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Spain and the American Civil War
By Wayne H. Bowen
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
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Chapter OnePrewar Tensions between Spain and the American South
The fifty years before the American Civil War saw increasing tensions between Spain and the United States, with conflicts over independence movements within the Spanish empire, expansionist ambitions among Southern US politicians, and other diplomatic and military crises. Spain was arguably the least popular foreign nation with most Americans and was associated negatively with what many viewed as the least attractive elements of the Old World: Catholicism, absolutism, upper-class privilege, and hidebound tradition. Almost from the beginning of the Hispano-US relationship, the United States adopted the English image of Spain, as a nation of "irreversible decadence" that was destined to lose its remaining colonies and influence to the younger, more vibrant, Protestant nations. Many Southerners, although supportive of the continued existence of slavery in Spain's colonies, looked greedily toward annexations while many Northerners and Midwesterners, exemplified by the Know-Nothing movement, held Spain as a Catholic power in great suspicion. While the Know-Nothings (officially known as the American Party) were more concerned with Irish and German Catholic immigrants, Spain was held in contempt by those who campaigned against "popery" and other Roman Catholic influences.
Spain, along with France, had played a significant role in helping the American rebels gain their independence during the American Revolution, in order to gain territory (or, in the case of Gibraltar and Minorca, regain it) at the expense of the British. The collaboration did not endure for very long beyond the British surrender in 1781 and the forming of the new US government. Almost before the end of the American Revolution, it was clear that Spain and the new republic would be hemispheric competitors. Unlike France, which after the sale of the Louisiana Territory directed its attentions away from the Americas (at least until the reign of Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, began in 1848), Spain remained focused on its territories in the Western hemisphere. In Spain, as in France, however, there were concerns in the years leading to the American Civil War that there could be division of the United States, a potential hazard that could also provide opportunities for the European states to counteract the rising power of the young republic. Two American states could also pose unanticipated threats, so the coming of this expected war in 1861 was not seen as an unmitigated blessing.
Spanish possession of Florida, the Louisiana Territory, and Cuba, confirmed in 1783 with the general peace settlement, set it on the road to conflicts with the American republic, once the new state began to expand to the South and West from its original thirteen colonies. Collaboration against the British and alliance with France were not common enough interests to bind Spain and the new United States, two very disparate nations, together much past the signing of the Treaty of Paris. There was not to be open warfare between Spain and the United States of America until 1898, but neither were there extended periods of peace and comity. "From the start of the North American Revolutionary War in the 1770s, until the consolidation of constitutional democracy in post-Franco Spain during the 1970s, the pattern of relations between Spain and the United States could be described as consisting of long periods of disinterest and estrangement, interrupted by short bursts of mutual interaction, usually of an adversarial nature." Historian Rodrigo Botero's description of these ties certainly applies to the decades immediately prior to the American Civil War. Although the US and Spanish governments did not engage in direct warfare, their citizens did, not only during the campaigns for independence by the people of Latin America but also in a series of private invasions of Cuba tolerated by the United States—the filibustering movement.
By the 1820s, diplomatic relations between Spain and the United States were characterized by mistrust, suspicion, and antipathy. Spain feared US efforts to dominate Latin America and seize Spain's remaining colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the United States disliked what were perceived as Spanish despotism and Catholicism. Cuba was the most significant area of conflict between the United States and Spain and "dominated Spanish-American relations between the 1820s and the end of the century." From the 1790s to the late 1830s, US interests in Cuba were primarily economic, although Spain's fears that the United States wanted the island prevented a commercial treaty. Offers by the United States to buy the island, beginning in the 1840s, were offensive to Madrid, which consistently refused to negotiate on the issue. For Spaniards who had lost most of their overseas colonies to rebellions supported by the United States, Cuba was the prime evidence that Spain remained an empire. At least equal to its moral and emotional significance, then, Cuba was also the essential remaining underpinning of the empire. Cuba was essential to Spain, providing funds to support the other colonies, to pay salaries of "an army of bureaucrats," and to cover Spain's national deficit. Without Cuba, it would be impossible to retain Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, not to mention even consider adding territory in North Africa and elsewhere.
Spain and the United States clashed during the early nineteenth century over the independence movements in Spain's colonies, which the United States supported. US ambitions to control Florida, which included frequent incursions in the early 1800s to fight Indians, were met with Spanish hostility. In the face of continued US demands and intervention, as well as Spain's inability to defend its colony, in 1819 the United States pressured the Spanish to sign the infamous Adams-Onís Treaty. This agreement transformed Florida into a US territory in exchange for token diplomatic concessions. In return the United States promised to respect the western and southern borders with Spain's Mexican colony, a promise neglected during the Mexican War, when in fact Spain no longer controlled Mexico. Although the annexation of Florida weakened the presence of the Spanish on the North American continent and therefore averted potential military and political confrontations, it did not end the tensions that predated even the founding of the United States. Aside from the brief period of collaboration during the American Revolution, when Spain and the American colonists saw their interests align briefly in opposition to the United Kingdom, the two nations were at best neutral to each other, but more often at odds over territory in the Americas, borders, cultural values, and social systems.
Continued Spanish occupation of Cuba, so close to the United States, was also a contentious issue, and at the forefront of confrontations between the two nations. Tolerance within the United States for the organization of private invasion forces—known as "filibusters," and formed to encourage an anti-Spanish uprising in Cuba—was another difficult issue in diplomatic relations. While the US federal government took some steps to prevent these groups from attacking Cuba, Southern politicians including governors, senators, and congressmen provided open endorsements and material aid to these groups, some of which reached Cuba with volunteers, weapons, and calls to arms for the local population, which they hoped would rise against Spanish occupation. Many Southern politicians felt somewhat conflicted over Spain and Cuba. Preferring to annex Cuba as a slave state or states, they still preferred that it remain under Spanish control if seizure or purchase by the United State meant abolition; in this case, sectional and economic interests outweighed nationalism or patriotism in favor of the United States of America. Better Spanish if slave, than American if free, ran this logic.
During the Latin American Wars for Independence, which began soon after the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in 1808, the United States openly supported the new republics. During the decade that followed Napoleon's defeat in 1815, as Spain under the absolutist king Ferdinand VII tried unsuccessfully to reclaim its lost colonies, the United States made no secret of its enthusiasm for Simón Bolivar, José de San Martín, and other leaders of Latin American independence. The issuing of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared the hemisphere off-limits to renewed European imperialism, was aimed most especially at Spain, the country most open in its efforts to control American territory.
The 1830s and 1840s, after the failure of Spain's efforts to recapture its lost terrain, saw the economic and political rise of the United States at the same time as Spain endured the Carlist civil wars and other elements of internal political and economic instability. US ambitions to achieve its "Manifest Destiny," of a transoceanic state, led to the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War that followed in 1846. The US promise to respect the border with Mexico, as pledged in the Adams-Onís Treaty, was not extended to sovereign Mexico. Not just Texas, but what would later become the territories and then states of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, and parts of Nevada and Wyoming came under the control of the United States of America. Spain, despite its own efforts to keep Mexico as its own colony in the 1820s, was outraged at what it considered blatant American aggression against Mexico. Spain supported Mexico in the Mexican-American War, arguing internationally that Mexico was the aggrieved party, although fears that the United States would use any provocation to seize Cuba meant Madrid was unable to provide material support. Even though Spain was unable to lend any direct military aid to Mexico (aid that in any case might not have been accepted), the permanent cession of almost half of Mexico to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) was seen in Spain as one more Yankee outrage against Spain's former imperial sphere of influence.
While during the Mexican-American War Spain had offered to mediate between the two belligerents, its sympathies had clearly been with Mexico. Spain's preference was for Mexico either to return to Spanish control, to become an independent monarchy, or to become a protectorate of another European state. Only in this way, the Spanish government believed, would the unstable nation have a chance to resist US territorial encroachment. Some Spaniards feared that all of Mexico might be annexed by the United States. Despite having withdrawn as the colonial power in 1821 (although it did not recognize Mexican independence until 1836), Spain remained heavily invested in the Mexican economy, with extensive trade between Cuba and the Mexican port of Vera Cruz significant to both nations. During the war, the US Navy seized several Spanish ships for alleged smuggling. After the conflict, the United States refused to consider compensation for these seizures, which exacerbated feelings that already tense. Having been unable to prevent war between the United States and Mexico, Spain was relieved in 1848 that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at least preserved Mexico as independent, albeit greatly truncated by the loss of its northwestern provinces.
US and Spanish interests did converge over the issue of slavery, as Spain's colony of Cuba maintained its slave economy in the midst of a global effort by the United Kingdom to promote abolitionism in the 1840s. Along with Cuba, Brazil, the American South, and the Republic of Texas were the primary holdouts against this British campaign. President John Tyler made the defense of slavery in the United States a primary goal of his administration and foreign policy. He and his allies expressed their "ideological sympathy for Cuba and Brazil" and attempted to forestall successful emancipation there or anywhere slavery still prevailed.
Spain did manage to retain its sovereignty over Cuba and Puerto Rico, however, a fact noticed by many American, especially Southern American, politicians. Many senators and congressmen wanted to annex Cuba, the "Pearl of the Antilles," but a higher priority was to prevent it from becoming a British colony or otherwise ending the practice of slavery there. Maintaining slavery on the island of Cuba was more important to most pro-slavery politicians than the actual ownership of the territory. Whether it was to be independent, controlled by Spain, or annexed to the United States as one or several states (four states was a common proposal), the fundamental necessity was to preserve the institution of slavery in Cuba. Should emancipation come to Cuba, it would inexorably move to the United States, following this early version of the domino theory. Absent successful abolition in Cuba, there would be less vulnerability for Southern slavery. Fears that Spain would lose control of Cuba to the British, who would allow the island to become "a black military republic" along the lines of Haiti, were pervasive. Even more frightening was the possibility that Mexico and Britain would cooperate to bring emancipation to the Republic of Texas, independent from Mexico since 1836. Emancipated slaves in Texas could then allow it to become a haven for escaped slaves as well as a base for future black rebellions in Southern states and Cuba. While the same fears applied to Brazil, its distance from the United States reduced the imminence of that threat as did its independence and larger size. The 1845 annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States did diminish some fears of a successful British campaign for emancipation in the entire hemisphere, but Cuba remained a proximate and serious concern in the minds of many interested in defending slavery in the American South.
Cuba was very important to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, and by itself was America's third most important trading partner after the British and French. Even more than its trade significance was its role as a slave economy, in a hemisphere where abolitionism and emancipation appeared to be gaining traction. Although many US politicians wanted to gain control of Cuba, and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico, until this happened they preferred both colonies to remain in weak Spanish hands rather than become independent or the territory of Britain or France. With continued control by Spain, there was an expectation that slavery would continue. Independent, many feared Cuba would become another Haiti, with a slave revolt and massacres of white landowners. As a British colony, there was no doubt that emancipation would follow immediately after the arrival of the Union Jack, thus adding momentum to the abolition of slavery in the United States. By the 1840s, the United States was committed to using force to keep Cuba and Puerto Rico under Spanish control, with slavery and open ports to the United States, unless both could be purchased or otherwise acquired from Spain. This policy angered Britain, which had its own designs on the Caribbean and which supported abolitionism, even to the point of encouraging slave revolts. Until the mid-1840s, Britain and France were willing to offer a security guarantee to ensure Spanish control over Cuba for Spain, but Spain for reasons of national pride rejected these offers. Later, during the 1850s, when Spain asked for this guarantee, Britain and France had become reluctant. Both feared conflict with the increasingly powerful United States, after the Mexican-American War showed its strength and greatly expanded its territory, population, and resources.
Southern politicians made no secret of their ambition to annex Cuba as a slave state and, given the ongoing failure of diplomatic means to gain the island, mounted several military expeditions to achieve that end. The drive for the annexation of Cuba was wildly popular in the South and accelerated after Texas joined the United States, giving rise to local efforts across the region to organize armed units to cross the Caribbean and spark an anti-Spanish uprising. Secret societies and public organizations formed in major cities, and the idea gained traction among Southern congressmen and senators, especially in the aftermath of the successful Mexican War. The most notorious annexationist campaign was the August 1851 invasion of Cuba by Narciso López, a Venezuelan adventurer, and almost four hundred volunteers, supported by Southern US "filibusters." While most of López's supporters were Southerners, he also was able to generate some enthusiasm and funds from Northern commercial interests and believers in Manifest Destiny. While his goal was to annex Cuba to the United States and maintain slavery, joining Cuba to the United States was not only endorsed by those who supported slavery. Despite the enthusiasm with which it was launched, the operation had failed by early September. López was captured, his landing party was imprisoned or executed, and hostility revived between the United States and Spain. The Spanish government and its colonial administrators blamed Washington for allowing the expedition to raise money, train volunteers, and equip itself in Southern ports.
Excerpted from Spain and the American Civil War by Wayne H. Bowen Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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