He was not seeking death, as some have erroneously contended, although José Martí was well aware of the very real possibility in wartime. It was logical that he should comment in his correspondence from the field to his Mexican friend Manuel Mercado: "I can write now… I am in danger of giving my life for the country every day."
On the other hand, it is hard to accept the hasty implications of some authors that he was intent upon dying in his first battle.
Thinking about death is not something done by anyone who, like Martí, has taken on the pressing task of "preventing on time, with Cuba's independence, that the United States extend itself throughout the Antilles, and fall, with this added power, upon our lands of America. Everything I have done until today, and will do, is toward this end."
Even less so, since he had made the decision to march toward Camagüey and establish a Republic in Arms, with an army free of civilian obstacles, "with the country, as a country in all its dignity represented."
May 18, 1895, on the eve of his death in battle, while Gómez departed to harass an enemy convoy, Martí stayed behind, leading a contingent of 12 men, at the camp located on the abandoned ranch of José Rafael Pacheco. After working with the scribes making copies of instructions for the Liberation Army's commanders and officers, he began to write the aforementioned letter, which he never finished.
According to some of Martí's biographers, his writing was interrupted by the arrival of Bartolomé Masó and his troops, who preferred to camp on the Vuelta Grande estate, on the other side of the cresting Contramaestre River. Martí went there after sending a note to Gómez.
Gómez returned with his 30 men, on the morning of May 19. Around 1:00pm, a patriotic event was improvised with the three leaders on hand. Years later, one of those present described how the sun illuminated Martí's face as he spoke, sitting on his black mare, adding that his voice "began the speech soft and melodic, but slowly became thundering, like the force of a hurricane." The troops were inflamed and cheered him.
Two scouts with the Gómez expedition alerted them to the presence of enemy forces. The General was determined to get ahead of the Spanish column, commanded by Ximénez de Sandoval, to enter into combat at a site farther from Dos Ríos, where the cavalry could maneuver. "Charge," he ordered.
The maneuver attempted by Gómez, to fight where the cavalry could move more freely, didn't serve its purpose. After fording the Contramaestre and reaching the plain, the insurgents ran into an ambush of some 40 men who attempted to contain their advance, but were mowed down with machetes by the galloping riders. The enemy column formed a square and fired on the Cubans. The cavalry troops of Paquito Borrero were stuck between the river and the open plain. Gómez wasn't able to break through the Spanish attack either.
At this moment, Martí invited one of Bartolomé Masó's aides, Ángel de la Guardia, to join the fray, despite the orders of Gómez, who had told him to stay put. Revolver in hand, he spurred his horse toward the scrub growing some 20 meters from the Contramaestre, between a sturdy lemonwood and a patch of smoke bushes.
"I know how to disappear. But my thought may not disappear, nor would my anonymity please me. And as long as we have shape, we will work. Do this for me and for others," he had written Mercado, in his unfinished May 19 letter. His ideas would be taken up again in the 1920s by Julio Antonio Mella, who emphasized his anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and Latin Americanism. Blas Roca and Juan Marinello considered him the legitimate predecessor of Cuban Communism, and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, called him "the guide of his time, and the anticipator of ours."
For Fidel, Martí was "the most brilliant and universal" among Cuban political leaders, and his ideas represented an "inexhaustible wellspring of political, revolutionary, and human wisdom."
Che called him the Revolution's "mentor," describing his work as "our emblem, our battle standard." He continues inviting us to celebrate Martí, as he did in his celebrated 1960 talk with Cuban children, when he said Martí was alive, since Cuba's struggle did not end in Dos Ríos, it continues.