Antonio Maceo: Cuban Patriot and Hero
In a single combat action, one of more than 800 in which he took part, usually leading the charge of his troops, he was wounded 8 times: 4 in the left chest, 1 in the left shoulder, and 3 in his right hand.
At the age of 23, Antonio Maceo had said goodbye to his pregnant wife and baby daughter and as a private joined the Cuban patriots immediately after the Grito de Yara, which on 10 October 1868 launched the Ten Years’ War. For bravery under fire in his native Oriente province he is promoted to sergeant, then very quickly to lieutenant, and by the end of 1868 Maceo is a captain. His actions in the attack on Guantánamo in January of 1869 merit his promotion to major, and by March he is a lieutenant colonel. In 1870 he is wounded in combat for the first time, then again, and a third time at his camp. Despite the seriousness of his injuries he defeats the enemy, and two months later he has recovered and is fighting again. Maceo’s fame grows.
On 6 August 1877, a few months short of the end of that war, Antonio Maceo, by then a brigadier general, was shot 8 times on his horse as he charged the Spanish lines at Mangos de Mejía, near the town of Barajagua in Oriente. In his award-winning biography, Octavio R. Costa says that Maceo’s officers, thinking him dead, carried the body to a nearby house. Amazingly, a few days later Maceo regained consciousness. The top Spanish commander learned that Maceo was alive but immobilized. Convinced that his capture or death would put an end to the fighting, General Martínez Campos dispatched 3,000 soldiers to find Maceo at all costs.
Maceo is moved from the house on a stretcher to a safer location. But the Spanish troops set an ambush. Maceo jumps from the stretcher onto his horse and gets away. After three days of moving about in rough terrain, with hardly any food or rest, Maceo has evaded the enemy. He tells his escort troops that he is feeling better.
As Maceo gradually recovers, the war is winding down. Martínez Campos makes several proposals for a negotiated peace. Dissension grows in the Cuban ranks. But Antonio Maceo goes on fighting for Cuba’s freedom. In January 1878, now a major general, he launches several successful attacks until, in the first week of February, Maceo defeats the famous San Quintín battalion, which had fought throughout the Ten Years’ War. In three days of hard fighting at San Ulpiano, Maceo’s troops kill or wound 245 Spanish soldiers, including ten officers, while two Cuban officers and one soldier lose their lives and five are wounded.
When Spain on 10 February signed a peace accord with the Cuban patriots, the Pacto del Zanjón, Maceo refused to accept its terms and continued fighting. He eventually had to recognize that the war was lost, however, and went into exile in May. But Maceo is far from giving up. The story of his years abroad, one of tireless work for Cuban independence among fellow exiles, with friendly governments and in touch with his loyal followers in Cuba, is beyond the scope of this account.
Suffice it to say that Maceo, ever the disciplined soldier, puts aside personal and professional rivalries and, bowing to civilian authority, agrees to the plans by José Martí to launch another war when the time is right. On 24 February 1895, simultaneous uprisings take place in the provinces of Matanzas, Camagüey, and Oriente. Maceo must wait for Martí to order his departure for Cuba. When the order finally arrives Maceo leaves from Costa Rica in a British steamship and then boards a schooner, appropriately named Honor, which in a storm and within sight of Cuban land is deliberately run aground on April 1 near Baracoa, in Maceo’s beloved Oriente. The warrior is back home at last, armed and ready to resume the struggle once again.
The fighting begins at once. The 10 Cubans who landed with Maceo clash with 75 Spanish infantrymen at El Naranjo and go on to fight another day. On April 5, another encounter with a detachment whose leader, three days later, ambushes, defeats and disperses the Cuban group. Down to five men and ill himself, Maceo fights at Yateras on April 12 and then walks until the 20th when he regroups with Cuban forces.
In May he assaults and takes two towns, derails and captures a military train with reinforcements, and sees action again at El Jobito. Larger battles take place at Peralejo in July and at Sao del Indio on August 31. The Oriente campaign ends with another action at San Fernando in September.
The long-awaited invasion of Cuba’s Western provinces begins on October 22. In December Maceo takes part in combat at Iguará, Mal Tiempo, Coliseo (where his horse is shot out from under him) and Calimete, where he suffers many casualties and is forced to withdraw. But then, in the first week of 1896, he enters Havana province. Eight Spanish columns, commanded by as many generals, are deployed in the province but they cannot stop Maceo. Artillery is moved into the streets of the city of Havana, seat of the Spanish colonial government, whose fall appears imminent.
But the Cubans have other plans. Fighting continues with little pause through January. Several towns fall to Maceo, and he marches on Pinar del Río, the westernmost province, which he enters despite the concentration of Spanish forces between the port of Mariel and the town of Artemisa, which was meant to cut short his advance.
The same pattern prevails in February and March. Maceo ranges back and forth between provinces. He seems to be everywhere. The war, which again had started in Oriente, has now been carried to the enemy from that end of the island to the other. The Pinar del Río campaign ends gloriously in Mantua, the last town in the West, on 22 January 1896. Four thousand poorly armed and equipped Cubans have fought in 27 combat actions, occupied 22 towns, and thrown into disarray an army of more than 200,000 men. General Martínez Campos resigns his command and returns to Spain.
Gen. Antonio Maceo
But not all is well on the Cuban political front. Serious disagreements have arisen between the civilian government in arms and General Máximo Gómez, the chief of all military forces and sole superior officer to Maceo. Gómez resigns, but he wants to hand over command to Maceo. He asks him to leave Pinar del Río and meet him in Las Villas province.
The Spaniards have set up a fortified line to box in the Cubans. Minutes before midnight on December 4 Maceo crosses the bay of Mariel in a small boat with a handpicked group of men, once again breaking through undetected. Maceo is depressed by the bad news of the conflict with Máximo Gómez. He has a high fever and a splitting headache. He makes camp at La Merced, a destroyed sugar mill, and calls for horses as he can no longer walk.
That night Maceo dreams with his dead father and brothers, all killed in combat. In the morning he recounts the dream to General José Miró. In it he heard voices: “You’ve had enough fighting, enough glory.” An officer turns up with horses and Maceo resumes marching. He decides to prove that he is now in Havana province by attacking Marianao, a town on the outskirts of the capital.
Early in the morning of December 7, Maceo, with 62 men, arrives at a Cuban camp in San Pedro de Hernández, on the road from Hoyo Colorado to Punta Brava. There he studies the map of Marianao, which he intends to assault that night. While having lunch Maceo tells Miró that he wants to send his aide, Francisco (“Panchito”) Gómez Toro, back to his father, General Máximo Gómez, because he fears for the young man’s life. Another omen, perhaps.
Suddenly, shots ring out. Spanish troops, who believe that Maceo is still in Pinar del Río, attack the Cuban camp. Maceo orders a machete charge, mounts his horse and gallops toward the enemy, which retreats behind a stone wall. Maceo has 45 men with him. He orders a flanking maneuver and tells the men around him to cut a wire fence so he can charge the enemy. The Spanish soldiers fire from the stone wall. Maceo, sitting on his horse, is hit in the face and falls, mortally wounded. He is hit again in the chest as his men raise him from the ground.
Panchito Gómez Toro tries to recover his general’s body, is hit by enemy fire and falls beside Maceo. Under heavy fire other officers, most of them wounded, withdraw. The Spanish soldiers approach the two bodies and finish off Panchito. They do not recognize Maceo, who is not supposed to be in Havana at all. At 5 p.m., some of the 20 Cuban fighters not wounded in the encounter return to the field of battle, recover the two bodies and later that night bury them secretly.
The War of Independence will go on to victory. Its noblest figure, in the words of General Máximo Gómez, has been lost to the fight. But Maceo will live on, as he does today, in the proud and grateful memory of Cuba.