Solon Borland, Southern radical and American minister to Central America, took a bottle to the face from an angry mob for his trouble intervening to prevent the arrest of a murderous American captain working for the Accessory Transit Company in Nicaragua. The attack happened in Greytown, a town that the British founded but had operated for some years as a free port answerable only to itself. Now some people there had attacked and injured an American diplomat, who rushed off to Washington to tell his story.
Though never much of an enthusiast for the theatrical, reckless side of diplomacy, Secretary of State William L. Marcy saw far too much in Borland’s story to just let it blow over. Pierre Soulé brought a duel upon himself and won no sympathy for it. Borland acted, at least in principle, entirely within his normal capacity as an American diplomat. Someone had to answer for this, and Marcy knew very well that Nicaragua did not hold any blame for an attack within the Mosquito Coast that it did not control. Nor could he quite pin the blame on the United Kingdom, which had only a sketchy protectorate over the area in question. However much that might have appealed given the friction over its violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty by expanding into the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Who could the American government hold responsible? The people of Greytown attacked Solon Borland, so the people of Greytown could pay. The USS Cyane made her way to the free port. Commander George N. Hollins, a Marylander who went South in 1861, had orders to teach Greytown a lesson but that he should avoid destruction of property or loss of life in so doing. He should also consult with a commercial agent on the ground, Joseph W. Fabens. Fabens had close ties to the Accessory Transit Company, which almost surely flowed from their payroll to his pocket. Fabens encouraged Hollins to demand $24,000, a sum completely out of proportion to the offense, and an apology.
Greytown did not oblige. Hollins, under orders to avoid death and destruction, hewed to the former and ignored the latter. He gave twenty-four hours’ notice and provided help for the evacuation of the town in that time. Hollins aimed to bombard the place. The British naval officer on the scene protested that Hollins would destroy the property and homes of innocents. The Greytowners pled and then fled. Unmoved, Hollins opened fire on July 13, 1854. The New York Times carried the report of a Greytown resident on July 26th:
on the morning of the 13th inst., at 9 A. M., he opened his battery on the town, and after discharging one hundred and thirty shot and shell into the town, landed a party of marines and sailors and set fire to the town.
I think now that the nest of land pirates, which were located at San Juan, is now broken up, and they will also learn that American citizens must and will be protected.
No one died, but the United States had destroyed a free port with reckless disregard for the property of both the locals and foreign citizens alike for the actions, at most, of a mob under the control of neither foreign agents nor the local authorities.