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

The Virginius

By Wyatt Kingseed

The damage done and the stage set for war, attention now shifted from Cuba to Washington. Secretary Fish instructed Sickles to solicit an appropriate Spanish response.

Sickels was not the best emissary. Possessing a thin skin and a fiery temper, his character was far too volatile for delicate diplomacy. Like the Virginius, he had a checkered past, having once murdered a rival in a jealous rage. The scene of that crime had been Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Managing to escape conviction by pleading temporary insanity, Sickles went on to experience distinction in action during the Civil War, and outrage from superiors over his failure to obey orders. Had he not lost a leg on the Gettysburg battlefield, he likely would have been court-martialed. Grant, remembering the man’s courage, rewarded the soldier with an appointment as foreign minister to Spain—over the secretary of state’s objections.


“If the report be confirmed,” Fish cabled Sickles, “you will protest, in the name of the government, and of civilization and humanity, against the act as brutal, barbarous, and an outrage upon the age, and will declare that this government will demand the most ample reparation of any wrong which may have been committed upon its citizens, or upon its flag.” Fish wanted more than reparations. He demanded release of the remaining prisoners and the ship, and punishment of the Cuban officials responsible. If no response was forthcoming within twelve days, Fish instructed Sickles to cease diplomatic relations, close the embassy and leave Madrid. Such action usually meant war.

Sickles’ counterpart was Spanish foreign minister Jose De Carvajal, another whose temperament stoked the fire rather than cooled it. The harsh language of Fish’s ultimatum insulted Carvajal. Erroneously believing it emanated from Sickles rather than Washington, he fired back, arguing that the United States was too quick to make demands, it not having full information. Spain, he wrote, “would tolerate no disparagement of any right.”
Yet knowing the tenuous grip that the Spanish government held over its military officials in Cuba, Carvajal likely suspected that some offense had been committed. In a subsequent communiqué, he conceded that if an investigation revealed any wrongdoing, Spain would “repair the wrong according to its just importance.”

But even this conciliatory message wasn’t good enough for Sickles. He urged Fish to abandoned the twelve-day grace period and close the legation, a recommendation that caused the secretary to question his minister’s motives. Fish suspected that Sickles was trying to drive both countries to war. A former congressman, Sickles was adept at politics and knew how to use his friends in the press. Several of the supposed secret communications from Madrid to the U.S. state department had mysteriously appeared simultaneously in the New York papers. Even more troubling, Fish had personally talked with Admiral Polo, the Spanish ambassador in Washington. Polo’s generally temperate reaction to the situation seemed at odds with that expressed in cables from Sickles. Was Fish censoring Spanish response to American demands? Polo had similar doubts about Carvajal. He and Fish wisely transferred negotiations to Washington.

Fish was right to distrust Sickles. Sickles had long sought American control of Cuba. Twenty years earlier, as an aid to then secretary of state, James Buchanan, Sickles helped draft the Ostend Manifesto. It called for a hostile takeover of the island by the United States if Spain refused to sell it. Congress had summarily dismissed the document. Now the Virginius presented Sickles a new opportunity to accomplish an old objective. Apparently still feeling the long-ago rejection, Sickles let his bruised ego dictate his actions. Simply put, he forgot that his role was an administrative one, not one of policy.

The success or failure of Fish’s maneuverings was more important than American citizen’s realized. The U.S. Navy was in no shape to challenge the Spanish fleet. Having rapidly demobilized after the Civil War, the American fleet had received little investment since. Its present condition might best be described as rusting, leaking, and antiquated.

Secretary of the Navy, George Robeson, mobilized at Key West to wait further instruction from Washington. One officer assigned to the flotilla described it thusly: “The force collected was the best, and indeed about all we had,…If it had not been so serious it would have been laughable to see our condition. We remained several weeks, making faces at the Spaniards 90 miles away at Havana, while two modern vessels of war would have done us up in thirty minutes. We were dreadfully mortified over it all.”

That opinion would have surprised readers of the New York Times. In the midst of the affair it argued that the navy had made great strides in the last year and consequently, opined that the nation was “ready to meet any emergency that can be contemplated.”

Fish felt pressure from many quarters. Other Latin American nations offered assistance if the United States chose intervention, fueled by long-standing anti-European sentiment.

Both governments were on dubious grounds. Admiral Polo knew that by international law, Spain had no right to seize the Virginius, let alone treat crewmembers as pirates. Despite reality, no recognized state of war existed in Cuba. Lacking that, the ship’s cargo could not be considered contraband of war, subject to seizure. His own president had admitted the fact. “How deeply I deplore the execution of the four prisoners!” Castelar had written to Sickles upon hearing of Burriel’s first action. “What a misfortune that my order was not received in time to prevent such an act! It was against the law…”

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