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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 27, January, 1860 online

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advanced with great care, our leader taking often the precaution to
dismount and peer with bared head over the cactus-hedge which crowned
the right-hand bank of the road and shut us in on that side completely.
At every turn of the road he repeated his reconnoissance, so that our
advance was very slow, giving a watchful enemy almost time to place an
ambush, if they had none ready prepared. It was as sweet a place for a
trap as greaser's heart could wish. On our right was the impenetrable
cactus-hedge, with an open space beyond, terminated at the distance of
a few yards by a wood or plantain-patch. On the left was another wood,
matted with tangled underbrush and vines which no horseman could
penetrate. On either side half a dozen men might couch in ambush and
shoot us down in perfect security.

We passed on, however, without disturbance, or sight of an enemy, until
we came nearly to the edge of the town and saw the glistening roof of
the church appear above the foliage, - where sat sundry carrion-loving
buzzards, elbowing each other, shuffling to and fro with outspread
wings, and chuckling, doubtless, over the promise of glorious times.
As we go on, suddenly heads appear over the bushes less than a hundred
yards in front, and we hear the vindictive whistle of Minié-balls above
us. Our leader, calling upon us to fire, began himself to blaze away
rapidly with his Colt's revolver. We huddled forward, with little care
for order, and delivered some dozen Mississippi and Sharpe's rifles.
There were nervous men in the crowd; for, after the discharge, dust
was flying from the road within thirty feet of us. However, some aimed
higher; and when we looked again, the heads had disappeared. One bold
greaser stepped out into the road and sent his Minié-ball singing
several yards above us, then darted back quickly, before any of us
could have him. We waited a moment to see others, but they seemed to be
satisfied; - and we were satisfied, - with prospect of a swarm bursting
out on us from the town; so, sinking spurs into our weary animals, we
made good pace back to the camp, - not without an alarm that a troop of
well-mounted lancers was behind us.

In the course of the afternoon, General Henningsen arrived, bringing a
fine brass howitzer, and a small reinforcement of infantry - as those
armed with rifled muskets and bayonets were called - and artillerymen;
and, after some hours' rest, he ordered a fresh attempt with the
howitzer, supported by somewhere near two hundred men. This party was
received with so fierce a fire at the barricade that they shrank back,
leaving the howitzer behind in the road, - so that the enemy were on the
point of capturing it, when a brave artilleryman touched off the piece,
loaded with grape-shot, almost in their faces, and, strewing the
earth with dead, sent the others flying back to the barricade. This
artilleryman told me that an old officer amongst the enemy stood his
ground alone after the discharge, and swore manfully at the fugitives,
but they were panic-struck and took no heed; and it was his assertion,
that, had a small part of the riflemen rallied and charged at this time,
they might have gone over the barricade without difficulty or hindrance.
As it was, the howitzer was scarcely brought off, and the attack failed
ingloriously. Whether this story of the artilleryman were true or false,
we heard in other ways, by general report, that the riflemen had behaved
badly, and quailed as the filibusters had scarcely done before; though,
after all, it will seem unreasonable to blame these two hundred or less,
disease-worn and spiritless men, for not whipping ten hundred out of a
barricaded town. It may be worth saying here, that, seeing things in
Nicaragua from a common soldier's befogged view-point, and having only
general rumor, or the tales of privates like myself, for parts of an
engagement where I was not present, I may easily make mistakes in
the numbers, and otherwise do Walker and his officers, or the enemy,
injustice. Yet I may be excused, since I am not attempting a history
of the war, but merely some account of my own experience, passive and
active.

Late in the evening our company assisted to carry some wounded to Rivas.
Amongst them was Captain Finney, mentioned before as the first man
struck by the enemy. He seemed to be a brave and uncommonly considerate
officer, and whilst being carried in on a chair, suffering with his
death-wound, he showed concern for his supporters, and insisted on
having them relieved upon the smallest sign of fatigue. He was taken to
the quarters of a friend, where he died a few days afterward. The other
wounded were carried to the hospital, and, finding no one there to take
charge of them, we left them to themselves, lying or sitting upon the
floor, dismal and uncared-for enough.

After dark we were again in the saddle and riding out to Obraja, in
charge of a commissary's party, with provisions for the detachment of
foot. But after getting a little way from the town, we were overtaken by
an order from General Walker, stopping the provisions, and directing us
to ride on and recall the detachment to Rivas; he having changed his
mind about dislodging the enemy at this tardy hour. We reached the camp
some hours into the night, and, after a little delay, calling in the
pickets, and securing some native women who lived in the vicinity, to
prevent their carrying word of our movement to the enemy, the detachment
commenced its retrograde march, - leaving the enemy victorious, and free
to go where they wished.

I remember, several times on this march, when the detachment had made
some temporary halt, seeing a grim-faced dog, of the terrier species,
trot along the line to the front of the column, where we rangers stood,
and then, satisfied seemingly that all was well ordered, turn himself
round and trot back to the rear again.

He did this with such a look and air, that it struck me he felt himself
in some way responsible for our party. He was, indeed, if the tales
current about him were true, the most remarkable character in all that
very variegated conglomerate of characters which made up the filibuster
army. He had appeared in the camp long before, coming, some said, from
the Costa Ricans, with whom he became disgusted on account of their bad
behavior in battle on several occasions when he was there to see. After
this desertion, if it were thus, he followed the Americans faithfully,
through good and bad fortune, retreat or victory; always going into
battle with them, - where he actually seemed to enjoy himself, - trotting
about amidst the whewing of bullets, the uptossing of turf, and the
outcries of wounded men, with calm heart, and tail erect, - envied by
the bravest even. On an occasion when General Walker was attacking the
Costa-Ricans in Rivas, the dog entered the _plaza_ ahead of the rest,
and, finding there one of his own species, he forthwith seized him, and
shook him, and put him to flight howling, - giving an omen so favorable,
that the greasers were driven out of the town with ease by the others.
Even his every-day life was sublime, and elevated above the habit of
vulgar dogs. He allowed no man to think himself his master, or attach
him individually by liberal feeding or kind treatment, but quartered
indiscriminately amongst the foot, sometimes with one company, sometimes
with another, - taking food from whoever gave it, but showing little
gratitude, and despising caresses or attempts at familiarity. He seemed,
indeed, to consider himself one amongst the rest, - one and somewhat, as
they say; and his sole apparent tie with his human friends seemed to
be the delight which he took in seeing them kill or killed. With this
_penchant_, it was said, he never missed a battle, and went out with
every detachment that left the camp to see that none should escape him
unaware. - But enough of him, - strange dog, or devil.

The withdrawal from Obraja was opposed, so rumor said, by Henningsen and
other officers; and it certainly had a most depressing effect upon the
men, whilst it elated the enemy correspondingly, giving them a degree of
confidence which they had never attained to before. It was agreed on
all hands, by all critics whom I heard, that, having once begun this
attempt, General Walker should have carried it through successfully,
even if it required his whole force. However, as only part of the
enemy's force was on land, the other part being supposed to be
still aboard the steamers or on the island, General Walker
possibly feared an attack on Rivas, should he send out a very large
detachment, - remembering, too vividly, a former blunder, when he left
Granada with all his army to attack the enemy at Masaya, and the enemy,
making a _détour_, came upon his camp in Granada, and destroyed
baggage, ammunition, and all it contained.

The next day the foot lay quiet in Rivas, and had rest. The rangers,
however, were in the saddle almost continuously, and, what with
foraging, broken sleep, and expeditions by day and night, those of us
who had garrisoned Virgin Bay were become worried nearly past grumbling.
On this day our own company rode out to Obraja, to visit the enemy's
picket again, and afterwards to San Jorge on the lake, to guard the
transportation of a row-boat thence to Rivas. The boat was one of those
borrowed from the vessels in San Juan harbor for the purpose of retaking
the steamers, and had been rowed up to San Jorge, and was now removed to
Rivas, to prevent its seizure by the enemy, - the garrison at Virgin
Bay having burnt the brig, and marched to Rivas, when the enemy first
appeared on land at Obraja. So that the whole American force (except
the crew of the little schooner in which General Walker and his fifty
original followers first came to Nicaragua, and which was lying at this
time in San Juan harbor) was now concentrated at Rivas; the enemy being
eight or nine miles behind them at Obraja, or on the lake with the two
steamers. As we rode through the town of San Jorge, the place seemed
almost deserted, and I remember lingering with others to haversack some
bunches of yellow plantains which hung in an empty house on the _plaza_.
The delay may have come near being fatal to us, for we heard afterwards
that we had been gone but a little while, when a troop of the enemy's
horse rode into the place, reconnoitred, and returned in the direction
in which they came. Their reconnoissance in San Jorge was explained soon
afterwards.

Some time in the last half of the night following, I was detailed, along
with a considerable detachment from two mounted companies, to ride on a
scout toward Obraja. On the outward ride I was but half-awake, and
my recollection of our course is confused: however, I think it was
somewhere between Potosí and Obraja that we came to a halt, and I was
aroused by some excitement in the party. Pickets were hastily posted
in several directions, whilst the officers gathered about some natives
awakened from a neighboring hut, and seemed to question them earnestly.
We soon heard that the enemy were on the road moving from Obraja, and
that a large force had a little while before passed this place going
eastward. The natives, prone to exaggeration, declared that this force
had been an hour in passing, - with baggage, eight pieces of cannon
mounted on ox-carts, several hundred pressed native Nicaraguans, tied
and guarded to prevent their running away, and a long train of women to
nurse the wounded. The Chamorristas, it seemed, had been around pressing
all the native men they could find into service against the Americans;
and whilst we were here, two, who had been hiding all day in the bushes
to avoid the conscription, came out and asked us to take them with us to
Rivas, - they preferring, if forced to take sides, to join _el valiente_
Walker.

This is the stripe of most Central American soldiers. The lower classes
are lazy and cowardly, little concerned about politics, and must
generally be impressed, let the cause of war be what it may. And I am
persuaded, that, since General Walker never harnessed them into his
service, as their own chiefs were doing perpetually, but let them swing
in their hammocks and eat their plantains, (provided they lived beyond
his forage-ground,) un-called-for, they were so far well satisfied with
his government. However, their sympathy, supposing he had it, were worth
little to him; since it takes a stronger impulsion than this to put them
in motion to do anything, - a strong pulling by the nose, indeed, - such
as their native rulers know how to apply. - But this is speculative, and
neither here nor there.

After getting all the information concerning the enemy that was to be
had from these people, the detachment returned to Rivas at a fast trot,
with the two friendly natives mounted behind, on such stronger animals
as were able to carry double burden. We all supposed, that, now the
enemy were again out of cover and on the open road, or, leastwise, in
the confusion of a new camp, there would be an immediate attack on them.
But General Walker followed his own head; and, after making our report,
we saw no stir, and heard nothing until morning, - when it was known that
the enemy were all moved into San Jorge, with only some two miles' space
between us. This place, being on the lake, was more convenient for
provisions, which were easily brought by the steamers from the island of
Ometepec and the towns and _haciendas_ along the shore, - and the enemy
had gained boldness to go there by our repulse at Obraja: or it may be
that the force at Obraja had come down from Granada by land, and so only
continued their march to San Jorge, - though the rumor was, that they had
landed from the lake, as I have said.

But be that as it may, time was given them to barricade at San Jorge,
till near the middle of the forenoon, and then Generals Henningsen and
Sanders were sent out with some four hundred riflemen and infantry to
drive them into the lake, which lay some few hundred yards behind them.
During the first part of the attack, our company remained in Rivas,
listening anxiously to the uproar at San Jorge, - every volley fired by
the combatants being borne distinctly to us by the east wind. For some
time there was a continuous rattle of musketry, with rapid detonations
of deeper-mouthed cannon, - at each roar shaking our suspended
hearts, - for we knew that our own men were using small arms only. After
a while this abated, grew irregular, and almost ceased. An order then
came for our company to mount and join the combatants. We galloped down
the broad and almost level highway which passes between Rivas and
San Jorge, bordered a great part of its length, on either side, by
cactus-hedges, broken at various intervals by the grassy by-lanes that
run out to the neighboring _haciendas_ or parallel roads. At places
where there is a slight elevation, the bottom of the road is worn
several feet below the level by the carts which ply between Rivas and
the lake. Opposite one of these, where the banks sloped at a sharp
angle, we came upon General Henningsen and a detachment of musketeers
resting on the right bank of the road, and halted beside them. The men
were sitting under the shade of an _adobe_, refreshing themselves with
oranges; and those in the nearest rank were close enough to hand us
fruit and keep their seats on the grass. Five or six hundred yards up
the road, the large church which stood on the _plaza_ of San Jorge, with
the door facing us, and a low wall of white stone running squarely from
its side across to the right, ended the vista between banks of green
foliage. Our view stretched across the _plaza_, which seemed to be empty
and unbarricaded; and I remember the painted door of the church beyond,
the red-tiled roof, the low, flanking wall of white stone, all dazily
trembling in the unsteady atmosphere radiating from the heated
road, - whilst a cloud of white smoke was sailing slowly away to the
west. It was a hot and tranquil scene. But I always think of it with the
same secret disgust with which the shipwrecked traveller looks upon the
placid ocean the day after the angry storm has passed over it; for it
was here I first saw the cruelty of a round shot.

When we came to a halt, there seemed to be a lull in the struggle, and
no enemy was anywhere visible, nor was firing heard from any direction.
The infantry, though within range of small arms from the town, were
concealed by the bushes, and the enemy were scarcely aware of their
presence. But when our company came galloping up the road, in full view,
their attention was aroused, and we had scarcely checked our animals and
exchanged a few words with the foot-soldiers, when a column of smoke
shot up from the wall in front. - "Now look out!" exclaimed some one.
I looked, but saw nothing to follow, and had turned my attention
elsewhere, when I heard a hissing noise, as of something rushing swiftly
past, and at the same time turf is thrown into the air, the horses start
aside in affright, and outcries of pain and terror assail the ear.
After a confused moment, I saw that the shot had struck in the line of
infantry a few feet on our right. One man, the drummer of the party, was
running about in the fluttered crowd with his hand hanging by a shred,
crying, "Cut it off! cut it off! D - your souls, why don't some of you
cut it off?" Another lay struggling on the ground, with the fleshy part
of his thighs torn abruptly off, calling upon some one for God's sake to
take him away from there. But the dismallest sight was a bloody shape,
with face to the ground, fingers clutching the grass with aimless
eagerness, and shivering silently with an invisible wound. Twisting
convulsively, it rolled down into the road under our horses' feet, - and
there this human form, which some call godlike, writhed and floundered
like a severed worm, and disguised itself in blood and dust.

But it is dangerous to look long upon the wounded; an old soldier never
rests his eye there; it is the greatest mistake of the raw one; and it
was well enough for some of us that our attention was timely drawn away
by alarm of another shot from the town. We spurred our horses up the
bank on the left; the foot-soldiers rushed behind the _adobe;_ and this
time the shot passed harmlessly down the road. Before another, General
Henningsen had ordered us all to move forward and get to cover. The foot
stopped in the right branch of a by-lane which crossed the road a little
way ahead. The rangers moved into the same lane, - but on the left, and
divided by the highway from the foot. Here we were entirely hidden from
the town by a belt of small trees and bushes. Nevertheless, the
enemy's round shot, tearing through the trees, still pursued, and the
Minié-balls, though thrown from smooth-bored guns, sang above and far
beyond us. At this place, as near as I recollect, above a dozen men were
killed and wounded, - most of them by that first round shot.

Our company shortly after was separated, and placed, for the most part,
as videttes, at various points near the town. Some hours after our
arrival, (which time was spent by the filibusters in drinking spirits
and resting from the late unsuccessful assault, - by the enemy in
barricading their position, and drinking spirits, perhaps, likewise,)
General Henningsen led an attack with part of the foot, - taking several
of us rangers along in the capacity of couriers, to ride off to Rivas at
any important turn of the fight and report to General Walker. The enemy
had taken position about the _plaza,_ in the church, and behind the
stone wall at its side, where they had by this time strengthened
themselves with barricades. They had cannon looking towards every
assailable point; and also on top of the church, in the cupola, they
had mounted a small piece, from which they threw grape against our men
advancing on any side. It proved a great source of annoyance throughout
the day. Their number was not certainly known, at least among the ranks,
but was rumored as high as two thousand men, - Costa-Ricans, Guatemalans,
and Chamorristas.

General Henningsen moved up by a straggling street, with an _adobe_ here
and there, and the intervals filled up with fruit-trees, bushes, and
cactus-hedges. Grape-shot, which may be the saddest thing, touching the
body, on earth, made miserable noise above us and miserable work among
us; and we couriers had leave to dismount and crawl nearer the ground.
General Henningsen gained respect from us by sitting his horse alone.
He was a soldier, it is said, from a boy, in European wars, - where this
were a feeble skirmish; yet he wore his life here, perhaps, more
loosely than in many a noisier battle. However, he seemed calm and easy
enough, - never moving his head, even slightly, when the shot whizzed
nearest him. General Walker, though a brave man, and cool in battle,
will nevertheless dodge when a bullet hisses him fiercely. So would
almost all his officers or soldiers, that I had an opportunity to
notice. Yet, after all, it is a mere trick of the nerves, and only
indicates familiarity and long service, or a deaf ear, - and not want of
self-possession or strength of heart. The advance at length became so
harassing that the party halted under cover on the roadside, whilst yet
some distance from the _plaza,_ and from this lodgment the couriers were
sent off to report progress at Rivas.

My post thenceforward was, with that of others, at the head of a lane
not far from the town, where we heard the voices of the combatants
and the whistling of balls, but could see nothing. After some hours'
comparative quiet, the drums began beating a charge again, and every gun
on the ground seemed awakened and doing its best. Then there was a loud,
heart-lifted shout, which rose above the din, and gave us too much joy;
and, a moment after, Colonel Casey, a hard-faced, one-armed man, spurred
past towards Rivas, saying, as he went, that our men were in the
_plaza,_ the greasers were running, and "we had 'em, sure as hell!" I
recollect some one observing, that it were of no use to believe Colonel
Casey, for he was the greatest liar in the army of Nicaragua. And
shortly after, the firing having ceased, another officer, Baldwin, I
think it was, came past and told us, with curses of vexation, that the
men had been checked, by command, in the heat of the assault, when the
greasers were already wavering, - and that the latter, recovering, had
rebarricaded so strongly, that we might now all go back to Rivas and
whistle.

However, this failure was not the end. Towards evening, another
detachment renewed the assault, and the uproar commenced again. It
seems, that, during the whole day, there was no simultaneous attack by
all the detachments. Now, it was the infantry who charged, - with the
riflemen in reserve, probably to prevent a rout, in case the enemy
pursued a repulse; then, it was the riflemen, with the infantry in
reserve; and so alternating through three or four charges; - so that
there never could have been more than a very contemptible force facing
the enemy at one time.

As it grew late, the wagons began to jolt past, removing the wounded to
Rivas. Some were drunk and merry in spite of their wounds; and their
laughter and drunken sport made strange concert with the cries and
curses of the others. I remember one man going by on foot, with a small
cut on the brow, from which blood was flowing copiously. He said the
wound was a mere scratch, - too slight to have sent him out of the fight,
had not the blood run down into his eyes and blinded him, preventing his
aim. Yet this small affair brought his death shortly afterwards. The
surgeons at Rivas gave him no care, - not so much as to wash his wound,
or have him wash it; and the climate is so malignant to strangers, that
the smallest cut, with the best care, heals only after long hesitation.

At length night came on, and our men drew off, - foiled at every attempt,
having sustained great loss, and, apparently, made little impression on
the enemy. They lay on their arms, however, in the outskirts, expecting
to renew the attack during the night; and, to assist at this, a party of
rangers had orders to leave their horses in quarters, and march on foot
to join the others. Quitting our horses with regret, we walked to San
Jorge, where the foot lay, awaiting the hour of attack. We found them
stomach-qualmed with hunger, weary of fighting, thoroughly disheartened,
and provoked against their officers. One told how an officer, whose duty
it was to lead the charge, took shelter behind an orange-tree no bigger
than his wrist, and shouted, "Go on, men! go on!" when he should


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 27, January, 1860 → online text (page 7 of 20)