The Black Warrior Affair

In the winter of 1854, a steamer out of Mobile sparked a diplomatic incident that threatened war between the United States and Spain over Cuba.

Painting of the Black Warrior steamship
The steamship Black Warrior, shown here in an 1853 oil painting, was a familiar sight to Mobilians. Painting by James Bard (1815 – 1897)

On the morning of February 25, 1854, the steamship Black Warrior lay alongside Mobile’s wharves loading cotton. She was, by general consensus, a handsome vessel — a 227-foot-long, black-hulled barkentine of 1,600 tons, with a tall black and red smokestack amidships and a pair of paddlewheels positioned aft. She was New York-built in 1852 for the coastal trade and since that time had been running a regular route from there to Mobile and back, with brief stops at Havana each way. Her cargoes were strictly for American ports, but she often delivered and took on passengers and mail during her Havana stops. She was a familiar sight to Mobilians, as was her dashing captain, 31-year-old James D. Bulloch, a serious and conscientious officer. As she loaded cotton that winter’s day, no one, least of all her savvy captain, could guess that she was about to precipitate an international incident. 

Meanwhile, in Havana, the Black Warrior’s consignees, Charles Tyng and Co., already expecting the vessel, made an early entry and clearance request with Spanish customs officials, stating the vessel was “in ballast,” that is, not carrying cargo. According to Spanish law, any cargo was to be itemized and requisite fees paid. Tyng and Co. knew this, of course, as did the local harbor constabulary. But since the cotton was only in transit through Havana for New York, Tyng and Co.’s customary practice was not to declare it. Havana’s customs officials understood and generally waived the rules. Unfortunately for Capt. Bulloch, Messrs. Charles Tyng and Co., and everyone else involved with the Black Warrior on this trip, a new Spanish governor had taken office with a mandate to strictly enforce the law. Backgrounding his orders was Spanish anxiety over American filibustering, or armed meddling, in Cuba as well as local revolutionary activity. Pro-slavery Southern politicians were agitating for the United States to acquire Cuba as another slave state, by force if necessary, and local revolutionaries wanted independence from Spain. What if the Black Warrior was loaded with arms or supplies for filibusters or the insurrectionists? Since there had already been one (failed) invasion attempt by hotheads recruited in the States, the Spanish government’s fears were well-founded.

Running two days behind schedule, the Black Warrior finally glided into Havana Harbor on February 28, with 900 bales of cotton and 17 passengers. She anchored near the city’s coal wharves, and a local customs official and a translator boarded her. Capt. Bulloch, per usual, declared the vessel in ballast and handed the inspector the form. But then the inspector glanced into the ship’s open hatches and spotted the cotton. Conscious of the new governor’s orders, the inspector informed Bulloch that he had 12 hours to change his manifest to accurately indicate the cargo.

The situation quickly escalated, compounded by intemperate personalities, obstinate pride, and mutual misunderstanding. Tyng requested the ship be cleared for departure that afternoon but was denied since her paperwork was out of order. He then paid a visit to the port collector and tried to amend the manifest. The collector informed him that it was too late, because Tyng had already declared the vessel in ballast several days earlier, before she even arrived in port. Thus he was well beyond the 12-hour deadline to amend. Tyng lost his temper and shouted that he would “not submit to ridiculous formalities.” In response, the collector sent launches loaded with men to seize the Black Warrior’s cargo. He also imposed a $6,000 fine. Bulloch erupted when his ship was boarded, telling the Spanish officer in charge, “By forcibly opening the ship’s hatches and discharging her cargo … you have virtually annulled my authority as commander.” He hauled down the flag in a huff and departed with the crew and passengers for a nearby American merchant ship.   

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When news of the Black Warrior’s seizure became public, Southern politicians and newspaper editors urged a confrontation with Spain. Congress was then debating the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and national feelings over slavery were hardening. Amidst the fiery debate, Southern interests considered “the Black Warrior Affair” an insult to the American flag and a perfect excuse to invade Cuba. By their calculations, Cuba as a slave state with two senators and nine representatives would nicely counterbalance Kansas’ and Nebraska’s likely admission as free states. 

Pierre Soulé, photographed between 1844 and 1860. Courtesy Library of Congress

Their cause was considerably aided by the rash actions of Pierre Soulé, the French-born American minister to Spain. Soulé was a pariah in European high society, a popinjay enamored of ruffled shirts and dress swords who had shot a French nobleman in a duel. As a former senator representing Louisiana, he was fervently pro-slavery, and when the American secretary of state informed him of the Black Warrior Affair he wasted no time in exceeding his authority to make haughty demands of the Spanish government. These included an indemnity of $300,000 and the dismissal of all Spanish officials who had played a part in the matter. Though he did not directly say so, he darkly hinted that the U.S. might declare war otherwise. Predictably, Spanish diplomats bristled, and several voiced their own bellicose thoughts.

Happily, after months of diplomatic correspondence, cooler heads prevailed. Neither President Franklin Pierce nor most U.S. congressmen wanted a costly foreign distraction, and the northern public was not as outraged as the Southern slaveocracy. Spain released the Black Warrior, returned the $6,000 fine, and eventually paid a $54,000 indemnity. The Black Warrior resumed her New York-Havana-Mobile route without further incident. Undaunted, Soulé coauthored the Ostend Manifesto on October 15, 1854. The document referenced the “unatoned” Black Warrior outrage and recommended the U.S. government acquire Cuba by purchase or, if Spain refused to sell (which they knew it would), by war. President Pierce and Northern public opinion instantly rejected the idea. 

There would be no war with Spain over Cuba. Yet.

John S. Sledge is currently working on a book about Mobile and Havana’s centuries-long shared history.

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