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Posted on Jan 20, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Virginius

By Wyatt Kingseed

On its side, the United States had questionable right to interfere because the ship’s papers were fraudulent. It had no right to fly the American flag. Moreover, the United States government had been less than vigilant in its prosecution of filibusters, a tacit acceptance of a clearly illegal activity. In doing so, it had engendered understandable hatred from the Volunteers. Feeling little recourse, and unfettered by civilized principals of law, the Spanish leaders in Cuba had extracted cruel justice. Though he couldn’t admit it publicly, Fish understood that America’s hands-off policy had contributed to the fiasco.

Negotiations were aided by the economy. The nation was beset by the Panic of 1873. The stock market had collapsed; fortunes were lost overnight. There were more immediate problems to address. Despite the perceived national insult, American passions quickly cooled. After two weeks of positioning, Spain accepted a watered down version of Fish’s initial demands, refusing to salute the American flag until the ship’s registry was ascertained. This small omission allowed it to admit culpability with its dignity intact.

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Having been relegated to a mere supporting role, Sickles became increasingly frustrated and insulted. Feeling powerless to control the situation, he at one point sent a near hysterical plea to Fish. “Popular feeling runs high here against the United States and this legation. Press violent and abusive, advising the government to order me out of Spain. Last night a mob was collected to attack and sack the legation. The authorities interfered and preserved the peace.” Upset with having been back-ended, he resigned.

On December 16, Spanish authorities in Cuba surrendered the Virginius to the American navy, along with its remaining crew. Thomas Nast captured the event in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. The artist, convinced of American naval superiority, showed Spanish President Castelar forcing General Jovellar at gunpoint up the gangplank of a heavily armed American ship. The chastised officer reluctantly carries a toy Virginius underarm. Grant, Fish, and Robeson wait on board to receive the captured vessel.

The Virginius, neglected and in disrepair, never reached its home port of New York, instead foundering on the return voyage. Spain eventually paid reparation of $80,000, which the U.S. government dolled out to the victims’ families. Once it established the vessel’s true ownership, the Spanish government felt no obligation to punish General Burriel. Instead, the Spanish press lionized him as a hero.

For his part, Hamilton Fish felt as proud of his accomplishment here as anything he’d do in public life. “I have thought of the tens of thousands of wives who might have been made widow,” he wrote to his son, “and 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 it can to avoid the terrible evil. That is what I have endeavored to do.”

Adam Badeau, one of Grant’s top aides, would recall the incident fourteen years later and comment on the sorry progress of Cuban independence since, writing that Cuba “remains today the most miserably oppressed bit of soil on earth under what is called a civilized government.”

And unfortunately, Fish’s pride proved premature—war between Spain and the Untied States was merely postponed. Eleven years after Badeau’s lament, another American president faced the same dilemma of how to deal with its Caribbean neighbor. Cuban rumblings prompted William McKinley in 1898 to dispatch the battleship Maine to Havana Harbor, ostensibly to protect U.S. interests and citizens residing there. Its mysterious explosion that February resulted in the death of 261 sailors and marines, catapulting the United States into a full-scale war. Fish, the man most responsible for keeping peace in 1873, had died five years earlier. Mercifully, he was spared the “terrible evil” of this later conflict. While serving with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, his grandson, Hamilton Fish Jr., was reported to be the war’s first casualty. The sergeant died in preliminary fighting on the approaches to San Juan Hill.

Sources

Life of Captain Joseph Fry by Jamie Mort Walker, J. B. Burr Publishing Company, 1875. University Of Central Florida archives.

Hamilton Fish, The Inner History of the Grant Administration by Allan Nevins, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937

The Spanish War – An American Epic 1898 by G. J. A. O’Toole, W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.

Grant in Peace: From Appomattox to Mount McGregor – A Personal Memoir by Adam Badeau, Hartford, S.S. Scranton & Company, 1887.

Sickles the Incredible by W. A. Swanberg, Charles Scribner’s & Sons 1956.

I Follow the Course, Come What May by Jeanne W. Knoup, Vantage Press 1998.

Empire by Default: The Spanish American War and the Dawn of the American Century by Ivan Musicant (Robley D. Evans, A Sailor’s Log p.172), Henry Holt & Company, 1998.

New York Times: 10/31/1873, 11/8/1873 through 11/19/1873.

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