All the antics at Greytown made perfect sense to Joseph Fabens, who staged the town’s destruction for his Accessory Transit Company employers and used his other employer, the United States government, to get it done. They probably all made just as much sense to Solon Borland, the diplomat who encouraged Captain Smith of the Transit Company to murder a pilot named Antonio and then intervened to prevent Smith’s arrest. That brought a mob down on him and got a bottle thrown at him. Borland declared himself beset by pirates and hurried off to Washington to secure his revenge.
That revenge came in the person of George N. Hollins, captain of the USS Cyane, dispatched with orders to get satisfaction from Greytown for Borland and on behalf of the Transit Company. Hollins’ orders also instructed him to consult with Fabens about the current situation and a proper indemnity when he arrived. Fabens, who had tried to burn the town to the ground the night of Borland’s rendezvous with destiny in the form of a broken bottle, took his chance and encouraged Hollins to demand far more than any of the disputes warranted. When he got no satisfaction on those terms, Hollins bombarded and then burned the town.
However, Hollins’ orders included the hope that he could manage without any violence or destruction of property. Those same orders left open the option to escalate and put Hollins partially in the hands of Fabens, but no one in his chain of command expected Hollins to wipe the town off the map. Greeley tries to pin everything on the Pierce administration, but the orders he printed don’t support the notion that they sent Hollins to Greytown intending him to destroy it. The Democracy’s Washington Union took issue with Greeley’s editorial line. Greeley, who had taken swipes at the paper often enough, set aside his partisanship enough to reprint the Union’s editorial on the affair.
The enemies of the Administraion, led on principally by The New-York Herald, Tribune, Times, and Express, have labored assiduously and malignantly to create feelings of prejudice against the President and certain members of the Cabinet on this subject. The public had too many evidence of the industry with which the caterers for these papers distort and misrepresent facts, and not infrequently invent or fabricate calumnies against the Administration, to be now readily deceived.
No American could stupidly swallow everything Greeley and his friends said about the Democracy. Everyone knew him for a partisan hack. But you could trust the Union, which turned on a dime earlier that year from denouncing Stephen Douglas’ plan to repeal the Missouri Compromise to endorsing it.
This bears a momentary digression: in the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, most major cities had multiple newspapers. Most often each had a clear alignment with one party or the other and made no bones about it. The distinction between editorial comment and unbiased reporting did not run so clear as one expects, or hopes to expect, today. Greeley, or the Union, could print what they liked and if readers didn’t like it, they could pick up a different paper. The notion of objective, unbiased reporting has come to us rather recently and incompletely.
Back to the Washington Union. Moving on from its invective against Greeley and the New York papers, the editors came to the matter at hand.
Some of them [the New York papers] have undertaken, in the most positive terms, to state the instructions to Captain Hollins, and to exert that the course pursued by him in the destruction of Greytown was distinctly indicated in his instructions. Upon turning to the letter of instruction, the recklessness of these assertions will be apparent. That letter was drawn by Secretary Dobbin, and is prepared with singular prudence and caution. We do not propose to indulge any comments, either of commendation or of censure, as to the conduct of Captain Hollins. Certainly we should be inexcuable for intimating anything like censure of his conduct in the absence of any authentic statement of the immediate facts on which he acted.
In their eagerness to injure the Adminsitration, the new York papers are guilty of gross injustice to Capt. Hollins. His high character for prudence, intelligence, coolness, and courage pointed out the proper officer to manage this delicate affair; and until he arrives and makes his report of the case, we shall regard it as wholly inexcusable to prejudge and condemn his conduct.
We don’t quite disavow Hollins. We don’t quite approve. We just don’t have the information. But in any case, nothing he did could reflect on the administration. And anyway, they had it coming:
Unquestionably, the facts set forth in the papers which we publish make out a series of outrages which demanded prompt and exemplary punishment.
The Union demanded having it every way favorable to the Democracy: The administration had nothing to do with Hollins’ actions on the ground. We don’t know the full story, so we can neither condemn nor commend. But anyway, even if Hollins went off-script, Greytown really deserved whatever it got. Heads we win; tails you lose.