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The Virginius Incident

The Virginius

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President Ulysses S. Grant's Special Message to the U.S. Congress

January, 1874

In my annual message of December last, I gave reason to expect that when the full and accurate text of the correspondence relating to the Virginius, which had been telegraphed in cipher, should be received, the papers concerning the capture of the vessel, the execution of a part of its passengers and crew, and the restoration of the ship and the survivors, would be transmitted to Congress.

In compliance with the expectations then held out, I now transmit the papers and correspondence on that subject.

On the twenty-sixth day of September, 1870, the Virginius was registered in the custom-house at New York, as the property of a citizen of the United States, he having first made oath, as required by law, that he was the true and only owner of the aid vessel, and that there was no subject or citizen of any foreign prince or state, directly or indirectly, by way of trust, confidence, or otherwise, interested therein. Having complied with the requisites of the statue in that behalf, she cleared in the usual way, for the port of Curacoa, and on or about the fourth of October, 1870, sailed for that port.

It is not disputed that she made the voyage according to her clearance, nor that from that day to this she has not returned within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. It is also understood that she preserved her American papers, and that when within foreign ports she made the practice of putting forth a claim to American nationality, which was recognized by the authorities at such ports. When, therefore, she left the port of Kingston in October last, under the flag of the United States, she would appear to have had, against all powers except the United States, the right to fly that flag and claim its protection, as enjoyed by all regularly documented vessels registered as part of our commercial marine. No state of war existed, conferring upon a maritime power the right to molest and detain upon the high seas a documented vessel, and it cannot be pretended that the Virginius had placed herself without the pale of law by acts of piracy against the human race. If her papers were irregular or fraudulent, the offense was one against the laws of the United States, justifiable only in their tribunals.

When, therefore, it became known that the Virginius had been captured on the high seas by a Spanish man-of-war; that the American flag had been hauled down by the captors; that the vessel had been carried to a Spanish port, and that Spanish tribunals were taking jurisdiction over the persons of those found on her, and exercising that jurisdiction upon American citizens,-not only in violation of international law, but in contravention of the provisions of the treaty of 1795, --I directed a demand to be made upon Spain for the restoration of the vessel, and for the return of the survivors to the protection of the United States, for a salute to the flag, and for the punishment of the offending parties.

The principles upon which these demands rested could not be seriously questioned, but it was suggested by the Spanish government that there were grave doubts whether the Virginius was entitled to the character given her by her papers, and that therefore it might be proper for the United States, after the surrender of the vessel and the survivors, to dispense with the salute to the flag, should such facts be established to their satisfaction. This seemed to be reasonable and just. I therefore assented to it, on the assurance that Spain would then declare that no insult to the flag of the United States had been intended. I also authorized an agreement to be made that, should it be shown to the satisfaction of this government that the Virginius was improperly bearing the flag; proceedings should be instituted in our courts for the punishment of the offense committed against the United States. On her part, Spain undertook to proceed against those who had offended the sovereignty of the United States, or who had violated their treaty rights. The surrender of the vessel and the survivors to the jurisdiction of the tribunals of the United States was an admission of the principles upon which our demand had been founded. I therefore had no hesitation in agreeing to the arrangements finally made between the two governments –an arrangement which was moderate and just, and calculated to cement the good relations which have so long existed between Spain and the United States. Under this agreement, the Virginius, with the American flag flying, was delivered to the navy of the United States at Bahia Honda, in the Island of Cuba, on the sixteenth ult. She was in an unseaworthy condition. On the passage to New York, she encountered one of the most tempestuous of our winter storms. At the risk of their lives, the officers and crew placed in charge of her attempted to keep her afloat. Their efforts were unavailing, and she sunk off Cape Fear.

The prisoners who survived the massacres were surrendered at Santiago de Cuba on the eighteenth ult, and reached the port of New York in safety. The evidence submitted on the part of Spain, to establish the fact that the Virginius at the time of her capture was improperly bearing the flag of the United States, is transmitted herewith, together with the opinion of the attorney-general therein, and a copy of the note of the Spanish minister, expressing, on behalf of his government, a disclaimer of any intent of indignity to the flag of the United States.

Ulysses S. Grant