As a young boy, Henry Reeve served in the Union Army as a drummer during the American Civil War. By the time of his death in 1876, he was 26 years old and fought in more than 400 battles over seven years – against the Spanish.
In 1868, Cuban landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led an uprising against Spanish rule over Cuba. From his estate on the Eastern part of the island, Céspedes freed his slaves and raised an army. He led a resistance against the Spanish Empire that would last ten years and cost Céspedes his life. But the uprising attracted its fair share of foreign volunteers, one of those was a New Yorker named Henry Reeve.
Reeve’s Civil War service left him a virulent abolitionist and the Spanish in Cuba were the most determined abusers of slaves left in the Western Hemisphere. When he heard about the anti-slavery, anti-Spanish uprising, he immediately left for Cuba. He arrived in 1869 but was quickly captured by the Spanish Army, who tried to execute Reeve and his group of volunteers. Reeve escaped and went on to be an integral part of an otherwise-failed uprising that came to be known as Cuba’s First War of Independence.
His units routinely outmatched the Spanish, often overcoming superior Spanish numbers with the boldness and dedication that an American combat veteran brings to any fight. By the time he jumped over an enemy artillery battery to end a battle, he earned a promotion to Brigadier General and was wounded more than 10 times. Reeve soon became known as “Enrique El Americano” and “El Inglesito” — the Little Englishman — and was placed among legendary Cuban freedom fighters Máximo Gómez and Ignacio Agramonte.
Reeve also participated in daring raids, most famously to rescue Cuban freedom fighter and Major General Julio Sanguilly from the Spanish. That battle pitted 36 Cuban riders against more than 120 Spanish troops. Reeve also led exploration columns into the jungle wilderness of Cuba and led vanguards of the rebel army’s 2nd division.
Like Cuba’s version of Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben, Reeve wore his U.S. Army uniform the entire time.
In 1876, Reeve and his staff were ambushed by the Spanish during their fateful invasion of the Western half of the island. He was unable to escape and, rather than being captured and tortured, he took his own life. It would take more than 20 years before Cuba saw independence from Spain, and even then, it required the help of the United States to unhook Spain from its cash cow.
In honor of the American, Cuba created an international corps of doctors to deploy to disaster areas and areas affected by disease, the Henry Reeve International Brigade. The award-winning team of doctors carries out public health missions in areas like Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Peru. It was the largest contingent deployed to fight Ebola in the deadly 2013-2014 outbreak in West Africa.