Among the many illustrious combatants born in other countries, who died in Cuba’s wars of independence, it is difficult to find one as intrepid as Brigadier General Henry Reeve, from New York.
(March 31) – Cuba and the United States have for two centuries sustained a confrontation marked by the imperial appetites of successive administrations in the powerful northern country. Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples of relations between the two peoples, including within their respective emancipation struggles.
The brave brothers Adolfo and Federico Fernández Cavada were outstanding members of Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army during the war against Southern slaveowners. Just prior to the initiation of Cuba’s first independence war in 1868, this just cause appealed to the audacity and thirst for liberty of these soldiers from the island.
Adolfo started out as a captain. Federico signed up in 1861, and as a result of his bravery was promoted first to the rank of captain, then commander, and lieutenant colonel, and finally chief of the Pennsylvania regiment.
Taken prisoner during the great battle of Gettysburg and freed in a prisoner exchange, he rejoined the fight in 1865. The military experience of the two brothers was put to good use on the battlefield in Cuba, when an uprising developed in the southwestern region of Las Villas, in June of 1869. Now a major general, Federico Fernández was again taken prisoner and shot in 1872 by a Spanish firing squad – the same year his brother, also a general, died of a fever caught in the wilds.
Among the many illustrious combatants born in other countries, who died in Cuba’s wars of independence, it is difficult to find one as intrepid as Brigadier General Henry Reeve, who joined the struggle against slavery as a drum boy for the New York battalion while still an adolescent.
Having just turned 19 years of age, Reeve arrived in Cuba, in May of 1869, as part of the Perrit expedition, which landed on the shores of Nipe Bay, on the eastern end of the island’s north coast. Five days after the landing, the first confrontation took place. Reeve received his baptism by fire and was wounded. Later that same month, along with a group of mambises, he was riddled with bullets and left for dead. He had received four shots, but was miraculously alive, and recovered consciousness during the night among the cadavers. He dragged himself away and wandered through the countryside, unable to speak Spanish. He met a Cuban patrol, was taken to the field hospital, and promoted to sergeant on July 13.
Reeve asked to be sent to Camagüey where he knew Major General Ignacio Agramonte, and participated in the famous machete charges under the official insignia of the Liberation Army, including the epic rescue of General Sanguily, when Agramonte ordered him to follow the kidnappers’ trail, and return with the news when he had found them.
Reeve shone as head of the cavalry, and served as Agramonte’s second in command for three years, until the sad day, May 11, 1873, when the Major fell in Jimaguayú. The Little Englishman, as he was affectionately known, was promoted along with Agramonte to the rank of colonel.
Later, under the command of none less than Máximo Gómez, he led the cavalry and participated in victorious battles until he was wounded for the ninth time in Santa Cruz del Sur. From that point on, with his leg entirely useless, he could fight no other way except on horseback, tied to the saddle.
The Brigadier Generals Antonio Maceo and Henry Reeve only fought together on one occasion, under the command of Máximo Gómez, on July 4, 1874, the 98th anniversary of the independence of the United States, in Camujiro, near Puerto Príncipe. The Liberation Army’s machetes defeated the colonialists’ bayonets, in a battle that left 60 dead. Reeve was wounded again, in two places.
In January of 1875, he crossed the Júcaro-Morón trench with Gomez. A year later, surrounded by enemy forces at Yaguaramas, with his horse dead, Reeve used his last bullet to shoot himself, to avoid being taken prisoner, August 4, 1876.
General Reeve, head of the Western Division and of Colón, had participated in 400 military actions. He was wounded in ten battles, the only soldier to accumulate more war scars was General Antonio Maceo. The Englishman was a mambi officer who with his efforts reached the farthest point in the frustrated western invasion of the island, in the Ten Year War.
His daily actions in combat astonished everyone and won the admiration of all. His name traveled far by word of mouth and became a symbol of the independence struggle, a legendary Cuban – and U.S. – hero.