Barker: The ’fighting consul’
While Rockwell was being questioned by authorities in Havana, Cisneros was aboard the Ward Line steamer Seneca, bound for New York City. Also on board was Walter Barker, the U.S. consul in Sagua la Grande in central Cuba. Barker was a veteran of the Confederate army whom Lee in 1896 had described as “worthy of the highest credence.”108 Barker also was a rough-edged bachelor, prone to hyperbole and known to flout protocol. Once, in response to rumors that his consulate was about to be overrun by a pro-Spanish mob, Barker reportedly said that he placed “great faith in God and [my] repeating rifle.”109 Decker told a pro-Cuba rally in Washington, D.C., in May 1897 that Barker five months earlier had deterred demonstrators from moving on the consulate by making clear he would confront them “with his Winchester.”110 The Journal in 1898 called Barker “a fighting consul.”111
Barker’s presence aboard the Seneca in October 1897 was the culmination of an urgent—and highly unusual—request for leave of absence. At the end of September, Barker asked for leave, stating in a telegram to the State Department: “Unless my presence here next thirty days essential my health requires asking visit New York. Kindly wire answer.”112 Requesting leave in such a manner was a sharp departure from routine. The next day, Barker submitted a letter to the State Department, through the Havana consulate, properly requesting leave. In the letter, Barker said he hoped “the Department will pardon me for the liberty of conveying my request through a telegram.”113
Barker’s letter does not explain the urgency of his request, beyond stating: “During the entire summer I have suffered from impaired health; my physician states, that, if nothing more, a round trip would benefit me. … Should leave be given me, I will visit New York and Washington only.”114 Barker’s application for leave was approved 2 October 1897 by Springer, the acting consul-general in Havana,115 and by the State Department on 4 October 1897.116 Given his expedited request for leave, it is indeed quite curious that Barker failed to travel to New York as speedily as was possible. Swifter passage to New York was available to him, on the Concho, a Ward line steamer that left Havana on 7 October 1897, two days before the Seneca. The Concho and twenty-five passengers arrived in New York on 11 October 1897.117
On 8 October 1897—the day after the jailbreak—Barker left Sagua for Havana. The Seneca departed Havana for New York on 9 October 1897, after Cisneros had been smuggled aboard the vessel, dressed as a boy.118 Upon arriving in New York, Barker told a reporter for the Journal that he had not seen Cisneros until the second day out and did not know how she had boarded the Seneca. He was further quoted by the Journal as saying: “Of course my position forbids my discussing her case.”119
The New York World—the Journal’s keenest rival and, as such, the newspaper most likely to probe for gaps and inconsistencies in the Journal’s account of the jailbreak or of any exclusive report—offered a different and more detailed account about the passage to New York. The World said that Cisneros spent much of her time aboard in the company of Barker and the ship’s purser. The World’s source was the ship’s captain, Frank Stevens, who was quoted as saying:
“After supper the first night out, [Cisneros] took a promenade on the deck and met some of the passengers. Among them was Walter B. Barker, United States Consul at Sagua. She addressed him in Spanish with an air which seemed to me as if she had met him before. The purser, too, seemed to recall her as an old acquaintance. All the way she spent much of her time in his office.
“I didn’t see her again till Sunday [10 October 1897]. Monday and Tuesday she spent most of her time with Mr. Barker and the purser. She was seasick some of the time, but kept on deck.”120
Barker’s presence on the Seneca , acting in effect as Cisneros’ chaperone, may have been coincidental. Lee did report in August 1897 that U.S. consuls in Cuba were “all more or less sick,” telling the State Department that they would benefit from leaves of absence.121 But the urgency with which Barker sought his leave, the timing of his request, and his choice of steamer to the United States all combine to make such a coincidence quite extraordinary.122
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108. Lee to U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney (22 July 1896), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
109. Cited in “ Campos Wants Weyler Removed,” New York Herald (6 June 1897): sec. 1, p. 9.
110. “The Cause of Cuba,” Washington Evening Star (17 May 1897): 1. See also, “Gunboats for Cuba,” Washington Post (17 May 1897): 1.
111. See “A Fighting Consul was Barker, of Sagua,” New York Journal (11 April 1898): 5.
112. Walter B. Barker to Day (30 September 1897), Record Group 59, Sagua la Grande Consular Dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
113. Barker to Day (1 October 1897), Sagua la Grande consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
114. Barker to Day (1 October 1897), Sagua la Grande consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park. Barker’s consular correspondence shows that he had cited ill health as a reason for a two-week delay in reply to a letter from Lee, the consul-general in Havana. See Barker to Lee (4 August 1896), Sagua la Grande consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
115. Springer appended a note of approval to Barker’s letter to Day of 1 October 1897.
116. Cited in Barker to Day (8 October 1897), Sagua la Grande consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
117. See “Shipping News,” New York Tribune (12 October 1897): 14.
118. See Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 108.
119. “Passengers Love the Brave Little Refugee,” New York Journal (14 October 1897): 3.
120. “Miss Cisneros on Free Soil,” New York World (14 October 1897): 14. Emphasis added.
121. Lee to Day (12 August 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park.
122. Barker’s sudden departure meant that no fewer than three U.S. consuls assigned to Cuba were in the United States on leave in October 1897. In addition to Lee and Barker, the U.S. consul at Santiago de Cuba, Pulaski F. Hyatt, was on home leave. See Hyatt to Day (20 September 1897), Santiago de Cuba consular dispatches, Record Group 59, National Archives, College Park.