Chaffin pursues elusive
historical figure Narciso López

The tale of the disaffected 19th-century general and revolutionary Narciso López appealed to the dual avocations of Tom Chaffin. The adjunct professor of history and director of the Emory Oral History Project discovered this largely forgotten, but once infamous, U.S. historical figure while working as a journalist in Atlanta in the mid 1980s. "I've always gone back and forth between journalism and scholarship," Chaffin said. "The thing that attracted me about this material was that it was a good story. I've found other things about it since then that interest me on a more intellectual level, but initially it was that it was a good story." His book, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba, was published in November by the University Press of Virginia.

Venezuelan by birth, Narciso López rose through the ranks of the Spanish military and government, eventually becoming an influential colonial figure in Cuba. "Then he fell out of favor with the Spanish government and became increasingly bitter," said Chaffin. "By 1848, he was organizing a rebellion within Cuba."

When Spanish officials learned of the pending insurrection, they summoned López to appear before them. Instead, he fled to the United States where he spent a great deal of time in New York, Washington, Savannah, New Orleans and other U.S. cities eliciting support for his cause and organizing an expeditionary force to invade Cuba.

U.S. officials opposed López. Led by President Zachary Taylor, the Whigs did everything they could to stop him, said Chaffin. "They seized their ships. They used the bully pulpit of the presidency-including presidential proclamations. They used the court to try to prosecute López and his co-conspirators for violating the neutrality act. They even used the U.S. Navy against them."

López, however, remained undaunted. Between 1849 and 1851, he raised four expeditionary forces to invade Cuba. Two were thwarted by the United States government. Two reached Cuba and battled the island's Spanish army garrison. The filibusters, as López's mercenaries were then known, seized the city of Cárdenas in May of 1850 before retreating to Key West, Fla., to avoid approaching Spanish reinforcements.

After their second landing a year later, López and two filibuster regiments were captured on Cuban shores. Fifty-one members were executed by firing squad, others were imprisoned and López himself was garroted-a particularly grisly form of strangulation-in a Havana public plaza.

López's lively saga has largely been forgotten outside of Cuba, said Chaffin, because mid 19th century U.S. history tends to be swallowed up the Civil War. "Everything is usually interpreted as this inevitable movement toward Southern secession."

While López played some role in the United States's pre-Civil War turmoil, the underpinnings of his story are more complex than that, Chaffin discovered. "On one level, López is a republican hero trying to throw off the shackles of Spanish colonialism. On the other hand, he was an ardent defender of Cuban slavery.

"One fear among those supporting him was that Spain, which by then the sick man of Europe, might give in to pressure from British abolitionists and liberate the slaves. So the Southern planters feared the creation of another autonomous black republic like Haiti."

López remains controversial in Cuba, according to Chaffin. "Prior to the communist revolution of 1959, López was considered part of the pantheon of Cuban liberators leading up to Jose Martí. He was remembered as the first person to organize a military assault on the Spanish government there. However, he also sought to bring Cuba into the United States, presumably as three new slave states. So, for the communists, that disqualified him from the pantheon. He's been officially rebuked by Cuba's current government. After the revolution, they actually tore down statues of him.

"Here, generally, when people would ask me, 'What are you writing about?', they'd never heard of it," Chaffin said. "In Cuba, everyone not only knew who López was, but had a strong opinion about him one way or another. Some feel he as a traitor. Others, that he was patriot who's been unfairly disparaged."

López did leave one lasting legacy to Cuba. "When they established the Cuban republic, the flag that was designed for his expedition was adopted as the official flag of Cuba," said Chaffin. It still flies over Morro Castle in Havana today.

-Stacey Jones

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