Thursday, April 26, 2012

Galveston Research Summary #16 - The Other Part of the "Nicaragua Smith" Story

"There is good evidence to prove that [Joseph Cronea] was hung at Houston, Texas, by the Confederates on or about the 5th of February 1863 for no other crime than that of being a Texan and a United States soldier."

As promised in a previous post (here), I am devoting a chapter in my forthcoming book on Galveston and the Civil War to the treatment of Union sympathizers and dissenters in Galveston during the war.  This is a subject that has not received much attention.

An episode relating to the murder of a refugee Texan who joined a Union regiment and was captured at Galveston is detailed below.

The execution of "Nicaragua Smith" is a staple Galveston's Civil War lore.  His ghost is said to still haunt the graveyard where he was buried in an unmarked grave after being shot (see here and here for typical Smith "ghost" stories).  A re-enactment of the execution of Smith was also a part of this past January's annual commemoration of the Battle of Galveston.

But - as I detail below - there is a much more tragic, and much less reported, part of the story that includes the apparent murder of a United States soldier in Smith's company after the was handed over to a mob by Confederate officers.

The story...

On the evening of January 2, 1863 – the day after the Battle of Galveston - the Cambria, a Union steamer, arrived off the island.  The ship had left New Orleans on December 31, 1862, with “horses, mules, commissary stores…and twenty-five Texas refugees,” including men, women, and children.  The crew - unaware that Galveston was now in Confederate hands - cast anchor in rough and foggy weather, which severely limited visibility, to wait for morning.

The Cambria also carried two companies of the First Texas Cavalry, USA, one of two full regiments and two battalions of cavalry that Texas supplied to the Union during the Civil War.  The regiment was commanded by Col. Edmund J. Davis, a Floridian who moved to Texas in 1848, studied law, and became a noted jurist.  Davis opposed secession, refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, and fled the state in 1862.  He traveled first to New Orleans - then in Union hands - and then to Washington, where he met with President Abraham Lincoln and secured a colonel’s commission and permission to raise a regiment of cavalry.  The regiment – which earned the sobriquet of “First Texas Traitors” by Texas Confederates – consisted in the main of immigrant Texan Unionists.

The weather did not improve the next day and the captain of the Cambria, unfamiliar with the waters around Galveston, was still loath to approach the island.  The crew hoisted a flag for a pilot, and fired a few shots from a gun aboard to attract the attention of men on shore, but received no reply.  The captain dispatched six men in a boat to row to Galveston to secure a pilot “with strict orders to return immediately, with or without one.”  The crew of the boat did not return and it was feared they had been lost in the high seas.

The following morning a vessel flying the American flag approached the Cambria, and encouraged the steamer to go into Galveston (the Stars and Stripes were also flying on the customhouse as a ruse).  Several refugees on board the Cambria recognized one of the men on the pilot boat as Captain John W. Payne, a Confederate officer, and warned Col. Davis of a trap.  Davis ordered Payne on board; the “pilot” – declaring that “my mother learnt me not to tell a lie” – confessed that the island was now in Confederate hands.  Davis wisely headed back to New Orleans, having narrowly avoided the capture of the Cambria and part of his regiment.  He brought Payne with him, but the rebel captain was treated with kid gloves in New Orleans and eventually released.

A reporter attached to The New York Times – who interviewed men aboard the Cambria when it returned to New Orleans – wrote

“The utmost fear is entertained here for the poor Texans who have fallen into the hands of the enemy, as it is known that they do not look upon them as prisoners of war, but as traitors to Mr. [Jefferson] Davis, and consequently worthy of death.”  The reporter expressed special concern for “a well-known loyalist, named ‘Nicaragua Smith’ - who, in July last, escaped from Galveston with 50 pounds of iron on him and a hand-cuff. His case is considered hopeless.”

The reporter’s fears for the crew – and Smith in particular – were well-founded.  Thomas Smith earned his moniker as a soldier-of-fortune in an 1856 scheme to raid Nicaragua.  He was well-known in Galveston, but less as a Union loyalist and more as the “notorious” Smith: a thief, arsonist, and “hard case” whose desertion from a Confederate artillery battery on Pelican Spit to the USS Santee was reported in local newspapers in July 1862.  Smith is often referred to as having joined the First Texas Cavalry, USA, but that is not clear.  He may have been dispatched on the boat from the Cambria since was a local.  In any case, Confederate officers immediately recognized him among the unlucky six.  He was quickly tried by court martial and sentenced to death.

Smith was defiant to the end.  On being asked if he had any last request to make, he scornfully said. “Yes, bury me face down,” and – according to a newspaper account and other witnesses - “concluded with an allusion to the Southern Confederacy which will not bear printing.”

As a deserter – and a ruffian – Smith was hardly missed by the Confederates or Galvestonians; not even – perhaps – his erstwhile comrades in the First Texas cavalry.  Less reported was the fate of another of the soldiers on the skiff dispatched by the Cambria: Pvt. Joseph Cronea.  In an article a few weeks later, the reporter for the Times wrote:

Intelligence has just reached us of the most cold-blooded and atrocious murder of another of these men [Joseph Cronea] by the mob, under the connivance of the rebel officers…It was simply a piece of deliberate, gratuitous, and ferocious murder.  This man has never been in their service, and therefore could not come under the charge of desertion.  All he was guilty of was being a loyal Texan, and of enlisting in the service of the United States.  Having no charge against him, the rebel officers handed [Cornea] over to the mob, and these fiends in human form deliberately hung him – a soldier of the United States!

In fact, the New York Times article incorrectly refers to Cronea as "Cromain"...details on Cronea's demise come from the records of the First Texas Cavalry, USA, via my subscription to

The "Record of Events for the First Texas Cavalry, Co. A., includes this statement, after describing the capture of the personnel on the Cambria's skiff:

Private Joseph Cronea joined this company on Dec 14, 1862.  He was taken prisoner with the boat's crew above-named.  He was a refugee from Texas and there is good evidence to prove that he was hung at Houston, Texas, by the Confederates on or about the 5th of February 1863 for no other crime than that of being a Texan and a United States soldier.

Likewise, Cronea's Compiled Military Service Record includes muster cards and memorandums indicating that he was killed by the enemy after being captured.

I have not been able to find any local (Galveston or Houston) reports of the hanging; the Times article was widely exchanged in the  northern press.

The treatment of Cronea - and Smith, for that matter - can be put in contrast with the treatment of Captain Payne, who was captured by Col. Davis (who - apparently - turned back threats to hand Payne on the spot on the Cambria) but eventually released.  His return to Galveston was treated with great fanfare.

Upon his return, the Galveston paper noted:

Capt. Payne informs us that he met with numbers of former Galvestonians both on the Cambria and in New Orleans who were most bitter in their denunciations of the Confederate Government. We will not now give their names, but they are not likely to be forgotten.

This seems a not-so-subtle threat against the safety of loyal Galvestonians were they ever to return.
If anybody has additional information on the hanging of Joseph Cronea, please contact me.


Mark said...

Man, these primary sources just blow me away. It's amazing how much written material has actually survived. Very cool:)

Jim Schmidt said...

Mark - I have subscriptions to two services that I just can;t do without: and screenshots you see came from both...the amount of material is just astounding!

Anonymous said...

Do you have any family information on Joseph Cronea?