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.


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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

8 thoughts on “Marines in Nicaragua, Part II”

    1. Thanks, Bunks. Your Marines have a fascinating history and I love to tell our tale. They not only completed every assigned mission, they did it in a superior manner. And make no mistake … they are YOUR Marines.


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