TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS OF CUBA'S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Many, especially in the US, forget the technological developments of Cuba's War of Independence and leave the mistaken and unfortunate view that it was a war of a quite primitive nature until the US entered into the conflict. This may help to avoid this confusion.
First tests of Dynamite Gun by Horatio S. Rubens.
From Rubens, Horatio S. “CHAPTER XI THE PLAGUE OF INVENTORS” in “Liberty. The Story of Cuba” AMS Press New York, 1970 reprint of 1932 edition. SBN 404-00633-7 pp. 213-215. Annotated by Larry S. Daley.
The Spanish (Cuban) American War was a war of novel technology. The Spanish had the best repeating rifle the 1893 Mauser, they has machineguns, barbwire, and mines. The U.S. and Cuban forces also had novel technology, perhaps the best know of this is the “Dynamite Gun” which, using explosion driven compressed gases, propelled a very effective five pound charge of nitrogelatin. The use effects of the dynamite gun on Spanish trenches around Santiago de Cuba is often reported in Spanish American War histories.
However, what is less well known, is the building of this gun by the inventors for the Cuban Junta and its use by Cuban insurgents before the U.S. entered the war. Antonio Maceo had one, so did General Garcia, and a third, third was under Maximo Gomez’s direct command in the middle provinces. (see Horatio S. Rubens text below). The best known artillery officer for the Cuban insurgents was Frederick Funston (see background).
Horatio Rubens was lawyer of the Cuban Junta who, principally in the U.S organized and provided arms to the Cuban insurgents before and during the 1895-1898 Cuban War of Independence. This war concluded with the very decisive entry of the United States and the serie of naval and land battle around Santiago de Cuba in June and July 1898 which is commonly known as the Cuban phase of the Spanish (Cuban) American War.
What follows is Horatio Rubens’ own story which describes how the Dynamite gun was built and used for the first time. Rubens’s text is in quotation marks, some paragraphs have been divided to aid reading. Notes to facilitate understanding are in parenthesis and on points are given background paragraphs inserted in the text.
Horatio Rubens begins the chapter thus:
“It is a curious but not unusual fact that inventors of death-dealing weapons spring like mushrooms from the ground when hostilities are in progress. The Cuban Revolutionary period was no exception. Officials of the Junta were constantly besought by strangers who had guns of various types, protective garments, time bombs and the like they wished to demonstrate. Consideration was given some of these, but many proved as useless as their originators were eager.”
“One source of supply for cartridges was their purchase in towns from women of an ancient profession. The penniless Spanish soldier eagerly paid for the favors of these women in cartridges which, pathetically enough, might later bring about his own death.”
“At one period a tremendous outcry was raised by Spanish authorities against use by the Cubans of what are called “dum dum” bullets. These, in fact, were of the .43 calibre used in the Remingtons and were thinly brass-jacketed. Under tropical conditions the brass soon became coated with verdigris, causing wounds beyond endurance. Quite aside from their oxidization, the smashing spread of the bullets was terrific. The truth of the matter is that these cartridges were supplied her irregulars (Guerrilleros see background) by Spain, and were only used by the Cubans after they had been captured. Ammunition of this calibre purchased in the United States was not of tthe dum-dum type and no decent ammunition factory would produce it.”
“Chanler, who became so enthusiastically pro-Cuban, donated two machine guns of the Maxim-Nordenfeldt type. We tried them out at a proving ground and Estrada Palma was much pleased when I “ wrote” his initials on the target. Unfortunately the guns required ammunition in such profusion that they were not kept in service (see background).
“Col. Jose Ramon Villalon, a Cuban engineer, encountered the co-inventor of the Sims-Dudley dynamite gun. He was much impressed with drawings of the weapon and their explanation. He recommended that the Junta should commission some to be built. I was supposed to know something about mechanics and chemistry and this together with all the other shower of inventions, was given, into my supervision. Villalon convinced me that his judgment was sound and the guns were contracted for. In the agreement it was stipulated that we were not obliged, to accept them until three rounds for each had been satisfactorily fired. Villalon inspected the construction.”
“We tried the guns out on Long Island at an isolated spot, firing so that the shells dropped into the water. When the first shot was to be fired, the inventor attached a long lanyard, calling to us to climb behind a sand dune as he prepared to pull it.”
“We remonstrated, refusing to accept a weapon which, according to the behavior of the inventor at the moment, might prove more fatal to the Cubans than to the Spaniards. The inventor then agreed to fire from the proximity to the guns.”
“These somewhat inauspiciously begun tests proved satisfactory and three guns were shipped immediately to Cuba; one to Oriente, where it did splendid service under Juan M. Portuondo, likewise a Cuban civil engineer. The second went to Santa Clara, where it was given the name, “Retribution.” This gun had an accident and part of its length had to be sacrificed.”
“The third was used with great effect in Pinar del Rio by General Antonio Maceo; it was in Pinar del Rio that Colonel Villalon made his campaign. Another of these guns was acquired by the United States and subsequently used by the Rough Riders in the Santiago campaign. The missile or shell contained four and a half pounds of nitro-gelatin, the high explosive of the period. It was detonated by a hollow cylinder of guncotton which, in turn, was set off by a powerful fulminate of mercury cap. The main charge was safe enough in transportation; not so the guncotton.”
“A special suitcase, softly lined, was made in which to nest each cylinder. The detonating caps were carefully fitted into a padded frame.”
“I had placed one of these suitcases under my-desk and, after a short absence from my office, found a friend sitting in my chair beating a tattoo with his feet on the bag. I begged him not to scratch the nice, new-suitcase, but explained no further. Presently a super-cautious messenger was dispatched to carry it to-a-tug, thence to sea.”
“The most effective and practical trajectory was that o fa high parabola. The gun was not rifled. The missile was equipped with an aluminum-feathered rod so that if looked like an ordinary shell, with an arrow sticking out of the centre of the base.”
“A young Cuban visualized a more mobile dynamite weapon (see mobile weapon in background section) and., upon its completion, demanded of Estrada Palma that Junta representatives observe a test. This weapon consisted of a metal tripod of collapsible camera type on which was mounted a gun of slightly greater bore than that of a large shotgun. I advised against any interest in the invention, but the inventor charged us with blindly rejecting a cheap and efficient method of winning the war so, finally, I was persuaded to attend a trial, at an isolated New Jersey beach.”
“Not with standing my promise, I was prevented at the last minute from keeping it by the arrest of one of our captains. When I reached home someone said, “Wasn’t it too bad about that young Cuban?” I had not read the evening papers which contained the story of a serious accident to a Cuban on the Jersey shore. He was testing an invention of his when the first shot exploded inside the gun and he lost most of his teeth.......”
Funston was in charge of the artillery of General Garcia, until weakened by wounds and disease, he had to return to the U.S. Funston often fired the 12 pounder rather than the dynamite gun. Funston fought in the Phillipines, where he won the Medal of Honor, captured Aguinaldo, and was promoted by the elder MacArthur to General of the regular army. In later years he would promote the younger Douglas MacArthur.
The Guerrillas are described in Daley (book in preparation) thus: “The mounted Guerrillas are the Spanish columns’ eyes and ears. Guerrillas ride ahead and around the columns scouting against ambush. It is these, the renegade Cuban Guerrillas of the Spanish Army that pursue the impedimenta. They are organized in swift packs of hard riding, white suited, flat hatted, and cruel men with good rifles and black leather straps holding abundant ammunition tied diagonally across their chests.”
“The Guerrillas are organized under a commander with the rank of captain or a lieutenant, they operate in specific territories where they know the lay of the land. In these territories they lead and guide regular Spanish columns and conduct fast raids on their own. Guerrillas seek to destroy the civilian support of the Mambi (the Cuban Insurgents) and especially seek turncoats to use as guides to Mambi hiding places.”
“Discipline is fierce among the Guerrillas, a rebellious word to the commander in the field can literally and immediately cost the speaker his head. The commander wipes his bloody machete and his hardened men go on.”
“Guerrillas carry for the most part short carbines, one shot rolling block .35 caliber Remingtons that shoot massive soft tipped lethal bullets; carbines, “tercerolas” they call them, that they can shoot more easily from horseback. They also carry sharp machetes. The Guerrillas ride on swift, thin, small criollo ponies with long burr entangled coarse manes and flowing tails. They send out two man patrols ahead to test for the presence of the Mambi. It is a war of stealth and surprise, sudden quick kills and desperate flight.”
“Guerrillas are Cuban mercenaries; they are paid a peso a day. Many Guerrillas are recruited from the jails; they receive complete pardons when they enlist. Guerrillas laugh as they kill unarmed Cuban men, they make lewd jokes as they wait their turns to rape Cuban women. They kill children, when they feel the impulse to do it. Prisoners are dragged on ropes behind the columns or carried with their legs tied under the bellies of spare horses. The prisoners are to be tortured for information and then executed.”
“These Guerrillas have no rules, their job is extermination of rural peoples, the growers of food, the pacificos, the Guajiros who do not want to go to war. The killing is to deprive the Mambi of their support. The Spanish authorities give the Guerrillas tacit authorization to do as they wish.”
Machine guns often Colt machine guns were used by both Cuba insurgents and Spanish before the entry of U.S. forces to finish the war. Cuban insurgent leaders such as Jose Maceo, Antonio Maceo and Calixto Garcia are known to have had machine guns; however, insurgents found that machine guns stressed their supply system and mainly had to discontinue use when ammunition ran out. Gattling guns, an older type of machine gun were to play a critical role in the US assault on San Juan Hill in 1898.
Mobile weapon Daley (see manuscript in preparation cited below) describes using in action of a weapon of almost exactly this nature used in about the middle of 1958 against the “casquitos” of Batista, by the escopeteros of Lorente and Majin Peña. Such a weapon is also described in Ernesto “Che” Guevaras “Manual of Guerrilla Warfare ” The weapon saw action on family land --inherited from Mambi colonel Don Benjamin Ramirez-near Peña Prieta in the Numeros, the mountain once know as La Mambisa between the Guama and the Bayamo Rivers of the Sierra Maestra. The perhaps hundred dynamite filled rounds fired did not to mayor physical damage to the Batista troops, but it did seem to have a drastic effect on their moral since they with withdrew next day and never returned.”
Portuondo, Juan M.
Portuondo served under Funston with General Garcia until Funston’s wounds and sickness forced him to leave Cuba. Portuondo then became General Garcia’s chief of artillery.
Cuban insurgent arms and ammunition were often brought in by the very fast sea going tug used by the Cuban Junta for this purpose. Descriptions of these tugs and their activities are also found in the Rubens book (1932).
Rubens, Horatio S. “CHAPTER XI THE PLAGUE OF INVENTORS” in “Liberty. The Story of Cuba” AMS Press New York, 1970 reprint of 1932 edition. SBN 404-00633-7 pp. 213-215
Daley, Larry S. Book in preparation. The book presents events some previously unpublished, and/or first hand events, of the history of family and relatives of General García, covering the period from 1817-1962. Daley is one of the more than 200 descendents of General García in the U.S. Copyrighted drafts of chapters from this book are available in various places on the web, such as Army-talk, Guaracabuya, and soc.culture.cuba and can be requested from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com )