October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
On October 31 the Spanish man-of-war Tornado , acting on a tip, sighted an American-registered freighter named Virginius off Morant Bay, Jamaica. It immediately started in pursuit. The Virginius was a notorious gunrunner, bringing arms, recruits, and supplies to anti-Spanish rebels in Cuba from supporters based in New York City. The Spanish navy had been chasing her for three years.
The creaky Virginius began to take on water as she fled. Crewmen jettisoned cargo and desperately threw hams and bacon into her furnaces for lack of coal, but it was no use. The Tornado landed a solid cannon shot, and the crippled, lightly armed Virginius surrendered. Her 103 passengers (mostly Cuban expatriates recruited for the insurgent army) and crew of 52 (predominantly American and British) were taken prisoner. Spanish sailors hauled down the Virginius ’s American flag and trampled on it.
On November 4, four passengers from the Virginius were shot by a firing squad in Santiago, Cuba. All were well-known rebel officers who had been sentenced to death in absentia months earlier. Word of the executions reached Washington on November 7. Five days later, as President Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish considered their response, the situation got drastically worse: News arrived that thirty-seven officers and crewmen had been shot. Twelve passengers were executed soon afterward, and even more would have been killed if a British warship had not appeared and trained its guns on Santiago.
The American public could have tolerated four shootings, but not fifty-three. Jingoists called loudly for a seizure of Cuba in retaliation, though with the horrors of our own Civil War still fresh in mind, many Americans opposed the idea. Spain would have been no pushover: The U.S. Navy was nowhere near as dominant as it would be in 1898, and the postwar Army was little more than a frontier police force.
The government was reluctant to press Spain too hard for another reason: The Virginius ’s registration, which gave it the right to fly the American flag, had been fraudulently obtained. To get around neutrality laws, an American acting as a front for the Cuban rebels had falsely sworn that he was the ship’s owner. Yet that was an internal matter. The papers had been issued by the proper authorities and were entitled to respect from other nations. The bottom line was that Spain had captured an American ship in neutral waters and killed fifty-three men. Something had to be done.
In Madrid the American ambassador, Daniel Sickles—a fiery former Union general who had once murdered a romantic rival and been acquitted for insanity—did his best to stir up a war. Spain’s equally combative foreign minister, José de Carvajal, spent his days in a café composing dismissive replies to Sickles’s notes and reading the more inflammatory passages aloud to cheers and applause. Meanwhile, in Washington, Fish and the Spanish minister, Adm. José Polo de Bernabé, calmly worked out a settlement that would preserve both sides’ honor.
On December 16 the Virginius —leaking badly, stripped of everything valuable, roach-infested and encrusted with all manner of filth, but proudly flying the American flag—was turned over to the U.S. Navy. She would make it as far as Cape Fear, North Carolina, before sinking. On December 18 Spain handed over the ninety-six survivors it still held, thirteen of them American citizens. The general who had ordered the executions was censured, and Spain paid a total of eighty thousand dollars to the families of the slain Americans (Britain got reparations as well). The requirement of a formal salute to the American flag—a question of great importance to both countries—was dropped because of the ship’s faulty registry.
The compromise worked out well for everybody involved except those who were shot and the Cubans, who would suffer through constant repression and sporadic civil war until America stepped in to settle matters in 1898. In that invasion the first American killed was Sgt. Hamilton Fish of the Rough Riders—the grandson of the Secretary of State who had so skillfully avoided war in 1873.