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Máximo Gómez y Báez

"[Americans] continually fill their newspapers with sympathy for our cause, but what do they do? They sell us arms at good round prices—as readily as they sell supplies to the Spaniards, who oppress us; but they never gave us a thing—not even a rifle."

Máximo Gómez y Báez quoted in Marching with Gomez.

Máximo Gómez y Báez

Born November 18, 1836
Baní, Santo Domingo (now part of the
Dominican Republic) Died June 17, 1905
Havana, Cuba

Cuban military officer

The very name of the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898) ignores the Republic of Cuba's important role in the conflict. Spain fought many battles against its Cuban colony, both in the Ten Years' War (1868-1878) and in the Second Cuban War for Independence (1895-1898), before the United States entered the fray. Cubans provided military information and assistance to the United States in its effort to drive Spain back to Europe. One of the rebel leaders throughout these struggles was a Dominican farmer named Máximo Gómez y Báez.

Childhood and early military career

Máximo Gómez y Báez was born in Baní, Santo Domingo, on November 18, 1836. (Santo Domingo occupied the eastern part of the island called Hispaniola, east of Cuba. Gómez's birthplace became the Dominican Republic in 1844.) Gómez grew up in a middle-class family and entered a religious seminary to study to become a priest. In the mid-1850s, however, invaders from neighboring Haiti (on the western part of Hispaniola) swept Gómez into a fighting career.

From 1861 to 1865, at the invitation of the leader of the Dominican Republic, Spain tried to reconquer the country, which had been a Spanish colony until 1795. Gómez served the Spanish during the conflict as a captain in the army reserve. Military life suited the strict, serious young man, but the way Spain treated the civilians and black slaves of Santo Domingo disgusted him.

The Ten Years' War

On October 10, 1868, rebels on the nearby island of Cuba launched a revolution against Spain, which still held Cuba as a colony. Peninsulares—emigrants from Spain—controlled government and wealth on the island. The middle and lower classes in Cuba wanted more power to shape economic and trade policies. Slavery was still legal, but slaves, naturally, wanted freedom and full participation in government.

Aligned against Spain because of his experiences in the Dominican Republic, Gómez joined the Cuban rebels to help with the military effort. Gómez soon was promoted to the rank of general and commander of Oriente Province, along the eastern end of the island.

By 1871, Spain had confined the Cuban rebels to Oriente. Gómez met with the president of the Republic of Cuba, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, to recommend a strategy of economic destruction. Gómez wanted the rebels to invade the western half of the island, destroy the sugar and tobacco plantations, and set the slaves free. This would add black soldiers to the ranks of the rebel fighters and also deprive Spain of tax revenue that came from sugarcane and tobacco.

Céspedes rejected the plan and removed Gómez from command. Many of the rebels did not want freedom for the slaves, and many were landowners who did not want to see economic destruction. In fact, the rebels could not agree on whether their goal was better treatment from Spain or complete freedom from the motherland. Although Gómez eventually returned to his command in 1875, disunity led the rebels to settle for a truce called the Pact of Zanjón in 1878. Under the agreement, Spain promised to reform the colonial government.

Preparing for revolt

Reform never happened, however, because Spain did not want to lose the money it was receiving from controlling the Cuban economy and its people. Efforts to launch another rebellion failed until the early 1890s, when Spanish tariffs—taxes—on goods imported from the United States raised the cost of living and discontent for the Cuban middle and lower classes. This time, a Cuban patriot named Jose Martí (1853-1895) organized a second revolution that would succeed.

Working from New York City, Martí began assembling military leadership for the revolution in 1892. With his military capability and previous experience in the Ten Years' War, Gómez was an obvious choice to lead the rebel army. In September 1892, Martí visited Gómez in the Dominican Republic to offer him the role of commander in chief. Gómez, who had settled in his homeland to work as a farmer, gladly accepted. Next, Martí asked Antonio Maceo (1845-1896) to join the rebel army as Gómez's second-in-command. Maceo, a Cuban of African ancestry, had fought in the Ten Years' War and later had become a plantation owner in Costa Rica. Maceo initially resisted resuming his military service, but he finally agreed to join Martí's forces in June 1893.

The Second Cuban War for Independence begins

After much anticipation and many delays, Cuban rebels launched the revolution on February 25, 1895, at Baire, Cuba. Spanish authorities quickly crushed the rebels in the western provinces near the capital of Havana. Meanwhile, the military leaders had encountered travel problems and had not yet reached the island. Maceo finally arrived in Cuba on March 31; Gómez met Martí in the Dominican Republic and they followed on April 11.

On May 4, the three men met at La Mejorana to discuss military strategy. They appointed Gómez commander in chief of the Cuban Liberating Army, Maceo chief of operations in the Oriente Province, and Martí head of the revolution outside Cuba. Martí did not live to continue in his role, however; he was killed in a Spanish attack at Don Ríos on May 19, 1895. Gómez and the rebels now had a martyr to inspire their cause.

Plotting military strategy

Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1828-1897) and the rest of Spain were not too worried at first when the revolution broke out in February. They became concerned, however, when they learned that Maceo and Gómez were headed for the island. On March 31, Spain announced that it was sending Arsenio Martínez de Campos (1834-1900), a general who had fought in the Ten Years' War, to defend Spain's interests in Cuba.

Martínez de Campos's plan was to repeat the defense that had foiled the rebels in the Ten Years' War. This meant confining the rebels to the eastern, poorer end of the island, and eventually surrounding and overwhelming them with large numbers of Spanish soldiers. The main Spanish tool for confinement was the trocha—a barrier two hundred yards wide and fifty miles long consisting of fallen trees, barbed wire, and military forts that stretched across the narrowest part of the island.

Up against this defense, Gómez got to try his strategy of economic destruction, which was proposed unsuccessfully decades before. According to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, Gómez said, "The chains of Cuba have been forged by her own richness, and it is precisely this which I propose to do away with soon."

On July 1, 1895, Gómez prohibited Cubans from transporting industrial or agricultural products to areas containing Spanish troops. He also ordered all sugarcane plantations and mills to stop production. When, in spite of his order, harvest and production continued, Gómez issued a new command on November 6 for the complete destruction of all sugarcane plantations and their buildings and railroad connections. He planned to enlist dislocated plantation workers in the rebellion.

Knocking on Havana's door

On November 29, Gómez and Maceo accomplished a major feat—crossing the trocha. Maceo and fifteen hundred rebel troops did so in an early morning fog near the town of Ciego de Avila. Gómez and nine hundred of his soldiers also made the crossing a little farther to the north, assembling on the other side with Maceo for a victory celebration. Perched atop a horse on November 30, Gómez gave a stirring speech to prepare his troops for the fighting and death ahead.

At this point, the Liberating Army in the east got a new ally—the Invading Army in the west. Gómez confirmed the appointment of Maceo as commander of the Invading Army. Maceo, whom the Spaniards called "the lion" for his great strength, had never lost a battle in all his years of fighting for the Cuban cause. Maceo would lead the charge across the western end of Cuba to the capital city of Havana and the province of Pinar del Rio.

While Maceo made his march, Gómez concentrated on economic destruction and diversionary tactics. The Spanish called Gómez "the fox" because he was skilled at evading their forces. He also instilled fear by using firing squads to murder Cubans who disobeyed his orders.

On January 22, 1896, Maceo reached Mantua, the westernmost town in Cuba. Along the way he had passed Havana, raising fears there but declining to attack its strong defenses with his small forces. The invasion of the west still marked the high point of the entire revolution for the Cuban rebels.

Battling "the butcher"

Days before Maceo reached Mantua, Spanish general Martínez de Campos resigned under pressure due to his failing military effort. Prime Minister Cánovas replaced Martínez de Campos with General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930), a military man known for ruthlessness and referred to as "the butcher" by the American press.

Arriving in Cuba in February, Weyler lived up to his infamous reputation by relocating all Cuban civilians from the countryside into concentration camps to prevent them from helping the rebels. Weyler's troops burned the homes and fields left behind by the civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans died from starvation and disease in the crowded, dirty camps over the next two years.

Gómez and Maceo met on February 19 and again on March 10 to discuss their next move. Both agreed that Maceo should continue attacking in the west while Gómez concentrated on the central provinces. They felt that defeating Weyler would require an increased tempo of economic destruction to make the war ever more expensive for Spain. The meeting on March 10 would be the last time the two Cuban leaders saw each other.

After an extended campaign against Weyler's troops in the west, Maceo headed east for more meetings with Gómez and was killed in a nighttime battle at San Pedro de Hernádez on December 7, 1896. Gómez's son, Francisco Gómez Toro, also died in the same battle while trying to rescue Maceo.

From January 1897 to April 1898, three thousand troops under Gómez's command had forty-one encounters with Spanish soldiers in the central province of Las Villas. During this time, the rebel forces controlled the eastern provinces of Camagüey and Oriente, except for a few large cities. Cuban residents there called each other ciudadano, which means citizen. Despite the ongoing economic hardship it was suffering, however, Spain refused to give up the fight.

In August 1897, Prime Minister Práxedes M. Sagasta had to replace Cánovas, who had been assassinated. Sagasta recalled Weyler from Cuba and sent General Ramón Blanco (1831-1906) to command the Spanish army on the island. Blanco only modified Weyler's concentration policy slightly by allowing some people to return home if they had the means to support themselves. As a result, Cuban civilians continued to die in the prison camps.

The United States declares war

As Blanco arrived in Cuba, U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry) was under pressure from Congress and the American public to enter the war. Americans sympathized with the rebels's desire for independence. McKinley resisted the pressure because he wanted to negotiate for peace and did not want a war to disrupt America's booming economy.

Things changed on February 15, 1898, however, when the U.S. warship Maine exploded mysteriously in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, killing 268 men aboard. Although there was no evidence that Spain was responsible, Americans blamed the Spanish government for failing to safeguard the vessel. In March and April, McKinley began preparing for war.

As the United States threatened to come to Cuba's aid, Spain talked about ending the fighting and giving Cuba freedom to govern itself, although still as a Spanish colony. Gómez flatly rejected these offers. According to Foner, Gómez and rebel leader Calixto García (1839-1898; see entry in Primary Sources section) said, "The names of our champions who have fallen and those of the 150,000 defenseless Cubans pitilessly murdered by General Weyler would condemn us from Heaven if we were to treat with Spain." Gómez said the only way to end the war was for Spain to leave Cuba.

Gómez and the Spanish-American War

When the United States declared war on April 25, Gómez asked America to send guns instead of troops. He feared that U.S. involvement would lead to American control of the island. McKinley decided to send troops instead, and he turned to the Cubans for military information. On May 1, 1898, U.S. Army lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan met with García in Bayamo, Cuba. García and Rowan decided to land fifteen thousand American troops on the north coast of Cuba and to attack Holguín, one of the few cities in Oriente Province that Spain still controlled.

Meanwhile, Gómez corresponded with General Blanco, who said it was time for Spain and Cuba to end their differences and repel the American invaders together. Blanco suggested that Spain would give Cuba complete freedom if the rebels assisted the mother country. According to Foner, Gómez responded to Blanco saying:

Your audacity [boldness] in proposing peace terms to me again dumbfounds me when you know that Cubans and Spaniards can never live in peace on the soil of Cuba. You represent on this continent an old and discredited monarchy, and we are fighting for an American principle, the principle of Bolívar and Washington. You say that we belong to the same race and invite me to fight against a foreign invader, but you are again mistaken because there are no differences of blood or race.

I believe in only one race: humanity, and for me there are only good and evil nations. Spain has been until now an evil one, while the United States at this time is fulfilling for Cuba a duty for humanity and civilization. From the dark savage Indian to the refined blond Englishman, a man for me deserves respect according to his honesty and feelings whatever may be the country or race to which he belongs or the religion which he practices.

In the end, Gómez did not get to fight with the Americans to send Spain back to Europe. Gómez was preparing to receive American troops on the northern coast when the Spanish navy sailed into Santiago de Cuba on May 19, moving the theatre of war to the southeastern coast of the island. In land and sea battles at the end of June and beginning of July, forces under Cuban general Calixto García, U.S. admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902), and U.S. general William R. Shafter (1835-1906; see entry) forced Spain to surrender the entire region around Santiago. This led to a cease-fire on August 12, 1898, under which Spain finally agreed to set Cuba free.

Cuba Libre?

During the revolution, Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) had been a rallying cry for the rebels. Now, when they expected to finally get control of their island, the United States took over instead—just as Gómez had feared. In December, McKinley set up a military government under Major-General John R. Brooke, resolving to remain in power there until America decided that Cuba was ready to govern itself. On January 1, 1899, Spain officially left the island, turning control over to the United States.

In ceremonies at Havana that day, Gómez wished to be received by the army in which he had served. Brooke, however, insulted the Cubans by refusing to allow rebel soldiers into the city. Brooke did not trust the rebels to behave themselves around Spanish soldiers. He instead invited some Cuban generals to the ceremonies, eight of whom attended. Gómez refused to be present in Havana that day, but he finally got to march victoriously into Havana with his troops on February 24. Months later, on June 7, he gave a farewell address to the Liberating Army and returned to his homeland.

Over the next three years, Cuba made plans to adopt a constitution and set up its own government. Gómez was a popular choice to be the republic's first president, but he did not want the job; instead, he supported Tomás Estrada Palma (1835-1908). On May 20, 1902, ceremonies in Havana marked the end of the American military government and the beginning of the Cuban Republic. This time, Gómez attended the celebration, helping to raise the Cuban flag over the government palace in Havana with tears streaming down his cheeks. Gómez died three years later, on June 17, 1905, while visiting his beloved city.

For More Information

Books

Flint, Grover. Marching with Gomez: A War Correspondent's Field Note-Book Kept During Four Months with the Cuban Army. Boston, MA: Lamson, Wolffe and Company, 1898.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File,1995.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Periodicals

Smith, Joseph. "Heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Martí, Maceo, and Gómez." Historian, No. 44, Winter 1994, pp. 3-8.

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