James Jeffrey Roche.

By-Ways of War online

. (page 5 of 17)
Online LibraryJames Jeffrey RocheBy-Ways of War → online text (page 5 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

or the assumption of military titles, solely by the grace of popular
courtesy, was a curious foible of the Southern gentleman of the old
school. Whether this unwritten commission preceded his assumption of a
serious military career, or was coeval with it, is uncertain and of
little consequence. There was no examination of titles or antecedents
among the pioneers of California. The claimant of a military title
could best defend it by deeds of daring, and by such William Walker was
to prove himself. De Boulbon's short-lived success prompted Walker and
a few friends to turn their eyes towards the same field. An agent,
named Frederic Emory, was sent to Sonora in 1852 to treat for a
contract such as had been granted the French company. Upon the failure
of the latter, Walker and a partner, Henry P. Watkins, renewed the
negotiations in person. It does not appear that they succeeded or
received any encouragement from the jealous natives. Nevertheless,
Walker and a few of his friends set themselves to the task of
conquering the Western States of Mexico, in the face of difficulties
which might have daunted even more daring spirits. The American
Government was actively hostile to all filibustering movements. Sonora
certainly did not offer a welcome to her unsought liberators. The
singular unwillingness (already noticed by De Boulbon) of American
capitalists to furnish the sinews of illegal warfare, no doubt
continued to mark that unromantic class.

On the other hand, Walker had many warm personal friends, chiefly among
the natives of the Southern states. He was actually a sincere, even
fanatical, believer in slavery. To conquer new territory, and thus to
extend the area of slavery, was a scheme certain to meet with sympathy
throughout the South. The admission of new Northern territories already
threatened to overcome the supremacy of the South in the national
government. Sectional and party bias, personal interest, and political
prejudice moved the citizens of the slave states to withstand this new
and growing menace. Like feelings, intensified through years of
political minority, stirred the North. So far as the South was
concerned in the maintenance of slavery, her interests called for its
extension; otherwise, the growing movement for its abolition, aided by
the approaching change of political power, would soon compass its
overthrow. So, at least, and not without foresight, reasoned the
upholders of slavery in that dark and bitter era.

The impending conflict was well styled "irrepressible." Years of angry
debate had made compromise impossible, but the wiser and better heads
in either party shunned the wager of battle. Disunion was scarcely
considered as a theory, among the mass of the people, ere it sprung
into being, a fact. Doughty-tongued zealots alone talked of war, and
they were those who kept on talking after men of cooler courage had
begun to fight.

Walker, then, could confidently invoke the sympathy of the rich and
influential slave-holders in a crusade for the extension of their
favorite system. He could appeal to the daring and adventurous of every
class by the dangerous fascination of his scheme, and to the
Californian, especially, through his native hostility and contempt
towards his Mexican neighbor. For the rest, he offered as inducements
to immigrants in Sonora five hundred acres of land to each man, and
four dollars daily pay for military services. Arms and ammunition were
procured. Emigrants of strangely unpastoral bearing offered themselves
at the rendezvous. A brig was chartered and the day of departure set.
At this point the United States marshal seized the vessel. This was in
July, 1853. Three months afterwards, the emigrants, learning caution
from experience, took their steps so secretly that forty-five of
them, including Walker and Emory, sailed in the bark _Caroline_, and
arrived at Cape San Lucas, in Lower California, on October 28th.

Here they made a brief stay before continuing their voyage to La Paz.
They captured that town, together with the governor, Espanosa, on
November 3rd. Three days later a vessel arrived with the Mexican
colonel, Robollero, appointed to supersede Espanosa; him also they took
prisoner. Walker, being now in possession of the government and the
archives, called an election, which resulted in his being chosen
president. His report does not state whether or not he had any rival
for the honour. Ten others of the adventurers were chosen to fill the
several offices, civil, military and naval. Thirty-four remained mere
citizens, as there were not "offices enough to go around." "Our
government," wrote the President, "has been formed upon a firm and sure
basis." However absurd the proceedings seem to us, in the light of the
sequel, to him they appeared the solemn inception of free institutions
and a glorious future. A high-sounding proclamation was issued,
including a declaration of independence. Two months afterwards Walker
annexed, on paper, the neighboring province of Sonora, and changed the
name of the Republic to "Sonora," comprising the State of that name and
Lower California. As yet he had not set foot upon the new half of his

His friends in California were active in the meanwhile. Recruiting
offices were opened in San Francisco, to which flocked the desperate,
the adventurous, the reckless from every land. The Federal Government
could not, at least, it did not, take active steps to check them.
Between two and three hundred men were enlisted, and their passage
engaged on the bark _Anita_. The name of the vessel and the date
of her departure were kept secret from all but the leaders of the

On the appointed evening, December 7, 1853, they gathered at
head-quarters. Horses and waggons were in readiness, and in a brief
time the ammunition and supplies were on the deck of the _Anita_.
Before midnight the embarkation was made, and the ship swung into the
stream. A tow-boat carried her out of the harbour in safety. Before
casting loose the lines several of the _Anita's_ sailors secretly stole
on board the tow-boat, their desertion not being perceived until the
bark was beyond hail and ploughing the waves of the Pacific. The
adventurers have been described by a friendly writer as "a hard set."
They observed their departure by a merry carouse, the while the good
bark tossed on the ocean swell and her captain cursed his recreant crew
and his boisterous freight. Then the wind arose. A sea swept the decks,
carrying overboard a dozen barrels of pork and making a clean breach
through her starboard bulwarks. The adventurers awoke next morning,
sobered and sick. A few of them who had been sailors volunteered to aid
in working the vessel. The relief came none too soon, as it was found
that the ship had been dragging her anchor and several fathom of cable
all night, the deserters having failed to make it fast. The filibusters
grimly consoled themselves with the reflection that they had not been
born to be drowned.

Arrived at San Vincente, the reinforcements went into camp, amusing
themselves, while they awaited orders to march, by foraging on the
scattered ranches. Horses were procured by forced levies, and paid for
in the promissory notes of the "Republic." Here for the first time
Walker displayed the traits of stern command which afterwards made his
name a word of terror in the ears of men who feared nothing else, human
or divine. Half a score of the boldest desperadoes in camp formed a
plot to blow up the magazine at night and desert with what plunder they
might be able to seize in the confusion of the moment. To carry out
their plan involved the risk of killing many of their comrades, as the
ammunition was kept in the middle of the camp. Notice of the plot
reached Walker, who had two of the ringleaders tried by court-martial
and summarily shot. Two others were publicly whipped and drummed out of
camp. Walker then ordered a muster of the troops, and after making a
stirring appeal to them, called upon all who were willing to abide by
his fortunes to hold up their hands. All of the original forty-five,
and a few of the _rancherio_ passengers, responded; the others
shouldered their rifles and prepared to march. Walker confronted the
recreants, and quietly ordered them to stack their arms, a command
which, after some hesitation, they obeyed. They were then suffered to
leave the camp. Less than a hundred men now formed the army of the
republic. He gave orders to march to Sonora by the mountain paths,
around the head of the Gulf of California. They buried the arms and
ammunition of the deserters in _cachés_. Two men deserted on the march
and joined the Indians, who harried the little band at every step.

The river Colorado was crossed on rafts. Disease and desertion thinned
the ranks. The wounded died for lack of proper treatment, as there was
not a case of surgical instruments in the army. They extracted
arrow-heads from their wounds with probes improvised from ramrods.
Every morning's roll-call showed a dwindling force. Beef was the only
food left. Two men quarrelled over a handful of parched corn, and one
shot the other dead. They were in rags. The President of Sonora,
wearing a boot on one foot, a shoe on the other, fared no better than
his followers. Those followers soon numbered less than fifty. A council
of war was held, and it was decided to return to San Vincente. The
Mexicans hung upon their flanks and rear, cutting off every straggler.
Recrossing the mountains, they narrowly escaped annihilation in a gorge
which widened out at the middle to a plateau of half a mile across,
with a narrow opening at either end. Half way across the plains the
Indians appeared on flank and front and opened a galling fire. Walker
here showed coolness and generalship. Leaving twelve men hidden in a
clump of bushes under command of Lieutenant P. S. Veeder, a cool young
soldier, afterwards distinguished in Nicaragua, he retreated with the
rest of the command towards the entrance of the valley. The passage had
already been closed by the enemy's forces, who met the retiring party
with an ill-aimed volley of arrows and bullets. At the same time those
guarding the other pass joined their friends on the flanks in charging
the Americans. As they passed the thicket where Veeder and his men lay
in ambush, they received a deadly volley at short range. Every bullet
struck down its man. Walker at the same time turned and delivered an
equally well-aimed fire, which put the enemy to full flight. The two
detachments then passed unmolested through the further defile before
the astonished natives could be rallied to the charge. No bribes of
_aguardiente_, with which the Mexicans were wont to ply their Indian
allies could thenceforth induce the natives to face the deadly American
rifles. They hung upon the line of march like coyotes, prowling about
the late scene of each encampment, and robbing each new-made grave of
its tenant's blanket, the only shroud of the poor filibuster who fell
in the waste places of Sonora.

At San Vincente, where Walker had left in March a party of eighteen men
to guard the barracks, he found not one remaining. A dozen had
deserted, and the rest, unsuspicious of danger, had been swooped upon
by a band of mounted Mexicans, who lassoed and tortured them to death.
So many successive reverses sealed the fate of the expedition. To wait
for reinforcements, even could they have come, from California was
hopeless. Walker had but thirty-five men remaining. They were destitute
of everything but ammunition and weapons; of these they had more than
enough. At various places they had buried boxes of carbines and
pistols. Eight guns were spiked at San Vincente. A hundred kegs of
powder were cached on the banks of the Rio Colorado. Years afterwards
the peon herdsmen or prowling Cucupa Indian stumbled, in the mountain
by-paths, over the bleaching skeleton of some nameless one whose
resting-place was marked by no cross or cairn, but the Colt's revolver
rusting beside his bones bespoke his country and his occupation - the
only relic of the would-be Conquistadores of the nineteenth century.

The stolid native who had sworn fealty to the mushroom republic, under
pain of imprisonment for refusal, easily forgot his oath when the
accursed "Gringo" had turned his back. The _rancherio_, whose sole
mementos of vanished horses and cattle were the bonds of the Republic
of Sonora, vainly proffered those securities at the cock-pit and the
monté-table. The American of the North had come and gone like a
pestilence, or like his ante-type of buccaneering days; nought remained
save disappointed ambition with the one, and a bitter memory with the

The invasion was every way inexcusable. That his interference was
unwelcome to the natives Walker soon found out; nor was he slow to
learn that nothing less formidable than an army of occupation, backed
by a strong power, could push his cherished dream of a new conquest of
Mexico beyond the unsubstantial realms of fantasy.

With sinking heart, but bearing the calm front which never failed him,
he led his starving, travel-worn band toward the California frontier.
The natives made a feeble show of opposing their retreat. A host of
ill-trained soldiery, formidable only in numbers, held the mountain
heights; their Indian allies were drawn up on the plain to contest the
passage. Colonel Melendrez, commanding the Mexican forces, sent four
Indians with a flag of truce into the filibuster camp, bearing an offer
of protection and free passage across the American border to all except
the leader; Walker, with all the arms of the company, must be first
given up. Such an offer would have been rejected, in the face of
certain death, by men familiar as these were with the Punic faith of
the Spaniard. Made as it was to men who had followed their chieftain
through hunger and want, battle and defeat, up to this moment, when
they could see their country's flag waving over the United States
military camp across the border, it was treated with scornful laughter.
Melendrez then begged the United States commander to interfere and
compel the surrender, a request which, as it could not have been
granted without a violation of Mexican territory, was properly refused.
Three miles of road lay between the filibusters and the boundary line.
Walker, resorting to strategy, left half a dozen men concealed behind
some rocks to cover his retreat. The natives, with a wholesome dread of
the American rifle, followed him at what seemed a safe distance and
rode straight into the ambush. Half a dozen rifles emptied as many
saddles, whereupon Melendrez and his Mexicans galloped off at full
speed, leaving their Indian allies to follow as best they might. The
filibusters lost one man, a victim to his own indiscretion in having
borrowed a leaf from the enemy's tactics and fortified his courage with
too much _aguardiente_.

So ended the last battle of the Republic of Sonora - if it be not a
travesty to call by the name of battle a fruitless fight between a
score of men on one side and a hundred ignorant savages on the other.
Four and thirty tattered, hungry, gaunt pedestrians, whimsically
representing in their persons the president, cabinet, army and navy of
Sonora, marched across the line and surrendered as prisoners of war to
Major Mckinstry, U.S.A., at San Diego, California. It was the 8th of
May, 1854; and so Walker kept his thirtieth birthday.

A parole, pledging the prisoners to present themselves for trial to
General Wool, at San Francisco, was signed by all, after which they
were allowed to depart.

Of those starving, wounded, battle-scarred survivors of several months'
accumulated miseries the names signed to the parole contain at least
six of men who had love for their leader, or enough of unconquerable
daring, to send them, twelve months later, in search of fresh dangers
and glories under the same commander.

Walker came back from Sonora, defeated but not disheartened. He had
proved himself a leader of men, even in so small an arena. Thenceforth,
until his star of "destiny" was eclipsed in death, his name was worth a
thousand men wherever hard fighting and desperate hopes might call him.
It must be said in his favour that he sought popularity by none of the
tricks of the demagogue. In camp or field he was ever the same cold,
self-contained, fearless commander, inflexible in discipline, sparing
of speech, prodigal of action. He won the devoted obedience of the
wildest spirits by governing himself. His word of command was not "Go,"
but "Come" - the Napoleonic talisman. Only to the youngest of his
followers would he ever unbend his solitary dignity. One of them, whose
name, William Pfaff, appears on the San Diego parole, was a youth of
fifteen. He was with difficulty restrained from following his leader to
Nicaragua. He lived through four years of service in our Civil War, but
no dangers or hardships could erase the memory of his experience in
Sonora. "The rebellion was a picnic to it," said he, in the fine
hyperbole of California.

The trial of the filibuster leader for breaking the neutrality laws
of the United States ended in a prompt acquittal. Walker resumed
the editorial chair, supporting Broderick in the _San Francisco
Commercial_, the personal organ of that ill-fated politician. Let us
leave the filibuster in his Elba, and visit the country which was
destined to become the scene of his dazzling but brief career of glory,
defeat, and death.


Nicaragua - "Mahomet's Paradise" - Buccaneering visitors - Philip II. and
an Isthmian Canal - Nelson defeated by a girl - The apocryphal heroine of
San Carlos.

Nature in lavishing her favours on Nicaragua, left little for man to
add. It is a tropical country with a temperate climate, one half of its
territory having a mean elevation of 5,000 feet above the level of the
sea. In that favoured land the primeval curse is stayed; where nature
forestalls every necessity, no need for man to toil or want. Fruits
grow in the reckless profusion of the tropics, and clothing is a
superfluity wisely counted as such. Two-hundred and fifty thousand
children, young and old, occupy a domain as large as New England. They
are poor in accumulated wealth as the poorest peasantry of Europe; they
are rich, knowing no want unsatisfied, as a nation of millionaires. But
Nicaragua is a country in which to study with doubt the doctrine of the
survival of the fittest. The early discoverers called it "Mahomet's
Paradise," an apt name for a land of sensuous happiness.

There man reaps without sowing, and the harvest never fails. He has but
to stretch forth his hand and feast on dainties such as seldom grace
the tables of kings; the citron, the lemon, the orange (with often
10,000 on a single tree), the banana, the mango, the papaya, the cocoa,
the tamarind, the milk-tree, the butter tree, and a spontaneous
perennial growth of coffee, cacao, sugar, tobacco, and everything that
grows or can be grown in any tropical or temperate clime. Half the year
he may sling his hammock beneath the shady trees. In the rainy season a
few stakes and a thatch of palm leaves afford him ample shelter.
Medicinal trees and herbs abound everywhere, for the relief of the few
ills to which his flesh is heir. Birds of gayest plumage, flowers of
loveliest hue, greet his eyes on every side. In the noble forests,
where the pine and the palm grow beside the ceiba, the mimosa, and the
stately cactus, the splendours of the rainbow are rivalled in the
plumage of parrots, macaws, humming-birds, toucans, and the beautiful
winged creature that bears the imperial name of Montezuma. It is the
latest and the fairest land of earth, and the heavenly radiance of
youth is on its face. So young, that the fires of nature's workshop
have not yet died out. The volcano, towering thousands of feet towards
heaven, still smoulders or flames, and the earth is shaken ever and
anon by the engines of the Titans. Ometepe the glorious lifts his
cloud-capped head five thousand feet out of the placid bosom of Lake
Nicaragua; Madera, his neighbour, is but eight hundred feet less lofty.
Momotombo and Mombacho and El Viejo, and the twin peaks which watch the
mouth of Fonseca Bay, are flaming swords guarding the Eden to which the
serpent has come, as of old, with a human tongue.

Little note takes the Nicaraguan of the lavish favours of nature, whose
grandest mystery but awakens a languid _Quien Sabe?_ and whose most
winning plea extorts only a more languid _Poco tiempo_ - the eternal by
and by of indolence. One per cent. of the whole population makes a show
of studying the elements of education. Why should they vex their souls
in search of knowledge, when all that life needs can be had for the
asking? Not, surely, to heap up wealth. Nature takes care even of that,
for money grows upon trees of Nicaragua - that is to say, the fractional
currency of the people is nuts, one cacao-nut being equal to a fortieth
of a _medio_ in value, and passing current as such in all the smaller
affairs of trade. Nor is it worth the trouble of mastering letters
where illiteracy is no bar to civil or military advancement, and where,
especially if the "Serviles" be in power, an unlettered bandit ranks
almost as high as a rascally advocate. In the days of President
Chamorro the most notorious ruffians held high office, the revenues of
the state were farmed out on the system which prevails to-day only in
the more barbarous parts of Asia, so that it was a saying in the
neighboring states, where, too, glass-houses are not scarce, that "the
calf was not safe in the cow, from the thieves of Nicaragua."

It was not always so in Nicaragua. Years before the mail-clad Spaniard
brought the curse of civilization across the western ocean, the simple
Aztec built his altars to the sun on every hill-top from sea to sea.
Centuries ere the Aztec, there flourished a semi-civilized race whose
history is written in hieroglyphics of a language utterly dead and
forgotten, and who have left no lineal descendants. Even such fragments
of Aztec lore as survived the fanaticism of the Conquistadores in
Mexico are wanting to the annals of the earlier Central American
civilization. It was a culture of rich growth in its day and place,
destined like that of the contemporary Roman Empire, to tempt the
cupidity of a hardier race, and after an unavailing struggle, to fall
before the might of numbers and superior physique. Howbeit, the Aztec
Goths and Vandals overran the isthmus, and when the Spanish invasion
came, it met only the late subjects of Montezuma's widespread,
ill-governed kingdom.

The religion of Nicaragua before the conquest was a gloomy idolatry.
The predecessors of the Aztec are conjectured to have been a gentle
race, but no match in prowess for their conquerors. The Spaniards found
a people of sun-worshippers degraded by human sacrifice and attendant
cannibalism. Between them and distant Anahuac, to which they owed
allegiance, lay the dense forests and trackless swamps of Yucatan. The
journey by land at this day is long and toilsome. Cortez, nevertheless,
projected and carried out an exploration as far as Honduras, until his
appalled veterans refused to go further southward.

Don Pedrarias d'Avila, Governor of Panama, undertook its exploration
from the south in 1514. Nine years later he was encouraged to send a
force for its subjugation, under command of Francisco de Cordova, who
secured the submission of its cacique, Nicarao or Nicaya. The
conquerors gave that chieftain's name to his country. They founded Leon
and Granada, which have remained its leading cities. Nicaragua gave a
few recruits to Pizarro. Philip II., with narrow-minded foresight, sent
a commission to survey the isthmus and judge of the feasibility of
cutting a ship canal. The report was favourable, the route by way of
Panama being chosen. It was too favourable, as it pointed out the
advantages of such a passage to international commerce. Spain did not
want such broad liberality, and Philip decreed the punishment of death
to any one who might thereafter propose to wed the two oceans together.
But, as high tariffs encourage smuggling, so prohibited commerce takes
refuge in privateering. The Buccaneers arose to dispute with Spain the
monopoly of her American trade. The isthmus suffered most from their
ravages. Panama, then as now, the most important city on the coast, was
the depôt for the royal treasure gathered at the adjacent mines of
Cana. Drake paid it a predatory visit in 1586. It was afterwards taken
and sacked at different times by Morgan, Sharpe, Ringrose, and Dampier.

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryJames Jeffrey RocheBy-Ways of War → online text (page 5 of 17)