William Walker

William Walker

Walker, William, 1824-60, American filibuster in Nicaragua, b. Nashville, Tenn. Walker, a qualified doctor, a lawyer, and a journalist by the time he was 24, sought a more adventurous career. After a short stay in San Francisco, his filibustering expeditions began with an invasion of Lower California (1853-54) intended to wrest the region together with Sonora from Mexico. The invasion failed miserably. He was tried for violating neutrality laws but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. In June, 1855, Walker set out on another filibustering expedition, this time to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the country's revolutionary factions. His capture of Granada brought an end to the fighting, and, after obtaining recognition (May, 1856) from the United States for the new government, Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua in July, 1856. An alliance of hostile Central American states and the enmity of his former friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose Accessory Transit Company controlled Walker's supply lines, led to his defeat and surrender to the U.S. navy in May, 1857. Considered a hero by many Americans, Walker was again acquitted of violating neutrality, but he then alienated U.S. public opinion by blaming his defeat on the U.S. navy. From the Islas de la Bahía of Honduras, Walker made a final abortive attempt (1860) to conquer Central America but was forced to surrender to the British navy. He was turned over to Honduras and was shot by a firing squad Sept. 12, 1860.

See his own book, War in Nicaragua (1860, repr. 1971); W. O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers (1916, repr. 1969); L. Greene, The Filibuster (1937, repr. 1974); biography by A. H. Carr (1963).

William Walker (May 8, 1824September 12, 1860) was an American filibuster, adventurer, and mercenary who attempted to conquer several Latin American countries in the mid-19th century. He held the presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua from 1856 to 1857 and was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.


Of Scottish descent, Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. His mother was Mary Norvell, the daughter of Lt. Lipscomb Norvell, a Revolutionary War officer who could trace his lineage back to the founding of Williamsburg. Lipscomb was also the father of U.S. Senator John Norvell, one of the first senators of Michigan and founder of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

William Walker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the early age of fourteen. He then traveled throughout Europe, studying medicine at the universities of Edinburgh and Heidelberg. At the age of 19 he received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study law.

After a short stint as a lawyer, Walker became co-owner and editor of the newspaper New Orleans Crescent. In 1849, he moved to San Francisco, California, where he worked as a journalist and fought three duels, in two of which he was wounded. Around that time, Walker conceived the project of privately conquering vast regions of Latin America, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers. Such campaigns were then known as filibustering or freebooting.

Expedition to Mexico

On October 15, 1853, with 45 men, Walker set out on his first filibustering expedition: the conquest of the Mexican territories of Baja California and Sonora. He succeeded in capturing La Paz, the capital of the sparsely populated Baja California, which he declared the capital of a new Republic of Lower California, with himself as president. Although he never gained control of Sonora, less than three months later, he pronounced Baja California part of the larger Republic of Sonora. Lack of supplies and an unexpectedly strong resistance by the Mexican government quickly forced Walker to retreat. Back in California, he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war. In the era of Manifest Destiny, his filibustering project was popular in the southern and western United States and the jury took eight minutes to acquit him.

Conquest of Nicaragua

A civil war was then raging in the Central American republic of Nicaragua. To circumvent U.S. neutrality laws, Walker obtained a contract from President Castellón of the Democratic Party to bring as many as three hundred "colonists" to Nicaragua. The mercenaries received the right to bear arms in the service of the Democratic government. Walker sailed from San Francisco on May 3, 1855 with 60 men. Upon landing, the force was reinforced by 170 locals and about 100 Americans, including then well-known explorer and journalist Charles Wilkins Webber and the English adventurer Charles Frederick Henningsen, a veteran of the First Carlist War, the Hungarian Revolution, and the war in Circassia.

A young man from the Sacramento Union went to Nicaragua to cover the Walker's adventures there. This young man sent back reports that Walker was attempting to set up a slave holding republic in Nicaragua. This young man was sentenced by Walker to death by a firing squad. But he escaped disguised as a woman. This young man would later be known as Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain (see Murder at White Sands).

With Castellón's consent Walker attacked the Legitimists in the town of Rivas, near the trans-isthmian route. On September 1, during the First Battle of Rivas, Walker defeated the Nicaraguan national army at La Virgen. One month later, on October 13, he conquered the capital of Granada and took effective control of the country. Initially, as commander of the army, Walker controlled Nicaragua through puppet president Patricio Rivas. U.S. President Franklin Pierce recognized Walker's regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856.

Walker's agents recruited American and European men to sail to the region and fight for the conquest of the other four Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. He was able to recruit over a thousand American and European mercenaries, many of whom were transported free by the Accessory Transit Company under the control of businessmen Cornelius K. Garrison and Charles Morgan. Walker had proposed his plan earlier to Cornelius Vanderbilt who had extensive business interests in Central America and had formerly controlled the American Transit Company.

At the time, a major trade route between New York City and San Francisco ran through southern Nicaragua. Ships from New York would enter the San Juan River from the Atlantic and sail across Lake Nicaragua. People and goods would then be transported by stagecoach over a narrow strip of land near the city of Rivas, before reaching the Pacific and being shipped to San Francisco. The commercial exploitation of this route had been attained from a previous Nicaraguan administration to Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company. Garrison and Morgan had wrested control of the company from Vanderbilt and then supported Walker's expedition. Vanderbilt then spread rumors that the company was issuing stock illegally in order to depress its value, allowing him to regain controlling interest. As ruler of Nicaragua, Walker then revoked the Transit Company's charter, claiming that it had violated the agreement, and granted use of the route back to Garrison and Morgan.

Outraged, Vanderbilt successfully pressured the U.S. government to withdraw its recognition of Walker's regime. Walker had also scared his neighbors and American and European investors with talk of further military conquests in Central America. Vanderbilt financed and trained a military coalition of these states, led by Costa Rica, and worked to prevent men and supplies from reaching Walker. He also provided defectors from Walker's army with payments and free passage back to the U.S. In April 1856, Costa Rican troops and American mercenaries supported by Vanderbilt penetrated into Nicaraguan territory and inflicted a defeat on Walker's men at the Battle of Rivas, in which Juan Santamaría, later to be recognized as the country's national hero, played a key role.

Walker set himself up as president of Nicaragua, after conducting a farcical election. Walker was inaugurated on July 12, 1856, and soon launched an Americanization program declaring English an official language and reorganizaing currency and fiscal policy to encourage immigration from the United States. Realizing that his position was becoming precarious, he sought support from the Southerners in the U.S. by recasting his campaign as a fight to spread the institution of black slavery, which many American Southern businessmen saw as the basis of their agrarian economy. With this in mind, Walker revoked Nicaragua's emancipation edict of 1824. This move did increase Walker's popularity in the South and attracted the attention of Pierre Soulé, an influential New Orleans politician, who campaigned to raise support for Walker's war. Nevertheless, Walker's army, thinned by an epidemic of cholera and massive defections, was no match for the Central American coalition and Vanderbilt's agents.

Returned by the U.S. Navy

On May 1, 1857, Walker surrendered to Commander Charles Henry Davis of the United States Navy and was repatriated. Upon disembarking in New York City, he was greeted as a hero, but he alienated public opinion when he blamed his defeat on the U.S. Navy. Within six months, he set off on another expedition, but he was arrested by the U.S. Navy Home Squadron under the command of Commodore Hiram Paulding and once again returned to the U.S. amid considerable public controversy over the legality of the Navy's actions.

Death in Honduras

After writing an account of his Central American campaign (published in 1860 as War in Nicaragua), Walker once again returned to the region. He disembarked in the port city of Trujillo, in the Republic of Honduras, but soon fell into the custody of Captain Salmon of the Royal Navy. The British government controlled the neighboring regions of British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast (now part of Nicaragua) and had considerable strategic and economic interest in the construction of an inter-oceanic canal through Central America. It therefore regarded Walker as a menace to its own affairs in the region.

Rather than return him to the U.S., Capt. Salmon delivered Walker to the Honduran authorities, who executed him near the site of the present-day hospital by firing squad on September 12, 1860. Walker was 36 years old. He is buried in the Cementerio Viejo in the coastal town of Trujillo, Colón.

Influence and reputation

William Walker convinced many Southerners of the desirability of creating a slave-holding empire in tropical Latin America. In 1861, when U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed that the 36°30' parallel north be declared as a line of demarcation between free and slave territories, some Republicans denounced such an arrangement, saying that it "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and State owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego.

Before the end of the American Civil War, Walker's memory enjoyed great popularity in the southern and western United States, where he was known as "General Walker" and as the "grey-eyed man of destiny." Northerners, on the other hand, generally regarded him as a pirate. Despite his intelligence and personal charm, Walker consistently proved to be a limited military and political leader. Unlike men of a similar vein such as Cecil Rhodes, Walker's grandiose scheming struggled and ultimately failed, thus affording less esteem and respect.

In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856-1857 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced. April 11 is a Costa Rican national holiday in memory of Walker's defeat at Rivas. Juan Santamaría, who played a key role in that battle, is honored as the Costa Rican national hero.

Although Walker is far better known today in Central America than he is the United States, he does have a number of interesting ties to Nashville, Tennessee, the city of his birth. He was a close friend of Dr. John Berrien Lindsley, who had been his classmate at both the University of Nashville and at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Lindsley succeeded his father, Phillip Lindsley, as head of the University of Nashville in 1855, and later founded Montgomery Bell Academy, a secondary school tied to the university. The University of Nashville failed to recover from the U.S. Civil War and closed its doors after Lindsley resigned as its chancellor in 1870. In 1873, it was succeeded by Vanderbilt University, an institution funded by a gift from Walker's nemesis, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Locally, Walker is remembered as the only native Nashvillian ever to become a head of state, and a historical marker commemorates his birthplace, downtown not far from Second Avenue.

Cultural references

Walker's campaign has inspired two films, both of which take considerable liberties with his story: Burn! (1969) starring Marlon Brando, and Walker (1987) starring Ed Harris. Walker's name is used for the main character in Burn!, though the character is not meant to represent the historical William Walker.

By coincidence, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 to 1992 was named William G. Walker, a fact that led to derision among some Central Americans.

In his sci fi/time travel trilogy that begins with Island in the Sea of Time, writer S. M. Stirling gave the name William Walker to the main antagonist of the series, a U. S. Coast Guard Lieutenant who goes renegade and uses the technological advantages of coming from the future to carve his own empire out of Bronze Age Europe and the Middle East.

In the role-playing game GURPS' book Alternate Earths, one of the alternate Earths mentioned has its point of divergence in the moment where Walker decided to revoke Vanderbilt's Transit Company's charter. In this alternate Earth, Walker decides to support it, and as a result he remains as the president of Nicaragua, conquers most of Central America and supports the Confederacy in the American Civil War, which ends with the victory of the South and the official secession of the United States of America into two different countries.


  • Walker, William. The War in Nicaragua. New York: S.H. Goetzel, 1860.

See also


Secondary sources

  • Carr, Albert Z. The World and William Walker, 1963.
  • Dando-Collins, Stephen. Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer (2008) excerpt and text search
by Richard Harding Davis; from Project Gutenberg

  • McPherson,James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 1988.
  • 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.
  • Moore, J. Preston. “Pierre Soule: Southern Expansionist and Promoter,” Journal of Southern History 21:2 (May, 1955), 208 & 214.
  • "1855: American Conquistador," American Heritage, October 2005.
  • Scroggs, William O. Filibusters and Financiers. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916.
  • Recko, Corey. "Murder at White Sands." University of North Texas Press. 2007

Primary sources

  • Doubleday, C.W. Reminiscences of the Filibuster War in Nicaragua. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1886.
  • Jamison, James Carson. With Walker in Nicaragua: Reminiscences of an Officer of the American Phalanx. Columbia, MO: E.W. Stephens, 1909.
  • Wight, Samuel F. Adventures in California and Nicaragua: a Truthful Epic. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1860.
  • Fayssoux Collection. Tulane University. Latin American Library.
  • United States Magazine. Sept., 1856. Vol III No. 3. pp. 266–72
  • “Filibustering”, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine (New York), April 1857, 425–35.
  • “Walker’s Reverses in Nicaragua,” Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 17, 1856.
  • “The Lesson” National Era, June 4, 1857, 90.
  • “The Administration and Commodore Paulding,” National Era, January 7, 1858.
  • “Wanted — A Few Filibusters,” Harper’s Weekly, January 10, 1857.
  • “Reception of Gen. Walker,” New Orleans Picayune, May 28, 1857.
  • “Arrival of Walker,” New Orleans Picayune, May 28, 1857.
  • “Our Influence in the Isthmus,” New Orleans Picayune, February 17, 1856.
  • New Orleans Sunday Delta, June 27, 1856.
  • “Nicaragua and President Walker,” Louisville Times, December 13, 1856.
  • “Le Nicaragua et les Filibustiers,” Opelousas Courier, May 10, 1856.
  • “What is to Become of Nicaragua?,” Harper’s Weekly, June 6, 1857.
  • “The Late General Walker,” Harper’s Weekly, October 13, 1860.
  • “What General Walker is Like,” Harper’s Weekly, September, 1856.
  • “Message of the President to the Senate in Reference to the Late Arrest of Gen. Walker,” Louisville Courier, January 12, 1858.
  • “The Central American Question — What Walker May Do,” New York Times, January 1, 1856.
  • “A Serious Farce,” New York Times, December 14, 1853.
  • 1856–57 New York Herald Horace Greeley editorials.

External links

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