The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4, 5

The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.

Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.

How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.

In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.

All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 123456) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.

The Bombardment of Greytown, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

I’ve decided that I wish to delve into the bombardment of Greytown in greater detail and this seems an ideal time to do so. The matter will eventually work back into the connection with Cuban filibustering, but the change of topic calls for a change of title as well.

Commander George N. Hollins, United States Navy, gave the free port of Greytown within Nicaragua’s or the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast (depending on who one asked) twenty-four hours notice and then bombarded the place with his ship’s guns in retaliation for the wounding of American minister to Nicaragua Solon Borland. Borland put himself in a position to catch the bottle to his face by intervening to protect a captain of the Accessory Transit Company who had murdered a black pilot. The Greytown authorities, answerable to neither Nicaragua nor the United Kingdom, came to arrest the captain and Borland got in the way with gun in hand.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

That offense could not go unpunished and thence came Hollins to Greytown. He came, however, with orders to avoid loss of life or destruction of property. Getting it half right did not please William L. Marcy, who sent him down with those orders. Marcy wanted some financial reparations and an apology, nothing more. Nor did displeasure over the shelling and burning of Greytown confine itself to the rarefied circles of the American diplomatic establishment or Washington society. In New York, Horace Greeley laid into the Pierce administration in the pages of his New York Daily Tribune beginning on July 26, 1854.

The more this memorable act, ordered by President Pierce and executed by Commodore Hollins, is examined, the more unaccountable, unjustifiable and base does it appear. And apart from the fact that the town had no means of resistance, and that its overthrow could yield no other glory than may be reaped by any big bully who will beset and beat a defenseless woman or little child, the origin of the whole difficulty is one which gives to the final event a disreputable and monstrous character. 

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Borland had, after all, intervened to protect a man accused of murder. While a diplomat might protect citizens of the mother country in times of civil unrest, this did go beyond that. Greeley goes on to comment on Borland’s character:

It is true that Mr. Solon Borland, an Arkansas man of notorious pugilistic propensities, clothed by the American Government with the character of an Envoy Extraordinary was accidentally present and undertook to use his diplomatic prerogatives to protect the alleged murderer from arrest; it is also true that when Borland went ashore at San Juan and made foolish and abusive speeches concerning the town, some natural indignation was felt by the people at so gross and outrageous an interruption of the regular course of justice, and that they gathered around the house where he was, using disrespectful language in turn perhaps and that some person unknown event went so far as to fling a bottle at his head which did him no injury. And even this assemblage around the house took place as respectable citizens of the town aver from the impression that the alleged murderer was there, under Borland’s protection, and might still be arrested for trial. But these things, we say, are of comparatively little moment; the bitter, the blasting fact is that San Juan has been burned, and hundreds of innocent persons stripped and ruined in consequence of her endeavor the execute a necessary law and bring an accused murderer to justice!

His denial of Borland’s injury aside, Greeley takes the side of sanity and proportion. Borland behaved at least very questionably and that alone makes the bombardment and burning of Greytown a dubious act of retaliation. But Greeley presses on:

But we shall perhaps be told that the insult to Mr. Embassador Borland was ground enough for this terrible stretch of vengeance. As if such a blackguard as Borland, a man whose only other official acts the Government has disclaimed and consigned to merited oblivion could by any possibility be insulted up to that point? We apprehend that the common sense of the American people will not be deluded into the idea that the acts of seeming incivility offered to this traveling embassador, who with rifle in hand stands up to protect homicides against lawful arrest, were of a stature to require even an apology.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

In other words, Borland got what he had coming. What, Greeley argued, would Americans say if the British ambassador went out in New York with a big knife and pistol and stopped the police from arresting a murderer or burglar? Would New Yorkers really take that laying down, or would they form a mob and protest at the very least? And would Washington compose apologies and offer reparations?

By no means. They would not only refuse all apologies, but would give him his passports and pack him out of the country the very next day.This City of San Juan could not do in the case of Borland; but if the officer whose warrant he nullified had shot him down on the spot nothing improper would have been done, and there is not a journal in the country, save perhaps The Union, which would not have said he had got his deserts. Certainly he got a great deal less than his deserts when only an empty bottle was hurled at him, but did not hit him even on the nose.

The Washington Union served as the Pierce administration’s mouthpiece, essentially the same role that Greeley cast himself in for the Republicans.

Greeley might have oversold his point in implying that the American papers would take the killing of one of an American diplomat as entirely proper under any circumstances, but Borland very far exceeded his authority and essentially created the incident that led to his catching a bottle to the face.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Four

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2, 3

Solon Borland, Southern radical and American minister to Central America, took a bottle to the face from an angry mob for his trouble intervening to prevent the arrest of a murderous American captain working for the Accessory Transit Company in Nicaragua. The attack happened in Greytown, a town that the British founded but had operated for some years as a free port answerable only to itself. Now some people there had attacked and injured an American diplomat, who rushed off to Washington to tell his story.

Though never much of an enthusiast for the theatrical, reckless side of diplomacy, Secretary of State William L. Marcy saw far too much in Borland’s story to just let it blow over. Pierre Soulé brought a duel upon himself and won no sympathy for it. Borland acted, at least in principle, entirely within his normal capacity as an American diplomat. Someone had to answer for this, and Marcy knew very well that Nicaragua did not hold any blame for an attack within the Mosquito Coast that it did not control. Nor could he quite pin the blame on the United Kingdom, which had only a sketchy protectorate over the area in question. However much that might have appealed given the friction over its violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty by expanding into the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Who could the American government hold responsible? The people of Greytown attacked Solon Borland, so the people of Greytown could pay. The USS Cyane made her way to the free port. Commander George N. Hollins, a Marylander who went South in 1861, had orders to teach Greytown a lesson but that he should avoid destruction of property or loss of life in so doing. He should also consult with a commercial agent on the ground, Joseph W. Fabens. Fabens had close ties to the Accessory Transit Company, which almost surely flowed from their payroll to his pocket. Fabens encouraged Hollins to demand $24,000, a sum completely out of proportion to the offense, and an apology.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Greytown did not oblige. Hollins, under orders to avoid death and destruction, hewed to the former and ignored the latter. He gave twenty-four hours’ notice and provided help for the evacuation of the town in that time. Hollins aimed to bombard the place. The British naval officer on the scene protested that Hollins would destroy the property and homes of innocents. The Greytowners pled and then fled. Unmoved, Hollins opened fire on July 13, 1854. The New York Times carried the report of a Greytown resident on July 26th:

on the morning of the 13th inst., at 9 A. M., he opened his battery on the town, and after discharging one hundred and thirty shot and shell into the town, landed a party of marines and sailors and set fire to the town.

[…]

I think now that the nest of land pirates, which were located at San Juan, is now broken up, and they will also learn that American citizens must and will be protected.

No one died, but the United States had destroyed a free port with reckless disregard for the property of both the locals and foreign citizens alike for the actions, at most, of a mob under the control of neither foreign agents nor the local authorities.

Back to Ostend and Out with Soulé

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Despite his heroic efforts on the Nebraska front, Franklin Pierce had not quite done enough to wreck his party in the North just yet. He still had one more trick left in him, whether he knew it or not. By the fall of 1854, Pierce had given up on stealing Cuba via John A. Quitman’s filibustering. He might have still held out some hope for Pierre Soulé’s revolutionary machinations in Spain but nothing had come from them but Soulé’s word that something might eventually come from them. He might have withdrawn Soulé, but that would make Pierce look weak to the expansionists. Sending a special Cuba commission to join him would mean undercutting the Frenchman, who had served as the face of Cuban annexation in Madrid. Getting rid of such a terrible diplomat would help and hurt the cause simultaneously.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

With every option looking terrible one way or another, Pierce decided to give one last go at Cuba. If he could not get the island, could he perhaps persuade Spain’s chief defenders, the British and French, to change positions and put pressure on Madrid? This has the sound of grasping at straws, and much of the same in substance, but factors beyond Spain’s control did push for a sale. Eventually the holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back. Spain could afford neither paying them nor the investments in infrastructure it would need to produce the revenue to do so in the future. Without the umbrella of British power especially, Spain would have much more trouble resisting the pressure to sell even if Madrid loathed to give up one of its remaining possessions abroad. It could happen.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

On August 16, 1854, Secretary of State William Marcy sent off new instructions to Soulé. He should keep his eye on Spanish politics for any chance to upset the status quo on Cuba. Marcy probably didn’t need to tell him that but his second note of the same date told Soulé that he would meet up with James Buchanan, coming down from London, and John Y. Mason, coming over from Paris. They could not meet in Paris, the logical midpoint between Madrid and London, because they expected that Louis Napoleon’s spies would know everything they said before they finished saying it if they did. Thus they landed at Ostend in Belgium.

The idea for the conference apparently came from Pierce himself and so the blame for the fiasco should rest with him as well. Allen Nevins tells what Marcy thought of the principals:

Inasmuch as Marcy disliked Soulé and his ways, thought Mason a pompous windbag, and regarded Buchanan rather contemptuously, it is very unlikely that he expected anything from the meeting.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to the Court of St. James

Nevins also calls the Ostend conference an attempt by “three second-rate brains” to produce “one first-rate idea.” But Pierce apparently believed in the effort. The fact that Soulé high-tailed it out of Madrid at the end of August with suspicion, likely true, that he’d helped stage a brief uprising in the capital certainly got the matter off to an interesting start. A cluster of American diplomats milling about Paris in September gave Europe little reason to doubt that the United States intended to hatch something. Given the late aggression toward Cuba, they hardly had to guess what.

I’ve already dealt with the Ostend Manifesto that came out of the meeting (parts 1, 2, 3) and don’t yet have much to add to what I wrote then, but it deserves some consideration in context. Here, just as with Nebraska, Franklin Pierce put the northern Democracy in a bind. He openly connived to secure Cuba by hook or crook as a new slave state, on top of having just delivered all the Great Plains over to slavery. What would satisfy the man? Would he rest while a free state yet existed?

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to France

The full manifesto did not get out until March of 1855, but garbled accounts hit the papers in November just on the wake of the Democracy’s great defeats. If nothing else, it would have helped keep northern anger alive. That anger coming on the heels of the Democracy’s defeat essentially ended the administration’s Cuba ambitions. That that anger also involved the possible annexation of a Spanish, Catholic island further inflamed the Know-Nothings. Everybody except Lower South expansionists and friends of filibusters, a minority even there, and Missouri slaveholders, had plenty of reason to hate the Democracy in the waning months of 1854.

Marcy wrote Soulé a long dressing-down in November, surely with a mind to the fact that his party had done remarkable work in assembling an opposition coalition against itself. The Frenchman briefly found himself forbidden to traverse France on his way back to his Spanish post. When he did return, he found his most glacial reception yet. With his own staff rising against him, Soulé finally resigned in December, 1854.

A Diplomatic Offensive on Cuba

 

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Filibuster and former governor of Mississippi John A. Quitman missed whatever window he had to snatch Cuba away from Spain. The administration that once shook his hand and wished him well turned on him. The Spanish reinforced the island. He lacked the men, ships, and weapons to go when the prime chance came. That brings the story to the end of 1854, but neglects a few relevant points on the diplomatic front. When Marcy went word along for Soulé to work on buying Cuba, he probably did not have high hopes. Any diplomatic effort involving Pierre Soulé probably did not deserve the description. Even aside that, the Spanish did not really want to sell.

But maybe the United States could lean on Spain a little. The holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back eventually. The United States could, perhaps, find those bond holders and get them to make noise about repayment. That could come coupled with an American proposal to open its treasury for Spain’s debts in exchange for the island’s independence. What happened after independence, who could say? The Spanish and the Great Powers would no longer be concerned directly, or so one could imagine, and so if Cuba somehow fell into Florida’s back pocket who could object?

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

While the odds might seem long, and we know how things did turn out, as late as August Pierce appeared to think he still had a chance of getting the island. On the first of the month, Pierce answered a resolution of the Senate asking how relations with Spain had progressed since his message to the House back on March 15. Pierce recapped the situation then: Cuba sat astride American shipping and its piratical officials insulted the national flag and honor with impunity. That could not stand. How did things look now? More of the same, but Pierce did have some startling new information that he could not possibly have known in March:

Meanwhile information, not only reliable in its nature, but of an official character, was received to the effect that preparation was making within the limits of the United States by private individuals under military organization for a descent upon the island of Cuba with a view to wrest that colony from the dominion of Spain.

He just now found out? Not likely, unless Franklin Pierce somehow missed the major activities of his Cabinet toward Cuba the previous summer. But things had changed a bit since then as the administration shifted to a less lawless policy:

International comity, the obligations of treaties, and the express provisions of law alike required, in my judgment, that all the constitutional power of the Executive should be exerted to prevent the consummation of such a violation of positive law and of that good faith on which mainly the amicable relations of neighboring nations must depend. In conformity with these convictions of public duty, a proclamation was issued to warn all persons not to participate in the contemplated enterprise and to invoke the interposition in this behalf of the proper officers of the Government. No provocation whatever can justify private expeditions of hostility against a country at peace with the United States. The power to declare war is vested by the Constitution in Congress, and the experience of our past history leaves no room to doubt that the wisdom of this arrangement of constitutional power will continue to be verified whenever the national interest and honor shall demand a resort to ultimate measures of redress. Pending negotiations by the Executive, and before the action of Congress, individuals could not be permitted to embarrass the operations of the one and usurp the powers of the other of these depositaries of the functions of Government.

Pierce concluded that he had nothing to add to his request for special powers with regard to Cuba. He still wanted them. At the time, the administration floated sending a special commission to Spain to negotiate over Cuba’s future. Such a commission would imply that the administration repudiated Soulé, who had until then been the point man for American ambition toward Cuba. Such mixed messages would do little to help the effort. Nor did the failure of Slidell’s motion to suspend the Neutrality Acts. Congress declined to give Pierce those special powers he aspired to.

By mid-August, Pierce seems to have had enough. The Nebraska storm continued to grow. A North enraged over losing the Great Plains would take a new slave state in the form of Cuba as yet another insult and act of treachery. They voted for Pierce to have peace and sectional comity. Now he leaned so far South it must have looked like he wore the Gulf of Mexico like a hat. Expansion might have been a winning strategy for James K. Polk. Nobody wanted to give back the Mexican Cession. But the poisoned fruit of Manifest Destiny had become all too clear in the years since. Hadn’t Pierce done enough already to ruin his party north of the Mason-Dixon line?

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.

Did Pierce Intend to Shut Quitman Down?

 

 

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Marcy’s new instructions to Pierre Soulé told him to try buying Cuba. The Spanish, however, would probably not sell. In that case, the fiery French revolutionary should turn toward doing what he could to see Cuba achieve its independence. One can read that as the end of the Pierce administration’s policy if first attempting to steal the island, but in light of Marcy’s intended Plan B still involving some kind of theft, the difference seems more in terms of how much political cover the administration wanted while pursuing the same ends than a real departure from past strategy. Certainly Soulé got up to more adventures in Spain to that end, just as he had before.

In writing about those, I dropped the other thread from Friday. Pierce and others cast John A. Quitman as the Carmen Sandiego in this drama. He and his thousands would sweep into Cuba, knock some Spaniards over the heads, and slip the island into a back pocket before legging it back to the United States. But the day after the Kansas-Nebraska Act cleared his desk, Pierce issued a proclamation declaring his intent to zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all comers. That meant trouble for Quitman. Past filibusters found themselves caught by the US Navy and hauled back to port to face prosecution. Quitman himself beat the rap in such a prosecution once before only because the jury in filibuster-happy New Orleans refused to convict the guilty.

This could not have come at a worse time. Pierce’s agent, sent to Cuba to investigate the Africanization program, had just come back with news that the Captain-General really meant to follow through. Emboldened by his success in the Black Warrior affair, he seemed bent on what the agent considered a bloody race war. The South could scarcely summon up more panic than it then had over Cuba, with visions of Nat Turners murdering them in their beds. John Slidell’s proposal to spend those encumbering Neutrality Acts came to Quitman with news that the administration had his back. Quitman pronounced himself all but ready, waiting just until he had three thousand men, some extra cash, and an armed steamer. He had a man working on getting the steamer. What happened?

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Maybe Pierce imagined that Quitman and his filibustering would only hasten the Africanization program along. Maybe he decided that he had sacrificed enough of his party’s support in the North over Kansas and the South should take the win with satisfaction rather than demanding a second. But Basil Rauch points out in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 that Pierce’s proclamation lacked the fire of past declarations from his Whig predecessors. Pierce had a habit of making commitments that he then did not follow through on, even if he did mean what he wrote. Could this be one of those?

One of Quitman’s confidants, concerned about the apparent split between filibuster and president, wrote to Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Secretary of War and sometime power behind the throne. Did he really want to risk the wrath of the Southern Democracy? That letter prompted a meeting between Davis, Slidell, James Mason (of Fugitive Slave Act fame), and Stephen Douglas where they leaned on Pierce until he agreed to tell Marcy to send along to the District Attorney in New Orleans news that the administration would act soon and swiftly on Cuba. Pierce had it all tied up and did not need Quitman’s freelance help, thanks.

Quitman did not get wind of all of that and attributed his subsequent woes to an overzealous judge that made him and two other filibuster principals post a bond on their good behavior with regard to the Neutrality Acts for nine months. But even that did not stop Quitman. The federal marshal who briefly took him into custody over the matter also attended a feast in Quitman’s honor and offered the toast. Reading this as, at most, a sign that the Cabinet split over him Quitman resolved to keep on preparing while he waited out his bond. The administration’s public clamp down only raised his stock, with Northern Mexico and future Nicaragua filibuster William Walker signing on and the Memphis Whig reporting that Quitman had a million dollars in the bank, twelve ships, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, and as many as fifty thousand men. Read those numbers with some skepticism; the entire United States peacetime army didn’t amount to fifty thousand.

Hyperbole or no, the most Quitman seems to have done is postpone his expedition until the spring of 1855. Men associated with him went to Cuba in October of 1854 with a shipment of arms to help a revolutionary group already present. Sweeping in to aid a domestic revolution had long been Quitman’s preferred excuse. But the Spanish caught on, caught the men, and the Captain-General who replaced the Marqués de la Pezuela executed their leader.

Unleashing Quitman?

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Pierre Soulé finally got an answer to his Black Warrior ultimatum on May 7, 1854. He accepted it even though the Spanish did not give him the satisfaction he wanted. That relieved the Spanish and puzzled the Madrid diplomatic community, as it had looked all through the affair like Soulé would settle for nothing less than cession of Cuba to the United States. He might, they thought and eventually knew, have exceeded his instructions but that only meant that the exiled French revolutionary turned slavery enthusiast pressed a bit harder than Pierce wanted for goals that Pierce himself endorsed.

Worse still, it looked very much like Franklin Pierce might back Soulé anyway. He shot a fellow diplomat and didn’t even get a reprimand. Pierce’s own message to the House back in March sounded a warlike note. No less an American authority than Edward Everett, until 1852 Millard Fillmore’s Secretary of State and hardly an antislavery man, wrote to James Buchanan in London that he could see the writing on the wall: Pierce wanted Cuba and intended to use the Black Warrior crisis to get it. Everett had no particular inside information. Pierce’s message to the House, and his appointment of Soulé to begin with, provided evidence. But he had one more telling piece of information to add on top and seal the deal.

John Slidell of Louisiana, once upon a time James K. Polk’s special envoy offering to settle the Texas border at the Rio Grande and buy what the administration would soon take by force of the American Southwest, rose in the Senate on May 1 and offered this resolution:

Resolved, That the Committee on Foreign Relations be requested to inquire into the expediency of authorizing the President of the United States, during any future recess of Congress, to suspend by proclamation, either wholly or partially, the operation of the act “in addition to an act ‘for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” approved the 20th of April, 1818;” and also of the act supplementary thereto, approved 10th of March, 1838; should, in his opinion, the public interests require such total or partial suspension; such suspension not to exceed the period of twelve months; and the causes which shall have induced the president to proclaim it to be communicated to Congress immediately on its first meeting thereafter.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Slidell refers to the Neutrality Acts with such verbose circumlocution. Those laws forbade filibustering and had frustrated attempts at Cuba in the past. To put it in other words, Slidell wants the Foreign Relations committee to look into giving Pierce the power to loose John A. Quitman so he can go steal Cuba for the United States and for slavery. Slidell might not have known of Quitman’s concern for his image in taking up Cuban filibustering, but if the Congress authorized Pierce to suspend the Neutrality Acts, and Pierce did so, then Quitman could only have read it as an engraved invitation to move on Cuba then and there.

Even without intimate knowledge of Quitman’s motives, all of this had to look incredibly ominous in Madrid. The Spanish might not have had news of Slidell’s proposal when they answered Soulé, but it came as the logical continuance of Pierce’s stated policies and carried the endorsement of the Washington Union, the administration mouthpiece. Maybe the war within Washington over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, just about to come back before the House, would give way to a war over Cuba. Foreign wars have derailed domestic politics, and united fractious polities, often enough.

Cuban Concessions

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

On the advice of Britain and France, Spain took a somewhat conciliatory tone toward Pierre Soulé’s threats of war. They needed more information from Cuba. Soulé didn’t buy that, as the Cuban post had long since passed the date of the Black Warrior’s seizure. If he would let them, for now, slip out from under his forty-eight hour ultimatum, Soulé would not let Madrid slip out of the issue entirely. He wanted satisfaction officially and to get Cuba out of the deal unofficially, by war or threat of war.

In mid-April, as far as the Spanish could tell, it looked a bit like Soulé had Washington on board for that war. On the thirteenth, he reiterated his demands and pressed for an indemnity and the sacking of the colonial officials connected to the ship’s seizure “before it was too late.” At the very least, that had to mean that Washington would suspend the Neutrality Act and give free rein to filibusters like John A. Quitman, the administration’s apparent darling, right?

Soulé got back that Spain expected better treatment from the United States. They had every right to insist on getting accurate information from Cuba. Soulé answered on the twentieth with a laundry list of offenses against Americans that Spain had done nothing about, and concluded:

that good faith which alone can impart a moral sanction to the purposes of men, as well as nations, is to be sought after in their deeds rather than their assertions, and is found not infrequently to fall short of its promises in the hands of those who are loudest in its praises.

This persistence finally brought the immediate question into focus for the Spanish: Did Pierre Soulé act on instructions from Washington, or had he gone off on his own? They learned from the British, via discussions with American minister John Y. Mason in Paris, that Soulé probably exceeded his instructions.

Lord Howden, the British ambassador in Madrid, went to Soulé himself to feel things out. The owners had the ship back, Pierre, why all the fireworks over it? Soulé insisted that a great public question remained that transcended the private matter of the Black Warrior’s seizure:

the time had come for a great and generous nation to be no longer bullied and baffled by a small and contemptible one […] he would have 300,000 dollars and that General Pezuela and his satellites should be dismissed.

Emphasis in the original.

The latter demand, remember, Soulé invented himself. Marcy’s instructions asked for the cash and called it good. When the Secretary of State heard about all of this, he sent Soulé a private reprimand.

As April gave way to May, the British tried to arrange some kind of arbitration. They thought it would force Washington to either own up to trying to start a war or to denounce Soulé. This storm left the rest of the American diplomatic establishment out of the loop. From Mason in Paris and Buchanan in London, complaints went up to Marcy. Did the nation have a war policy they did not know about? Marcy shot back that he gave them all he had, but then told Buchanan and France’s ambassador to Washington that Soulé went off-script. 

On May 7, as Stephen Douglas got ready to dig the Kansas-Nebraska Act out from under the pile of other bills that the House buried it beneath, Soulé got a real answer from the Spanish. They insisted that, at last, they had accurate information. Spain would give back the fine the owners of the Black Warrior paid and promised a restoration of any seized property still in Spanish hands. Soulé called it a step in the right direction. His Spanish counterpart wondered if he had instructions on whether he should take yes for an answer.

Transparent Excuses for the Transparent Diplomat

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Pierre Soulé, the American minister in Madrid, went off script and constructed for himself a brand new crisis out of the Black Warrior affair. He delivered the Pierce administration’s demands to Spain just before Holy Week began, waited three days, and then replaced them with a new and more extensive set that came with a forty-eight hour ultimatum. Thus in mid-April, 1854, according to Pierre Soulé, the United States and Spain stood at the brink of war. Though certain elements in Washington very much wanted that war, Soulé had no instructions to grease the wheels for it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had given others, and some of the same men, more war than they cared for already and it now rested under a pile of other bills in the House with antislavery and free soil men hoping it would die quietly where they buried it instead of turn into a time bomb.

When Soulé’s second note reached the Spanish foreign minister he admitted at once that he had yet circulated the first one. As Soulé knew very well, things tended to grind to a halt during Holy Week. The Spanish court knew very well that Soulé had quite the temper and might just shoot a random person for something someone else said, but a wildcat threat of war? Even Soulé had to have some limits. The Americans might send a less than ideal minister, but they wouldn’t send an out-and-out irresponsible, bellicose lunatic…right?

Taking the matter seriously, the Spanish Council of Ministers made an exception from the usual Holy Week festivities to discuss the matter. They also reached out to the British and French, who had made noises in the past about guaranteeing Spanish control over Cuba. In order to sweeten the deal in its favor, Spain promised them a fig leaf of reforming its laws on the slave trade. But those powers had their own problems much closer to home than Cuba. They had just joined in the Crimean War against Russia. They needed to invite a Russo-American alliance like they needed additional holes in their heads. The French passed along that their man in Washington rated the Cabinet less eager for war than Soulé, or even Pierce, let on. The British sided with Spain, but would not commit to armed intervention if war came. But both powers could still lend their weight to reaching a peaceful settlement. 

The Spanish correctly read this as an expression of sympathy combined with instructions to make concessions. They opted for the tactic that had worked so well in the past: delay. Late on April 11, the day of the ultimatum, they sent back a note they claimed dated to before that ultimatum and served as a response to Soulé’s first message. The note did not give anything asked. Instead it apologized, pleading that Madrid needed to get all the facts of the matter before any real reply could come.

Soulé saw through that, and Ettinger quotes him on it in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé: 

Her Majesty’s Government cannot, on the eleventh day of April, plead want of authentic data in a case of wrong perpetrated at Havana as early as the twenty-eighth of February last, when, at the same time, an authorized announcement was made on the eighth instance, by the official gazette, that the government was in possession of despatches from the authorities at that place up to the tenth of March, and when it is known that letters have been received in Madrid more than three days since, with Havana dates up to the thirteenth of the same month.

If the Spanish wanted to make excuses, they needed better ones.