José and Francisco Díaz

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José Díaz
Nickname(s) "Pepe"
Born 1776
Toa Alta, Puerto Rico
Died April 30, 1797
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Allegiance Puerto Rican Militia
Rank Sergeant Major
Unit Toa Alta Militia
Battles/wars Defense of San Juan (1797)
Francisco Díaz
Born 1777
Toa Alta, Puerto Rico
Allegiance Puerto Rican Militia
Rank Lieutenant
Unit Toa Alta Militia
Battles/wars Defense of San Juan (1797)

José "Pepe" Díaz (1776 - April 30, 1797) and Francisco Díaz (1777 - ?) were two cousins who served as Sergeants in the Toa Alta Militia. Both cousins helped defeat Sir Ralph Abercromby and defend Puerto Rico from a British invasion in 1797.

Early years[edit]

The Díaz cousins were born and raised in the town of Toa Alta, Puerto Rico when the island was a Spanish colony. They were both Sergeants in the Toa Alta Militia, and with their unit were sent to defend San Juan upon the attempted invasion of the island by British forces under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby.[1]

Defense of Puerto Rico[edit]

On February 17, 1797, the appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Brigadier Ramón de Castro, received the news that Great Britain had invaded the island of Trinidad. Believing that Puerto Rico would be the next British objective, he decided to put the local militia on alert and to prepare the island's forts against any military action.[2]

Battle of San Juan[edit]

Type of uniform worn by the Díaz brothers and the Puerto Rican Militia

On April 17, 1797, British ships under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby were unable to penetrate the defenses of "El Morro" and opted to make their attack from the coastal town of Loíza, to the east of San Juan. On April 18, British soldiers and German mercenaries ("Hessians") landed on Loíza's beach. Under the command of de Castro, British ships were attacked with artillery and mortar fire from both El Morro and the San Gerónimo fortresses.[2]

On April 20, the British tried to establish a battery on the Cerro del Condado overlooking the Spanish positions to the East. Sargento Mayor (Sergeant Major) José Díaz set out with 50 men to contain an enemy attack which was being attempted at the rear.[2]

The Fort San Jerónimo was key to the defense of San Juan.

On April 24, Sergeant Francisco Díaz was chosen to lead a raid against the enemy. He had 70 volunteers, 20 from the Disciplined Militias and 50 from men being sent to prison. At daybreak they set out in pirogues (a small, flat-bottomed boat), supported by two gunboats, passing down the San Antonio Channel and landed close to the enemy trenches and batteries. The Spanish artillery batteries had previously laid down a heavy covering barrage, and as soon as they saw that Francisco Díaz and his troops had landed, they were ordered to maintain and fire only gunpowder from the cannons without firing the cannonballs. This was done to distract the British. The batteries were also prepared to provide cover in case a retreat was necessary.[2]

Francisco Díaz and his men landed and advanced towards the enemy lines, shooting at the enemy working on the trenches. It was estimated that there were about 300 British soldiers. The British returned fire, but Francisco Díaz continued to advance until, with his saber in hand, he reached the trench with his men, killing or wounding any of the enemy who stood in the way. Those who escaped their attack fled. On taking the trench, Francisco Díaz discovered a cannon battery aimed towards the San Antonio Bridge and the San Gerónimo fortress, capable of accommodating seven cannons and having two 24 pounders and one 12 pounder already in place, along with two howitzers and three mortars.[2] Francisco Díaz did not have the time nor the means to retrieve the artillery and as the British reinforcements were about to counterattack, Díaz and his men jumped into their boats, with a Captain and 13 enemy soldiers which he had taken prisoner and escaped back to the city, this time under the cover of "real" artillery fire from the city. Governor Ramón de Castro would later write that "he observed the action from his position with envy".[1]

Martín Peña Bridge

Unable to penetrate the firepower of El Morro and the other fortresses, the British twice tried to take the Martín Peña Bridge, a key passage to the San Juan islet. On April 30, when the British made their second attempt, Sergeant Major José Díaz was among the 800 men assembled by Capt. Luis de Lara to protect the Martín Peña Bridge. The men reached the bridge, but were soon attacked by the British. Capt. de Lara responded with his own battery and he directed his cavalry to the flanks and opened up with musket fire. Among those who died in the battle was Sergeant Major José Díaz who was struck by a shell at the bridge.[2] After fiercely fighting the Spanish forces and local militia, the British were defeated. The British set brush fires to cover their retreat and the fleet sailed off.[1]


The invasion failed because of an unexpectedly spirited defense of the island by both the Spanish garrison and Puerto Rican volunteers. The continuous flow of reinforcements from various towns of Puerto Rico into San Juan, the inability to break through the Fort San Antonio and San Geronimo line, and the counterattacking pressure and surprisingly sophisticated battle tactics of the militia and cavalry at the Martín Peña bridge were finally too much for the invaders.[1] The British also attacked Aguadilla and Punta Salinas, but they were defeated, and the British troops that had landed on the island were taken prisoner. The British retreated on April 30 to their ships and on May 2 set sail northward. Because of the defeat given to the British forces, governor Ramon de Castro petitioned Spanish King Charles IV for recognition for the victors; he was promoted to field marshal, Sergeant Major José "Pepe" Díaz was posthumously named "The King of Spain's Bravest Soldier",[3] Sergeant Francisco Díaz was promoted to Lieutenant and was given a pay raise.[4]

Lt. Francisco Díaz was married to Isabel de Castro, who was awarded a monthly pension by the government upon his death. His granddaughter, Isabel Matilde Díaz y Ruiz, married Román Baldorioty de Castro.[5]


Right small shield with the star and eight rays honor José and Francisco Díaz

The people of Toa Alta have honored the Díaz cousins in the design of the town's coat of arms. The right small shield with the star and eight rays, represent Francisco Díaz and his cousin José, who gave his life in the defense of the Martín Peña bridge. In the Spanish heraldic the star is symbol of the last name Díaz... which means "Son of Diego".[6][7]

Sergeant Major José Díaz has also become part of the islands folklore. Puerto Rican "Jíbaro's" (peasants) sang the following "copla" (ballad) about him:[8]

(original version)
En el puente Martin Peña

Mataron a Pepe Díaz
Que era el hombre más valiente

Que el Rey de España tenía.
On the bridge of Martin Peña

Pepe Díaz was killed
He was the bravest man
that the King of Spain had.

The statue of Juan Ponce de León situated in the Plaza de San José in Old San Juan was made from the cannons left behind by Sir Ralph Abercromby and his men.[9]

See also[edit]