The "Virginius Incident"

By Jonathan Ault



The VIRGINIUS was an ex-Confederate blockade runner that was used by Cuban rebels and their American collaborators during the first half of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), Cuba’s unsuccessful first attempt to fight for independence from Spain. When Spanish authorities captured the vessel and executed several of its crew members (including American and British citizens) in 1873, war between the United States and Spain temporarily loomed. Although diplomacy averted armed conflict, memories of the incident would later fuel animosities between the two countries when Cuba erupted again in 1895. The "VIRGINIUS Incident" became again very highly publicized as tensions rose before the Spanish American War and during the war itself.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the United States developed strong economic and territorial interests in Latin America in general and Cuba in particular. Remaining part of Spain’s overseas empire long after its continental colonies in the Western Hemisphere had achieved independence, Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” attracted American expansionists for several reasons. Geographic proximity to the United States (and distance from Spain) made Cuba a tempting prize for Americans whose quest for “Manifest Destiny” had already gained them territory spanning North America by 1848. By the mid-nineteenth century, numerous American businessmen had invested in the island’s rich sugar resources, making the United States its largest commercial partner. Lastly, rumors of corrupt and repressive Spanish colonial policies won American sympathy for the Cuban people. Emboldened by their successful seizure of land from Mexico in 1848, American leaders soon turned their attention to Spain’s “Ever Faithful Isle.” Their initial attempts to acquire the island reached a climax in 1854. In October of that year, three expansionists who were then serving as United States ambassadors in Europe (Pierre Soulé in Spain, John Mason in France, and James Buchanan in Britain) met in Ostend, Belgium, to discuss annexation of Cuba, under orders of Secretary of State William Marcy. The “Ostend Manifesto” that they drafted stated that the United States should purchase the island for no more than $120 million, and would be justified in seizing it if Spain refused to sell it. Northern newspapers in the United States detected a conspiracy on behalf of the Southern states to expand slavery (since two of the Manifesto’s authors were Southern defenders of slavery), and vehemently protested. Politically embarrassed, the administration of President Franklin Pierce abandoned its Cuban venture. Sectional tensions, civil war, and postwar recovery preoccupied the United States for the next two decades, but Cuba would emerge once again as a major focus in American diplomacy during its first, abortive fight for independence known as the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). Halfway through this conflict, an incident involving an ex-Confederate blockade runner brought the United States and Spain to the brink of war. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and war was thus postponed for a quarter century.

Between 1868 and 1873, the United States officially kept its distance from the rebellion in Cuba. Leaders in Washington focused on post-Civil War reconstruction and economic recovery, and they directed their expansionist urges toward other targets with varying degrees of success, such as Alaska and the Dominican Republic. Moreover, the United States refused to recognize Cuban belligerency, since that would have undercut the then-pending American case against Great Britain, which had recognized the belligerency of the Confederate States of America in 1861. The fledgling Cuban revolt hardly constituted a national movement, being led by a small group of rebels without an organized army and control of ports. Also, American recognition of Cuban belligerency would absolve Spain of responsibility for rebel-inflicted damage to American property on the island.

Still, there was unofficial collusion between Cuban rebels and American citizens. Cuban patriots living in exile in the United States (many of whom claimed American, as well as Cuban, citizenship) successfully sought money and material aid from sympathetic Americans. Cubans in New York City organized a Junta to organize monetary acquisition and expenditure. On March 1, 1870, General Manuel Quesada, the rebellion’s Commander-in-Chief (and brother-in-law of the provisional President Manuel de Céspedes), arrived in Washington, DC in search of additional ways of securing assistance from the United States while skirting its neutrality laws. He found two sympathizers who owned and operated a New York steamship line. With their aid and money from the Junta, Quesada purchased the Virgin, a former Confederate blockade runner that was docked in the Washington Navy Yard. Another American, John F. Patterson, made the actual transaction on Quesada’s behalf; only Patterson’s name appeared on the bill of sale. The vessel was refitted and renamed the VIRGINIUS.

This ship had been constructed in Scotland for the Confederate States of America in 1864. Over 200 feet long, and having a displacement of 491 tons, this fast sidewheel steamer was an ideal vessel for navigating along coastlines to land men and supplies. Over the next three years, it made several supplying missions for the Cuban rebels, flying either the American or the Cuban insurrection flag as expediency dictated. United States ambassadors in the South American and Caribbean nations whose ports the VIRGINIUS used to obtain its cargo frequently expressed their misgivings about the legality of the ship’s activities. However, United States consuls in the ports of call were often sympathetic to the Cuban cause and disregarded propriety. En route, the Virginius regularly outran any Spanish pursuers.

In 1873, the ship’s luck finally ran out. In June, it stopped at the port of Aspinwall, Colombia (now in present-day Panama) to have its engines overhauled. There, the Spanish gunboat BAZAN attempted to intercept it. Infuriatingly for the Bazan’s crew, the USS KANSAS interceded, claiming that the outlaw vessel was American property, and abetted its escape.

Afterward, the VIRGINIUS landed at Kingston, Jamaica to await its next mission, which came in mid-October. For this voyage, it would carry American and British citizens, as well as Cuban rebels and weapons. Commanding the expedition was General Bernabé Varona. On his staff were Lieutenant-Colonels Jesús del Sol and Agustin Santa Rosa. Pedro de Céspedes, younger brother of the Cuban President, was also present. Along with other Cubans on board, these four men claimed United States citizenship. The two main American nationals on board were General William Ryan, a Union Army veteran who had emigrated from Ireland, and Joseph Fry, a Confederate Navy veteran who was the last in a long line of captains for the VIRGINIUS.

The first stop after leaving Kingston in late October was Haiti, where the VIRGINIUS’ crew picked up 300 Remington rifles, 300,000 cartridges, 800 daggers, 800 machetes, shoes and gunpowder for the Cuban rebels. Flying the American flag, it then started for a beach where two large artillery guns were buried. Unfortunately for the crew, the Spanish corvette TORNADO intercepted them en route on October 30. The heavily laden, leaking vessel was no match for its Spanish pursuer. Within site of Guantánamo Bay, the TORNADO captured the infamous contraband vessel, and hauled it and its crew to internment at Santiago.

The Spanish Corvette TORNADO

The Spanish army commander in Santiago, General Don Juan N. Burriel, sought swift justice. Rapidly arranged military trials delivered the expected verdicts. On November 4, a firing squad executed Ryan, Varona, del Sol, and Céspedes. Three days later, Fry and thirty-six other captives (several of them either American or British) met the same fate. Most of the prisoners’ lives, however, were spared, apparently because the HMS NIOBE had gotten wind of the affair, and had arrived in Santiago on November 8, demanding that the executions be postponed or the town would be bombarded.

War hysteria briefly flared up in the United States as news of these executions arrived. Many American newspapers initially exaggerated the death toll, mistakenly alleging that every captive had been killed. Several former Civil War commanders, Confederate as well as Union, petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant with offers to raise regiments in case of war. Prospects for approaching the Spanish government on this matter peacefully at first appeared bleak, as well. Spain had overthrown its monarchy in February of 1873, in favor of a republican form of government. This experiment soon encountered serious trouble. Governmental offices in Madrid changed hands with dizzying speed. Royalist supporters plunged the country into civil war. The American ambassador to Spain, former Union general Daniel Sickles, was ill-equipped for his position, owing it to political patronage (characteristic of much of the American foreign service personnel of the time). In Cuba, General Burriel and his army opposed Spanish republicanism as vehemently as they opposed Cuban insurrectionism.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. With the assistance of the British ambassador in Washington, United States Secretary of State Hamilton Fish devised a protocol with the Spanish ambassador to the United States, José Polo de Bernabé. Signed on November 29, 1873, the agreement between Fish and Polo stipulated that: Spain would return the VIRGINIUS and its surviving crew members to the United States; if the ship was proven to have been legitimately flying the American flag at the time of its capture, Spanish authorities in Santiago would salute the American flag; and, each country would prosecute citizens proven guilty of wrongdoing. A few days later, Fish dropped his requirement that the Spaniards salute the American flag after a hearing at the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York revealed the Cuban ownership of the VIRGINIUS.

The final act of the drama occurred the following month. On December 18, the surviving crew members of the VIRGINIUS arrived in New York aboard the American ship Juniata; despite a cordial reception by the Cuban Junta, these people quickly faded into obscurity. A similar fate befell the Virginius. Under the supervision of the Spanish sloop-of-war Favorita (commanded by Manuel de la Cámara), American vessels towed the decrepit Virginius out of Cuban waters on December 16. The outlaw vessel’s days were numbered. Its boilers spent from its failed attempt to elude the TORNADO, the VIRGINIUS was finally abandoned and allowed to founder on December 26. Daniel Sickles, bypassed in the diplomatic process, resigned in protest in the same month.

Subsequent years brought the denouement. On March 5, 1875, Spain signed an indemnity agreement whereby the families of the American victims would receive $80,000 from Madrid (a greater sum than that which would go to their British counterparts). American demands that General Burriel be brought to trial for ordering the executions met with less success. Burriel died on December 24, 1877, before he could be tried. Finally, in 1878, Cuba’s first struggle for independence ended in failure. Seventeen years would elapse before Cuban patriots launched another fight for nationhood.

Numerous legal, political, social, military, and economic reasons explain why the United States avoided war with Spain over Cuba in 1873, and plunged into hostilities twenty-five years later. Certainly the dubiousness of the American case against Spain regarding the VIRGINIUS in 1873 was crucial. Once the courts established the illegitimacy of the vessel, even the most hawkish of American newspapers quickly hushed their tone. In 1873, Spain was struggling to become a republic; many influential Americans at the time believed that a war with Spain would destroy a sister republic. In contrast, by 1898, Spain had reverted to a monarchy, which many Americans of that time equated with the backward, oppressive monarchies also governing Russia and China. Race was also a factor. In 1873, the United States was still grappling with its own domestic race issues regarding African-Americans and Native Americans. Leaders in Washington were unwilling to take on the additional racial problems that would result from intervention in (and acquisition of) Cuba. A quarter-century later, with their domestic racial issues apparently “resolved,” many American leaders confidently believed that the United States could accommodate more territories and control their non-white populations (though several Anti-Imperialists still harbored doubts). In 1873, war with Spain was impractical militarily. At the time, Spain had one of the world’s most modern navies, and her army was comprised of battle-hardened veterans of the war in Cuba and the civil war in Spain. In contrast, the post-Civil War demobilization of the American army and navy had rendered both obsolete and insignificant. By 1898, though the American army was still far from combat readiness, the American navy had undergone a rapid modernization. Arguably, the most compelling difference lay in the economic sphere. Both the 1870s and the 1890s were depression decades for the United States. However, the depression of the 1870s was just beginning in 1873, and the depression of the 1890s had been dragging on for five years by 1898. The acquisition of more overseas markets to offset domestic overproduction was much more emphatically seen as the cure for the nation’s economic ills in the 1890s than had been the case two decades earlier. Moreover, in the 1870s, American investment in Cuba was still growing, and Cuban military leaders in the Ten Years’ War refrained from destroying the island’s sugar plantations. By the 1890s, American investment in Cuba had skyrocketed, and the Cuban leaders of the uprising that began in 1895 (perhaps learning from the failed previous effort) instituted a “scorched-earth” policy in the island’s rich western provinces, in order to diminish Cuba’s economic value to Spain.


Memories of the VIRGINIUS Affair exacerbated tensions between the United States and Spain between 1895 and 1898, and perhaps some Americans perceived war in 1898 as an opportunity to avenge the deaths of its crew members, as well as the deaths of the crew members of the battleship USS Maine. Two episodes in the war further recalled the earlier diplomatic crisis. Sergeant Hamilton Fish of the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (also known as the “Rough Riders”), grandson of the Secretary of State who had preserved the peace in 1873, was among the first Americans killed during the Cuban campaign, at Las Guásimas on June 24, 1898. Manuel de la Cámara, erstwhile commander of the Favorita who had witnessed the return of the VIRGINIUS into American hands, would attain the rank of Rear-Admiral by 1898. Between May and July of that year, he commanded the abortive naval expedition to the Philippines, hoping to challenge the American presence in Manila Bay. Stopped by British authorities and secret American efforts at the Suez Canal which denied coal to his ships, he rapidly returned to Spain after the destruction of Admiral Cervera’s fleet at Santiago, and spent the remainder of the war guarding the Spanish coast against an expected American naval assault that never materialized


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Bradford, Richard H. The Virginius Affair. Colorado: Colorado Associated University Press, 1980.

Crabtree, J. B., The Passing of Spain and the Ascendency of America. (Springfield, MA: The King-Richardson Publishing Co., 1898). 241.

El Buque En La Armada Espanola (Madrid: Silex editions, 1999) p. 325 (image of TORNADO)

Musicant, Ivan, Empire by Default : The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century.(Henry Holt and Company: 1998).

Paterson, Thomas, J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth Hagan. American Foreign Policy, a History, Volume I: To 1914. Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1988

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