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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.