Virginius Affair

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Virginius Affair
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The Spanish Butchery
Harper's Weekly 1873
Date October 30, 1873 (1873-10-30)-
February 7, 1875 (1875-02-07)
Location Santiago
Also known as The Virginius Incident
Participants United States, Spain, Britain
Outcome Negotiated peace.
Deaths 53
Website The "Virginius Incident"

The Virginius Affair (sometimes called the Virginius Incident) was a diplomatic dispute that occurred from October 1873 to February 1875 between the United States, Great Britain and Spain, then in control of Cuba, during the Ten Years' War. The Virginius was a fast American ship hired by Cuban insurrectionists to land men and munitions in Cuba to attack Spain. It was captured by Spain, which wanted to try and execute the men on board as pirates; they were American and British citizens. They did execute 53 men but stopped when Britain demanded it. Throughout the ordeal there was loose talk that the U.S. might declare war on Spain. During the lengthy negotiations the Spanish government had undergone several changes in leadership. American consul Caleb Cushing ended the episode by negotiating $80,000 in reparations to be paid to American families of those who were executed. British families were compensated by the Spanish government through negotiation prior to American compensation. The incident was remarkable for the use of international diplomacy for peace implemented by Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, rather than degenerating into a costly war between the United States and Spain. The Virginius Affair started a U.S. Naval resurgence following the American Civil War; the American fleet having been vulnerable to the superior warships of Spain.

Ten Years' War

After the American Civil War, the island country of Cuba under Spanish rule was one of only a few Western Hemisphere countries where the institution of slavery remained legal and was widely practiced.[1] On October 10, 1868 a revolution broke out, known as the Ten Years' War, by Cuban landowners led by Carlos Manual Céspedes.[2] The Spanish, led initially by Francisco Lersundi, used the military to suppress the rebellion.[3] In 1870, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish persuaded President Grant not to recognize Cuban belligerency and the United States maintained an unstable peace with Spain.[4] As the Cuban war continued, international patriotic insurgency began to arise in support of the Cuban rebellion, and war bonds were sold in the U.S. to support the Cuban resistance.[5] One of the U.S. Cuban patriots was John F. Patterson who bought a former Confederate steamer Virgin at the Washington Navy Yard, renaming her Virginius.[6] The legality of Patterson's purchase of the Virginius would later come to national and international attention.[7] The Cuban rebellion finally ended in an 1878 armistice after Spanish general Arsenio Martínez-Campos pardoned all Cuban rebels.[8]


The Virginius was a small, high-speed side-wheel steamer built to serve as a blockade runner between Havana and Mobile, Alabama, for the Confederacy during the Civil War.[9][10] Originally built as the Virgin by Aitken & Mansel of Whiteinch, Glasgow in 1864, she became a prize of the United States when captured on April 12, 1865.[9] In August 1870, the Virginius was purchased by an American, John F. Patterson, acting secretly as an agent for Cuban insurgent Manuel Quesada and two U.S. citizens - Marshall O. Roberts and J.K. Roberts.[9] The ship was originally captained by Francis Sheppherd; both Patterson and Shepphard immediately registered the ship in the New York Custom House; having paid $2,000 to be bonded, however, no sureties were listed.[11] Patterson took a required oath that he was the sole owner of the Virginius. The secret purpose for the purchase of the Virginius was to transport men, munitions, and supplies to aid the Cuban rebellion. For three years the ship aided the Cuban rebellion and was protected by U.S. naval ships including the USS Kansas and the USS Canandaigua.[10] The Spanish said it was an outlaw ship and aggressively sought to capture it.[10][11]

Capture, trial, and executions

Joseph Fry, captain of the Virginius. Spain executed him for bringing arms to Cuban rebels.

Captain Joseph Fry was the new captain of the Virginius from October 1873[12] Fry had served in the U.S. Navy for 15 years, before joining the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Fry was promoted to Commodore in the Confederate Navy. However, after that position disappeared following the Union victory in 1865, Fry was underemployed. In 1873 he took the job as Captain of the Virginius. The Virginius, moored in Kingston, Jamaica by this time needed repair, and the boilers were breaking down.[13] As most of the previous crew had deserted, Fry recruited a new crew of 52 men, both American and British; many whom were inexperienced and apparently did not understand that the Virginius was supporting the Cuban rebellion. Three were very young recruits, no older than 13 years of age.[12] The Virginius took on 103 native Cuban soldiers that arrived on board a New York steamer. Fry had been warned by U.S. Consul at Kingston, Thomas H. Pearne, that he would be shot if captured. However, Fry did not believe the Spanish would shoot a blockade runner.[14] In mid October, Captain Fry accompanied by four mercenaries, took the Virginius to Haiti and loaded the ship with munitions.[15] On October 30, the Virginius sailed to Comito to pick up more weapons, then on the same day started toward Cuba. The Spanish had been warned when the Virginius left Jamaica and sent out the warship Tornado to capture the vessel.[12]

On October 30, 1873 the Tornado spotted the Virginius on open water six miles from Cuba and gave chase. The Virginius was heavily weighted and the stress from the boilers caused the ship to take on water, significantly slowing any progress.[16] As the chase continued the Tornado, a fast warship, fired on the Virginius several times, damaging the top deck. Captain Fry surrendered the Virginius knowing that his ship's over-worked boilers and leaking hull could not outrun the Tornado on the open sea. The Spanish quickly boarded and secured the ship. The entire crew was taken as prisoners and the ship sailed to Santiago, Cuba.[17]

The Spanish immediately ordered the entire crew to be put on trial as pirates.[18] The entire Virginius crew, both American and British citizens, were found guilty by a court martial and were sentenced to death. The Spanish ignored the protest of American vice-consul who attempted to give American citizens legal aid. On November 4, 1873 the four mercenaries who accompanied Capt. Fry were executed by firing squad without trial, since they had already been condemned as pirates. After the executions, the British vice-consul at Santiago, concerned that one of the mercenaries killed, George Washington Ryan, claimed British citizenship, wired Jamaica to receive aid from the British navy to stop further executions.[19] Hearing news of the Virginius capture and executions, Altamont de Cordova, a Jamaican resident, was able to get British Commodore A.F.R. de Horsey to send the sloop HMS Niobe under Sir Lambton Lorraine to Santiago to stop further executions.[20] On November 7, a further 37 crew members, including Captain Fry, were executed by firing squad.[21] The Spanish soldiers decapitated them and trampled their bodies with horses. On November 8 twelve more crew members were executed, until finally the HMS Niobe reached Santiago.[22] The carnage stopped on the same day when Lorraine threatened local commander Juan N. Burriel that he would bombard Santiago if there were any more executions.[22] There were a total of 53 executions at Santiago under Burriel’s authority.

U.S. public reaction

The initial press reaction to the capture of the Virginius was conservative, however, as news of executions poured into the nation, certain newspapers became more aggressive in promoting Cuban intervention and war.[23] The New York Times stated that if the executions of Americans from the Virginius were illegal, war needed to be declared.[24] The New York Tribune asserted that actions of Burriel and the Cuban Volunteers necessitated "the death knell of Spanish power in America".[24] The New York Herald demanded Secretary Hamilton Fish's resignation and that the U.S. recognize Cuban belligerency.[24] The National Republican, having believed the threat of war with Spain was imminent, encouraged the sale of Cuban bonds.[25] The American public considered the executions as a national insult and rallied for intervention. Protest rallies took place across the nation in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Georgia encouraging intervention in Cuba and vengeance on Spain.[26] The British Minister to the United States, Sir Edward Thornton, believed the American public was ready for war with Spain.[27] A large rally in New York's Steinway Hall on November 17, 1873 led by future Secretary of State William Evarts, took a moderate position and the meeting adopted a resolution that war would be necessary, yet regrettable, if Spain chose to "...consider our defense against savage butchery as a cause of war..."[28]

U.S. diplomatic response

Hamilton Fish and state department

Hamilton Fish, U.S. Secretary of State

On Wednesday November 5, 1873 the first news from the U.S. Consul-General in Havana, Henry C. Hall, informed the U.S. State Department that the Virginius had been captured.[29] There was no knowledge that four mercenaries had already been killed and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish believed the Virginius was just another ship captured aiding the Cuban rebellion.[29] On November 7, Cuba headed the agenda of President Ulysses S. Grant's Cabinet meeting as news came in of the deaths of Ryan and three other mercenaries.[30] The Cabinet agreed that the executions would be "regarded as an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of the civilization of the nineteenth century."[31] On November 8, Fish met with Spanish minister Don José Polo de Barnabé, and discussed the legality of the Virginius capture.[32] Thornton that Britain condemned the four executions.[33] On November 11, President Grant's Cabinet decided that war with Spain was not desirable, though Cuban intervention was possible.[33] On November 12, five days after the event, Fish received devastating news that 37 crew members of the Virginius had been executed.[34] Fish ordered U.S. Minister to Spain Daniel Sickles to protest the executions and demand reparations for any persons considered U.S. citizens who were killed.[34] On November 13, Fish formally protested to Polo and stated that the U.S. had a free hand concerning Cuba and the Virginius Affair.[34] On November 14, President Grant's Cabinet agreed that if U.S. demands for reparations were not met, the Spanish legation would be closed. An exaggerated report came into the White House that more crew members had been shot; in reality, twelve crew members were executed.[35] On November 15, Polo visited Fish and stated that the Virginius was a pirate ship and that her crew had been a hostile threat to Cuba.[36] Fish, although doubtful of the legality of the ship's U.S. ownership, was determined to be an advocate of the nation's honor in demanding reparations from Spain.[37] On the same day, a cable from Fish arrived in Spain for Sickles demanding the Virginius be returned to the United States, the crew that had escaped execution be released, a salute from Spain to the U.S. flag, punishment for the perpetrators, and reparations for families.[38]

Emilio Castelar, President of Spain

Negotiations in Spain between Sickles and Minister of State José de Carvajal, became heated and progress towards settlement became unlikely.[39] The Spanish press openly attacked Sickles, the United States and Britain intending to promote war between the three countries.[40] As the Sickles-Carvajal negotiations broke down, President Emilio Castelar decided to settle the Virginius matter through Fish and Polo in Washington.[41] On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, Polo proposed to Fish that Spain would give up the Virginius and remaining crew, if the U.S. would investigate the legal status of the ownership of the Virginius.[42] Both Fish and President Grant agreed to Polo's offer and that the Spanish salute to the U.S. flag would be dispensed with if the Virginius was found not have legal U.S. private citizen ownership.[42] On November 28, Polo and Fish met at the State Department and signed a formal agreement that included the return of the Virginius and crew, and an investigation by both governments of the legal ownership of the Virginius and of any crimes committed by the Spanish Volunteers.[43] The threat of war between the two countries had been averted through negotiations, though the time and place of the surrender of the Virginius and the remaining crew remained undetermined for several days.[44] On December 5, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that the Virginius, with the U.S. flag flying, would be turned over to the U.S. Navy on December 16 at the port of Bahía Honda, Cuba.[45] Sickles, having lost the confidence of President Grant and Fish, resigned on December 20, 1873.[46] On January 6, 1874, after advice from Fish on a replacement for Sickles, President Grant appointed eminent attorney and Spanish scholar Caleb Cushing as Minister to Spain.[47]

Virginius and crew returned

On December 16, the Virginius, now in complete disrepair and taking on water, was towed out to open sea with the U.S. flag flying to be turned over to the U.S. Navy. U.S. Captain W.D. Whiting on board the USS Despatch agreed with Spanish Commander Manuel de la Cámara to turn over the Virginius the following day.[48] On December 17, at exactly 9:00 A.M, Virginius was formerly turned over to the U.S. Navy without incident.[49] The same day, after an investigation, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams ruled that the U.S. ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and she had no right to fly the U.S. flag; however, Spain had no right to capture the Virginius and her crew on the open sea.[50] At 4:17 A.M on December 26, while under tow by USS Ossipee, Virginius foundered off Cape Hatteras en route to the United States.[51] Her 91 remaining crewmen, who had been held as prisoners under harsh conditions, were handed over to Captain D.L. Braine of the Juanita and were taken safely to New York.[52]

Reparations awarded

Caleb Cushing, U.S. Consul to Spain

On January 3, 1874, Spanish President Emilio Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.[53] Caleb Cushing, who had replaced Daniel Sickles as U.S. Consul to Spain, stated that the United States had been fortunate that Castelar, a university scholar, had been President of Spain, since his replacement, Serrano, may have been more apt to go to war over the Virginius affair.[54] Cushing's primary duty was to get Spanish reparations for Virginius family victims and punishment of Burriel for the 53 Santiago executions.[55] Cushing met President Serrano in May an on June 26 met with Spain's Minister of State, Augusto Ulloa.[55] On July 5, Cushing, now well respected by Spanish authority, wrote to Fish that Spain was ready to make reparations.[56] In October, Cushing was informed that President Castelar had secretly negotiated reparations between Spain and Britain that totalled £7,700, though black British citizen families were given less money.[57] On November 7, President Grant and Sec. Fish demanded Spain pay $2,500 for each U.S. citizen shot regardless of race.[57] On November 28, 1874 Fish gave instructions to Cushing that all Virginius crew members not considered British would be considered American.[58]

Spanish Consul, Antonio Mantilla, Polo's replacement, agreed with the reparations while President Grant's 1875 State of the Union Address announced that reparations were near, quieting anger over the Virginius affair in the United States.[58] Reparations, however, were put on hold, as Spain changed governments from a Republic, that expired on December 28, back to a Monarchy, and crowned Alphonso King of Spain on January 11, 1875.[58] On January 16, Cushings met with new Spanish state minister Castro and urged settlement before the U.S Congress adjourned; noting that reparations would be a minor matter compared to an all-out war between Spain and the U.S.[59] Under an agreement of February 7, 1875, signed on March 5, the Spanish government paid to the United States an indemnity of $80,000 for the execution of the Americans.[60] Burriel's Santiago executions were considered illegal by Spain and he had been condemned both by President Serrano and King Alphonso.[61] The case against Burriel was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876. However, Burriel died on December 24, 1877 before any trial could take place.[62] In addition to the reparation, a private indemnity in St. Louis was given to Capt. Fry's financially troubled family, who had been unable to pay rent and had no permanent place to live.[63]

U.S. naval resurgence

When the Virginius affair first broke out, a Spanish ironclad happened to be anchored in New York Harbor, leading to the uncomfortable realization on the part of the U.S. Navy that it had no ship capable of defeating such a vessel. U.S. Secretary of War George M. Robeson believed a U.S. naval resurgence was necessary and Congress hastily issued contracts for the construction of five new ironclads, and accelerated its existing repair program for several more. USS Puritan (BM-1) and the four Amphitrite class monitors were subsequently built as a result of the Virginius war scare.[64] All five vessels would later take part in the Spanish–American War of 1898.


  1. Bradford, pp. 6-7
  2. Bradford, pp. 7-8
  3. Bradford, p. 8
  4. Bradford, pp. 5, 14
  5. Bradford, p. 12
  6. Bradford, p. 16
  7. Bradford, pp. 100-101
  8. Bradford, pp. 136-137
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Bancroft, p. 25
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Soodalter, p.62
  11. 11.0 11.1 Bancroft, p. 26
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Soodalter, p 64.
  13. Soodalter, p 63.
  14. Hartford Weekly (November 22, 1873), The Cuban Massacre
  15. Soodalter, pp. 63-64
  16. Bradford, pp. 38-41
  17. Bradford, pp. 43, 45
  18. Bradford, p. 45
  19. Bradford, pp. 47-48
  20. Bradford, pp. 48-49
  21. Bradford, pp 52-53
  22. 22.0 22.1 Bradford, p. 54
  23. Bradford, pp. 64-65
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Bradford, p. 65
  25. Bradford, p. 64
  26. Bradford, pp. 65-66
  27. Bradford, p. 66
  28. Bradford, pp. 70-71
  29. 29.0 29.1 Bradford, p. 57
  30. Bradford, p. 57-58
  31. Bradford, p. 58
  32. Bradford, pp. 58-59
  33. 33.0 33.1 Bradford, p. 59
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Bradford, p. 60
  35. Bradford, p. 61
  36. Bradford, p. 62-63
  37. Bradford, p. 63
  38. Bradford, p. 79
  39. Bradford, pp. 80-81
  40. Bradford, p. 83
  41. Bradford, p. 89
  42. 42.0 42.1 Bradford, p. 93
  43. Bradford, p. 94
  44. Bradford, pp. 94-95
  45. Bradford, pp 99-100
  46. Bradford, p. 117
  47. Bradford, pp. 120, 122
  48. Bradford, pp. 109-110
  49. Bradford, p. 111
  50. Bradford, p. 102
  51. Bradford, p. 114
  52. Bradford, pp. 106-107
  53. Bradford, p. 119
  54. Bradford, p. 120
  55. 55.0 55.1 Bradford, p. 123
  56. Bradford, pp. 123-124
  57. 57.0 57.1 Bradford, p. 124
  58. 58.0 58.1 58.2 Bradford, p. 125
  59. Bradford, pp. 125-126
  60. Bradford, p. 126
  61. Bradford, p. 127
  62. Bradford, p. 128
  63. Bradford, p. 138
  64. Swann, pp. 138, 141–142.

Further reading


  • Bradford, Richard H. The Virginius Affair (Boulder, Colorado: Colorado Associate University Press, 1980). ISBN 0-87081-080-4.
  • Soodalter, Ron (October–November 2009). "To The Brink In Cuba 1873". Military History. 26 (4): 62–67.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Swann, Leonard Alexander Jr. (1965): John Roach, Maritime Entrepreneur: the Years as Naval Contractor 1862–1886 — United States Naval Institute (reprinted 1980 by Ayer Publishing, ISBN 978-0-405-13078-6).
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links