Not a hoax: New evidence in the New York Journal’s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros American Journalism, 19, (4) Fall 2002

The conclusions of this article are based on a detailed review of the correspondence of American diplomatic personnel assigned to Cuba in 1897. Their letters and reports are kept at the U.S. National Archives. Also central to this article was the collection of correspondence, reports, and manuscripts of Fitzhugh Lee at the University of Virginia. Until recently, researchers’ access to Lee’s papers was restricted, under terms of an agreement with the donor.49 Further, this article draws on several manuscript collections at the Library of Congress and on accounts of the Cisneros case published by Hearst’s Journal and by rival newspapers in New York City. Articles and editorials appearing in newspapers in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, also yielded important insights.

Together, these accounts reveal that:

  • a junior member of the U.S. consulate staff in Havana, Donnell Rockwell, provided a file or similarly small instrument with which Cisneros sawed surreptitiously, if futilely, at the bars of her cell. Rockwell was detained and closely questioned by Spanish authorities investigating the jailbreak, but soon released. Immediately after his release, Rockwell requested, and was granted by his superior, a thirty-day leave to travel to the United States, purportedly because of ill health.
  • the U.S. consular officer in Sagua la Grande in central Cuba, Walter B. Barker, was aboard the Seneca, the New York-bound Ward Line steamer onto which Cisneros was smuggled in completing her escape from Havana. The New York World quoted the Seneca’s captain as saying that Cisneros spent much of the passage in the company of Barker and the vessel’s purser. Barker went to New York on a leave of absence that he requested in an unusually hurried manner. Even so, Barker did not secure passage to New York on the first available passenger steamer.
  • one of the principal conspirators, Carlos Carbonell, was a Cuban-American banker with close ties to Lee. Carbonell married Cisneros in June 1898, less than a month after proposing to her at Lee’s home in Virginia.50 Moreover, Carbonell was appointed a lieutenant on Lee’s military staff soon after the United States went to war with Spain. While on Lee’s staff, Carbonell was ordered by Lee “to quietly make investigation”51 into a prospective real estate deal in Cuba that Lee thought would be worth a fortune. It is unclear whether Lee pursued or invested in the venture, but Carbonell’s investigation represents additional evidence of the extent of his ties to Lee.

Although Lee was associated with Rockwell, Barker, and Carbonell, the available record does not tie him unequivocally to the Journal’s plot to free Cisneros. Nor is there evidence suggesting that State Department officials in Washington—including John Sherman, the secretary of state, or William R. Day, the first assistant secretary of state—encouraged, countenanced, or even knew about the conspiracy.52


Even so, it is inconceivable that Lee was unaware of the plot, given his keen interest in Cisneros. He was, moreover, the common link among Rockwell, Barker, and Carbonell. And Lee’s own account of the Cisneros case—an unpublished draft manuscript written in 1898 and intended to be a book chapter53—offers considerable detail about the escape. Notably, Lee clarifies Carbonell’s role, describing it as essential to Cisneros’ flight from Havana.


In addition, Lee’s correspondence with State Department officials clearly shows that the affable consul-general—a former Confederate cavalry commander and a favorite source for U.S. correspondents covering the Cuban insurrection54—relished scheming, intrigue, and intelligence-gathering. “I am,” Lee wrote during his assignment in Havana, “charged with delicate important secret functions [in] addition to my regular consular duties.”55 With the State Department’s assent, Lee in 1896 set up a $1,200 fund to pay for what he called a “’secret service’”56 or “a secret detective system,” a covert network that allowed him to be “accurately informed of all that goes on in the city [of Havana] and some other parts of the Island.”57 The “secret service” was intended, Lee said, to provide early warning about emergent crises and deteriorating conditions in Cuba.58 His correspondence with the State Department indicates that Lee sought no guidance from Washington in conducting his intelligence-gathering operation in Havana. Although his official correspondence did not identify the informants he recruited, Lee often informed the State Department about the reports from sources he called his “scouts”59 in Cuba.60


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49. The collection at the University of Virginia is comprised of photocopies of Lee’s correspondence, manuscripts, and other materials. The photocopies were made from originals owned by Fitzhugh Lee’s great-grandson, Fitzhugh Lee Opie.

50. “Miss Cisneros Will Wed,” New York Journal (21 May 1898). A Richmond newspaper reported the day before the Journal’s account that Carbonell “is known in Richmond as the finace of Senorita Evangelina Cisneros, and the son of a leading Habana banker.” See “Lieutenant Carbonell,” Richmond Dispatch (20 May 1898): 1.

51. Lee to Daniel Lamont (29 November 1898), Daniel Lamont Papers, Container 83, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, DC.

52. It is unlikely Sherman or Day knew about the plot to free Cisneros. Sherman’s papers at the Library of Congress contain no reference to the Cisneros jailbreak. Day’s papers at the Library of Congress contain nothing more than passing reference to the case. Moreover, the State Department was an unsettled place during the summer and autumn of 1897, given Sherman’s increasingly noticeable mental and physical infirmities. How long Sherman would remain secretary of state had become a topic of considerable newspaper commentary and speculation. See, for example, H. Gibson Gardner, “Too Old to do His Work Well,” Chicago Journal (22 October 1897), scrapbook clipping, volume 614, John Sherman papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, DC. See also, “John Sherman as Secretary of State,” Literary Digest, 15, 17 (21 August 1897): 486–487.

53. It is unclear why Lee did not publish the manuscript. Perhaps it was because the manuscript contained a measure of anonymity. One of the conspirators, for example, is described only by his initials, F.D.B.—which almost certainly is a reference to Francisco De Besche. Another reason is that the account of the escape would not have fit well with the contents of the book’s final version, which included accounts of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Paris peace treaty negotiations. The book also had a co-author, Joseph Wheeler. See Lee and Wheeler, Cuba’s Struggle Against Spain With the Causes of American Intervention and a full account of the Spanish-American War, including Final Peace Negotiations (New York, American Historical Press, 1899).

54. Richard Harding Davis, for example, wrote in early 1897 that there was “no better informed American on Cuban matters than [Lee], nor one who sees the course our government should pursue more clearly. Through the Consuls all over the island, he is in touch with every part of it, and in daily touch.” See Richard Harding Davis, “ Cuba’s Problem an Urgent One,” New York Journal (28 February 1897): 41.

55. Lee to William Rockhill (4 July 1896), Havana Consular Dispatches, Record Group 59, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD. Lee also stated, “The information I am going to get is worth much more than [$]1200 to the Government.”

56. Lee to Rockhill (4 July 1896), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

57. Lee to William B. Day (5 June 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

58. Lee to Day (5 June 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park. Lee’s spy network was mentioned by Gerald G. Eggert in a journal article about Lee’s assignment to Cuba. See Eggert, “Our Man in Havana: Fitzhugh Lee,” Hispanic American Historical Review 47, 4 (1967): 478. The article does not explore Lee’s connection to the Cisneros case, however.

59. See “Extract from Letter of Gen. Lee to Judge Day, December 22, 1897,” William R. Day Papers, Container 35, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. See also, Lee to Day (30 March 1898), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

60. Lee’s intelligence-gathering was not without its failings. For example, in August 1896 he informed the State Department that Weyler, the Spanish captain-general in Cuba, was soon to be recalled. Lee cited sources “’near the Throne.’” But his report was erroneous. Weyler remained in Cuba until the end of October 1897. See Lee to Rockhill (26 August 1896), Reel 22, Richard Olney papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C. Lee wrote: “Accustomed to getting information in various ways, I have succeeded in getting some of the machinery necessary to do it here. This morning I heard that Weyler’s departure from the island had been ordered and that it might take place as early as the 30 th instant. … This comes from persons ‘near the Throne.’”