History of Cuba: or, Notes of a Traveller in the Tropics
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We have noticed in the preceding chapter, the anomaly of the political condition of Cuba, increasing in prosperity and civilization, imbibing liberal ideas from its geographical position, and yet denied participation in the few shadowy rights which the peninsular subjects of the enfeebled, distracted and despotic parent monarchy enjoyed. We have seen that, in later years, the adoption of more liberal ideas by Spain produced no amelioration of the condition of the colony; and that, on the other hand, a conformity to the legal enactments of the mother country was punished as treason. The result of the movement in the western department, under Tacon, showed the Cubans that they had nothing to hope from Spain, while the cruelties of General O'Donnell increased the great discontent and despair of the people. They now became satisfied that the hope of legal reform was but a chimera; and a portion of the liberal party, seeing no issue from their insufferable position but that of revolution, boldly advocated the intervention of arms.
In 1848 a conspiracy was formed, in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, with the purpose of throwing off the Spanish yoke; but it was soon discovered, and crushed by the imprisonment of various individuals in the central department. The principal leader in this movement was General Narciso Lopez, who succeeded in effecting his escape to the United States, where he immediately placed himself in communication with several influential and liberal Creoles, voluntary and involuntary exiles, and established a correspondence with the remnant of the liberal party yet at liberty on the island, at the same time being aided in his plans by American sympathy. The result of the deliberations of himself, his correspondents and associates, was to try by the chances of war for the liberation of Cuba. The disastrous result of the expedition boldly undertaken for this purpose is already well known.
Before sketching the principal features of this attempt, we may be permitted to declare that, although we deplore the fate of those of our countrymen who perished in the adventure, though we readily concede that many of them were actuated by lofty motives, still we must condemn their action, and approve of the vigorous measures adopted by the federal government to suppress that species of reckless adventure in which the flibustiers engaged.No amount of sympathy with the sufferings of an oppressed people, no combination of circumstances, no possible results, can excuse the fitting out of a warlike expedition in the ports of a nation against the possessions of a friendly power. The flag which has waved unstained in peace and war over a free land for more than three quarters of a century, must remain spotless to the last. The hopes of every free heart in the world are centred on our banner, and we must see to it that no speck dims the dazzling lustre of its stars. No degree of pride at the daring gallantry displayed by the little handful of invaders of Cuba, – a gallantry inherited from a brave ancestry who displayed their valor in the holiest of causes, – must blind our eyes to the character of the adventure which called it forth. We have tears for the fallen, as brothers and men; but our conscience must condemn their errors. While, individually, we should rejoice to see Cuba free, and an integral portion of the Union, nothing will ever induce us to adopt the atrocious doctrine that the ends justify the means. But let us pass to a consideration of the recent events in the records of the island.
Many of the leading patriots of the island undoubtedly believed that the government of the United States would second their efforts, if they should decide to unite themselves to our republic, and boldly raise the banner of annexation. A portion of the Cuban liberals adopted the motto, "Legal Reform or Independence;" and these two factions of the patriots did not henceforth act in perfect concert with each other – a most fatal error to the interests of both. Time and circumstances favored the war and annexation party; the people were more than ever discontented with a government which so oppressed them by a military despotism, and by the enormous weight of the unjust taxation levied upon them. We may here remark that the increase of the public revenue, in the midst of so many elements of destruction and ruin, can only be explained by the facility with which the captain-general and royal stewards of the island invent and arrange taxes, at their pleasure, and without a shadow of propriety, or even precedent.
The consuming population of Cuba amounts to about eight hundred thousand souls, and the total amount of taxes and contributions of various forms is more than twenty-three millions of dollars, in specie, per annum! It is hardly conceivable that such a sum can be extorted from a population whose wealth is precarious, and whose living is so costly. With this revenue the government pays and supports an army of over twenty thousand Peninsular troops in the island; a vast number of employ?s, part of the clergy and half the entire navy of Spain; the diplomatic corps in the United States and Mexico; many officials of rank at home in Spain; and the surplus is remitted to Spain, and spent on the Peninsula on matters entirely foreign to the interests of the island itself. A precious state of affairs!
The colored population of the island, both slaves and free, hated the Spaniards, for good reasons. The war party, moreover, reckoned on the genius of a leader (Lopez) trained to arms,88
In 1850 Lopez succeeded in effecting his first descent upon the island. Having succeeded in baffling the vigilance of the United States government, an expedition, consisting of six hundred and fifty-two men, was embarked on board two sailing-vessels and the steamer Creole, which conveyed the general and his staff. In the beginning of July the sailing-vessels left New Orleans, with orders to anchor at Contoy, one of the Mugeres Islands, on the coast of Yucatan; the general followed, on the Creole, on the 7th. At the time when the troops were embarked on the Creole at Contoy, fifty-two of the number, who had been deceived as to the nature of the expedition, refused to follow the general, and were left on the island, with the intention of returning to the United States in the two schooners. General Lopez, after gaining some information from a fisherman he encountered, resolved to land at Cardenas, on the northern coast of the island, a hundred and twenty miles east of Havana. He calculated that he could surprise and master the garrison before the captain-general could possibly obtain intelligence of his departure from New Orleans. His plan was, to master the town, secure the authorities, intimidate the Spaniards, and then, sustained by the moral influence of victory, proceed to Matanzas by railroad.
Roncali, the captain-general, having received intelligence of the landing at Contoy, despatched several ships-of-war in that direction, to seize upon the general and his followers. The latter, however, escaped the snare, and effected his landing on the 19th. The garrison rushed to arms, and, while a portion of the troops, after immaterial loss, retired in good order to the suburbs, another, under the command of Governor Ceruti, intrenched themselves in the government-house, and gave battle to the invaders. After a sharp skirmish, the building being set on fire, they surrendered; the governor and two or three officers were made prisoners, and the soldiers consented to join the revolutionary colors! Meanwhile, a body of one hundred invaders seized upon the railroad station. The engines were fired up, and the trains made ready to transport the invading column to Matanzas.
But now came a pause. General Lopez, seeing that the native population did not respond to his appeal, knew that as soon as the news of the taking of Cardenas should be circulated, he would be in a very critical situation. In fact, the governor of Matanzas was soon on the march, at the head of five hundred men. General Armero sailed from Havana in the Pizarro, with a thousand infantry, while two thousand five hundred picked troops, under the command of General Count de Mirasol, were sent from Havana by the railroad. Lopez saw that it would be madness to wait the attack of these formidable columns, unsupported save by his own immediate followers, and accordingly issued his orders for the re?mbarkation of his band, yet without relinquishing the idea of landing on some more favorable point of the island.
That portion of the garrison which, in the beginning of the affair, had retreated to the suburbs, finding itself re?nforced by a detachment of cavalry, attempted to cut off the retreat of the invading general; but the deadly fire of the latter's reserve decimated the horse, and the infantry, dismayed at their destruction, took to rapid flight. The Creole accordingly left the port without molestation, and before the arrival of the government steam-frigate Pizarro. The Spanish prisoners were landed at Cayo de Piedras, and then Lopez, discovering the Pizarro in the distance, made for the American continent, where the steamer was abandoned. General Lopez was arrested by the authorities of Savannah, but liberated again, in deference to the public clamor. The Creole was seized, confiscated and sold. The invaders disbanded; and thus this enterprise terminated.
A less enterprising and determined spirit than that of General Lopez would have been completely broken by the failure of his first attempts, the inactivity of the Cubans, the hostility of the American government, and the formidable forces and preparations of the Spanish officials. He believed, however, that the Cubans were ripe for revolt; that public opinion in the United States would nullify the action of the federal government; and that, if he could once gain a foothold in the island, the Spanish troops would desert in such numbers to his banners that the preponderance of power would soon be upon his side; and, with these views, he once more busied himself, with unremitting industry, to form another expedition.
Meanwhile, the daring attack upon Cardenas, while it demonstrated the determination of the invading party, caused great anxiety in the mind of General Roncali. True, he had at his disposal an army of more than twenty thousand regular troops; but he was by no means sure of their loyalty, and he therefore determined to raise a local militia; but, as he suffered only Spaniards to enlist in it, he aroused the jealousy of the Cuban-born inhabitants, and thus swelled the force of opposition against the government. General Lopez was informed of this fact, and based new hopes upon the circumstance.
The Spanish government, having recalled Roncali, appointed Don Jos? de la Concha captain-general of the island, and the severity of his sway reminded the inhabitants of the iron rule of Tacon. It was during his administration that Lopez effected his second landing at Playitas, sixty miles west of Havana. Several partial insurrections, which had preceded this event, easily suppressed, as it appears, by the Spanish government, but exaggerated in the accounts despatched to the friends of Cuba in the United States, inflamed the zeal of Lopez, and made him believe that the time for a successful invasion had at length arrived.99
Many of the foreign officers spoke little, if any, English, and mutual jealousies and insubordinations soon manifested themselves in the little band. They were composed of fierce spirits, and had come together without any previous drilling or knowledge of each other. It was not the intention of the commander-in-chief to sail direct for Cuba, but to go to the neighborhood of St. John's river, Florida, and get a supply of artillery, ammunition, extra arms, etc. He then proposed to land somewhere in the central department, where he thought he could get a footing, and rally a formidable force, before the government troops could reach him. But, when five days out, Lopez discovered that the Pampero was short of coal; as no time could be spared to remedy this deficiency, he resolved to effect a landing at once, and send back the Pampero for re?nforcements and supplies. At Key West he obtained favorable intelligence from Cuba, which confirmed his previous plans. He learned that a large portion of the troops had been sent to the eastern department; and he accordingly steered for Bahia Honda (deep bay). The current of the gulf, acting while the machinery of the boat was temporarily stopped for repairs, and the variation of the compass in the neighborhood of so many arms, caused the steamer to run out of her course on the night of the 10th; and when the morning broke, the invaders found themselves heading for the narrow entrance of the harbor of Havana!
The course of the steamer was instantly altered; but all on board momentarily expected the apparition of a war steamer from the channel between the Moro and the Punta. It appeared, afterwards, that the Pampero was signalized as a strange steamer, but not reported as suspicious until evening. The Pampero then made for the bay of Caba?as; but, just as she was turning into the entrance, a Spanish frigate and sloop-of-war were seen at anchor, the first of which immediately gave chase, but, the wind failing, the frigate gave it up, and returned to the bay to send intelligence of the expedition to Havana. The landing was finally effected at midnight, between the 11th and 12th of August, and the steamer was immediately sent off to the United States for further re?nforcements. As it was necessary to obtain transportation for the baggage, General Lopez resolved to leave Col. Crittenden with one hundred and twenty men to guard it, and with the remainder of the expedition to push on to Las Pozas, a village about ten miles distant, whence he could send back carts and horses to receive it. Among the baggage were four barrels of powder, two of cartridges, the officers' effects, including the arms of the general, and the flag of the expedition. From the powder and arms they should not have separated, but have divided that, against contingency.
In the mean time, seven picked companies of Spanish troops of the line had been landed at Bahia Honda, which force was strengthened by contingents drawn from the neighborhood. The march of the invading band to Las Pozas was straggling and irregular. On reaching the village, they found it deserted by the inhabitants. A few carts were procured and sent back to Crittenden, that he might advance with the baggage. Lopez here learned from a countryman of the preparations making to attack him. It was no portion of his plan to bring the men into action with regular troops, in their present undisciplined state; he proposed rather to take a strong position in the mountains, and there plant his standard as a rallying-point, and await the rising of the Cubans, and the return of the Pampero with re?nforcements for active operations.
As soon as Lopez learned the news from Bahia Honda, he despatched a peremptory order to Crittenden to hasten up with the rear-guard, abandoning the heavy baggage, but bringing off the cartridges and papers of the expedition.
But the fatal delay of Crittenden separated him forever from the main body, only a small detachment of his comrades (under Captain Kelly) ever reaching it. The next day, while breakfast was being prepared for them, the soldiers of the expedition were suddenly informed, by a volley from one of the houses of the village, that the Spanish troops were upon them. They flew to arms at once, and the Cuban company dislodged the vanguard of the enemy, who had fired, at the point of the bayonet, their captain, Oberto, receiving his death-wound in the spirited affair. General Enna, a brave officer, in command of the Spanish troops, made two charges in column on the centre of the invaders' line, but was repulsed by that deadly fire which is the pre?minent characteristic of American troops. Four men alone escaped from the company heading the first column, and seventeen from that forming the advance of the second column of attack. The Spaniards were seized with a panic, and fled.
Lopez's force in this action amounted to about two hundred and eighty men; the Spaniards had more than eight hundred. The total loss of the former, in killed and wounded, was thirty-five; that of the latter, about two hundred men killed, and a large number wounded! The invaders landed with about eighty rounds of cartridges each; the Spanish dead supplied them with about twelve thousand more; and a further supply was subsequently obtained at Las Frias; the ammunition left with Crittenden was never recovered. In the battle of Las Pozas, General Enna's horse was shot under him, and his second in command killed. The invaders lost Colonel Downman, a brave American officer; while General Pragay was wounded, and afterwards died in consequence. Though the invaders fired well and did terrible execution, they could not be prevailed upon to charge the enemy, and gave great trouble to the officers by their insubordination. The night after the battle, Captain Kelly came up with forty men, and announced that the Spanish troops had succeeded in dividing the rear-guard, and that the situation of Crittenden was unknown. It was not until some days afterwards that it was ascertained that Crittenden's party, attempting to leave the island in launches, had been made prisoners by a Spanish man-of-war. They were taken to Havana, and brutally shot at the castle of Atares.
About two o'clock on the 14th of August, the expedition resumed its march for the interior, leaving behind their wounded, who were afterwards killed and mutilated by the Spaniards. The second action with the Spanish troops occurred at the coffee-plantation of Las Frias, General Enna attacking with four howitzers, one hundred and twenty cavalry, and twelve hundred infantry. The Spanish general attacked with his cavalry, but they were met by a deadly fire, thrown into utter confusion, and forced to retreat, carrying off the general mortally wounded. The panic of the cavalry communicated itself to the infantry, and the result was a complete rout. This was the work of about two hundred muskets; for many of Lopez's men had thrown away their arms on the long and toilsome march.
The expedition, however, was too weak to profit by their desperate successes, and had no means of following up these victories. Plunging into the mountains, they wandered about for days, drenched with rain, destitute of food or proper clothing, until despair at last seized them. They separated from each other, a few steadfast comrades remaining by their leader. In the neighborhood of San Cristoval, Lopez finally surrendered to a party of pursuers. He was treated with every indignity by his captors, though he submitted to everything with courage and serenity. He was taken in a steamer from Mariel to Havana.
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