During the first half of the 19th century, enormous chunks of land were annexed by the United States, some of it by purchase (the Louisana Purchase, for example) and some of it through war (California and New Mexico, for example). Americans who lived in that era didn’t know when it would end.
By the 1840s, many Americans believed their nation should expand to the South and take over places such as Cuba and Nicaragua. Some Americans went so far as to organize independent armies that invaded these countries with hopes of becoming rich and expanding the United States’ boundaries.
These people were known as filibusters, and the most famous of them was Tennessee-born William Walker.
Walker was a small man, very well read and well mannered. As a child he spent much of his spare time reading out loud to his mother. He attended the University of Nashville, an institution in the south part of downtown Nashville that no longer exists.
As a young man, Walker spent two years in France and then moved to New Orleans, where he worked as a newspaper editor. There he fell in love with a deaf young lady in New Orleans and was devastated when she died in the cholera epidemic of 1849 (the same epidemic that killed former President James K. Polk.)
After her death, Walker moved to San Francisco and became hardened and more likely to be involved in conflict (he got in two duels, for instance). He also became convinced that he would do something important in his life.
In 1853, he raised an army of 45 people — “actually reckless saloon loafers and the dregs of the California docks” — one of his biographies says, and took them on a ship to invade the area then known as Lower California and Sonora, Mexico. His group had a couple of minor military victories and took over the town of La Paz. The Mexican army forced him to retreat, and after he was back in California he was tried as a criminal for conducting an illegal war.
Walker was acquitted, and some of the land his men had been fighting for was acquired by the United States in what became known as the Gadsden Purchase. To this day no one really knows whether Walker’s Mexican excursion had anything to do with Mexico’s willingness to part with that land. But at the time people believed Walker and his invasion were factors. He was, in the minds of many people, a hero.
About this time, Americans were especially interested in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. Why? Starting with the discovery of gold in California in 1849, thousands of Americans moved west. But there was no transcontinental railroad, and no Panama Canal yet. The quickest and least expensive way from the east coast to San Francisco was to take a ship from New York to Nicaragua; then take a boat up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua; then take a stagecoach across a 12-mile strip of land in western Nicaragua; and then take a ship to San Francisco.
This route was controlled by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the most powerful men in America at that time. Vanderbilt and other Americans weren’t sure what to make of Nicaragua and its government, which had been independent from Spain since 1821 but had experienced a dozen revolutions since that time.
In 1854 civil war broke out in Nicaragua. One of the political parties in that war asked Walker for support, and in May 1855 he sailed from San Francisco with 58 armed men. They landed a few weeks later on the west coast of Nicaragua and within a few months his army had effectively taken over the nation. For a while Walker ruled Nicaragua through a puppet president, but in October of that year, he was elected president in an election that would be today be considered fraudulent.
Early on, there were indications that the Nicaraguan people might embrace Walker. Among the Native American peoples of Nicaragua, there had been a legend that a “gray eyed stranger” would come to their shores and become their leader. Because of this, William Walker began calling himself the “gray eyed man of destiny.” He declared English the official language of Nicaragua, declared slavery legal and began to work toward a long-term goal of it becoming part of the United States.
But in 1855 and 1856 several things happened that brought an end to his short reign:
* In the summer of 1855 he made peace with the leader of the opposition party, General Ponciano Corral, but a few months later accused him of treason and had him publicly executed, an event that turned many Nicaraguans against Walker.
* Walker’s success concerned the governments of the other Central American nations, who feared that his army would eventually invade neighboring countries in an attempt to turn Central American into a series of American colonies.
* Rather than ally himself with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Walker made the mistake of taking his transit business away from him. Furious, Vanderbilt effectively created a blockade of that country, sent money and arms to help defeat Walker, used his newspapers to crusade against Walker, and took steps to make certain that the American government did nothing to help him.
Vanderbilt teamed up with the president of Costa Rica and sent an army to attack Walker. A short war followed. And although all of the battles involving William Walker and his army seem like mere skirmishes compared to the American Civil War that took place shortly thereafter, people in Central America remember them well. These battles include, among others:
* The Battle of La Virgen, in which Walker’s army defeated a much larger army led by Nicaraguan General Santos Gardiola. Shortly after this victory, Walker’s army successfully invaded Granada, the capital city of Nicaragua at that time.
* The Battle of Hacienda San Jacinto, in which Walker’s army lost to a Nicaraguan army. At this battle, a Nicaraguan named Andres Castro is believed to have turned the tide of battle when he threw a rock at a soldier in Walker’s army.
* The Second Battle of Rivas, in which Walker’s army was defeated by an army from Costa Rica. A Costa Rican soldier named Juan Santamaria played a key role in this battle and is today considered to be one of the great heroes of that country.
Surrounded by 4,000 soldiers from Guatamala and El Salvador, Walker ordered his men to burn Granada as they retreated from it.
“Walker asserted later that for strategic reasons he wanted to prevent his enemies from capturing an important, renowned stronghold,” says a 1976 book called Freebooters Must Die: The Life and Death of William Walker. “As it turned out, he incurred the hostility of all Central America through this barbaric and seemingly needless demolition of a cherished metropolis.”
Walker and his soldiers (those who hadn’t been killed in combat or disease) managed to get out of Nicaragua and make it back to the United States. There, Walker was greeted largely as a hero, especially in the South.
In New York, a musical was written about Walker.
His career was not over. The next year Walker pulled out of Mobile Bay with 270 men intending to invade Nicaragua again. However, the expedition was ended by the U.S. Navy, which took Walker and his men into custody and returned them to the United States.
This second “invasion of Nicaragua” reminds us that the U.S. government never supported Walker, and that his army was never aided by the American military. But the U.S. government was not strong enough (on the eve of the American Civil War) to prevent Walker from raising an army or to keep his ships from leaving American ports in the first place.
The trip went poorly. Walker’s men spent several weeks in Cozumel, Mexico, awaiting the ship from New Orleans that never came. Finally, they landed on Honduran soil near a Spanish-built fort called Trujillo. After an initial military victory, they surrendered to a British warship which, to Walker’s dismay, turned him over to Honduran authorities.
On September 12, 1860, William Walker was executed by a Honduran firing squad.
As famous as Walker was in his lifetime, he was largely forgotten after his death — at least in the United States. Only a few months after his execution, the Civil War began in America. Southerners who believed that the war would be a short one that would grant them independence to maintain slavery and expand into Central America found out they were gravely wrong. After the war, it would be another generation before America fought another foreign war (the Spanish-American War). It would be in Cuba, but it would be conducted by the American army and navy — not by an independent filibuster.
As recently as 1987, a year in which American President Ronald Reagan was trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, a movie came out about William Walker and his failed invasions of Central America. The movie, called “Walker,” did poorly at the box office, perhaps because Americans were so unfamilar with the subject matter.
The people of Central America have, however, not forgotten Walker. He is part of the mandatory school curriculum, and people celebrate many of Walker’s defeats as national holidays. Costa Rica celebrates the anniversary of the Second Battle of Rivas every April 11; Nicaragua celebrates the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto on September 14.
One more footnote about William Walker:
About 15 years after Walker’s escapade in Nicaragua, Cornelius Vanderbilt gave a million dollars to the construction of a Methodist university in Nashville. Later called Vanderbilt University, the institution is located a short distance from William Walker’s birthplace.
No one knows, or will ever know for sure, whether Vanderbilt remembered or cared, that his old nemisis William Walker had come from Nashville.