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The would-be nation builder carved out private fiefdoms in Central America before falling to a Honduran firing squad. (Photo from Our First Century, by R.M. Devens, C.A. Nichols & Co., Springfield, Mass., 1876)

‘The spectacle of a man still in his 20s, with some two-score social misfits as his total support, solemnly explaining to 25 million people why he had seen fit to create a new nation on their borders, needs the pen of a Cervantes to do it full justice’

For a man who assembled personal armies, invaded foreign lands and even carved out his own countries, William Walker wasn’t much to look at. At 5 feet 2 inches and 120 pounds, with a slender frame and thinning hair, he appeared frail, and with his somber dress and mild manner he was easily mistaken for a man of the cloth. The last thing one might take Walker for was a fighting man. And yet, as one contemporary noted: “Anyone who estimated Mr. Walker by his personal appearance made a great mistake. He arrested your attention with the first word he uttered, and as he proceeded, you felt convinced that he was no ordinary person.” Charismatic almost in spite of himself, William Walker dramatically embodied the adventuresome spirit and philosophy of 1850s America.

Born in 1824 in Nashville, Tenn., Walker was a prodigy. He attended the University of Nashville, graduating at the top of his class at 14. He studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Edinburgh and Paris and earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at 19. Walker practiced medicine in Philadelphia, grew weary of it and moved to New Orleans to study and practice law. Tiring of that, he became a founding partner in the New Orleans Crescent, at which he employed an aspiring young poet named Walt Whitman.

Walker was ill at ease staying long in one place, and when his fiancée died during a cholera epidemic, he moved to San Francisco. The year was 1849, and the Gold Rush was in full swing. Adventure seekers, fortune hunters, gamblers and rogues flooded California, and the peripatetic 25-year-old was right at home. He briefly resumed his newspaper career, then again practiced law.

In 1853 Walker decided to establish a republic of his very own, inside Mexico.

He could not have picked a more auspicious time to try his hand at nation-building. American independence was scarcely 60 years old, and the brash young American eagle was spreading its wings. The nation had fought two wars with Great Britain and, as one early chronicler noted, “Success in the struggle for existence had produced unbounded egotism and self-confidence.” Many Americans believed that territorial expansion was not just a right but an obligation. Bombastic newspaperman and Democratic rabble-rouser John L. O’Sullivan gave a name to this belief in the rightness of unbridled national acquisition: Manifest Destiny.

The United States had already taken huge pieces of land from Mexico, adding Texas and California to the Union, and had purchased the vast Louisiana Territory from France. Central America now beckoned, as did the islands of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba. And while the United States had signed a treaty with Great Britain, ensuring a hands-off policy in Central America, American adventurers regarded the agreement as merely a minor impediment. These men came to be known as “filibusters.”

For most modern Americans, the term “filibuster” evokes images of long-winded senators seeking to drown opponents’ legislation in a sea of words. In the 1840s and 1850s, however, filibuster had a different, darker and more exotic meaning. The term is derived from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, which translates as “freebooter.” The Spanish corrupted the term, and from their filibustero came the English version, which meant plunderer or pirate. In the words of a former filibuster, it came to mean “adventurers who, during the decade preceding the Civil War, were engaged in fitting out and conducting under private initiative armed expeditions from the United States against other nations with which this country was at peace.” Some of these adventurers meant to annex their new kingdoms to the United States, and as the Southern states particularly supported and encouraged the filibusters, the newly acquired lands would join the Union as slave states. Others merely sought the opportunity to carve out private fiefdoms by force.

William Walker resolved to establish himself as the preeminent filibuster of his era, and for a brief span (1853–60), he was indomitable in his quest. First, he traveled to the port city of Guaymas, Sonora, ostensibly to petition the Mexican government for a grant allowing him to create an American colony, in return for which he would provide protection against marauding Apaches. The Mexicans understandably turned him down; Sonora was rumored to be rich in silver deposits, and they suspected Walker intended to establish his own state there. Indeed, just weeks before leaving San Francisco for Guaymas, Walker had printed up and sold bonds stamped “Republic of Sonora.”

Undeterred, Walker returned to San Francisco and set about acquiring men and arms for his invasion. He opened a recruiting office, and sold scrip for land in Sonora, attracting volunteers by the score and taking in enough money to finance his expedition. Most of his recruits were Southerners—Mexican War veterans, failed gold seekers, men in search of adventure and plunder. Filibustering was, however, against the law, and in October 1853, when Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the U.S. regional military commander, heard of Walker’s plans, he confiscated the adventurer’s armed brig Arrow. A sympathetic federal court soon ordered the ship released. Meanwhile, Walker and his recruits sailed to Baja California aboard the brig Caroline to await supplies and additional men.

Although his ultimate goal was Sonora, Walker established a foothold in Baja before proceeding south. On November 3, he and his band of 50-odd armed recruits—dubbed the First Independent Battalion—seized the capital city of La Paz, captured its governor and raised the banner of the Republic of Lower California. Walker declared the entire peninsula a “free, sovereign and independent” country, named himself president and forever renounced all allegiance to Mexico. He further stipulated that his new domain would employ the same set of laws that governed Louisiana, including legal slavery.

When word of Walker’s 1853 capture of La Paz reached San Francisco, enlistment boomed, someone planted a version of his flag on a street corner and the local newspapers celebrated his “great victory.” Walker’s former law partner, Henry P. Watkins, soon sailed south with 230 more recruits.

Walker wasted no time: The self-appointed president moved his capital to Ensenada, selected a cabinet and declared his new little country open to world trade. He penned a letter to the American people, explaining that “to develop the resources of Lower California, and to effect a proper social organization therein, it was necessary to make it independent.” As one early historian assessed Walker’s pretensions: “The spectacle of a man still in his 20s, with some two-score social misfits as his total support, solemnly explaining to 25 million people why he had seen fit to create a new nation on their borders, needs the pen of a Cervantes to do it full justice.”

In early December, Mexican forces counterattacked Walker’s “country” but were driven off. During the assault, Caroline—then holding two captured Mexican governors—suddenly weighed anchor for Guaymas, taking with it the filibusters’ food and reserve ammunition. Two veterans who later wrote about their experiences conjectured that the imprisoned governors had persuaded the crew to leave “by threats or promise of reward.” Three days after Christmas, Watkins arrived with his guns and reinforcements, but no food. Walker now had a force of nearly 300 men and nothing to feed them. Foraging became the order of the day, and Walker’s men grew increasingly discontented. Desertions were rife.

With the coming of the new year, Walker decided he was ready to take his war of liberation to Sonora. First, he raided neighboring ranches for provender, then sat down to pen some remarkable decrees: He proclaimed he was annexing Sonora, changing the name of his country to the Republic of Sonora and carving out two separate internal states with defined borders. In the process, he elected himself president. An 1854 editorial in the Alta California observed, “It would have been just as cheap and easy to have annexed the whole of Mexico at once, and would have saved the trouble of making future proclamations.”

Dissatisfaction with the food and conditions became a growing problem within Walker’s “army,” and desertions increased. At one point, Walker ordered the men to swear an oath of allegiance, but 50 men refused. Tempers flared, weapons were drawn, and a shootout was narrowly averted when the 50 took their weapons and left. Only Walker’s direct intervention prevented his loyal recruits from firing a field piece into the withdrawing deserters. With his remaining 130 men, Walker resumed preparations for the invasion of Sonora.

On February 13, he marched his reduced force out of Ensenada, leaving a garrison of 20 men in the nearby village of San Vicente to guard the camp. The campaign became a nightmare, as illness, bandit attacks and more desertion whittled away his force. At one point, Walker ordered two deserters shot and two others flogged and driven from camp. With many of his men unused to military discipline, Walker’s attempts to maintain strict control only led to further desertions. Finally, unable to proceed, he gave it up and turned back.

Arriving back in San Vicente, Walker learned a lesson in real power: He found that local outlaws had slaughtered the 20 men he had left behind, and those same outlaws now made it their business to plague Walker. Faced with the prospect of total destruction, the self-styled president of Sonora led his remaining 33 men to the American border, where on his 30th birthday—May 8, 1854—Walker surrendered to Major J. McKinstry, commander of the American military post at San Diego. McKinstry placed Walker and his men under arrest and accepted their “parole of honor” to travel to San Francisco, where they would face federal charges of violating the neutrality laws of the United States. At his trial the following October, Walker delivered a rousing speech on Americans’ expansionist rights, and remarkably, after just eight minutes’ deliberation, the jury acquitted him. Walker remained in California and again took up the practice of law—albeit briefly.

Had Walker’s filibustering ended with the fiasco in Baja California, he would have become little more than a footnote to history. However, the resolute “Man of Destiny” saw far greater challenges in his future. He next set his sights on Nicaragua.

In the mid-19th century, it could take as long as six months to travel or send a letter from Boston to California by way of Cape Horn, and America’s attention was fixed on ways to shorten the trip. Alternatives included overland treks by way of Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Nicaragua.

New York railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt saw in Nicaragua the possibility of a waterway connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific and obtained the rights to dig a canal. When this proved unfeasible, he established the Accessory Transit Company to convey passengers across the isthmus by steamboat and coach to the Pacific port of San Juan del Sur. The company opened in mid-1851 and proved profitable, carrying tens of thousands of passengers annually. Many Americans thus perceived Nicaragua as a land of boundless opportunity. William Walker described it as “a country for which nature has done much and man little.” He wanted in.

In Nicaragua a major civil conflict had been raging for years between the country’s two political factions—the aristocratic conservatives, or Legitimists, based in Granada, and the elite liberals, or Democrats, in León. Having heard of Walker, the underdog Democrats hired him to help defeat the Legitimists. 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.” Shortly after Walker’s landing on June 16, some 200 Nicaraguan liberals joined his force. Walker formed the Americans into a separate command, dubbed La Falange Americana, the American Phalanx.

On June 29, Walker attacked Rivas, a key town along the Accessible Transit route and bastion of the Legitimists. Walker met with heavy resistance, prompting his Nicaraguan troops to flee. But the phalanx held fast. Fighting was fierce, often hand to hand, and it ranged through the narrow city streets, where Legitimist troops poured volley after volley of small-arms fire into the outnumbered American force. The filibusters sought refuge in several adobe houses, as the Legitimists, according to Walker, “pressed them from all sides.”

Walker and most of his remaining men ultimately broke through the Legitimist cordon and escaped the city, leaving some of their wounded behind, five of whom were “barbarously murdered,” noted Walker. The filibusters withdrew to San Juan del Sur, where Walker commandeered the Costa Rican schooner San José to evacuate his men. All told, the Americans suffered 11 dead and five wounded, leaving Walker with only 35 men in the field. Though he had acquitted himself bravely in his first combat action, Walker—who had had no previous military training or experience—proved disastrous as a commander. He had formed no real strategy, did no reconnaissance and apparently had no idea of the size or location of the opposition. And he abandoned his wounded men to a vengeful enemy.

Walker nonetheless managed once again to emerge unscathed and with his reputation intact. Appropriating La Virgen, one of Vanderbilt’s steamboats, he ferried a force to Granada and attacked the city—this time establishing and following a battle plan. He took the Legitimists by surprise, and after negotiating a truce with the enemy commander, General Ponciano Corral, he assumed the rank of major general and commander in chief of the Army of the Republic and appointed a puppet president, Don Patricio Rivas. Shortly thereafter, Walker brutally executed Corral for “conspiracy.”

According to one of Walker’s veterans, “From this time until March 1856, peace prevailed throughout the republic.” Indeed, things were quiet. But it was only the calm before the storm. At the time, the president of neighboring Costa Rica—fearful of Walker’s evident lust for acquisition—declared war on the filibuster general. Walker attempted a pre-emptive strike against Costa Rica, but his forces were defeated at Santa Rosa. The Costa Rican army then invaded Nicaragua and occupied Rivas. Walker, forgetting the costly lesson he’d learned at the previous Battle of Rivas, attempted a frontal assault on the invading forces and was roundly thrashed. But his luck held: Cholera swept the Costa Rican army, and rather than pursue and destroy Walker and his men, the invaders returned home—where the disease spread with devastating results. Meanwhile, inspired by the stories of derring-do that had filtered back to the States, hundreds of American volunteers boarded steamers and sailing ships and made their way to Nicaragua to serve under the now-legendary General Walker.

Despite his protestations of populist sympathy, Walker had no feeling for the people whose lands he claimed as his own. He saw them as inferiors, and didn’t hesitate to steal from them—or shoot them—as he felt the situation demanded. When retreating from Granada, the oldest Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua, he left a detachment with orders to level it in order to instill, as he put it, “a salutary dread of American justice.” It took them over two weeks to smash, burn and flatten the city, but flatten it they did; all that remained were inscriptions on the ruins that read “Aqui Fue Granada” (“Here Was Granada”).

Events were about to take an ominous turn for the filibuster. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala formed an alliance and jointly occupied León, while Costa Rica invaded once again. Nicaragua’s ineffectual puppet president ran for his life, denouncing Walker as a usurper. Walker then assumed the presidency of Nicaragua, declared English the national language and again legalized slavery. Shortly thereafter, U.S. President Franklin Pierce—a strong proponent of expansionism—officially recognized Walker’s administration.

But Walker had made a critical mistake. Realizing that without steamships for logistical support he had little hope of maintaining control of the country, Walker had revoked Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit charter and commandeered the company’s steamboats. In so doing he made an enemy of the richest and most powerful man in America. Furious, Vanderbilt pressured Pierce to withdraw recognition of Walker’s presidency, supported the opposition coalition, shipped guns and gold to Costa Rica and sent agents to Nicaragua to foment uprisings and recapture his steamboats.

Without firing a shot, Vanderbilt’s agents, in alliance with the Costa Ricans, gained control of Walker’s steamships and fortifications, thereby cutting him off from any possibility of reinforcement. With few options left, Walker again entered Rivas, where the combined opposition forces—which now included American mercenaries in the pay of Cornelius Vanderbilt—kept him bottled up from December 1856 to May 1857. Finally, the captain of the U.S. sloop of war St. Mary’s, which had been dispatched to San Juan del Sur to protect American citizens, negotiated an agreement that allowed Walker and his officers to retain their sidearms, ride under escort to the coast and board the vessel for transport to Panama. The rest of his men were to be given amnesty and allowed to remain in the country if they chose. Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua was over—at least for now.

Walker made his way to New York, where he was again charged with neutrality violations, tried and acquitted. Almost immediately, he began to raise funds for a return to Nicaragua. The filibuster had captured the popular imagination, and his standing among the American people was at an all-time high. Writers dashed off poems, songs and even a three-act play to commemorate his deeds. Walker himself wrote a book, The War in Nicaragua—part apologia, part self-glorification.

“Insanely confident of success,” as one contemporary described him, Walker mustered another group of would-be conquerors and again sailed to Nicaragua. He landed his force at Punta Arenas on the Costa Rican coast in November 1857, but before he could make any further headway, U.S. Navy Commodore Hiram Paulding arrived at Punta Arenas aboard the 50-gun frigate Wabash, came ashore, arrested Walker and sent him home. The following spring in New Orleans, Walker, for the third time, was tried and found not guilty of violating neutrality laws. Still obsessed with his mission, Walker again assembled a mini-army, which included some of his original Immortals. This time their schooner struck a coral reef off Belize. A British warship rescued the frustrated little army and returned them to port in Mobile.

The wreck of his ship didn’t deter Walker from making a fourth attempt to retake “his” country. But this time the British—who maintained a strong presence in Central America—proved his undoing.

Walker landed his force of 91 men on the coast of Honduras and, on Aug. 6, 1859, captured the city of Truxillo (or Trujillo) and began a march toward Nicaragua. They would not make it. Along the way, the Americans encountered overwhelming opposition from Honduran infantry and suffered major losses, leaving in their wake dozens of dead or mortally wounded men. A flotilla of 15 British ships off the coast prevented reinforcements from joining Walker, and his army was soon reduced to 31 men, nearly all of whom were wounded, including their leader. “Coast fever” spread among the desperate men and rendered their situation hopeless. Again, rescue appeared in the form of a naval vessel—this time the British man-of-war HMS Icarus. Commander Norvell Salmon took Walker and his men aboard and personally gave them assurances of safe conduct.

For reasons that remain unclear, Salmon seemingly changed his mind and sailed to Truxillo, where he turned over Walker and his chief of staff, Colonel A.F. Rudler, to Honduran authorities. Rudler was sentenced to four years in the mines, but Walker was condemned to death.

On the morning of Sept. 12, 1860, Honduran soldiers marched him from his cell and, at the order to fire, finally stilled Walker’s relentless ambition. The “Gray-eyed Man of Destiny” was 36 years old. Salmon conveyed Walker’s men to Roatán, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, where, in the words of one of the few survivors, they were “left to live or die, as might happen. Out of 91, only 12 returned to tell the story.”

Filibustering—perhaps the most extreme form of the Manifest Destiny impulse, died with William Walker. Within the next few months, the South seceded from the Union, giving the American people a great deal more to think about than the fate of one megalomaniacal freebooter. Given his lack of military ability, it was inevitable Walker should fail. His short-lived successes were due mainly to a combination of luck and his delusional inability to realize when he was beaten.

For further reading, Ron Soodalter recommends The War in Nicaragua, by William Walker; Reminiscences of the Filibuster War in Nicaragua, by C.W. Doubleday; and Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates, by William O. Scroggs.