William Walker
Filibustering in Latin America

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Our histories are accented with the deeds of intelligent men whose dreams and aspirations far exceed their grasp, whose visions of leadership and majesty lie beyond their ability to see their own limitations and fail to understand the truth of their own failures.

Young and diminutive William Walker of Tennessee was one of these. A 5 feet 2inch child genius, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at 14, received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at 19, and held university degrees in both medicine and law before the age of 25. Driven to ambition by his superior academics, Walker was a restless soul in search of greatness to match his visions. He was traveling in Europe during the 1848 rebellions that so changed the continent – and inspired Walker's mind. He, too, would someday match the heroic deeds and writings of men like Karl Marx, Garibaldi, and other famed revolutionaries of the time.

So, back to America he went, this time to New Orleans to study law. He even became a partner in publishing the New Orleans Crescent newspaper before moving on to seek his fortune in California in the gold rush of 1949 and wound up publishing a newspaper in San Francisco. Here, his character showed itself; he fought three duels and was wounded in all three.

The decade of the 1850s was a heady one in California. Thousands upon thousands of rowdy, ambitious, impassioned men from everywhere, bringing all manner of behaviors and attitudes, created the perfect cauldron for stirring up all manner of mischief and intrigue. Into this world Walker brought his ever-delusional ego.

This was the time of "Manifest Destiny," a concept that emboldened even the most hopeless adventurer. Here was the perfect justification for planning great conquests and Walker loved the idea. In spite of his diminutive stature, he was a charismatic soul, a persuasive speaker and a grand liar. He was also an ardent believer in slavery and saw an opportunity to spread the practice into the thinly populated lands south of the Mexican border. If he could muster enough support, he thought, he could conquer the area, expand the Manifest Destiny idea all the way down the Pacific Coast, create new slave states for the Union – and enrich himself in the bargain.

"Filibuster" is a word familiar to most of us. Today it refers to a political maneuver used and misused in the halls of Congress and other legislative bodies to obstruct the introduction of laws undesirable to the filibusterer. In the 19th century, "filibustering" was something very different. It literally meant a privately organized and financed invasion of a foreign country with the aim of conquering, occupying, and ruling that country. It was most commonly aspired to by white Southerners wishing to spread slavery into new lands, limited as they were from expansion northward.

Walker's first attempt at filibustering was in Baja California in 1853. Failing to receive a land grant from Mexico, he financed a filibuster by selling script redeemable in the new state he would form. He then "invaded" Baja with a force of 45 men recruited in San Francisco. First conquering La Paz, he removed his capitol to Ensenada and pronounced himself "President of the Republic of Lower California," adopting the laws of the State of Louisiana, which made slavery legal. He then boldly added the Mexican state of Sonora to his imagined empire, proclaiming Baja California to be part of the larger Republic of Sonora, though he never set foot in Sonora. His dream was inspired by the example set by the Republic of Texas in its own war for independence almost 20 years earlier.

Walker was not only a foolish dreamer, he was an inept tactician. He failed to procure supplies for his forces and he did not anticipate the Mexicans' displeasure and resistance to his invasion. He quickly retreated back to California where he was tried for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794. It took eight minutes for the jury to acquit him.

Hope springs eternal with fools and when a second opportunity arose, Walker quickly forgot lessons learned – or unlearned – and entered into the adventure for which he is most noted – Nicaragua. The trade route between the East and West Coasts was across that Central American nation, up the San Juan River from the Gulf of Mexico, across Lake Nicaragua and by wagon train to the Pacific Coast and ships to California. This trade route was operated by the Accssory Travel Company, owned by Wall Street tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

When a civil war erupted in 1854 between conservative and liberal factions, Walker was invited by the liberal Democratic Party to bring a force of 300 men to assist their cause under the sponsorship of then-President Francisco Castellon. Ever-ready Walker sailed from San Francisco on May 3, 1855 with only 80 men. Upon arrival, his little band was reinforced by some 170 locals and another 100 American adventurers.

With that force, Walker was able to defeat the conservative Legitimist Party's army and seized their capitol of Granada. He set himself up as military ruler through a provisional president and his regime was even recognized by President Franklin Pierce. Walker's dream was about to be realized – and it might have but for two factors: treachery of others and the irritating habit of the locals of resisting the presence of foreign invaders.

Trouble began to brew within the Accessory Travel Company when two of Vanderbilt's subordinates attempted to have Walker seize the company's assets and turn them over in exchange for financial support to Walker. Vanderbilt, outraged at such duplicity, dispatched secret agents to Costa Rica and managed to stir up enough fear of Walker's ambitions that the president of Costa Rica declared war on the little filibusterer. Walker's troubles quickly multiplied when troops from Honduras joined in the game.

Walker quickly removed himself to Granada and fashioned a fraudulent election to insert himself into the presidency. He began to solicit support from the southern states, encouraged American immigration, revoked the Emancipation Edict of 1824, reinstated slavery, and made English the official language.

But his army of supporters was weakening and was soon facing vastly superior numbers of troops from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala intent on doing him great harm. Finally, he fled to Lake Nicaragua, burning the city of Granada behind him, and surrendered to the U. S. Navy. He was quickly repatriated to New York.

He was received as a hero, but he still had not learned life's hard lessons. He quickly aroused public displeasure by blaming the U. S. Navy for his defeat, when the Navy had actually saved his hide from the firing squad. It wasn't long before off he went again, only to be seized by the Navy and returned home yet one more time. This time he took time to write a book of his adventures, "War in Nicaragua." The call of destiny still pulled him and he spied yet another opportunity to leave his footprint in the region.

British colonists in Bay Islands off the Honduran coast feared the Honduran government would move to assert its control over them and approached Walker to help set up a separate, English-speaking government. The British had plans of building their own trans-isthmus canal and viewed Walker as a troublemaker. The British Navy arrested Walker and turned him over to the Honduran authorities who promptly stood him up against a wall and ended his dreams of glory with a firing squad.

There are many stories associated with Walker's filibuster. He was viewed as a hero in the Southern states and a villain in the North. To the states of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, his defeat was viewed as a war of independence and is still celebrated. Colonel Albert Fountain was there as a journalist and wrote of the invasion; indeed, Walker had even issued orders for Fountain's execution; Fountain escaped disguised as a woman. Major Horace Bell of the Los Angeles Rangers writes of Walker's foolish arrogance as told to him by men who had been there.

Manifest Destiny was a compelling force that shaped the United States' present boundaries. It did not proceed smoothly, not always with justice or with honor. There were dark episodes, more than we might think, that remain as dark smudges on the nation's history. Walker and those who believed in him were one of them. One wonders what he might have accomplished had not greed for power blinded him to the promise of his own intelligence.

Bell, Horace; Reminiscences of a Ranger; Los Angeles, Yarnell, Caystile & Mathes; 1881

May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America 2002.

May, Robert E.; The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

McPherson, James M.; Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era New York: Oxford University Press. 1988

Hittell, Theodore Henry; History of California N.J. Stone, 1898

Walker, William; War in Nicaragua New York; S. H. Goetzel; 1860