William 'Whack' Ryan: Martyr to Cuban Freedom

As the brilliant rays of the morning sun began to flash off the whitewashed adobe wall in Santiago, Cuba, 30-year-old William Albert Charles Ryan reflected that it would be yet another beautiful day on the tropical island he had come to love. He could hear the sweet songs of a few tropical birds wafting on the air. The tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed young man, whose long brown curls were moving softly in the slight morning breeze, lifted his face and felt the sunshine. “It’s a good day to die,” he thought, for he also knew that this gleaming tropical sunrise would be the last he would see.

Ryan moved his hands back and forth and could feel that they were firmly bound at the wrist behind his back. It seemed there was little chance for a daring escape. November 4, 1873 would be the date on his tombstone, if he was ever lucky enough to have one.

Ryan took a deep breath of the already humid air and looked to his left, to his friends and fellow insurgents, General Henri Cespedes and Lieutenant Colonel Jesus Del Sol. They were softly praying on their knees in front of the wall, which was pot marked by untold bullets and stained with the splattered blood of hundreds who died there before them.

Their prayers came to an abrupt end as the Spanish officer suddenly yelled “Dispardar!” Ryan’s body flinched involuntarily as 10 rifles fired as one and the blood of his two friends splatted against the white wall they were facing. He turned to General Bernado Varona, standing beside him and said, “We must die standing.” Varona nodded in agreement as rough hands grabbed them and moved them toward the wall. Though he was merely 30, William “Whack” Ryan’s journey to that fateful Cuban morning had been a long one.

William Ryan’s grandfather, Major Patrick Ryan, fought with the 5th Dragoons under Wellington. His grandmother was following the army, and thus William’s father, John, was born near the battlefield of Salamanca while the battle was going on. His grandmother was Elizabeth Paine, a relative of the famous Thomas Paine. His mother was Eliza Burke; her family was from Birr, County Offaly, Ireland. They were related to politician Edmund Burke.

William’s parents emigrated to Toronto, where William was born March 28, 1843. His father died before William was 8. He and his brother John lived with their uncle, Patrick Burke, until their mother remarried a man named Dunn, who turned out to be a violent alcoholic. After suffering this for a time, John attacked the drunken Dunn with a poker one night. Their mother and all the children then fled to the United States.

Patrick ended up in Illinois, John in Arkansas, and William in Buffalo, N.Y. Their mother moved in with her daughter, Elizabeth, in Chicago. When the Civil War began, John in Arkansas and William in New York would be examples of the “brother against brother” trope of the war, as well as the tradition of the Irish abroad serving on both sides of many conflicts. John was in the 18th Arkansas infantry, later re-designated the 3rd Confederate.

(Right: Regimental flag of the 18th Arkansas.)

John suffered multiple wounds and was captured at the Battle of Corinth in October 1862. But, in May 1863, he escaped from a prison hospital and returned to the fighting, this time in the cavalry. He was wounded several more times before the war ended. All told he was said to have been wounded at least twice in the legs, in both hands and once in the cheek and ended the war with a bullet lodged in his right knee and his left hip.

Young William, in Buffalo, would also enlist to fight in America’s momentous Civil War, but on the Union side. Because of his double middle names, Albert and Charles, he would come to be known by the nickname of “Whack,” by his friends. “Whack” would enlist in the 132nd New York Volunteer Infantry on July 7, 1862. In spite of his youth, he was made a sergeant in the regiment, an indication that he was held in high esteem by the officers of the new regiment.

The 132nd served in the North Carolina coastal campaigns. Ryan advanced to the rank of 2nd lieutenant while fighting through a series of small skirmishes and battles there. He received several minor wounds during the fighting. In one battle, his grandfather’s Masonic medal, which he wore around his neck, was struck by a bullet, probably saving his life. Then, in February 1864, he was severely wounded at the Battle of Batchelders Creek near New Bern, North Carolina.

(Left: Regimental flag of the 132nd New York.)

Batchelders Creek was one of the Union army’s forward positions, about 10 miles northwest of New Bern. The small, advance Union force there was overwhelmed by the division of George Pickett of Gettysburg fame on February 1st. Three companies of the 132nd were among the force that did an outstanding job delaying Pickett’s attack long enough for reinforcements from New Bern to form a second line that stopped the assault.

The regiment took its worst losses of the war there, with over 70 casualties. That included nearly 60 captured as they were overrun. Lt. “Whack” Ryan took a round in the hip and was disabled, but was lucky enough to be dragged by two of his comrades from the field while under fire, avoiding Andersonville prison and likely saving his life. The regiment suffered 64 captured during the war, and only 19 of them lived to see the end of the war.

Ryan’s slow recovery from his wound ended his Civil War combat career. He later wore the musket ball that wounded him as a charm on his watch chain.

The family had a huge scare involving William’s Confederate brother, John, just after the war. John’s post-war experience may have proved more frightening for him than his oft-wounded combat experience, and nearly fatal. On July 12, 1865, he was somehow mistaken for Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt and arrested at the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He spent months in chains in several federal prisons before finally being released in November.

With the war over, “Whack” Ryan showed that he was not the sort of young man who was going to settle down to what one might consider a “normal” working life. The other great adventure going on in the country as the war ended was the migration westward. Ryan’s army comrade James Fisk of Minnesota contacted him in the late summer of 1865 to join him in moving about 500 settlers from St. Paul to Helena in the Montana territory. Ryan had immediate success there, investing the money he had saved up during the war in several mines here, where gold and silver were rapidly being pulled out of streams and mines. He probably could have stayed there the rest of his life, but the fates had something else in store for him.

During the summer of 1867, a trip back to New York included a reunion with his brother John. The two were meeting for the first time over a decade. What stories the two of them must have traded back and forth, perhaps trying to top each other with their war stories. “Whack” would have had trouble matching the terror of John’s tale of his prison experience as a supposed member of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, but he could regale him with stories of the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the wonders of Yellowstone.

(Below: A 19th century mining operation in Montana.)

Back in frontier Montana, Ryan had enough adventures to fill yet another book. That included taking part in a fight against a band of Sioux led by Sitting Bull in the Gallatin Valley, where Ryan helped to lure the Sioux into an ambush. Thinking he would spend the rest of his days there, in the fall of 1868 Ryan became a candidate for U.S. marshal of the Montana Territory. This quest brought him into the Byzantine world of 19th century politics. Ryan was in Washington, D.C., involved in some of the lobbying needed to attain the office when some dirty political infighting resulted in Ryan losing the position. It was while he was disillusioned by this setback that he made an important acquaintance.

At Willard’s Hotel, he was introduced to Domingo de Goicouria, a Cuban involved in the independence movement there. In October 1868, wealthy planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes had begun an insurrection. Ryan had been expecting to begin the adventure of being the U.S. marshal of the vast and wild Montana Territory. He was outmaneuvered by political foes at the last moment, though, but now, here was another alluring adventure. Giocouria was looking for American allies with either money to back the rising financially or who had a military background to help them organize and fight -- he soon had Ryan’s still youthful spirit inflamed with the cause of “Cuba Libre.” In this, Ryan would be continuing the tradition of the Irish being “Fighters in every clime; every cause but our own,” as Irish poet Emily Lawless had phrased it.

(Right: "Viva Cuba Libre!" A postcard from the last insurrection against the Spanish.)

The revolution that started in 1868 was the first of three the wars to rid Cuba of the Spanish. The first one would last until 1878 and be known as “The Ten Years War.” It was followed immediately by a shorter attempt spanning 1879-80, known as “The Little War.” Finally the “Cuban War of Independence” from 1895-98, which involved the United States in the final year, ended Spanish rule there.

To join the Cuban cause was a very dangerous undertaking for Ryan. Not only were the rebels, as was usually true in any revolution, out numbered and poorly armed, but this was a “black flag war.” The Spanish would give no quarter to any prisoners. But like so many “soldiers of fortune” before and since, Ryan had been in many dangerous situations in the Civil War and in the American West and was sure he would come through his latest adventure unscathed.

Among the other Americans who had volunteered to help the Cubans was General Thomas Jordan, who had served on the staff of famous Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard during most of the war. When the Spanish Consul got wind of the Cuban insurgents' recruiting efforts in New York, Jordan departed in January 1869 with the several hundred volunteers they had recruited. Because Ryan was not as yet not associated with the Cuban rebels, he stayed behind to attempt to enlist more men to the cause.

(Left: General Thomas Jordan)

Ryan was well known around this time as someone involved with mining in Montana, so they used a ruse of him recruiting young men for the mining fields to find men interested in joining the Cuban insurrection. Once alone with the young men, they would explain the real purpose of their recruiting. This worked exceedingly well. By mid-June they had over 1,200 men enrolled. About 100 of them had been Union or Confederate officers during the war.

As is usually true of such enterprises, however, they had at least one informer in the group. In June, Ryan and several other American and Cuban leaders of this expedition were arrested for violating American neutrality laws. While the others were given a small bond, Ryan’s was set at $10,000, an indication that the Spanish who had pressed for these arrests understood that he was leading this attempted expedition.

(Below: Recruits for the Cuban rebel army training in New York.)

There then commenced a rather melodramatic operation to free Ryan. While being escorted from the court by Deputy Marshal Downey, Ryan convinced Downey to accompany him to a gathering of his friends before returning to Ryan's cell. Amazingly the Marshal agreed. As Ryan and the marshal were leaving the soiree, they were suddenly surrounded by a group of men. As a canvas bag was quickly slipped over the Marshal’s head, Ryan dashed into a waiting carriage and swiftly departed the scene. “Boys, treat him well,” he was said to have exclaimed to his rescuers as he waved his white fedora to the crowd and rode off.

The excitement generated around New York by all these Cuban intrigues was making a folk hero of “Whack” Ryan. Shortly after his escape, the flamboyant Ryan sent a note to General Francis Barlow, a hero of the battle of Gettysburg and the U.S. marshal of New York, telling him, “I deem it an act of justice to inform you that Deputy Marshal Downey discharged his duties faithfully.” Ryan assured Barlow that Downey was soon be released unharmed. This, of course, only enhanced his growing reputation as a dashing hero, regardless of people’s opinion on the Cuban insurrection. Ryan met in secret with General Goicouria and continued to plot ways to get his men to Cuba.

(Below: The Cespedes flag of the Cuban insurrection.)

The Spanish and their American allies were hardly ready to give up their efforts to destroy this attempt to aid the Cuban uprising, however. On June 26th, the fugitive Ryan and 500 hundred of his men nearly got on their way to Cuba, the “ever faithful island,” as he would always call it in letters to his brother. In a driving storm, they sailed into Long Island Sound on a small steamer looking for a larger ship, the Catherine Whiting. But with the gale force winds whipping the rain drops into their faces, thunder exploding and lightning flashes turning the churning waves of the sea back and forth from fully illuminated to pitch black, their eyes scanned the horizon in vain for the Catherine.

Their small vessel barely survived the tempest through their fruitless searching until morning, when another vessel got word to them that the Catherine Whiting had been captured by a federal ship during the night. It was later learned that the Spanish had been tipped off by a spy they had on General Goicouria’s staff. Ryan’s dejected band then set ashore at Gardiner’s Island off the east end of Long Island. There they sat into the month of July, with their provisions rapidly dwindling while attempts to obtain another vessel failed.

In mid-July word came word that Barlow had learned of their location and was organizing an expedition to capture them. They were ordered to leave the island and disband, with Ryan going “on the lamb” to upstate New York to avoid arrest. It was an enormous disappointment for him. Had he then given up on his attempts to aid the Cubans, perhaps he would have passed away as an old man in bed one day, but he did not give up. It would be months, however, before he could again make plans to travel to Cuba.

On December 29th he departed New York aboard the “Anna” with just a small group of other “filibusters.” On their journey, they picked up a load of armaments in the Bahamas. On January 19, 1870, Ryan finally arrived in the bay of Neuvitas on the northern coast of Cuba, but not leading the large body of men he had once hoped to bring to the Cubans. The rebels at this point held much of the eastern half of the island. Here Ryan was finally reacquainted with General Jordan and joined him in an attack on a large cavalry force under Spanish General Puello. Ryan was amazed to see that a large part of the rebel army included freed black slaves fighting side by side with their white comrades, something that would not happen in units of the U.S. Army until after World War II.

(Right: William Ryan)

Jordan had Ryan help organize his cavalry forces and had him named inspector general. On February 6th he witnessed the killing of three Spanish spies. He remarked on how bravely one of them faced his execution, no doubt wondering how he might bear up under the same fate. On February 11th, Ryan commanded a scouting mission near Puerto Principe and led a saber charge on a Spanish force. He received a slight wound during the skirmish. On February 23rd he had a horse shot from under him in a skirmish with the Spanish near Pina Plantation. Ryan would earn the nickname “Diablo” from the Spanish during his time commanding rebel units.

In June, Ryan was commanding a force outside Puerto Principe when the Spanish attacked his position. He had anticipated that their attack would have to pass over a bridge. He set up his outnumbered forces in an ambush position there and routed the enemy force of about 450. They also took 120 prisoners.

This war had become a brutal “no prisoners” black flag war long before Ryan got there, but now he was fully immersed in it. In addition to rebels who were captured having been executed, many of Ryan’s soldiers had also lost family members to murders by the Spanish forces, especially the brutal loyalist Cuban forces. The rebels had no POW camps, there was no prisoner exchange, and many of Ryan’s men probably would have mutinied if their prisoners were not treated the same way the Spanish treated rebel prisoners. And so, all of them were executed. After this incident, the Spanish put a reward of $40,000 for the capture of Ryan, dead or alive.

In a letter home to his brother John in July, “Whack” said, “Every day has witnessed a conflict of some kind.” In one he and a command of just 10 men were surrounded while attempting to attack a Spanish train and broke through the thin Spanish line to escape the trap with “reins in our teeth and saber and pistol in hand.” When the soldiers on both sides of a conflict know that capture means death, the fighting is sure to be desperate.

In another fight he was lifted up out of his saddle by a Spanish trooper, whose sword, “ran through my jacket up to the hilt,” but missed his body. Though he unhorsed Ryan, the thrust proved fatal for “the gallant fellow,” Ryan said, as one of his men ran him through while his blade was stuck in Ryan’s twisted jacket. His odds of surviving such constant fighting for long were slim. In a mid-July letter to John, he closed with, “Probably you will never hear from me again, so adieu.” But now he got a reprieve, albeit a temporary one.

The rebels were desperate for more assistance from the United States, and General Jordan was being sent back to attempt to get it. It was decided that Ryan’s connections with many in the U.S. government and Army could be crucial. Jordan had, after all, been a Confederate officer. Ryan, in spite of the extreme danger of the conflict at that point, protested against his assignment, but was convinced it was the most important contribution he could make to the cause.

When the dashing young soldier of fortune, still just 27 years old, arrived in New York in August, his friends gave him a hero’s welcome. Not there to greet him was his Cuban friend, General Goicouria, who had been captured on his return to Cuba and been executed by garrote by the Spanish on May 7, 1870.

(Left: The execution of General Goicouria.)

The supporters of the cause in New York had a ceremony at Delmonico's, where Ryan was given a beautiful presentation sword. Within days, however, he was under arrest again for the abduction of Marshal Downey the year before. Bail was set at $25,000, then an amount nearly unheard of. The cause had some rich benefactors, however, and that bail was soon paid.

In January 1871 he got a shipload of supplies into Cuba aboard the Hornet, barely avoiding a Spanish patrol vessel. Back in New York later in the year, he started a pro-Cuban liberation publication called “Our Society,” which was directed toward the rich in the city. Throughout that year he used his publication to push the cause and later in attempting unsuccessfully to get the federal government to aid the rebels. Vice President Henry Wilson said, “No man could have worked more zealously” for the Cuban cause.

In June 1872 Ryan stewarded another boat load of supplies to Cuba aboard the Fannie. Again, they barely avoided the Spanish navy. He got another expedition into Cuba in January 1873 aboard the Edgar Stuart. Each trip into Cuba was a roll of the dice. Thus far he’d been rolling sevens, but could his luck hold? It was an endeavor at which you could only fail once.

Ryan moved to Schoharie in upstate NY in the late summer of 1873 and made it appear he had given up the cause, but it was all a ruse to throw off the Spanish spies who were constantly following him. Another supply run to Cuba was in the works. The voyage of the Virginius (above) would lead to one of the major international incidents of the era, and nearly result in war.

The Virginius was an ex-Confederate blockade runner. She was captained by Joseph Fry who was an Annapolis graduate and fittingly a former commander of one of those Confederate blockade runners. Ryan once again had to abscond from his constant tail of Spanish spies to make the trip, leaving New York on the steamer Atlas and meeting the Virginius in Jamaica. Ryan and his group were feted with several festive parties there. Before they departed October 23rd, he wrote his friend, General George W. Cook, that he was “fat as a bear, gay as a lark, and leave this place with many regrets.” More than he could have ever imagined, had he known how the voyage would end.

(Left: The dashing young soldier of fortune, Ryan. Note the spent mine ball charm on his watch fob.)

Ryan, in one of the last acts of his short time on earth, saved Dr. Manuel Govin, of Kingston, from drowning when the doctor was swept into the sea while departing the Virginius. Stripping off his jacket, “Whack” dove in without a second thought. Govin had recently hurt his leg and was almost certainly going to drown. With that escapade over, the Virginius began her fateful voyage.

They stopped in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they off-loaded artillery, rifles, pistols and other military equipment in addition to 100 men. The Spanish Consul got wind of their presence and sent word to Cuba for the Spanish navy to be on alert.

As the Virginius neared the safety of the Cuban coast, she was spotted by the Spanish ship Tornado, which had ironically been built in the same Scottish shipyard as the Virginius. They tried to outrun her, but when a cannonball took out one smokestack, they knew the game was up. Captain Fry believed the U.S. flag they were flying would protect them, but he was wrong. The Spanish called them “pirates” and arrested everyone on-board and brought them to Santiago.

(Right: Captain Joseph Fry)

There were three high ranking Cuban insurrectionists aboard the ship: General Henri Cespedes, brother of the leader of the rebellion; General Bernado Varona; and Lieutenant Colonel Jesus Del Sol. The three of them and Ryan were imprisoned separately from Fry and the other passengers and crew. They could not have landed in a worse place. The Spanish army commander in Santiago, General Don Juan N. Burriel, had a virulent hatred of both the Cuban insurgents and United States.

(Below: General Bernado Varona)

Burriel gave them all sham “trials” and condemned them to die at 6 a.m. the following morning. Ryan wrote several letters, including one to his mother. “I do not fear death,” he wrote her, “I die as I lived, fearing nothing but the God above me.” In their forlorn cell that night, General Varona asked “Whack” to sing a song called “Hurrah For the Next Man to Die,” which he agreed to do. Its chorus is:

So, stand to your glasses, steady!
This world is a world of lies.
Here's a toast to the dead already—
Hurrah for the next man who dies!

One can only imagine how it echoed around the stark, damp stone walls of the old prison that was holding them into the ears of over 150 men expecting that any of them could be that “next man.” When it was over the cry of “Cuba Libre” rang out from the prison over the city of Santiago. In the morning, it was only the three Cuban officers and Ryan who marched out. Henri Cespedes and Jesus Del Sol would be the “next men,” but Ryan and Varona would closely follow.

The four were marched out to the wall of a building called “The Slaughter House.” There were no ceremonies or flowery speeches allowed by the condemned. All four were quickly shot. Ryan’s last words were, “Success to dear Cuba. She will yet be free. We are ready.”

Cespedes and Del Sol were put on their knees and shot immediately. When Ryan and Varona objected and asked to be shot standing, the Spanish officer allow it, commanding "Fire!" almost instantaneously. Ryan fell badly wounded, but not dead, and the officer drew his sword and plunged it through his heart. The loyalist crowd was then allowed to mutilate their bodies. The frenzied crowd severed their heads and paraded them around the city on pikes.

(Right: Cespedes and Del Sol on their knees, with Ryan in the hat and Varona in the white shirt, awaiting their turn, second and third from the right in the background.)

Captain Fry and about 50 more of the crew and rebels were executed in the following days. Only the arrival of a British war ship threatening to shell the city saved the lives of the remaining men.

William A. C. “Whack” Ryan had packed more adventure into his 30 years of life than any fictional character one could imagine, but after years of seeking glory, he came to an inglorious end. What was left of his remains are buried along with the other Virginius victims in the corner of Santa Efigenia Cemetery, in Santiago de Cuba. There is a small rectangular pantheon, with a royal palm in each of its corners and a small plaque in memory of the victims. A street in Santiago is named after Ryan and a portrait of Ryan hangs in Havana's Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Captain-General's Museum).

(Left: The memorial to the victims from the Virginius at Santa Efigenia Cemetery.)

Ryan’s death had been ignominious, it would have serious consequences for the Spanish, however. The international ramifications of this incident were extreme, with the U.S. very nearly going to war with them. It started a long, slow deterioration of relations with Spain. That descent would finally hit rock bottom along with the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, which led to U.S. intervention in Cuba and the end of Spanish rule. Perhaps “Whack”Ryan finally rested in peace in Santa Efigenia Cemetery the day the Spanish left the “ever faithful island” for good.


War in Cuba

The Ten Years War

John Ryan Mistaken for John Surratt

Harper's Weekly on the Virginius Affair (Jan. 10, 1874)

Battle of Batchelders Creek

"Life and Adventures of General W.A.C. Ryan" (book) by John George Ryan

"Machete!: The Ten Years War in Cuba 1868-1878" (book) by Glenn Clarke

The "Virginius Incident"

The Virginius

A Tale of Two Ships: A Microhistory of Empire, Trade, and U.S.-Spanish Relations in the Nineteenth Century

Che Guevara: Father of Revolution, Son of Galway

Dynamite Johnny O'Brien: 'A Captain Unafraid'

New York Celebration of Fr. Felix Varela, Advocate for the Irish, on November 20th

Views: 1842

Tags: American Civil War, Americas, Civil War, Cuba, Military History, Ten Year War, United States, William Ryan

Comment by Joe Gannon on February 19, 2019 at 8:28pm

“Hurrah For the Next Man to Die"

We meet ’neath the sounding rafter,
And the walls around are bare;
They echo our peals of laughter
It seems that the dead are there.

So,  stand to your glasses, steady!
This world is a world of lies.
Here's a toast to the dead already—
Hurrah for the next man who dies! 

Cut off from the land that bore us,
Betray’d by the land we find,
The good men have gone before us,
And only the dull left  most behind.

So,  stand to your glasses, steady!
This world is a world of lies.
Then here's a toast to the dead already—
Hurrah for the next man who dies!

Comment by Geoffrey Cobb on March 3, 2019 at 9:01am

Hi Joe,

Love this story. 

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 3, 2019 at 9:19am

Thanks, Geoffrey. I'm glad you liked it. You just never know where the Irish are going to "turn up." 

Comment by Geoffrey Cobb on March 4, 2019 at 3:34pm

Hi Joe,
I also write about Irish-American history and I would like to publish some pieces for the wild geese. What do I have to do? Slan,

Geoff Cobb 

Ps If you google my name you can see some of my work. 

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on March 5, 2019 at 2:22am

Thanks Joe,

Enjoyed it lots !!


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