- Historic Sites
“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
It was a badly beaten group of survivors who reassembled in a cacao plantation outside the town. But Walker got them safely back to their base and in August led them on another foray against the enemy force, which, though ten times as large, had consumed so much brandy to rouse their courage before the battle that the Americans won an easy victory. Walker now decided on the one really brilliant stroke of generalship in his career. The entire Legitimist army was at Rivas, leaving Granada, the government seat, undefended. Walker loaded his entire force, now increased to 350 by recruits from the United States and native volunteers, on the Transit Line’s steamer, sailed them up Lake Nicaragua and advanced at night on the unsuspecting city. They surged over an unmanned barricade and rushed at the double into the main plaza, encountering only a few scattered shots from the skeleton garrison, who then turned and fled. In a matter of hours, with the loss of one soldier, Walker was master of the enemy capital.
By his capture of Granada, Walker put himself in a position which might very possibly have led in time to his dominance of all Central America and even, just possibly, to the eventual conquest of Cuba as well, and its consolidation into a Central American-Caribbean empire of sorts, which, based on slavery, would be a firm ally of the southern states. It was a stirring prospect and the chances are that Walker dimly glimpsed its glitter. His failings, however, were a stubborn refusal to heed the advice of experienced advisers and an overwhelming impatience, the occupational disease of almost all dictators. And these faults betrayed him.
For a while, however, he played his newly won trumps with considerable skill. First, he released about a hundred political prisoners rotting in chains and dungeons under Granada’s great cathedral. The day after the capture of the city he attended Mass at the cathedral, accompanied by many of his officers, and soon won the powerful support of the clergy by his respect for church property and traditions. Two weeks later the Legitimist commander acknowledged defeat and came into Granada to arrange a peace. Walker put on a great show for his entry by lining the streets and the plaza with his heavily armed followers and also armed and paraded a large number of male travelers stranded in the city because of the closure of the Transit route.
The result was a treaty which ended hostilities and named Patricio Rivas, an innocuous Legitimist, temporary president of the united republic. It appointed William Walker as commander in chief of the combined armies. The Legitimist garrison at Fort San Carlos and another farther down the San Juan River then abandoned their posts, and the Transit Line was again open to free movement. Landing with 58 men, William Walker had, in effect, captured Nicaragua in a little more than four months.
But only a few months later, in February, 1856, war broke out with Nicaragua’s southern neighbor, the republic of Costa Rica, which raised an army of 9,000 men and declared war on Walker’s “bandits.” To compound his difficulties, Walker rashly decided to seize the steamers and properties of the Transit Company. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt had built up this line and had given, at first, every aid and assistance to Walker, who, he hoped, would bring peace and order to the revolution-wracked country. But Walker, whose knowledge of warfare in the financial jungle was limited, chose to line up with a faction seeking to oust Vanderbilt from control.
The old Commodore’s wrath, when he heard of the confiscation, was said to have been terrible beyond description. He not only suspended the sailing of all Transit ships to Nicaragua, thus cutting Walker’s supply line, but began intriguing both with the Costa Ricans and with Walker’s puppet, President Rivas. Shortly after the Costa Rican army crossed the border, President Rivas went into revolt and appealed for help to the three little countries to the north—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Walker met this crisis by assuming formal control of the government. On July 12, 1856, with a grand parade through the main square of Granada, he took the oath of office as president of Nicaragua. The American minister to Nicaragua, John H. Wheeler, a friend of Walker’s, rashly took it upon himself to recognize the new government, but when the news reached Washington, Secretary of State Marcy recalled Wheeler and forced his resignation.
Some of Walker’s proclamations, during the months between his formal accession to power and his downfall, were drastic. He confiscated many of the natives’ estates to raise money, placed English on an equal legal basis with Spanish, and made changes in the land laws with the frank purpose of placing “a large portion of the land of the country in the hands of the white race”—meaning his own followers. Most potentially fateful was his decree relegalizing slavery, which had been abolished thirty years before. The significance of this decree was that Walker, rebuffed in his diplomatic overtures to the government at Washington, was casting his lot with the southern states in the impending Civil War. There is reason to believe that some of the southern leaders shared Walker’s dream of a Latin American slave union as an ally in their own struggle.