Front Door to Cuba

The Virginius Incident

The Virginius

Featuring restored and colorized images by J.A. Sierra


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Disputes and Disagreements

Even decades before the age of Yellow Journalism, some newspapers began to circulate rants, raves and insinuations that the executions were an "insult to the United States." While some of these reflected expansionist ideals, others merely saw a business opportunity. The New York Herald, in particular, proposed an aggressive response. But desire for war, wrote Bradford, "began to diminish as reports came of doubt concerning the registration of the Virginius and the citizenship of the crew." (Bradford)

“Throughout the United States a loud clamor arouse,” wrote Foner in A History of Cuba and its relations with The United States, Volume 2: 1845 – 1895. “Some voices called for war with Spain; many demanded immediate recognition of Cuban belligerency, and still others urged American intervention in the Cuban struggle to put a stop to the barbarities. Indignation meetings were held in Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, New York, and other cities, and resolutions were adopted urging immediate recognition of Cuban belligerency.” (Foner)

“Hardly a day went by without some illustration of the Spanish character,” wrote Kmen. “Young Americans were killed in Havana; a doctor was imprisoned for selling medicine to wounded patriots… the recently executed men were likened to Kosciusko and Lafayette; Steuben and Charles Lee. All had gone abroad to fight for liberty’s sake.” (Kmen)

An editorial in the New Orleans Republican, on November 15, said “it was the best blood of Louisiana which has been spilt by Spain…” and the Picayune, a competing New Orleans paper, predicted that “if Cuba were freed, all the other islands would soon follow her to form a Republican archipelago under one government with free trade.” (Kmen) The papers addressed the previous points repeatedly, and on November 26 the Picayune stated that “with free Cuba, and free Cuban ports, New Orleans can vie with New York as a mart for all manufactured articles, and can supply the entire Mississippi Valley with the cheapest commodities by way of the cheapest highways.” (Kmen)

The topic of annexing the island, sitting in the back burner after the American Civil War, was again revisited by papers throughout the country. “A new reason for annexation was advanced by the Picayune,” wrote Kmen, “when it suggested that the only cure for the current situation in the South was to provide an outlet for the Negroes. This, the paper speculated, was what had motivated Grant’s efforts to acquire San Domingo. If San Domingo could serve that purpose, how much better could Cuba.” (Kmen) The argument for annexation continued, claiming more efficiency and profitability in how the U.S. would “handle” Cuba. On December 2 the Picayune asserted that “while Spain now derives from the island a revenue of about $25,000,000 annually, it would yield to the United States in a short time at least $100,000,000.”

“The dispute over registration now turned on the findings of an investigation in New York,” wrote Bradford. “From November 28 to December 6 men who had commanded or sailed with the Virginius came to give testimony at 20 Nassau Street, the office of the U.S. Circuit Court for the southern district of New York. The interrogation was handled by Fish's son-in-law Sidney Webster, attorney for Spain's New York consulate, and by George Bliss as attorney for the United States. The initial witness was Francis Sheppherd, the first captain of the vessel. Sheppherd's testimony alone was enough to show that the sale was fraudulent and the ship owners Cuban. He recounted how he had come to New York to work for the steamship line owned by Marshall O. Roberts. Before taking command of the Virginius he had met John F. Patterson who expressed regret at allowing his name to be used in the sale. The transaction was clearly a fraud, not only because Patterson was not the true owner but also because no sureties were ever paid on the vessel as the law required. Captain Sheppherd revealed how the Cuban owners came aboard only after the vessel had cleared New York and of their subsequent involvement in revolutions in both Venezuela and Cuba." (Bradford, p100)

Hamilton FishWhile some on all sides clamored for war, U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish (pictured at left) kept a steady grip on the often hostile diplomatic dispute, and helped avoid a war. In a private letter to his son, Fish expressed his personal feelings: "I have thought of the tens of thousands of wives who might have been made widows, and of the hundreds of thousands of children who might have been made orphans, in an unnecessary war undertaken for a dishonest vessel. There is a national evil worse than war, but unless the national honor, or the national existence, require war" then the nation should do all that it can to avoid the terrible evil. That is what I have endeavored to do."

Still, on November 25 the New Orleans Picayune bluntly asked; “Have you selected your corner lot in Cuba yet?” (Kmen)

After lots of posturing on all sides and back-and-forth negotiations, and once it had been legally established that the ship did, indeed, belong to the Cubans, the Virginius was returned to the U.S. on December 17, though not in ideal state for navigating the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Bradford describes the condition of the ship at that time: "The Spaniards apparently had decided that while the Americans might recover the ship it would not be a clean one. Everything that was movable appeared to have been taken except for a half-dozen casks of water and 'a few vermin which haunted the mattresses and cushions in the cabin.' A foul stench came from the forecastle and below the hatches. Decks were caked with dirt and excrement, mold and decomposition. As the men wandered over the ship looking for trophies they turned up only a bayonet, drill, and chart." Overrun by cockroaches and all forms of decay, the Virginius was allowed to sink in the Atlantic on December 26, 1873, near Cape Hatteras.

Virginius sinking

“It took more than a year before a final settlement of the Virginius dispute was reached,” wrote Foner, “Spain, having admitted the illegality of the capture and the wrongfulness of the executions, agreed on March 2, 1875 to pay an indemnity of $80,000 to cover all the claims of the United States. Spain paid the indemnity some time in advance of the date required, a fact which Fish acknowledged as ‘evidence of friendly dispositions, and strengthens hope of speedy adjustment of all outstanding questions.’ But neither Cuban independence nor the continuation of slavery in Cuba was included among the ‘outstanding questions’ to be adjusted.(Foner) A settlement was also reached with the British government.

“The Virginius affair thus passed into history without altering the friendliness of the Grant administration for the Spanish government or its hostility toward the Cuban Republic.” (Foner)

Now all that remained, from the point of view of the Americans, was to find a proper punishment for General Juan B. Burriel, commander of the Spanish troops in Santiago, and the man said to be responsible for the executions. But the new Spanish monarchy dragged its feet making a legal case, and General Burriel died in his home on December 24, 1875.