The best-known image of America’s 1898 war with Spain is that of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback charging with his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. While the Rough Riders fired the first shot in the war and were the first to raise the U.S. flag in Cuba, their exploits were greatly mythologized.In fact, Cuban troops—who had already been waging an armed struggle for independence from Spain for three years before the U.S. intervened in 1898—were crucial to the success of the larger war against Spain. Some sense of their importance can be gleaned from this account by N. G. Gonzales, the American editor of a pro-Cuban newspaper. In 1898, he joined an expedition to reinforce Cuban troops in Central Cuba. Cuban cigarmakers from Key West and Tampa (centers of Cuban-American trade union and socialist sentiment) dominated the expedition, though at least fifty black troops from the 10th Cavalry also participated. Gonzales later described the conditions faced by Cuban troops fighting with General Máximo Gómez in his diary—a section of which is included here.
I have written of General Gomez’s escolta or escort, numbering about 150, and referred to the first half dozen who rode by as being uniformed. But the others! The tears came into my eyes and I felt a strange thrill down my spine when there passed these, the picked body-guard of the Commander in Chief of the Cuban Army, who ought to be the best equipped in the service. Here is a great guajiro . . . with a beard like a thicket, barefooted and riding a straw saddle. Next, a little boy of 12 or 13, naked to the waist, but with a big rifle on his pommel and a proud look in his eyes. Then, a huge Negro, stark naked except for a breech clout of rags. Great God! What a force with which to have battled Spain so long! No one man in a hundred with a whole suit of clothes—all torn and worn, with stomachs swollen from long subsistence on green fruit; yet men and boys who could ride forty miles after three days without solid food, and go on picket duty immediately after with the utmost alacrity and cheerfulness.
And when the outlying brigades and regiments began to come in! Colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors with the remnants of uniforms torn and patched; young men with fine, open faces, men of education and society, doctors, lawyers, engineers, former residents of cities, who with a smile spoke of their privations—how they had lived on green mangoes—which are worse than green peaches and taste like turpentine—palm nuts, horses, mules, don keys, snakes! No complaints. They joked about it, felt in their pockets for a little picadura, rolled it into cigarettes with the inner leaf of the palm for supper, shrugged their shoulders, and smiled. Many of their horses had gone down the throats of these starving men before the green fruit came, and they had left from one to seven cartridges in their belts.
But there came the worst spectacle of all, the remnant of a Negro regiment of infantry commanded by Jose Maceo, eighteen months dead. These men were without hats or shoes, and many of them had only a rag about their loins. They had made a forced march of 60 miles in obedience to the summons, over fearful roads but with wonderful hardihood took up their camp duties immediately, without rest or food, naked, but with rifles and cartridge boxes. I noted one whose rifle had worn a great sore on his shoulder, and his cartridge box another on his hip. Another, a mulatto, who had returned from New York to fight at the beginning of the war, had been two years without hats or shoes. He had come all the way from Habana province, 400 miles, to go on with the fighting.
Remember that there were all men to whom Spain had offered terms—amnesty, food, positions in her army—if they would content themselves with autonomy, and give up their struggle for independence. We at home speak with pride of [Francis] Marion [The “Swamp Fox,” a guerrilla leader during the American Revolution], let us not withhold the need of justice [from] the Cubans of all classes who have undergone, in the same cause of liberty, sufferings tenfold as great, and continued in two wars, for thirteen years.
Oh, it was a pleasant thing to see them get a square meal out of Uncle Sam’s tins of corn and beef, and it was as pleasant to see them this morning putting over their burned backs the brown canvas blouses.
Source: Narciso Gener Gonzales, In Darkest Cuba: Two Months' Service Under Gomez Along the Trocha from the Carribbean to the Bahamma Chanel (Columbia, S.C.: The State Company, 1922).