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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 a young American who wanted excitement and adventure along with a chance to get rich quick, the United States of a hundred years ago offered plentiful opportunity. The adjustment of the Oregon boundary with Great Britain in 1846, the decisive victory over Mexico and the acquisition of about half the territory of that unfortunate republic in 1848, and then, almost immediately afterward, the discovery of gold in California—all these opened avenues of adventure tor men of mettle and daring.
There was, as well, lor the truly reckless or the desperate, an even more alluring outlet than settling new lands or prospecting for gold, and this had the promise that the gold they were after had already been mined. The men who followed this highly dangerous way were called filibusters—a term used then in its most masculine sense, meaning freebooters, and not, as now, windy and obstructive politicians. These exuberant daredevils tried to seize by force of arms various Latin American countries, usually with the sincere belief that they were the instruments of the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to acquire and civili/e the chaotic and wartorn republics to the south.
The extremists of this imperialistic faith fervently believed that the United States, following its destiny, would eventually annex the entire Western Hemisphere from the Arctic snows to Cape Horn. And in 1856 they came very close indeed to success in Nicaragua, when William Walker made himself president of that harassed republic, the only time in history a native-born American has become the head of another sovereign nation. If Walker had then acted with discretion the whole history of the Americas might have been changed, for he and most of the other rampaging filibusters were proslavery southerners whose enthusiasm for American expansion was linked with the desire to gain new lands for that “peculiar institution.”
The times favored a spirit of enthusiastic nationalism and an unshakable conviction of the superiority of the United States over all other nations. Few Americans then cared what the rest of the world thought of them—what they thought ol the rest of the world was all that mattered. Even the federal government caught the fever of expansion; the Administration of President Franklin Pierce (1853–57) approached Russia about the purchase of Alaska, broached the matter of annexation with the king of the Hawaiian Islands, attempted to buy Cuba from Spain, and made overtures toward the purchase of a large naval base in the Dominican Republic. None ot these efforts succeeded at the time, however, and the only tangible gain of territory was the land acquired along the Mexican border by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.
Most of the filibusters, who sought to gain by force what their government could not acquire by diplomacy, were men of the frontier with a good leavening of Mississippi River men of the “hall-horse-hall-alligator” type. There was a certain proportion ot barflies and drifters from the slums of the big cities, but the officers and hard core of these adventurers must have been a magnificent lot of men, the pick of the frontiersmen of the time. An English explorer wrote of some of William Walker’s followers in Nicaragua: “Tall, upright, broadshouldered men they were nearly all. Their heads were well set on, hands and feet small, muscles like iron … the very pick of the Western States—men highly thought of even there for reckless daring. … They were simply the most good-natured, goodtempered fellows I ever met with.”
The filibusters used two general methods of operation. The first was a slainbang landing on the coast of one of the southern republics and the proclamation of a new government with the invaders holding all the key offices. But this forthright procedure was so blatantly crude and smacked so of piracy that it outraged public opinion not only in the country attacked but throughout the world; it never gained more than the initial local success of surprise.
The more successful method was for a group of Americans to enlist as a distinct corps in one of the warring factions in the new Spanish-speaking republics. For a while these volunteers were eagerly sought by the revolutionary leaders because of their superb fighting qualities; they were recruited by promises of sizable tracts of land—the idea being that these soldiers of fortune, after victory was attained, would settle down as solid citizens to enjoy the rewards of victory. The danger, however, was that these adventurers, as a compact and disciplined body, would seize the government itself. This is exactly what William Walker and his loi lowers accomplished in Nicaragua, in the RIibuster which came nearest to permanent success.