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General Spanish Brigadier General Joaquin Vara del Rey was the officer in charge of the Spanish defense of a major advanced position at El Caney. El Caney was taken July 1, 1898 the same day the successful attack on the San Juan Hills was carried out. El Caney means long house or chief’s house in the old Cuban “Indian” language Taino (Guanikeyu, 1997).
A free translation from Castellano Garcia, Gerardo 1927. Tierras y Glorias de Oriente (Calixto Garcia Iñiguez) Editorial Hermes Havana. pp. 334-337.
Annotated by Larry Daley see brackets, other references cited below.
El Viso was the strongest, highest, position at El Caney. El Viso means the prospect, a military term for an elevated spot affording an extensive view (Velazquez 1974), which is often referred to in contemporary U.S. accounts as the “high stone strong place,” the common photograph shows a breached wall revealing a cannon. A more extensive view is shown in Henry McCook’s 1899 book (p. 178) On the same page, just before he describes the death of Vara del Rey, Gerardo Castellanos, finishes his description of the final joint U.S., and Cuban assault and taking of El Viso and the death of Cuban Lieutenant Nicolas Franco. Henry McCook (p. 318) shows a drawing of Franco’s grave and, mentions Cuban casualties at El Caney (p. 317.)
Translation of complete text Brackets () indicate material inserted to aid flow and comprehension, or year of publication of reference. Complete text of section is translated; translated is interrupted by inserted notes which follow at end of pertinent paragraph. Translated text by inclusion in inverted commas (“..“). Long sentences and paragraphs, common in Spanish are often split in this translation, to accommodate modern English usage. Omitted nouns, understandable in Spanish from the verb form, have been replaced.
Castellanos concludes his description of the taking of El Viso:
“This defense (Spanish defense) of El Viso was the most heroic if all; however, (Famed Spanish Brigadier General Joaquin) Vara del Rey was not there.”
Castellanos continues with his description of the death of Vara del Rey:
“The (Spanish) Brigadier General Vara del Rey was walking down a passageway of a house on Real street (of the town of El Caney) from which one could clearly see (on the heights) El Viso, when a bullet went through both of his legs. When he was asked (what it felt like) he replied ‘like a mosquito bite.’ He was treated in the hospital; but (when) told by the doctor that he should not stand, he handed over his command to (his Spanish Army subordinate) Lieutenant Colonel Juan Puñet.”
At five in the afternoon El Caney surrendered, one hour later (U.S. ) General Lawton with his Cuban allies entered (the town).
“Instead of the two hours that Lawton thought it would take the assault took nearly twelve and cost more than 400 casualties. These casualty figures are not reliable because each Yanqui (used in a descriptive not pejorative sense) officer gives a different number. Similarly, the Spanish losses are listed at 444 by Wheeler, while the Swedish Military Attache reports 191 What is certain is that the Spanish suffered at least 444 losses between killed, wounded and captured. The Cuban losses were also numerous.”
Explanations of context: The inconsistency in numbers of Spanish losses could because, as is detailed by Castellanos below, the Spanish in retreat during the night were constantly attacked by Cuban forces. Cuban losses exact figures are not easily available; however hopefully General Garcia’s war diaries will soon be available. A tabulation of names of Cuban war dead is also available (Roloff, 1901). A complete list of U.S dead, with frequent description and location of temporary grave sites, is found in McCook (1899).
“Many of those in El Caney and part of the (Spanish) Garrison fled towards Santiago with Lieutenant Colonel Puñet. The Brigadier General Vara del Rey was taken on a stretcher by the San Miguel vereda (jungle path) or as other state by the vereda de las Lajas (the jungle path of exposed flat rock layers from ancient volcanic flows) which starts at the present (1927) post office. It is said he (Vara del Rey) was trying to reach San Vincente or Cuabitas.”
Explanations of context: San Vicente is a place to the north of El Caney just below the rail road tracks. It can be readily placed on the maps found in second map labeled: Army of Operations…sketch of Santiago de Cuba and vecinity found at the beginning of Jose Muller (1899). Cuabitas is a village also along the rail road tracks, to the west of El Caney. It can also be readily placed on the same maps. Cuabitas was abandoned. The Spanish withdrew to San Vicente, as General Garcia advanced on July 2. (Escalante 1946, p. 526). San Vicente was taken by General Garcia’s forces on the July 3, after a short firefight. (Escalante p. 527). Cuaba, (the Muller y Tejiro map shows a number of places with variants on this name Cuabita, Cuaba, Cuabita Station in the immediate vecinity) is Amyris balsimifera, a small tree rich in oils (Fors, 1956 pp. 39-40). This wood was used by Tainos and Guajiros for torches, it has a pleasant smell. Cuabales are areas of bush on hilly serpentine rocks where these small trees or bushes grow, (Frere Marie-Victorin and Frere Leon. 1944, pp. 332-334). One could postulate any one crashing through and breaking branches of cuaba at night would leave a pleasant, but strong, scent trail. A very excellent, well illustrated, description of the dry climate bush of the area is found in Atila Borhidi, pp. 379-385, which is quite useful to understand the environmental context of the military actions in this area).
The Castellanos continues on the same paragraph:
“although, the jungle path was well hidden by manigua it could be seen from the heights to the right. Suddenly the escolt of wounded (Vara del Rey) was under so severe direct and accurate fire that not only were the (General’s) staff and officers killed, but the stretcher bearers fell (so fast) there was no time to replace them. The brigadier (Vara del Rey) exhortations only were able to drive the stretcher-bearers a little further. A bullet hit Vara del Rey in the head, killing him. With no one to order them the stretcher-bearers, left the body there.”
Explanations of context: Manigua is a generic term for jungle brush, different from “monte firme” which is established forest. In the Cuban vernacular and in historic use “yendo a la manigua” going to the manigua, has almost the same meaning as is used in US vernacular “going to the mattresses” or going to war, except that manigua refers to rural rather than urban settings.
“Next day he (Vara del Rey’s body) was identified, for there could be no mistake with the insignias of rank and the enormous beard. In addition, on General Garcia’s orders some high ranking officers, including Colonel Pedro Hechevarria, Vicente Mestre Amabile and others came verify the identification. And it is known, these officers for reason of duty and honor, ordered that he (Vara del Rey) be buried. This was done in a very shallow grave. It is definitely known that burial was done by a gigantic tree known as the Marañon (Cashew) de Vara del Rey. This is where the body was found by the Spanish Commission which, after five months, came to exhume his body.”
Explanations of context: The grave was not deep perhaps because of shallow soil over bedrock. This is consistent with use of the Lajas vereda. The Cashew tree (Anacadium occidentalis) can grow in poor (and shallow) soil (Larry Daley. personal observation, Fors 1956, p. 86).
“The Commission was accompanied by Cuban Captain Alberto Plochet and a sergeant. He was buried. He was recognized by his insignia, his beard and a enormous Remington bullet hole in his skull.”
Explanations of context: The size of the bullet hole is considered diagnostic. Remingtons, 0.43 calibre, which were made in the U.S. match the old Spanish standard rifle, were often used by the Cubans (Horatio Rubens, 1970). Most of these guns except the Remington is listed at the Springfield Armory web site (see Springfield Armory web pages). Spanish irregulars called Guerrillas commonly used ammunition this caliber either in Remingtons or in the old Spanish standard rifle Fabrica de Armas de Oviedo 1871 rolling block 11 mm (.43). U. S. regular troops and Rough Riders used .30 caliber 30-40 Krags, other U. S. volunteer units used older Springfields (U.S. rifle model 1888 trapdoor .45-70.) All above guns used black powder. Spanish regular troops used smoke-less powder 7 mm (about 2.75 caliber) 1893 Mausers, some 8 mm (.31 caliber) rifles were found in the Spanish Armories in Santiago (Springfield Armory web pages).
Explanations of context: All this supports the Castellanos’s thesis that Vara del Rey was killed by Cuban insurgents, since the Spanish were unlikely to fire on their own, and U.S. Volunteers were not known to operate that night near by. “The second Massachusetts had already been taken out of the line at El Caney because of their outmoded rifles” (Dierks, 1970, p. 103). Yet Cubans were definitely in the area (from letter by Calixto Garcia giving his order of battle included in Escalante, p. 525)).
The Castellanos continues:
“When I visited the area in 1927, Captain Plochet was showing me the road and talking about that blooded day. A few of us Cubans were marching along the heights. We saw moving in the distance, a platoon of soldiers carrying some object that was covered, and from which a head emerged. We began to lay down heavy fire. (Cuban) Captain Jose Vargas, who was a magnificent shot, sighted on them with his Remington and fired, and soon we saw the few survivors fleeing leaving what they were carrying. The object turned out to be the litter which held the dead Brigadier General.”
Explanations of context: Walking along ridges is commonly done because ridges on the heights, and to a lesser extent the valleys, but not the sides of the mountains offer the best and fastest trails.
“In that short war, where there are few glorious Spanish deeds, (the Spanish) a hero to save their honor. Thus what Vara del Rey did, hold out for a few hours in a fortified position, being wounded as he walked along a porch, and being (killed as he escaped) along a jungle trail, is not the stuff of legends. However, one cannot argue, that compared to the rest of the Spanish, he was the most varonil (manly) Spaniard of those days.”
Explanations of context: The being wounded walking along a porch, while a previous part refers to walking along a street, reflects the Spanish custom of building a shaded area from the houses or shops over part of the street in a series of continuously linked porches.
“I will cite a stain on the military life of Vara del Rey. Mrs Irene Rodriguez viuda (widow) of Quintana (here the Castellanos cites Emilio Bacardi, Cronicas de Santiago de Cuba, the ninth volume), left Caney on the 29th (of June) with her retarded son Rafael. Rafael had two cigars in his pocket. Although their documents were in order, they were arrested and taken to a blockhouse see Brigadier Vara del Rey. Despite the sickness of the mother (Irene Rodriguez) and the very evident retardation of the boy, the Brigadier became very angry and said surely those cigars are for his (Rafael’s) two Mambi (Cuban insurgent) brothers in the manigua. He ordered Irene Rodriguez expelled from the fort, but arrested the retarded boy. The next day he (Vara del Rey) handed the boy to Guerrilla Lieutenant Casadeval y Muller who murdered him on the Bonete vereda.”
“Divine Justice condemned the two participants in this horrible crime not to outlive their action. The next day Vara del Rey and Casadeval died by avenging bullets. Among the attackers on El Caney was Jose Quintana a brother of (Rafael) the Cuban victim.”
End of excerpt from Castellanos text.
Evaluation from U.S. and Spanish Sources.
First we can probably discount references that read as such as this: “Del Rey, stubborn and brave defender to the last, lay dead amid (my bold) his officers and men; while the remnant, laying down their arms” …(Brooks, 1899 p. 190)
This view is contradicted by other sources (see below), including Spanish ones.
The Spanish point of view is taken from Lieutenant Muller (Jose Muller, as cited in R.A. Alger, 1901 pp. 147-148):
“The general was wounded almost simultaneously in both legs by two musket balls, and as he was being carried away on a stretcher, the bullets falling around him like hail, he was killed, at the same moment as two of the men who were carrying him (p. 148 paragraph 3).”
Now we have Vara del Rey carried to the rear on a stretcher. However, among questions remaining is how far was he carried, before he as killed.
Alger (1901) states on page 144:
“After burying our dead and those of the Spanish, and providing for the care of the wounded and prisoners, the exhausted army, leaving a battalion to guard Caney, marched to Durot House… .”
This is interesting, since John D. Miley (1899 p. 134) remarks: “On the 4th (three days after Vara del Rey is killed) Major Coolidge, commanding the Infantry Battalion at El Caney, was directed to provide burial for General Vara del Rey and others killed in the battle on the 1st.”
This suggests at least two things:
? (a) Vara del Rey was not killed near el Caney since surely he of all the dead would have been buried first ? (b) Shafter is getting told things that he does not like.
Item (a) is interesting because Miley, has repeated the report of burial
details at El Caney on the 1st, when he says:
“everybody was at work burying the dead, caring for the wounded …” (p. 112), and yet on p118 Miley also states:
“ … Vara del, who was killed.”
Now it would seem that Vara del Rey’s body was sufficiently far away to not be buried that first day. Which is consistent with the Castellanos report translated above.
Not only Cuban but U.S. sources report there were Cuba forces in the area, who could account for the putative ambush of Vara del Rey. Miley states on p. 105:
“General Garcia, who with his command, which since the night before had been in the advance, was directed to move on the morning of the July 1st along the Caney road, pass to the rear of General Lawton, that is between him and the San Juan Heights, and so dispose his troops on the north of Santiago as effectually to prevent escape to the garrisons or entrance of reinforcements from any of the garrisons along the railroad to the north. A small body of his (Garcia’s) troops was detached to go with General Lawton (to El Caney), and a similar number to go with the troops against San Juan Heights. The Cuban troops, with General Lawson, did good service, but those at San Juan did nothing. One of the first shells thrown by the enemy exploded among them at El Pozo, killing and wounding some, and completely demoralizing the rest.”
The lack of Cubans on San Juan Hill is not exactly true since a least one Cuban died after successfully cutting barbwire and reaching the crest of San Juan Hill (Alger, 1901 p.161). The New York 71st volunteers also cracked nearby (Dierks, 1970). Cuban losses in that shelling a this point near Grimes battery were , perhaps 30 between killed and wounded. This were large for such a small group.
Reviewing that shelling at el Pozo, William R. Shafter, a Civil War
veteran, dismisses U.S. losses, as several killed and wounded, but does
not discuss Cuban casualties (1899, p. 187). Carlos Garcia Velez, one
of Calixto Garcia’s many sons in the insurgent army (1899, p. 70)
“At our left, facing San Juan, was El Pozo, where Grimes’s battery was situated, and a detachment of Cubans, had been left with it; the battery was soon quieted by the accurate shots of the Spanish artillery, which did some damage to our men, among whom may be mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Paneque, who was badly wounded by bomb shell.”
On page 71. Garcia-Velez goes on to say “ a hail of bullets from the enemy at San Juan Hill…we had over a hundred casualties without firing in return a single shot at the enemy .”
Now the direct reports of the finding of Vara del Rey’s body (Charles H. Brown (1967 p372-373) recounts how William Randolph Hearst the newspaper mogul, reports with great joy that Honore Laine, one of his reporters, who had gone out that night with some Cuban soldiers. Laine had returned to report that he had found and identified the body of General Vara del Rey and how the Cubans had captured and according to the report executed 40 Spanish soldiers.
This history is supported by W. A. Swinburg, (1961, p. 185). Swinberg, although he omits the Vara del Rey incident, does report the putative execution. He points out that Honore Laine was besides a Cuban Colonel. Swinburg states that the prisoners were given to the Cubans by U.S. forces. This is strange since the usual practice was for the Cubans being very short of food to hand Spanish prisoners to the U.S. forces who were relatively much better supplied-. Swinberg’s source is the N.Y. Journal of July 6, 1898, which this translator as yet does not have.
Conclusion: The Castellanos account of the death of Spanish Brigadier General Vara del Rey near el Caney in 1898 is consistent with historical data.