Front Door to Cuba

The Cuba Movement

(An excerpt from THE SOUTHERN DREAM OF A CARIBBEAN EMPIRE, 1854-1861, by Robert E. May, Louisiana State University Press)
Chapter Three - Part One of Two

To the mobile American people of the pre-Civil War era, place of birth often bore little relation to the sectional loyalties they ultimately adopted. Origins were quickly forgotten by many who moved from their native states, even by those who migrated from the nonslaveholding states of the North to the slave regions of the South.

John Quitman was one of the more prominent Americans who quickly discarded loyalty to his original state and section. Born the son of a Lutheran pastor in Rhinebeck, New York, in 1799, Quitman taught school for a while and then studied law in Ohio. But when he traveled to Natchez, Mississippi, to practice law, he soon became a southerner. He married a girl with a small fortune in 1824 and quickly gained election to the state legislature. By 1835 he owned a cotton and sugar plantation, including some hundred and fifty slaves, and later acquired holdings in Louisiana as well as forty thousand acres in eastern Texas. In no time a prominent figure in Mississippi politics, Quitman served a short term as governor of the state (1835). Participation in the Texas revolution and Mexican War gained Quitman a considerable military reputation. As brigadier general of volunteers, he played a conspicuous role in Winfield Scott's conquest of Mexico City, and he earned further recognition when Scott appointed him military governor of the Mexican capital. Military fame furthered his career in state and national politics, compensating for his rather lackluster speaking abilities.


Even before the Mexican War, Quitman had committed himself to extremist southern politics. He supported John Calhoun and nullification in 1832, and he rarely vacillated about states' rights thereafter. In November, 1850, when he was again serving as governor, he urged the Mississippi legislature to summon a secession convention; and during his abbreviated 1851 campaign for reelection he stood for rejection of the Compromise of 1850. One historian has termed Quitman the "father of secession in Mississippi."

To Quitman, annexation of Cuba was a means of strengthening the South and states' rights within the union, given the unwillingness of the southern states to secede in 1850. He wanted Cuba to enter the union as a slave state to balance the admission of California as a free state in 1850, and he gave his support to the López movement to achieve that end. The limits that Quitman put on his involvement with López apparently were motivated by a conviction that his service to the South as governor during the crisis of 1850 was of more importance than the advantages that would accrue from his presence in the invasion force. Once the California crisis receded, however, he became more interested in actively leading an invasion of Cuba, especially when emancipation became a threat.

Quitman resumed his Natchez law practice after resigning from the governorship in 1851 and opened negotiations with the Cuban Junta in New York headed by former cohorts of López. From the summer of 1853, until April, 1854, Quitman bickered with the organization about his terms for leading the expedition. Remembering López's fate, Quitman demanded a million dollars "at his disposal" before assuming command and eventually agreed to a compromise figure of $800,000. Once agreement was achieved, supporters started to sell bonds; and on April 30, 1854, Quitman formally accepted leadership.

Despite the professed intention of the Junta to liberate Cuba, Quitman's sights were set on annexation; for he regarded Cuba as vital to the South. He and his close associates expected that in the brief interval between Spanish rule and incorporation into the union, the Cuban planters could satisfactorily resolve the indeterminate status of the emancipado blacks. Once they were conclusively relegated to the status of slavery, Cuba could apply for admission to the union as one or more slave states, much as Texas had a decade earlier. Quitman and his friends ruled out purchase as a means to acquisition because this intermediate period would be skipped. Not only would Cuba become United States territory following purchase-in which case the free status of emancipados would be legally protected-but Pezuela would have time to free more slaves before the formal transfer of the island. In addition, if Cuba assumed a territorial status, northern antislavery forces could contest its admission as a slave state and might even succeed in incorporating it as a free state, as they already had done with California.

Word quickly spread throughout the south of Quitman's firm commitment to lead a Cuba expedition. Even before his agreement with the Junta, the Mississippian received many letters of inquiry concerning rumors that he was involved in such an enterprise. Now Quitman and his lieutenants were inundated with requests for information as to how one could become part of the movement. Mexican War veterans longing for the sound of battle, holdovers from the López movement, and southern military academy graduates anxious to prove their worth all wanted to be part of what a Texan called the "paramount enterprise of the age." Nonmilitary people also found the design appealing. A Louisianan, for instance, declared that he loved surgery, possessed a "chest of assorted medicines" as well as "everything necessary in the way of surgical instruments," and wanted to join Quitman's medical staff. A highly disproportionate number of applicants expected to be officers-which must have created headaches for Quitman. Nothing "less than the head of a Brigade" was the way an Alabamian explained his availability. A Kentucky senator's brief parody of filibusters a number of years later flawlessly described their inflated view of their own potentialities: "If we get into a war about Cuba, these are not the men who are going to do any fighting unless you make up a regiment of colonels or majors. They would join that, but they will never go in the rank and file… Go down to the taverns and look at some of them as you see them strutting about."

An arresting number of prominent southerners, however, also offered their support. A list of the general's Texas backers reads like a minor Who's Who of Texas politics in the 1850s. His foremost organizer in the Lone Star State was John Ford, who had served in the Texas congress and as mayor of Austin, had fought in the Mexican War (where he received his nickname "Rip"), and had led campaigns against Indians throughout the 1840s and 1850s. He had also been editor of both the Austin Texas State Times and the Texas State Gazette and had gained prominence in the Texas Rangers. Other Texas adherents included Hiram Waller, Hugh McLeod, L.D. Evans, James P. Henderson, and John Marshall. Waller was in the Texas legislature; McLeod had been adjutant-general of the Texan army and a United States congressman; Evans served as a district court judge and United States congressman; Henderson had been a leader of the Texas Republic and later served as governor of Texas and as United States senator; and Marshall edited a newspaper.

In Alabama, Governor John Winston worked actively in Quitman's behalf. J.F. H. Clairborne, a leading planter and politician and former member of the United States House of Representatives, supported Quitman in Mississippi. A number of Mississippi newspapermen labored for Quitman, as did some members of the Mississippi legislature. Alexander Stephens boosted Quitman's cause in Georgia.

Many of these men did more than merely orate or encourage prospective recruits. Some made significant financial contributions; and a few, including Ford and Marshall, intended to accompany the invasion force. Mississippian Robert J. Walker, who had endorsed the purchase of Cuba while secretary of the treasury under Polk, told Marshall he would put his life and income on the line for Quitman if he were not so deeply involved in Texas railroad schemes.

This ground swell of support from influential southerners well reflects the fact that annexation of Cuba had become a sectional goal around the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Because of his well publicized antipathy to the Compromise of 1850, Quitman's reputation as an extreme defender of southern rights was unchallenged. Southerners flocked to his standard trusting that the movement would enhance the strength of the slave states. A Jackson, Mississippi, supporter disclosed that the "desire that Cuba should be acquired as a Southern conquest is almost unanimous among Southern men in this part of the State." Another follower called acquisition of Cuba "the only hope of the South." John Ford wrote that possession of the island would secure the South "against malign influences from any quarter" and would "place an immoveable keystone in the arch of the Union." Quitman and other key organizers such as Henderson, Thrasher, and Samuel Walker emphasized the sectional importance of their activities when eliciting support. Quitman, for instance, wrote a Georgia backer, "I hope Georgia will do something for this great Southern movement so vital to our common interests." Genuine concern for the welfare and rights of Cuba's population motivated few of the filibusters.

Quitman occasionally received unsolicited letters of inquiry from northern adventurers, but he apparently ignored most of them. He did, however, work in conjunction with a few prominent northerners, such as John L. O'Sullivan and New York Congressman Mike Walsh. Both O'Sullivan and Walsh had southern proclivities. O'Sullivan strongly defended states' rights; and in the Civil War he would side with the Confederacy. Walsh, a leader of the radical labor-reform, anti-Tammany faction within the New York Democratic party, frequently denounced abolitionists. He complained to Quitman that "northern hypocrites and demagogues" stymied the interests and rights of "Southern men." Louis Schlessinger, the exiled Hungarian patriot, also involved himself in Quitman's plans.

Quitman and his followers, therefore, were not only committed to annexing Cuba, but also regarded Cuba as a sectional objective. They were well aware, however, that their success would depend in part on a favorable, or at least neutral, attitude on the part of the national government. Should Pierce invoke the neutrality laws against filibustering, the chances for leaving the United States with a formidable expedition would be greatly reduced. Even before Quitman accepted leadership, Pierce had publicly denounced such expeditions. Given Quitman's conviction that Cuba had to be invaded with overwhelming force, the president's opposition was unbearable. The filibusters were counting on a change of policy.

In the spring of 1854, Quitman and his supporters believed that Pierce and Jefferson Davis' commitment to annexing Cuba would ultimately outweigh their obligation to enforce the neutrality laws. Mike Walsh informed Quitman from Washington that his soundings in administration circles revealed that although the president and cabinet disapproved of filibustering, "they would not… dare attempt to take any part against us, after the expedition was once started." In June, Quitman heard indirectly from Representative Philip Phillips of Alabama that the president would not significantly interfere with filibustering, despite public pronouncements. The pro-Quitman Natchez Daily Courier was speaking for Quitman when it proclaimed confidently on June 3: "At all events, our filibusters will be enabled without hindrance to carry out their own plans until Congress can be dragooned into the measure."

The Daily Courier's reference to Congress alluded to Quitman's trump card. In the unlikely event that Pierce should prove a formidable antagonist, support had been lined up in Congress to eliminate the law on which the president's power of intervention was based. Senator John Slidell of Louisiana, who was in close touch with Quitman, introduced a motion on May 1 to suspend the neutrality laws, and he was pledged to fight for its passage if necessary. Other southern senators, including Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana and Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi were also committed to the scheme.

Pierce, indeed, was in the process of rethinking his Cuba policy by the time Quitman assumed command. The island attracted Pierce's attention almost immediately after his inauguration and long before the Black Warrior affair. Pierce was as much concerned about possible emancipation as most Southerners; and in May, 1853, he appointed Alexander Clayton of Delaware special agent to Havana to investigate the legitimacy of the abolition rumors. Secretary of State Marcy instructed Clayton to ascertain whether there was a treaty between England, France, and Spain stating that Spain would "Africanize Cuba if England and France would guarantee her control of the island." He was also to investigate a reported substitution of African and Chinese laborers for slaves. Clayton found no evidence of such a treaty and reported this to the State Department in December.

Unconvinced, Pierce dispatched a second agent, Charles W. Davis, in March, 1854, to reinvestigate the abolition rumors. Davis' mission came in the wake of the Black Warrior incident. The bellicosity of Marcy's instructions to Davis reveal how strained United States-Spanish relations had become and hint that the administration might have been considering going to war for Cuba. Marcy portrayed the president as "impatient" to hear from "unquestionable authority" whether Spain was abolishing slavery in Cuba. The secretary threatened: "Unless a change of policy ensue, whereby our rights are to be rigorously respected and our future completely guarded against the influences of bad neighborhood, the day of retributive justice must soon arrive. Injury to our citizens and insult to our flag, have been of such frequent occurrence that our forbearance is ceasing to be a virtue." Davis reported in May that Pezuela had abolitionist tendencies, that while in Havana, he saw black regiments being raised, and that Spain was doing England's bidding in respect to slavery. And he called for United States intervention.

The administration, well aware that acquiescence in Cuban emancipation would alienate its southern support, let it be known in diplomatic circles that the United States would not tolerate Negro rule in Cuba. In July of 1853, Marcy wrote to James Buchanan in England that the danger of abolition in Cuba was real, that England supported it, and that England ought to be aware that "she is concurring in an act which, in its consequences, must be injurious to the United States." Buchanan later replied that, in his talks with British Foreign Minister Lord Clarendon and with English society, "whenever a proper opportunity afforded" he had expressed his "confident conviction that if there should be a rising in the Island against intolerable opposition, and any third Power should render material aid to the Spaniards it would be impossible to prevent the United States from rushing to the assistance of the oppressed." Marcy sent similar instructions to Soulé in Spain.

Pierce was uncertain, however, as to how far he should go beyond diplomatic protest on both the emancipation and Black Warrior issues. Certainly the situation demanded action. His personal desires for Cuba aside, Pierce knew that acquisition could only strengthen his political position in the South and please the expansionist wing of the Democratic party in the North. Ultimately he would accept his European ministers' suggestion that manipulation of Spain's financial difficulties would force her to cede Cuba. But for months he wavered, apparently toying with the idea of war.

Congressional debates over the Black Warrior affair probably contributed to Pierce's decision to reject an extreme course of action such as war or filibustering. Comments by some northern senators and representatives made it painfully obvious that should Pierce initiate war or approve a southern-oriented invasion of Cuba, he would face strong antislavery opposition and would not have a united country behind him.

The first indication of growing antislavery irritation with the idea of Cuba as a new slave state came when Representative Philip Phillips called for Pierce to transmit to the House any information he possessed concerning the Black Warrior incident. On March 15 the president responded with documents and a message saying that the United States was seeking a peaceful solution to the problem. However, he added a comment that instructed Congress to consider the possibility of war with Spain; "In case the measures taken for an amicable adjustment of our difficulties with Spain should unfortunately fail, I shall not hesitate to use the authorities and means which Congress may grant to insure an observance of our just rights, to obtain redress for injuries received, and to vindicate the honor of our flag. In anticipation of that contingency, which I earnestly hope may not arise, I suggest to Congress the propriety of adopting such provisional measures as the exigency may seem to demand."

The House disregarded Pierce's suggestion. But before the Cuba debate subsided, veteran antislavery representative Joshua Giddings of Ohio applauded the Spanish seizure of the Black Warrior and castigated Pierce and the southern press for wanting to retard emancipation in Cuba. To Giddings, Pierce's policy was the "support of slavery in Cuba, and its extension in the territories of the United States," and he notified southerners that he would wage an "unmitigated, unceasing warfare" against it. Thomas Bayly of Virginia, chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, defended the president, as did a number of representatives. Bayly warned that the government should take action before filibusters tried to take the island. If the government did not do something, "there will arise a feeling difficult to be restrained." Unable to reach a consensus, the House temporarily dropped the Cuba issue.

The Senate devoted more attention to the question of Cuba. Slidell followed his motion to suspend the neutrality laws with a speech citing the danger of "Africanization" of Cuba and hinting that he was well informed of Quitman's activities and that Quitman was waiting for a revolution in Cuba as the signal for putting his expedition under way. "I desire no movement on the part of our citizens, until the Cubans shall have put their own shoulders to the wheel… One thing is certain, that in despite of all your statutes, your collectors, your marshals, your Army and Navy, if the revolutionary standard be once hoisted in Cuba, and maintained for a few short weeks, no administration can prevent our citizens rushing to the rescue in such numbers as will secure its triumph-a Democratic President would not desire to do it."

Stephen Mallory of Florida and Judah Benjamin reiterated Slidell's charge that slavery was about to be abolished in Cuba; then Salmon Chase of Ohio gave a speech that must have been as chilling to southern senators as Giddings' unquestionably was to southern representatives. Chase applauded the trend toward emancipation in Cuba, even if instigated by England or France. Such measures commanded his "sympathy" and "best wishes." Slidell, Mallory, and Benjamin avoided responding to this provocative attack, knowing well that a response would make it politically difficult for expansionist northern Democrats to support the acquisition of new slave territory. Further debate ensued in mid-May when Senators Mallory and Benjamin again tried to arouse the Senate over "Africanization." Their cries for American intervention provoked resistance not only from William Seward of New York and other northern senators, but also from former secretary of state John Clayton of Delaware, who denied that Spain intended to destroy Cuba by abolishing slavery and challenged Benjamin to produce proof to the contrary. The Senate took no action on Slidell's resolution and referred the emancipation question to the Committee on Foreign Relations, which in turn merely requested information from the president.

Given Congress' indecisiveness, as well as the increasing evidence that sectionalism was undermining the possibility of legislative accord, it is little wonder that Pierce emphasized diplomatic means to acquire Cuba. Pierce's initial strategy was to emphasize American anger over the Black Warrior incident in order to exert pressure on Spain to cede the island. Later he would broaden his approach.

Though Spanish authorities released the Black Warrior on March 16, after payment of a fine of $6,000, Marcy apprised Soulé the next day that the seizure of the ship and its cargo was a "flagrant wrong." It was the Spanish government's duty to correct the error: "The damages to the owners of the Black Warrior and her cargo are estimated at three hundred thousand dollars, and this amount you will demand as the indemnity to the injured parties." Soulé did so and Spain delayed an answer. On April 3 Marcy increased the pressure on Spain to sell Cuba in a nineteenth-century version of "brinkmanship." He wrote Soulé that unsettled conditions in Spain and the danger of emancipation in Cuba made the present a proper time to accomplish an "object so much desired by the United States." Marcy cited Spanish infringements on American commerce and informed Soulé that he could offer up to $130 million for Cuba. If Spain refused to accept the offer, the minister was to direct his efforts "to the next most desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion and from all dependence on any European power." Marcy had long advocated the liberation of Cuba should cession to the United States prove impossible.

Despite Marcy's aggressive language, the administration pondered for weeks about what further action should be taken if Spain would not accept Soulé's offer, and about how it should respond to pressure to support filibustering. As late as May 25 and 26, 1854, Marcy was writing Buchanan and Minister to France John Y. Mason that the administration's course of action on Cuba was "under advisement" but "unsettled." On May 30 the Democratic majority of the Senate foreign relations committee met with Pierce and urged him to support Slidell's motion to repeal the neutrality laws. Mike Walsh's optimistic letter to Quitman was mailed during this period.

The administration seems to have been preoccupied with the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which was the subject of tortured debate at the very time the Cuba crisis came to a head. Pierce was reluctant to simultaneously embroil his administration in two major sectional conflicts, and was marking time until the debates ran their course. Marcy wrote Mason that the "Nebraska bill has not yet but will shortly become a law-From this which has proved a very troublesome matter we shall at once enter upon another still more embarrassing-the Cuba question." And he informed Buchanan on the very day the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed: "The Nebraska question being now disposed of, the next important matter to come up will be Cuba."

Pierce found it difficult to dismiss the "Nebraska question" as easily as Marcy, for the bill's passage restricted his Cuba options. Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act incensed northerners, Pierce had to proceed gingerly. Marcy explained the problem to John Mason: "The Nebraska question has sadly shattered our party in all the free states and deprived it of the strength which was needed & could have been much more profitably used for the acquisition of Cuba." Pierce was already under strong antislavery attack for his support of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and he realized that if he urged war for Cuba or supported Quitman and his filibusters, he would be even more open to the charge that he was a tool of the South, and this in turn would undermine his political position in the North. Congressional debates and commentaries in the press revealed that northern opposition to slavery expansion had stiffened over the last few months. Quiet diplomacy for Cuba would be much less likely to reawaken the slavery controversy than would war or filibustering.

Furthermore, administration leaders may have simply felt that the purchase of Cuba through diplomatic channels was more feasible and that the use of force would gravely endanger the diplomatic efforts being made. From the bitter Spanish reaction to Lopez's expeditions, it would have been easy for Pierce to conclude that diplomacy would fail in the event of further filibustering. Horatio Perry, secretary of the American legation in Spain, asserted that the cession of Cuba would be "highly probable" once Spain and the United States were on friendly terms. And he cautioned: "Genl Quitman and the Cuban Junta cannot do it. The states of Louisiana, Mississippi & Alabama can do little towards it. They may ruin this natural, fair & fruitful policy of the United States, but they cannot aid it. They may precipitate the nation into a war for the conquest of Cuba, but they cannot purchase it so long as they threaten that alternative." Marcy claimed that filibusters encouraged Spanish hostility and that if the United States carried out their "robber doctrine," it would be degraded in the eyes of the civilized world and would lose in self-respect.

Part One of Two

Race in Cuba

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