Since 1868, Cuban rebels had been fighting for independence from Spain
guerrilla war which would last until 1878. Many Americans sympathized with
the Cubans, and a few fought alongside them as mercenary soldiers. The
Virginius was a ship captained by Joseph Fry, an American soldier of
fortune, which was used in an attempt to smuggle arms to Cuban rebels. It
sailed fraudulently under the neutral American flag and carried counterfeit
On October 31, 1873, the Virginius was captured by Spanish officials in
international waters, and 36 crew members and 15 passengers, including
several American citizens and British subjects, were executed. The story
made headline news in the United States, with commentators calling for the
administration of Ulysses S. Grant to take swift action. Rumors circulated
widely, and large crowds at public meetings across America called for war.
Secretary of State Hamilton Fish directed Daniel Sickles, the U.S. minister
Spain, to demand restitution from the Spanish government, and to close the
embassy and leave the country if Spain did not meet the demand within 12
days. Sickles delayed his departure by one day, and on November 27, 1873,
Spain agreed to release the ship and its survivors. In 1875, Spain paid an
indemnity of $80,000 to the United States and made a similar payment to
In this Harper's Weekly cartoon, Spanish president Emilio Castelar forces
General Joaquin Jovellar, the chief Spanish military official in Cuba, at gun
point to return the Virginius to American authorities. The general stares
fearfully into the skull-emblazoned barrel of a cannon etched paradoxically
with "Let Us Have Peace," the slogan of Grant's 1868 presidential campaign.
On board the massive American vessel are (left to right): Secretary of State
Fish, President Grant, and Navy Secretary George Robeson.
Although American tempers were inflamed, there did not seem to have been
deep and lasting desire for war during the Virginius Affair. One reason was
that the Spanish monarchy had briefly given way to a struggling republic
(September 1873 - January 1874), with which Americans could identify.
Another was that Americans became distracted by an economic panic which
the United States was experiencing at the time. Perhaps most important,
though, was the war-weariness still evident in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Such would not be the case two decades later. In 1895, another war for
Cuban independence began, leading to the Spanish-American War of 1898
and the subsequent establishment of an American protectorate in Cuba.