Military history

Chapter 20

AT JUST ABOUT THE SAME time as the fire-eaters at the Charleston convention were pushing the idea that the Federal government (or maybe a future Confederate government) should protect “persons and property on the high seas”—meaning, slave property from Africa—a U.S. Navy cruiser patrolling the Cuban coast came across a beautiful but suspicious ship.

Consul William Mure in New Orleans wrote up a succinct report for Lord Russell: “Intelligence has been received here, from Key West, of the capture of a slaver named the Wildfire by the Steam Ship Mohawk, which was commanded by Lieut. Tunis Augustus MacDonough Craven of the U.S. Navy.” The slaver was a three-masted barque designed along the lines of a clipper, 128 feet long, and very fast. More than five hundred Africans were still alive on board, “three fourths of whom appear to be children.” When Craven boarded the clipper, he was horrified. Amid the heat and stench of the slave deck there was “scarcely space to die in.”

The Mohawk towed the Wildfire to Key West, where a primitive barracks was thrown up to house the Africans, and thirty-four U.S. soldiers were assigned to guard them “for the purpose of preventing any attempt at kidnapping.”

BEFORE THE END of May two more slavers, the William and the Bogota, were brought to Key West. (The Bogota was captured by the same Lt. J. N. Maffitt who had caught the Echo using the same false-flag tactics.) By then the African population in the makeshift barracks was up to more than fourteen hundred, many of them fatally ill. Almost three hundred eventually were buried at a place called Higgs Beach, and, as with the Echo, more died on the trip back to Africa than had died on their first voyage across the Middle Passage. But Old Buck’s navy was, at last, making a real show of its dedication to the fight against the African slave trade.

President Buchanan had a carefully hedged political strategy behind this new campaign to capture slavers. On the one hand, he wanted to ease relations with Britain—to “clear the docket” at last on this difficult issue—and his actions were more or less in line with what Lord Russell had been demanding. On the other, he saw the potential reopening of the slave trade to the United States as a threat to the old-money planters who supported him and who certainly did not want to see their stock of slaves devalued. In a message to Congress in December 1859 Buchanan had warned against “the introduction of wild, heathen, and ignorant barbarians among the sober, orderly, and quiet slaves whose ancestors have beenon the soil for generations.”

But what really was central to Buchanan’s thinking was the notion that if Cuba were annexed, then a number of problems might be solved. This had been an obsession of his for years, even before the Ostend Manifesto in 1854 called for the United States to buy Cuba from Spain, or declare war if Spain refused. And as a means to that end of annexation, he believed that the more slavers that were captured, the harder it would be for the Cubans to sustain their sugar-based economy by working expendable Africans to death, and the less Spain would be inclined to hang on to the island. Once Cuba was part of the United States, a moral good would be achieved: the last major market for African slaves in the civilized world would be closed. But the practical political benefit would accrue to the existing slave owners among Old Buck’s constituents. With the acquisition of Cuba, the South, by dividing the island, would get at least two more slaveholding states with four senators. Southern dominance would be restored in the U.S. Senate. That outcome, or its imminent possibility, would in turn isolate the fire-eaters trying to tear the Union apart.

All this was going on while Buchanan’s party was falling apart. He might have thought that the constellation of issues he assembled around the rescue of the Africans and the acquisition of Cuba could pull The Democracy back together. Or perhaps he thought this strategy could pull the nation back together. He could see as well as anyone that secession loomed and, with it, the likelihood of civil war. He did not want to become the last president of the these United States. He needed a masterstroke to protect his nation and his legacy. But that was not to be.

On May 9, 1860, at the convention center known as the Wigwam in Chicago, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president, leaving William Seward stunned and not a little bitter. He had played the cards of abolition and irrepressible conflict too often; he had spent too much time in Europe and the Levant; his overconfident team had been, purely and simply, outmaneuvered on the convention floor.

The Southern Democrats had proposed reopening and protecting the African slave trade, and the issue had been part of the platform package that split the party in Charleston. The Republicans in Chicago, in contrast, put an unequivocal plank in their platform: “We brand the recent reopening of the African slave trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity, a burning shame to our country and age; and we call upon Congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic.” No wonder Robert Bunch was so inclined to favor the Republicans. Even he could not have written a more powerful statement of Britain’s desires regarding that “execrable traffic.” On this issue, at least, the battle lines were clearly drawn, and Bunch believed there should be no question which side Her Majesty’s government would favor.

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