A month into the Senate’s intense debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act, the Spanish governor of Cuba seized an American-owned steamer, the Black Warrior, which touched at Havana on its way from Mobile to New York. The port authorities seized the ship on the grounds of a technicality. She had a load of cotton but listed only ballast on the manifest. The Black Warrior had done just that many times before. Basil Rauch counts seventeen previous occasions in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855. Other ships touched and moved on unmolested under the same convention. The Marqués de la Pezuela seized the ship to demonstrate his resolve and warn off John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition. Spain would keep Cuba, whatever Quitman and the Pierce administration thought about it.
Washington, already embroiled in the Kansas-Nebraska crisis, found itself with a fresh Cuba crisis on its hands as well. This outrage came convenient for Cuban annexation enthusiasts, but we shouldn’t rush to immediately see it as entirely cynical. Nineteenth century revenue laws had many technicalities that port authorities could enforce as they willed to collect large fines. Allen Nevins reports that the United States itself had seized two British steamers at Boston in recent years and did not give them back until their owners paid a large bond. But Americans saw their courts as generally fair and not inclined to make examples of foreigners. They saw the Spanish courts, with some justice even independent of the circumstances, as capricious. Some kind of satisfaction certainly seemed in order.
The House of Representatives demanded that Pierce give them a full report of matters and he complied, forwarding documents related to the Black Warrior on March 15, 1854. To them he attached a message describing the business:
Those now transmitted relate exclusively to the seizure of the Black Warrior , and present so clear a case of wrong that it would be reasonable to expect full indemnity therefor as soon as this unjustifiable and offensive conduct shall be made known to Her Catholic Majesty’s Government; but similar expectations in other cases have not been realized.
The offending party is at our doors with large powers for aggression, but none, it is alleged, for reparation. The source of redress is in another hemisphere, and the answers to our just complaints made to the home Government are but the repetition of excuses rendered by inferior officials to their superiors in reply to representations of misconduct. The peculiar situation of the parties has undoubtedly much aggravated the annoyances and injuries which our citizens have suffered from the Cuban authorities, and Spain does not seem to appreciate to its full extent her responsibility for the conduct of these authorities. In giving very extraordinary powers to them she owes it to justice and to her friendly relations with this Government to guard with great vigilance against the exorbitant exercise of these powers, and in case of injuries to provide for prompt redress.
I have already taken measures to present to the Government of Spain the wanton injury of the Cuban authorities in the detention and seizure of the Black Warrior, and to demand immediate indemnity for the injury which has thereby resulted to our citizens.
A clear case of wrong for which the United States should expect paid recompense…but Spain never seemed to pay up in past cases. It probably would not again. This left the United States with rogue, piratical officials standing astride its shipping lanes. But Pierce’s outrage went beyond demanding money from Madrid:
In view of the position of the island of Cuba, its proximity to our coast, the relations which it must ever bear to our commercial and other interests, it is vain to expect that a series of unfriendly acts infringing our commercial rights and the adoption of a policy threatening the honor and security of these States can long consist with peaceful relations.
In case the measures taken for amicable adjustment of our difficulties with Spain should, unfortunately, fail, I shall not hesitate to use the authority and means which Congress may grant to insure the observance of our just rights, to obtain redress for injuries received, and to vindicate the honor of our flag.
Forget Quitman’s private army, if Franklin Pierce did not receive satisfaction for insults to the flag, he would set aside peaceful relations in the name of national honor and security and try war. The same day as Pierce’s message, Secretary of State William H. Marcy dispatched an agent to Cuba to investigate de la Pezuela’s Africanization program. Behind the scenes, Caleb Cushing lobbied Pierce to make war sooner rather than later. The Spanish reactionary’s show of strength worked too well.