Chaffin pursues elusive
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.
historical figure Narciso López
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
"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.
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