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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
For two harrowing weeks Henningsen held out while Walker stood off Granada in the lake steamer Virgen, watching for a chance to extricate Henningsen’s forces. Then, during the first week in December, 300 recruits arrived from New Orleans and San Francisco, well-equipped men in fine fettle and spoiling for a fight. Of these, 160 were organized as a relief force and placed under the command of the cavalry leader, Colonel John Waters. Waters landed his men and silently led them toward the city. By dawn he had stormed over all the enemy, barricades and had joined Henningsen, with a loss of about a fourth of his men. The Americans, who had been slowly extending their lines from the Guadalupe church down the street toward the water, quickly seized the wharf and embarked the survivors on the Virgen without enemy opposition.
General Henningsen, before he boarded the rescuing steamer, cast one last look back at the ruined city. Then he thrust a lance into the ground and to it attached a piece of rawhide upon which he had written, Aqui fué Granada —“Here was Granada.”
Walker was not licked yet. He still commanded 900 men and controlled the Transit route, over which he expected several hundred reinforcements. But his enemies included, along with four sovereign states, the redoubtable Commodore Vanderbilt. Early in the autumn of 1856 the Commodore had dispatched to Costa Rica a young secret agent named Sylvanus Spencer with a well-planned scheme to seize the Transit route and bottle up the filibusters. With a small Costa Rican force and a boldness worthy of Walker himself, Spencer swooped down on one of Walker’s garrisons, seized the river steamers, and cut off the filibuster reinforcements. By April, 1857, Walker’s force was trapped at Rivas, with no hope of escape. By arrangement with the Central American armies he surrendered to an American naval officer, Commander Charles H. Davis, and was spirited off to New Orleans, where he received a hero’s welcome.
Three more times William Walker and his followers attempted to invade Nicaragua without success. On the last attempt Walker surrendered to a British naval officer, who turned him over to the Honduran authorities, from whom he received short shrift. On September 12, 1860, he met his death before an adobe wall at the hands of a firing squad, an end which he had decreed so often for his political enemies. He was buried in an unmarked grave which Joaquin Miller commemorated in his poem “That Night in Nicaragua.” Despite his ruthlessness and unappealing personality, Walker held the constant loyalty of many of his followers through all his later failures and, surprisingly enough, that of many of the natives as well. His men were beyond description daring. His able lieutenant, General Henningsen, years later wrote a fitting epitaph for these Homeric men of Nicaragua:
“I was on the Confederate side in many of the bloodiest battles of the late war; but I aver that if, at the end of that war, I had been allowed to pick five thousand of the bravest Confederate or Federal soldiers I ever saw, and could resurrect and pit against them one thousand of such men as lie beneath the orange trees of Nicaragua, I feel certain that the thousand would have scattered and utterly routed the five thousand within an hour. All military science failed, on a suddenly given field, before assailants who came on at run, to close with their revolvers, and who thought little of charging a battery, pistol in hand. …
“Such men do not turn up in the average of everyday life, nor do I ever expect to see their like again.”