The Story of William Walker
William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 8, 1824. He was a graduate of the University of Nashville, earned a medical degree, practiced medicine in Philadelphia, studied law in New Orleans, and then became co-owner of a newspaper, The New Orleans Crescent—incidentally where the young poet Walt Whitman worked for a short time.
Like much of the nation, Walker headed west in the 1850s in search of a reinvention of identity and a way up the social ladder of a budding modern American capitalism. In California, he first worked as a reporter in San Francisco before setting up a law office in Marysville. Around this time Walker conceived the project of privately conquering vast regions of Latin America, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers.
By 1853 he become the leader of a group plotting to detach parts of northern Mexico (influenced, no doubt, by the success of the Texas Revolution). Recruiting a small army (170 men) and three field guns, he sailed to Baja, California. By the fall of 1853 he was proclaiming independent republics in northern Mexico (shades of the Wild Wild West’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless, eh?). First Walker proclaimed himself president of a “Republic of Lower California”, in La Paz on the Gulf of California. Quickly, however, he abolished the Republic of Lower California in favor of the larger “Republic of Sonora,” with Ensenada as its capitol. A few months later Walker’s army, low on food, retreated to San Diego with the Mexican army close behind. In 1854 he surrendered to U.S. authorities on charges of violating U.S. neutrality laws.
The Republic of Sonora incident, however, was simply a training ground and in 1855 Walker, who had been acquitted of criminal charges, turned his attention to an easier target–Nicaragua in Central America. This region was not only in political chaos but was the perfect site for a railroad linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The leader of the Democratic faction in Nicaragua invited Walker to bring an army and join the struggle against the Legitimists. In 1855, with backing from American speculators and his small army of 58 Americans–dubed “The Immortals” by the American press–he landed in Nicaragua and joined forces with 170 locals and 100 more Americans. Walker’s “Immortals” defeated the national army at La Virgen and took Granada, the capitol. As commander of the army, Walker controlled Nicaragua through puppet president Patricio Rivas. Despite the obvious illegality of his expedition, U.S. President Franklin Pierce recognized Walker’s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856. Walker’s agents recruited American and European men to sail to the region and fight for the conquest of the other four Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. He was able to recruit over a thousand American mercenaries, transported for free by the Accessory Transit Company controlled by Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt.
As Walker’s power grew, he declared himself first Commander in Chief, and eventually President, of Nicaragua, creating a temporary, uneasy peace within the country. He then legalized slavery, continued to build up his army, and planned to conquer the aforementioned neighboring countries.
Walker also revoked the license of Accessory Transit Co. to ferry passengers overland between the two oceans. He then granted use of the route to Vanderbilt’s rivals in the Accessory Transit Company, Cornelius K. Garrison and Charles Morgan (two former employees of Vanderbilt), who had offered Walker a large sum of money and support for his military campaign in exchange for control of the inter-oceanic corridor. In response, Vanderbilt sent forces to Central America to overthrow Walker, while the British navy, attempting to thwart American influences in the region, regularly harassed efforts to supply him. Soon the other countries of Central America formed an alliance against him, and on May 1, 1857 Walker surrendered to Commander Charles H. Davis of the United States Navy and was repatriated. Upon disembarking in New Orleans he was greeted as a hero. He visited President Buchanan, then went on to New York, all the time seeking support for a return to Nicaragua. But support waned as returning soldiers reported military blunders and poor management and he alienated public opinion when he blamed his defeat on the U.S. Navy. Within six months he had set off on another expedition, but he was promptly arrested by the U.S. Navy.
Still undaunted and seeking support for yet another venture, Walker wrote a book, The War in Nicaragua. Knowing that his best prospects lay in the South, he assumed a strong pro-slavery stance. This strategy proved successful, and in 1860 he once again sailed south. Unable to land in Nicaragua due to the ever-present British, he landed in Honduras, planning to march overland, but the British soon captured him and turned him over to the Hondurans. Six days later, at the age of 36, he was executed by a firing squad. The Walker saga had ended (his grave in Trujillo, Honduras is shown to the left).
Walker is clearly a powerdul symbol for the complex interactions of manifest destiny, imperialism, and capitalism in an America rapidly facing modernity in the latter half of the ninteenth century. The intersetions of his story with race and regional struggles (both within the United States and Central America) are not lost on us either. Here in the United States, Walker has faded from our historical memory, but he is far better known in Central America than in the United States. Costa Ricans, for instance, honor Juan Santamaria, a young drummer boy who became a national hero by torching a fort in which Walker’s army was encamped, and a national park, Santa Rosa, commemorates the battle where Walker’s soldiers were expelled from Costa Rica.
I came across nother interesting twist in the story–a twist demonstrating the interconnectedness of historical narratives. Because I was curious about Walker’s alma matter, the University of Nashville, I did a little digging into that insistution’s history. The University of Nashville closed its doors during the Civil War. When the war ended, the South needed a teacher training school. The University of Nashville was revived due to the generosity of the philanthropist George Peabody. It became the Peabody Normal College at Nashville in 1875 and later the George Peabody College for Teachers. Interestingly, the college merged with Vanderbilt University in 1979. Vanderbilt University, of course, was founded in 1873 as the result of a gift of $1 million by shipping and rail magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, despite having never been to the South, hoped his gift and the greater work of the university would help to heal the sectional wounds inflicted by the Civil War.
William Walker Pics (including historical monuments):
Greetings From the Republic of Sonora:
William Walker links from which this entry was drawn: