THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. IV.—DECEMBER, 1859.—NO. XXVI.
IN the winter of 1856, the outlook of the present writer, known somewhere as Samuel Absalom, became exceedingly troubled, and indeed scarcely respectable. As gold-digger in California, Fortune had looked upon him unkindly, and he was grown to be one of the indifferent, ragged children of the earth Those who came behind him might read as they ran, stamped on canvas once white, “ Stockton Mills. Self-Rising Flour ! ”— the well-known label in California, at that day, of greatest embarrassment.
One morning, after sleeping out the night in the streets of Oroville, he got up, and read these words, or some like them, in the village newspaper :—“ The heavy frost which fell last night brings with it at least one source of congratulation for our citizens. Soon the crowd of vagrant street-sleepers, which infests our town, will be forced to go forth and work for warmer quarters. It has throughout this summer been the ever-present nuisance and eyesore of our otherwise beautiful and romantic moonlit nights.” “ Listen to this scoundrel !” said he ; “ how be can insult an unfortunate man ! Makes his own living braying, lying, and flinging dirt, and spits upon us sad devils who fail to do it in an honest manner! Ah, the times are changing in California ! Once, no one knew but this battered hat I sit under might partially cover the head of a nobleman or man of honor ; but men begin to show their quality by the outside, as they do elsewhere in the world, and are judged and spoken to accordingly. I will shake California dust from my feet, and be gone !”
In this mood, I thought of General Walker, down there in Nicaragua, striving to regenerate the God-forsaken Spanish Americans. “ I will go down and assist General Walker,” said I. So next morning found me on my way to San Francisco, with a roll of blankets on my shoulder and some small pieces of money in my pocket. Arrived in the city, I sought out General Walker’s agent, one Crittenden by name, a respectable, honest-looking man, and obtained from him the promise of two hundred and fifty acres of Nicaraguan land and twentyfive dollars per month for service in the army of General Walker, and also a steerage-ticket of free passage to the port of San Juan del Norte by one of the steamers of the Nicaragua Transit Line. Of my voyage down I do not intend to speak ; several unpublished sensations might have been picked up in that steerage crowd of bog Irish, low Dutch, New Yorkers, and California savages of every tribe, returning home in red flannel shirts and boots of cowhide large ; but my business is not with them, and I say only that after a brief and prosperous voyage we anchored early one morning in the harbor of San Juan del Sur, at that time part of the dominions of General Walker.
Whilst the great crowd of home-bound passengers, with infinite din and shouting, are bustling down the gangways toward the shore, our little party of twenty or thirty Central American regenerators assemble on the ship’s bow, and answer to our names as read out by a small, mild-featured man, whom at a glance I should have thought no filibuster. It seems he was our captain pro tem., and bore recommendations from the agent at San Francisco to a commission in the Nicaraguan service. He had made the voyage on the cabin side of the ship, and I saw him now for the first time. His looks betokened no fire-eating soul ; but your brave man has not necessarily a truculent countenance ; and I was, indeed, thankful for the prospect of fighting under an honest man and no cut-throat outwardly.
We followed this our chief down the vessel’s side to the shore, catching a glimpse of Fate as we passed over the old hulk in our course. It was one of Walker’s soldiers in the last stage of fever. His skin was as yellow and glazed as parchment, and seemed drawn over a mere fleshless skeleton. Poor man ! he lay there watching the noisy passengers descend from the ship. “ His eyes are with his heart, and that is far away,” carried back by the bustling scene to another shore,— the goal of that passing crowd,— never more to gladden his dim eye. The unrelenting grasp of death was on him ; and even now, perhaps, the waves are rolling his bleaching bones to and fro on that distant beach. I say that this dismal omen damped the spirit of us all. But nothing in this world can long dishearten the brave ; we soon grow lighter, and, marching along in the crowd, blackguard effectively the witty or witless dogs that crack jokes at us and forebode hard fate ahead of us.
When we came into the town of San Juan, we found there a general and colonel of the filibuster army, and reported ourselves forthwith as a party of recruits just arrived and at their service. The general was altogether absorbed hobnobbing with the old friends whom he had discovered in the passenger crowd, and would not listen to us ; but the colonel pointed out an empty building, and told us to drop our luggage there, and amuse ourselves until we heard further from him.
This town of San Juan del Sur is entirely the creation of the Nicaragua Transit, Company, and is the Pacific terminus of the Isthmus portage-road. It consisted of half a dozen board hotels, and a litter of native grass-thatched huts, and lay at the foot of a high, woody spur, which curves out into the sea and forms the southern rim of a beautiful little harbor, completed by another less elevated point jutting out on the north. The country inland is entirely shut out by a dense forest, into which the Transit road plunges and is immediately lost. Whilst I was walking about this sequestered place, now all alive with the California passengers, a party of Walker’s cavalry came riding in from the interior, and at once drew all eyes upon them. They were mounted on horses or mules of every color, shape, and size,— themselves yellow-faced, ragged, and dirty ; nevertheless, their deadly garniture, rifles, revolvers, and bowie-knives, and their fierce and shaggy looks, kept them from being laughed at. They dismounted and tied their beasts in front of one of the hotels, and then dispersed about the town in search of whatever was refreshing.
From these men we learned that General Walker’s prospects were never so fair as now. His enemies, they said, worn out and ready to despair, had drawn off to Granada, where they now lay irresolute and quarrelling amongst themselves. General Walker held the Transit route from ocean to ocean, and a single filibuster might walk all through the country without danger. This news was not satisfactory to all of us. A small, bright-eyed youth, from the California theatre, who had been noted on the voyage down for his loud talking, declared that for his part he had come to Nicaragua to fight, and, now that there was no more fighting to be done, he would pass through and take ship for the United States. The filibusters smiled at each other grimly, and told him, if that was the difficulty, he had better not go, for Walker intended driving the enemy out of Granada shortly, and he would there find all that he wanted. And well it was that they satisfied him to stay ; for on that day this youth went without his dinner because he had no cent in his pocket to buy it, and ship-captains refuse to assist all such as lie under that unhappy cloud. Oh, thou light-bodied son of Thespis ! Where art thou now ? I saw thee last, with heavy musket on thy shoulder, marching wearily to the assault of San Jorge. Did the vultures tear thee there ? Or art thou still somewhere amongst men, blowing the great deeds wrought by thy feathery arm that day ? I hope thou wast not left on that dismal shore !
Late in the afternoon, when the Californians had departed for Virgin Bay, where they were to embark on Lake Nicaragua, our party of recruits took the road for the same place, on our way to Rivas, the head-quarters of the filibuster army. A short distance from the Pacific, we began the ascent of the Cordillera chain, not very formidable here, but broken into spurs and irregular ridges, with deep umbrageous hollows, and little streams of clear water winding noisily among them. Coming down from this rugged high ground, we entered a wide plain, stretching away to Lake Nicaragua, out of whose waters we saw the blue cones of Ometopec and Madeira lifting their heads up above all, and capped with clouds. Before we had crossed the twelve miles between ocean and lake, and entered Virgin Bay, it was dark, and the Californians were already hurrying aboard a little steamer, which puffed and whistled at the wharf. In half an hour afterwards they were steaming across the lake for the entrance or head of the Rio San Juan.
It was here that we ate our first meal at the expense of General Walker, or, rather, at the expense of an innkeeper of Virgin Bay ; for he, our entertainer, looked upon us as little better than sorners, declaring he had already fed filibusters to the value of six thousand dollars, without other return than General Walker’s promise to pay, which he professed to esteem but slightly or not at all. These hotel-keepers of Virgin Bay and San Juan, who came in the wake of the Transit Company, and made their money by the California passengers, seemed to be a good deal worried by General Walker. Their business was no longer profitable, and their families lived in a state of continual alarm between the combatants ; yet they were not allowed the alternative of flight ; for it was General Walker’s policy, wise or unwise, when he had got a man into Nicaragua who was useful to him, to keep him there ; and the last Transit Company, being entirely in his interest, carried no emigrant out of the Isthnius unfurnished with a passport from President Walker himself.
That night we slept in an empty building, and were aroused next morning at daybreak, and ordered to continue our march to Rivas, which was said to lie nine miles to the north of us. We set forward, grumbling sorely for lack of breakfast, and stiff from our twelve-miles’ march of the evening before. Our path led us sometimes under the deep shades of a tangled forest, sometimes along the open lake-beach, on which the waves rolled with almost the swell of an ocean surf. A few miles short of Rivas we emerged from the ragged forest, and entered a beautiful, cultivated country, through which we passed along green lanes fringed with broad-leaved plantains, bending oranges, tufted palms, and all tropical fruit-trees,— a very Nicaraguan paradise to the sore-footed wayfarer. At last this enchanting approach brought us to the outskirts of Rivas, and we entered a narrow, mud-walled street, and never halted until we came out upon the central and only plaza of the miserable town. Our incumbered march, without breakfast, after a long, inactive sea-voyage, had wearied us sadly ; and we threw our luggage upon the ground, lay down upon it, and ruminated on a scene of little comfort to the faint-hearted, if there were any such in our little crowd of world-battered and battering strong men, topers, and vagabonds.
The square we had entered was perhaps one hundred yards or more in width, much overgrown with grass, and surrounded by buildings of mean and gloomy aspect. Six narrow and sordid streets debouched into it,— two coming with parallel courses from the west, two from the east, and one entering at each eastern angle from the north and south. It was at the opening of the last of these that we rested, and received our first impressions of the wretched plaza, — since hung for us with a thousand dirty reminiscences.
It displayed none of those architectural embellishments and attempts at magnificence which usually centre about the plazas of the Spanish-American capitals, ——not even a carved door-facing or trifling ornament of any description. The entire side on our right, between the two eastern streets, was occupied by the cracked and roofless walls of an ancient church or convent, which had long been a neglected ruin. The fallen stones and mortar had raised a sloping embankment high up its venerable sides ; and the small trees, here and there shooting above the luxuriant grass and running vines which covered this climbing pile of rubbish, waved their branches over the top of the mouldering walls. The interior of the crumbling structure was a wilderness of rank grass and weeds, the elysium of reptiles, iguanas, centipedes, and ten thousand poisonous insects. On our left, opposite the falling church, was another ruin ; but its vulgar features owned none of the green and mossy dignity of age, which gave a melancholy beauty to the former. It was a glaring pile of naked dust and rubbish, and its shot crumbled walls and riddled doors told the tale of its destruction. The entire front on that side of the plaza was in ruins, with the exception of one stout building on the corner diagonally opposed to us. The northern side was inclosed by a long, low building, with its elevated doors partly hidden by the far-projecting, redtiled roof ; and in front of it six or eight grim pieces of cannon, mounted upon wheels, gaped their black mouths toward us. Our own side of the square was occupied by a building exactly like the one opposite. The low-reaching roof was supported by wooden posts, and the long porch or corridor between the posts and the wall was paved with large earthen tiles. The doors, elevated several feet above this pavement to baffle the heat of a tropical sun, were darkened by the overhanging roof ; and this, together with the effect of the small wooden-grated windows and the absence of furniture, gave the rooms a gloomy and comfortless aspect. All these buildings, with the exception of the ruined convent, which was of stone, were built of adobes, or large sun-dried blocks of mud ; and their walls, doors, and staring red roofs were everywhere bruised or perforated with shot.
Such was the plaza and middle spot of Rivas, a town of some two or three thousand inhabitants, where General Walker stood at bay many weary days against the combined Costa Ricans, Guatemalans, and Chamorristas, and was netted at last. But these observations of the squalid plaza were of another date. At present our eyes and thoughts fasten upon the crowd of melancholy, fevereaten filibusters, who walk with heavy pace up and down the corridors, and along the paths which cross the grassgrown plaza. There was a morbid, yellowish glaze, almost universal, on their faces, and an unnatural listlessness and utter lack of animation in all their movements and conversation, which contrasted painfully with the boisterous hilarity and rugged healthiness of our late Californian fellow-travellers. Their appearance was most forlorn and despicable in a military view,—no soldier’s uniform or spirit amongst them, only the poor man’s uniform of rags and dirt, and the spirit of careless, disease-worn, doomed men. Nevertheless, all bore about them some emblem of their trade ; some, for the most part with difficulty, carried muskets or rifles ; some, the better-dressed and healthier looking, wore swords,— a weapon, as I afterwards found, distinctive of commissioned officers ; some had with them only their pistols or cartridge-boxes, which, belted around the middle, served a double purpose in keeping up their ragged breeches. Then almost all of them, as they moved about or lay in the shade of the corridors, sucked or gnawed some fruit of the country,— the only thing which they seemed to do with energy or due sensation.
Whilst I sat looking about at these miserable people, I was accosted by an individual whom I had known in California. He professed to be. glad to see me ; told me Nicaragua was the finest of countries ; “but,” said he, with some latent humor of too ghastly a hue, “ I’m sorry you didn’t come down with us three months ago, as you thought of doing ; we’ve all been promoted. The officers and two-thirds of the men have died, and nearly all the rest of us are promoted. I myself am captain. You made a great mistake, you see.”
“ My friend,” said I, “ you needn’t try to frighten me. I’ve lived in a tropical climate before, and it is the healthiest part of the world for men of my temperament.”
“ Then you'll be promoted,” said he. “ A healthy man is sure of his reward in this service. Do you see that fellow crossing the plaza with the old shoes in his hand ? ”
“ Yes,” said I,— “ poor man ! ”
“ He has got them off of some dead man’s feet out at the hospital. They die out there night and day. All these men you see here will die in six months.”
After running through this humorous vein, he told me what adventures he had seen since joining the filibuster army ; which, however, I have no intention to recount ; — honor enough, if I may relate veridically, and with passable phrase, my own tamer befallings.
Long after we had grown sufficiently hungry, one came from General Walker, and led us to a house in the outer parts of the town, where, he informed us, we had been allotted to quarter for the present. The same person further instructed us to send to the commissary, and we should obtain wherewith to satisfy our hunger. We did so gladly ; and having drawn a supply of beef, tortillas, and plantains, were comparatively content for the rest of the day.
After several days of idle loitering about the camp, our party was separated and ranked in divers old companies of the army. Myself and some few others obtained seats amongst the horsemen, and had reason to think ourselves happy ; for the mounted part of the service was so much more esteemed, that lieutenants of the foot companies had been known to drop their rank voluntarily and take grade as private soldiers in the saddle.
But first it was necessary to achieve our horses before we could mount ; and to that end we were permitted, and indeed commanded, by General Walker, President of Nicaragua, to search the surrounding haciendas and stables, until we were satisfactorily provided. Accordingly we set out one morning on this errand, furnished, all of us, with rifles and store of ammunition, against the possibility of collision with such countryfolk as might desire over-ardently to keep their horses by them. It will not be profitable to follow our search over that magnificent country, diversified with groves of cocoa and plantain trees, patches of sugar-cane and maize, with here and there a picturesque grange embowered amidst orange and palm trees. Suffice it to say, that all the animals in the vicinity of Rivas, fit for warlike purposes, had been removed, and toward evening we found ourselves out amongst the hills to the west, beyond the circle of cultivation, and as yet with no horses in tow. From the summit of a high, grass-crowned hill we swept all the surrounding country ;— toward the east spread a vast sea of verdure, rolled into gentle hollows and ridges, broken by the red roofs of Rivas, San Jorge, and Obraja ; and beyond all, the lake stretching into misty remoteness, with its islands, and the ever-notable volcanoes, Madeira and Ometepec, rising abruptly out of it. It was a glorious scene, worthy of reverie. But we must scan it as Milton’s Devil — to compare us with one far above us—did the hardly fairer garden of Paradise,—with thoughts of prey in our hearts. Nor were we disappointed, any more than that other greater one ; for on top of an open ridge, a short distance west of us, we saw a solitary horse, tethered, and feeding composedly, as if he had nothing to fear out here amongst the hills. Part of us keep our eyes upon him, lest his tricky owner should get the alarm and remove him ; whilst others plunge into the coppice which fills the intervening hollow, and soon reappear on the ridge beyond.
Whilst we stood about the horse, communing doubtfully, not knowing where to find another, an old man approached us, and, with rueful look and gesture, besought us not to deprive him of the sole support of his life.
“ Beyond that hill,” said he, " the Padre has many better horses. El Padre está un rico hombre. Yo estoy muy pobre, Señores.”
Set it down to the credit of filibusters, that, we gladly surrendered this old man his horse, and betook ourselves to the rear of the hill which he pointed out to us ; and there, after some search, we found, in close covert of tangled and almost impenetrable bushes, a small corral of mules and horses, which the Padre had begrudged the service of General Walker. For my own share in the spoils of this Trojan adventure, I chose a well-legged mule, young, lively, and well enough looking generally ; and thenceforward I was entitled to call myself “ Mounted Ranger,” according to General Walker’s rather high-sounding classification.
Let no one reflect upon the writer because he assisted in robbing this churchman of his horses. For him there was no choice ; and if he is chargeable with moral depravity, it must be elsewhere,—forsooth, in joining with one who made war unprovided with a military chest sufficient to cover expenses. However, this is no matter, one way or the other. The private character of the relator, Samuel Absalom, is not before the reader ; nor is it to be expected that he will care to turn his eye upon it for a moment.
The ranger company in which we had been ranked was stationed below, on the Transit road ; but as it would return to bead-quarters as soon as the California immigrants, now due, had crossed over to the Pacific, we were ordered to await it there. We spent the interim foraging for our animals or loitering about the camp. It may be that some short exposition of filibuster spirit and circumstances, as we saw them at this leisure time, will have interest for one or two. A few weeks before our arrival, the prospect of the Americans in Nicaragua was black enough, and, indeed, despaired of by most. General Henningsen, with the greater part of the force, was cooped up and half starved in Granada, by three or four thousand Costa Ricans and Chamorristas ; General Walker, with the remainder, lay lower down on the Isthmus, watched by a second division of the enemy, and too weak to give him any assistance. General Henningsen’s men, reduced to a mere handful by starvation and the bullets of the enemy, could hold out but a day or two longer ; and then the entire force of the allies would unite and beat up General Walker, and end the squalid game. The Central Americans were certain of their prey. But just at this juncture several hundred healthy Americans landed on the Transit road, and, placing them on one of the lake steamers, together with his old force, General Walker took them up to Granada, sent them ashore in bungos under a heavy fire, told them to do or die, and then paddled out into the lake with the steamer. It was a good stroke. The men, without other hope, fought their way over three successive barricades to General Henningsen, brought him out, setting fire to the city, reëmbarked on the steamer, and finally landed again at the fort of San Jorge, two miles east of Rivas. After that, General Walker gathered all his force at Rivas, and the enemy drew off to Granada, with some thirty or forty miles between.
When we reached Nicaragua, in the latter part of December, 1856, the entire force of the filibusters was still in Rivas, with the exception of a small party stationed on the Rio San Juan, beyond the lake, and communicating with the Isthmus force only by means of two small steamers, “ La Vírgen ” and “ San Cárlos, ” which plied across the lake between the head of the river and Virgin Bay, on the California passenger-line. The allies had remained inactive at Granada, and were said to be broken into factions, and daily deserting and returning home in large bodies. The isthmus of Rivas was free ground to the filibusters, and a score of rangers might forage with little danger from the Costa Rican line almost to Granada. Their force outside of the hospital, as we saw it at head-quarters, numbered probably from eight hundred to one thousand men,— one-third mere skeletons, scarcely able to go through drill on the plaza,— fit only to bury, — and the great majority of the remainder turning yellow, shaken daily by chills and fever, and soon to be as worthless as the others. They were all foreigners,—Americans, Germans, Irish, French, and English,—with the exception of one small company of natives, captained by a half-breed Mexican. It was said, however, that, many of the poorer natives were willing to fight against the Chamorristas,— the aristocratic Nicaraguan faction originally opposed to Patricio Rivas and the Liberals, now in arms against General Walker, — but that they made miserable soldiers outside of a barricade, and General Walker had no arms to throw away upon them. For sustenance, the filibusters had the fruits around Rivas, and a small ration of tortillas and beef, furnished them daily by Walker’s commissary. The beef, as we heard, was supplied by Señor Pineda, General Walkers most powerful and faithful friend amongst the natives ; and the tortillas were bought from the native women in the neighborhood of Rivas. It was the quality of the food — assisted largely by exposure, irregular fasts, and aguardiente
— which made Nicaragua so fatal to the filibusters. The isthmus between the lake and the Pacific, swept nine months of the year by cool eastern breezes, is not unhealthy. But the ration of beef and tortillas (simple maize cakes without salt) was too scanty and intermittent ; and in the absence of proper food, the men were driven to fill their stomachs with the unwholesome. fruits which everywhere surrounded their quarters, and but few were able to stand it many months.
As to the spirit which seemed to animate these men, it was certainly most discouraging. They had lost all thought — supposing them to have ever had such thought — of regenerating Central America ; and most of them wished no better thing than to fill their bellies, or to escape from Nicaragua. Many of them were sunk into a physical and mental lethargy, thinking of nothing and caring for nothing, and were gone, not a few, even into lunacy. Some cursed General Walker for enticing them there under false pretences. There were men with families who professed to have come there to settle and cultivate the soil, having been persuaded that the war was ended and the country prepared for peaceful immigration. Some had paid their own passage, purposing merely to reconnoitre, and remain or not, as it pleased them ; but when they landed in Nicaragua, General Walker placed muskets in their unwilling hands, and there he had kept them, fighting, not for himself or his promises, but for life. It disgusted others that the service was not only almost certain death and thankless, but was altogether unprofitable. It was General Walker’s practice, and had been always, to discharge his soldiers’ wages with scrip of no cash value whatever, or so little that many neglected to draw it when due them. And this was concealed at their enlistment. Indeed, the hatred towards General Walker and the service seemed almost universal amongst the privates, and they would have revolted and thrown away their arms at any moment, had there been hope of escape in that, But they were held together by common danger in a treacherous or hostile country, separated by broad oceans and impassable forests from a land of safe refuge. There was, besides, distrust of each other ; and fear, though no love, of General Walker. He was said to have the iron will and reckless courage of the true man of destiny. At one time, so they told us, a large body of fresh, able-bodied men, just arrived in Nicaragua, refused to join the filibusters on account of some disappointment about the amount of promised wages. General Walker led out his crowd of yellow men, whom the newcomers might have knocked down with the wind of their fists, and so overawed them by this display of resolution that they forth with Swallowed their complaints and joined his ranks with as good a grace as they might. I myself, in these first days, saw a little incident which impressed me that the man was no trifler. I was in his quarters one day, when an officer came in and made a report to him about some matter of his duty.
“ Captain, ” said General Walker, looking serenely over the man’s head, “ if this is the way you are going to do business, Nicaragua has no further need for you. We want nothing of this sort done here, Sir.”
The fierce, big-whiskered officer said nothing, but looked cowed ; and, indeed, not without excuse; for though there was a nasal whine in the tone of the little General, and no great fire in his unmeaning eye, there was yet a quiet self-reliance about him extremely imposing, and which, as I thought, reached back of any temporary sufflation as tyrant of Rivas, and was based upon perennial character. Nor is it contrary, so far as I know, to the laws of psychology, for a man to be endued with all the self-reliance of Bonaparte, with, at the same time, an unusually short gift of the great man’s marvellous insight, military or other.
Such an all-pervading demoralized spirit amongst the men as this I have slightly marked was sure to be contagious ; and I am persuaded that there were few of us who came down there with enthusiasm or admiration for General Walker, but lost most of it during our first days’ mixture in Rivas.
At the end of some six or eight days, our company came up from the Transit road, without the California passengers having as yet made their appearance. General Walker was expecting by this steamer, so long due on the Atlantic side, a large body of recruits with cannon, bombs, and other military stores, whose arrival would put him in condition to attack the enemy at Granada. He began to grow uneasy ; and at length sent an armed row-boat across the lake to the head of the Rio San Juan to get intelligence. The little party which held that river were thought to be in no danger behind the walls of San Carlos and Castillo, and still further protected by the impenetrable forests which stretched backward from either bank ; but now it began to be whispered that General Walker had committed a fatal blunder in not using the surest means to keep his only communication with the Atlantic open.
In the mean while our company of rangers was ordered back to the Transit road, to remain until the passengers crossed. We rode down by a trail that lay nearer the Pacific than the one by which we had first approached Rivas.
We found the same desolate, vine-netted forest ; but on this route it was broken at several points by grassy savannas, dotted thinly with calabash-trees, and browsed by a few wild mules and cattle. In one of these openings, several miles from the Transit road, we passed a red-tiled building, the only one of any sort on the trail beyond the ring-fenced cultivation of Rivas. It was known as the Jocote Ranch-house, and became afterwards the scene of a bloody defeat for the filibusters.
Our ride terminated at a large open shed, standing on the Transit road, two miles east of San Juan, which had been erected by the Transit Company, and was used by them as shelter for their carriages. Here, together with a second company of mounted rangers, we were to quarter until the arrival of the California passengers ; and then it was to be our duty to guard those feeble travellers through the dominions of President Walker to the Pacific. Our own company numbered some thirty heads,—men and officers,—and being but lately come to Nicaragua, were yet tolerably healthy and lively,—although shaken at times by chills and melancholy, and nearly all turning perceptibly yellow. At all times of the day, when not in the presence of food or drink, some of them were bewailing the hour they came to Nicaragua, and sighing sadly to escape ; and had Samuel Absalom come there from any light motive of vanity, he had surely repented with them : as it was, he had seen a worse day ; the life, too, was not without charms for some men, and his heart stayed within him through all. The other company was even smaller than ours, older soldiers, and in much worse health,— many of them having a chill daily, others wasted with perpetual diarrhœa.
Our routine of duty at this camp was, to ride each day into the forest and hunt our ration of beef, to water our horses, and to stand an hour’s guard occasionally at night ; the remainder of consciousness we spent broiling and eating cow’s flesh, sucking sugar-cane, and waging horrid warfare against a host of ravenous ticks and crawling creatures of basest name.
One day, after we had so passed it off for a week or more, a report reached us from Virgin Bay, that one of the Transit Steamers had been seen to pass up the lake toward Granada, without stopping to land the passengers. A little after came an order from the colonel of the rangers directing our party to ride with all haste to Virgin Bay, and garrison it against the enemy. We mounted immediately and rode over the Transit as fast as such beasts as we had could carry us. On the way we met some of the American residents of Virgin Bay, with carpet-bags in their hands, hurrying across to find comfort near the emigrant steamer, which still awaited her passengers in the harbor of San Juan. They were a good deal frightened, and said an attack was expected on Virgin Bay at any hour.
When we came into the town, it was dark, and, having no time to lose in getting out the pickets, our horses were left tied under saddle in the street, and we took station, four at a post, out on the several approaches to the town. It seemed that nothing was known with certainty of the enemy ; but it was doubted by no one, since the steamer had passed in sight of her wharf without making or answering signals, that the enemy were in possession of her ; and it seemed probable that they would land somewhere that night, and attack before General Walker had time to prepare for them. Our force to oppose them, should they attempt to land at Virgin Bay, the only convenient place with a pier on the whole lake, was scarcely thirty in all,—a detachment from both companies having been sent a few days before to Rivas ; and of this force, the privates, to a man nearly, were wanted to furnish out the picketguards,— leaving a reserve body in the citadel of some half-dozen officers armed mostly with revolvers.
All that night we listened anxiously to the ceaseless din of the lake breaking upon the shore ; but it brought no enemy, and at morning we were released from guard and sent out to forage. At our shed-camp of the previous week the animals were turned out to feed in an inclosure, and we were spared the troublesome duty of foraging. But at Virgin Bay we were forced to go at it again under disadvantages; for the town had no surrounding circle of cultivation like that of Rivas,—having been but recently redeemed from the forest by the Transit Company, — and our only resource was a few distant ranchos scattered up and down the lake shore. Beside this, we had the daily duty, as before, of searching the open savannas in the forest for beef, — the commissary department furnishing us no part of a ration but bread,—and other irregular expeditions, which kept us in the saddle the greater part of the day.
Almost a week had passed in this manner, with no appearance or news of the enemy, and we had grown heartily tired of riding and watching to no purpose, when one day the steamer hove in sight towards the north ; and steaming down she went to land, almost directly opposite Virgin Bay, against the island of Ometepec. Day after day she lay there immovable, with her white side gleaming dimly across the water, and far out of the reach of us wistful filibusters ;—for although there was a small brig of General Walker's floating beside the pier which ran out into the lake, yet it was out of repair ; and, in any state, the wind blew too strongly and constantly from the northeast for a sail vessel to make the island, which lay almost in its teeth. Nevertheless, carpenters were set at work on it, and row-boats, borrowed of the vessels in San Juan harbor, were hauled over the Transit road ; and it was said that the old brig was to be filled with soldiers and worked across to the island by aid of the row-boats. The thing seemed far from impossible. The space between the island and Virgin Bay was not above ten or twelve miles, and for part of the distance, under lee of the great volcano, the wind was lull. Could the brig be worked round the wind and brought into this calm water, the towing thenceforward was easy ; and all this done in the space of one night, the surprise and recapture of the steamer were certain. In the mean while a detachment of foot marched down daily from Rivas, and, without giving us any relief, marched as regularly back again. Our hard-worked garrison, almost worn down by watching and riding, and, at sight of these men, hoping always to be relieved, snarled bitterly at such apparently useless expenditure of leg-muscle, — an article, truly, of which those lean, saffron-colored trampers had but too scanty supply for ordinary need.
One night, after the detachment of foot had gone, and there was no force but the rangers in the town, a large light, supposed to be under the boilers of the steamer, was seen on the water approaching from the north, and it was thought that the enemy were coming at last to attack us. However, when the light came almost opposite, it made toward the island and soon after disappeared. Next morning, looking across to the island, we saw a dark-colored steamer lying beside the white one ; and we knew that the enemy were in possession of both the Transit steamers, and held the lake wholly at command. It was the same day, I think, that one of the boats was seen to be getting up steam, and shortly afterward she paddled out from the island, and came directly toward Virgin Bay. Things were quickly put in posture for a fight. The neutral residents, who had returned from San Juan, again set out over the Transit road. The squad of infantry which had just come in from Rivas was placed at the extreme end of the wooden pier that ran some one hundred and fifty yards into the lake. They were armed with rifled muskets and Minié ball, and hoped to kill at eight hundred or a thousand yards. The rangers, with arms of shorter range, waited on the shore. As the steamer approached, she was seen to be covered with a crowd of dark-skinned soldiers. She came steadily up within quarter of a mile of the shore, and then, suddenly turning broadside to, opened with a single cannon. The ball struck the water some little distance from the end of the pier,—after an interval implying awkward handling, another roar, — and then one or two nervous soldiers on the pier, not liking to await the ball in that place, break for the shore ; but they are promptly knocked down by the others, and make no further progress. The steamer continues her fire out there leisurely, and the officer on the pier, being satisfied at last that she will come no closer, gives her a volley of musketry. In a moment the decks are cleared with a scamper, and no man is anywhere visible ; whilst, at the same time, the steamer hastily puts about, and never stops until she reaches the island.
This ill-supported bravado was as much as we saw of the enemy at Virgin Bay ; for next day we were recalled to headquarters, and gladly left that post to the care of the infantry. When we came to Rivas, we found many rumors about the enemy, but it was certain only that a bungo with natives from the island had been captured, as it came to shore, by a party of rangers, and it was these prisoners’ report that the enemy were gathering provisions on the island, and awaiting reinforcements, on whose arrival they would land and attack us upon the isthmus.
I may as well state here the explanation, as we afterwards learned it, of this most unexpected reappearance of the enemy, — which came upon General Walker like a thunderclap, whilst he dreamed they had left him for good and all. It seems that the Vanderbilt Company, whom Walker had made enemies by ousting them from the Transit route, sent an agent (one Spencer) to the disheartened Costa Ricans, who showed them that they might easily strangle the filibuster force by seizing the ill-guarded Rio San Juan. Led by Spencer, they secretly cut a road through the forest on the Costa Rican side, found the forts scarcely watched by a few spiritless sick men, and overwhelmed and scattered them without difficulty. At the same time they surprised and seized all the Transit steamers on the river and lake, so that thenceforward communication with the Atlantic was closed to General Walker, and a large body of New Orleans recruits under Lockridge, who had just arrived at the mouth of the river, found themselves headed off, and began a long and skilless fight to recover the steamers and make the junction with the isthmus force. So, after all, Walker owes his defeat, not to the natives of Central America, but to his own countrymen ; and, had it not been for the malice or revenge of Vanderbilt, he might have reigned in Nicaragua at this day,—unless he had blundered himself out of it unassisted, as many who lived with him thought he could hardly fail to do, were time but granted him.—After capture of the lake steamers, the Costa Ricans, impressing their American crews into service, took them up to Granada to embark the old force of Costa Ricans and Chamorristas still remaining there. They were on this errand when the steamer San Cárlos was first seen to pass Virgin Bay. But what other reinforcement they expected, whilst they lay so long against the island after their return from Granada, I do not know,—unless it was the Guatemalans, who we knew soon afterward had joined them in large force.
The next day after we had returned to Rivas, our company, now united again, had orders to ride to San Juan, on the Pacific, and convoy back some cart-loads of lead. As we were bringing our charge on the return, we were overtaken in the forest by an order to hasten to Virgin Bay, to the assistance of the infantry about to be attacked by the enemy. Leaving three or four of the company to follow the carts, we started immediately at hard gallop for Virgin Bay. When we arrived there, we found that the enemy, after a trifling cannonade of the town from one of the steamers, had put back to the island again, leaving no greater damage than a shot-hole in one of the row-boats, — which still lay at Virgin Bay awaiting the bungling delay (better worthy of greasers than earnest filibusters) about the brig. This demonstration against Virgin Bay was probably a ruse to divide the filibuster force ; for, next day, as I recollect it, the Alcalde of Obraja, a native partisan of General Walker, hurried into Rivas with the news that fifteen hundred of the enemy had landed from the lake, ten or twelve miles above.
The Alcalde brought with him to Rivas his family and valuables, and proved himself one of the few natives of the better class who, during my sojourn, took active part with the Americans. It was said, that, when Patricio Rivas was President, and Walker General-in-chief of his army, many men of wealth and station amongst the Liberals — as Rivas’s democratic party, opposed to the Chamorristas or aristocratic party, were called — encouraged and thought well of their American assistants. But after the Chamorristas were worsted,— mainly by strength of Walker’s Californians,— and General Walker had broken with Rivas, and set up for President of Nicaragua himself, almost all the natives of any name or property had deserted him. However, many of them remained on their haciendas, and took no part in the struggle on either side. Those in the vicinity of Rivas feigned sympathy with us, but were probably inimical at heart. Indeed, intelligence of some act of disaffection was continually coming to General Walker ; and thereupon he would oust the offender, confiscate his estate to the government, and, perhaps, grant it to some one of his officers, or pawn it to foreign sympathizers for military stores. The neighborhood of Rivas was dotted with ranchhouses, distenanted by these means,— rank grass growing in the court-yards, the cactus-hedges gapped, and the crops swept away by the foragers. Perhaps, had these men been let alone, jealousy toward foreigners would not, of itself, have made them enemies ; but General Walker was obliged to provide arms and provisions for his soldiers, and, having no other resource, he must come down heavily on the Nicaraguans, so far as he could reach them. That this was a ground of great disgust and odium toward us, throughout the country, our company of rangers, which did some foraging and mule-gathering, had good reason to know. I remember, on one occasion, a small party of us, armed only with revolvers, were retreating out of a large hacienda, heavily incumbered with horseprovender, when we saw the landlord and his peons, with machetes in their hands, coming to meet us. As we trotted up toward them, the angry man stood at the roadside, lariat in hand, frowning, and in the attitude to arrest our foremost horseman ; — but the filibuster drew his revolver, concealed hitherto by his burden, and cocked it,— and the poor man, seeing that he was unequal, was fain to vent his wrath in boiling words. This man, who doubtless became an enemy, might have been soothed, had General Walker taken the pains to furnish foraging-papers to the rangers. He professed himself a true friend of Walker’s, holding all he possessed at his service ; but it was out of his power, he said, to contain himself, whilst a troop of Americanos were leaping his fences and ravaging his fields, without token of authority, or word of apology on any part. However, after all, General Walker may have acted for the wisest in this matter. The writer of this narrative was an unenlightened private in the filibuster army, and, of course, though open-eyed to some extent, saw all things of policy through a glass dimly. It may be that General Walker, who had opportunities for thorough acquaintance with Spanish-American character, held it weakness to place any trust or value upon their friendship, and therefore took no care to conciliate it. This has a look of wisdom, and would explain many apparently stupid and gratuitous negligences. But what shall I think when he seemed as little solicitous, and certainly was at no greater pains, to attach his own men? Instead of treating us like fellow-soldiers and adventurers in danger, upon whom he was wholly dependent, until his power was established, he bore himself like an Eastern tyrant,— reserved and haughty,— scarcely saluting when he met us,—mixing not at all, but keeping himself close in his quarters,— some said through fear, lest some of his own men should shoot him, of which indeed there was great danger to such a man. But his treatment of the wounded was his worst policy. There was, it is true, a hospital at Rivas ; but he never, or rarely, visited it ; and it was so badly kept, that every good captain who had friends in the ranks chose the great inconvenience of nursing his wounded at his own quarters, rather than send them into that wretched hole whence few ever came out. It is true, the wounded seldom got well in that climate, and Walker's best general said that the government liked to have the enemy kill the men, rather than wound them ; yet, had they been wiser, they would have taken care of them merely for the sake of the spirit of the rest.— But I have wandered from my narrative.
Toward the evening of the same day that the faithful alcalde brought his report, I walked down to the plaza, to see what stir the news had created among the skeleton foot-soldiers. There was no stir at all, outwardly. They sat in their doors and talked listlessly, without laughter or excitement, as they were always wont before. A hearty laugh or a loud voice in conversation always sounded unnaturally in the streets of Rivas ; and, indeed, few amongst the foot found spirit for such things,—unless new recruits, or under the stimulus of aguardiente. As often as I have left the quarters of the more healthy and animated rangers in the outskirts, and walked down into the populous part of the camp, I have been reminded of one of those enchanted cities of the “ Arabian Nights, ” where the silent inhabitants, though grouped about, seemingly engaged in their ordinary occupations, are in reality soulless, and no better than dead men or frozen fish.
I took my seat in the porch of the guard-house,— that stout building which I have mentioned as the only one surviving the ruin on the west side of the plaza,— and watched the foot go through their evening drill. Classed as musketeers, riflemen, and artillery-men, they were trained to a part of the United States army-practice, each morning and evening, on the plaza. The rangers were taught no drill of any kind ; and when I observed how some of the despicable officers ptricked those feeble creatures with their swords to make them look sharp and step lively, I was glad enough to go without instruction in the military science. The men, on the present occasion, were clothed in black felt hats, blue cotton trousers, brogans, and blue flannel shirts, with the letter of their company and the number of the regiment sewed upon the breast in characters of white cloth. They had received this uniform, I think, by the steamer on which I came down, and it was become somewhat greasy and louse-seamed by this time ; nevertheless, their appearance was much more soldierlike and respectable than when I first saw them. After the exercise was ended, the men gathered around a small brass band, of half a dozen Germans, which began to play in front of General Walker’s quarters. The little General himself sat in his door, and looked out with impassible countenance upon the crowd in the street. It was an excellent conglomerate to study, for any one who could have the head and feeling there. What General Walker made of it, not even his staff-officers, who sat beside him, could tell,— if it were true, as was said, that he had no confidant, even amongst them.
Toward dusk, as I was returning to quarters, I saw a detachment of some one hundred riflemen marching out on the Obraja road, to the slow tap of a kettle-drum, and dragging a small piece of artillery with them. This, with the exception of some rangers, who had been sent forward to scout, was the sole force yet dispatched to meet the enemy,—who were now said to be advanced to Obraja, a hamlet nine miles northwest of Rivas.
[ To be continued.]