Relations between the United States and Spain in the last decade of the 19th century were coolly correct. American public sympathies, however, clearly favored the Cubans, influenced largely by the 1873 Virginius affair. That incident, which almost brought the two nations to war, involved a Cuban-owned ship, with an American captain and several Yankee crew members, seized by a Spanish gunboat in international waters off the Cuban coast. Virginius had been illegally flying the American flag and transporting arms to the Cuban insurgents. The Spaniards took the ship to Cuba, where they executed the captain and a number of other Americans by beheading them and then callously cheered as horses trampled the bodies.
There was a flurry of activity when the mobilization orders went out. "CUBA, OUR VOICE IS STILL FOR WAR" and "What Our Navy Will Have to Hammer At," the Norfolk Landmark proclaimed in separate headlines. The founder and editor of the Landmark, James Barron Hope, noted the many advantages of the yard and how it was poised to be the center of activity for an upcoming conflict. Indeed, there was more activity at the Norfolk Navy yard than anyone had seen since 1862. Norfolk yard workers removed the monitor Mahopac from the James River to recommission her. They also awaited the arrival of the monitor Manhattan and steam sloop Powhatan from Philadelphia for additional preparations.
Additionally, the newspapers reported several 11-inch and nine-inch guns with gun carriages were being made ready and workers were busy converting the screw tug Mayflower into an armed dispatch boat. There were four sailing warships, including the sloop-of-war Constellation, in ordinary and no one thought any were capable of serving again. Then one morning, the newspapers reported that the yard was "more lively and somewhat more warlike."
They announced that work had begun on recommissioning the sail frigate Savannah and even the 60 year old Macedonian, which had not seen active service in many years.
The crisis was settled despite newspaper predictions. After timely intervention from British warships, Spain agreed to pay reparations to the United States and Britain and the President ordered the U.S. Navy to stand down. The crisis served as a wake up call to many that the Navy needed to be reformed and properly funded to better its readiness. Despite indications that a fleet was about to descend upon Cuba, the Navy had serious trouble preparing the fleet. Locally, of all the
Threatened war was averted by adroit diplomacy on the part of the two nations, but piqued American politicians and an aggressive press kept the Cuban slavery issue alive with the American public.
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