Standing just over 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall and weighing a lean 120 pounds (54 kilograms), William Walker did not look like a brash adventurer or military man. But the piercing gray-eyed Tennessee native was arguably the most successful of America’s 19th-century “buccaneers,” men who believed it was America’s “manifest destiny” to expand southward. in Mexico and Central America.
In the 1850s Walker invaded Mexico twice with a private army and briefly installed himself as president of Nicaragua. His exploits were followed breathlessly by American newspapers, which hailed Walker as a hero or condemned him as a pirate. Eventually, Walker’s misadventures in Central America brought him before a firing squad, but his legend lives on as the “Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny”.
The original “filibusters” were not senators
Long before the word “buccaneer” meant a long speech from the Senate to block the passage of a bill, it was a colorful term for thieves and mercenaries who tried to plunder foreign territory and claim it. . “Filibuster” is derived from the Dutch word vrijbuiter or “freebooter”, which the Spaniards changed to “filibuster.”
In the first half of the 19th century, dozens of American buccaneers launched failed expeditions to “Spanish Texas” (before it became part of Mexico), Mexico, and Cuba. This was before the American Civil War, when the Missouri Compromise prohibited the addition of new slave states above the Mason-Dixon line. While some buccaneers sought only fortune and fame, others hoped to claim southern territories that could later be annexed by the United States as slave states.
William Walker fell somewhere in the middle, says veteran journalist Scott Martelle, author of “William Walker’s Wars: How the One-Man US Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras.” Walker first got into the filibuster for personal glory, but ultimately “he wanted to create a Central American/Caribbean empire that would still have slavery.”
From Journalist to Journalist
Walker came from a wealthy, politically connected family in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated from college at 14, studied to be a doctor at 17, then traveled around Europe for two years before settling in New Orleans to practice law. After the untimely death of his fiancée, Walker became an editor at the New Orleans Daily Crescent (where Walt Whitman was briefly a colleague).
At that time, the filibuster was in the headlines. In 1848, Venezuelan-born filibuster Narciso Lopez attempted to invade Cuba with a private army of American recruits and the financial backing of southern plantation owners. As Lopez broke the Neutrality Act of 1818, the US government sent warships to scuttle the raid. In an op-ed, republished in Martelle’s book, Walker took the side of the filibuster:
There is no law of nations, recognized in this country at least, nor morality, which deprives a man of the right to expatriate himself if he pleases, to take his part in a foreign quarrel, which appeals to his love of liberty, or hatred of tyranny, or even to his mere sordid estimation of fame and gain.
Walker and the “Republic of Sonora”
In 1853, Walker was living in gold rush-era San Francisco, a magnet for young adventurers seeking to make a fortune in the Wild West. By this time, Walker was seriously nurturing his own freebooting career. Walker and other would-be invaders have established their sites in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, just across the border from southern California.
“There was a common belief at the time that the Mexican government did not control the border territory on its side,” says Martelle. “From the buccaneers’ point of view, this was a land to be taken. If they could impose a government, it would be up to them to defend it.”
Walker tried diplomacy first, sailing to the Baja Peninsula to seek permission to establish a private mining colony in the neighboring state of Sonora. But someone informed Mexican authorities that Walker had bigger plans for an American empire in Mexico, and he was deported.
Walked returned to San Francisco with a new plan. “He would return to Sonora not as a putative settler,” Martelle writes in his book, “but as a conqueror.”
In San Francisco, Walker and his associates openly recruited men to the cause and equipped a ship called the Arrow with weapons and provisions for a real invasion. American authorities caught wind of Walker’s plan and seized the Arrow, but in a midnight raid Walker’s men were able to steal some of their supplies and set sail on another ship, the Caroline, for Mexico.
With a ragtag brigade of just 45 men, Walker landed in the port city of La Paz and quickly captured the governor’s office, where they lowered the Mexican flag and hoisted one of Walker’s designs for his new country. . “The Republic of Baja California is declared free, sovereign and independent, and all allegiance to the Republic of Mexico is forever renounced,” Walker said, giving himself the title of president.
Hundreds of reinforcements sailed from San Francisco, eager to join Walker’s fledgling empire, renamed the Republic of Sonora, and claim lucrative mining rights. But once the men arrived, they found an ill-equipped army with no solid game plan. Local ranchers took up arms against Walker’s starved troops, who began to desert en masse.
“Walker had overconfidence in his abilities,” Martelle says, and he could be brutal. He shot two of the deserters and ordered the others to be whipped. But in the spring of 1854, even Walker realized the invasion had failed, so he and his exhausted men marched north and surrendered to American authorities at the border.
Next comes Nicaragua
Walker was charged with violating the Neutrality Act, but was summarily acquitted. Martelle says the US government viewed Walker as “a pest” and nothing more. He would soon prove them wrong.
In the late 1850s, Nicaragua was locked in a civil war between two opposing political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Liberals had the backing of a former American journalist named Byron Cole, who floated the idea of hiring the now-famous Walker to capture the conservative stronghold of Granada.
Nervous about being tried a second time for breaking the Neutrality Act, Walker said he would only come if he and his men were invited as “settlers” and given land grants, Martelle says. The Liberals agreed, and Walker sailed with a band of mercenary fighters, mostly veterans of the Mexican–American War, and took Grenada after heavy fighting.
“Through political trickery, Walker managed to become the head of the Nicaraguan army,” says Martelle. When Nicaragua’s puppet president fled after an invasion by neighboring Costa Rica, Walker declared himself President of Nicaragua in 1856. Even US President Franklin Pierce officially recognized it as the country’s new leader. As president, Walker made English the national language of Nicaragua and legalized slavery.
Walker might have had a long and successful career as a Central American imperialist had he not angered another American with a claim to Nicaragua. Before the Panama Canal connected the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt established a profitable shortcut transporting goods and passengers across Nicaragua by river and land.
Walker seized the Vanderbilt steamers as Nicaraguan property, which did not sit well with the New York millionaire. “Vanderbilt sent word to the Costa Rican military,” Martelle said. “‘I’ll pay for your troops if you help me get rid of Walker.'”
Walker’s adventures end in Honduras
Surrounded by Costa Rican troops and Vanderbilt mercenaries, Walker negotiated surrender in 1857 and returned to New York, where he was tried (and again acquitted) for violating the Neutrality Act. Walker wasted no time planning his triumphant return to Central America to retake Nicaragua.
His first two comeback attempts were dead in the water (literally). In one, Walker’s ship struck a coral reef off Belize and had to be towed to Mobile, Alabama by the British Navy. Another ended with Walker being arrested by the US Navy as he attempted to land in Costa Rica.
Walker was undeterred, however, and thanks to his newspaper fame he had no trouble recruiting 91 men for a fourth attempt to take over Nicaragua. The plan was to land in the Honduran port of Trujillo and march south into Nicaragua, but Walker and his men encountered fierce resistance from the Honduran army, which was aided by a British naval blockade that prevented the American reinforcements.
With dozens of men wounded or dying of tropical diseases and ammunition scarce, Walker was convinced to surrender to British Commodore Norvell Salmon, who assured the American that he would be spared the wrath of the Honduran military. But that’s not what happened.
“The captain of the ship fucked him,” says Martelle. Within days, Walker stood before a Honduran firing squad.
Walker was only 36 when he was executed in September 1860 and was more or less filibustering died with him. A few months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, and the nation was soon embroiled in its own bloody civil war.
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