Chapter Eleven

VANDERBILT

“To see a vessel handsomely launched, gives one a feeling akin to the enjoyment of a new poem,” wrote a correspondent for the New York Times. “To stand close enough to feel the wind as she rushes past, especially if she is a magnificently large and beautiful boat, is like hearing the Odyssey from the mouth of an expert reader—only at the launch all the thrill and the enthusiasm and enjoyment are compressed into a single brief minute.” New York was a great shipbuilding center, so its residents knew that experience well; but they had never seen a launch like the one the reporter described.

As nine o'clock in the morning on December 10, 1855, thousands crowded the waterfront near the Simonson shipyard (which had relocated across the East River to Greenpoint early in the year). Some had come great distances to see the spectacle that was about to unfold; even the Brooklyn ferry paused on its crossing to afford its passengers a view. They cheered in the cold winter air as an immense hull slid down the enormous wooden stocks into the dark waters.

It was the largest steamship ever constructed. A “gigantic steamer,” the Brooklyn Eagle called it; a “monster,” said the Times; a “leviathan of the deep,” declared Scientific American. “Four tolerable sized tugs—two on each side—appeared beside her, like dog-fish beside a whale,” and towed it to the dock where its hull would be coppered. Its statistics staggered the writers who reported them: with a length of 335 feet, a capacity of well over five thousand tons, and sidewheels of forty-two feet, it carried sixty tons of bolts and ninety-four of wrought-iron straps to bolster its massive wooden beams. Other Atlantic steamers had three decks, but this one had five, looming over every ship in the harbor. It was so enormous, so powerful, so threatening to its competitors, that its owner and builder named it after himself: he christened it the Vanderbilt.1

Of all of the Vanderbilt's eye-rubbing figures, perhaps the most telling was its cost. The Commodore had spent some $700,000 on its hull, and by the time he installed the plush sofas, carved rosewood, and titanic twin engines, he would pay out more than $900,000. This sum suggests that the Mercantile Agency sorely underestimated his wealth when it guessed that he was worth $5 million—for not even the risk-taking Commodore would have devoted almost 20 percent of his entire fortune to just one ship.2 But the great cost of the Vanderbilt does reveal his confidence. He constructed this ship to compete on the Atlantic; he was staking a huge sum on his ability to defeat the heavily subsidized Collins and Cunard lines. Then again, no one in the steamship business could calculate the costs, the risks, the profits as accurately as Vanderbilt.

As 1855 drew to a close, his calculations had grown intricate and vast, as he plotted to take control of America's steamship traffic to Europe and California. Soon he would launch a fresh lobbying campaign in Washington to strip Collins of his mail contract and subsidy. In the California business, he polished his arrangements with Marshall Roberts and William Aspinwall to create a consolidated monopoly that encompassed Panama and Nicaragua. Vanderbilt went to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Marcy who endorsed their proposal to transfer the California mail contract on the Atlantic side to Accessory Transit after Vanderbilt took control and had consolidated it with the U.S. Mail Steamship Company.

Returning to New York, Vanderbilt continued to buy Transit shares, alongside Aspinwall and Roberts, until they controlled forty thousand—a majority of the total of 78,000. Charles Morgan could see his doom more clearly than anyone. On December 21, he resigned as director. Vanderbilt took his seat on the board, and planned to take over as agent after the new year. It seemed like he had accounted for everything.3

CHRISTMAS EVE GAVE VANDERBILT a rare gift: Joseph White on his figurative knees. At half past two in the afternoon, White burst into Vanderbilt's office (now at 5 Bowling Green) and begged for help. Not for the first time, the lawyer's mouth had gotten him into trouble. He had struck a deal with Parker H. French, William Walker's representative, to carry filibuster recruits to Nicaragua—as peaceful emigrants rather than armed soldiers, to avoid an infraction of the neutrality act, which barred private citizens from fighting against countries with which the nation was at peace. Each “emigrant” would count toward the company's debt to Nicaragua at a rate of $20 each.4 On this point, it is difficult to find fault, even with the slippery White, for Walker literally held the transit route hostage. Little did White—or even French—realize that Walker had decided to destroy the company instead.

White's dealings with the federal government were less defensible. Because of the Crampton affair—an attempt by the British minister to recruit American citizens to fight in the Crimean War—the administration now enforced the neutrality act to the fullest. Despite sympathy in the cabinet for Walker, President Pierce refused to recognize Walker's government, or French as the Nicaraguan minister, and issued orders to block the departure of filibuster reinforcements.5 U.S. Attorney John McKeon had written to White, asking him to prevent one hundred or so men whom French had recruited from boarding the Accessory Transit ship Northern Light. White had rebuffed him with words that stunned the cabinet. “The Transit Company is a corporate body, created by the law of Nicaragua,” he had written. “We owe allegiance to the Government of Nicaragua.” McKeon had then presented Pierce's order to hold the Northern Light in port. Arrogant as ever, White had snapped that he didn't “care a damn for the President of the United States, or his dispatches.” In that case, McKeon had said, he would impound the ship.

And that brought White into Vanderbilt's office. Just two days before, the Commodore had returned to the Accessory Transit board of directors; though he had not yet assumed any management role, he clearly was taking control. In a state of panic, White presented his dilemma. If he was forced to stop the ship, he fretted, he would strand hundreds of paying passengers and damage the line's reputation. “No, you must not do any such thing,” Vanderbilt replied. “Go down and ascertain the nature of the process exactly, and if I can assist you, I will.”6

Mayhem reigned at the dock. A mob swarmed the ship and the pier—a mob of men who flocked to join Walker's forces in Nicaragua, a mob of desperate denizens of Five Points. Largely Irish and entirely poor, they reflected sweeping changes in the city over the past ten years, as it had filled with refugees from the potato famine. They came to New York because it had become the primary transportation hub of North America, thanks to geography, economic history, and the diligent efforts of Vanderbilt and other steamboat, steamship, and railroad entrepreneurs. Long gone was the Manhattan of unspecialized countinghouses and striving artisans that Vanderbilt had settled in during the War of 1812; in its place was rising a polarized island of the aristocratic and the laboring poor, who struggled to earn enough for tenement rent and to remit a few shillings back to Europe. French's promise of land, livestock, and wages in Nicaragua had brought them by the score to the Northern Light. When McKeon went on deck to search for arms, a riot erupted; at one point, the ship set sail only to be intercepted by a revenue cutter and forced back. In the end, Vanderbilt dispatched Horace Clark to post a $100,000 bond for the steamer, and it was allowed to depart.7

To Vanderbilt, the sailing of the Northern Light was a sign not of trouble, but of his ability to settle Accessory Transit's many difficulties. Starting on New Year's Day of 1856, he ticked through a number of steps to set everything right. He convinced his estranged son-in-law, Daniel Allen, to compromise his lawsuit, and advanced $70,000 to the company to meet a cash shortfall. On January 3, he took direct command as general agent. Two days later he finalized his monopoly-making agreement with Roberts and Aspinwall. Amid a howling blizzard that piled up snow in horse-high drifts in the streets, Vanderbilt left for Washington to press for the transfer of the mail contract to Accessory Transit. On his return to New York, he continued to buy shares. “The Commodore does not hesitate to predict that the stock will go as high, if not higher, than it was when he left it, say 32, and that it is worth much more,” the New York Tribune reported. Morgan had been short-selling it, but Vanderbilt's bull campaign now forced him to cover his sales contracts at a loss.8

An intense cold followed the snowstorm. Horse-drawn omnibuses (their wheels replaced by sleigh runners) slid through the streets almost empty of passengers as temperatures plunged to two degrees below zero. But Vanderbilt thrived. On January 30, he assumed the company's presidency. He promptly sent a letter to U.S. Attorney McKeon, promising to prevent filibusters from going to Nicaragua. (He was sincere; though he inherited the agreement to carry “emigrants” at $20 each, the best-informed supporters of Walker believed him to be an intractable foe of the filibusters from the beginning.) And he renewed his appeal to Congress for the California mail contract.9

What Vanderbilt did not know was that William Garrison had arrived from Nicaragua in the middle of the month; that he had informed Morgan of the deal with Randolph and Walker; and that Morgan had agreed to join in a new line. Vanderbilt did not know either that, on February 18, President Rivas obediently revoked the Accessory Transit charter and granted the rights to Randolph; and that a copy of the decree was rushed to Morgan by a private messenger, who reached New York a little over a week later. Vanderbilt had walked into a gigantic trap.10

STARTING IN FEBRUARY, Charles Morgan began to act very strangely. He was never a man to repeat a failed strategy, yet again he began to short-sell Accessory Transit stock. He sold it for as little as 21, on terms that gave him up to four months to make delivery. Vanderbilt took every share that Morgan offered. The financial columns of the press found Morgan's strategy mystifying. “As the length of the Commodore's purse is proverbial,” wrote the New York Tribune, “the result of such a contest can scarcely be doubted.” Vanderbilt carried the share price back up over 23, but Morgan redoubled his campaign, selling ten thousand shares short on March 4 alone. He seemed to have gone insane. Vanderbilt's ring reportedly controlled 68,000 out of a total of 78,000 shares. Morgan, it seemed, had cornered himself.11

Early on the morning of Thursday, March 13, news reached New York that Walker had revoked Accessory Transit's corporate charter, seized its property within Nicaragua, and granted the transit rights to Randolph. It was rumored that a new line would be established by Garrison and Morgan. “The telegraphic despatches from New Orleans fell upon Wall Street like a bombshell,” the New York Herald reported. Walker's “coup d'état,” the New York Times observed, “has created a greater excitement in Wall Street, among stock jobbers, than any event of the past ten years.” Everyone rushed to sell, instantly knocking the share price down by a third. At the head of the swarm that scurried off the ship was Joseph White. He had received a private telegram with the news that same morning, and had rushed out to find his broker. “White sold out about $100,000 of his Transit stock the instant he received news,” the Times reported.12

Vanderbilt faced the gravest crisis of his life to date. No catastrophe—not the great fires of 1835 or 1845, not the Panic of 1837, not the Schuyler fraud—had been so sudden, so deliberate, so thoroughly beyond his control. And yet, he did not sell out. What distinguished him in the moment of crisis was his self-command; characteristically, he prepared a counterattack on multiple fronts. He began with a trip to Washington. He met with Secretary of State Marcy and urged the administration to intervene in Nicaragua to “sustain the rights of American citizens.” He wrote a letter to Marcy for public consumption, refuting Walker's pretext, taken from Randolph, for annulling the Accessory Transit charter. He sent a similar letter to Senator John M. Clayton, the former secretary of state, who took to the Senate floor to denounce Walker and his high-handed acts.13

Despite Vanderbilt's personal lobbying, the administration chose to do nothing. In some respects, its inaction is difficult to understand. This was a national crisis: a private American citizen had seized control of a foreign country, attacked a major corporation, and temporarily shut down a strategically vital link between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. But the cabinet was frozen by its divisions. Like so many other Southerners, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis supported Walker, hoping to increase the territory open to slavery. But even antifilibuster cabinet members refused to help Vanderbilt, because they suspected Accessory Transit of having assisted Walker. Most important, White's insolence remained “fresh in the minds of all,” according to the New York Times. White had claimed that the company owed allegiance only to Nicaragua, the administration grumbled—so let it appeal to Nicaragua.14

Stymied in the capital, Vanderbilt embarked on what can only be called an independent foreign policy. In the months ahead, his negotiations with foreign powers and deployment of secret agents abroad would prove far weightier than the acts of the federal government.

First, the Accessory Transit board voted on March 17 to give him “full powers to conduct all such negotiations and do such acts as in his judgment might be necessary.” Next, he announced the closing of this route to California. “THE NICARAGUA LINE IS WITHDRAWN FOR THE PRESENT,” he wrote. “I do not consider passengers or the property of American citizens safe on the transit of the Isthmus.” Then he went to see Aspinwall and Roberts. In place of their foiled plan for a monopoly, they reached a new agreement: as long as the Nicaragua route remained closed, Pacific Mail and U.S. Mail would pay Accessory Transit $40,000 a month to lay up its ships and forgo competition via Panama. The contract was strictly oral. It would spark outrage when it emerged, but it was in many ways merely an alteration of their existing plans.15

Most important, Vanderbilt opened talks with the republics neighboring Nicaragua. Alarmed by Walker's success—and the threat of further filibustering—they concluded to oust the usurper. Costa Rica's pro-British president, Juan Rafael Mora, proved particularly determined to overthrow Walker. Vanderbilt agreed to cooperate.

Now he had to save and recover the company's property. Save would be the operative word for the moment. Walker had seized only the boats and other material within Nicaragua's borders, but the steamships remained vulnerable. Vanderbilt had withdrawn the Atlantic steamers, but he still had to protect those on the Pacific. He ordered son-in-law James Cross to sail immediately for San Francisco to take them out of harm's way. He also sent engineer Hosea Birdsall to Greytown with orders to take possession of the steamboats on the San Juan River—a potentially decisive blow16

For the moment, the fate of Vanderbilt's company rested in the hands of his two agents. They sailed off to war, armed only with their wits.

SOMEWHERE OFF THE WESTERN COAST of Central America, sometime near the end of March, James Cross intercepted the Accessory Transit ship Cortez as it steamed south toward Nicaragua. He hailed it from the deck of a Pacific Mail steamer heading north from Panama, and transferred over in a small boat. Once on board, he presented his orders to its commander, Captain Collins. He was to land his passengers at Panama, not San Juan del Sur, to prevent Walker from capturing the Cortez.

The trouble was, Cross and Collins still felt obliged to stop at San Juan del Sur. They probably needed to refuel, as the port was the company's only regular coaling station south of San Francisco. Cross also wanted to take that coal out of Walker's reach, for it was highly valuable in this remote region. And William Garrison was aboard the Cortez, returning to Nicaragua after reporting to his father; Cross did not want to awaken his suspicions. The trick would be to remove the coal without losing the ship.

On April 1, the 220-foot paddlewheeler nosed into the little horseshoe harbor. Captain Collins ordered the pilot to drop anchor near the two sailboats that held the coal. Garrison rowed to shore, where a hundred or so filibuster troops waited. From the other direction came a boat with four of Walker's officers. They boarded the Cortez and announced that they had come to seize the ship. Collins graciously escorted them down to his cabin, where Cross waited with a luxurious meal and “an unlimited supply of champagne,” according to the New York Express. The filibusters popped cork after cork, believing that they were waiting for the passengers to land. As they drank with Cross, Collins ordered lines attached to the two coal hulks. The Cortez drifted silently out to sea with the ebb tide, its two consorts in tow. Once clear of the bay, the steam engines rumbled to life, and the drunken filibusters learned that they were trapped. The Cortez sailed to Panama, where Cross arranged for the passengers to complete their journey to New York in a U.S. Mail steamship on the Atlantic.17

Cross's coup infuriated Walker. Costa Rica had just declared war on his regime, and he had counted on recruits from among the Cortez's passengers. William Garrison admitted that Cross had taken him by surprise, and that his father might not be ready to start the new line for another six weeks—a long time to wait for reinforcements.18

Cross steamed north in the Cortez, intercepting the Uncle Sam on the way and diverting it to Panama. In San Francisco, he delivered a letter from Vanderbilt to Cornelius Garrison. Vanderbilt offered to let Garrison continue as the San Francisco agent for Accessory Transit, “on the condition that neither Mr. Garrison nor any of his family should have anything to do with any other steamships running in a line between New York and San Francisco,” Cross reported. Vanderbilt's attempt to co-opt Garrison was cunning. It remained unclear whether the rumors of Garrison's betrayal were true; the offer was meant to prevent his defection or force him to reveal himself.

Garrison's reply was equally shrewd. “He freely and without any reservation accepted the offer,” Cross said, “and seemed to feel—and so expressed himself—very grateful for a continuance of the confidence which Mr. Vanderbilt placed in him when he first took the agency of the company in San Francisco.” Thus Garrison bought time to put his new line into operation.

Before Cross returned home, he heard warnings about Garrison. “I was repeatedly cautioned by my friends in that city not to place too much reliance upon Mr. Garrison's professions,” he wrote. “Yet… I left San Francisco with the fullest possible assurances from him that he was and would remain faithful to the company.”19

DESPITE GARRISON'S SUBTERFUGE, Cross succeeded in his mission. Hosea Birdsall did not. Even worse, by carrying out the Commodore's orders he nearly embroiled the United States and Great Britain in war.

Birdsall arrived at Greytown on the night of April 16 aboard the Orizaba, the first Atlantic steamship in Morgan's new Nicaragua line. As the passengers transferred to a riverboat, Birdsall rowed over to Punta Arenas to see the Accessory Transit agent, whom Walker had left in charge of the company's property. The agent was a burly fifty-one-year-old engineer who stood six feet tall and wore an iron-gray beard. His name was Joseph N. Scott. Birdsall had every reason to expect Scott's cooperation. In 1821 Vanderbilt had hired Scott as a deckhand on the Bellona, and had taught him the ways of steam engines over the succeeding decades. But when Birdsall demanded control of the machine shops, coal, and steamboats, he refused to give them up. Scott had a personal agenda. Years before, he had advanced nearly $20,000 of his own money to purchase a lake steamboat, La Virgen, for Accessory Transit; despite his repeated pleas, the company's management had never reimbursed him. Scott had no love for Walker, whose men had threatened to shoot him more than once; but, he told Birdsall, if he wasn't repaid he would never give up the property.20

Scott's recalcitrance would prove decisive for Nicaragua, its neighbors, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Had he complied with Birdsall's order, Garrison and Morgan would have been unable to conduct the transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific. They never would have started a new line, cutting off Walker from any reinforcements.

But Vanderbilt had given Birdsall a means of hurdling this unexpected obstacle. Through talks with Costa Rican diplomats, the Commodore knew that Nicaragua's neighbors were planning to invade. So he had handed Birdsall a letter (over the signature of outgoing Accessory Transit president Thomas Lord), authorizing him to ask for help from the Royal Navy, should the filibusters attack Punta Arenas. “You are authorized to ask for the assistance of the commander of any man of war of her Britannic Majesty's Navy in the port,” it read. “The object of the Transit Company is to prevent accessions of filibusters to Walker's force, pending his hostilities with Costa Rica, and to effect this purpose no pains must be spared, no effort left untried.” The letter shows how well Vanderbilt had analyzed Walker's vulnerabilities, and how explicitly he had allied himself with Costa Rica. “Unless our boats are seized by the filibusters,” it continued, “they cannot get into the interior—and without large accessions Walker must fail, and Costa Rica be saved.”

Remembering these instructions, Birdsall rowed out to a British sloop-of-war, the HMS Eurydice, anchored nearby. At his urging, its captain, John W. Tarleton, boarded the Orizaba, stopped the unloading of passengers, and reviewed the waybook, which listed the passengers' destinations. He could identify no filibusters and refused to intervene. Birdsall had failed.21

For all of Tarleton's diffidence, the affair became an international incident. When it emerged that Vanderbilt had asked the Royal Navy to interfere with an American vessel, the New York Times called it “almost too incredible for belief.” The outrage went to the top. At the time, President Pierce and Secretary of State Marcy were seriously contemplating war with Britain over the Crampton affair. The Orizaba incident, coming amid this crisis, embarrassed and angered them. “The President and Secretary,” the Timeswrote, “are much incensed at this conduct of Vanderbilt & White.”22

To make matters worse, Pierce had just recognized Walker's government. It was U.S. policy to recognize the de facto government of any state, he declared; and Nicaragua did have a native president, Patricio Rivas. But politics played a role. A presidential election loomed in the fall, and Pierce wished to be renominated by the largely pro-Walker Democratic Party. He would never side with Vanderbilt.23

The aftermath of Birdsall's mission underscored the near impossibility of Vanderbilt's position. He found himself at the center of competing interests, perfectly aligned so that his every action offended every party. Federal officials found it almost impossible to differentiate between legitimate emigrants and volunteers for Walker's army, but they condemned Vanderbilt for the same inability If the company had declined French's terms for carrying those “emigrants,” Walker would have revoked the corporate charter; but when Walker revoked it anyway, the federal government refused to intervene.24 Denied U.S. protection, Vanderbilt appealed to the British, only to be blamed for that act as well. The Commodore had learned early on in life that he had to protect his own on his own. Now that lesson was pounded painfully deep. Even in far-off Central America, Vanderbilt could rely on no one but himself.

IT WAS A YEAR OF REVOLUTION, insurrection, and mayhem.

On April 15, as the hapless passengers of the Cortez waited in Panama for a train across the isthmus, one of them got into a fight with a Panamanian outside a hotel. The quarrel sparked an explosion of rage and frustration among the native population at the U.S. presence. A mob of hundreds—including many policemen—attacked American citizens wherever they could, forcing them to take refuge in the Panama Railroad depot. U.S. consul Thomas Ward estimated that the rioters killed fifteen and wounded fifty.25

In Nicaragua, Walker launched a revolution against a revolution against his revolution. President Rivas, long his quiescent puppet, suddenly declared Walker “an enemy of Nicaragua” and fled to the protection of an antifilibuster alliance consisting of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. With Rivas's support, the allied army marched over the northern border and advanced on León. Walker responded with a rigged election for the presidency at the end of June. He won by a landslide.26

Bloodshed wracked the United States as well, as tensions over the extension of slavery boiled over in the Kansas Territory, where rival militias of free-soil jayhawkers battled pro-slavery border ruffians from Missouri. On May 21, 1856, David Rice Atchison—recently a U.S. senator from Missouri—led eight hundred of those ruffians in the looting of Lawrence, the jayhawker capital. On May 24, John Brown and his sons murdered five pro-slavery settlers. A low-level civil war broke out, eventually costing two hundred lives.27

And then there was San Francisco. In the few years since the gold rush began, the city's government had fallen under the control of David C. Broderick, a Democratic Party boss. He ruled through fraudulent votes, rampant corruption, and such enforcers as Yankee Sullivan, who (like many of Broderick's men) had relocated from New York. But the city's merchants had grown unhappy as municipal graft and debt damaged their own credit in the East. On May 14, after one of Broderick's men gunned down a crusading newspaper editor, the city's exasperated businessmen revived the Committee of Vigilance. They targeted Broderick's organization, hanging two of his men and banishing twenty-eight more in short order. Broderick escaped, but Yankee Sullivan hanged himself in his cell on June 1, shortly after his arrest.28

Cornelius Garrison thought that this was an excellent moment to leave town. He almost certainly had been elected to his term as mayor with the support of the Democratic machine, and he was not exactly a champion of reform. On June 21, after a political operative named Walter L. Chrysler attempted to blackmail him, Garrison departed for New York—just as the vigilance committee took full power.29

In July, all the leading players in the Nicaraguan transit drama, except Walker, had gathered in New York: Garrison, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Randolph. Now came the ultimate absurdity in this theater of the absurd. On arriving from Nicaragua, Randolph tried to sell his transit grant twice. First, on July 16, he and Garrison agreed on a price: $10,000 in cash, 50 cents per passenger, and a 2.5 percent commission on nonspecie freight. (The steamboats and other property in Nicaragua, held by the state, would be paid for with credits for carrying filibuster reinforcements.) Ten days later, Randolph brazenly offered Vanderbilt the same transit contract, in return for various fees that amounted to $300,000. The New York Tribune aptly characterized Vanderbilt's reaction: “Give three hundred thousand dollars cash for a grant which Walker might find plenty of pretexts for revoking the next day, just as he had revoked the former one!”

Rebuffed by Vanderbilt, Randolph fell back on his original plan. Morgan agreed to take the Atlantic half of the transit contract, formalizing the arrangements already in operation. Walker approved all of Randolph's actions; as he wrote on August 20, “The transit business is well settled at last.” But Vanderbilt had not yet begun to fight.30

IT WAS A YEAR FOR WILLPOWER. In 1856, the sixty-two-year-old Commodore had to muster all of his famous force of mind to master the crisis—or crises, for the Accessory Transit Company represented only one of his many operations. In 1853, for example, he and Marshall Roberts had purchased the Vallecillo silver mine in Mexico, originally discovered by the Spanish but abandoned after Mexican independence. They had put to work a corps of men to reopen it, and in 1856 it produced silver again—at least $1,000 worth per day, with expenses of only $50 per day31

Vanderbilt needed such resources in this year of trouble and strife. On March 23, one of his oldest and most valuable allies, Nelson Robinson, fell dead as he left church. The stock exchange closed early the next day in his honor, and Daniel Drew served as executor of his estate.32Vanderbilt also suffered a setback in court in his fight to force the New Haven Railroad to acknowledge his “spurious” stock. And lawsuits against the Accessory Transit Company by empty-handed creditors multiplied. The Commodore took extreme measures to keep the company alive. He corresponded with Marcy and Pierce; he bought up $ 118,000 of the company's unpaid bonds (at ninety cents on the dollar); and he expended more than $400,000 of his own money to cover company expenditures.33 Now president, Vanderbilt drove White off the Accessory Transit board and brought in his son-in-law Cross, ally Frank Work, and various other trusted men.

Troubles mounted. In June, after Garrison finally put his new Nicaragua transit line into operation, Pacific Mail halted its monthly $40,000 subsidy, refusing to pay for a monopoly that no longer existed. Then the U.S. marshal seized the Accessory Transit steamships in San Francisco for alleged indebtedness, forcing Vanderbilt to dispatch an agent to untangle that distant mess. He began to take personal ownership of the steamships as repayment for his advances, rather than let them fall into the hands of other creditors (which would have made them unavailable should he restart the line).34

Remarkably, even in the midst of the Accessory Transit imbroglio Vanderbilt pursued his campaign against the Collins Line on the Atlantic. There, too, he faced enormous obstacles—none larger than the Adriatic, launched by Collins on April 7. It was the biggest ship ever built, nineteen feet and eight hundred tons greater than the Vanderbilt, though late design changes would keep it out of service for over a year. As the New York Times wrote, it was “at once a source of pride and mortification.”35 By contrast, Vanderbilt gave almost daily attention to his namesake ship as cranes at the Allaire Works lowered into the hull the twin engines, each 2,500 horsepower, and four boilers weighing sixty-two tons apiece.

Late in July, the Commodore and several members of his family boarded his new steamship and set sail from New York. Despite the enormous size and power of the engines, “the one thing that struck us most strongly was the complete absence of all vibratory jarring,” one observer wrote—a testimony to expert construction. “Twenty-four firemen, 18 coal-heavers, 4 engineers, and 3 water-tenders minister to her capacity for the production of steam,” the New York Times reported, “while 8 cooks, 34 waiters, 3 porters, and an efficient steward” tended to the needs of its passengers. Apart from the family, the Vanderbilt carried no passengers, but it probably had its full compliment of cooks and waiters—for this was a lobbying trip.

On July 22, the Vanderbilt dropped anchor off Greenleaf Point, where the Anacostia River poured into the Potomac. The next day, William H. Seward stood on the floor of the Senate and invited his colleagues to inspect the ship, to judge whether they should give the Commodore the European mail contract. “Immense crowds visited her,” the Times reported. Vanderbilt welcomed aboard representatives and senators, as well as President Pierce and his cabinet, who “were treated to a sumptuous entertainment on board.” The ship steamed home on July 27 to receive its finishing touches; the Commodore remained behind to press his advantage with Congress.

The ship made a suitable impression. Congress was growing uneasy over the subsidy for the Collins Line, which failed to float the required number of ships. Collins alienated even his own lobbyists. “I am coming there in season to help defeat Collins this year,” wrote former House clerk Benjamin B. French. In August, Congress gave Collins notice that in six months it would roll back the subsidy increase it had previously granted. It was far from a complete victory for Vanderbilt, but it was progress.36

BACK IN 1841, Captain William Comstock had observed that Vanderbilt wielded every possible weapon when in combat, that he strove for any possible advantage. This was never more true than in 1856. The war over the Nicaragua transit was proving more complicated, more perplexing, than any he ever had fought or would fight—even more than the struggle that had culminated in Gibbons v. Ogden. Cross had failed to prevent Garrison's defection; Birdsall had failed to forestall Morgan's start of the line; and Washington had refused his appeals for help. Indeed, this was far more than a metaphorical war, but a real war of guns and bullets, and it was not going well. Vanderbilt's Costa Rican allies had invaded, occupied the city of Rivas, and defeated another of Walker's frontal assaults on April 11, only to fall victim to a cholera outbreak that forced them to retreat.37 But the Commodore planned counterattacks on both the international level and the personal.

On September 4, Garrison found himself under arrest. He was still in New York, where Accessory Transit filed a suit against him “for alleged frauds… amounting to over five hundred thousand” dollars (according to the Chicago Tribune), committed when he was the company's San Francisco agent. In the evening, after he posted the bail of $150,000, Garrison went to 10 Washington Place, where he tried to employ his wiles against the Commodore.

“He insinuated that if I would participate with him and Charles Morgan… [in] the Walker grant… we could make a good business of it, to the exclusion of the Transit Company,” Vanderbilt reported. “My reply was, that my action in this matter had been wholly for the benefit of the Transit Company and its stockholders, and nothing could induce me to swerve from that course. At this he recoiled, and observed that he did not mean to make any insinuations of the kind.” Vanderbilt's choice of words says everything about his reaction to this proposition. To him, the word insinuatedistinguished the talk of a crooked businessman from a “smart” but honest one. “I then told him he must clear up his character as regarded his conduct towards the company,” he wrote, “and when done, then I would be willing to refer his accounts to arbitration.”38

Vanderbilt's reponse deserves notice, for he has been misunderstood by historians and contemporaries alike as an amoral creature, ready to seize the main chance under all circumstances. “His over-reaching disposition makes people shy of him,” R. G. Dun & Co. noted four years later. Undoubtedly he possessed immense personal force, and pursued his personal interests more aggressively than anyone; but he lived by a code, and despised those who did not. As president of Accessory Transit, he held a position of trust, and he drew heavily on his personal resources to fulfill his responsibilities. In his own mind, at least, he was ever a man of honor.39

What is surprising is that so few others understood that. Everyone, it seems, tried to make Vanderbilt buy what had been stolen from him—even a friend of his, Domingo de Goicouria.* The fifty-one-year-old Goicouria belonged to a community of Cuban exiles in New York who plotted to free the island from Spanish rule. He had supplied Walker with Cuban independence fighters; in return, Walker named him minister to Great Britain, and ordered him to raise money in New Orleans on his way to London. Goicouria went to New York instead, where he discovered that Vanderbilt's enmity had frightened the city's merchants away from any connection with Walker. So Goicouria tried to convince the Commodore himself to buy the transit back—only to learn that Randolph had sold it to Garrison, much to Goicouria's outrage.40

Walker completed the alienation of Goicouria on September 22, when he reinstituted slavery in a blatant attempt to gain money and recruits from the Southern states. The antislavery Goicouria retaliated by publishing Walker's letters in the New York Herald. They staggered Walker's supporters, who had always believed that Nicaragua would be absorbed by the United States; now they learned that Walker hoped to forestall annexation, not only of Nicaragua but of Cuba as well. “Oh, no! that fine country is not fit for those barbarous Yankees,” he wrote of Cuba. “What would such a psalm singing set do in the island?”41

The revelations also estranged the Pierce administration. Already it had withdrawn its recognition, after Walker named himself president; now the letters eliminated any chance it would reverse course. All this was good news for Vanderbilt. But Walker continued to attract significant support. A famous British soldier of fortune, Charles Henningsen, went to fight for him; Morgan sent artillery and ammunition by sailing ships, which the authorities did not inspect; and hundreds of recruits, many now from the South, still flocked to Nicaragua. But the Commodore had one more weapon to wield, one designed to turn the course of the war itself42

Throughout the autumn of 1856, this drama played out in newspaper headlines and closed-door cabinet debates, in speeches on the Senate floor and noisy rallies. The nation's attention was simply riveted on Walker. But the public did not see Vanderbilt, as he secretly crafted a strategy to bring Walker down. It did not see Vanderbilt, as he quietly met with Costa Rican diplomat Luis Molina. It did not see Vanderbilt, as he quietly interviewed a tall, lean, sharp-chinned young man in a Panama hat, Sylvanus Spencer. It did not see Vanderbilt, as he quietly wrote instructions for Spencer, as he quietly dispatched him on a steamship to Central America in October.

On October 15, the public got one quick glimpse of what went on in Vanderbilt's office. He testified in a lawsuit, one of the many against the Accessory Transit Company, and he spoke of his efforts to restore the corporation to possession of its property and its rights in Nicaragua. “I have corresponded with the Secretary of State and the President on the subject. The correspondence has continued till within the last two weeks, and is still in progress,” he said. “I think the property will come out right for the stockholders.… I have had but one opinion on the subject. I am devoting my own means to bring the matter out right.”43

IT IS A REMARKABLE FACT that the only foreign conflict involving the United States during the fifty years between the Mexican and the Spanish-American wars was fought by a private army of American civilians. True, they claimed that they were the army of Nicaragua and that Walker was president of that republic; but the charade fooled no one. Indeed, this foreign interloper accomplished a feat that had eluded the victors of countless civil wars: he reconciled Nicaragua's Liberal and Conservative parties, when Tomás Martínez arranged for a unity government under Rivas to fight the filibusters. Their combined forces won their first victory at San Jacinto hill, where they captured and hung Byron Cole—the man who had first convinced Walker to go to Nicaragua.

In many ways, Walker had been fighting for survival from the moment he executed General Corral. But in the summer of 1856 his situation grew more desperate. The allied army of some eight hundred Salvadorans, six hundred Hondurans, and five hundred Guatemalans had seized León on July 12, the very day that Walker declared himself president. There the advance halted as the allies squabbled.44

Walker's own army consisted of the duped, the drunk, and the depraved. The troops lacked blankets, disease ran rampant, wages were nonexistent. Men who finished their terms of service were forced to remain. “Walker even posted sentries at the gangplanks of departing steamers to cut off the possibility of escape,” writes historian Robert E. May45 Walker's survival rested on one thing: a steady influx of fresh cannon fodder.

In November, the Costa Ricans launched a second invasion in the south. This Walker saw as the paramount danger, since it threatened his access to reinforcements. As he later wrote, “It was all-important to keep the Transit clear.” On November 18, he decided to abandon Granada and fortify Rivas, which dominated the transit road.46 He left behind a force under Charles Henningsen with orders to destroy the city When the destruction began, the allies stopped dithering and attacked; close-range fighting raged in the streets for two weeks as the filibusters pillaged and burned. Walker finally returned with a steamboat, landed a relief force, and evacuated the embattled garrison. “Granada has ceased to exist,” Henningsen reported. On leaving the smoking metropolis, he erected a sign that read, “Aqui fue Granada”—“Here was Granada.”47

By December 20, Walker had concentrated the bulk of his army at Rivas and garrisoned key points along the transit route: Virgin Bay, San Carlos, Castillo Viejo, and Hipp's Point, where the Sarapiqui River flowed into the San Juan. When he looked over his situation, he felt reassured. True, he had abandoned the northern provinces, but cholera had driven out an invading army once before. Most important, he was expecting large contingents of fresh troops, due at Greytown at any moment. “Walker, keeping his forces concentrated, can maintain himself in Rivas,” reported a U.S. naval officer who visited his encampment. “I have no hesitation in saying that if the external aids he has hitherto relied upon do not fail him, he will repel his enemies.”

The key, of course, was the “external aids,” the filibuster recruits. On January 2, 1857, the steamboat San Carlos departed Virgin Bay, carrying passengers for New York; Walker expected it or La Virgen to return with his reinforcements from the east. “In a few days,” Walker wrote, “uneasiness was felt on account of the non-arrival of the steamers from the river.” There were any number of reasons why the boat might be late, he told himself, as he waited, and waited, and began to dread.48

THE MAN WHO MADE WALKER WAIT was Sylvanus Spencer, acting on Vanderbilt's orders.

Spencer was a man adrift on the tide of fortune. Orphaned when very young, he was taken in by a family in a tough part of New York's Thirteenth Ward. The New York Times would write, “His boyhood is presumed to have been a hard one—at least he came out of it a very hard boy.” He went to sea early on and rose rapidly in the often brutal society of sailors. As mate, he frequently punched recalcitrant subordinates. He talked freely and often, in a bit of a Yankee accent, as he strode the deck in his customary dark clothes and Panama hat.

The tide that carried Spencer toward Vanderbilt began to rise back on April 25, 1855, at the very moment when Walker was preparing to embark on his invasion of Nicaragua. On that day, the square-rigged Sea Witch sailed out of New York Harbor. It belonged to Howland & Aspinwall, the mercantile house of William Aspinwall, and was bound for Hong Kong “to take a cargo of coolies for Panama,” the press reported. Its captain, by the name of Frazier, commanded a crew of twenty-three, and Spencer served as first mate. Once at sea, Frazier abused his mate, picking petty quarrels, giving demeaning orders, and belittling him in front of the men. On June 4, Spencer snapped. “By God, I took more from you this morning at the breakfast table than I ever did from any other man,” he shouted. “If I continue the voyage in this ship, or if you do not send me on shore out of this ship, either you or me will have to die.” The next morning, Spencer announced to the crew that he had found Captain Frazier bludgeoned to death in his bunk.

On December 19, 1855, Spencer stood trial for murder in the U.S. District Court in New York. The jury found him not guilty because no one had witnessed the crime.49 But the incident seems to have made other ship captains reluctant to hire him, so he drifted to Greytown, Nicaragua. “He asked me if I had any employment for him,” Joseph N. Scott recalled. “He told me he was a sailor and would turn his hand to anything.” First Spencer labored as a stevedore; then Scott made him the mate on one of the river steamboats, the Machuca. As such, he learned the river and Transit Company operations well. After four months in Nicaragua, Spencer returned to New York.50

At some point in 1856, he went to see Cornelius Vanderbilt. Spencer would later claim that he did so because he had inherited Accessory Transit stock from an uncle, but he may simply have been swimming with fortune's current. The Commodore would say nothing about their talk, but his calculations upon meeting Spencer are all too clear. His strategic assessment of Walker's situation had not changed, despite the failure of Birdsall's mission. If he could seize the steamboats on the San Juan River, he would block reinforcements from the Atlantic side. That also would stop passengers from crossing the isthmus, forcing Morgan and Garrison to withdraw their steamers (as they were not running a charity). He would, with one stroke, cut Walker off on both oceans. In Spencer, he found precisely the man for the mission. He was physically tough, accustomed to command, and, most important, intimately familiar with the terrain, the fortifications, and the steamboat operations. So Vanderbilt placed all his hopes—the fate of millions of dollars, of a critical channel of commerce to California, of a war involving six nations—in the hands of an acquitted murderer.51

On October 9, 1856, Spencer departed New York for Costa Rica. He carried an agreement that Vanderbilt had made with Luis Molina, the Costa Rican chargé d'affaires in the United States. In San José, Spencer met with President Juan Rafael Mora and explained the plan that Vanderbilt had drafted—and how it would benefit them both. The Commodore would get his property back, and Mora would cripple Walker's army. Mora was no fool; such a plan had occurred to him before. But Spencer offered two things the Costa Ricans lacked: a detailed knowledge of the Transit operations, and $40,000 from Vanderbilt to pay expenses.52 Mora agreed to give Spencer some Costa Rican soldiers to carry out the mission; if he succeeded, General José Joaquín Mora, the president's brother, would follow with 1,100 men. If he failed, it would cost Mora little.

Spencer marched north out of San José with a work detachment, crossing the mountains to the headwaters of the San Carlos River, which flowed northeast into the San Juan. He and his carpenters felled trees and lashed together several large rafts to carry his detachment. On December 3, President Mora formally placed 250 troops under the command of “Captain S. M. Spencer,” writing that they were “under your orders to carry out the military operations as you will think proper.”53

On December 16, Spencer ordered his men into the rafts. They pushed out into the stream, drifting down under the rain-forest canopy that rose some two hundred feet above them, through heavy rain and dense humidity Finally the current carried them into the wide San Juan. On the morning of December 22, he ordered them to pull the rafts into the mouth of a creek near the location of his first target: the filibuster fort at Hipp's Point. Hearing a steamboat churning upstream, he told everyone to lie down flat and be still. The boat chuffed up to their hiding spot, then continued on its way.

Spencer led his men through the forest to the rear of the fort. A Costa Rican scout shimmied up a tree, and scooted back down to report. He saw forty to fifty men, with two cannons—more than enough to defeat an attack, if the Costa Ricans lost the element of surprise. Silently the troops filed into position and crept up behind the unsuspecting filibusters. Spencer drew his revolver to fire the shot that would launch the assault.54

THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENTS may well be the quiet ones, the private ones. On November 26, for example, Corneil finally did something right in his father's eyes by marrying Ellen Williams of Hartford, Connecticut. It remains unclear how they met, but the Commodore heartily approved of “our dear Ellen,” as he called her, and showed genuine warmth for her family. He and Sophia attended the wedding in the Hartford home of Ellen's father, Oliver E. Williams.55

Vanderbilt's existence was divided into public and private, the carefully concealed and the loudly promoted. In November, Texas newspapers announced that he had formed a steamboat-and-railroad line from New Orleans to Galveston in competition with Morgan's most lucrative business. On December 10, Vanderbilt went to Washington to attend the opening of the new Congress. “Railroad and steamboat robbers crowd the lobbies,” the New York Times wrote. The House postal committee duly reported a bill to grant him the Atlantic mail contract. “A provision of this contract is that, in the event of this line not making as quick time as the Cunard steamships, $1,000 shall be deducted for every twelve hours' deficiency,” the Times noted.56

Some of the Commodore's secrets were meant to go public. On Christmas Eve he wrote a letter to the stockholders of the Accessory Transit Company to prepare them for an impending revelation. He noted that the Prometheus had been attached in one of the many lawsuits and auctioned off that very day, and that he had bought it for the bargain price of $10,011. But he purchased it in their interest, to be ready to reopen the line at a moment's notice. “Present appearances indicate a realization of my hopes,” he wrote, “that the company will be speedily restored to their rights.”57

THE CRACK OF SPENCER'S GUNSHOT echoed through the rain forest, sending the Costa Ricans surging forward with fixed bayonets. Panic swept the filibusters. They had posted no sentries, never imagining an attack from the rear. The Costa Ricans speared them and shot them as they scrambled over the breastworks and slid down the riverbank. Perhaps half a dozen escaped alive. Spencer detailed a platoon of thirty or forty troops to hold the works; then he and the rest returned to the rafts.

At around two o'clock in the morning on December 24, Spencer and his men drifted into Greytown harbor. Silently they boarded four Accessory Transit steamboats anchored in front of the company buildings, and crept onto Punta Arenas. “At daylight an alarm was sounded at Punta Arenas… that the Costa Ricans were there,” recalled Joseph Scott. “All the hands were called together to defend ourselves.… We organized into a company, with firearms, to retake the boats.”

Though outnumbered ten to one, the iron-bearded Scott organized a counterattack, only to be interrupted by Captain John E. Erskine, commander of a squadron of British warships in the harbor. Erskine announced that he would not tolerate any violence on either side—thereby confirming Spencer's possession of the steamboats—though he did convince the Costa Ricans to evacuate the point.58

After the troops returned to the steamboats, Spencer strolled into Scott's office. It was almost exactly a year since he had first set foot there, begging for work. Now he commanded an armed force that was changing the course of the war. “I asked him what he was going to do with the steamers,” Scott reported. “He said he meant to take them up the river.… [He said] I could do no further harm with them, meaning that I couldn't carry any more filibusters up the river.”59

Spencer ordered the little fleet to put on steam and head up the river. At the mouth of the San Carlos, he directed the smallest boat to turn into the tributary and notify General Mora of their success. Then Spencer used his knowledge of transit operations to bloodlessly capture the remaining steamboats and Castillo Viejo, one by one, giving the standard signals until he was close enough to surprise the crews and garrison with his Costa Rican detachment. But one target promised to be more difficult: the heavily fortified battery at San Carlos, where the San Juan River met Lake Nicaragua. After Spencer seized La Virgen, he loaded it with troops and ordered its engineer, William Wise, to put on all steam for San Carlos. Wise recalled that he nervously remarked that he would rather be put ashore in the wilderness than “risk his life in front of the heavy cannon stationed at the fort. To this Spencer replied that it was useless for [Wise] to talk, that he must get up steam and go up the river.”60

On December 30, Spencer stopped the boat just below San Carlos and detailed a detachment of sixty troops. He ordered them to sneak behind the fort, approach as closely as possible, and wait for a signal. He planned to trick the garrison, but if he failed they were to launch an attack. The men rowed to shore in boats, and La Virgen continued to San Carlos. Spencer piloted the steamboat to its usual anchorage and gave the customary blast from the whistle. The fort answered in kind. A boat rowed out with a few filibusters and the garrison's commander, Captain Kruger, to pick up mail.

As Captain Kruger's men tied up their boat alongside La Virgen, Spencer leaned over the rail. “Is that you, Kruger?” he asked.

“Yes,” came the reply.

“Come on board,” Spencer said.

Kruger followed him to the top deck, “and was immediately surrounded by Costa Rican officers,” he later reported, “who had been lying down flat on deck, concealed from view. Mr. Spencer then told me that he had taken all of the steamers and was in command of all the river.” Spencer declared that he had seized the boats in the name of Commodore Vanderbilt, and he demanded the surrender of the fort. Kruger balked, but the steamboat crew told him about the Costa Rican force hidden in the trees. “Mr. Spencer told me (when I hestitated) that the innocent blood of my men would fall on my head, as we would certainly be put to death by the Costa Ricans,” Kruger recalled. “I concluded to surrender.”61

Spencer's coup was almost complete. Mora's army arrived on December 31, whereupon Spencer and a detachment of troops boarded a small riverboat to go find the San Carlos, the largest and last uncaptured lake steamer. On January 3, the two boats encountered each other on the upper reaches of the San Juan River. The result was a repeat of his previous encounters: Spencer gave the correct signals, the boats came alongside, and the Costa Rican soldiers rose from hiding, rifles ready. The San Carlos'scaptain surrendered without a fight. Spencer went aboard and read aloud a proclamation from President Mora, promising safe passage to the passengers. He also tacked up a notice. “Gentlemen: Do not be deceived or induced to enter into any combination to take this boat out of my possession. I am amply prepared for any emergency that may arise. Keep quiet, behave as gentlemen should, and I pledge you my sacred word and honor to see you safe through to Greytown.” The Costa Ricans posted a guard in the main saloon, behind a barricade of piled-up trunks and baggage.

Spencer had carried out Vanderbilt's plan with exceptional skill and courage. Apart from the brutal storming of Hipp's Point, he had used speed and guile to achieve a sweeping—and bloodless—victory. As the San Carlos steamed down the river, Charles Morgan's son-in-law, Israel Harris, came forward. “We had you once, now you have us,” he said to Spencer. “We are even.”62

* The modern spelling is “Goicuria,” but this book will follow historic sources, both English and Spanish.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!