How We Got Here: Narciso Lopez Dreams of Cuba

Throughout the spring of 1850, New Orleans and other southern ports bustled with activity. Two sailing vessels and two ships were purchased and outfitted; a force of about 500 armed men began organizing throughout the Mississippi Valley, awaiting signals to move. If asked, they claimed that they planned to visit California’s gold fields; few observers, however, were fooled. It was the Golden Age of Filibustering, and these men were the vanguard of a bold scheme to wrest Cuba from the Empire of Spain.   

These adventurers wore a curious uniform selected by their commander: a red flannel shirt modeled after Garibaldi’s Italian revolutionaries, and a black cloth cap adorned with a star cockade. (An historian dryly comments that along with this flamboyant attire, the filibusters wore “any sort of pants.”) They carried a newly designed red, white and blue Cuban flag with the Lone Star as their banner. Their force divided into three “divisions,” arranged by their home state Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Virtually all of the men hailed from the American South, as did most of their officers, seeking adventure, the creation of a slave-holding colony, or both. Their commander, however, was a quixotic Spaniard of decidedly mixed motives.

Narciso Lopez’s muddled life and motivations seem calculated to frustrate historians. Born in Venezuela to a Spanish landowner, he fought against Simon Bolivar’s South American rebels in the 1820s, served in the 1830s Carlist Wars (backing Maria Cristina’s claims to the throne against the French-backed Don Carlos) then, after marrying into the wealthy de Frias family, received assignment to Cuba. Lopez spent much of his time on the island building investments in the island’s coal and iron mines. As early as 1843 Lopez grew attracted to Cuban nationalism, partly from sincere idealism and partly because Spanish restrictions on trade prevented his businesses from making money. Unable to spark revolution, he fled to the United States and began intriguing from New York, already the headquarters for disaffected Cuban exiles.

Narciso Lopez

Lopez arrived just as America achieved its Manifest Destiny. From 1846 through 1848, the United States defeated Mexico and seized Texas, New Mexico and California, expanding the nation from sea to shining sea. With this new territory came excitement over the territory’s potential for exploitation (whetted further by the California Gold Rush), which in turn reignited sectional arguments over slavery. It also sent America’s expansionist impulses into overdrive. Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” seemed particularly enticing due to its strategic location, rich sugar and tobacco crops, and well-established slave culture.

Throughout the 1840s, James K. Polk made several offers to purchase Cuba from Spain, all of which failed. Which only led Americans, Southern Democrats in particular, to ponder military solutions. Lewis Cass, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1848, all but made annexation a party platform, saying that the Caribbean “must be practically an American lake.” Cass, however, was defeated by Zachary Taylor, a Whig with no stomach for further expansion. Thus Americans and adventurers like Lopez opted to take matters into their own hands, raising private armies in furtherance of imperial designs.

Filibustering had been commonplace in the Western Hemisphere since Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico without authorization in the 1510s. Americans, especially in the Republic’s early years when national boundaries remained fluid, found the temptation to adventure irresistible. There was Francisco de Miranda, whose schemes of South American empire titillated Americans as high-placed as Alexander Hamilton, who urged a joint Anglo-American expedition during the Quasi-War with France. And Aaron Burr, the disgraced Vice President and Hamilton’s killer, who joined a bizarre conspiracy to either declare the Mississippi Valley an independent nation or else to conquer Spanish territory. Other filibusters swarmed into Spanish Florida and Texas, Mexico and California, occasionally even Canada, rarely successful but always a menace for America’s neighbors and a threat to its foreign relations.

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John O’Sullivan

Many Southern Democrats, eager to expand the Slave Power, supported these filibusters, the scheme attracted attention, too, among America’s writing classes. John O’Sullivan, the journalist who coined the phrase Manifest Destiny, became deeply involved in many of these plots, visiting Havana to conspire with Cuban dissidents. “I speak on the authority,” he informed President Polk, “when I say that for the Island to pay a hundred or a hundred and fifty millions of dollars…would be a great relief from their present burthens under the Spanish colonial yoke.” O’Sullivan’s schemes were echoed more crudely by Moses Yale Beach, who argued that “Cuba by geographical positions necessity and right…must be ours.”  

Lopez waded into a murky field of conflicting ambitions: the Cuban nationalism of Jose Marti and later patriots hadn’t yet ripened into rebellion. Some Cubans genuinely wanted independence from Spain, chafing at economic inequality, slavery and Spain’s restrictive rule. Others, especially the island’s white and Creole planters, feared that any uprising would threaten slavery and their landholdings. Memories of Haiti’s violent slave revolt against French rule several decades remained fresh in everyone’s minds: “the fear of the negroes is worth an army of 100,000 men,” boasted a Spanish official. Thus, many Cuban nationalists preferred American annexation to independence, a goal which dovetailed neatly with Southern ambitions.

Regardless, Zachary Taylor, the Mexican War hero elected President in 1848, stood in the way. Himself a Southern slave owner, Taylor nonetheless felt allegiance to nation over section and recognized the menace posed by freebooting. Thus he threatened to prosecute filibusters under the Neutrality Act of 1794, which forbade organizing military forces on American soil. Such threats caused Lopez’s potential allies to grow more circumspect, threatening his scheme from the start. He abandoned a cautious group of Cuban nationalists in New York, the so-called Havana Club, and instead turned to Southern slave owners.

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Jefferson Davis

First, Lopez approached John Calhoun, South Carolina’s fiery, dogmatic defender of slavery, who expressed sympathy for his schemes but offered no material support. Next he asked Jefferson Davis, Senator from Mississippi, for assistance, offering a $100,000 payment and a coffee plantation on Cuba. Despite his public support for annexation and private contacts with Cuban emigres, Davis declined personal leadership, instead suggesting that Lopez approach another Southern soldier, Major Robert E. Lee. Lee also refused, expressing distaste for such foolish adventures. It wasn’t until Lopez found someone with dreams as expansive as his own that his dreams came into place.

John A. Quitman, Governor of Mississippi, was a cigar-chomping, bearded plantation owner, a Mexican War hero, an ardent advocate of the Slave Power and a zealous imperialist. He pondered his own expedition to Cuba before Lopez contacted him. The Spaniard told Quitman that “the people we ripe for revolution,” promising that Cubans would welcome American intervention. As Lopez paced the room, Quitman smoked thoughtfully on a cigar, admitting that “I am by nature a soldier. No other life charms me.” Hedging his bets, the Governor declined to take part in the initial invasion, but that he’d help organize the expedition and lead a second wave of invaders should Lopez’s initial landing prove successful.

With support from Quitman, John O’Sullivan and others, Lopez began outfitting his expedition. He culled from adventurers in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi and began drilling them for action. The Federal government managed to block two early attempts by Lopez to organize, but by May 1850 he finally prepared to move. Rather than attack Havana or Santiago, Lopez’s men would target Cardenas, a large city in western Cuba, for conquest, employing as a base of operations. Lopez would hold his ground until a nationalist uprising erupted, then he would march and bring freedom to the island.

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John A. Quitman (foreground) in Mexico

As the invasion approached, the air surrounding Lopez grew thick with pompous pronouncements. Lopez told his men “to strike from the beautiful limbs of the Queen of the Antilles the chains which have too long degraded her in subjection to a foreign tyranny” and compared the filibuster to Lafayette, Kosciusko and other Europeans who supported American independence. Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, the New Orleans lawyer commanding the Louisiana contingent, bested his commander’s florid absurdities. “The moment we organize, that moment we pass beyond the protection of our own government” and unveiled Lopez’s banner. “Liberators! Three cheers for the Cuban flag!”  

Lopez’s expedition landed on the night of May 18, attracting little notice until they marched into Cardenas at dawn. Two Mississippi companies converged on the town’s railroad station and seized it without resistance. All went well until Colonel O’Hara’s Kentuckians approached the barracks of the town’s small Spanish garrison. A sentry challenged the American who brashly answered, “Friends and Lopez!” The soldiers responded by shooting O’Hara and wounding several of his men. Major John Hawkins, O’Hara’s second-in-command, led the filibusters in an attack, receiving “incessant volleys poured from three immense iron-barred windows” which forced them back. Eventually, when Lopez arrived with reinforcements, the garrison withdrew towards the governor’s palace.

Meanwhile, Colonel Wheat misinterpreted the firing as a salute to Lopez, and led his Louisianans in a triumphant march into the town’s main plaza. The Spanish troops waiting there greeted the Americans with several volleys of lead, wounding Wheat and his aide-de-camp. “Louisianans! Your colonel is killed!” Wheat shouted, bleeding from a shoulder wound. “Go and avenge his death!” Wheat didn’t die that day (instead he perished, wearing Confederate gray, in the Battle of Gaines Mill twelve years later) but his men obliged anyway, attacking the Spaniards as they withdrew towards the palace. Lopez consolidated his forces and besieged the garrison, setting fire to the palace and preparing to storm inside when, in Richardson Hardy’s words, “the Spanish soldiers rushed out and threw down their arms.”

Battle of Cardenas


Though Lopez’s men were happy “to hear the grand roaring of musketry and rifles,” they had little chance to savor the victory. They captured Lieutenant Governor Ceruti and his staff, along with forty Mexican soldiers, and planted the Cuban flag over the Governor’s charred residence. Lopez entered the town on foot, mingling with the townspeople in an effort to win their support. He failed miserably, as the Cubans in Cardenas proved unanimously hostile to the freebooters. “The Cubans scarcely dared to speak,” Kentuckian Richardson Hardy complained. “They merely walked about, bowing and scraping to the red shirts.”

Without the expected uprising, Lopez’s prospects unraveled. His army was small in number, low on supplies and desperate for food. Quitman’s supposed reinforcements failed to arrive, forcing Lopez to abandon his march on Matanzas. By midday on the 19th he received word that 2,000 Spanish troops were massing to counterattack. His situation suddenly hopeless, Lopez ordered his men to abandon the city and re-board their ships. As they prepared to depart, a company of Spanish lancers arrived and clashed with a Kentuckian rearguard. “The lancers came thundering on in gallant style,” Hardy remarked, “but…no sooner had they come within range than horses and riders began to bite the dust in bloody confusion.”

The Kentuckians held the Spaniards long enough for Lopez to disembark his troops. Under fire from Spanish artillery, Lopez’s lead ship, the Creole, ran aground on the shoals off Cardenas, leaving the filibusters dangerously exposed. Lopez ordered the crew to abandon all heavy provisions, including most of their arms and ammunition. In extremis, about one hundred soldiers abandoned the ship and rowed to a nearby island. Finally, a rising tide lifted the Creole off the shoals and it finally escaped, rescuing their colleagues on the island before turning north. However, Lopez left five Americans stranded at Cardenas, all executed by Spanish firing squads.

Colonel Wheat

Incredibly, Lopez now contemplated another landing at Mantua, a port city further west. But circumstances rendered this impossible; Lopez’s troops bordered on mutiny after the debacle at Cardenas, and his officers couldn’t reach consensus on a plan of action. While this debate raged, the Spanish warship Pizarro arrived and spotted the Creole, chasing the filibusters across the Caribbean to Key West. The Spaniards drew so close to shore that Key West’s citizens expected bombardment by the Pizarro’s guns. But the Pizarro’s captain abandoned the pursuit and Lopez’s ship entered Key West, where “many a hat and handkerchief waved in welcome to her worn and weary passengers.”

Lopez’s force ignominiously dissolved upon arrival in the United States. Lopez himself was arrested in Savannah, Georgia. However, a sympathetic judge released Lopez, who acted like a returned conqueror rather than a failed adventurer. He addressed a huge group of Georgians from the City Hotel, explaining that “everything was gone from him but his undying love for his country, which would yield only with his life.” President Taylor’s agents attempted, but failed, to charge him, but he continued traveling through Mobile, New Orleans and other Southern cities, hoping for a return match against Cuba.

Still, Lopez proved more circumspect about a second expedition; he smarted from the betrayal of Governor Quitman, who was indicted for conspiracy (though acquitted) and resigned from office. He decided to await a genuine rebellion on Cuba before plunging ahead. In July 1851, a minor uprising at Puerto Principe (embellished by American newspapers into “her Lexington” and “the Battle on the Fourth of July”) offered the pretext. “Whether the struggle be a long or short one,” the New York Herald enthused, “will depend upon the aid and comfort the Cubans receive from the United States.”

William Crittenden

Lopez spent several months organizing a fresh army, assisted this time by Colonel William Crittenden, nephew of President Taylor’s Attorney General. This force was smaller (numbering approximately 400 men) and more cosmopolitan than his previous expedition, consisting not only of Southerners but Irish and German immigrants, European soldiers of fortune, Cuban patriots and even, this time, a contingent of Yankees from New York. This time, Lopez targeted the island’s southern port, landing at El Morrillo near Guantanamo, hoping to march into Cuba’s interior to join the expected rebellion.

Lopez returned to Cuba on August 12 in dramatic fashion; one of his officers, a Hungarian named Louis Schlesinger reporter that “the first thing the General did was to kneel and kiss the soil of his querida Cuba.” Leaving Crittenden behind with 120 men, Lopez led the remainder inland. Any pretense of glory vanished within hours; soldiers began straggling, the officers quarreled constantly (Lopez’s second-in-command, General Pragay, and an American threatened to shoot each other), and disease instantly began decimating their ranks (“they were certainly Catalan not Creole mosquitoes,” Schlesinger remarked). By the time they reached the mountain village at Las Pozas, they received even worse news: an entire regiment of Spanish troops, commanded by General Manuel Enna, landed at Bahia Honda and was already marching towards them.

At around 8:00 on August 13, the fighting commenced. Spanish riflemen who’d infiltrated Las Pozas ahead of the main column began picking off sentries; no sooner had Lopez’s men driven them away when Enna’s main column, nearly 800 men strong, arrived. A desperate two hour battle commenced, leaving Lopez’s men nominally victorious. It was, however, a Pyrrhic victory: Lopez lost 35 men killed or wounded, including three of his officers, and the already undisciplined army further unraveled. Many melted into the forest; several wounded men, fearing captured by the Spaniards, committed suicide.

Lopez Battle

Unable to locate Crittenden’s force (which had driven off a smaller Spanish column, only to become lost searching for Lopez) and with his own regiment preparing to dissolve, Lopez marched towards Bahia Honda, the village where General Enna initially landed. The filibusters found the town unoccupied and began preparing a sumptuous feast when dread news arrived. An additional 1,200 Spanish troops had landed nearby, bringing cavalry and artillery for them. Lopez’s chances of success, already diminished, disappeared.

Nonetheless, Lopez put up a brave front, lecturing his officers about courage and assuring his soldiers that a native uprising would assist their predicament. The remaining filibusters, with little choice but to continue, marched into the mountains, enduring rain, humid temperatures and continued onslaughts of mosquitos. Disease and desertion continued to whittle down Lopez’s force; others, exhausted and sick, abandoned their weapons and supplies on the mountainside. “Constant motion was the present policy of our situation,” Schlesinger recalled, “so as to baffle the efforts of the troops to attack us with their superior forces.”

The next battle came on August 17, as Lopez’s men encamped in a grove of mango trees near San Cristobal for lunch. Their meal was interrupted by a company of Spanish lancers, backed by infantry, who charged and scattered the rebels. Lopez rallied his troops in a nearby plantation house, exploiting the cover to inflict heavy casualties on their attackers. The victory, again, proved fleeting; Lopez’s forces were too exhausted to follow up and smash the attacking column, and again they withdrew.

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Lopez and friends

The dance of death continued for a week, with Lopez’s men lurching further into the mountains, pursued relentlessly by the Spanish. Their clothes and shoes disintegrated in the rain, melting alongside their morale; muskets fell apart and powder became useless, and the filibusters were forced to scavenge ill-fitting Spanish bullets and smash them into shape. Only forty of Lopez’s men retained their muskets for the duration of their campaign. The men subsisted on horse flesh and palm trees, further weakening them. The filibusters devolved into a shambling phalanx of waterlogged zombies, their glorious mission forgotten amidst their staggering for survival.

When the Spanish army finally pounced on August 23, the ending proved anticlimactic. General Enna’s forces lined a sloping plain, ambushing Lopez as his men staggered down from the mountain. The filibusters, exhausted beyond endurance, scattered without resistance, being shot, bayoneted or lanced as down as they fled. Fifteen men were killed instantly; others were captured and summarily executed; a relative handful, including Lopez, escaped into the forest. Colonel Crittenden’s column was long gone; having failed to locate Lopez, they attempted to flee Cuba on their own, only to be cornered by Spanish troops on the beach. The result was a bloodbath; most were killed on the spot, with a handful of survivors, including Crittenden, executed by firing squad in Havana.

After several days of hiding, Lopez was finally apprehended by Spanish troops on August 28. In a final mockery to his liberation fantasies, his capture came when Cuban peasants recognized Lopez and betrayed him to General Enna. Not a single native Cuban had joined his cause, nor did hoped-for reinforcements from the United States ever arrived. Instead, Lopez was marched in chains to Morro Castle in Havana harbor, where his captors ignored appeals for clemency and sentenced him to death.

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Lopez’s execution

On September 1st, before a crowd of four thousand onlookers, guards led Lopez to a metal chair for death by garrotting. Lopez prayed, then insisted on addressing the crowd. “I most solemnly, in this last awful moment of my life, ask your pardon for any injury I have caused you. It was not my wish to injure anyone, my object was your freedom and happiness.” A Spanish executioner interrupted Lopez, who, dismayed that his last, feeble burst of Cuban patriotism fell on deaf ears, resignedly slumped into the chair. The executioner tightened the screws until the metal collar strangled Lopez to death.

Lopez’s demise failed to discourage Cuban expansionists. President Franklin Pierce, who took office in 1853, proclaimed “the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection.” He appointed expansionists William H. Marcy and Jefferson Davis to his cabinet, offered diplomatic posts to John O’Sullivan, James Buchanan and Pierre Soule, and renewed efforts to obtain Cuba by force or purchase. Still, the humiliating release of the Ostend Manifesto (a compact among Buchanan and other diplomats vowing the annexation of Cuba) in 1854 dampened public enthusiasm. At any rate, Pierce’s administration soon became consumed with renewed sectional strife over slavery; his only acquisition was the Gadsden Purchase, a sliver of land along the Mexican border.

Meanwhile, filibusters continued apace. John Quitman organized another Cuban expedition in 1854, with the connivance of Pierce Administration officials, until the government withdrew its support at the last moment. Henry Crabb, a failed politician, led a party of California freebooters into Mexican Sonora three years later, having been promised land and mining rights to support a local rebellion. Betrayed by his benefactors, Crabb’s adventure ended with his followers massacred and his head pickled in a jar of mescal. Most successful was William Walker, an associate of Crabb, who launched several invasions of Nicaragua in the 1850s. He briefly established a private kingdom in that nation until he crossed railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who orchestrated Walker’s overthrow and death in 1860. 

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William Walker

Americans never lost their hunger for the Pearl of the Antilles. Nationalist revolts in the postwar years nearly inspired intervention, but it wasn’t until 1898 that America finally invaded. After a sanguinary guerrilla conflict replete with atrocities and concentration camps, the sinking of the USS Maine provided pretext for American intervention. A brief but dramatic conflict with Spain led to the “liberation” of Cuba, the island nominally gaining independence while sagging under American bayonets and boodle. Cuba remained an unwitting vassal to the United States, under an array of well-meaning but impotent democrats and corrupt, feckless despots, until Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959.

During the era of American suzerainty, Lopez became a martyr to Cuban freedom, with statues erected to him in Havana and other cities. Castro, viewing Lopez as an imperialist lackey, ordered these monuments destroyed, banishing the hapless filibuster to the dustbin of history. Today his legacy lives on in Cuba’s flag, virtually unchanged from Lopez’s design, a Cuban-American exile community still wishing to restore the old regime, and America’s continually fraught relationship with its neighbor ninety miles away.

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Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon: Charles H. Brown, Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters (1980); Tom Chaffin, Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba (1996); Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America (2002); Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971); and Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013).