Horace Greeley took to the pages of his New York Tribune to excoriate Solon Borland and condemn the destruction of Greytown by the USS Cyane on July 13, 1854. Borland meddled in an ordinary arrest of a man for murder, something well outside his official duties. His obnoxious personality only made things worse. Thus the people of Greytown quite reasonably assembled an angry mob interested in righting the wrongs he had done to them. If the American minister could save a murderer from prosecution, Americans might very well murder with impunity thereafter.
But Greeley had not finished with Borland. He would not, in fact, finish at least until August 3 when he concluded publishing the official correspondence on the affair. Thanks, Horace. I’ll find use for those documents.
But even admitting that the insult to Borland was grave and needed reparation, there is nobody who can pretend that it called for so extreme a measure as the destruction of the town. Including the warehouses of unoffending merchants and the official residences of Consuls. Indeed the disproportion of the punishment to the offense seems quite unparalleled in civilized history; and were the event not one of loss and ruin to many innocent persons, and of disgrace and shame to the country, it would be [ludicrous?]. Why burn a whole city for the fault of a few of the residents? Why bombard and destroy the property of men who had no hand in any part of the offensive proceedings? Why not confine the act of vengeance to the public offices of the place, [leaving?] private residents uninjured? And why destroy goods lying there temporarily on the way to market and belonging to distant owners, citizens of Nicaragua, the United States, or other countries? Or why, after firing two hundred cannonballs through the buildings land a squad of pillagers to lay the whole in flames, and leave the houses and places of business of a thousand people nothing but ashes?
Look at the act in whatever light you will, it can inspire no other feeling than one of shame and disgust at such wanton barbarity. It was nothing less than an assault on the civilization and the American institutions that had been successfully planted in that remote and undeveloped region.
Bombardment alone would exceed any punishment warranted. Bombardment and burning? Greeley lays it on a bit thick about how Greytown had developed. At most maybe five hundred lived there. But they lost their homes and businesses all the same.
Greeley also speaks from that patronizing nineteenth century missionary view of America. The Nicaraguans suffer injury not just in having a town ruined and the loss of property. They’ve also now taken a bad example from the Americans, from whom they had presumably learned their arts of self-government. The bombardment made Americans into hypocrites and undermined all the good work they did as the shining city on the hill for the benighted lands south of the border. Way to go, America.