Friday, August 27, 2010

The life and death of a 19th century mercenary.

At long last, being a mercenary is not seen as a romantic, manly thing. It didn't always use to be be that way. The condottiere were hardly valued except for their temporary usefulness, and after the Revolutionary War being called a "Hessian" was an insult worthy of throwing down over. But at some point during the 19th century, likely in the 1840s with the development of the novelette (the predecessor to the dime novel), the American reading public decided that the mercenary was a suitably heroic figure, and that attitude toward the mercenary held true for 150 years.

Heck, look at the words used in popular fiction for the role of the mercenary: "freelance," "soldier of fortune," "filibuster." (Yes, filibuster). No hint of killing for pay (which is what a mercenary does, after all), not a breath of massacring civilians (which is historically what mercenaries all too often have done), not a tinge of looting and raping (which is what mercenaries tend to do under any circumstances).

Now, of course, we know better. Blackwater's seen to that. But even now a properly-told mercenary's obituary is capable of bypassing our moral centers and rousing the blood. To wit, this article from the 29 July 1911 issue of the New York Weekly Sun:


Preying on Chinese Pirates

That there is plenty of romance left in the world for those fitted to find it is shown by the career of George B. Boynton, who died recently in New York City. Boynton was not his real name, we are told, but he rather favoured that name among all the many he used in the various revolutions, rebellions, and ructions that made up his life. Born on Fifth-ave, of wealthy parents, 69 years ago, he found life on that aristocratic thoroughfare too humdrum for him. "The New York Sun" thus details Boynton's remarkable career. Almost the time he could talk and walk Boynton was at war with his parents because of his adventurous disposition. he was about to enter the Naval academy when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted, and his father bought his discharge. He was sent to an uncle in Illinois, but enlisted in cavalry regiment out there. At the battle of Pittsburg Landing he led a charge against the Confederate Black Horse Cavalry. A Confederate cavalry man aimed a blow at him with a sabre, but he ducked beside his horse's neck. The blow kill the horse and tore a great gash in Boynton's cheek, the scar of which he bore to his death. He shot the Confederate between the eyes, killing him instantly. He left the army and was nearly lynched as a copperhead. He was later sent to capture contraband goods sent South from Cincinnati and captured Belle Boyd, the Confederate female spy. In the latter days of the war Boynton brought the Letter B, a vessel which was successfully running the blockade from Bermuda to the Southern ports. He made several successful runs, although the Letter B was shelled more than once by the U.S.S. Powhatan.
A Filibuster in Cuba

On his return to New York he bought the Frankling Avenue Distillery, with Jim Fiske as partner. This was a profitable affair, but Boynton yielded to his love of adventure and became a filibuster in the ten years' war in Cuba. At one time his vessel, the Edgar Stuart, was seized at Baltimore. He put to sea with three Deputy United States marshals as prisoners, landing them further down the coast. He had to go to Halifax until Fiske squared things for him after this adventure. Later he met Andrew Johnson, afterwards President, and was sent West by him to inquire into political conditions. He reported back that "Johnson didn't have a chance and that he had decided that filibustering was more honourable than politics." In 1868 he began to supply the Spanish pretender Don Carlo with arms from England. The latter paid him £28,000, then plotted to have him killed and robbed. He was warned by a gipsy girl and escaped. After this venture Boynton met in 1870 Guzman Blanco, President of Venezuela, and supplied him with arms from New York. For many years he was chief of Blanco's secret service. He secured leave of absence and reorganised the Army of Santo Domingo. While there he was captured by insurrectionists and sentenced to be shot at daybreak. The sign of a secret order to which he belonged saved his life. While in Venezuela he led an expedition which established the connection of the Rio Nigro and Orinoco rivers through the Casiquaire River. Things became too quite [sic] in Venezuela and with Francis Lay Norton, another adventurer, Boynton fitted out a vessel and went to Chinese waters to prey on pirates. It was while cruising there that he met a beautiful white female pirate. He met Richard Harding Davis and Guy Boothby then and they wrote The Real Soldier of Fortune and Beautiful White Devil soon after. While in the waters about Borneo and Malaya he protected vessels against the pirates and preyed on pirates. In 1879 he ran a blockade and delivered a cargo of munitions of war to Lima, Peru, in the boundary war of Chile against Peru and Bolivia. He aided Gen. Legitime against Florizel Hippolyte in Haiti in 1884 and was forced to flee when the former was defeated.

(Bonus points for the use of the word "ructions").

1 comment:

Dave Hardy said...

It was good talking to you at ArmadilloCon this weekend!

Boynton seems like quite the character. The Latin American antics seem to overlap a bit with "Captain Kettle." Kettle was a fictional, sea-faring Yorkshireman, rather than a gun-slinging, upper-crust New Yorker. There seems to have been rather a taste for those sorts of adventures back then.