Stopping Quitman

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The word went out to Madrid that Franklin Pierce intended a go at buying Cuba, but the United States reserved the possibility of taking the island through some other means involving men with guns. At the start of June, Pierce himself issued a proclamation against filibustering. John A. Quitman, the Cuba filibuster who Pierce surely had in mind, largely ignored it. Having to post a bond against his obedience to the Neutrality Acts only made him reschedule. Some men associated with him ran guns to Cuba, got caught, and the new Captain-General made a lethal example of their leader. But Quitman had piles on piles of men, guns, and ships. A preliminary loss did not mean permanent defeat.

Except that Quitman did not, except in his dreams, have anything like the million dollars, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, or fifty thousand men. His predilection for delay cost him the most ideal opportunity to strike, but his actual force never matched the hype. He really could have used more men. We know this because the Cuban Junta in New York eventually decided that he had taken them for a ride and as the filibustering effort descended into infighting, published a report on what happened in the New York papers. Allen Nevins summarizes it:

the deluded Cuban patriots and their friends had spent more than $330,000 without anything to show for it but bafflement and scandal. The press had talked of an enthusiastic leadership, of coffers with a million or more, of an army of fifty thousand; but the truth was that the great enterprise had never enlisted more than 2.500 men, that it could not arrange to transport even that many to Cuba, and that it was constantly crippled by internal quarreling.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Quitman certainly dallied but, unlike a latter-day general notorious to Civil War aficionados, his case of the slows had ample justification. The filibusters could have done better, but so could their friends in high places. When Pierce issued his proclamation, John Slidell quite reasonably took it as a repudiation of his own initiative to set aside the Neutrality Acts and let Quitman loose. The Senate Foreign Relations committee had come quite close to recommending that Pierce have the power to suspend the laws as Slidell asked, only for the president to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He blamed Jefferson Davis for turning the administration against him and reached out to friends in Mississippi to investigate making Quitman one of the state’s senators in revenge and for the defense of Southern rights.

Senator Quitman remained a dream. Filibuster Quitman lived right then and there. The president persisted against the latter and finally put him out of commission for good. Quitman’s efforts, from a certain perspective, could make Spain less willing to sell Cuba. More pressingly, crackdowns on and reinforcement of the island made it a far harder prize to steal than in years previous. Quitman’s tiny army almost surely could not beat the Spanish now, and Pierce apparently gave Quitman proof of the new Spanish defenses in person sometime in the winter of 1854. Even if Soulé got lucky and started a revolution, or rode one to success, in Madrid the Spanish already had boots on the ground enough to stop Quitman despite any revolutionary chaos reigned in the mother country.

So did Pierce really intend to end Quitman’s efforts with his initial proclamation? Perhaps, but Quitman did not take that as decisive. The fact that he no longer had a realistic chance to take Cuba by force really sealed the deal. Whatever his intentions back at the start of June, 1854, his meeting with the filibuster in the winter accomplished the end.

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