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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"

Ghost of Nicaragua Smith
Still Haunts Graveyard

By W. T. Block
If you should ever pass near the Old City Cemetery in Galveston on the night of January 8th, you might hear a screaming voice out of the ocean mists, cursing the Confederate States rifle squad. Old-timers say it is the ghost of Nicaragua Smith, whom a Confederate firing squad executed in the cemetery.

It is believed that he was born as Thomas Smith in New York, but that is uncertain. Ex-Confederates who had served with him in Galveston knew him only by his nickname of Nicaragua. Smith drifted south during the middle 1850s, and being more or less a soldier of fortune, he joined a band of filibusterers in 1856, headed by William Walker, and bound for Nicaragua; hence Smith's nickname. Some time in 1860, he jumped ship in Galveston.

Soon after the outbreak of war in Apr. 1861, a series of burglaries occurred along the Galveston waterfront. Capt. N. B. Yard, a Galveston merchant and captain of a militia company, arrested Smith and some other drifters, marched them to the Central Wharf, put them aboard a steamboat bound for Houston, and told them never to return to Galveston.

Some time afterward, Smith, perhaps being hungry and penniless, joined a Confederate artillery battery and he was soon stationed in Galveston as part of a gun crew assigned to a cannon battery on Pelican Spit. However, garrison life there did not suit him too much either - perhaps there was too much discipline, too many mosquitoes, and not enough whiskey to whet his appetite; One night Smith stole a boat, rowed out to the Union blockader "Santee," and surrendered. He was soon sent as a prisoner of war to New Orleans.

On Oct. 4, 1862, the Union Navy sailed into Galveston Bay and captured the seaport island. In Dec. 1862, Gen. Magruder arrived in Houston as the new head of the Texas District, and immediately his intent was to recapture Galveston. At daylight of Jan. 1, 1863, a combined force of Confederate army and navy launched an assault, which recaptured the island, along with 300 troops of the 42nd Massachusetts Regiment.

In the meantime, Smith convinced Union authorities that he was born in the North and still loyal to the land of Lincoln. Gen. Ben Butler allowed Smith to enlist in Col. E. J. Davis' (later Texas' scalawag governor) 1st Texas Regiment of Union Volunteers.

At daylight of Jan. 3, 1863, the Federal transport "Cambria" dropped anchor off Galveston's East Pass, having aboard all of Col. Davis' regiment and a cargo of heavy guns, 2 locomotives, and several flat cars. The captain, believing the seaport to still be in Union hands, raised a "blue peter" flag, which was the international marine signal to take aboard a pilot. When no bar pilot arrived, the captain lowered a whale boat and sent ashore Smith and five seamen to bring a pilot back to the ship. Instead Smith was immediately recognized as a deserter, and put in irons. Actually the pilot boat Lecompt carried a pilot out to the "Cambria" with hope of luring the troopship into port, but the pilot was recognized as a Confederate ship captain.

On Jan. 6, 1863 Nicaragua Smith was tried for desertion before a drum head court martial, headed by Capt. Yard. Smith swore he had never been in Galveston, but 3 soldiers from Pelican Spit swore that he was the same person who stole a boat there, before deserting. Smith was soon sentenced to death before a firing squad.

At daylight of Jan. 8th, Smith was loaded in a wagon beside his coffin and carried to the cemetery, where a grave had already been dug. As 6 Confederate soldiers cocked their muskets, Smith cursed them and shouted he wanted to be buried face down; he was buried in an unmarked grave.
So neighbor, if ever you should walk past the Old City Cemetery on a January night, and you hear a voice scream loudly amidst the fog, cursing the Confederate firing squad, it is probably old Nicaragua Smith, making his annual jaunt through the graveyard.


W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
August 14, 2006 column

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