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“The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny”
The daring epic of the filibusters reached a lurid climax when little William Walker captured the sovereign state of Nicaragua
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
Walker’s filibustering career had begun two years before—with a fiasco. In the autumn of 1853 he had descended with forty-odd followers on Lower California and proclaimed it an independent republic with himself as president. When reinforcements arrived he extended his sway on paper by a proclamation annexing the neighboring state of Sonora to his newly established nation ami the San Francisco newspaper Alta California aptly noted, “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.” The whole affair was ridiculouns on ihe surface but not so funny to some of the people immediately in Walker’s way, for he had a deadly determination and never hesitated to execute anyone who obstructed his purpose. Chased out of Lower California, he managed to lead 33 surviving followers back to safety across the border below San Diego on May 8, 1854, which happened to be his thirtieth birthday.
But from this initial defeat Walker was to go on to become the grand master of the filibusters. One would imagine that the leader of such hard-bitten daredevils must have been a man of splendid physique and overwhelming personality. But Walker was nothing of the sort. He was about as innocuous looking as a man could be. Only about five feet, five inches in height, he weighed just over a hundred pounds. Mis hair and eyebrows were tow-white and his pale lace was covered with the freckles which usually go with such coloring. His expression was heavy and lie was taciturn to an extreme, but when lie spoke he gained attention with the first word uttered. His eyes were his striking features: all noticed their piercing gray coldness and he became known as “the gray-eyed man of destiny.”
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824 of ScotchIrish ancestry, Walker had studied medicine in Europe but turned to the law in Nashville and New Orleans upon his return. Then lie became a journalist and moved to California, where he edited a newspaper in San Francisco, but later he practiced law again in Marysville until in October, 1853, he sailed with followers from Sun Francisco for his invasion of Lower California.
His first humiliating failure in that expedition taught Walker a lew lessons but in no way cured him of the filibustering lever. In 1855 he was off again, this time to Nicaragua. There, instead of making a rash and forthright landing, he gained entry as the leader of a band of soldier-colonists who were to serve under the banner of the Outs (who happened to be the Liberals) in the current revolution. His followers became citizens of the country by a simple declaration of intention and were promised grants of land when their newly adopted cause 1IVOn victory.
In Nicaragua Walker found a green and fertile land whose fragrant orange groves, sparkling lakes, and smoking volcanoes had so tarried away an early English monk that he had called it “Mahomet’s Paradise.” The little country had achieved a shaky independence alter the downfall of the Mexican emperor in iS^sj, but ever since had been kept in turmoil by civil warla re. Nicaragua had a special importance for Americans, in these years between the Gold Rush and the Golden Spike, because through it ran the favored route to California—a relatively comfortable passage from one ocean to the other by river and lake boat and a short stretch of road.
Walker’s first move was to gain control of this Transit route, which would give him his vital supply line for recruits and equipment from the United States. On a sunny June morning he assembled his little army outside ihe Legitimist (i.e., Conservative) stronghold of Rivas, which controlled the road section of the Transit route, ‘and about noon he led them on a reckless frontal charge into the town.
At the first shots, his native allies turned tail and left the fifty-odd Americans to fight ten times their numbers. The invaders met a steady and deadly fire as they charged toward the central plaza with wild yells and cheers (the usual head-on tactics of filibusters) and were soon forced to take shelter in several adobe houses where they were surrounded by the enemy. The Legitimists then set fire to the shelterin houses and an immediate retreat became imperative to save the survivors. The Americans sallied forth with cheers and shouts and, before the enemy could meet this unexpected offensive, pushed through the streets to the outskirts of the town. Several of the wounded were too seriously hurt to move, and these were immediately butchered by the Legitimists and their bodies burned. The enemy losses, however, were ten times those of the Americans, and thereafter no sober natives ever wanted to shoot it out at close range with the gringos.