Around the Moro's grim façade
The soul of Lopez wanders
And Crittendena glorious shade!
Beside him walks and ponders.
O, God of Peace! that such as these,
Like dogs, should be garotted
Choked out of life by Spanish beasts,
Fierce, bloody and besotted.
Democratic Review, December 1854
Were one to trace American filibustering to the date that the term came first into use, then it started either in 1850 or in 1851. Still fumbling as late as 1849 for the right label to pin on private military expeditions, U.S. citizens employed a variety of phrases including "Aaron Burr scheme" and "buffalo hunt," none of which gained lasting currency. The Venezuelan native Narciso López's attempts to overthrow Spanish rule of Cuba in May 1850 and again in August 1851, however, jolted Americans into refining their terminology.
In both instances, López landed on the island with hundreds of men whom he had recruited in the United States. Spanish troops repulsed his 1850 expeditionary force shortly after its arrival on the steamer Creole at Cárdenas on Cuba's northern coast. López's army occupied the Cárdenas railroad station and captured the town's military garrison, but absorbed over fifty casualties in one day of fighting. Forced to reembark and flee to the United States when Spanish reinforcements precluded his intended advance toward Matanzas (and, ultimately, Havana) and threatened to trap him, López was lucky to escape alive. The Creole reached Key West, Florida, barely ahead of a pursuing Spanish warship.
López would not be so fortunate the next year, after his forces came on shore at a tiny coastal village about sixty miles west of Havana. Within three weeks, Spanish troops crushed the invaders, killing many of them in battle, capturing survivors, and then executing some of the prisoners. Colonel William Crittenden, the nephew of U.S. attorney general John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, and fifty of his men were shot by a firing squad on August 17. On September 1, Spanish officials had López garroted on a plaza of the Puntaa small fort on the western shore of Havana's well-protected harbor entrance, roughly opposite one of the island's best-known landmarks, a larger fortification known to Americans as Morro Castle.
According to reports reaching American newspapers, huge audiences of onlookers cheered during the executions of the invaders. Some accounts described spectators as mutilating the bodies of Crittenden and his men after their deaths. One State Department informant in Havana even claimed that the Crittenden party's executioners had shot to maim rather than kill, and that the knife-wielding mob had taken the responsibility of finishing the men off.
Although these expeditions occurred during a national crisis over slavery in California and other issues that threatened to destroy the Union, Americans found their attention drawn to López's daring endeavors. In rapt, often horrified fascination, Americans waited impatiently for reliable accounts of his fate. In one of his several diary entries about the invaders, for instance, the New York lawyer George Templeton Strong remarked, "No certain news yet about Lopez and his gang." Similarly, on the very day that López was executed, U.S. Senator Sam Houston of Texas expressed frustration that no news had arrived from Cuba, telling a correspondent that he feared disaster. Even Senator Henry Clay, then at the middle of efforts to find a legislative solution to save the Union, could hardly overlook the Cuban business. His son, serving as U.S. chargé d'affaires in Portugal at the time of López's first foray, alerted him that "news of the Cuba invasion" was causing a "sensation" in Lisbon. By that time, Clay had already implored the Senate not to be "diverted" from the "grave" California question by the Cuban matter.
Once reliable information actually arrived, Americans became so transfixed by the story in Cuba that they sometimes relegated to secondary importance the sectional crisis and the "Compromise of 1850" that temporarily resolved the difficulty. "The Cuban invasion is now the only staple of home news," an observer in New Orleans maintained shortly after the failure of López's 1850 attempt. "How the recent Cuban Excitement has overlaid all other subjects," observed another Southerner during the López frenzy. Clay, meanwhile, worried that disunionists would use Cuban affairs to obscure their own intentions.
Few Americans kept closer watch on the filibusters than did U.S. government officials, as the invasions seriously endangered U.S. relations with Spain and other European powers. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his journal that telegrams from Savannah were reaching President Millard Fillmore "every hour" with "news of the Cuban invaders." Fillmore's second annual message to Congress, submitted in December 1851, gave approximately twice as much attention to the Cuban invasions as to the North-South crisis over slavery.
In seeking a term that would characterize not only López's expeditions but also other invasion plots, Americans fastened on filibustera modification of the French word flibustier and the Spanish filibustero, which were themselves derivatives of an old Dutch term for freebooter. Thus, when hearing about López's execution, Strong exclaimed, "If this little band of militant philanthropists and self-consecrated missionaries of Republican scum has been exterminated, it will be long before filibusterism recovers from the shock." Anticipating the same fate for adventurers invading Mexico, the correspondent of a New Orleans newspaper in Rio Grande City, Texas, observed that such "filibusters" might want to give confession to a priest at Mexican army headquarters on the border.
The term filibustering entered circulation so suddenly that in September 1851 a religious journal in Boston actually took note of its advent, cautioning to no effect that this "vulgarism" might become accepted language if the press kept utilizing it. But rather than discard the word, commentators started exploring its etymological links to possible sources such as Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain, flibot (Spanish for a light boat), and other conceivable forerunners. Soon the term became so salient in everyday American speech and text that Harper's New Monthly Magazine could pronounce that filibustering was destined to "occupy an important place in our vocabulary."
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Dating U.S. filibustering from the coining of the word, however, would be misleading, since filibustering expeditions occurred during the earliest years of the Republic. In fact, the first federal impeachment trial in U.S. history hinged on William Blount's filibustering plot during John Adams's administration. In July 1797, Blount, one of Tennessee's first two U.S. senators, drew an impeachment charge by the U.S. House of Representatives after the administration received correspondence indicating that he was planning to invade territory beyond U.S. boundaries. Though unable to refute the evidence, Blount (and his counsels) contended that Senate members were not impeachable civil officers, and he escaped conviction when the Senate passed a resolution that it lacked authority over his case.
Most of the early Republic's pioneering filibusters including Blount chose as their destinations neighboring Spanish colonies in North Americaespecially New Spain's provinces of East and West Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. However, in 1806 Francisco de Miranda targeted Spanish holdings further south. That year, he led some two hundred recruits on an expedition from New York port to his native Venezuela. Some adventurers, moreover, looked northward to British Canada. The Vermonter Ira Allen turned up in Paris in 1796, seeking arms and the collaboration of French expeditionary troops for an invasion that would liberate Canada and convert it into an independent democratic republic called United Columbia. Allen's New Englanders would march northward from Missisquoi Bay on Lake Champlain while French forces attacked Quebec by an invasion up the St. Lawrence River. Allen's plot collapsed after a British warship intercepted his shipment of 15,000 muskets and 21 cannon back across the Atlantic. Still, he spent years trying to revive his filibuster, and submitted revised plans to unreceptive French officials as late as December 1799.
Little mystery attaches to the filibusters' concentration on Spain's North American provinces. Nearby Americans held long-standing grievances against Spanish officials. Spain's authorities closed the lower Mississippi River Valley to U.S. trade between 1784 and 1788, and they imposed tariffs on American imports and exports through New Orleans between 1788 and 1795. After the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo ("Pinckney's Treaty") of 1795, the governor of West Florida required nearly prohibitive 12 percent duties from Americans shipping goods via the Mobile River. Borderlands Americans also resented Spain's failure to resolve disputed land claims in the area, and they accused Spanish authorities of instigating Indian attacks against them. Most important, Spain's North American holdings, particularly the Floridas, seemed to lack enough troops and loyal subjects to repel American invasions.
Spanish habitations in turn-of-the-century East Florida barely extended beyond a corridor of land in the northeastern corner of today's state of Florida. Pensacola, the capital of West Florida, represented the only sizable Spanish settlement on the peninsula's Gulf side. Although both provinces, and Louisiana, fell under the administrative authority of the captains general of Cuba, they never received sufficient garrisons to deter filibustering. Spanish troops in all East Florida at the time of one American filibuster totaled a mere 408 men. Nowhere in North America did Spanish officials maintain a regular schedule of border patrols.
Conditions became especially ripe for filibusters after revolution broke out throughout Spain's colonial empire in the Americas. Between 1810 and 1824, rebellions overthrew Spanish authority everywhere in the Western Hemisphere except for Cuba and Puerto Rico. The revolts occurred after the invasion of Spain in 1808 by the armies of Napoleon Bonapartean invasion that brought years of turmoil to Spain and distracted Spanish authorities from colonial affairs across the Atlantic. Capitalizing on this opportunity, U.S. filibusters converged on Spanish domains, frequently as affiliates of Latin American revolutionaries. The U.S. army officer Augustus W. Magee, for example, in 1812 led the vanguard of the Mexican insurgent José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara's Republican Army of the North across the Sabine River into Texas. Americans who filibustered with the Scotsman Gregor McGregor and "Commodore" Luis-Michel Aury to Amelia Island in East Florida in 1817 likewise joined leaders who claimed revolutionary credentials.
Some early U.S. filibusters hoped to annex liberated colonies to their own country. James Long's unsuccessful 1819 expedition to Texas, organized primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana, grew out of southwestern irritation at news of the recently negotiated Adams-Onís Treaty between the United States and Spain, which, though it acquired Florida, surrendered American claims to Texas. George Mathews, one of the most elderly filibusters in U.S. history, similarly had expansionist intentions.
Mathews's escapade began as a collaboration with President James Madison on the eve of the War of 1812. Worried that Spain, allied with Great Britain against Napoleon in Europe, might cede its remaining holdings in Florida to Great Britain, a far stronger military power, the president asked Congress to authorize a temporary U.S. occupation of any part of Florida designated for such a transfer. Congress in January 1811 granted Madison's request. Later that month Mathews, a former governor of Georgia then seventy-two years of age, received an appointment from the Department of State as one of two commissioners empowered to investigate conditions in East Florida: the commissioners could negotiate East Florida's annexation to the United States should the Spanish provincial governor be receptive; they could occupy the province, with the assistance of U.S. ground and naval forces, if they found that Spain was ceding it to Britain.
Mathews discovered no willingness on the part of Spanish officials to treat for Florida's cession to the United States; nor did he uncover evidence of a pending cession to Britain. But rather than give up his mission, Mathews converted it into a filibuster. Commanding a mixed force of borderland Georgians, Americans residing in Florida, and even a few of Florida's Spaniards, Mathews and his filibusters, in a campaign beginning in March 1812, captured Fernandina on Amelia Island, took other settlements in northern East Florida, and besieged the capital of St. Augustine. Meanwhile, Mathews established a puppet government for East Florida whose sole purpose was to cede itselfthat is, the entire province of East Floridato Mathews as an agent of the U.S. government. What had been effected by arms, in other words, could be presented to world opinion as peaceful annexation: a willing people (the inhabitants of the new "Republic of Florida"), according to a draft treaty that Mathews forwarded to the Department of State on March 21, voluntarily chose to cast their lot as a territory in the American Union!
As with later expeditions, volunteers in these first U.S. filibusters did not necessarily follow the same sirens as their commanders. Recruiters realized that it took promises of land, good pay, pensions, political appointments, and other rewards to convince men to serve in such dangerous affairs. Then, too, some filibusters hoped to strike it rich from privateering or smuggling operations connected to their expeditions. The adventurers who in 1816-17 captured Galveston and Fernandina, previously centers of privateering, smuggling, and even piracy, continued such endeavors after their takeoversall in the name, supposedly, of the Latin American revolutions.
* * *
Whatever their intentions, U.S. filibusters engaged in criminal behavior. Private military expeditions in peacetime naturally risk retaliatory attacks by invaded countries. Responding to the danger that filibusters might draw nations into unnecessary wars, theorists of international law, long before the American Revolution, established the principle that sovereign states must stop persons from using their jurisdictions to mount expeditions against the territory of countries with which their own nations are at peace.
America's founding fathers (many of them lawyers by profession) had versed themselves in the Swiss author Emmerich de Vattel's The Law of Nations (1758) as well as the tracts of Hugo Grotius and other codifiers of international law, and had followed its precepts about private military invasions. Although no supranational organization then existed to rule on or enforce international law, it made sense for early American leaders to outlaw filibustering, not only because of their intentions to found a country based on law, but also because they were sensitive to their new nation's relatively limited military power. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution empowered Congress to penalize "Offenses against the Law of Nations." Under this mandate, the nation's lawmakers responded with "neutrality" enactments in 1794, 1797, 1800, 1807, 1817, 1818, and 1838 to repress filibustering expeditions and other infringements of international law.
The Neutrality Law of 1818, which superseded all previous legislation, became the bane of American filibusters. Its Article 6 provided for the imprisonment to a maximum of three years and fines of as much as three thousand dollars (a far more considerable sum then than today) for persons who, within U.S. jurisdiction, began or aided "any military expedition or enterprise . . . against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district, or people, with whom the United States are at peace."
Despite this legislation, it would be a mistake to assume that American leaders, many of them avid territorial expansionists, shared an unwavering commitment to eradicate private expeditions. To be sure, one can cite instances aplenty when federal officials intervened against filibusters. Most early U.S. presidents issued proclamations against filibustering activities. Cabinet members summoned governors, district attorneys, marshals, and military officers to interdict pending expeditions, and even tipped off Spanish officials about filibuster movements so that defensive military preparations might be made in targeted colonies. From time to time, federal authorities prosecuted filibusters for violating the neutrality laws. Yet there were occasions when federal authorities found it convenient to overlook, or even assist, filibuster plots in the expectation that they might eventuate in U.S. territorial growth.
No filibuster of the early Republic benefited more from federal complicity than did the East Florida invader George Mathews, from Georgia. His Patriots capitalized on the cooperation of U.S. army and naval officers even though those very officers were unsure whether the Madison administration expected them to provide Mathews with direct military support. Fernandina might never have surrendered to Mathews's forces had not the gunboats of Commodore Hugh Campbell of the U.S. Navy aimed their artillery at the town. Subsequently, U.S. army troops occupied Picolata, a Spanish settlement on the St. John's River, on Mathews's' behalf, and participated, along with U.S. naval forces, in the filibusters' siege of St. Augustineeven fighting a bloodless engagement against its defenders.
Though in April 1812 the Madison administration disavowed the invaders on the rationale that Mathews had violated his instructions, U.S. troops persisted in East Florida as late as the spring of 1813. For some time, a U.S. marine captain governed Fernandina, imposing taxes, establishing closing times for grog shops, and making other administrative decisions, all under the fiction that Mathews had the authority to accept the cession by the Patriots of East Florida to the United States. Further, between November 1812 and February 1813, the Madison administration mobilized regular, volunteer, and militia troops on the Georgia-Florida frontier, in the expectation of following up Mathews's initiative with a full-scale campaign to conquer all of Spanish Florida. The cancellation of this plan because of congressional opposition, and the final disintegration of Mathews's' movement in 1814, should not obscure the considerable aid previously rendered the filibusters by the U.S. government.
Besides, just a few years later, the U.S. government capitalized on Luis-Michel Aury's filibuster to get permanent possession of Amelia Island. On the pretext that Aury's privateering risked dragging the United States into disputes with foreign countries, the Monroe administration in 1817 directed U.S. army and naval officers to seize the island. Federal forces held possession from their late December takeover (which the filibusters only resisted verbally) until 1821, when the island became part of the American domain by virtue of ratification of the Adams-Onís Treaty. Ironically, Spanish leaders might have approved Florida's transfer earlier, had they not been irritated by apparently unfounded reports that the Monroe administration had sponsored James Long's filibuster into Texas two years earlier.
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With Latin American independence assured by the mid-1820s, U.S. filibustering entered a period of dormancy, only to revive in the mid-1830s when new revolutionary stirrings erupted in adjacent lands. The Texas Revolution of 1835 began as an uprising against Mexican rule by Anglos and some Tejanos already living in Mexico's state of Texas-Coahuila. However, so many private American military companies hastened to Texas, once word of the uprising arrived in the United States, that the Texas Revolution became transformed into the most successful filibuster in American history. More than three of every four soldiers in Texan rebel armies from January to March 1836 crossed the border after October 1835. A second wave of American expeditionists, including the Mississippi militia officer and recent governor John A. Quitman, set out for Texas starting in April 1836 in reaction to news that Mexican commanders had executed rebels who surrendered at the Alamo and Goliad, instead of treating them as prisoners of war.
After chairing a meeting in his hometown of Natchez that passed resolutions to avenge the Alamo, Quitman declared that he would lead men to Texas within days, and that persons wishing to go should show up at the appointed time with a mount, a shoulder arm, and pistols. Quitman and some seventeen followers left Natchez on April 5 amid considerable fanfare and crossed the Sabine River into Texas on April 9. By April 12, the little party was deploying at Nacogdoches, which Quitman heard was in danger of attack from a 3,000-man force of Mexicans and allied Indians. "Each of my Natchez boys swears he is good for ten Mexicans," Quitman noted proudly in his journal that day. "If I must die early, let me die with these brave fellows and for such a cause." It simply is hard to imagine the Texans winning and then maintaining their independence without the assistance of such volunteer companies from the United States.
President Andrew Jackson went through the motions of trying to stop the filibusters. He announced in his December 1835 message to Congress that he opposed the expeditionists, and he had cabinet members put U.S. district attorneys and army officers on alert to halt the exodus of volunteers. However, federal border authorities, probably because they favored the rebels, perhaps because they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of lawbreakers, allowed the crossings to proceed virtually unmolested, and Jackson never intervened to reverse these lapses. Quitman, who skirted around one U.S. army garrison on his way west rather than test the government's will, nonetheless assumed that government authorities were on the filibusters' side. "There is no necessity for 'bearding the lion in his den,' and incurring risk of detention," he mused, "though I doubt not the officers sympathize with us." By his leniency, Old Hickory set a precedent of presidential impotence against filibustering that would be remembered. "[P]erhaps the President did not mean any more than Genl Jackson did by his Proclamation against the volunteers in Texas," a filibuster suggested almost twenty years later, as his associates went ahead with planning an invasion of Cuba despite Franklin Pierce's recent proclamation against illegal expeditions.
Filibusters likewise played a conspicuous role in the Patriot uprisings that broke out in the provinces of Lower and Upper Canada (today, Quebec and Ontario) during 1837, though with noticeably less success. Americans started filibustering into the Canadas when the revolutionaries, after military setbacks, fled to Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Burlington, and other points across the U.S. boundary. Enticed into joining the Patriots by promises of Canadian land, silver dollars, and other rewards, hundreds (and eventually several thousands) of borderlands residents, many of them insecure, young laborers dependent on seasonal employment, went off fighting for Canadian freedom.
In December 1837 Rensselaer Van Rensselaer of Albany, New York, the son of a general in the War of 1812, led twenty-four men across the Niagara River to Navy Island, near the Canadian shore, as a vanguard for the intended return to Canada of William Lyon Mackenzie and other refugee revolutionaries on American soil. Hoping to rally Canadians before their arrival, the filibusters raised the flag for a provisional government of Upper Canada, and Mackenzie released a proclamation dated Navy Island, December 13, promising Canadians religious freedom, political democracy, and economic progress while offering American and Canadian volunteers alike three hundred acres of land. By the day after Christmas, 523 adventurers had gathered on the island.
The filibusters received a tactical setback but a recruiting boost when on December 29 loyalist Canadians, commanded by a British militia officer, seized the Carolinean American steamboat taking supplies and recruits to Navy Island. After capturing the vessel near Fort Schlosser on the U.S. side of the river, the raiding party set it on fire, towed it to mid-river, and abandoned it just above Niagara Falls. Borderland Americans rallied to the filibuster cause after news circulated that the vessel had been attacked while at anchor in U.S. territory and that an American had been killed during the capture. False reports that the raiders had left the Caroline by the falls with helpless Americans stranded on board further inflamed the situation. Mackenzie's force on Navy Island grew to about eight hundred men, causing concern in Washington.
Determined to keep the peace with Britain, a far more powerful nation than Mexico, President Martin Van Buren not only issued a proclamation against the invaders on January 5, 1838, but also had his cabinet members instruct customs officials, district attorneys, and marshals to take preventive action. Further, the president wisely sent one of the U.S. Army's ranking generals and shrewdest strategists, the War of 1812 hero Winfield Scott, to pacify the border. Scott, an insufferable egotist, nonetheless had already demonstrated considerable tact in dealing with potentially explosive domestic problems. In 1841 he would become commanding general of the entire army.
Federal intervention proved decisive. U.S. authorities interrupted Mackenzie's timing by taking him briefly into custody on January 4, 1838. Scott's threat to confiscate vessels in the filibusters' service dampened the willingness of nearby shipowners to hire out vessels for the Navy Island operation. As a result, the filibusters ran short on supplies. Once frigid weather set in, they gave up, withdrawing from the island on January 14. Meanwhile, to the west, Van Rensselaer's second-in-command Thomas Jefferson Sutherland failed in a planned filibuster from Detroit against Toronto. His men disbanded after their ship ran aground in the Detroit River and they came under attack by Canadian militia.
Rather than desist, however, the Patriots and allied Americans regrouped and unleashed coordinated attacks against the whole U.S.-Canadian border from Vermont to Michigan. On February 22, 1838, Van Rensselaer and several hundred men occupied Hickory Island in Canadian territory, preparatory to an intended assault on Kingston (at the junction of the St. Lawrence River with Lake Ontario). This invasion failed when most of the volunteers, learning of approaching Canadian militia, backed out of continuing the campaign. On February 24, some one hundred fifty adventurers crossed the iced-over Detroit River to take Fighting Island, holding it for about two days before being driven back by gunfire from the Canadian shore. On February 28, five to six hundred filibusters commanded by the Canadian physician Robert Nelson crossed Vermont's northwestern border armed with cannons on sleighs and muskets looted from the Vermont state arsenal at Elizabethtown, and established a short-lived Independent Republic of Lower Canada. Intimidated by advancing British forces, the filibusters recrossed the boundary and surrendered on March 1 to U.S. army Colonel John E. Wool. That same day and the next, filibusters around Detroit attempted unsuccessfully to take Pelée Island in Lake Erie.
Repeated failures caused the movement to go underground. Over the next several months, to avoid detection by either U.S. or British authorities, American Patriot sympathizers formed secret societies to plan future operations: the Canadian Refugee Relief Association; the Frères Chasseurs, or Brother Hunters; and the Sons of Liberty. Two similar groups were founded in 1839. Eventually these organizations merged into what became known as Patriot Hunters or Hunters' Lodges.
Invasions soon resumed. On May 29, 1838, members of the Canadian Refugee Relief Association, dressed as Indians, avenged the Caroline by burning the Canadian vessel Sir Robert Peel while she was at Wells Island on Lake Ontario. In June several hundred filibusters crossed the Niagara River. They established an encampment on the Canadian side, destroyed property, and suffered four men killed before surrendering to British regulars and Canadian militia. The Sons of Liberty planned a summertime attack on the Michigan state arsenal preparatory to a campaign against Windsor, but aborted that operation because authorities at the arsenal were under alert.
Pre-Civil War filibustering to Canada climaxed that fall. In early November filibusters connected with Nelson's "Republic of Lower Canada" were prevented from a boundary crossing by U.S. army patrols and the seizure of their chartered sloop by U.S. customs officials. However, on November 11, four hundred filibusters began their campaign to take Prescott and nearby Fort Wellington on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River. Although part of the force was diverted to recruit reinforcements, 150 or so invaders took possession of a windmill and other buildings below Prescott on November 12, raised their flag, and captured an American steamship and an American ferryboat. They received 110 reinforcements before seizure of their vessels by a U.S. marshal aided by federal troops cut off help from the American side. The filibusters, consequently, had little chance of victory in their "Battle of the Windmill"an affair that ended with 20 Patriots dead, 157 taken prisoner, and the rest in flight.
Undaunted by this disaster, the former Ohio militia brigadier general Lucius Bierce commanded 135 Hunters in a December 3-4 crossing of the Detroit River for an attack on Windsor. These invaders burned barracks, a couple of houses and a steamer, killed a few defenders, and issued the obligatory proclamation calling for a Canadian uprising, before being routed by Canadian militia. Twenty-one invaders died in battle; other Hunters were taken prisoner or died from exposure as they fled the battle site.
Filibuster reinforcements poured into Detroit. However the movement, now plagued by the presence of 2,000 U.S. regulars on the frontier and other preventive measures by the Van Buren administration and state authorities, had played out. Cross-border raids and filibuster plotting continued in 1839-41. Many Hunters hoped to provoke an Anglo-American war as a means of freeing the Canadas. But in 1842, northward filibustering suffered a crippling blow when the United States signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Britain, resolving most border difficulties.
Meanwhile, few filibusters departed southward from U.S. territory in the early 1840s, though transplanted Americans participated in the Texas Republic's disastrous "Mier expedition" into northern Mexico in 1842 and some Americans got captured and executed in a foray from New Orleans to the Mexican state of Yucatán in 1844. Certainly no filibuster army materialized to answer the call of a Mississippi paper for "thousands of bold and adventurous spirits from 'the States'" to conquer Mexico City's treasures on behalf of the "Anglo-Saxon race."
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Paradoxically, the Mexican War that erupted in the spring of 1846 both inhibited filibustering and guaranteed its revival. Now, on the one hand, adventurous Americans could satiate their filibustering inclinations by joining their country's largely-volunteer army. Why participate in an illegal military venture, when one might invade foreign domains with the government's blessing? On the other hand, the war's end in 1848 created a pool of latent filibustersconquering soldiers accustomed to military campaigning who dreaded being mustered out of the service (if they were volunteers) or being posted to routine peacetime assignments (if they were regulars).
In the months between the U.S. Army's entry into Mexico City in September 1847 and the end of the war, some U.S. soldiers considered enlisting in an expedition to Yucatán, which had seceded from Mexico in 1846 and maintained neutrality during the fighting. Simultaneously, Cuba's Havana Club (Club de la Habana), made up mainly of Creole merchants, planters, and professionals who favored the annexation of their island to the United States, took steps to enlist restless American war veterans in a rebellion to overthrow Spanish rule.
Trying to repress a bloody insurrection by Mayan Indians that erupted in 1847, Yucatán's ruling elite unsuccessfully solicited the United States to assume a military protectorate over their state, and also offered $8 a month and 320 acres of land to American volunteers willing to soldier against the Indians. By the late spring of 1848, word was racing through U.S. forces occupying Mexico's capital of this opportunity for continued military service. "There are officers in the city of Mexico trying to raise companies to go to Yucatan," observed one of Pennsylvania's volunteers on May 27. That same day, an American occupation newspaper instructed soldiers how they might sign up.
At virtually the same time, the U.S. consul in Havana, Robert B. Campbell, informed the State Department of Cuban rebels' hopes that "a few of the volunteer regiments now in Mexico" might "obtain their discharge" and join a revolution against Spanish rule that they hoped to initiate in the immediate future. Campbell's information was accurate. That May, the Havana Club sent an agent and interpreter to Mexico in the hope of persuading U.S. General William J. Worth, one of the heroes of the American conquest of Mexico City, to lead this filibuster. To accommodate the arrival of these auxiliaries, moreover, Narciso López, a former Spanish army officer and functionary, postponed his own separately planned uprising for Cuban independence from June 24 until mid-July.
Possibly the Yucatán and Cuban plots had linkages to each other, with the peninsula intended as a way station to the island. Campbell, who was privy to many of the Cuban rebels' plans, notified Commodore Matthew C. Perry, commanding U.S. naval forces in the region, that the plotters expected the Americans to arrive via Yucatán.
Though much remains in doubt about what occurred when the Cuban agents caught up with Worth in Mexico, the general reportedly gave tentative approval to the filibuster, promising, as one of the high-ranking Cuban rebels put it, to accept the call "contingent upon his resignation of his rank in the [U.S.] army." Possibly, Worth even took preliminary steps to involve his fellow army officer Robert E. Lee in the plot. Lee had won considerable notice for his engineering feats during the Mexico City campaign. In a letter alluding rather obliquely to both Cuba and Yucatán, the army lieutenant Henry J. Hunt alerted Colonel James Duncan, "Genl. W. bids me to say to you . . . that he has some rich developments to make in which the pious Capt. Lee figures conspicuously."
Whatever the case may have been, both the Yucatán and Cuban schemes ran into resistance from Washington. President James K. Polk, who in June 1848 authorized the American minister in Spain to try to purchase Cuba, could ill afford to tolerate filibustering, which would naturally alienate the very Spanish officials who had to be persuaded to sell their colony. Tipped off not only by Campbell, but also by the New York newspaperman John L. O'Sullivan (whose sister was married to a wealthy Cuban opposed to Spanish rule) and by some Cubans who turned up for a White House interview facilitated in part by Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Polk had his cabinet take preventive measures. Secretary of War William L. Marcy gave an "awful" blow to "go-ahead" soldiers, as one reporter phrased it, by cautioning U.S. occupation commanders in Mexico to be on their alert against filibustering and by stipulating that troop transports returning to the United States avoid Cuban ports. Secretary of State James Buchanan cautioned Campbell against even giving the impression of collaboration with Cuban insurgents, and passed on to Spanish officials what the administration had gleaned about the intended uprising. Buchanan's intimations failed to grease Spain's cession of Cuba; but they did help Spanish authorities in July preempt López's uprising by jailing a number of the alleged conspirators.
Yet Polk's policies only delayed what in retrospect seems to have been filibustering's inevitable revival. Even before the last remnants of the U.S. army withdrew from Mexico in August 1848, adventurers in southern Texas were conspiring with Mexican revolutionaries to carve out of northern Mexico an independent Republic of the Sierra Madre (also known as the Republic of the Rio Grande). Helen Chapman, married to a U.S. Army assistant quartermaster who was engaged in transferring army supplies from occupied Matamoras to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, informed her mother that the plotters intended to include Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila in their new polity. Their organization was so "extensive" that she expected to hear of "the Texas story all over again." Disturbed by press reports about the plot, Polk and Buchanan again used their influence against filibustering, realizing, as Buchanan put it, that any expedition would make an immediate mockery of the American pledge in its peace treaty with Mexico to respect the boundary dividing the two nations.
Meanwhile, Buchanan fended off complaints from the Venezuelan government about rumored expeditions being mounted against Venezuela from U.S. soil. He also received an apology from Viscount Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, for the arrest and detention of Americans traveling in Ireland. It had turned out, Palmerston explained, that they had been wrongly suspected of filibustering to overthrow British rule there. In September, Campbell reported that new plots were already being hatched in Havana for an "armed invasion" by American citizens.
By the fall of 1848, it seemed that borderland revolutionaries had called off the Sierra Madre movement. According to a press report from Galveston, some adventurers led by Lorenzo A. Besançon, who had captained the Louisiana Mounted Volunteers during the war, arrived prematurely at Corpus Christi only to be sent home. Relieved by the apparent evaporation of the threat, Buchanan took credit for stopping the expedition, and instructed the U.S. minister to Mexico to cultivate the goodwill of Mexican leaders by stressing to them the administration's successful antifilibustering efforts.
However, at the very time that the Sierra Madre scheme was put on hold, discharged U.S. soldiers were finally making their way to Yucatán. On October 29, a New Orleans newspaper reported that eighty Americans were already serving in Yucatán's armed forces, and that David G. Wilds (a former U.S. Army lieutenant) had arrived in the Crescent City on a recruiting mission for Yucatán's government. In November, George W. White, who had been an infantry captain of Louisiana Volunteers during the Mexican War, posted placards in New Orleans for "fighting men" willing to join Yucatán's military. "Colonel" White raised his quota so quickly that he embarked for the peninsula before the end of the month. In December his regiment of just under 1,000 volunteers, including Lorenzo A. Besançon as lieutenant colonel and second-in-command, went into action. Although hundreds of the volunteers arrived back at New Orleans in March and April after the regiment disbanded, Besançon and a battalion of Americans remained in service well into the spring.
One might argue that Colonel White's volunteers were mercenaries rather than filibusters, since they served at the invitation of Yucatán's ruling authorities. But because Besançon had prepared to filibuster across the Rio Grande before his arrival in Yucatán, and because White officered an intended invasion of Cuba in 1849, immediately after his return to the United States from Yucatán, this would seem to be splitting hairs. It is easy to imagine White, Besançon, and company trying to convert their intervention in Yucatán into an attempt at conquest, had the opportunity to do so presented itself. Yucatán's leaders seem to have suspected as much. A number of White's subordinate officers complained to a reporter after their return that Yucatecan authorities had always kept their "regiment divided, and the different battalions separated by long marches," for fear the Americans would take over the country.
Clearly, numbers of American veterans of the Mexican War had contracted a filibustering spirit. Soon they and like-minded young Americans and recent immigrants would be invading lands throughout the Gulf-Caribbean region, and intimidating peoples as far away as Hawaii. Symptomatic of things to come, the aborted plots and Yucatán intervention of 1848 heralded America's coming filibustering epidemic.