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Fillmore faced his own Cuban crisis

Reading your lead story of March 9 mentioning, “an understatement considering how little average Americans know about Fillmore,” while true is also likely to be a tribute to Fillmore considering how he handled the Cuban crisis of his day.

While many recall that 1851 saw the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, it is reasonable to assume the tale of the giant whale would seem more formidable at a time when the largest steamship in the world was still less than 275 feet long. That would quickly change in the early 1850s as orders from the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. for larger ships able to handle the East India and China mails and trade were sent through Egypt to England in these last few years before the opening of the Suez Canal.

Millard Fillmore had to sort out America’s options in the wake of an episode which could have lead to an international war with Spain and others or possibly fighting the U.S. Civil War 10 years before the shots at Ft. Sumpter.

America, recently enlarged in size after the Mexican War, had to sort out the details of the second General Lopez expedition, which lead to Spain executing 50 American seamen prisoners captured from the first General Lopez piratical trip into China.

Most considered the expedition to have been fostered by slave states of the south with the intention of continuing slavery in Cuba. Certainly France increased its military presence in the Caribbean as a result. Britain then tried influencing the U.S. claims, hoping America would attack Spain and take control of the Havana harbor. England viewed it a naval point of prime importance to the Gulf of Mexico, just as Gibraltar was to the Mediterranean. France had already instructed its officers to assist Spain by all means in their power to repel any Americans advancing into Cuba.

While most Americans accepted the firing squads’ right to kill these captured Americans, tales of mistreatment of the deceased led to cries for vengeance, especially in New Orleans (where by the way the first branch mint 3-cent silvers were being issued this same year). It was perhaps Fillmore’s presidential high point that he did not go to war as the protocol of international treatment of prisoners, America’s rule of law, and the limited federal government’s ability to declare war all came into play.


Tom Culhane
is a hobbyist from Union, N.J.
Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects.

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