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
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.
© y W.
T. Block, Jr.
August 14, 2006 column