John J. Crittenden and Narciso López’s 1851 Expedition to Cuba

The first page of Crittenden's letter to Taylor. Taylor-Cannon Family Papers.

I have had a long-standing interest in American filibustering expeditions to the Caribbean and Latin America during the 1850s, and to my delight, I recently stumbled across a letter from Kentucky governor, U.S. Senator and Representative, and cabinet member John J. Crittenden, then serving as U.S. Attorney General, discussing the aftermath of Narciso López's failed 1851 expedition to Cuba.  In August 1851, López and his army of approximately 450 Americans and Cuban exiles landed in Cuba with the intention of liberating it from Spanish control.  Instead, they met almost immediate defeat.  The Spanish forces on the island killed hundreds of López's men and captured the rest.  The fate of the prisoners looked dire, as the Spanish executed 50 of the filibusters in mid-August and had sentenced the rest to hard labor in mines in Spain.  López himself was captured and executed at the beginning of September.  In New Orleans, Americans ransacked the Spanish consul in protest.  Yet, Crittenden, with his insider knowledge of U.S.-Spanish negotiations, had reason to be optimistic.  On October 5, 1851, Crittenden, whose nephew had been one of those executed, wrote to Edmund H. Taylor of Frankfort, Kentucky, discussing the expected outcome of the expedition:

There seems to be no doubt entertained here but that the Queen of Spain will very soon pardon all the survivors of the Lopes [sic] expedition, & our Government is doing all it can to promote that merciful end to that fatal expedition.  The President is full of solicitude & sympathy for the poor captives, and I as temporary Secty. of State, am his most willing instrument in recommending & urging upon Spain every plea for clemency & pardon.

Our Consul at Havana has been written to, again and again, to do all that can be done in favor of any of the expedition who may survive in Cuba.  The Government here has omitted nothing in its power, that could contribute to release & save them.  The conduct of the President on the occasion deserves all praise.

Crittenden's assertions were correct.  Although the Spanish transported the prisoners back to Spain, Queen Isabella II pardoned them shortly after their arrival.

Filson Historical

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