William Walker, the greatest of American filibusters, was another visionary adventurer, imbued with the desire of founding a colony in Mexico, near the American border. As a boy, Walker lived in Tennessee, where he studied at the University of Nashville, and thus was naturally a strong Southern sympathizer.
Excertpted from: California Filibusters: A History of their Expeditions into Hispanic America, by Fanny Juda
- Born into a distinguished family in Nashville, Tennessee, young William was a child genius. He graduated from the University of Nashville at the top of his class at the age of fourteen.
- By the time he was 25, he had a degree in medicine and another in law, and was legally allowed to practice both as a doctor and a lawyer.
- Although he stood only 5'2," Walker had a commanding presence and charisma to spare.
- The practice of invading small countries or states with the intention of causing independence was known as filibustering.
- Although the United States Government was in full expansionist mode by 1850, it frowned on filibustering as a way to expand the nation's borders.
- With only 45 men, Walker marched south and promptly captured La Paz, capital of Baja California. Renaming the state "The Republic of Lower California," (later to be replaced by the "Republic of Sonora"), he declared himself president and applied the laws of the State of Louisiana (which included legalized slavery) to the new republic.
- Back in the United States, word of his daring attack had spread, and most Americans thought that Walker's project was a great idea.
- Men lined up to volunteer to join the expedition. Around this time, he got the nickname "the grey-eyed man of destiny."
- By early 1854, Walker had been reinforced by 200 Mexicans who believed in his vision and another 200 Americans from San Francisco who wanted to get in on the ground floor of the new republic.
- They had few supplies, however, and discontent grew. The Mexican government, which could not send a large army to crush the invaders, nevertheless was able to muster up enough of a force to skirmish with Walker and his men a couple of times and keep them from getting too comfortable.
- Back in the United States, Walker was tried in San Francisco in federal court for violation of United States neutrality laws and policies.
- Popular sentiment was still with him, however, and he was acquitted of all charges by a jury after only eight minutes of deliberations.
- Within a year, he was back in action. Nicaragua was a rich, green nation that had one great advantage: in the days before the Panama Canal, most shipping went through Nicaragua along a route that led up the San Juan River from the Caribbean, across lake Nicaragua, and then overland to the port of Rivas.
- Nicaragua was in the throes of a civil war between the cities of Granada and León to determine which city would have more power.
- Walker was approached by the León faction (which was losing), and soon rushed to Nicaragua with some 60 well armed men. Upon landing, he was reinforced with another 100 Americans and almost 200 Nicaraguans. His army marched on Granada and captured it in October, 1855.
- As he was already considered supreme General of the Army, he had no trouble declaring himself president. In May, 1856, the Franklin Pierce administration officially recognized Walker's government.
- Walker had made many enemies in his conquest. Greatest among them was Cornelius Vanderbilt, who controlled an international shipping empire.
- As President, Walker revoked Vanderbilt's rights to ship through Nicaragua, and Vanderbilt, enraged, sent soldiers to oust him.
- Vanderbilt's men were joined by those of other Central American nations, chiefly Costa Rica, who feared that Walker would take over their countries, too.
- In addition, Walker had overturned Nicaragua's anti-slavery laws and made English the official language, which angered many Nicaraguans.
- In early 1857 the Costa Ricans invaded, supported by Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador as well as Vanderbilt's money and men, and defeated Walker's army (which had been thinned by disease and defections) at the Second Battle of Rivas.
- Walker was forced to return once again to the United States.
- Back in the United States, Walker was greeted as a hero, particularly in the south.
- He wrote a book about his adventures, resumed his law practice, and began making plans to try again to take Nicaragua, which he still believed to be his.
- After a few false starts, including one in which US authorities captured him as he set sail, he landed near Trujillo, Honduras, where he was captured by the British Royal Navy.
- They turned him over to Honduran authorities, who executed him by firing squad on September 12, 1860.
- It is reported that in his final words he asked for clemency for his men, assuming the responsibility of the Honduras expedition himself.
- He was 36 years old. His grave can still be visited in Trujillo.
- In the United States today he is seldom remembered outside of his native Nashville, which continues to be proud of its most famous son, even in today's age of political correctness.
- He is better remembered in Central America, where his name is still a synonym for Yankee imperialism.
- It is difficult today to understand the situation that could create a man like William Walker.
- Because Walker is not very well known today, it is easy to lose sight of how close he came to succeeding and what the consequences may have been if he had.
- In Nicaragua, if he had not angered Vanderbilt, he may have held onto Nicaragua, perhaps eventually even taking all of Central America.