Marines in Nicaragua, Part IV

A quick reminder that US Marines do not formulate foreign policy, they implement it.  It is also true that if left alone to do their jobs by Washington politicians, Marines will always achieve their objectives and complete their mission.  It’s simply part of our DNA.

It is also appropriate to mention that contrary to the revisionists of our history, particularly among the liberal codswallop, the United States has always been hesitant to involve itself in the internal affairs of Latin American nations.  With respect to the leaders of these nations, I am persuaded that presidents from William McKinley to Franklin Roosevelt did realize that while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink.  No matter how many interventions were ordered by the US State Department, mostly as the result of an earnest desire to maintain an environment suitable for doing business, the caudillos were so deep-rooted in petty jealousies, lust for power, greed, opportunism, and corruption —and having utter disregard for the plight of their own people, that they were simply incapable of honest government.  A comprehensive list of Central American politicians would provide excellent candidates for induction into the Who’s Who of the World’s Psychotics.

Coolidge 001So, when Nicaraguan president Adolfo Diaz appealed for US intervention on 15 November 1926, the day after the US officially recognized the Diaz government, President Calvin Coolidge (shown right) maintained an icy silence.  We should also consider what else was going on in the region at the time:

  1. Following the evacuation of US Marines in 1925, Nicaraguan Liberals instigated the so-called Constitutionalist War. The revolt was led by Jose Maria Moncada, another self-styled general (which of course, includes every seventh rebel) who proclaimed his loyalty to Juan Bautista Sacasa.
  2. Sacasa arrived from exile in Mexico at Puerto Cabezas to take charge of the revolution. It was then that Sacasa proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua’s Constitutional Government, which created a second (competing) government in Nicaragua.
  3. Mexico, having promised support to the liberal cause in Nicaragua, recognizing the Liberal Party as the only nationalist party, dispatched shiploads of war materials to Nicaragua Constitutionalists[1].
  4. Constitutionalist rebels began to impose onerous taxes on American companies (more on the level as having to pay protection money to thugs than legitimate taxes, of course). It was difficult to ignore the Sacasa rebels when so many of them were armed to the teeth.

President Coolidge’s icy silence began to thaw after a series of outrages were committed upon Americans living and working in Nicaragua.  The affronts included the fact that Sacasa rebels seized American supplies and equipment and threatened business owners with violence if they refused to pay taxes imposed upon them by Sacasa.  In late December, an American citizen working near Bragman’s Bluff was shot to death by a rebel band —the reasons for the man’s death remain unclear.  Perhaps he refused to pay rebel taxes.  At about this same time, British and Italian ministers in Managua dutifully informed the US minister that their people too were in great danger[2].

In response to the concerns expressed by the British and Italians, Marines and bluejackets were landed from USS Galveston to stand guard over foreigners living in Managua on 6 January 1927.

It was Sacasa’s total disregard for American lives and property that finally turned Coolidge against the Liberal cause in Nicaragua.  On 10 January 1927, Coolidge informed Congress that he intended to do everything in his power to protect American interest in Nicaragua.  His decision was based upon the time-honored rights of nations to protect its nationals living in a foreign country.  Accordingly, to serve as a shield against lawless bands, Marines were landed at Rio Grande, Bragman’s Bluff, and Prinzapolca.  Moreover, Coolidge authorized the sale of 3,000 Krag Rifles[3], 200 Browning Machineguns, and three-million rounds of ammunition to the Conservative Party.

The Second Battalion, Fifth Marines (2/5) landed at Bluefields on 10 January and, after establishing a neutral zone along the Escondido River, the battalion (less its 51st Company[4]) sailed from Bluefields, through the Panama Canal, to Corinto.  At the request of President Diaz, Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James J. Meade assumed the defense of Managua on 1 February 1927.  But even as American Marines provided some stability, the Diaz presidency was losing ground.  In early February, rebels captured Chinandega in a bloody house to house fight and while it is true that government troops retained control of the town, rebels burned half of it to the ground.  Americans rushed food and medical supplies into Chinandega and then followed up with a rifle company, which was posted there in garrison.  Another rifle company was sent to Leon, augmented by bluejackets.  As the sailors maintained order inside the town, Marines manned outposts on the edge of town and around railway centers.

Marines continued to pour into Nicaragua throughout February, including Marine Corps aviation assets.  One-thousand Marines of the 5th Regiment departed Quantico, Virginia under the command of Brigadier General Logan Feland[5], arriving at Corinto on 7 March.  Then present in Nicaragua were 2,000 Marines.  President Coolidge felt that the time had come to offer yet another opportunity for peaceful accord.  He dispatched Henry L. Stimson[6] to Nicaragua; his task was to broker an agreement between the warring factions.  Considering rebel attacks perpetrated against American consular officials, this would be a difficult task.  Stimson felt that the problem rested in elections; only fair elections could end this stream of rebellions.  Neither side objected to American supervision of national elections in 1928, although Sacasa wanted Diaz immediately replaced by a disinterested person.  Since there were no “disinterested” persons in Nicaragua, Diaz retained the presidency.

The agreement included the following provisions:

  • Both sides must surrender of all weapons;
  • Both sides would benefit from a general amnesty;
  • All confiscated property would be restored to its lawful owner;
  • Members of the Liberal Party would be permitted to participate in the Diaz cabinet until the 1928 elections;
  • US Marines would create, train, and lead a national constabulary, called La Guardia Nacional[7]
  • US Marines would remain in Nicaragua to maintain law and order.

When Stimson departed Nicaragua in late May, he realized that not everyone was satisfied with the agreement as there were ultra-conservative and ultra-liberal groups, both of whom wanted to see everyone dead except for themselves.  Even as Diaz and General Moncada issued their joint appeal for disarmament, Moncada assumed that this would not be possible.

USMC Nicaragua 001On 16 May 1927, a fragment of the rebel army raided the village of La Paz.  A detachment of Marines soon confronted these bandits and a firefight ensued.  Captain Richard B. Buchanan led his Marines down the main street to confront the rebels when he and Private Marvin A. Jackson were shot dead[8].  These “rebels” would keep Nicaragua in turmoil for years to come; they were much like Hispanic gangster groups of today.  On 20 May, the 11th Marine Regiment[9] arrived, accompanied by another aviation squadron.

The first Nicaraguan recruit constable took his oath of enlistment from Colonel Robert Y. Rhea, newly designated Chief Instructor of Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua, on 24 May … but there was no pushing and shoving to enlisted in this new organization.  Two factors explain why hardly anyone wanted to be in the Constabulary: first, coffee picking season paid more money than policing ($47.00 monthly, as compared to $0 monthly (Nicaragua’s government has a long history of unpaid soldiers[10])), and second, the Guardia’s ban on political activity.  The first company of Guardia Nacional took to the field on 1 July 1927 and by the end of the month, it was already experiencing combat—at a place called Ocotal.

(To be continued)


[1] The consequence of Mexico’s behavior was that President Coolidge believed he had to act.

[2] US policy forbade European powers from interfering in the affairs of Latin America; the only diplomatic recourse open to Great Britain and Italy at the time was to file a protest with the American Minister (Ambassador).

[3] The Krag-Jorgenson Rifle was adopted as the standard US Army rifle in 1892, chambered in .30-40 ammunition and manufactured under license at the Springfield Armory.  The weapon is also referred to as the Springfield Rifle 1892-99.  Because the side-loading mechanism was cumbersome in combat, it was eventually replaced by a clip-feeding mechanism like that of the Mauser.

[4] After 1941, the designation of Marine Corps organizations became somewhat standardized, where each battalion had five companies (a headquarters company, three rifle companies, and one weapons company); infantry (or line) companies were designated by letters, whereby 1st Battalion companies were A, B, C, and D.  2nd Battalion companies became E, F. G, and H.  3rd Battalion companies became I, K, L, and M.  Before then, rifle companies were numbered and I am not sure if this numbering system was sequential, or followed some other convention.

[5] Feland commanded American troops during the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I.

[6] Stimson served twice as Secretary of War, Governor-General of the Philippines, Secretary of State, and author of the so-called Stimson doctrine which announced opposition to Japanese expansion in the Far East.

[7] The Guardia would be Nicaragua’s only military and police force, consisting of 93 officers, 1,136 men.  Most Guardia officers would come from the ranks of US Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers.  Only the Guardia would have control of arms, ammunition, military supplies, forts, and prison facilities … subject only to the direction of the president.

[8] Both Marines were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[9] The 11th Marine Regiment, activated during World War I, was originally planned as a light artillery regiment but served as an infantry organization in France as part of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  Never assigned to combat duty, the regiment was disbanded on 11 August 1919.  The regiment was re-activated on 9 May 1927 for service in the Caribbean as an infantry regiment.

[10] Traditionally, the government would pay its officers, and they in turn would be responsible for paying the private soldiers.  Somehow, this money always ended up in the pockets of the Nicaraguan officers.

Marines in Nicaragua, Part III

After the election of Woodrow Wilson (shown right)[1] in 1913, his newly appointed Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan[2], resurrected the Knox Treaty[3] in 1914, inserting a clause which ceded to the United States the right to use its armed forces to intervene in the affairs of Nicaragua. Then Nicaraguan Ambassador Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[4] approved the instrument in August 1914, and Bryan dutifully sent the treaty to the Senate for their ratification.  The senate, with a Democratic majority, refused to consider the Bryan-Chamorro document until the Secretary first removed the Bryan clause.

Due to our understanding of Nicaraguan politics thus far, it should come as no surprise that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty was soon elevated to critical mass.  Adolfo Diaz had only survived as Nicaragua’s president because he was protected by American Marines and this is certainly how Liberals presented Diaz to the people.  True, America’s financial reforms would ultimately work to the benefit of the most Nicaraguans, but the process was tediously slow and the people of Nicaragua are not known for their patience.  Still, not one Liberal in Nicaragua would approve of the idea that the USA had a right to employ its armed forces in their country.

Aside: It was around this same time when a Russian revolutionary by the name of Vladimir Lenin asserted that if you tell a lie often enough, it eventually becomes an unmitigated truth.  This axiom has become a mainstay of leftist politics ever since, and it was certainly true in Nicaragua.  President Adolfo Diaz became a hated man in Nicaragua because of the propaganda campaign mounted against him by the Liberal Party, and they were unrelenting.  The fact is that Diaz was the most qualified man to serve as president, and he may have been the most honest of all Nicaraguan presidents.

In 1916, Nicaragua was preparing for its next presidential election.  Conservatives were ready to wash their hands of Diaz, favoring instead Emiliano Chamorro (shown right).  Liberals, on the other hand, favored a former advisor to President Zelaya named Julian Irias —a man who was at the time of his nomination, living in exile.  Still, the United States was concerned about Irias because, given the simple fact that liberal voters far outnumbered conservatives; an honest election would turn the country over to the liberal party.  More to the point, Irias was a man who associated himself with one of the most corrupt regimes in Nicaragua’s short history.

Thus, what the United States needed to do is somehow deny the election to Irias while preventing another rebellion.  This was accomplished when outgoing President Diaz prevented Irias from re-entering Nicaragua.  The nail on this coffin was America’s warning to Liberals that under no circumstances would the US ever recognize anyone associated with former President Zelaya.  To clear a pathway for Chamorro, conservative candidate Carlos Cuadras Paso was persuaded to withdraw from the race.

Emiliano Chamorro won the election in a landslide.

As a rule, Nicaragua’s presidency was habit forming; once in power, a president was disinclined to step down.  An exception to this rule was Emiliano Chamorro.  After four years in office, Chamorro decided to step aside and allow his Uncle Diego to succeed him.  Diego Chamorro won the 1920 election by more than 58,000 votes.  It was after this that an American political scientist by the name of Harold Dodds took on the difficult task of devising honest electoral machinery for Nicaragua.  His plan, completed in 1922, was enthusiastically supported by liberals —but hated by conservatives.  Conservatives acquiesced, however, once the US Ambassador reminded Chamorro that his nephew Emiliano had promised to support such a plan.

Nicaraguans may have fallen in love with Dodds’ election reforms, but their hate for American Marines remained constant.  Marines assigned to the American legation were continually reviled by the citizens of Managua —so much so that assignment to the Marine Guard may have been considered among the worst duties in the Corps.  With nothing constructive to do after duty hours, Marines drank to excess and pursued loose women within Managua’s fetid cantinas.  Nicaraguan police found that a drunken, disorderly Marine was an excellent target for revenge.

A series of clashes between Marines and local police came to a head on the night of 8 December 1921 when a Marine private shot and killed a police officer.  Afterwards, Marines were assigned to “shore patrol” duties; it was a matter of Marines keeping tabs on their own[5].  Meanwhile, American diplomats were concerned that the Marine Legation Guard was insufficiently staffed to head off pre-election liberal rioting.  Insisting on reinforcements, additional Marines were sent to the Guard from the USS Galveston (30 Marines), USS Denver (52 Marines), and USS Nitro (45 Marines).  Seagoing leathernecks were withdrawn after the elections, but bringing them in was a sound idea.  One individual who was present at the time later reported that the flames of hate in Nicaragua were palpable.  President Chamorro was crucified in the press for allowing the Americans to land additional Marines, but of more lasting importance to affairs in Nicaragua were the propagandists who claimed Mexican benevolence vs. American barbarity.  It was the first sign of the emergence of a bond between Nicaraguan Liberals and the Mexican government.

The long-awaited revolt took place in May 1922.  The Marine Guard was sufficiently strong enough to prevent fighting inside Managua, and even though Fort Loma was seized, government troops easily suppressed the uprising outside the capital.  Meanwhile, Liberal sentiments reflected hope of election reform and calm settled throughout the nation.  It was a peace that remained unbroken even when President Chamorro died in office.

Vice President Bartolomé Martínez González was known to have ambitions to succeed Chamorro; Liberals, who relied upon America’s promise of fair elections, argued that it would be illegal for the Vice President to permanently succeed Chamorro.  US diplomats clarified that no government which seized power in defiance of the constitution would be recognized as legitimate.  Satisfied, the Liberals focused all their energies to winning the 1924 election.

Over time, Liberals came to regard American leathernecks with some esteem.  When it was proposed that Marines (several of which provided support to Dobbs), should help supervise the electoral count, it was the conservatives (not the liberals) who complained loudest.

The new elections law was tested in 1924; it was the most nearly-honest election ever held in Nicaragua.  A coalition government was placed in office, with Conservative candidate Carlos José Solórzano Gutierrez elected President, and Liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa as Vice President.  Upon taking office, Solórzano promised that his administration would be scrupulously honest.  Praising the efforts of the United States to bolster the Nicaraguan economy, and stressing the notion of peaceful cooperation, Solórzano asked the United States to withdraw the Marine Guard from Managua … which was ultimately postponed from January until August 1925[6].  What Solórzano wanted was for the Marines to train a sufficient constabulary capable of maintaining the peace, but the government took no action to organize a police force until shortly before the Marines were withdrawn.

Three weeks after departure of the American Marines, a group of liberal cabinet ministers attended a reception.  Over the sound of popping champagne corks was heard a cacophony of gunfire from a band of conservatives who burst into the room, loudly accused the liberals of treason, and then ending their tirade by taking several liberals into custody.  The icing on this cake was that in late October, followers of Emiliano Chamorro seized the fortification at La Loma, and Solórzano and Vice President Sacasa left the country.  Thus, purged of liberal-leaning politicians, the Nicaraguan legislature reorganized itself and Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[7] seized power.

No one expected such boldness.  Along with efforts to persuade Chamorro to resign, the US refused to recognize his presidency.  This was of little concern to El Presidenté Chamorro, however, because thanks to elaborate US controls governing the collection of customs, all collected revenues automatically went to the central government no matter who was serving as president.  Although his seizure of office was clearly unconstitutional, Chamorro maintained control over the financial machinery of his new republic, which meant that Chamorro could easily afford to ignore the protestations of the United States.

Bluejackets 001Chamorro appeared undisturbed even when rioting swept throughout the country.  He believed that if the situation deteriorated, he could always rely on the United States to support Conservatives, as they had done so many times in the past.  In May 1926, USS Cleveland dropped anchor at Bluefields.  Marines and bluejackets went ashore to protect American property; no support for Chamorro would be forthcoming.  Moreover, the United States government accorded exiled Vice President Sacasa all the diplomatic honors due to a high official of a friendly state.  Worse than this, Mexico began providing Liberals (viewed as the party of Nicaraguan Nationalism) with arms and munitions.

Moncada JM 1910In eastern Nicaragua, Liberal General Jose Moncada (shown right) forced the conservative government back upon the Bluefields; a major battle was beginning to take shape.  The USA was concerned about the safety of its citizens and their property, resulting in the landing of a hundred Marines and bluejackets from the USS Galveston in August.  Conservatives looked upon the Americans as a savior to the conservative cause, but their mission was to prevent fighting, safeguard American citizens, and prevent rioting that would endanger private property.

Within a few weeks, Liberals and Conservatives were engaged in a large battle near El Bluff (Bluefields) … neither side gaining an advantage.  On 24 September 1926, Americans forced both sides out of El Bluff, causing them to resume their conflict at El Rama, 50 miles away.  Yet, despite their failure at El Bluff, the Liberal armies were doing quite well.  While they were not able to crush their adversaries, the Liberals did manage to disrupt commerce, and this had the effect of starving Chamorro economically.  No bucks, no bullets.

The United States negotiated a temporary truce beginning on 1 October 1926, inviting both sides to attend a peace conference at Corinto.  Armed Marines enforced a neutral zone around the city.  Peace talks took place from 16-24 October aboard USS Denver.  Vice President Sacasa, believing that it was not safe for him to attend this meeting, sent representatives.  What the US wanted was an impartial person to head an interim government.  Since there were no impartial leaders in Nicaragua, the conference was a waste of everyone’s time.

President Chamorro announced his resignation on 30 October 1926, the day the truce expired.  A conservative congress chose Senator Sebastian Uriza as Chamorro’s successor, but again the US withheld its recognition from Uriza’s government.  By this time weary of war, the Conservative Congress reconvened, reinstated expelled liberal members, and chose Adolfo Diaz to once more serve as (interim) president until 1928.  The amazing part of this is that at the time, Diaz remained the most hated man in Nicaragua.  The United States (along with several European powers) immediately recognized the Diaz government.  Mexico protested, however, insisting that Sacasa was the rightful leader even though absent from the country.

President Diaz failed to end the revolution, however.  In the first place, General Moncada refused to lay down his arms unless ordered to do so by former Vice President Sacasa.  Secondly, Sacasa himself arrived in Nicaragua in early December to take charge of the revolt, and with him came massive shipments of arms from Mexico.  When President Diaz learned of this, he began screaming for American assistance.

He would get it.

(To be Continued)


[1] Despite his professed hatred for Imperialism and his staunchly anti-interventionist policies, Woodrow Wilson became the most interfering American president of all.

[2] A great orator, but a man whose thought patterns were loath to achieve originality.

[3] Refers to the convention signed on 6 June 1911 by Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and Nicaraguan minister Salvador Castillo, providing economic and political aide to Nicaragua.  The treaty languished in the US Senate until May 1912 where it failed to gain enough support to move to a senate vote.

[4] Hispanic naming conventions involve one or more given names, followed by two family names (surnames).  The first surname is the father’s surname, and the second surname is the mother’s maiden name.

[5] This was a system employed for many years in China; Marines, left unsupervised, always find a way to get into trouble.

[6] The withdrawal of Marines was the product of a slow evolution in American foreign policy.  Beginning in 1913, President Wilson hoped to deal with Central Americans as equals, but the strategic importance of Nicaragua forced him to keep a careful eye on the nation’s domestic affairs.  Victory over Germany and developing friendship with Great Britain ended concerns about foreign encroachment.  American bankers regarded European investments of greater importance than their Central American holdings.  Finally, the American people demanded more attention to domestic issues than those on foreign shore.  President Coolidge urged honest elections in Nicaragua rather than the election of a government favorable to the United States.  Removal of the Marine Guard was the beginning of an attempt to deal with Nicaragua as a sovereign power, rather than treating the country as a dependency.  Such optimism was misplaced, however.

[7] Chamorro-Vargas previously served as president 1917-1921.

Marines in Nicaragua, Part II

Butler SDMajor Smedley D. Butler, USMC commanded a Marine Battalion sent to Nicaragua to protect American interests there, and to stabilize the government of President Adolfo Diaz[1].  Having established a firm base of operations inside Managua, Major Butler attempted to communicate with Nicaragua’s rebel leader, the former president (for three days) and now General Luis Mena Vado.  Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Butler urged Mena to surrender his forces to the authority of the central government in Managua.  General Mena replied that he would be very happy to surrender his forces, given his illness with rheumatism[2], but could not surrender forces he no longer commanded.  Major Butler, he said, would have to deal with General Benjamín Francisco Zeledón Rodríguez[3].

As Butler attempted to work a diplomatic solution to the rebellion[4], American reinforcements began arriving at Corinto, 90 miles northwest of Managua.  Butler contacted Navy Commander Warren J. Terhune to bring him up to date on developments.  Terhune decided to appropriate a train to Managua; he took with him Marine Captain Nelson Vulte, ten Marines, and 40 bluejackets.  Near the town of Leon, the locomotive came to a grinding stop just before reaching a crude road block.  Terhune was unwilling to risk an attack against a force of undetermined size in the gathering dusk—this turned out to be a wise move.  Terhune pulled back some three miles and waited for dawn on the next morning.

The following morning, bluejackets removed the road block and the train crept forward until it was again halted by a rebel patrol.  The Nicaraguans held their fire, merely requesting that the Americans confer with their commander.  Captain Vulte obtained permission to pass unchallenged through rebel lines.  Upon Volte’s return to the train, he reported with confidence to Commander Terhune that he had achieved some diplomatic success.  The Marines were ordered to sling their rifles and board the train.  Just outside of Leon, however, the Americans found themselves surrounded by a mob of armed rebels.  The Americans were released without harm and sent on foot[5] to Managua, the rebels retaining control of the train.

The capture of the train was no small matter because it offered the rebels prestige.  The train incident was also an affront to the United States —one that Major Butler would not tolerate.  Butler decided to open the railway from Corinto to Managua, and so on 25 August 1912, Butler, Terhune, lieutenants Alexander Vandergrift[6], Edward A. Ostermann[7], and Richard Tebbs, departed Managua with 190 Marines.

Major Butler’s trains ran into difficulties almost immediately after leaving Managua.  Rebels destroyed weakened culverts and ripped out railing … all of which impeded the progress of the Marines.  Still, Butler experienced no serious opposition until the lead train approached a trestle on the outskirts of Leon.  There, rebels halted the Americans and, emboldened by their earlier success, the commandante began a tirade with Major Butler.  The rebel leader’s attempt at intimidation failed miserably, however, so the rebel hothead drew his revolver.  Butler snatched away the man’s weapon and made a show of unloading it.  The gaggle of rebels standing aside watched the entertainment and then roared with laughter.  Afterwards, the Marines, with the rebel commandante now a prisoner, proceeded to Leon.

Outside Leon, grumbling citizens lined the railway lines.  Eventually, a woman found her way to the locomotive where Butler had stationed himself and, after producing a large machete, began honing the weapon on Butler’s leggings—all the while threatening to take his life.  Butler reached down and tickled her under her chin and the woman, thoroughly embarrassed, fled the scene.

Major Butler arrived in Corinto without further incident; there he briefed his Navy superiors about General Mena’s retirement and General Zeledón’s rise to power.  Afterwards, Butler returned to Managua where he discovered that the threat of a rebel assault had evaporated.

Pendleton JHOn 4 September 1912, the 1st Marine Provisional Regiment arrived at Corinto with its 1st and 2nd Battalions.  The regimental commander was Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton (shown right)[8].  The regiment moved to Managua within two days, relieving Major Butler’s battalion for operations in the field.  Butler was ordered to clear the railway from Managua to Granada.  The operation was delayed for several days owing to Butler’s illness, accompanied by high fever and jaundice.  Although still quite ill, Butler commenced his operations on 15 September.  The task force included three companies of Marines, two machine guns, and two 3-inch field pieces.  Two locomotives were placed in the rear of the train, which consisted of box cars, flat cars, and a passenger coach.

Admiral SoutherlandMajor Butler halted his train near La Barranca, adjacent to Masaya, where government troops had besieged Zeledón’s liberal army.  Butler commandeered a handcar and pumped his way back to within federal lines.  He found that rather than arriving at the scene of a quiet siege, he and his Marines had marched into the middle of a pitched battle.  Butler walked forward under a flag of truce to meet with General Zeledón, taking with him one officer as a witness and a Spanish-speaking sergeant.  During these discussions, the translator let slip that Butler’s two superiors were Admiral Southerland[9] and Colonel Pendleton.  Zeledón thereafter insisted on meeting with the ranking naval officer (shown left).

Zeledon BOver a period of several days, General Zeledón (shown left) conferred with Rear Admiral William Southerland.  In the end, Zeledón agreed to allow Major Butler’s trains to pass through his lines.  Butler pushed off at around 2010 on 19 September 1912.  While passing through Masaya, the train slowed at a cross street when suddenly, a man galloped his horse toward the locomotive.  Sweeping up into the cab, the man fired a revolver point blank range at Butler, missing him, but wounding a corporal in the hand.  Having dispatched the rebel, Butler stopped the train and called up a surgeon to see to the corporal’s wound.  Rebel riflemen suddenly opened-up on the train; Marines responded with disciplined fire.  Unknown to Butler, several Marines dropped from the train to take up better positions along the tracks.  Butler ordered the train to proceed down the tracks, leaving a handful of men behind.  Captain Vulte immediately detrained, collected his Marines, and followed the train on a handcar.

Volte caught up with the train about a mile further down the tracks.  He found Major Butler seething with rage; five of his men had been wounded, three remained missing.  Soon after, a messenger arrived with an apology from General Zeledón.  Major Butler informed Zeledón that he would attack Masaya in the morning if his missing men were not immediately returned.  The Marines were returned to Butler within the hour, one of them slightly wounded.

After passing through General Zeledón’s rebels, Major Butler had to contend with the remnants of General Mena’s irregulars at Granada.  Owing to sabotaged railway tracks[10], Butler’s progress was slow.  By the time Major Butler met with Mena’s delegation, he was in an impatient mood.  Butler agreed to meet Mena at the small village of San Blas, but had grown weary of Mena’s games.  Major Butler informed Mena that if he did not sign a formal surrender, his Marines would attack Granada.  Mena delayed his response for as long as possible and, recognizing that Mena’s silence was an intentional delay, Butler proceeded to plan an assault.  Late in the night of 22 September 1912, however, General Mena surrendered his forces.

Later in the day, as General Mena went peacefully into exile, Colonel Pendleton sent a trainload of rations and medicine to Granada.  Except for General Zeledón’s group located near the region of La Barranca-Coyotope Hill, the railway system was free from rebel interference.  Now, with Mena out of the picture, Colonel Pendleton could focus his efforts on dealing with Zeledón.

Colonel Pendleton joined Zeledón in battle on 2 October.  Marine and federal artillery shelled the liberal positions for most of the day; in the evening, Butler was ordered to coordinate with federal troops and move his battalion into position to attack the southeastern slopes of Coyotope Hill.  Butler began to position his troops for the assault at around 0130; given the darkness and thickness of jungle foliage, getting his men into position for an assault was a difficult task.  Nevertheless, the Marine attack commenced at 0515 the next morning.

Rebel fire was wild and inaccurate as Butler’s Marines and federal troops stormed the rebel positions on the slope of Coyotope Hill.  The battle was over within 40 minutes.  Twenty-seven rebels were killed, nine were captured, and the rest took to flight.  One of the rebel dead was the self-styled general Benjamin Zeledón, but it is unclear how he died.  Some have said that he died when his own men shot him as he attempted to desert them while under fire; another report stated that he fell as the result of Marine marksmanship.  Seven American bluejackets and Marines were killed in the action.

After the fall of Masaya, government troops gorged themselves by indiscriminate killing and raping its inhabitants.  Word of these revenge killings made its way to rebels outside Leon, who wisely decided to surrender to an American officer.

With the revolution suppressed, Colonel Pendleton’s Marines were soon withdrawn, but an enlarged Marine guard was retained in Managua.  In the aftermath of this intervention, Nicaragua’s conservatives retained their precarious hold on the presidency—but Diaz’s power rested entirely on the presence of the United States Marine legation guard.  After offering General Chamorro the position of Ambassador to the United States, Diaz renewed his bid as chief executive (1913-1917); of the country’s half-million population, 4,000 citizens reelected Diaz to the presidency.

As it served no purpose to the United States to have a continuation of civil conflict in Nicaragua, what the Americans wanted most was peace.  Respite from civil war offered Nicaragua the opportunity to increase the standard of living among its citizens, pay its debts, and stabilize its economy.  The citizens of Nicaragua could benefit from American investments, but only if their government leaders conducted themselves as proper officials.  As to the problem with European encroachment in Central America, the United States was clear: the United States would not tolerate intrusion.

(To be Continued)


[1] Adolfo Diaz was perhaps the most hated man in Nicaragua at this particular time, and the reasons for this might be revealed by his background.  Born in Costa Rica, Diaz previously worked for the La Luz y Los Angeles Mining Company, an American-owned company chartered in Delaware.  In this capacity, Diaz helped to channel funds supporting the revolt against President Jose Santos Zelaya.  It did not take Diaz long after his inauguration to ask for American intervention.

[2] Other accounts report dysentery.

[3] Benjamin Zeledón was a Liberal-Conservative Revolutionary who carried forward an uprising against Diaz after the surrender of General Mena in 1912.  Zeledón.  He was killed by US Marines at the Battle of Coyotepe Hill on his birthday, 4 October 1912.

[4] Which hardly resembles the narrative of the leftist history revisionists …

[5] One account has Commander Terhune returning to Managua on the back of a broken-down mule, him wearing a dilapidated panama hat, his men following along in trace.  Major Butler was said to have been embarrassed and incensed by this incident.

[6] Medal of Honor while commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal; Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[7] Medal of Honor while serving in Haiti, retired as a Major General in 1943.

[8] Camp Pendleton, California is named in his honor.  Major General Pendleton served in the Marine Corps for 40 years, retiring at age 64 in 1924.

[9] Joining the US Navy just after the Civil War at age 12, William Henry Hudson Sutherland (July 10, 1852 – January 30, 1933) commanded several ships in Cuban waters during the Spanish-American War.  He later served as Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet.

[10] Rebels coated the tracks with milkweed, which affected the train’s progress at several locations.  One account reported that Marines had to push the train over several up-hill segments.


Marines in Nicaragua, Part I

It was quite a few years ago that an officer whom I have long admired, and whose studies included Chinese history, related to me this anecdote: “It was a time filled with tumult and upheaval, a time of great treachery, chaos, and the din of many battles.  The people experienced great trepidation, much hunger, and inordinate physical suffering.  A great warrior, having observed these things firsthand, may have made the greatest understatement of all time when he said, “We live in interesting times.”

Nicaragua was always (and I believe, continues to be) an interesting place; its history is filled with interesting times.  As but one example, Nicaragua is the only foreign country to have an American serve as its president—not for long, mind you, but it did happen.

As I mentioned last week, Spain’s colonies in the Americas were so large that its government could not possibly maintain control over them.  Added to this, Spanish arrogance toward those living in American colonies was such that an independence movement was only a matter of time.  That time came in 1821 when the Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, and Costa Rica issued a joint declaration of independence.  Spain, unable to do anything about it militarily, left the revolutionaries free from conflict to form a confederation modeled on the American federalist system.  It took a few years, but a Central American Republic was eventually formed … it would not last beyond 1839.

In these early days, effective communication was impeded by poor roads and barely navigable rivers —but there was an even larger problem: Latino Culture.  There were but two political entities, and these were aggravated by a thing called localism.  The result was the development of intense hatred one for the other: anti-Catholic liberals opposed staunchly Catholic conservatives.  By 1839, Nicaragua was standing apart from the Central American Republic as an independent state, but that was about the only positive thing anyone could say for Nicaragua.  The economy was a shamble, and jealousy created petty caudillos who competed with one another for power and influence.  Over time, the struggle became a competition between haves and have-nots.  Nicaragua remained in a nearly-constant state of civil war for many years.

nicaragua.jpgThere were two reasons prompting the United States to regard Nicaragua as a vital interest.  The first was American expansionism.  The United States’ victory over Mexico ceded California to the United States.  This prompted Americans to begin looking for speedy routes to the Pacific coast.  The land route across the American plains was dangerous and time consuming, but the sea route around South America was even more so.  Thus, the second reason was Nicaragua’s geography.

After the discovery of gold in California, increased demands for transportation to the Pacific Coast prompted American diplomats to obtain transit rights through Nicaragua.  Leading this charge was none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose steamship and railroad interests earned for him the moniker “Commodore.”  Vanderbilt, who had already started rail line construction across the Isthmus of Panama, wondered whether a transoceanic canal might be the practical solution; it was an idea ahead of its time.  Instead, Vanderbilt formed the Accessory Transit Company[1].

Standing somewhat off-stage were the British, who watched America’s expansion with great interest, noting also the geographical importance of Nicaragua.  With a firm foot-hold north of the Bluefields Lagoon, the British expanded the Mosquito Protectorate[2].  In 1848, Great Britain seized the town of San Juan del Norte, renamed it Greytown, and declared the town a free city[3].  Annexation placed Greytown under the control of the British at the mouth of the San Juan River.  Vanderbilt may have acquired transit authority through Nicaragua, but he would need the permission of the British Consul at Greytown before he could move passengers and freight from Greytown, up the San Juan River, across Lake Nicaragua, and then overland to San Juan del Sur.

Thus, in 1850 we find emerging Nicaragua facing two sources of conflict: the traditional mashup between liberals and conservatives, and the international competition between the Americans and British.  As the British employed local mobs to disrupt American commercial interests, America used its Marines to quell such disturbances.  There was very little Nicaraguans could do about the international competition, but in the matter of rebellion, they seemed dedicated toward making all the wrong choices.

Unable to gain advantages over conservatives, the liberal party sought unconventional strategies.  In return for cash and land grants, an American mercenary (and self-styled Impresario) by the name of William Walker[4] offered to provide 300 settlers who would be subject to military duty in the liberal army.  Walker’s subsequent successes as a military commander led to his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Army.  From that high office, and for whatever reason, in 1856 Walker influenced the government to revoke Vanderbilt’s transit charter.  Incensed, Vanderbilt vowed revenge.

When the opportunity presented itself, Walker bolted the liberal party and accepted a conservative nomination as President of Nicaragua.  He is the only American to serve as President of Nicaragua.  His tenure was a short, however, because Commodore Vanderbilt began a vigorous campaign to supply liberals with arms and ammunition.  Eventually, Walker’s foolishness caught up with him.  The government of neighboring Honduras executed him by firing squad on 11 September 1860.  Once the Walker problem was resolved, conservatives and liberals found a way to calm their passions for thirty years.

Zelaya 001By 1894, Conservatives and Liberals were back at one another’s throats.  This time, however, civil unrest in Nicaragua invited foreign intervention as mobs threatened American and British citizens and property.  American Marines went ashore on several occasions.  War broke out again in 1898 when President Jose Santos Zelaya (shown left) arbitrarily extended his tenure as president for another term.

If there is anything we can say about Zelaya, it is that he had the uncanny ability to combine his liberal idealism with corruption and militarism.  He did work hard to attract foreign investment, but he also extorted a hefty amount of money from investors in the form of kickbacks.  Zelaya and his cabinet also held a monopoly over the nation’s business enterprises.  As Nicaraguan citizens struggled with worthless money and runaway inflation, Zelaya peddled natural resources to the highest bidder—always lining his own pockets.

The United States was not happy with President Zelaya after he executed a few captured rebels and it turned out that two of these were American citizens.  Much more than this, however, the Americans learned that Zelaya had begun to explore the possibilities of building a transoceanic canal with Japan and Germany.  As far as the United States was concerned, this simply would not do, so in early December 1909, American Marines were landed at Port Bluefields to establish a neutral zone protecting foreign lives and property.  The reality was, however that Port Bluefields was no more than a base of operations for anti-Zelayan rebels.  Ever clairvoyant, Zelaya packed up the booty he acquired over many years of corruption and on 18 December 1909, fled to Mexico.

Nicaragua’s political structure became increasingly unstable; between 1909 and 1911, the country witnessed four presidencies.  After Zelaya’s departure, the United States called for Nicaragua to write a constitution —a task Nicaraguans found nearly insurmountable.  It was also a time when, through free trade and interest free loans, the Americans exercised strong control over Nicaragua.

From a practical standpoint, after urging its citizens to invest in Nicaragua, the United States could hardly stand idly by as rebels destroyed these properties.  Accordingly, the Americans demanded of President Adolfo Diaz his guarantee of effective protection of US citizens and property.  President Diaz was in no position to guarantee anything of the kind, so he asked for United States intervention.  Initially, the Navy sent ashore a handful of seamen from the USS Annapolis, which had anchored off Corinto.  Another forty Marines and sailors landed at Port Bluefields from the USS Tacoma.  The bluejackets and Marines may have been an effective deterrent against small pockets of rebels, but given the size of Nicaragua, what was needed was a base of supply and six battalions of infantry.

Spearheading America’s expeditionary force on 14 August 1912 was Major Smedley D. Butler, U. S. Marine Corps.  Arriving at Corinto (Chinandega) aboard the USS Justin, Butler’s battalion consisted of 13 officers and 341 Marines.  Within two weeks, the Americans had gained footholds on both coasts of Nicaragua and assembled a powerful infantry unit prepared to strike eastward toward Managua.

Major Butler was an “in your face” kind of warrior.  The day following disembarkation, Butler led three companies of Marines into Managua to secure the American legation.  That achieved, Butler decided to offer a deal to the rebel leader, General Mena.  It was an offer for Mena to surrender honorably; an effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.  First Lieutenant Edward Conger volunteered to lead two other Marines into the jungle to deliver the note.  In due course, Conger reported that he had met with General Mena, that the General was ill with rheumatism, and that the general would be happy to surrender were he still in charge of the rebel forces.  The new rebel commander was the former Minister of War in the Zelaya Cabinet, Benjamín Francisco Zeledón Rodríguez—a die-hard liberal.

(Continued Next Week)


[1] The Accessory Transit Company was one “American property” that needed safeguarding by US Marines.

[2] A region of eastern Nicaragua and northeast Honduras. A British protectorate from 1655 to 1860, it then became an autonomous state known as the Mosquito Kingdom. In 1894 Nicaragua appropriated the territory, and in 1960 the northern part was awarded to Honduras by the International Court of Justice.

[3] A free city is an independent political entity; also, City State.

[4] Walker previously organized a mercenary force to invade lower California; he was defeated in his efforts by disease, starvation, and uncooperative natives.