“Remember Crittenden” battle cry for Kentuckians in Spanish American War

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Colonel William L. Crittenden is executed by Spanish Soldiers in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 16, 1851. Crittenden and other Americans were executed following a failed filibuster movement to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Collection, Kansas City Museum.

The mysterious explosion and sinking of the U.S. battleship, Maine, in Havana harbor Feb. 15, 1898, was the call to war with Spain for most Americans, their rallying cry was “Remember the Maine.” Amid a tidal wave of martial spirit sweeping the country, war was declared against Spain April 21.

For many Kentuckians this war was an opportunity to seek retributive justice for past atrocities of the Spanish against Kentuckians during the ill-fated Lopez Expeditions to Cuba 40 years earlier, their battle cry was “Remember Crittenden.”

The following article appeared in the April 24, 1898, edition of The Owensboro Messenger:

Dave Murray Will Avenge His Half-Brother’s Death.

Coverport, Ky., April 23.—David R. Murray, the youngest half-brother of Col. William Crittenden, the hero of the Lopez invasion of Cuba, has been commissioned by Gov. Bradley to raise a regiment of volunteers to answer the president’s second call for troops Monday.

When Crittenden was asked to kneel with his back turned that he might be shot by his Spanish executioners, he uttered the immortal declaration that a Kentuckian kneels to none but his God and always faces his enemies. The battle cry of Col. Murray’s regiment will be “Remember Crittenden.”

The Crittenden referred to in the Fourth Kentucky’s battle cry was William Logan Crittenden, of Shelby County. Crittenden was born the son of Henry and Anna Marie (Allen) Crittenden in 1823. He was an 1845 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating 41st in a class of 41. Following graduation he was promoted to Brevet Second Lieutenant to the 5th U.S. Infantry, July 1, 1845. He would serve in the military occupation of Texas, 1845-46; followed by service in the Mexican-American War, 1846-47, participating in the Battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma; followed by occupation duty at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. In 1848, he returned to Kentucky, in garrison duty at Newport Barracks. He would be assigned frontier duty at Austin, Texas, in the latter part of 1848, resigning his commission March 1, 1849.

Colonel William L. Crittenden

Following his military service, Crittenden made his way to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he worked in the New Orleans customs house. He would soon became involved in General Narciso Lopez’s 1851 Bahia Honda expedition to liberate the island of Cuba from Spanish rule.

As early as 1819, Cubans had aspired for independence when failed insurrection broke out on the island. For nearly a 30-year period Cuba was in a state of rebellion beginning in 1823. Prior to the final Lopez Expedition of 1851, failed revolts occurred in 1826, 1828, 1830, 1848 and 1850. López organized four filibuster expeditions against Cuba between 1849 and 1851. The U.S. government disbanded two of them, and two others landed on the island with disastrous results. It is difficult to ascertain the names of all Kentuckians in the filibuster movement, because López destroyed the muster rolls to avoid implicating his followers in this violation of the Neutrality Act of 1818.

In the early morning hours of August 12, 1851, 453 men of the ill-fated expedition landed near the village of Morillos, west of Bahia Honda, Cuba, with Colonel Crittenden leading the First Regiment of Artillery, a regiment without cannons, it was hoped the cannon would be transported at a later date. The filibusters found little support among the local Cuban citizens, so Lopez moved inland in an attempt to garner support, leaving Crittenden in command of a force of 100 men. Crittenden would lose half of his command killed in fighting Spanish forces sent against him. Becoming surrounded, these men broke through the Spanish line making their way back to the coast. They tried to make their escape from island in four small fishing boats, however, they were captured by the Spanish steamer, Habanero Aug. 15.

The Habanero steamed into Havana harbor the next morning, with her captive filibusters who were immediately transferred to the ship Esperanza, where they were tried by a drumhead court martial, and ordered to be shot at once.

A request by the prisoners to see the American Consul was refused due to their being considered by Spanish authorities as outlaws and pirates, without any country to who’s protection they could appeal, or any flag except the Jolly Roger.

The captives were given half an hour in which to write letters to their family and friends. Many took advantage of the opportunity, their letters were given to and afterward delivered to their recipients by Mr. Antonio da Costa, a Spanish merchant with offices in New Orleans and Havana, who personally knew many of them, and of whose loyalty to Spain, the Spanish authorities at Havana had no doubt.

The letter that Colonel Crittenden wrote on that occasion to his friend, Doctor Lucien Hensley, may serve to give insight into his nature, a true hero in the face of death, “Strong in Heart.” The letter, stained with blood, from his lacerated wrists; reads as follows:

Ship of War Esperanza, August 16, 1851.

Dear Lucien:

In half an hour I with fifty others am to be shot. We were taken prisoners yesterday. We were in small boats. General Lopez separated the balance of the command from me. I had with me about one hundred. Was attacked by two battalions of infantry and one company of horse. The odds were too great, and strange to tell, I was not furnished with one single musket cartridge. Lopez did not get any artillery. I have not the heart to write to any of my family. If the truth ever comes out you will find that I did my duty and have the perfect confidence of every man with me. We had retired from the field and were going to the sea, and were overtaken by the Spanish steamer Habanero, and captured. Tell General Houston that his nephew got separated from me on the 13th, the day of the fight, and that I have not seen him since. He may have straggled off and joined Lopez, who advanced rapidly to the interior. My people, however, were entirely surrounded on every side. We saw that we had been deceived grossly, and were making for the United States when taken. During my short sojourn in this island I have not met a single patriot.

We landed some forty or fifty miles to the westward of this, and I am sure that in that part of the island Lopez has no friends. When I was attacked Lopez was only three miles off. If he had not been deceiving us as to the state of things he would have fallen back with his forces and made fight. Instead of which he marched immediately to the interior. I am requested to get you to tell Mr. Green, of the custom house, that his brother shares my fate. Victor Ker is also with me; so, also, Standford. I recollect no others of your acquaintance present. I will die like a man. My heart has not failed me yet. Nor do I believe it will. Communicate with my family. Tell my friend on Philippa Street that I had better have been persuaded to stay; that I have not forgotten him, and will not in the moment of death. This is an incoherent letter, but the circumstances must excuse me. My hands are swollen to double their thickness, resulting from having been too tightly corded for the last eighteen hours. Write to Whistlar; let him write to my mother. I am afraid that the news will break her heart. My heart beats warmly toward her now. Farewell. My love to all my family. I am sorry that I die owing a cent, but it is inevitable.

Yours, Strong in Heart,

W.L. Crittenden.

Crittenden then wrote the following lines to his uncle, Honorable John J. Crittenden, at the time Attorney-General of the United States:

Dear Uncle:

In a few minutes some fifty of us will be shot. We came here with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motives were good. I was deceived by Lopez. He, as well as the public press, assured me that the island was in a state of prosperous revolution. I am commanded to finish writing at once. I will die like a man.

After writing their farewell letters, the unfortunate men were taken to Castle Atares, at the head of Havana harbor, to be executed; and it was upon the slope of the hill in front of this fortification that they bravely met their fate.

They were marched down the gangplank of the ship Esperanza, one by one, stripped to trousers and in some cases without shirts, bareheaded, their hands tied tightly behind their backs. From the ship’s gangway they walked onto a ferry boat, which carried them to the place of execution. A witnesses to the event said: “I never saw men conduct themselves at such an awful crisis with the fortitude these men displayed. … A finer looking body of young men I never saw. They made not a single complaint, not a murmur against their cruel fate.”

The United States Ship Albany was in Havana harbor at the time, anchored about two hundred and fifty yards from the Esperanza; and the sailors on board were in a state of violent excitement when they saw the Americans filing onto the ferry boat. As a group they asked permission of their commander, Captain Randolph, to land and prevent the execution; and turn the guns of the ship upon the town. When they heard the firing of the execution, in a state of despair, they wanted the American flag struck from the Albany.

All the troops then in Havana, some twelve hundred were formed in a square where the execution was to take place, wearing their war uniforms, with blouses and straw hats; and surrounding the soldiers were thousands of the citizens of Havana, who came out to gloat over the execution of these invaders. An article appearing in the September 12, 1851, edition of the Cincinnati Nonpareil stated:

. . . a letter written by a lady in Cuba, ‘They were scoffed and hooted at by the mob.   One fellow went up to Crittenden and stroked his beard, at which the latter, with perfect coolness, spat in the aggressors face, and a Spanish officer who guarded him, being incensed with the cruel conduct of the people, struck the insulting Cuban in the face with the butt of his gun. Finding the difficulty of keeping the mob in prudent limits, the General ordered that no more prisoners should be brought to Havana.’

The Mayor of the Plaza read the edict that preceded such executions; and then the stage was set for the terrible tragedy to begin.

“The fate which must befall pirates who dare to profane the soil of this island, having been expressed in the general orders of the 20th of April last, and subsequently republished, and the declaration of the fifty individuals who have been apprehended by the most excellent Seflor Commandant of this Apostodero, and placed at my disposition, having been received, and it being apparent from this that the persons arrested belonged to the horde headed by the traitor Lopez, I have resolved, in accordance with the directions in the royal ordinance, general laws of the kingdom, and especially in the general order of June 12th of the year before last, issued to meet this particular contingency, that this day the said persons, whose names are expressed in the subjoined list, shall suffer death by being shot; the direction of the execution being confided to Seflor Lieutenant Rey, of the Plaza.”

The victims, bound securely, were brought out of the boat twelve at a time; of these, six were blindfolded and made to kneel down with their backs to the soldiers, who stood some three or four paces from them. These six executed, the other six were put through the same ghastly ceremony; then twelve others were brought from the boat; and so on, until the tragedy was over. As each group were executed their bodies were cast aside to make room for the next group.

Crittenden was ordered, to face away from the rifles and get on his knees, refusing to heed the command stated, variously reported, “A Kentuckian turns his back on no enemy and kneels only to his God.” William Logan Crittenden was immediately shot, he was twenty-eight years old at the time of his death.

Within two weeks of landing in Cuba, nearly three hundred of the invaders had been killed in action, General Lopez and Crittenden alone with fifty others had been executed. The remainder taken prisoner would be sent to Ceuta to work the quicksilver mines until released a year later.

In New Orleans, word of the execution of the filibusters caused great excitement, citizens began destroying, in protest, anything or attacking anyone that had a connection with Spain. The local authorities turned to Colonel Thomas Hawkins’ Kentuckians, who were in the city waiting to join the Lopez Expedition, to protect the city from the violence which was spreading. Major Louis Schlesinger, of Hungary who accompanied Lopez in this expedition, wrote afterward concerning Hawkins’ Kentucky Regiment that had been left in New Orleans:

“the Kentucky regiment was a most noble body of men—intelligent, steady, and reliable for anything; men from whom the strictest subordination and intelligent obedience could always have been looked for without fear of disappointment. Such men were these Kentuckians that, during the riots which followed the news of the Atares massacre, the city authorities of New Orleans actually committed chiefly to them the protection of the city by placing arms in the hands of five hundred of them for that purpose, in preference to calling on their own militia. Their conduct merited and received the highest praise from all quarters. Intelligence and self-respect supplied the place of discipline and training, and veteran troops could not have better obeyed and executed every order of their officers.”

The execution of the fifty-one Americans by the Spanish created an outburst of indignation in the United States that was hardly exceeded forty-seven years later when the Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Through diplomacy between the U.S. and Spain, the Lopez incident was closed, and remain closed until 1898, when the United States and Spain went to war. Secretary of State John Hay would call it a “a splendid little war,” in which Cuba was finally able to gain her independence from Spain with the assistance of the United States.

What role did David R. Murray and the Fourth Kentucky have on the outcome of the War? Murray was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 4th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, with Colonel David Grant Colson in command. The Kentucky State Guard would field four Infantry regiments and two Cavalry troops for the Spanish-American War, the First “Louisville Legion” Kentucky Volunteer Infantry would see service in Puerto Rico, following hostilities, served as reinforcements, performing security, police and courier duties. The Fourth would make it as far as Camp Shipp, located just outside of Anniston, Alabama. The final Kentucky State Guard units were mustered out of Federal service in 1899. During the Spanish-American War, 6,065 Kentucky soldiers participated in various campaigns in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, suffering 89 casualties. In 1900, Murray, would be appointed Adjutant General of Kentucky, serving in the position until 1903.

Crittenden became a martyr and folk hero to the citizens of Kentucky in the years following his death. The following poem written in 1851 by Mrs. Mary E. (Wilson) Betts, of Maysville, Kentucky, was dedicated to Colonel William L. Crittenden. The poem appeared in newspapers nation-wide soon after its release in 1851, until the mid-1870’s. It would be revived in newspapers around the country at the beginning of hostilities in 1898.

“A KENTUCKIAN KNEELS TO NONE BUT GOD”

Ah! tyrant, forge thy chains at will

Nay! gall this flesh of mine;

My thought is free, unfetter’d still,

And will not yield to thine.

Take, take the life that heaven gave,

And let my heart’s blood stain thy sod;

But know ye not Kentucky’s brave

Will kneel to none but God?

You’ve quenched fair Freedom’s sunny light,

Her music tones have stilled;

And with a dark and withering blight

The trusting heart have filled!

Then do you think that I will kneel

Where such as ye have trod?

Nay! point your cold and threat’ning steel,—

I’ll kneel to none but God!

As summer breezes lightly rest

Upon a quiet river,

And gently on its sleeping breast

The moonbeams softly quiver—

Sweet thoughts of home lit up my brow

When goaded with the rod;

Yet, these can not unman me now—

I’ll kneel to none but God!

Unpitying hearts, as hard as stone,

Are coldly standing by;

And dreams of bliss forever flown

Have dimm’d with tears mine eye—

Yet mine’s a heart unyielding still—

Heap on my breast the clod;

My soaring spirit scorns thy will—

I’ll kneel to none but God!