Horace Greeley concluded his July 26, 1854 article on the destruction of Greytown with a demand for reparations, apologies, and the expectation that neither would come from the Pierce administration. That that situation, he advised, would find its best remedy in properly informed voting come November. Along the way, he added his voice to the congressional demand for the papers relating to the affair. When Pierce had not coughed up the papers by July 29th, Greeley presented his take on events again and took the silence as admission of guilt in an affair so notorious that
We cannot recall any other public question with regard to which there has been such unity of opinion. Journals habitually opposed on every other subject representing every shade of party feeling, every divergence of interest, and every antagonism of nationality concur to declare the destruction of San Juan a needless, unjustifiable, inhuman exercise of warlike force. Conservatives and radicals, Whigs and Democrats, Americans and Foreigners all agree in this one thing-all express the same horror and disgust. Indeed, among all the papers which have yet spoken, we know of but one, and that an obscure and scurrilous sheet in this City, which has attempted to find an excuse for the measure.
One can call Greeley a partisan hack, but one does not make that strong of a claim about the writing of other papers lightly if one expects to maintain one’s credibility. Allen Nevins quotes the passage as evidence of a broad revulsion at George N. Hollins’ destruction of the town and given the previous, I take him at his word. However openly partisan, Greeley took his paper seriously and saw it taken seriously by others. Inventing a broad disapproval where none existed would have undermined his credibility as surely as reporting that he had the moon in his pocket and just kindly let it out every night for exercise.
But Pierce did eventually oblige Congress by giving up the correspondence on Greytown. Greeley dutifully printed the lot on the third of August. They did not much help the administration’s case, as Greeley saw it. He devotes most of two columns on the second to repeating his account of the affair and, with good reason, declaring himself vindicated:
They [the documents] contain nothing that in the least relieves the enormity of the transaction, nor anything that removes the responsibility of it from the Administration. It is plain, from the orders of the Secretary of the Navy to Commander Hollins that the extremity of destroying the place was contemplated by those sending the Cyane on her mission.
Greeley does allow that the orders ask Hollins to tread lightly:
“It is, however,” says the Secretary, “very much to be hoped that you can effect the purpose of your visit without resort to violence and destruction of property and loss of life.“
But note, as Greeley did, the language used. The Secretary of the Navy hopes that Hollins can complete his mission without working violence or ruin on anything or anyone. He hopes, but does not require. From this, Greeley takes that Washington foresaw the possibility of violence and counted it an acceptable, if not the preferred or ideal, outcome. James Dobbin could have written more pacific orders, specifying the use of force only in certain circumstances. He settled for a vague hope.