The legacy of a Los Lunas native
How a coin toss determined Capt. Maximiliano Luna’s heroic role in the Spanish-American War
The United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. Traveling by horseback and by train, hundreds of New Mexicans rushed to the colors from towns across the territory.
One of the first to volunteer was 27-year-old Maximiliano Luna of Los Lunas. Luna’s telegram to Gov. Miguel Otero arrived on the chief executive’s desk within hours of the nation’s declaration of war.
Why he fought
Young Maximiliano volunteered to serve his country for several reasons. First, he volunteered in response to the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898; 266 American sailors had perished in that tragedy.
Stunned Americans assumed (incorrectly) that the Spanish were responsible for this outrage. Like thousands of Americans, Luna charged off to war with the war cry, “Remember the Maine,” on his lips.
Luna also volunteered to fight because he sympathized with the Cuban people. For months, Americans had read gruesome newspaper reports regarding the ill-treatment of Cuban men, women and children at the hands of their Spanish oppressors.
Responding to these reports, Luna’s wife, Berenice, had been chosen to lead a Cuban Relief Committee in early 1898. Maximiliano was at her side as she worked to collect money and supplies to assist the victims of the alleged atrocities.
A poem written when the war began expressed the feelings of Luna and hundreds of his fellow volunteers:
We are coming, Governor Otero.
Yes, we’re coming on the run.
For we’ve heard the proclamation,
That hostilities have begun
Between this glorious nation
And the monarchy of Spain.
On behalf of bleeding Cuba,
And our battleship, the Maine,
Likewise our noble seamen,
Who perished in the waves…
So we’re coming, Governor Otero,
10,000 men, or more…
To help chastise a nation
Of murderers serene,
Of women and of children,
Though governed by a queen…
And then there was the issue of Hispanic loyalty to the United States. Many outside of New Mexico had the audacity to question if Hispanic New Mexicans would remain loyal to the United States if the country went to war with Spain, the territory’s mother country for more than two centuries, 1598 to 1821.
Luna and other Hispanic men volunteered to fight in order to prove their strong allegiance to the U.S. over Spain in the current conflict.
Hispanics were especially eager to prove their loyalty to the U.S. because their territorial leaders had fruitlessly striven to achieve statehood for nearly half a century. Many factors had caused the delay, including questions about Hispanic language, education and fitness for American citizenship.
The Spanish-American War might serve to finally dispel these lingering doubts once and for all. Clearing this major hurdle, New Mexicans might finally finish their marathon race for statehood.
An ideal Hispanic soldier
Maximiliano Luna was the ideal person to help change the minds of those who doubted New Mexico’s loyalty and worthiness for statehood. Born into the rich and powerful Luna family of Los Lunas in 1870, he had been educated by Jesuits in Las Vegas, N.M. and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Bilingual, he felt comfortable in both the traditional Hispanic culture of Los Lunas and the so-called modern Anglo culture of Washington, D.C.
Following his father, Tranquilino, and his uncle, Solomon’s, example, Luna had entered politics at an early age. By the time of the Spanish-American War, he had served as Valencia County’s probate judge and sheriff.
In 1896, he had been elected to represent Valencia County in the territorial House of Representatives, winning his election by a vote of 1,610 to 202. Few doubted that he was destined for even higher offices, especially if New Mexico became a state in the Union.
Luna was also an ideal candidate to serve in the U.S. Army because he had previous military experience. Despite his mother’s opposition to his ever joining the military, he had helped to organize a territorial militia company in Valencia County and had been chosen to be its captain in 1893.
In marrying Berenice Keyes in mid 1895, he was marrying into an old military family dating back to the American Revolution. His new father-in-law had fought in the Civil War and in the Indian wars thereafter. Col. Alexander Keyes no doubt encouraged Maximiliano to volunteer, just as he encouraged his own sons to do the same in the course of their lifetimes.
Gov. Miguel Otero was pleased that Maximiliano Luna was willing to volunteer. Knowing Luna for years, the governor realized that he could trust his friend with the responsibility of proving Hispanic New Mexico’s loyalty to the U.S.
Otero did not hesitate to appoint Luna as the only Hispanic captain in an elite new cavalry regiment reporting for duty in the Spanish-American War.
Roosevelt’s Rough Riders
Theodore Roosevelt had helped organize the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment at the outbreak of the war. The 1,250-man unit was recruited from across the country to include both upper class graduates of Ivy League schools back East and rugged cowhands of the far Southwest.
Known for their riding skills and determination to fight, the press soon dubbed the unique regiment the “Rough Riders.”
Few people realize that 352 Rough Riders, or roughly 30 percent of the total, came from New Mexico. Gathering in Santa Fe, the New Mexicans were divided into four companies, led by Capts. Frederick Muller of Troop E, Maximiliano Luna of Troop F, W.H.H. Llewellyn of Troop G and George Curry of Troop H.
New Mexico’s officers and their men were sworn into the Army in a formal ceremony held outside the Palace of the Governors on May 6, 1898. Five thousand Santa Fe residents witnessed the ceremony and enthusiastically accompanied the soldiers to an awaiting train at the depot.
The New Mexico volunteers proceeded to San Antonio, where they met their fellow Rough Riders and trained for three grueling weeks. From there, they traveled by train to Tampa, Fla., where they joined thousands of other soldiers from across the country.
The New Mexicans anxiously awaited orders to depart for Cuba and see combat on the front. They could only prove their loyalty and bravery in combat conditions, not on the back lines far from the action they craved.
But just as Maximiliano Luna and his fellow New Mexicans prepared to board transport ships and face their baptism by fire in combat, the Army dropped some bombshell news. So many men, horses and supplies had arrived in Tampa that there was only enough room on the military’s transport ships to carry 16,085 soldiers and a few horses.
The Army also realized that its invasion might well proceed through dense Cuban jungles, where cavalry units would be useless. The already-famous Rough Riders would have to serve as a dismounted cavalry with several troops left behind to care for their horses until more ships could be spared for transport duty.
Of the New Mexico troops, either Luna’s Troop F or George Curry’s Troop H would remain in Tampa and be denied the golden opportunity to fight overseas in their territory and the country’s behalf.
The Rough Riders’ command had 36 hours to decide who would go and who would stay behind.
Luna strenuously objected to being left in Tampa, reminding his superiors of the importance of his going to Cuba not only for himself, but also to represent the Hispanic population of New Mexico. According to one Rough Rider, Luna “put up a talk to the regimental and squadron commanders out in the open under a large pine tree.”
He fervently insisted that he needed to proceed to Cuba because “if he were not given this opportunity, it would be a direct slap to the integrity of all loyal Spanish-Americans.”
The fateful coin toss
Witnessing the discussion, a fellow officer suggested that the only fair way to determine who should go and who should stay behind would be to flip a coin. As true gentlemen, Luna and Curry agreed.
Coin tosses have been used to decide critical issues many times in history. Coins were sometimes tossed prior to duels to determine which dueler would fight with the sun to his back, a major advantage.
In 1903, the Wright brothers tossed a coin to see which sibling would attempt to fly the first flight in history. And in 1898, a coin would determine if Maximiliano Luna would fight in Cuba or sit in Tampa for most, if not all of the war.
A coin was selected and tossed in the air. All held their collective breaths. In one of the most dramatic moments in New Mexico history, Luna won. It was said that Luna rushed to embark on a waiting transport for fear that his victory might be reversed or the limited space on board the waiting transport ships might be gone before he arrived with his men.
Luna and his Troop F scrambled on board Transport No. 8, known as the Yucatan, ready to ship out to Cuba. It took six additional days before the Yucatan finally received orders to sail.
On June 22, the Rough Riders landed outside Santiago, Cuba. With Capt. Luna and his men in the thick of the fighting, they helped win the three major land battles of the ensuing six-week campaign.
In fact, in the famous Battle of San Juan Hill, the men of Luna’s Troop F contended that they had reached the top of San Juan Hill before any other American unit. And in the most famous photo of the war Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt was shown surrounded by Rough Riders, including Max Luna, atop San Juan Hill.
Capt. Luna faced many challenges in Cuba, including a report that he had been killed in combat, but he returned safely to Los Lunas on Sept. 2, 1898. His adventures in Cuba and in the Philippine Islands the following year made for other great stories, contributing to both Luna’s legacy and New Mexico’s struggle to prove its loyalty and worthiness for statehood.
Luna was always grateful and his commanders were always glad that he had the opportunity to fight in Cuba, thanks to a simple coin toss in Tampa.
Shortly after the war, Teddy Roosevelt wrote The Rough Riders, his famous account of his regiment’s short but glorious service in the conflict. According to Roosevelt, “Luna’s relatives had been on the banks of the Rio Grande (since) before my forefathers came to the mouth of the Hudson … and (Luna) made the plea that it was his right to go as a representative of his race, for he was the only man of pure Spanish blood who bore a commission in the army, and he demanded the privilege of proving that his people were precisely as loyal Americans as any others. I was glad it was decided to take him.”
New Mexico finally won its statehood on Jan. 6, 1912. Unfortunately, Max Luna had drowned in the Philippines 13 years earlier and could not witness that landmark event.
But hopefully others, including Gov. Otero, Luna’s widow, Berenice, and his fellow Rough Riders from New Mexico, remembered Capt. Luna as they celebrated an accomplishment he fought to help win — thanks largely to a simple coin toss made and won in Tampa.