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

Rockwell: The troubled consular clerk


Lee’s manuscript identifies Rockwell as having taken an active role in the plot to free Cisneros. Specifically, Lee said that Rockwell had smuggled “an instrument” to Cisneros who used it to saw at the bars of her cell before her rescue.91 Her efforts were unavailing, however, because she “did not understand the management of the instrument Mr. Rockwell gave her,” Lee’s manuscript says.92 Lee also wrote that Rockwell gave Cisneros “some sweet meats that had opium mixed with them,” which were to induce the deep sleep of her cellmates before the jailbreak.93


While Lee’s manuscript contains no clear indication that he knew in advance about Rockwell’s smuggling the cutting instrument and narcotic-laced sweet meats to Cisneros, it is exceedingly unlikely that Rockwell would have acted unilaterally. Lee in any event was aware of Rockwell’s interest in the Cisneros case: Lee’s papers show that Rockwell had reported to the consul-general in July 1897 about the account Cisneros had given him about the events that had culminated in her arrest and jailing.94


A further reason that Rockwell was unlikely to have acted alone was his subordinated status. Lee not only was Rockwell’s superior but in effect was also his probation officer: In early 1897, Lee suspended Rockwell for being “unfit for duty from drink” and reinstated the clerk with an unequivocal warning.


Rockwell began his duties at the Havana consulate in May 1896, shortly before Lee arrived to take up the consul-general’s position.95 In response to an inquiry from the State Department, which was checking on a report that Rockwell had been “drinking as hard as ever,”96 Lee confirmed that the clerk had “on several occasions been unfit for duty from drink. He has also been temporarily indisposed from slight illnesses and been in hospital for several days.”97 Lee told the Department that he had suspended Rockwell in March 1897, “when again he was somewhat under the influence of liquor.” Lee further wrote: “After two or three days of suspension and repentance and the most solemn promises that I should not have occasion to find fault with him again, I reinstated him in his duties with the warning and with the understanding that any further offense would be reported to the Department.”98


Correspondence from the Havana consulate indicate that Rockwell later sought a transfer “to some other post”99—but that he also earnestly completed an unofficial, information-gathering assignment for Lee in late July 1897, on a visit to friends in Artemisa in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province. Lee had asked Rockwell to report about the effects in Artemisa of Spain’s harsh and much-criticized policy of “reconcentration,” in which Cuban non-combatants were ordered into garrison towns. The policy was intended to deprive the Cuban insurgents of popular support in the countryside but in practice, “reconcentration” led to much suffering and the deaths of tens of thousands of Cubans. The plight of Cuban reconcentrados outraged the American public and may have done “more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”100


Rockwell wrote a vivid and detailed report that described dreadful conditions in what he called the “doomed settlement.” The death toll in Artemisa from starvation, Rockwell wrote, was twenty-five to thirty-five a day. “The death cart makes its rounds several times daily, and into it the corpses are thrown without ceremony, and taken to the cemetary[sic] where they are interred in a long ditch,” he stated. “A thin layer of earth is then cast on the remains, and the next day the operation is repeated till the ditch is full.”101 Rockwell also wrote: “This state of affairs now to be seen in Artemisa is but a repetition of what is taking place in all the towns of reconcentration on the Island.”102


Lee sent Rockwell’s report to the State Department with an accompanying cover letter in which he wrote: “I can assure the Department that there is no exaggeration in the reports of the overwhelming misery, sufferings, and death of the Cuban reconcentrados.” Lee in the letter vouched for Rockwell, describing him as “a very conscientious and truthful man.”103 Margin notes on Lee’s cover letter indicate that Rockwell’s report was shown to President McKinley. The report is revealing of not only of the plight of the reconcentrados but of Lee’s willingness to call upon consular staff to collect information unofficially. It also suggests Rockwell’s sympathies for the Cubans and his earnestness in courting Lee’s favor.


In the days after the jailbreak, Spanish authorities in Havana came to suspect Rockwell and on 12 October 1897 questioned him “closely as to his knowledge of Miss Cisneros’s rescue,” the Journal reported, adding: “Finally he was able to refute all the accusations of his connivance in the affair. As a friend of the prisoner he frequently visited the Casa [de] Recogidas and was thus suspected by the authorities of assisting in her flight.”104 Within hours of his interrogation, Rockwell asked Joseph Springer, the consulate’s senior officer during Lee’s absence, for a thirty-day leave to travel to the United States. Springer promptly approved Rockwell’s request and sent it to the State Department, citing “ill health” as justification. 105 The request was quickly approved in Washington.


It is not precisely clear when Rockwell left Cuba, whether he returned, or even whether he remained in the U.S. diplomatic service.106 Lee’s correspondence indicates that Rockwell overstayed his thirty-day leave but that he was still expected back in Havana in late November 1897.107 In any event, Rockwell’s contributing role in the jailbreak represents a direct and unequivocal link between the U.S. consulate in Havana and the plot to free Cisneros.


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91. Lee to Day (30 July 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

92. “Hunting for the Girl’s Rescuers,” New York Journal (14 October 1897): 2.

93. Joseph Springer, telegram to U.S. State Department (12 October 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

94. The National Archives contains no personnel records for Rockwell.

95. Lee to his wife (23 November 1897), Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

96. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

97. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

98. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

99. An undated notation in Lee’s handwriting says, “Evangelina Cossio’s brief statement about the rising in the Isle of Pines—as taken down by Consular Clerk Rockwell.” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

100. Lee to Rockhill (20 March 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park, MD.

101. Rockhill to Lee (17 March 1897), Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia. In a handwritten postscript to his letter, Rockhill wrote: “Please let me know about Rockwell at your very earliest convenience. I am reliably informed he is drinking as hard as ever.”

102. Lee to Rockhill (20 March 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.

103. Lee to Rockhill (20 March 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park. Lee also wrote: “I must add[,] in justice to Mr. Rockwell, that he is gentlemanly, of good manners and generally conscientious in the discharge of his duties. I regret that his unfortunate propensity should stand in the way of his efficiency as a consular officer but hope that my action suspending him from his desk and your letter requesting his record here, will have effect and serve as a warning that hereafter any further transgression will not be overlooked.” Rockwell did not kept his pledge of sobriety. Lee, in a letter home in the summer of 1897, noted: “Rockwell drunk again—poor fellow.” Lee to his wife (7 August 1897), Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

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

105. Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 69.

106. Donnell Rockwell to Lee (29 July 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park. Musgrave in his book also described the suffering in Artemisa. See Musgrave, Under Three Flags in Cuba, 121.

107. Rockwell to Lee (29 July 1897).