The Virginius affair involved two separate issues: the law of the sea and the law of humanity. Regardless of the legal status of the ship, the United States condemned the executions as barbaric and another example of Spanish brutality. As a matter of maritime law, the captain of the Toronado made the mistake of seizing the Virginius on the high seas. It was actually captured near Jamaica. He should have waited until it entered Cuban territorial waters. But the Spanish had been frustrated in their attempts to take the smuggler because the ship was built to dart in and out of coves and inlets where most seagoing ships, especially warships, were ill-suited.
Spain was insulted by the American demands. They responded officially that they acted legally and with honor. Their press took up the cry claiming that the whole affair was nothing more than an expression of the anti-Spanish biases of the American Minister, Daniel Sickles. They dismissed the executions as merely “an unfortunate occurrence” and that the shootings had stopped under orders from the governor-general in Havana. No mention was made of the threat from a British warship.
America responded by recalling its diplomats from Spain, ordinarily a prelude to war. The Spaniards were surprised by the resolve shown by the United States government and quickly backpedaled. They soon acceded to American demands, asking only to delay punishment of the Spanish officials in Cuba until they had sufficient time to investigate further. The surviving crew were released to American custody and war was averted.
The Ten Years War ended in Cuba three years after the blowup over the Virginius. All sides simply ran out of energy and resources. The Spanish had lost more than 150,000 soldiers and spent more than 700 million pesos. All of the rebel commanders except for Maceo and Vicente Garcia had surrendered their weapons. Fighting had been reduced to an occasional raid on a plantation. A treaty was signed at Zanjón promising more autonomy for the Cubans and granting amnesty to the rebels.
One rebel leader, Calixto García, rejected the terms of the treaty and was exiled to France. He returned to continue the fight against the hated Spanish in what became known as the Guerra Chiquita or “Little War.” It kept the spirit of rebellion alive until the next chapter in Cuban-American relations unfolded.