The Death of a General: William Walker´s Execution of Ponciano Corral, Granada, 1855.
By Pat Werner
When one takes the time to understand the entire Walker episode in Nicaraguan history, it becomes clear that the 23 months that Walker was actually on Nicaraguan soil was not the beginning or end of anything, but one, dramatic episode in a series of intestinal disputes between Nicaraguan elites. That struggle began arguably in 1853, due to the high handed tactics of Fruto Chamorro, the political leader of the Conservatives Party, and ended in 1869 at Niquinohomo with the defeat of Tomas Martinez and Maximo Jerez, two aging caudillos that fought with each other and all other comers until they got too old to fight.
One of the major players in the first civil wars was the military leaders of the Conservatives, one Ponciano Corral, who showed some skill, much more than his political leader, Fruto Chamorro, until Walker caught him in double dealing and shot him in front of the Parroquia Church in the town square of Granada. How that happened makes an interesting tale.
In 1853 Fruto Chamorro precipitated a Civil War with the Liberals, led by Francsico Castellon and Maximo Jerez. The first battle of El Pozo, on a finca close by Chinandega showed Chamorro´s military prowess. Right before the battle he decided, perhaps helped along with native booze, to inspire the troops by riding his horse up onto a stone wall and making a speech. He got up on the stone wall, shot his pistol into air, and his men shot back at him, causing his horse to fall off the wall on top of him, leaving him seriously stunned. The Liberals soon attacked, completely beat the Conservatives, and Chamorro, alone headed off toward Granada. He got lost in the Sierra de Managua, and finally made it to Granada, where, as President of Nicaragua, he controlled mostly the plaza of Granada.
His main opponent was Maximo Jerez, the Liberal ideologue, who a young Enrique Guzman would puckishly later write that he was a General who could not ride a horse, shoot a gun, and never won a battle. The battle for Granada concentrated on the houses between the Jalteva Church and the main plaza of Granada, and it was a bloody, long encounter. To break the ring of steel around Granada, Chamorro sent his military leader, Ponciano Corral, onto Lake Nicaragua, who on September 15, 1854, sailing the schooner La Zara, close by the island Zapatera, attacked the Liberal schooner La Esperanza, outgunned it, and killed all 40 sailors on board. The next day Corral attacked the Fort Inmaculada on the San Juan River, defeated the Liberals there, and killed all the Liberals they could find, the last by cutting his throat on the dock by the fort.
That lake activity opened up Granada to receive men and supplies from the Caribbean, and with Corral´s competent leadership, the Liberals were defeated, pushed out of Masaya at great loss of men, and finally out of Nicaragua. Castellon and Jerez, in exile in Honduras, ran into an American lawyer, Byron Cole, who put them in touch with a friend of his working on a newspaper in the States, one William Walker, and soon the Liberals had a ready made mercenary army recruited under Walker. At about the same time Fruto Chamorro, after lousing up Nicaraguan politics and causing hundreds of battle deaths, died in time so that his reputation was not sullied by Walker. His bones are interred in an attractive tomb at the entrance of Granada´s cemetery.
Walker´s initial military act, the first battle of Rivas in the summer of 1855, was a poorly planned failure, and he later retreated to La Virgen. The Conservatives had more successes, and, now led by provisional President Jose Maria Estrada, sent Corral with much of the Conservative Army to keep the Army between Walker and Granada.
Walker had his one intelligent idea of the entire war when he pirated the paddle wheel steam boat Virgin that had been sailing between the San Carlos and the freshwater port of La Virgen. Walker had found out that Corral and his entire Army was in Rivas and that only a skeleton garrison protected Granada. Walker also got lucky because the Conservatives had defeated the Liberals in a battle and were deep in their cups celebrating that victory. Walker jam packed 400 armed men on the steam boat and set out for Granada. He landed 3 1-2 miles north of Granada early on the morning of October 13, 1855, and made a forced march to Granada, past where the old Centroamerica High school now stands. Guards at the municipal dock reported seeing a dark form passing the dock in the night and went to general headquarters to report. They found everyone celebrating, and by the time they got into to talk to the authorities to report what they saw they heard the muskets of Walker´s men attacking them. One short battle was found at the San Francisco Church, but within 10 minutes the entire town was Walker´s, including the families of all the Conservatives leaders, and Mateo Mayorga, the Foreign Minister. President Jose Maria Estrada had escaped (only to be assassinated by Liberal thugs in Ocotal in August of 1856). Walker, after his lightning attack, slept for a time in a hammock strung from columns in the building where Kathy´s Wafflehouse now stands. He then sent Corral a very conciliatory message asking for a truce and proposing a pact that would divide power between the two factions.
Corral of course refused, and Walker, on a trumped up charge, sat his prisoner, Foreign Minister Mateo Mayorga in a chair in front of the Parroquia church, and shot him early in the morning of October 22, 1855. Walker then sent a polite message to Corral noting that he had the entire families of all the Conservative Elites as his prisoners and he would shoot them all if Corral attacked them. This time Corral took Walker seriously, and struck a deal to bring peace and also to save the lives of the conservative families.
On this same day, the Conservatives considered what to do. One, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, argued that they should attack Walker, no matter the consequences. Others, aware of Walker´s merciless attitude, decided it was time to make an arrangement with Walker. On October 23, Corral rode from Masaya to Granada, where he was met on the edge of town by Walker, who escorted him to the plaza of Granada, where he found several hundred enemy Liberals and Americans lined up and presenting arms. Corral arrived at a truce and peace treaty, signed it, with a provisional government headed by Patricio Rivas, Corral as Minister of War, and Walker as commander in chief of the Nicaraguan army. Corral then returned to Masaya to begin demobilizing his army. Formal ceremonies beginning the new coalition government took place on October 29, when Corral and Walker met, embraced and kissed in the main plaza of Granada, and walked to the Parroquia, where a Te Deum was sung in honor of peace and the new coalition government. Patricio Rivas was sworn in on October 30 at the Granada city hall, Corral and Walker were sworn in, and it looked like peace was finally achieved in war torn Nicaragua.
Corral, however, was just play acting. On November 1, Corral wrote to his Honduran compatriot, Santos Guardiola:
¨My esteemed friend- It is necessary that you should write to our friends to give them notice of the danger which threatens us, and to take active steps with you. If you wait two months it will be too late. . . . Nicaragua is lost, Honduras, San Salvador, and Guatemala are lost if you let things go on. Come quickly if you will find auxiliaries.¨
And to Honduran General Pedro Xatruch he wrote:
¨Friend Don Pedro: We are badly, badly, badly off. Think of your friends. I was left here without anything but what I had on my body, and I hope for your help. Your friend, P. Corral.¨
Unfortunately, these letters were given to a spy, who gave them to an ally of Walker who gave them to Walker. On November 4, Walker called a council of war and invited everyone, including Corral, to his headquarters, probably in the house on the south western corner of the plaza in Granada, known as the Pellas house. There the Conservative army was disbanded. On November 5 Corral was arrested and immediately court marshalled. Walker was prosecutor and witness. The court, handpicked by Walker, found Corral guilty, but recommended leniency. Walker, never known for his forgiving nature, decided that Corral would be shot in front of the Parroquia church at noon on November 8.
That gave Corral´s family the opportunity to beg Walker for his life. He had a step mother, Mama Goyita, who was a former slave with a gold nose ring, and two daughters, Carmen aged 12 and Sofia aged 14. All three women begged forcefully for Corral´s life for an extended period of time. American ambassador John Wheeler who apparently was present during these difficult interviews, described Corral as portly and of dark features, ¨of daring and indomitable purpose¨.
After a long session of supplicating, Walker, in his Solomonic worst, felt that justice to the few would be injustice to the many. Accordingly, Walker did grant a reprieve from execution from 12 noon to 2 p.m. At the appointed hour, Corral left the cuartel general, a large barracks located where the rusted cannon is presently located on the side of the plaza, and sat in a chair about 50 meters in front of the Parroquia church. A firing squad, led by one legged filibusterer Charles Gilman, stepped forward at a distance of 10 paces, and fired their Model 1842 Mississippi Rifles of 54 caliber into the blindfolded body of Corral. All the balls pierced his body and he immediately died. American Ambassador Wheeler reported that many women cut off locks of Corral´s hair and soaked their handkerchiefs with Corral´s blood.
This episode, perhaps more than any other, shows the one strategic act that allowed Walker to dominate Granada for about a year. It also showed just how cold blooded Walker could be and why it took him less than a year to alienate all of his Nicaraguan allies. Finally, even his own surviving soldiers eventually concluded that he was completely uncaring about his men by 1858 and he lost all power and credibility among his troops and the ability to conquer Nicaragua. That was the effective end of Walker’s military exploits in Nicaragua.
For More Reading: There are several primary sources of Walkeriana that are worth reviewing. The first is Walker´s own book, The War in Nicaragua, published in 1860 (reprinted by the University of Arizona in 1985), shortly before he was shot in Honduras by his old antagonist General Xatruch. It is a surprisingly well written work, with only three obvious tinkerings with the truth. It should be noted that some of Walker´s most vehement adversaries in Nicaragua used his own numbers and data published in his newspaper and later reprinted in his book in their own published works, showing a certain agreement in the numbers he stated. Also in English is Alejandro Bolaños magnificent, William Walker, The Gray Eyed Man of Destiny, privately published in 1990, five volumes. If one is serious about understanding the entire Walker and related civil wars in Nicaragua, it is essential reading. Bolaños was a delightful man who spent 25 years going all over the world collecting data and documents on Walker. He was also a first rate historian and his humor and encyclopaedic treatment is sorely missed. In Spanish, the works of Walker´s contemporaries Francisco Ortega Arancibia, 40 Años de Historia, Jerónimo Perez´Obras Completas, y Jose Dolores Gamez, Historia de Nicaragua, are all valuable and together give a fairly complete picture of what happened in western Nicaragua, 1855-1857. Several works written later in the 19th century and 20th century, in both languages, are less reliable and tend to substitute polemics for facts.