Senate debate on the final version of the Kansas–Nebraska Act began on Monday, January 30, 1854. Emotions ran high in Missouri over visions of a free Nebraska furthering the state’s free soil encirclement and giving abolitionists a base perilously close to the state’s main black belt from which to steal away her slaves. The rest of the South did not get quite so worked up about that, but the political establishment did make nigh universal common cause with the Missouri slave power. The Missouri Compromise insulted them all, implying that they did not deserve a place in the nation’s future because slavery so tainted them.
But if Missouri had a degree of defensive panic running through 1854 over Kansas, then the rest of the South had the same over Cuba. The new Spanish governor-general proposed to free Cuba’s slaves, arm them, and disarm whites. Those free slaves would then kill white Americans who came to steal the island away and make it into a slave state, probably after a brief period of independence. That revolution could spread. The Marques de la Pezuela’s black warriors might inspire a second group of black warriors to rise up on their home plantations and work a bloody revolution that could only end with the slave states racially purged, one way or the other. The Spanish reactionary struck at the slaveholder’s deepest, most profound fear, a psychological raw nerve that never quite went silent.
Someone had to do something to save themselves, their families, their fortunes, and their property. Fortunately they had on hand former Mississippi governor John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition and the approval of the Pierce Cabinet for the same. Franklin Pierce, or Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing, wanted Cuba anyway and the time seemed ripe to spirit it away. Better still, Great Britain and sometimes France had made noises in the past about guaranteeing Spanish possession of the island. Now they had their attention drawn to Russia’s war against the Ottoman Empire, which erupted in October of 1853 and which they would enter in March, 1854.
Quitman just needed a good excuse to give his expedition further respectability. On February 28, as the Senate debated Nebraska’s future, the Marques de la Pezuela gave him his casus belli in the form of a third black warrior. This Black Warrior, a steamer of the New York and Alabama Steamship Company, touched at Havana on her way from Mobile to New York. She had a load of cotton, but as it would stay in the hold her master, ex-Navy man James Dunwoody Bulloch, declared only his ballast in Havana when the Spanish authorities demanded a manifest. Ships touching customarily did that, by longstanding agreement.
When Bulloch followed the custom, as expected, the Spanish seized his ship for its technical violation of their laws. The Marques de la Pezuela flexed his muscles and showed Spanish resolve to the filibustering and annexation happy Americans. He then escalated matters by refusing to deal with the local American consul on the issue.
Washington thus simultaneously found itself with a domestic crisis over Kansas and Nebraska and a foreign crisis over Cuba.