William Walker, the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny

Does might make right? If you can do something, should you? Who decides what history is worth learning?

William Walker, the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny.
William Walker, the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny.

William Walker (May 8, 1824 – September 12, 1860) was an American physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary, who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America, with the intention of establishing English-speaking colonies under his personal control, an enterprise then known as “filibustering.” Walker usurped the presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled until 1857, when he was defeated by a coalition of Central American armies. He was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.

 

Early life

Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824 to James Walker and his wife Mary Norvell.

William Walker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of fourteen.He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and University of Heidelberg before receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 19. He practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study law.

He practiced law for a short time, and then quit to become co-owner and editor of the New Orleans Crescent. In 1849, he moved to San Francisco, where he was a journalist and fought three duels; he was wounded in two of them. Walker then conceived the idea of conquering vast regions of Latin America and creating new slave states to join those already part of the United States.  These campaigns were known as filibustering or freebooting, an idea that grew in popularity as tensions over slavery mounted in the U.S. during the 1850s.

Filibustering was perhaps the most extreme form of the Manifest Destiny impulse – the belief that Americans because of their race, their religion, their way of life, were favored by God to expand their territory.  William Walker saw his attempts at conquest in starkly racial terms, writing, “That which you ignorantly call ‘filibusterism’ is not the offspring of hasty passion or ill-regulated desire; it is the fruit of the sure, unerring instincts which act in accordance with laws as old as creation. They are but drivellers [i.e., fools] who speak of fixed relations between the pure white American race, as it exists in the United States, and the mixed Hispano-Indian race, as it exists in Mexico and Central America, without employment of force. The history of the world presents no such utopian vision as that of an inferior race yielding meekly and peacefully to the controlling influence of a superior people.”
 

 

Expedition to Mexico

Flag of the Republic of Lower California.
Flag of the Republic of Lower California.

In the summer of 1853, Walker traveled to Guaymas, Mexico, seeking a grant from the Mexican government to create a colony, using the pretext that it would serve as a fortified frontier, protecting US soil from Indian raids. Mexico refused, and Walker returned to San Francisco determined to obtain his colony, regardless of Mexico’s position. He began recruiting from amongst American supporters of slavery and the Manifest Destiny Doctrine, mostly inhabitants of Kentucky and Tennessee. His intentions then changed from forming a buffer colony to establishing an independent Republic of Sonora, which might eventually take its place as a part of the American Union (as had been the case previously with the Republic of Texas). He funded his project by “selling scrips which were redeemable in lands of Sonora.” (Deeds to land that he would soon conquer – hopefully.)

Walker's Republic of Lower California.
Walker’s Republic of Lower California.

On October 15, 1853, Walker set out with 45 men to conquer the Mexican territories of Baja California Territory and Sonora State. He succeeded in capturing La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, which he declared the capital of a new Republic of Lower California, with himself as president and his partner, Watkins, as vice president; he then put the region under the laws of the American state of Louisiana, which made slavery legal. Fearful of attacks by Mexico, Walker moved his headquarters twice over the next three months, first to Cabo San Lucas, and then further north to Ensenada to maintain a more secure position of operations.  Lack of supplies and strong resistance by the Mexican government quickly forced Walker to retreat.

 
Back in California, he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war, in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794. However, in the era of Manifest Destiny, his filibustering project was popular in the southern and western United States and the jury took eight minutes to acquit him.
 

 

Conquest of Nicaragua

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.

Walker's Theater of Operations in Nicaragua.

In 1854, a civil war erupted in Nicaragua between the Legitimist Party (also called the Conservative Party), based in the city of Granada, and the Democratic Party (also called the Liberal Party), based in León. The Democratic Party sought military support from Walker who, to circumvent U.S. neutrality laws, obtained a contract from Democratic president Francisco Castellón to bring as many as three hundred “colonists” to Nicaragua. These mercenaries received the right to bear arms in the service of the Democratic government. Walker attracted a small band of volunteers—referred to by admirers as the Immortals—and on May 4, 1855, he sailed for Nicaragua with 57 men. Walker himself described them as “men of strong character, tired of the humdrum of common life.” Historian Laurence Greene characterized them as “vigilante fugitives from San Francisco, wharf rats from New Orleans and villains from half the countries of the world.”

 

With Castellón’s consent, Walker attacked the Legitimists in the town of Rivas, near the trans-isthmian route. He was driven off, but not without inflicting heavy casualties. On September 4, during the Battle of La Virgen, Walker defeated the Legitimist army. On October 13, he conquered the Legitimist capital of Granada and took effective control of the country. U.S. President Franklin Pierce recognized Walker’s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856.

Walker's Immortals between campaigns.
Walker’s Immortals between campaigns.

Making Enemies

Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, Walker made the mistake of confiscating Cornelius Vanderbilt’s transit business. 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.  Finally, the outraged, Vanderbilt dispatched two secret agents to the Costa Rican government with detailed plans on how to deal a death blow to the filibusters. They would help regain control of Vanderbilt’s steamboats which had become a logistical lifeline for Walker’s army.

The Second Battle of Rivas.
The Second Battle of Rivas.
Walker had also scared his neighbors and potential American and European investors with talk of further military conquests in Central America. Juan Rafael Mora, President of Costa Rica, rejected Walker’s diplomatic overtures and instead declared war on his regime. Walker organized a battalion of four companies to invade Costa Rica in a preemptive action, but this advance force was defeated at the Battle of Santa Rosa in March 20, 1856. In April 1856, Costa Rican troops entered into Nicaraguan territory and inflicted a defeat on Walker’s men at the Second Battle of Rivas. 
 

 

From the north, President José Santos Guardiola sent Honduran troops who went side by side with Salvadoran troops to fight William Walker.

 

Walker took up residence in Granada and set himself up as President of Nicaragua, after conducting a fraudulent election. He was inaugurated on July 12, 1856, and soon launched an Americanization program, reinstating slavery, declaring English an official language and reorganizing currency and fiscal policy to encourage immigration from the United States. Realizing that his position was becoming precarious, he sought support from the Southerners in the U.S. by recasting his campaign as a fight to spread the institution of black slavery, which many American Southern businessmen saw as the basis of their agrarian economy. With this in mind, Walker revoked Nicaragua’s emancipation edict of 1824. Nevertheless, Walker’s army, weakened by an epidemic of cholera and massive defections, was no match for the Central American coalition.

Flag of Walker's Nicaragua.
Flag of Walker’s Nicaragua.
 
On October 12, 1856, Guatemalan Colonel José Víctor Zavala performed an incredible act of courage: he crossed the square of the city to the house where Walker soldiers took shelter; under heavy fire, he made it to the enemy’s flag and carried it back with him shouting to his men that the filibuster bullets did not kill.  On December 14, 1856, as Granada was surrounded by 4,000 Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan troops, Charles Frederick Henningsen, one of Walker’s generals, ordered his men to set the city ablaze before escaping and fighting their way to Lake Nicaragua. An inscription on a lance reading Aquí fue Granada (“Here was Granada”) was left behind at the smoking ruin of the ancient capital city.
Escape on Lake Nicaragua.
Escape on Lake Nicaragua.

Surrender

Iglesia Guadeloupe, a Catholic Church in Granada, originally built in 1624 still bears the scars of the 1856 fire set by Walker's men as they abandoned the city. It was one of the few structures left standing in the wake of his destruction.
Iglesia Guadeloupe, a Catholic Church in Granada, originally built in 1624 still bears the scars of the 1856 fire set by Walker’s men as they abandoned the city. It was one of the few structures left standing in the wake of his destruction.

On May 1, 1857, Walker surrendered to Commander Charles Henry Davis of the United States Navy under the pressure of the Central American armies, and was repatriated. Upon disembarking in New York City, he was greeted as a hero, but he alienated public opinion when he blamed his defeat on the U.S. Navy. Within six months, he set off on another expedition, but he was arrested by the U.S. Navy Home Squadron under the command of Commodore Hiram Paulding and once again returned to the U.S. amid considerable public controversy over the legality of the Navy’s actions.

 

Death in Honduras

After writing an account of his Central American campaign (published in 1860 as War in Nicaragua), Walker once again returned to the region. British colonists in Roatán, in the Bay Islands, fearing that the government of Honduras would move to assert its control over them, approached Walker with an offer to help him in establishing a separate, English-speaking government over the islands. Walker disembarked in the port city of Trujillo, but soon fell into the custody of Commander Nowell Salmon (later Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon) of the British Royal Navy. The British government controlled the neighboring regions of British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast (now part of Nicaragua) and had considerable strategic and economic interest in the construction of an inter-oceanic canal through Central America. It therefore regarded Walker as a menace to its own affairs in the region.

The Execution of William Walker.
The Execution of William Walker.

Rather than return him to the US, Salmon delivered Walker to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, who executed him near the site of the present-day hospital by firing squad on September 12, 1860. Walker was 36 years old. He is buried in the Cementerio Viejo, in Trujillo.

Walker's Tomb, Trujillo, Honduras.
Walker’s Tomb, Trujillo, Honduras.

Influence and reputation

William Walker convinced many Southerners of the desirability of creating a slave-holding empire in tropical Latin America. In 1861, when U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed that the 36°30′ parallel north be declared as a line of demarcation between free and slave territories, some Republicans denounced such an arrangement, saying that it “would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and State owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego.”

Walker's exploits were followed closely - and often sympathetically - in U.S. newspapers.
Walker’s exploits were followed closely – and often sympathetically – in U.S. newspapers.
Before the end of the American Civil War, Walker’s memory enjoyed great popularity in the southern and western United States, where he was known as “General Walker” and as the “grey-eyed man of destiny”. Northerners, on the other hand, generally regarded him as a pirate. Despite his intelligence and personal charm, Walker consistently proved to be a limited military and political leader. Unlike men of similar ambition, such as Cecil Rhodes, Walker’s grandiose scheming ultimately failed.

 

A Rallying Point

In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856–57 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced.

Historical Marker in Tennessee.
Historical Marker in Tennessee.
This was far from the last time that the United States intervened in the affairs of Central America - or even in those of Nicaragua. (click to enlarge)
This was far from the last time that the United States intervened in the affairs of Central America – or even in those of Nicaragua. (click to enlarge)

The Bottom Line

  1. William Walker failed in his attempt to conquer Nicaragua, but his story is still dramatic, and it speaks to the highly charged politics of race, slavery, sectionalism, and expansionism in the United States during the 1850s.  Why isn’t this story granted even a footnote in most textbooks?
  2. Why does William Walker surrender to the U.S. or to the British, and not Mexicans, Hondurans, or Nicaraguans?  What does this say about the status of the filibuster in 19th century America?
  3. Support or refute the following statement: William walker has little interest in the history, culture, or people of Nicaragua.  Nicaragua is merely a blank slate upon which William Walker projects the politics of the United States.
  4. William Walker described Nicaragua as “a country for which nature has done much and man little.”  Do resources like money and military power grant Americans the right to business when, where, and how they please?  If not, how do you account for the events described in the graphic above?  Aren’t these events important facts to consider when trying to understand the history and foreign policy of the United States?
  5. William Walker worked without the approval of the U.S. government.  Research one of the government-sanctioned events mentioned in the graphic above and write a persuasive essay supporting or opposing the action.  Be certain to access news articles and historical accounts and include direct quotes from principle players – U.S. presidents, soldiers, governments of the Latin American governments in question – reflecting the various points of view concerned.  Articulate your position clearly, include evidence to support your point of view, and cite your work appropriately.
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