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Cuba in War Time
By Richard Harding Davis, Frederic Remington
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Richard Harding Davis
All rights reserved.
Cuba in War Time
When the revolution broke out in Cuba two years ago, the Spaniards at once began to build tiny forts, and continued to add to these and improve those already built, until now the whole island, which is eight hundred miles long and averages eighty miles in width, is studded as thickly with these little forts as is the sole of a brogan with iron nails. It is necessary to keep the fact of the existence of these forts in mind in order to understand the situation in Cuba at the present time, as they illustrate the Spanish plan of campaign, and explain why the war has dragged on for so long, and why it may continue indefinitely.
The last revolution was organized by the aristocrats; the present one is a revolution of the puebleo, and, while the principal Cuban families are again among the leaders, with them now are the representatives of the "plain people," and the cause is now a common cause in working for the success of which all classes of Cubans are desperately in earnest.
The outbreak of this revolution was hastened by an offer from Spain to make certain reforms in the internal government of the island. The old revolutionary leaders, fearing that the promise of these reforms might satisfy the Cubans, and that they would cease to hope for complete independence, started the revolt, and asked all loyal Cubans not to accept the so-called reforms when, by fighting, they might obtain their freedom. Another cause which precipitated the revolution was the financial depression which existed all over the island in 1894, and the closing of the sugar mills in consequence. Owing to the lack of money with which to pay the laborers, the grinding of the sugar cane ceased, and the men were turned off by the hundreds, and, for want of something better to do, joined the insurgents. Some planters believe that had Spain loaned them sufficient money with which to continue grinding, the men would have remained on the centrals, as the machine shops and residence of a sugar plantation are called, and that so few would have gone into the field against Spain that the insurrection could have been put down before it had gained headway. An advance to the sugar planters of five millions of dollars then, so they say, would have saved Spain the outlay of many hundreds of millions spent later in supporting an army in the field. That may or may not be true, and it is not important now, for Spain did not attack the insurgents in that way, but began hastily to build forts. These forts now stretch all over the island, some in straight lines, some in circles, and some zig-zagging from hill-top to hill-top, some within a quarter of a mile of the next, and others so near that the sentries can toss a cartridge from one to the other.
The island is divided into two great military camps, one situated within the forts, and the other scattered over the fields and mountains outside of them. The Spaniards have absolute control over everything within the fortified places; that is, in all cities, towns, seaports, and along the lines of the railroad; the insurgents are in possession of all the rest. They are not in fixed possession, but they have control much as a mad bull may be said to have control of a ten-acre lot when he goes on the rampage. Some farmer may hold a legal right to the ten-acre lot, through title deeds or in the shape of a mortgage, and the bull may occupy but one part of it at a time, but he has possession, which is better than the law.
It is difficult to imagine a line drawn so closely, not about one city or town, but around every city and town in Cuba, that no one can pass the line from either the outside or the inside. The Spaniards, however, have succeeded in effecting and maintaining a blockade of that kind. They have placed forts next to the rows of houses or huts on the outskirts of each town, within a hundred yards of one another, and outside of this circle is another circle, and beyond that, on every high piece of ground, are still more of these little square forts, which are not much larger than the signal stations along the lines of our railroads and not unlike them in appearance. No one can cross the line of the forts without a pass, nor enter from the country beyond them without an order showing from what place he comes, at what time he left that place, and that he had permission from the commandante to leave it. A stranger in any city in Cuba to-day is virtually in a prison, and is as isolated from the rest of the world as though he were on a desert island or a floating ship of war. When he wishes to depart he is free to do so, but he cannot leave on foot nor on horseback. He must make his departure on a railroad train, of which seldom more than two leave any town in twenty-four hours, one going east and the other west. From Havana a number of trains depart daily in different directions, but once outside of Havana, there is only one train back to it again. When on the cars you are still in the presence and under the care of Spanish soldiers, and the progress of the train is closely guarded. A pilot engine precedes it at a distance of one hundred yards to test the rails and pick up dynamite bombs, and in front of it is a car covered with armor plate, with slits in the sides like those in a letter box, through which the soldiers may fire. There are generally from twenty to fifty soldiers in each armored car. Back of the armored car is a flat car loaded with ties, girders and rails, which are used to repair bridges or those portions of the track that may have been blown up by the insurgents. Wherever a track crosses a bridge there are two forts, one at each end of the bridge, and also at almost every cross-road. When the train passes one of these forts, two soldiers appear in the door and stand at salute to show, probably, that they are awake, and at every station there are two or more forts, while the stations themselves are usually protected by ramparts of ties and steel rails. There is no situation where it is so distinctly evident that those who are not with you are against you, for you are either inside of one circle of forts or passing under guard by rail to another circle, or you are with the insurgents. There is no alternative. If you walk fifty yards away from the circle you are, in the eyes of the Spaniards, as much in "the field" as though you were two hundred miles away on the mountains.
The lines are so closely drawn that when you consider the tremendous amount of time and labor expended in keeping up this blockade, you must admire the Spaniards for doing it so well, but you would admire them more, if, instead of stopping content with that they went further and invaded the field. The forts are an excellent precaution; they prevent sympathizers from joining the insurgents and from sending them food, arms, medicine or messages. But the next step, after blockading the cities, would appear to be to follow the insurgents into the field and give them battle. This the Spaniards do not seem to consider important, nor wish to do. Flying columns of regular troops and guerrillas are sent out daily, but they always return each evening within the circle of forts. If they meet a band of insurgents they give battle readily enough, but they never pursue the enemy, and, instead of camping on the ground and following him up the next morning, they retreat as soon as the battle is over, to the town where they are stationed. When occasionally objection is made to this by a superior officer, they give as an explanation that they were afraid of being led into an ambush, and that as an officer's first consideration must be for his men, they decided that it was wiser not to follow the enemy into what might prove a death-trap; or the officers say they could not abandon their wounded while they pursued the rebels. Sometimes a force of one thousand men will return with three men wounded, and will offer their condition as an excuse for having failed to follow the enemy.
About five years ago troops of United States cavalry were sent into the chapparal on the border of Mexico and Texas to drive the Garcia revolutionists back into their own country. One troop, G, Third Cavalry, was ordered out for seven days' service, but when I joined the troop later as a correspondent, it had been in the field for three months, sleeping the entire time under canvas, and carrying all its impedimenta with it on pack mules. It had seldom, if ever, been near a town, and the men wore the same clothes, or what was left of them, with which they had started for a week's campaign. Had the Spaniards followed such a plan of attack as that when the revolution began, instead of building mud forts and devastating the country, they might not only have suppressed the revolution, but the country would have been of some value when the war ended. As it is to-day, it will take ten years or more to bring it back to a condition of productiveness.
The wholesale devastation of the island was an idea of General Weyler's. If the captain of a vessel, in order to put down a mutiny on board, scuttled the ship and sent everybody to the bottom, his plan of action would be as successful as General Weyler's has proved to be. After he had obtained complete control of the cities he decided to lay waste the country and starve the revolutionists into submission. So he ordered all pacificos, as the non-belligerents are called, into the towns and burned their houses, and issued orders to have all fields where potatoes or corn were planted dug up and these food products destroyed.
These pacificos are now gathered inside of a dead line, drawn one hundred and fifty yards around the towns, or wherever there is a fort. Some of them have settled around the forts that guard a bridge, others around the forts that guard a sugar plantation; wherever there are forts there are pacificos.
In a word, the situation in Cuba is something like this: The Spaniards hold the towns, from which their troops daily make predatory raids, invariably returning in time for dinner at night. Around each town is a circle of pacificos doing no work, and for the most part starving and diseased, and outside, in the plains and mountains, are the insurgents. No one knows just where any one band of them is today, or where it may be to-morrow. Sometimes they come up to the very walls of the fort, lasso a bunch of cattle and ride off again, and the next morning their presence may be detected ten miles away, where they are setting fire to a cane field or a sugar plantation.
This is the situation, so far as the inhabitants are concerned. The physical appearance of the country since the war began has changed greatly. In the days of peace Cuba was one of the most beautiful islands in the tropics, perhaps in the world. Its skies hang low and are brilliantly beautiful, with great expanses of blue, and in the early morning and before sunset, they are lighted with wonderful clouds of pink and saffron, as brilliant and as unreal as the fairy's grotto in a pantomime. There are great wind-swept prairies of high grass or tall sugar cane, and on the sea coast mountains of a light green, like the green of corroded copper, changing to a darker shade near the base, where they are covered with forests of palms.
Throughout the extent of the island run many little streams, sometimes between high banks of rock, covered with moss and magnificent fern, with great pools of clear, deep water at the base of high waterfalls, and in those places where the stream cuts its way through the level plains double rows of the royal palm mark its course. The royal palm is the characteristic feature of the landscape in Cuba. It is the most beautiful of all palms, and possibly the most beautiful of all trees. The cocoanut palm, as one sees it in Egypt, picturesque as it is, has a pathetic resemblance to a shabby feather duster, and its trunk bends and twists as though it had not the strength to push its way through the air, and to hold itself erect. But the royal palm shoots up boldly from the earth with the grace and symmetry of a marble pillar or the white mast of a great ship. Its trunk swells in the centre and grows smaller again at the top, where it is hidden by great bunches of green plumes, like monstrous ostrich feathers that wave and bow and bend in the breeze as do the plumes on the head of a beautiful woman. Standing isolated in an open plain or in ranks in a forest of palms, this tree is always beautiful, noble and full of meaning. It makes you forget the ugly iron chimneys of the centrals, and it is the first and the last feature that appeals to the visitor in Cuba.
But since the revolution came to Cuba the beauty of the landscape is blotted with the grim and pitiable signs of war. The sugar cane has turned to a dirty brown where the fire has passed through it, the centrals are black ruins, and the adobe houses and the railroad stations are roofless, and their broken windows stare pathetically at you like blind eyes. War cannot alter the sunshine, but the smoke from the burning huts and the blazing corn fields seems all the more sad and terrible when it rises into such an atmosphere, and against so soft and beautiful a sky.
People frequently ask how far the destruction of property in Cuba is apparent. It is so far apparent that the smoke of burning buildings is seldom absent from the landscape. If you stand on an elevation it is possible to see from ten to twenty blazing houses, and the smoke from the cane fields creeping across the plain or rising slowly to meet the sky. Sometimes the train passes for hours through burning districts, and the heat from the fields along the track is so intense that it is impossible to keep the windows up, and whenever the door is opened sparks and cinders sweep into the car. One morning, just this side of Jovellanos, all the sugar cane on the right side of the track was wrapped in white smoke for miles so that nothing could be distinguished from that side of the car, and we seemed to be moving through the white steam of a Russian bath.
The Spaniards are no more to blame for this than are the insurgents; each destroy property and burn the cane. When an insurgent column finds a field planted with potatoes, it takes as much of the crop as it can carry away and chops up the remainder with machetes, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Spaniards. If the Spaniards pass first, they act in exactly the same way.
Cane is not completely destroyed if it is burned, for if it is at once cut down just above the roots, it will grow again. When peace is declared it will not be the soil that will be found wanting, nor the sun. It will be the lack of money and the loss of credit that will keep the sugar planters from sowing and grinding. And the loss of machinery in the centrals, which is worth in single instances hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in the aggregate many millions, cannot be replaced by men, who, even when their machinery was intact, were on the brink of ruin.
Unless the United States government interferes on account of some one of its citizens in Cuba, and war is declared with Spain, there is no saying how long the present revolution may continue. For the Spaniards themselves are acting in a way which makes many people suspect that they are not making an effort to bring it to an end. The sincerity of the Spaniards in Spain is beyond question; the personal sacrifices they made in taking up the loans issued by the government are proof of their loyalty. But the Spaniards in Cuba are acting for their own interests. Many of the planters in order to save their fields and centrals from destruction, are unquestionably aiding the insurgents in secret, and though they shout "Viva España" in the cities, they pay out cartridges and money at the back door of their plantations.
It was because Weyler suspected that they were playing this double game that he issued secret orders that there should be no more grinding. For he knew that the same men who bribed him to allow them to grind would also pay blackmail to the insurgents for a like permission. He did not dare openly to forbid the grinding, but he instructed his officers in the field to visit those places where grinding was in progress and to stop it by some indirect means, such as by declaring that the laborers employed were suspects, or by seizing all the draught oxen ostensibly for the use of his army, or by insisting that the men employed must show a fresh permit to work every day, which could only be issued to them by some commandante stationed not less than ten miles distant from the plantation on which they were employed.
And the Spanish officers, as well as the planters — the very men to whom Spain looks to end the rebellion — are chief among those who are keeping it alive. The reasons for their doing so are obvious; they receive double pay while they are on foreign service, whether they are fighting or not, promotion comes twice as quickly as in time of peace, and orders and crosses are distributed by the gross. They are also able to make small fortunes out of forced loans from planters and suspects, and they undoubtedly hold back for themselves a great part of the pay of the men. A certain class of Spanish officer has a strange sense of honor. He does not consider that robbing his government by falsifying his accounts, or by making incorrect returns of his expenses, is disloyal or unpatriotic. He holds such an act as lightly as many people do smuggling cigars through their own custom house, or robbing a corporation of a railroad fare. He might be perfectly willing to die for his country, but should he be permitted to live he will not hesitate to rob her.
A lieutenant, for instance, will take twenty men out for their daily walk through the surrounding country and after burning a few huts and butchering a pacifico or two, will come back in time for dinner and charge his captain for rations for fifty men and for three thousand cartridges "expended in service." The captain visés his report, and the two share the profits. Or they turn the money over to the colonel, who recommends them for red enamelled crosses for "bravery on the field." The only store in Matanzas that was doing a brisk trade when I was there was a jewelry shop, where they had sold more diamonds and watches to the Spanish officers since the revolution broke out than they had ever been able to dispose of before to all the rich men in the city. The legitimate pay of the highest ranking officer is barely enough to buy red wine for his dinner, certainly not enough to pay for champagne and diamonds; so it is not unfair to suppose that the rebellion is a profitable experience for the officers, and they have no intention of losing the golden eggs.
Excerpted from Cuba in War Time by Richard Harding Davis, Frederic Remington. Copyright © 2016 Richard Harding Davis. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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