither. The reason given by the Spanish sympathizers in Cuba is that the troops must be first fed, and it is certain that many of the soldiers are sick and suffering for want of proper food. I saw many myself that looked so. I was informed on all sides that they had not been paid for eight months, and that most of the civil officials had not been paid for a similar period. It is, therefore, most probable that Spain is practically unable to supply the millions which are immediately necessary to prevent the death of most of the surviving reconcentrados, but this leads to political questions, which I desire to avoid.


"I wish merely to state in such a way as to be convincing that in consequence of the concentration of the people, some 200,000 Cubans are daily suffering and dying from diseases produced by a lack of nourishment, in the midst of what I think must be the most fertile country in the world, and that something must be done for them on a large scale, and at once, or a few months will see their extermination. So far as I could see, they are a patient, amiable, intelligent set of people, some of them whom I saw begging having faces like Madonnas. They are Americans, probably the oldest Americans of European descent. Constant intercourse with the United States has made them sympathize with and appreciate us, who are but six hours by boat from them, if we do not sympathize with or care for them. No order or permission from General Blanco can save the lives of many of them. Indeed, many are too far gone to be saved by the best care and treatment.

"There was no indication of a cessation of hostilities by the insurgents. If they do not voluntarily cease, their tactics are such that Spain cannot conquer them, if at all, before the reconcentrados will have had the finishing stroke. But even the speedy termination of the war would not save many of them. What they need is instant pecuniary assistance to the extent of $20,000 a day, distributed by our consuls. Private charity, it seems, will hardly produce the amount. Twenty thousand dollars would be but ten cents apiece for medicine, clothes and food. When I left Havana I was informed that Consul General Lee had received $5,000 and some hundreds of cans of condensed milk. As there are about 30,000 sufferers in Havana alone, the inadequacy of such contributions is manifest. Whether Congress should make an
appropriation, as in the case of the San Domingo refugees and other cases, it is not for me to say, but I beg the charitable to believe the statement of facts which I have made, and try to realize what they mean."

A correspondent in Cuba gives an interesting account of a case that came under his notice among the reconcentrados in the town of Guadaloupe. It is substantially as follows:

In all misery-ridden Cuba there is no town in which the reign of misery is so absolute as in Guadaloupe. Even the situation of this place might be said to be in "the valley of the shadow of death." It is not upon the earth's surface, but far below, in a broad, deep hole. The all-surrounding hills are not green, but black. For these up-sloping fields, upon which many a rich tobacco crop has been raised, lie now under blackening ashes--the work of insurgent torches. In this low-lying town 3,000 reconcentrados are naked, shelterless and starving. That aid has not come to them till now is because of the ingratitude and treachery of two of their own number.

As the two guilty ones have just paid the penalty of their crime, the Red Cross Society will probably have a relief corps in Guadaloupe by the time this letter is printed.

The tragedy of Guadaloupe, to the denouement of which I was an eyewitness, shows that the insurgents have learned the art of butchery as taught by the Spanish, and that a reconcentrado will sometimes betray the Samaritan who helps him. A faithful mule carried me into Guadaloupe at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the siesta hour. I had come from the coast many miles away, over the hills. As I rode into the town, I said to the mule: "The next artist who is given an order to illustrate Dante's 'Inferno' ought to come here. He could draw from life, pictures more infernal than a mere human mind could conceive."

Reconcentrados lay everywhere under the broiling sun. The mule picked his way between human heaps that looked like so many little mounds of rags. Skeleton legs and arms protruded from out the heaps. Soft moans of mothers and the wailing of little children gave evidence of so many living deaths.


I presented my credentials to the commandante. He was the most genial Spanish official I had met between Havana and Guadaloupe. When he smiled, his face was all kindness. When he spoke of the reconcentrados, tears welled from his eyes. Yet around his mouth and chin were the cruel lines of a nature as stern as it was
commiserative. He told me that the hospital was full, always full; there was room in its wards for only 200 patients, and only one doctor for all. All who entered that place of sickness came out of it, not cured, but dead. Three thousand human beings, mostly women and children, had passed away in that town in three months. Nearly
all had died of starvation and exposure. When the cemetery was full, they began burying in the still burning tobacco fields on the hillsides.

But it was the siesta hour. The commandante excused himself, saying he would rest awhile and advised me to do the same.

The commandante's house was in the center of the town. Round about was a circle of the houses of those who had owned the tobacco fields. Beyond these homes of the well-to-do were hundreds of huts. In these lived the reconcentrados, several families in each, or as many as could huddle within and not pull the roughly constructed frame of palm stalks down about their heads. Outside the circle of huts were the blackened fields and hills. On the tops of the hills, at intervals of 200 yards, was a circle of small houses that looked like sentry boxes. They were really little forts, with four soldiers in each. Beyond the forts were, heaven only knows how many, insurgent guerillas, lynx-eyed human watch dogs, always lurking and waiting for a chance to swoop upon one of the little forts, slay the garrison of four and dash back into the bushes.


At this moment not a soldier was in sight. Perhaps all were sleeping, like the commandante. Or perhaps the soldiers always remained inside the barricades surrounding their forts, fearing that to step outside would be to attract the bullets of the lurking insurgents. For such is warfare in Cuba's hills to-day; much the same sort of warfare our American forefathers knew when each man who stepped from his doorway was likely to become a target for the arrows of the lurking and invisible redskins.

I was making a mental note of this picture of war and misery, when suddenly I saw a human form on the hilltop over which I had just come. The peculiar shape of the white hat worn by this apparition told me it was a soldier. In the middle of the white road he stopped, lowered a burden from his shoulders to the ground. What was that soldier doing there and what was the nature of his apparently heavy burden? From my perch on the balcony I beckoned to the sentry, who was pacing up and down in front of the commandante's house. The sentry came up to the balcony, took one look in the direction of my pointing finger, and then rushed into the house. The next moment the commandante appeared. With a field glass he surveyed the figure on the hilltop.

"He is carrying something," I said, as I watched the man in the distance reshoulder his burden and begin descending the hill.

"A dead man," said the commandante. And he closed the glasses, thoughtfully. Then he gave me a long black cigar.

We waited. At the end of half an hour the soldier approached the house. Yes, on his back he was carrying a corpse.


He laid his burden down in the road and saluted the commandante. A group of officers and soldiers had gathered round. The body was that of a noted insurgent captain. A scrap of paper was produced. It had been found in the dead man's pocket by the soldier who had carried the body into town.

The commandante read the paper. His brow contracted. Now he was all sternness.

"Bring the man, Jose Manual, here," he said to a sergeant,

Five minutes later an old man, all bones and skin, stood before us. The miserable man trembled as with the palsy.

"Si, senor, I did it. I ran over the hill. I informed. I alone am to blame."

Evidently the wretch knew of what he was accused. It was also apparent that he was not the only guilty one.

"Who wrote this for you?" the commandante asked.

"I did, senor; I wrote it."

"The man lies," murmured one of the officers.

"Bring hither the son of Jose Manual," was the next order.

With that, another skeleton, a young one, stepped forward.

"I am here, senor, and I wrote the note. That is all. We two, senor. I wrote and my father ran. He was stronger, that day, than even my younger bones."

The commandante compressed his lips. He turned to the sergeant and said: "At sunset have these two men shot."

The two men merely spat upon the ground. For them death evidently had no terrors. As they were led away they made the sign of the cross again and again upon their naked breasts. A hundred starving wretches followed them in silence.

When we were again alone on the balcony--a broad, square balcony it was--the commandante noticed my look of inquiry.

"The story can be briefly told," he said. "You are simply the witness of a tragedy that had its beginning on this very balcony one month ago. I sent word by the priest to a lady in Havana--an English lady--that we had 4,000 starving people in this town. Could she help us? Always generous, beneficent, self-sacrificing, the lady responded in person. She came by the coast steamer, landed at broad noon, traversed the two miles over which you came a few hours ago from the coast, bringing with her seven ox-cart loads of provisions, clothing and medicine. With her came her daughter, a young girl just over from England. Their charity was distributed from this very balcony to the starving people. The distribution occupied two entire days. Out of 4,000 people, 2,000 were given food and clothing and medicine. She promised the other
half equal relief as soon as she could go to Havana and return again with the stores. On the night before she was to leave us the ladies and gentlemen of the leading families here, together with the officers of my staff, proposed to give the good Samaritans a banquet. The proposal was accepted. All gathered for the banquet on this balcony. I draped the front of the house in the Spanish colors, and hung out all the available lamps. That illumination was our ruin. Thirty-four sat down to dine. Only thirty lived through the first course. Of a sudden a hailstorm of bullets was poured into our midst. A bottle of wine in front of me flew into bits. Not a whole plate or a whole glass was left. We sprang up and fled into the house. Not all of us, though. No. Three men--three of my best officers--had fallen from their chairs, dead. The
other--oh, God!"


The commandante could not continue. He made a gesture indicating that I was to step into the house.

In his room he opened a huge wardrobe and took out a jacket, a tiny coat, such as might be worn by a soldier boy. The sleeves were loaded with the gold lace and golden stars of a colonel in the Spanish army. On the left side of this jacket or coat was a ragged hole.

"The bullet entered here," the commandante said, sorrowfully. "It pierced her heart. The poor mother carried her dead back to Havana. That is all."

I understood. A fatal volley had been poured into that dinner party by insurgents on the hilltops. The house was in the center of the town, and the lamps illuminating the Spanish colors had rendered the balcony the best of targets. These Spanish officers and an innocent young English girl, a Samaritan, were murdered.

And by whom? By the insurgents, who were guided to the hilltops by two of the very reconcentrados whom the victims had saved that day from starvation. One had written a note informing the insurgents of the circumstance, time, and place of the banquet. The other had delivered the note to one of the murderers. Father and son were
equally guilty of ingratitude and treachery. The incriminating note had been found on the dead body of the insurgent captain, carried into town by the soldier of Spain.


At sunset a squad of twenty men, armed and in charge of a first lieutenant, filed out of the barracks. In front of the squad marched the two prisoners, their arms tied together above the elbows, behind their backs. Behind the soldiers came perhaps a thousand of the wretched and starving.

No murmuring, no uplifting of arms, nothing but solemn silence. In front of a wall, lining one of the blackened fields, the prisoners were made to kneel down. A priest stood over them speaking the last consoling words.

Out of the squad of twenty soldiers, eight stepped forth and leveled their rifles at the kneeling father and son.

The eight shots sounded as one, and one of the blackest crimes of this atrocious war was expiated.