Eloy Gonzalo was the only Spanish soldier to achieve true fame in the media between 1895 and 1898, becoming a kind of myth after starring in one of the most significant war episodes of that conflict. What no newspaper reviewed those years was the hard story behind.
In the Plaza del Cascorro, in the heart of old Madrid, right where the Rastro begins, stands the statue of Eloy Gonzalo. Many Spaniards know little about this soldier and what made him worthy of a monument, but the generation that lived through the terrible Cuban War of Independence knew him well. He was the great hero of Spain. It could even be said that he was the only one who achieved true fame in the media after starring in one of the most important war episodes of that conflict.
As the magazine “Blanco y Negro” said on January 30th, 1897: “He is, without a doubt, the soldier who has become the most popular in the current war. They comprised in him the heroism and bravery of the defenders of Cascorro. He had volunteered to break the fence by setting fire to an enemy-occupied house and, as he believed his death to be certain, he had a rope tied so that, by pulling it, his companions would prevent the enemy from desecrating his corpse.” What no newspaper, neither those years nor the following, was the sad and curious story that our hero hid from that confrontation that culminated in the defeat of Spain, the independence of Cuba, and a new era of world imperialism for the United States.
It all started for Gonzalo a few hours after his birth in Madrid, on December 1st, 1868, when he was abandoned at 11 at night in the convent of the Sisters of Charity on Mesón de Paredes street, in the Lavapiés neighborhood. The cold of that winter was deadly, but they found the newborn in time. Among the clothes he had a note for the nuns – today preserved in the Regional Archive of the Community of Madrid -, which said: “This child was born at six in the morning. He is not baptized and we ask him to name him Eloy Gonzalo García, legitimate son of Luisa García, single, a native of Peñafiel. Maternal grandparents, Santiago and Vicenta”.
From family to family
The future soldier never knew his parents, since he was adopted a few days later by the wife of a civil guard who had just lost a newborn son and was still able to breastfeed. He was also looking for the 60 bimonthly reales that were granted to pay for his education and that she surely needed. With this family our hero lived his childhood, between the towns of San Bartolomé de Pinares (Ávila) and Robledo de Chavela (Madrid). However, the grant was only delivered until the orphan was 11 years old, so when he reached that age, in 1879, they did not want to continue supporting him, and they handed him over to another family in Chapinería, another town in Madrid. Details of his life that when the press of the time reviewed his exploits were never told.
Gonzalo settled there to earn a living as a laborer, a bricklayer, a carpenter, and a barber’s apprentice, until he was called up in 1889. In his file he is described as a man with brown hair, blue eyes, and 1,75 meters of height. He was assigned to the Lusitania Dragoon Regiment, 12th Cavalry, where he rose to the rank of corporal two years later for his good behaviour and efficiency in service. In the Army, he found his place and his reason for being. He was proud of the service he provided to Spain after being abandoned by his mother and having led a life of hardship and little affection.
But the tragedies did not end here. In 1892, he joined the Kingdom’s Carabiners Corps, and, in the summer of 1894, he was assigned to the Algeciras Command. He had finally found a “foster family” in which to thrive. So much so that, a few months later, he obtained enough security to ask permission from his superiors to marry a girl he had met in the town of Cádiz. It was then that his life, in the happiest moment, fell apart: in February 1895, he surprised his fiancée in bed with a young lieutenant. This new and double treason – that of his girlfriend and that of an officer – was too much for him and Gonzalo fought the lieutenant and threatened him with his pistol.
Court martial and prison
The officer filed a complaint that ended in a military court and our protagonist was arrested and subjected to a Court martial, in which he was sentenced to 12 years in prison in Valladolid for a crime of insubordination. He was 27 years old and should have been released from prison at 42, but in August 1895 Congress passed an amnesty law for all those prisoners ready to fight in the recently begun last phase of the Cuban War. “Something similar to what the United States did sixty years later, when they sent convicts to the jungle of Vietnam”, says John Lawrence Tone in “War and Genocide in Cuba, 1895-1898” (Turner, 2006).
In November, Gonzalo avails himself of this new law and asks that he be sent to the island to, as he stated in his request to the Minister of War, “cleanse his honor, spilling blood for the fatherland”. The slow machinery of the administration expedited the procedures to approve his request, since the maximum possible contingent was necessary to fight against the Cuban insurgents. Thus, on November 25th, 1895 he embarked on a steamer in La Coruña bound for Havana, where he joined the María Cristina regiment for a year, before being stationed in the famous garrison of Cascorro, 60 kilometers southeast of Camagüey, in the center of the island.
As Lawrence defends in his book, this was the perfect place to be able to remove the guilt with his own blood: “Cascorro was indefensible, and the Spanish Army should never have tried to keep it. The supreme commander in Cuba, Captain General Valeriano Weyler, who would become known to the American public as “the Butcher”, admits in his memoirs that this enclave lacked military importance, as well as being a very easy target for the Cuban insurgents. In time, Weyler would end up abandoning this and other isolated and useless posts, but not before Máximo Gómez and Calixto García [leaders of the independence army] began their siege on September 22, 1896″.
The combat with 2,000 Cubans
The garrison outlook at the start of the combat was bleak. In front of the two thousand men of the Liberation Army, the Spanish only had 170. They were decimated and weakened by dysentery, malaria, typhus, yellow fever, and other diseases and lacked sufficient food and ammunition to withstand long combat. They also did not have artillery to respond to the three 70-millimeter Cuban guns. Knowing his overwhelming superiority, García proposed the conditions for the surrender, but the garrison commander, Captain Francisco Neila, did not want to speak of it.
The Cubans then fired 219 artillery shells at the three small forts that protected Cascorro, killing and wounding 21 soldiers. The power and precision of the Spanish rifles kept the insurgents at bay, but the situation did not cease to be unsustainable, especially after they took a building just 50 meters from the main fort, putting the Spanish position at serious risk . So close that even the outdated Remington and Winchester rifles of the insurgents could kill with a single shot, so Neila devised a desperate plan to save the situation.
At that time he asked for a volunteer to penetrate behind the enemy lines and set fire to the building in question. It was a perfect job for a former convict who longed to redeem himself. Gonzalo raised his hand and made only one condition: they had to tie him with a long rope so that, when they killed him, as he was sure would happen, his lifeless body could be rescued by his companions. And on October 5, protected by darkness, he prepared to carry out the operation with a Mauser rifle, an oil can, some matches, and very little hope.
The liberation of Cascorro
“The anguish remained drawn on the defenders’ faces, all hanging on a rope, until they began to see the light of the fire that was beginning to devour the building. He had succeeded and was alive. Taking advantage of the fire, the Spanish made a vigorous outing against the besiegers, which also included the brave soldier who, with his action, had saved the detachment. The resistance still had to last a few days, until, on October 6th, a relief column liberated the Cascorro garrison. The news spread like wildfire and soon the recognitions came: a pensioned medal, congratulations, donations and public events”, says the historian Germán Segura García in his article “Eloy Gonzalo, hero of Cascorro” (Revista Española de Defensa, 2018).
In Spain, Eloy’s feat produced a great impact. In the Cuban War of Independence, all the battles that had been fought up to that moment were of no importance. The insurgents had dedicated themselves, above all, to burning properties, blowing up trains, and attacking isolated posts, while the Spanish tried to capture them without success. In the midst of this sad campaign, the heroism of our protagonist raised the spirits of the Spanish: he had achieved a military success that seemed unattainable, showing signs of extraordinary courage, returning safely from his mission. “One of the most glorious episodes of these last days has been, without a doubt, the site of the town of Cascorro”, highlighted “Blanco y Negro” in its edition of October 24th, 1896, two weeks after this had occurred.
The war, however, continued and the hero of Cascorro continued to actively fight in the Matanzas region, trying to reduce the last rebel parties during the first half of 1897. On June 6th he entered the Military Hospital of this city. On the 17th of the same month, he died as a consequence of an intestinal infection caused by the Army’s poor diet, which produced gangrenous ulcerative enterocolitis. This disease manifested itself with episodes of diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and fever, which he suffered for twelve days until he succumbed. Unlike many of the 50,000 Spaniards killed in Cuba, Gonzalo’s body was repatriated when the fighting ended in 1898. In 1901, the image of his statue on the Rastro was already in the press.