James K. Polk’s plan to buy Cuba failed in the face of Spanish disinterest. Narciso López’s plan to steal the island away from Spain and then throw it under American protection, possibly with an eye to annexation, stalled out when Zachary Taylor got wind of it and sent the Navy to seize his ships. But López refused to call it quits in September of 1849.
Realizing that most of his six hundred man army came from the southern United States, López decamped from his previous headquarters in New York City and set up shop in New Orleans where the local fire-eaters had long dreamed of making their city the center of a Caribbean empire for slavery. On the way there, López called on John A. Quitman, who we last met planning to break the Union.
The Armistice had yet to pass when the Cuban filibuster met the Mississippi governor. As a major general, Quitman led the assault on Mexico City and later served as its military governor. With just the right skill set, which had seen recent successful application, Quitman cut the perfect figure to lead López’s little army. López wanted him for the job and Quitman had at least some interest in it, but with the possible dissolution of the Union looming he didn’t want to leave someone else to take Mississippi out of the United States. He did, however, help López recruit and raise funds.
In May of 1850, López finally set sail from New Orleans amid much fanfare and with a wink and a nudge from the authorities. The expedition landed in northwest Cuba, where López seized the town of Cardenas and torched the governor’s mansion. López expected to spawn a popular uprising to take care of the rest. The revolutionaries stayed home and Spanish troops closed in. López and his army raced back to their ship and ingloriously fled to Key West just ahead of Spanish pursuit.
Little things like failure and the prompt collapse of his force did not get in the way of the hero’s welcome the Deep South rolled out for López. Southern Senators agitated for Cuba in Washington. DeBow’s Review imagined an America with dominion over all Mexico, South America, and the West Indies. Unmoved, the Taylor administration indicted López, Quitman, and their confederates for breaking the Neutrality Act.
Caught up in secession fever, Quitman wrapped himself in the flag of states’ rights and told Washington he would call out the Mississippi militia to defend himself and, incidentally, Mississippi’s sovereignty. But as hopes for secession petered out, Quitman resigned the governorship on February 3, 1851 to defend himself. The prosecution went after another Mississippi planter first, but after three New Orleans trials resulted in three hung juries, Washington gave up and the filibusters and their supporters celebrated.