1855 150 Years Ago

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William Walker, would-be empire builder, in a daguerreotype
 
library of congress2005_5_84

On October 15 William Walker, a 31-year-old adventurer from Tennessee, became the ruler of Nicaragua after capturing the capital city of Granada with a force of several hundred soldiers. It was the latest in a long series of schemes for the restless Walker, who ever since graduating from college at 14 had bummed around the United States and Europe seeking an occupation worthy of his ambition. During the 1840s he had tried medicine, law, and journalism, watching all the while as the nation added huge swaths of territory in Oregon, Texas, and the Southwest. In 1853, unsatisfied with being a lawyer in sleepy Marysville, California, Walker decided to get in on the land grab himself, and like a latecomer to a birthday party, he had to settle for whatever scraps of cake were left.

Having somehow procured three field guns and 170 followers, he invaded Baja California in November and proclaimed himself president of that province and neighboring Sonora. A few months later he and his starving men retreated to San Diego with the Mexican army on their heels. But it was all good experience, and in 1855, backed by American speculators, he chose an easier target: Nicaragua, the perfect site for a railroad linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans if only the pesky homegrown government could be eliminated.

Walker and his party of about five dozen soldiers landed in June. Reinforced with 170 locals and about 100 Americans, they defeated 540 men from the poorly motivated national army at La Virgen on September 1. When Granada fell the following month, Walker became commander in chief of Nicaragua’s armed forces, thus effectively controlling the country.

He proceeded to bring in more than a thousand American mercenaries, transported free by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which was his main backer. The U.S. State Department recognized Walker’s government, and in July 1856 he rescinded Nicaragua’s prohibition on slavery. Soon his talk of a Central American confederation (to be led by him, of course) began to frighten Nicaragua’s neighbors. At the same time, his takeover of Vanderbilt’s steamship line made Vanderbilt into a distant but powerful enemy.

Financed by Vanderbilt, the other Central American nations invaded Nicaragua. Walker’s situation deteriorated rapidly, and in May 1857 he surrendered to the U.S. Navy and was taken to the United States. Expansion to Latin America was a popular cause, particularly among Southerners, so the State Department released him without pressing any charges.

A few months later Walker tried again to invade Nicaragua, only to be tracked down by the U.S. Navy and brought home. Undiscouraged, he spent nearly three years assembling yet another army, which landed in Honduras in 1860, planning to enter Nicaragua by land. Within a few weeks he was arrested by a British naval captain and turned over to Honduran authorities, who ended his filibustering career with a firing squad in September after a hasty trial.

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