- Historic Sites
“The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny”
The daring epic of the filibusters reached a lurid climax when little William Walker captured the sovereign state of Nicaragua
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
None of these decrees ever went into effect because Walker’s time was running out. By October he was under attack from the south by the Costa Ricans, and from the north by the combined armies of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In this crisis Walker decided to evacuate Granada and to move his headquarters to the volcanic island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. In order to deny his enemies the prestige of a conquest, he left his second in command, Charles Frederick Henningsen, a British soldier of fortune, at Granada with orders to destroy the city utterly.
Henningsen organized his men into demolition detachments and systematically began to blow up and burn the buildings section by section, while the hysterical natives streamed out of the city. Henningsen’s men naturally found loot and wines and spirits in most of the houses they entered. Henningsen was unable to restrain his officers and they, in turn, lost all control of their men. As nightfall came, the city became an obscenity with flames shooting skyward, clouds of smoke hugging the roof tops, and groups of howling drunk, smoke-blackened filibusters screaming and reeling through the streets in an orgy of plunder and destruction. For two days and two nights this bedlam of annihilation rose to a crescendo as the crazed Americans drank and plundered, smashed and fired buildings, fell in a drunken stupor from which they would be awakened, likely as not, by the kicks of yelling and singing comrades, to rise dizzily and stagger on to smash and fire other buildings in the raging inferno of explosions and smoke—and to drink some more.
The enemy forces presently attacked the city from three different sides and one column seized the Guadalupe church, which stood on the street running between the wharf on Lake Nicaragua and the main plaza where Henningsen was rallying his men.
After setting fire to all the surrounding buildings, he began to fight his way, foot by foot, down the street toward the wharf. At first, many of the Americans were still half drunk, and some took to the bottle again in the face of such imminent danger. Somehow Henningsen finally got them sober and into a kind of order. A filibuster named Calvin O’Neal, whose brother had fallen in the first onslaughts, came to Henningsen in a frenzy of raging grief and asked permission to charge a body of 400 or 500 Guatemalan soldiers who could be seen forming in the distance. His commander gave him 32 picked Rifles. What followed was later described by Walker:
“O’Neal, barefooted and in his shirt sleeves, leaped on his horse, and calling on his Rifles to follow, dashed into the midst of the allies as they formed near the old church. The men, fired by the spirit of their leader, followed in the same fierce career, dealing death and destruction on the terrified foe. The allies were entirely unprepared for O’Neal’s sudden, clashing charge, and they fell as heedless travellers before the blast of the simoom. The slaughter made by the thirty-two Rifles was fearful, and so far were O’Neal and his men carried by the ‘rapture of the strife’ that it was difficult for Henningsen to recall them to the Plaza. When they did return it was through streets almost blocked with the bodies of the Guatemalans they had slain.”
By the next morning Henningsen had concentrated his forces in the main plaza and could count his strength. He had lost 23 men killed or captured and could muster only 227 soldiers fit for duty; he was burdened with 73 wounded and some 70 women and children and sick.
Two days later, on November 27, after blowing up a church on the plaza and destroying the nearby buildings (Henningsen was still carrying out his orders amidst the inferno), he poured a heavy artillery fire into the Guadalupe church and captured it by an immediately following assault by 60 picked Rifles. At once he moved all his forces and supplies into this large, strong building and prepared to withstand a siege until Walker could relieve him from the lake. His men had recovered from their debauchery and were willing to work and fight for their lives and for the protection of all the noncombatants. But the crowded and unsanitary conditions in the church, the food of mule and horse meat, the night chills and rains, and the stench from the unburied enemy dead outside brought much sickness to the 400 Americans huddled together, and cholera soon appeared as a far more dreadful foe than the enemy.
A ministering angel appeared amidst these terrible scenes, Mrs. Edward Bingham, the wife of an invalid actor who had brought his family to Nicaragua to take up one of Walker’s grants of land to American settlers. From the time of her arrival she had nursed in the American hospitals, and in the Guadalupe church she constantly tended the sick and wounded with magnificent courage and complete self-sacrifice which gained her the deepest gratitude of all the soldiers. Finally, worn out and weak, she became another victim of the dreaded cholera and died within a few hours. Her children perished with her, but her invalid husband survived all the horrors of the siege and eventually reached California safely. Of all the Americans in Nicaragua this splendid woman showed the finest spirit.