The first flicker of rebellion came in early February 1863 when 50 men stormed the local HQ in Neiba, but this was quelled almost immediately. Much more serious was a revolt planned by Santiago Rodriguez in Sabaneta in late February. This was tipped off to the Spanish authorities who mobilised and drove Rodriguez to sanctuary in Haiti and his followers to organise a guerrilla war in the countryside. Thus was started the pattern of the war, the Spanish controlled the coast and the main towns in the south, the Dominicans held the countryside, especially in the north west, supplied and sheltered in Haiti. Their heartland was protected by mountain passes and desert.
The troops were mainly from the Cuban and Puerto Rican garrisons, at least initially, infantry, cavalry and artillery being shipped over to the island. The Spanish navy had complete command of the sea and used a fleet of paddle wheel steamers to transport troops to, and around, the island. Typical was the Isabella la Catolica, built in 1850 and employed for most of her career in American waters - she was part of the fleet that went to Mexico in 1862. She carried 16 8 inch guns, 14 broadside and 2 pivots, had a top speed of 12 knots and a crew of 160. These steamers had quite a capacity, the Pizzaro, for example, conveying a whole battalion of artillery from Puerto Rico.
The Spanish had only themselves to blame for Haitian support of the rebels, making territorial claims there had driven the Haitians into the enemy camp, just one of a long stream of misrule that had caused this situation to come to pass. In April 1862 the news was of Spanish troops congregating in Azua on the southern coast, ready to occupy Haitian territories that were formerly Spanish in the old days. And invade they did, thus creating yet another drain on army resources.
The Spanish garrison by October 1863 was as follows.
Coronel Don Julián González Cadet
Batallón de Cazadores de La Unión.
Batallón de Tarragona.
Cuarta Compañía de Montaña del Regimiento de Cuba .
Coronel Don Joaquín Suárez
Batallón de Isabel II .
Batallón de Nápoles.
Tercera Compañía de Montaña del Regimiento de Cuba.
Milicias del País, capitán Máximo Gómez (Militia)
Tropas del Cuartel General (Headquarters)
Primera Sección de Cazadores de Africa .
Primera Sección de Lanceros de la Reina (Lancers)
An idea of the to and through of the campaign can be be got from reports in this month. Pedro Santana claimed a great victory in the interior against the rebels....
"This morning at nine o'clock we met the enemy holding the River Guanuma, where they had their headquarters. They were completely beaten and routed by our valiant troops of the army and the reserve force of the country. After having pursued them for about a league we are now encamped this afternoon at 3 P.M. on their late position."
Santana, the former dictator, was by far the best Spanish general, though his hands were frequently tied by Spanish oversight. At that moment he was soon to be reinforced at Cotuy by General Gandara with a strong division containing the regiments Napoles (veterans of the occupation of Vera Cruz), Tarragona, Isabel II. and Union, six pieces of mountain artillery and a squadron of cavalry. The troops are to operate "with vigor" against the rebels of Cibao, which does suggest his victory is not a complete as Santana claimed.
In fact the same reports claim that troops are being shipped from Azua to Santo Domingo "to concentrate the divided forces in a single point so as to operate for the future with more unity and efficiency", which sounds suspiciously like an evacuation.
It is hard to reconstruct the war in detail, depending as it does on reports in Spanish and American newspapers which were often diametrically opposed. For example, in the New York Times article quoted above the Spanish report that the Santa Lucia (a new screw corvette) went to the support of Spanish troops holed up in the fort at Puerto Plata and drove of the rebels by firing grapeshot. However the reporter claims it is "well known" that "a Spanish war steamer was terribly crippled at that place by the firing of the insurrectionists, and was obliged to be towed off by another Spanish steamer".
Gradually the Spanish were forced from even the northern coast. In November 1863 the 2,000 garrison of Santiago abandoned the city and marched to Puerto Plata, the main northern port, attacked by Dominicans all the way. There they joined the garrison in the fort, leaving the city to be pillaged by the rebels. Eventually 600 Spanish sallied out and drove off the rebels, with help from the cannon of the fort, but by the then the city had been plundered and burnt almost out of existence. The damage to Santiago and Puerto Plate was estimated at $5,000,000.
By mid November virtually the whole garrisons of Cuba and Puerto Rico were deployed on Santo Domingo and 8,000 troops had been sent from Europe, diverted from deployment in Morocco. At the same time a powerful fleet was assembled to convey the troops to Cuba, and probably to prevent outside interference - two screw frigates, the Concepcion (37 guns) and Villa de Madrid, one screw corvette, the Africa; four steamers, the Colon, Leon, Alava and San Antonio, two store-ships, the Pinta and Marigalante.
By March 1864 General Gandara was Captain General of Santo Domingo, in the place of General Vurgas, who had sent his 2nd in command to Spain to try to persuade them to abandon the island. There were rumours circulating the Spanish troops did not even have tents to sleep in. Huge numbers of Spanish troops were lost to dysentery and malaria, especially the native Spanish. One report claimed up to 1,500 per month lost to disease.
The Spanish had rigged up a telegraph line from Cuba to Santo Domingo by June, only for almost the first news to be the death of Pedro Santana, their best general. Nonetheless the tide had turned yet again, with the Spanish pushing along the Northern coast supplied by steamer and capturing Monte Cristi, close by the Haitian border. This seems to have caused a loss of heart amongst many of the rebels and many deserted.
An example of the warfare at this time can be found from the account from the troops at Monte Crisiti in July.
" In consequence of such a long drought, the ponds which afforded us water were dried up, and we were limited to a ration which was brought in ships from the river Tapion.
In consequence of this scarcity, Gen. Gandara ordered that all the horses and mules should be taken to drink at a small lake about two leagues from the camp, a force of two hundred soldiers going as a guard, and the horses and mules on their return being loaded with barrels, &c., of water. This was done for two days without molestation, but on the third day a small detachment of the enemy harassed their march, a sergeant being killed and several of the animals wounded. The next day a large force was sent to protect the watering party. The detachment was commanded by Count Balmaseda, who sent forward a vanguard under Col. Argenti , and composed of eight hundred infantry of the Cazadores of Isabella the Second, and the First and Fifth of the Marine Artillery, with two pieces. The vanguard, when near the watering-place and about to take up a position so as to protect the watering party, received a discharge from the insurgent force. It was returned, and with a bayonet charge the Spanish troops gained the position they desired. On hearing the firing, Count Balmaseda pressed forward with the Battalion of Spain and two more pieces of artillery, and after a heavy and prolonged fire of musketry, several bayonet charges, twenty-two rounds of artillery and eight charges by the King's Lancers, the insurgents were repulsed. On returning after watering the horses and mules, the Spanish troops attempted to molest the enemy, but were vigorously repulsed. This was, indeed, and in all respects a battle, both on account of the heavy firing on both sides, as well as from the large forces engaged".
During this time the Dominican leadership had changed frequently, only to be deposed in coups for corruption, politics or in the case of Polanco (who lasted 3 months) leading a disastrous direct attack on the Spanish at Monte cristi in December 1864.
Thus by the end of 1864, it could be said the Spanish were winning. But not for the first or last time in history, military victory was trumped by political defeat. The price of war in terms of money and lives had been huge, disease and the hardy, experienced fighters of the island causing many casualties that Spain could ill afford. With the prospect of a revived United States at the very least supplying rebels as they were doing to the Mexicans fighting France, it was no longer worth the candle. On March 1865, Queen Isabella signed a decree annulling the annexation, and by August all Spanish troops had left for Cuba and Puerto Rico.