Thomas “Nicaragua” Smith, as it turned out, was no more suited for war than he was for work.
Let the record show that Smith was a ruffian and a scoundrel and, too, a ne’er-do-well and filibuster. A drifter with nothing to post on a résumé that the righteous might view favorably.
No, Smith’s true résumé was his rap sheep, listing his experience in such fields as burglary and arson and even, one count alleged, homicide. Yet, he truly was a man without conviction, neither of principle nor of criminal record, for not once did a Galveston jury or justice find Smith guilty as charged.
Which isn’t to say that the wronged citizens of Galveston, where Smith happened to wash up three times — like the proverbial bad penny — were without recourse.
Those good citizens, after Smith’s latest acquittal — he had stood accused of looting homes that war refugees had barred and shuttered before fleeing — threw him in irons and aboard a steamer bound for Houston with a knuckle-to-nose warning that he best not return.
That was just fine by Smith, if not by fate.
Nicaragua Smith had gained his sobriquet by following the Tennessee wanderer William Walker to that vexed isthmus nation.
Walker, who had earned a college degree at the age of 14 and a medical degree five years later, became a publisher, a dueler — he lost twice yet lived to tell of his encounters — and eventually settled on filibustering.
First he eyed northern Mexico — Sonora and Baja California, specifically — as potential new U.S. states open to slavery. His plan, naturally enough, earned him funding by Southern property owners.
Mexicans, though, viewed Walker’s ambition with less approval, evicting him and his ragtag band.
Walker, unrepentant, turned his sights further south, to Nicaragua, where, in 1856, he managed to land on the winning side in a political skirmish that turned to combat, gaining him appointment as Nicaragua’s commander-in-chief — and later president.
The other nations of Central America, principally Costa Rica to Nicaragua’s south and Honduras to its north, came together to once again evict the interloper, and a Honduran firing squad on Sept. 12, 1860, ended the 36-year-old Walker’s days on Earth.
Smith, for his part, managed to surrender to U.S. forces in the vicinity, was repatriated, and came to settle in Galveston, from which he soon enough was booted and so joined the Confederacy — once again enlisting in a lost cause.
As fate would have it, Smith was assigned to a Confederate artillery battery stationed on Pelican Spit, where he found the regimented lifestyle — drills and orders and a code of conduct — quite unacceptable.
So it was that one night in 1862, he commandeered a boat and rowed out into Galveston Bay where he bumped alongside the USS Santee, one of the various Union ships blockading the Confederate-held island.
Smith swore his loyalty to the Union and may have meant it — one account lists his birthplace as New York, although that point remains moot — and was taken to New Orleans, where he enlisted with the Federals.
That decision would come to cost him his life.
Smith was assigned to the transport ship USS Cambria, which was sent to Galveston, where, on Jan. 2, 1863, it approached the fog-enshrouded island. The Cambria’s captain sent a yawl with six of his men aboard, including Nicaragua Smith, to secure a pilot to steer the Union ship to port.
And with that, Smith’s ill-deserved good luck had come to an end.
The Confederates immediately recognized him as a deserter and court-martialed him on Jan. 6. Two days later, he was escorted to what was then known as City Cemetery, on Broadway.
He was stood up behind his awaiting coffin as a band played and Galvestonians aware of his past and those just happy to see a hanging cavorted.
While Smith’s life was without merit, he mustered something akin to redemption in his final hour as he faced a firing squad of six musket-bearers.
Smith, with the band playing, kept time even as his was running out, grinning, one foot tapping atop his coffin.
Smith, when asked if he had any final words, said only that he wished to be buried face down, “so the Confederacy can spend eternity kissing my behind.”
It was Jan. 8, 1863, and moments later came Smith’s final surrender: Six musket balls, in a brief ruckus, tore through him and he fell in a crump atop the coffin in which he then was laid.
Thomas “Nicaragua” Smith’s remains lie today in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field in an otherwise unremarkable corner of the historic cemetery. At peace, at last.