Stealing Cuba, Part Four

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Welcome any new readers from Andy Hall’s flattering recommendation. In the interests of full disclosure, your author is some random guy on the internet and not a trained historian. But with the aforementioned provisos in place, let’s get back to Cuba.

Former Mississippi governor John A. Quitman’s army of thousands, armed with a writ from the New York-based Cuban émigré community naming him dictator, the barely covert support of the Pierce administration, personal friends and supporters in the Pierce cabinet, in New York, Kentucky, New Orleans, and across the Lower South, hardly needed more help. The news of the Marqués de la Pezuela’s exploits in arming black men and disarming white men down in Cuba certainly aroused fears of racial annihilation in a brutal slave revolt, doubtless pushing less interested or more ambivalent expansionists off the fence. Fears of Old Europe, especially Catholic Old Europe snuffing the flame of American freedom, or at least barring it from the expansion they saw as a kind of historical inevitability and religious destiny, gave expansionists outside the South plenty of reason to go along as well.

At the tail end of 1853, a swift expedition to seize Cuba and bring it into the United States for slavery and to fulfill the nation’s destiny seemed unavoidable. It certainly seemed imperative and with Americans so poised and tensions high, any incident would serve for a casus belli. On February 28, 1854, the Black Warrior touched in Havana. The American merchantman did not come to Cuba to unload its cargo or pick up any new cargo. It had cotton from Mobile bound for New York.

The Black Warrior had touched in Havana thirty-six times before and in the normal course of affairs submitted a manifest that listed only its ballast. The Spanish authorities knew that; they had a legal right to demand a full manifest. The Black Warrior‘s captain, ex-Navy man and future Confederate James Dunwoody Bulloch, followed the established, if informal, norm in listing just the ballast. That might have gone for the old regime, but the Marqués de la Pezuela’s administration would have none of it. His customs officials seized the cargo and demanded a fine before giving it back. When they refused to let Bulloch revise his manifest and so wipe the problem away, he struck the ship’s colors and declared it seized.

David M. Potter summarizes the American reaction in The Impending Crisis:

With the Louisiana legislature calling for “decisive and energetic measures,” with Pierce informing Congress that the seizure of the Black Warrior was a “wanton injury” for which he demanded “immediate indemnity,” with Senator Slidell of Louisiana pressing for a repeal of the neutrality laws that restricted the activities of filibusters, and with Caleb Cushing, in the cabinet, urging a blockade of Cuba, it appeared that some action must be imminent.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé in Madrid took the occasion to go off script and delivered his forty-eight hour ultimatum to Spain.

Given its established collusion, the political pressure to act against Cuba, and an army of thousands waiting to do just that, would Pierce administration really disavow any expedition to take the island in that environment? Probably not. Quitman need only strike and strike fast.

Quitman may have seen the chance but wanted more men, an armed ship, and more money before he went and told the junta in New York as much in April. Meanwhile, the ship’s owners paid a fine and got their cargo and vessel back. Quitman’s delay cost him the initiative.

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