The War in Nicaragua

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“The War in Nicaragua,” New York Daily Times, 13 April 1857, p. 1.
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New York Times
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The War in Nicaragua
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Leah Suhrstedt
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The following text is presented here in complete form, as it originally appeared in print.  Spelling and other typographical errors have been preserved as in the original.


Review of the Recent Reports of General Walker’s Successes in Nicaragua.

To the Editor of the New-York Daily Times:

Having been absent from your City and much occupied with matters of a personal nature, your paper, dated the 4th inst., either failed to reach me, or was overlooked amid the press of more immediate business. This must be my sufficient excuse to the “Officer of Nicaragua,” who did me the doubtful honor in that issue to suppose me “the instrument of Gen. GOUICOURIA, the confidential book-keeper of VANDERBILT, and a kind of literary understrapper to Mr. M. O. Roberts.” [Correct me if I err in this quotation, as I only saw the letter referred to on file in the counting-room of your office.] It strikes me that Capt. J. F. FARNUM writes quite as well as the “officer of Nicaragua,” and the “Officer of Nicaragua” no whit better than J. F. FARNUM. Both have plainly impaired their somewhat limited knowledge of any language, in their efforts to acquire the tongue in which they must hereafter address the native peons and bond-slaves of the estates specially confiscated for their use by the extremely generous Mr. WALKER. Should both, as I suspect, prove one, then the Captain’s rough and tumble flight with the Costa Rican negroes, the subsequent fandango and the fancy dances, and the cold shoulder turned on him (even in despite of these exploits!) by Col. LOOKRIDGE,- these united agencies must have worked a beneficial change in the Nicaraguan Officer’s inward and spiritual man. A second challenge might have increased his popularity (rather on the wane) at the St. Charles; and his judgment deserves credit for having resisted the temptation.

But enough of this absurdity; a statement which contradicts itself in the eyes of all who know anything of the adverse interests alleged to be united in my letters, may well be treated with contempt. Let us turn to the graver and more elaborate absurdities put forth on the arrival of the Texas, under the heading “Highly important from Nicaragua.”

It would really seem that the newsmongers and vicarious correspondents of the press had renounced all right of private judgment and criticism when called on to record the news manufactured at Head quarters for the service of the Law Morgan cause. Let a prodigious gooseberry appear in any provincial print, and, before our moths have rightly watered for it, forth springs a legion of editorial logicians with bristling pens, all ready to rob our imagination of the feast, by proving that such a gooseberry could never possibly have existed. It is the same with unusual strawberries, and mothers of superior fecundity, five children at a birth and all of them beautiful and healthy! This is an amount of good fortune, in the quiver filling line, which none but an Australian editor could allow to pass unchallenged.

Nevertheless, when matters a thousand fold more improbable are sent hither from Rivas, or imported from some of the intermediate manufactories; when we hear- not of give children being born together, which may or may not be possible- but of an army of outlaws who increase in numbers, confidence and strength the more they are routed, slaughtered, starved, pestilence stricken, abandoned, and cut off from all supplies of men, material and refreshment; when we are told (and there must be some military men amongst the critics) that 350 sickly men to-day have wrested from an enemy numbering 2,500, a position which 500 of the same men, in better health and every way better circumstanced, failed, on four different occasions, to wring from less than half that number of the same enemy; when the intelligence of the victory announces as its practical result that the attacking party, after a hard fight through a cactus ambuscade of two and a half or three miles long, succeeded eventually in regaining shelter under the fortifications from which they had broken forth at daybreak as no longer tenable, while the conquered enemy remained masters of the position attacked, and could even spare men from its defence to cut off the retreat of the assailants; when this crazy congeries of contradictory statements, frustrated successes and advances in the retrograde, is received from an avowedly interested source, the men of quibbles and inspections, of argument and incredulity, who lately wasted columns on the number of marrowfat peas contained in a single pod;- these same men open wide their astonished but unreluctant jaws, and the whole horrible bolus goes down, without either deglutition at the time, or any subsequent effort at digestion.

The editor down in Florida, who lately stuffed the crop of a turkey-buzzard with diamonds, had, undoubtedly, no other object than to satisfy his printer’s demand for another stick-full; and he in Maine, who more recently stranded four mighty whales (minutely discriminating between the ballcena mysticetus, the cachalot and great northern rorqual), had, probably, no other aim than to improve the health of his readers by giving them a run to the frog-pong in which the prodigy was said to be on view. These weak and harmless, if not amiable inventions, could not deceive the vigorous incredulity of our metropolitan censors; the buzzard’s crop was opened, and the corn in its interior acknowledged; the Maine man’s butterboat was overset, and the suppositious cetacean sent back to blow and flounder at the pole.

But the Law-Morgan hallucination has its hook in the leviathan’s nose, and journalism is drawn after it through cambric needle eyes of The Impossible- as certain sinners, in the good book, are said to be drawn through to heaven. The buzzard and marrow-fat stories had no interest to be subserved by their credence: the Law-Morgan romances have lives and characters and millions of money, sunk and in expectancy, depending on their manufacture and reception. Is it logiv to reject the retail and purposeless improbabilities of the former, while swallowing without shrug or murmur the wholesale impossibilities behind which those million-moneyed gamblers are playing for scrutiny?

Let us examine the latest news from Rivas by the light of our former dispatches and see what the whole amounts to.

WALKER, on the 16th of March, gave orders for another attack on St. George. At daybreak on the 17th he commenced the assault, and had just entered the plaza when news reached him that HENNINGSEN, left behind in the Rivas with fifty men, was countercharged by the Central-American allies, and would be shortly overwhelmed unless promptly and effectually succored. Abandoning the victorious attack, the victorious fillibusters wheeled round to win another victory by victoriously marching back to the unconquered town in which HENNINGSEN and his fifty were victoriously (or otherwise) defending themselves. But on attempting this, it was found that the road over which, on four previous occasions, (the 26th and 30th January, and the 4th and 6th February,) they had victoriously marched to similar victories, was now occupied by their enemies who lay behind the cactus hedges on either side- thus forming a double lane of musketry through which the victorious gentlemen would have to escape with their lives as best they might. Some portion, a majority of them, doubtless did undoubtedly escape, and got back into the city from which the fatuity or desperation of their commander had led them forth at day-break. St. George was not captured: its church still stands on the eastern side of the plaza, and forms the catidel towards which all the trenches, covered ways and pieces of arms, designed by CHEVALIER (the French Colonel in command) converge: its garrison and the whole allied army encamped within and around it, still receive uninterruptedly their provisions and reinforcements from the lake. Rivas was not relieve of its blockade; its garrison are still cooped up within a narrower compas, and environed by enemies constantly receiving fresh accessions, while the last twenty recruits to HENNIGSEN by GARRISON from San Francisco, were more than compensated, on the wrong side of the ledger, by desertions from the guard of honor sent down to San Juan del Sur to “welcome them”- Nicaragua for, take them prisoners- and the losses of the united party while fighting their way back to join the fillibuster force at Rivas.

This is the naked sum and substance of the fifth victory at St. George- using the word after fifth with precisely the same significance that HENNIGSEN and Captain ANDERSON attach to it. Taking their statements without question or abatement, so far as the facts are concerned, their united jubilations are based on these substantial results.

But great importance, it seems, is attached to the circumstance that these letters were written, one to the wife, the other to the father, of the parties writing, “There can be no deception here,” cries the gullible critic: “It must be true as gospel,” echoes the still more gullible public- and forthwith the recruiting system is recommended, and men are sent off to perish, lest those muskets and howitzers, referred to in the unsigned letter intercepted on the San Juan, should remain without an occupation!

It seems a hopeless task to reason against this universal mulishness. The irrationalities of Bedlam are solid judgment when contrasted with this preposterous credulity. Suppose GEORGE LAW or CHARLES MORGAN were to ask men to go down to Pier 20 and roll molasses hogsheads for them gratuitously for a single day, how many laborers, think you, would engage, out of pure love and affection, in the unrecompensed toil? Yet when they ask men to desert home and country, relations, sympathies and the comforts of civilized life in a free country- not for a day, but forever- not at the loss of a dollar, but of life- not to swell the capitals of men already wealthy, (or supposed to be so,) but to destroy, without personal benefit, the lives and properties of poor miserable freemen who are fighting for their homes, their independence, their altars and their wives- not for larger liberty than we here enjoy, but to help elevate a military tyrant who has shot hundreds just like them, giving the order for their death without remorse enough to shake his finger as he sits quietly at his table penning just such victories as these- not to enjoy themselves, even, during a short life and a merry one, (for that desire, in such a class, is common,0 but to die dogs’ deaths under worse treatment than ever house experiences- when this is the substantial request made by Mr. LAW or MORGAN, the monstrous paradox seems to stagger reason; and discernment is never recovered until its eyes are torn open to glare upon the hopelessness and horror of the engulfing vortex round which they whirl and rush with drunken fury, drawn nearer every instant to that black, spiral, writhing emptiness down which all such Nicaraguan ventures must finally disappear.

“But the letters from HENNINGSEN and ANDERSON were to their nearest and dearest, and could men of character and honor prevaricate or palter at such a crisis, and in the inmost confidence of such relationship?”

Let those who ask this read the following extract: it is taken from the Sun of the 7th of April, and it used to introduce a letter from Captain ALEXANDER T. S. ANDERSON to his father, a resident in this City, I believe, and one who may well be proud of two as gallant sons as ever did desperate service in a desperate cause, still keeping untarnished names where dishonor riots, and holding pure, well-ordered lives in the midst of general debauchery. “We are advised by this man, moreover,” says the journal quoted, “that the brothers ANDERSON” (FRANK on the river and ALECK at head-quarters) “have written regularly by every conveyance, and were disappointed that the letters DID NOT APPEAR IN PRINT, inasmuch as they depended upon their publication as a ready means,” and so forth.

What think you now of these private letters? and holding the characters of the writers as high as you will- and we cannot hold them higher than we hold ANDERSON’S from personal knowledge, and HENNIGSEN’S from what little we have heard- holding both to be gentlemen, and, therefore, incapable of private falsehood to a private friend, what responsibility of affectionate confidence can you attach to letters which the writers are “disappointed” not to see “in print?” Go ask the receivers of those letters if the published documents contain all that was incolsed within the respective envelopes? Were there no pained confessions on little sips kept back from the public eye? Had they nothing to say to those nearest and dearest to them save what they would be willing for all the world to hear?

Our common experience makes such a hypothesis absurd. Even under the commonest circumstances of unexciting life, a son’s letter to his father, a husband’s to his wife, will inevitably contain (supposing the writers to have fleshy, not leaden, hearts) suggestions, aspirations, reminiscences- brief words or paragraphs through which the hidden love will stream on the intended eye. Do the letters, then, that have been published contain all that the letters received conveyed?

We have a right to ask this question, for the letters have been thrust upon us without our seeking, and credence is claimed for them on the specific ground (and no other) that they are the private letters of the writers, penned in the unbosoming confidence of affection to those most interested in their welfare. Take away this absolute entireness- let even the one word “false” be scribbled inside the envelope, and the whole remainder will become a ruse de guerre, which the recipient will sadly understand, and sadly make use of in the papers to the intended purpose. It is use of in the papers to the intended purpose. It is as hateful, and as necessary as true- these private letters are a swindle unless the public are taken into the whole confidence that is claimed for their private character.

But the converse of the proposition will not hold. The letters may be given entire, and still be intended to convey a wholly false impression to the public- an impression necessary to the sustainment of the Law-Morgan scheme- at the cost of personal feeling. Manly endurance never groans over the inevitable; nor will a generous affection pain the helpless and absent by a detail of sufferings and dangers that are unavoidable and must be met.

Casting aside all doubt, however, take the letters as they stand, and the synopsis of results is substantially that given in a preceding paragraph. It is the old story of Massaya and Granada, and the previous attacks upon St. George- with the difference in this case, that the allies were strong enough to surround and attempt to capture the whole of the fillibuster force. When WALKER attacked Massaya, the enemy made a razzia on Granada, but retured on the return of the fillibusters to their plundered head quarters. When WALKER attacked St. George for the fifth and last time, the enemy not only made a counter-movement upon Rivas, but even attempted to cut off and capture the attacking party. The victory announced by the Texas implies that WALKER, having had the “foolishness” to enter this cul de sac, had the good fortune to escape out of it with less loss than might have been expected. Divested of the rhodomontade designed to “appear in print,” the facts related in HENNIGSEN’S and ANERSON’S letters, “have this extent- no more.”

As this letter is a mere criticism, not pretending to any occult information, let me now give a few extracts from the accounts, since abundantly confirmed, sent home by Captain JOHN M. GRIFFIN, of this City, who, though not an educated tactician, is reputed one of the most intelligent, active, and indomitable men in WALKER’S army; he is a nobleman of Nature’s patent, and all that he says- as all that ANDERSON might say, if really addressing a private friend- is entitled to implicit credence.

“We found,” says GRIFFIN, describing the attack on the 26th of January last,- “we found that it was impossible to get into the plaza without losing a great number of men, so we fell back about six hundred yards to a building on the road” (PRICE’S blacksmith shop, most probably,) “and there took a position. We determined to wait till morning came. The enemy, in the meantime, threw out parties to flank us, but we held them in check until daylight, and then found that they were on three sides of us. We kept open our rear, so as to make good our retreat in case of their flanking us. We held this position until about 11 o’clock next morning. That afternoon we attacked the enemy with out whole force, but it was no use; we had to fall back again.” [At this time, according to GRIFFIN’S account, there were but 800 allies in St. George, who succeeded in repelling the attacks he is describing. The allies subsequently received 1,000 men from Obraje.] “On 30th January,” again writes GRIFFIN, “we again attacked St. George under HENNINGSEN, but my God, what an attack! On we went, the men falling in all directions; we charged them and fell back, charged then again, fell back again, and stood fighting them against their own barricades for one hour and a half. We lost in killed and wounded, about 90 men.” [On this occasion HENNINGSEN fell back to Rivas without effecting anything, save the slaughter of some Central Americans who could be better spared than the ninety gallant fellows lost in effecting it.] This same manoeuvre - if desperation deserves the scientific name- was repeated on the 4th of February, at 3 P.M. “But,” again writes Captain GRIFFIN, “it was no use.” “We killed two of their colonels and about 175 men,” this time. “We lost about 40 killed and wounded.” “We fell back again on this place,” (letter dated from Rivas,) “and rested for three days, and then,” (7th of February,) “took along with us all of our cannon, three sic-pound guns and three howitzers, for the purpose of shelling the enemy out, but it did no good.” “They had dug intrenchments all around the plaza, and when we would use the cannon shot on them they took to the intrenchment.” “We did not charge them,” (this time,) “as it would have been foolishness, and we would have lost a great many men.”

Now notice: He says that to charge these works- not intrenchments, exactly, but no matter for that- would have been “foolishness,” even though defended by an enemy vastly inferior to that which was in their occupation at the date of last advices. As palpable and proved “foolishness” no charge was made by HENNIGSEN, although the fillibuster force must have been then much stronger than at the date of the last attack under WALKER. What follows as the inference but that desperation, and not hope, impelled the fifth mad movement?

St. George is a mere plaza, perhaps one thousand feet square, surrounded externally by a barricade and traced within the inclosure by trenches and covered ways, diverging into places of arms, sufficient for the sudden concealment and withdrawal of two thousand men, and consequently their as sudden reappearance at every point within the sides. These fronts of defence and rallying points converge towards the east side of the Plaza, connecting with the church, which thus becomes the citadel- a bull-proof, massive structure, built of hardened earth and capable of sheltering, and pierced to emit the fire of not less than 600 men. Its cannon enfilade and sweep the whole area of the Plaza, and two adobe buildings, left standing on either side, set as redoubts and cross fire in front of its approach. This, then, is the centre and encsinte of the system of defence designed by the French Colonel CREVALIER- as I gather from the accounts (our only data) given of the fortifications in your Aspinwall correspondence- which appears written by a person, though not versed in the art military, yet of strong general judgment and very patient impartiality. Like all other Indian towns in Central America, St. George was surrounded by plantations of corn, sugar, and plantains; but these have, of course, been destroyed by the French Colonel in command. From the lake, half a mile distant, the two steamers in the hands of the Central Americans supply it with provisions, recruits, and the other munitions of war.

So much we learn from the crazy trash put together in the newspapers by correspondents who write, they know not what, but fling out every report and circumstance that reaches them, or is crammed down their throats by interested parties, without the least effort at arrangement, or the formation of a general plan- and such were the advantages of position to gain which WILLIAM WALKER made his fifth and last rally from Rivas.

Orders were issued on the 16th of March, for this attack on St. George- “it being reported,” says ANDERSON, “that the allies were not very strong there.” There being but two and a half or three miles between the towns, threes orders must have been carried either by spies or deserters to the Central American camp, and hence the ambuseade of the cactus hedges. At day light of the 17th, WALKER was in position, and opened fire with his artillery from the western side against the church. Under cover of this fire his men attacked the barriers at two or three points probably; but this is only conjecture. “Our six pounders played on the church with such effect that the enemy, who were there in large numbers, were forced to fly to other parts, and at last, having been driven from one corner to another, were compelled to leave the plaza altogether.”

From this it becomes evident that young ANDERSON knew nothing of the covered ways and other means of sudden concealment existing in the interior of the piazza; he imagined that they were driven away, while their disappearance was merely a preconcerted manoeuvre, designed to draw WALKER’S forces within the circle of officer trenches and large rifle pits, and to hold him there engaged until news should come of the fall and capture of Rivas. That last place of refuge wrested from them, the Law Morgan force must have perished to a man. “Our little army not seceding 350 men all told,” says ANDERSON, “were surrounded by the enemy numbering 2,500 to 3,000. We were completely hemmed in. But,” continues the Captain, with charming unconsciousness, “we had gained our point” (what point in the name of heaven? the capture of St. George?” No! The relief of Rivas? No! but) “in drawing them out of the place!!”

Now it is morally certain that the defenders never quitted the plaza, and absolutely certain that they never quitted the Church- their citadel. If they had, WALKER would have taken possession of both, as he marched there at special risk for the special purpose of doing. “All communication with Rivas was cut off” continues ANDERSON, “and we were without provisions.” “Their next move, therefore, was to attempt to cut off our retreat.” “Rivas being defended only by a few citizens,” adds the Captain, “WALKER found himself in a very ticklish position!

Let me remark that these ticklish positions are altogether too frequent for men to laugh at them; they are the chronic malady of fillibusterism, and the “Ready Relief” that shall do away with them must be more miraculous in military matters than any ever bottled and be-puffed for physical.”

The fifth victory, therefore, ended in the escape of the Law-Morgan outlaws from the last ticklish position into which their leader’s fatuity or desperation had drawn them; by ANDERSON’S account at the date of last writing, the allies were within one thousand yards of Rivas and were not to be touched for two or three days! This is victory with a vengeance: the assaulted town is not taken, but the assaulters are driven back through an organized ambuscade, and driven back more closely besieged than ever in the town from which they sallied! The next victory over the allies at St. George will probably place them in possession of the last square mile of ground held by the invaders in Nicaragus; and the next following immense success of WM. WALKER will probably be his escape to San Francisco, from whence returning to the Atlantic States he could undoubtedly make a good deal of money by lecturing before our Lyceums and other blue-stocking associations on the subject of- Public Brigandage as an Art.

Finally, let me ask what can Gen. HENNINGSEN mean by his repeated use of the phrase- “this breaks up the allies,” or the “allies are broken up,” or other words to that effect? In all the previous accounts received from him, he uses these identical, or strictly similar phrases, in connection with the four former victories? and writing after the battle of March 17, we again find this purely military phrase used with a totally unmilitary significance. “Our victory is decisive,” he says in one of his private letters designed for the public eye, “and breaks up the allies completely, and in a few weeks all fighting within the boundaries of Nicaragua will be over.” We can fancy the grim smile overspreading the General’s features as that last paragraph was penned. All the fighting will be over ina few weeks, he says; but how? By more fillibuster victories with the results herein before exampled? or by some terrible defeat of the allies that shall make Presidents MORA and RIVAS undisputed masters of the country?

In another letter to another person of the same date, General HENNINGSEN again uses the stereotyped and suspicious expression: “The defeat is fatal to the enemy- it breaks them up.” Another letter (same date and place) from an officer who appears on intimate terms with HENNINGSEN- probably one o this law aid de camps- repeats the dubious phrase in a form only slightly varies, and savering strongly of preconcertment. “American Minio rifles,” it says, “and Henningsen howitzers and cannon did the business. The allies are finally used up.

Now how can HENNINGSEN as a military man speak of “breaking up” large masses of men who have neither order, nor morale, nor discipline; but who will scatter in one hour and reassemble the next, with the instinct, and no more shame than a flock of pigeons roused from a stubble field by the crack of a double-barrel, and the feathers flying from two of their wounded comrades? The pigeons will go back to the field so long as they are hungry and grain can be found in its furrow; and the Central Americans will reunite after every temporary or local defeat, and go back to surround the invaders, upon whose extermination their own safety is at stake. This is pretty well instanced by the fact that the last terrible reverses at St. George and along the cactus-road, brought the allies within a thousand yards of the ramparts which, before, they had been three miles away from. The General seriously perils his reputation by the use of such unmeaning rant.

And now, Sir, to conclude. This letter is written- not on private information, as were my former letters- but as a simple criticism on the ex parte statements of those most interested in having their true positions misunderstood. The means of conveyance that carried HENNINGSEN’S, ANDERSON’S and General CAZNEAU’S last letters stopped mine, for the same reason that theirs were stopped in the conveyance which brought my former correspondence. It is a drawn game between us on that point, and there I am content to let the matter rest.

God knows this letter has been written with a heavy heart- as one miraculously rescued, who stands upon a cliff and sees fresh victims drifting towards the death that few escape. Friends have gone down in the whirlpool, and friends will follow; the ruin that was closing yawns again, and the experience of two years of massacre is shriveled up from the minds of men by the lectirc spark that flashes a lie from New Orleans to Wall-street.

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