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About William Logan Crittenden
“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.
This well-bred Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.
Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish.
He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.
Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press, assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.
I am commanded to finish writing at once.
I will die like a man
All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.
When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.
But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.
Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.
All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.
"Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration."
From Lopez's Expeditions to Cuba, 1850 and 1851, by Anderson C. Quisenberry, member of the Filson Club:
The letter that Colonel William Logan Crittenden's Crittenden wrote on that occasion to his friend, Doctor Lucien Hensley, may serve as the truest index to his nature. It breathes a spirit of real heroism, without the slightest suspicion of bravado. After reading it one does not doubt that he died "Strong in Heart." It was stained with blood, from his lacerated wrists; and was as follows:
SHIP OF WAR. ESPERANZA, August 16, 1851.
In half an hour I with fifty others am to be shot. We were taken prisoners yesterday. We were in small boats. General Lopez separated the balance of the command from me. I had with me about 100. Was attacked by two battalions of infantry and one company of horse. The odds were too great, and strange to tell, I was not furnished with one single musket cartridge. Lopez did not get any artillery. I have not the heart to write to any of my family. If the truth ever comes out you will find that I did my duty and have the perfect confidence of every man with me. We had retired from the field and were going to the sea, and were overtaken by the Spanish steamer Habanera (Habanero), and captured (2 miles from the protective reefs of the Pass of Alcranes, near Alcranes and Leviza cays on the Bahia de la Mulata). Tell General Houston that his nephew got separated from me on the 13th, the day of the fight, and that I have not seen him since. He may have straggled off and joined Lopez, who advanced rapidly to the interior. My people, however, were entirely surrounded on every side. We saw that we had been deceived grossly, and were making for the United States when taken. During my short sojourn in this island I have not met a single patriot. We landed some 40 or 50 miles to the westward of this, and I am sure that in that part of the island Lopez has no friends. When I was attacked Lopez was only three miles off. If he had not been deceiving us as to the state of things he would have fallen back with his forces and made fight. Instead of which he marched immediately to the interior. I am requested to get you to tell Mr. Green, of the custom house, that his brother shares my fate. Victor Ker is also with me; so, also, Standford. I recollect no others of your acquaintance present. I will die like a man. My heart has not failed me yet. Nor do I believe it will. Communicate with my family. Tell my friend on Philippa street that I had better have been persuaded to stay; that I have not forgotten him, and will not in the moment of death. This is an incoherent letter, but the circumstances must excuse me. My hands are swollen to double their thickness, resulting from having been too tightly corded for the last eighteen hours. Write to Whistlar; let him write to my mother. I am afraid that the news will break her heart. My heart beats warmly toward her now. Farewell. My love to all my family. I am sorry that I die owing a cent, but it is inevitable.
Yours, Strong in Heart,
W. L. CRITTENDEN.
(This letter is still in existence, and is in the possession of ex-Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, of Missouri.)
First Lieutenant William Logan Crittenden
Goat of the Class of 1845 (last in his class at West Point)
William Logan Crittenden, the Goat of the Class of 1845, had fought well in Mexico, but had not received a brevet or attained the recognition he felt he deserved. One of his classmates and fellow officers said he was “a brave, fearless officer – I may say a somewhat reckless fellow.” Lucy Holcombe, a renowned Texas belle and Crittenden’s fiancée, gave a more sympathetic description:
[He] must have been in early youth very beautiful; for the free careless grace of childhood still lingered on the bold brow of the man, though passion had pressed its pallor on his cheek. The lines around the mouth denoted thought, even care; and the smile of the lip, though sweet, was uncertain. It was a frank and generous face... [with] large fearless eyes, with their half tender, half defiant charm.
Seeing no future as a career officer in peacetime, Crittenden resigned his commission in March 1849 to seek more profitable opportunities as a mercenary. He was certainly well qualified, being young, ambitious, West Point trained and experienced in war. The years after the Mexican War were a time of ferment in Latin America, hence a time of opportunity for men with military experience and a sense of adventure. To some young men the war was an inspiration – if a relatively small army of Americans could humble mighty Mexico, what might others do in the less powerful, less stable countries to the south? He and other mercenaries were called Filibusters, a term originally used to refer to Caribbean pirates.
Crittenden joined a group seeking to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule, led by a tall, white-haired, distinguished looking Spaniard, General Narciso Lopez. Their 1851 expedition led to one of the most notorious international incidents in 19th Century American history.