The Man Who Would Be King: William Walker’s Invasion of Nicaragua
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when the international military intervention of the United States was condemned at home, while invited abroad. Well, maybe not invited, but long ago a U.S. presence was at least tolerated for a time before the native populace realized that their “liberators” were imperialists simply by another name. The 1850s were different in that way. Different in that an American leading an armed column could march upon a foreign nation, assume control of its capital, declare himself president and still be welcomed as a liberator—at least for a short while.
The man was William Walker and the nation, Nicaragua, only recently freed from Spain. 1 The country both needed and disdained such a revolutionary cavalier. 2 It’s easy now to revisit William Walker’s conquest of Nicaragua as little more than a mercenary venture scarcely different from the Sandline Intl. Scandal of the 21st century and similarly greed driven. But to do that is a cynical act of presentism. William Walker’s 19th century was different. Historians have cast a critical eye upon the United States’ myriad imperial excursions, and insofar as it’s acknowledged, William Walker’s character has been reduced from that of knight errant in his time to “glorified mercenary” today. Yet, such a reduction of Walker’s historical record is inaccurate. The man who survives via his own writing, and the accounts of others is complex, and motivated by far more than greed—his ambitions were romantic, his convictions zealotus and his ethics classical. To call the man who revolutionized Nicaragua, and in his own way unified the Central American isthmus a mercenary is to ignore the essence of William Walker.
mid-19th Century Nicaragua
The Nicaragua of the 1850s that gained independence from Spanish rule in 1821 was one wracked with internal tumult. 3 Nicaragua’s mountainous spine presented enormous administration difficulties in the newly freed nation so literally divided, that communication between the coasts of a country no larger than Missouri proved next to non-existent. 4 Attempts to create a Central American Federation among Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua sputtered along from 1826 until 1838 until the pressures and divisions among the five nations proved too great for centralized rule. 5 Thirty-three years after Nicaragua declared independence, the isthmus had made little progress toward a consolidated national government or collective national identity.
Nicaragua’s 1853 election for Supreme Director resulted in a contested victory for conservative candidate Fruto Chamorro and the disenfranchisement of the nation’s liberal party (represented by candidate Francisco Castellón). After he won, Chamorro relocated the capital city from Leon (the liberal capital) to Granada on the Caribbean coast. Chamorro then dissolved the people’s assembly, and began to hack away at the constitution of 1838—turning his office into a dictatorship. 6 Castellon’s democrats in Leon refused to submit to a dictator, and took up arms to defend their cause, plunging the nation into civil war. 7 It is against this chaotic backdrop that William Walker made his foray into Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan Rebels Invite Walker’s Intervention
Although the democratic rebels won some minor victories at the outset of the war, soon after it became apparent that the conservative (henceforth Legitimist) forces, already in control of the southern half of the country and entrenched in Granada, could not be easily defeated. 8 The democrats (rightly) feared that the Legitimists might enlist the aid of the British, who favored the more stable oligarchy (and thus economy) that Legitimist rule offered. The Democrats’ fortunes were rapidly fading and thus prompted Castellon to seek aid from the place with men most likely to offer it—the United States. 9
The faltering prospects of the Democrats could hardly have found a better man to recover their position than the one writing for San Francisco newspaper publisher, Byron Cole, an avid imperialist. Cole described the Nicaraguan situation to his young employee, William Walker. Cole (as well as most of California) had read about Walker’s failed attempts to conquer (or as Walker himself suggested—”reorganize”) Baja California just a few years prior. 10 Undeterred by his earlier failure, Walker’s imagination latched onto the possibilities that such an unstable country, rich in resources, could offer the intrepid.
Any further convincing that Walker needed to embark for Nicaragua came in the form of a “contract for colonization” from President Castellon, which promised land and spoils to as many as three hundred American colonists who would come to Nicaragua under the democratic government. 11 Walker hastily set about the task of recruiting men, acquiring supplies, and securing transport from San Francisco to Nicaragua. Less than a year later in May of 1855, Walker and his fifty-eight “Immortals,” as the U.S. press dubbed them, boarded the Vesta and set sail to liberate Nicaragua.
Make no mistake, Walker set forth from port to liberate, not conquer. Having grown up reading the epics of Sir Walter Scott, Walker the man was as idealistic as Walker the boy had been. Slight at 5’5 and just 130 pounds, Walker grew up idolizing the hardy knights of the Medieval stories and myths he read. 12 Buoyed by a romantic understanding of the world’s justice, Walker left the U.S. for France to pursue a career in medicine that he might someday return to Nashville and cure his ailing mother. 13 Betrayed by his expectations following his beloved mother’s death, Walker moved to New Orleans to study law and met the woman he believed to be his true love.
Ellen Martin, a beautiful deaf-mute (an apt match for the quiet Walker), arrested Walker’s attentions and reciprocated his love. A date was set for the wedding in 1849, but death’s cruel hand in the form of cholera tore Ellen Martin from Walker just prior to their nuptials. 14 After this devastation, Walker’s early idealism was matched with a sense of recklessness that only true loss can bring. Walker headed west to California, where he found solace in journalism and purpose in filibustering. Two failed private military ventures into Mexican California, successive trials, and an honorable duel later, Walker was headed to Nicaragua to “regenerate” the backwards country into a republic—with fifty-eight soldiers of fortune. 15
A Hero’s Welcome
In June 1855, Walker landed in Nicaragua already a hero. The Democrats’ situation was dire as Legitimist forces crept ever closer; as a result, an incipient Castellon greeted the Walker effusively, disgusting the American immediately. 16 Walker delighted, however, in the difficulty of the situation for it would make his impending success that much more impressive. 17 Even as Walker’s men were resting at Leon after their arduous journey, a Legitimist force of 1,000 men was in the process of mustering just south of Leon, at Managua. 18 Granada (the nearby Legitimist capital) was also well-garrisoned and posed a secondary threat to the Leon’s Democrats. Additional troops were impressed into Legitimist army service across nearly all of Nicaragua. Despite the terrible odds, Walker, in an act that would characterize his entire time in Nicaragua, chose the path of first aggression. 19
Two weeks after landing at Leon, Walker and his fifty-eight men, along with one hundred Democrat troops sailed for Rivas to take control of the Transit Road. 20 William immediately attempted to take the entrenched Legitimist position along the road in a frontal assault, and then watched with contempt as his native contingent fled when the first shots were fired. 21 Undeterred, Walker tried twice more to take the city of Rivas, before retreating to Leon. As the fifty remaining Immortals made their retreat, a straggler set fire among some Rivas residences to cover Walker’s retreat. Back in Leon, Walker famously executed the man for plundering—William Walker’s “Immortals” were liberators, not pirates. 22
Walker’s sense of honor and constitution manifested itself throughout his war in Nicaragua. Shortly after his defeat at Rivas, a Legitimist force of 600 men under the Honduran General Santos “the Butcher” Guardiola pinned Walker’s force against Lake Nicaragua. 23 Guardiola prominently vowed to “drive the gringos into the lake.” 24 Walker and his 50 Americans and 120 Nicaraguans fortified ad hoc positions and offered fierce resistance. Though wounded in the throat, Walker continually exposed himself to enemy fire inspiring his men to fight on. 25 When the dust settled, over 60 Legitimist troops were killed while not a single American perished.
“The Butcher” bid a hasty retreat. Though any soldier that Guardiola captured was assured a painful death, Walker confused his Nicaraguan allies when he order that his surgeons treat Legitimist wounded as well as his own men. 26 Shortly after his victory, cholera loomed over Walker’s life again, this time as President Castellon succumbed to the disease while Walker’s troops celebrated the recent victory. 27
With Castellon dead, and the death of another important Democratic party leader, by default,Walker became the most powerful personality among the Democrats in Nicaragua. With a recent influx of volunteers from San Francisco,Walker’s force swelled to 250 men. Through force of will and good fortune Walker was positioned to fill the power vacuum that emerged in Nicaragua. In October of 1855,Walker, maintaining the offensive, sailed a contingent of his troops down to Granada.
Victory in the Isthmus
Under cover of darkness, William Walker led his men into the heart of Granada surprised the Legitimist forces there and compelled them to unconditionally surrender. 28 Not even a year into his Nicaraguan campaign, Walker had completed a brilliant military maneuver which gave him de facto control of Nicaragua. Though the locals wished to name him president, Walker declined and came to terms with the Legitimist forces and a moderate conservative President (Rivas) was inaugurated with Walker as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. 29 During the next year, Walker recruited additional troops, and worked to stamp out the remanding Legitimist supporters.
Walker’s perceived power grabbing alienated the newly appointed moderate President Rivas. When asked to leave the nation by moderate conservatives (many of whom were former Legitimists), Walker responded, “I remain, and I govern.” 30 In June of 1856, William Walker was “elected” president of Nicaragua by a “landslide.” Though raucous cheers greeted Walker as he gave his inaugural address in Granada (in English), elsewhere in the Republic of Nicaragua and across much of Latin America, fears that Walker would seek to extend his rule to Nicaragua’s neighbors raised opposition to Walker’s new government. 31
Back home he was a hero in plays and many newspapers, but Walker’s audacity failed to garner him any support from the U.S. government. Walker’s errors in governance were that of a true idealist—he wanted to revolutionize Nicaragua, employing the country’s natural resources for organized agriculture, manufacturing, and trade. Problems arose, as it became apparent that wealthy Nicaraguans were in no mood for an industrial revolution of sorts, and the underclass only wanted their basic needs satisfied. The poorer class might rise up and overthrow an oppressive government, but “as soon as the new government was established, it in turn became their enemy, for it represented a hated power of law.” 32 Walker wished progress upon a country satisfied with the status quo.
Reversal of Fortune
Walker’s attempts at regenerating Nicaragua as President stirred up significant resistance in the form of an allied force of soldiers from each of the five Central American countries. The Central American Allies had a comparatively constant flow of reinforcements and a series of battles took its toll on Walker’s already small force. 33 Walker’s Immortals were in perpetual retreat throughout the remainder of 1856 up until Walker’s surrender in May of 1857.
Walker returned to America broken, and his troops straggled back into port a diseased, hungry mess behind him. Walker received a hero’s welcome, but that too withered everywhere except the southern states. 34 With the American Civil War approaching, Walker appealed to Southern sensibilities suggesting that with proper support his return to Nicaragua could usher into the union additional slave states in the form of the conquered Central American republics. Walker’s presence was commanding enough that over the next two years (and countless speaking engagements), he was able to garner financial support for one more Central American campaign. It would be his last undertaking. 35
William Walker learned that Honduras was in the midst of a revolution of its own and that exiled president Trinidad Cabanas was fighting to regain power through small-scale military action. Walker saw Cabanas as the facilitator for his entry back into Central American politics. Walker planned for his new army (100 strong) to sail to Honduras, take a Honduran fortress (Truxillo), establish a base there, seek out the exiled Cabanas, restore him to power, ally forces, then conquer the rest of Central America, and establish Walker as dictator of the new federation. 36
The line between visionary idealist and self-righteous soldier seduced by power’s allure had likely been crossed. Walker’s troops made their way to Honduras and did successfully take Truxillo by storm. However, Walker’s supplies dwindled rapidly as his army holed up in the old fort and couriers were sent in all directions to find Cabanas and his band of followers. 37 To make matters worse, a British war vessel arrived at Truxillo seeking reimbursement for supplies and monies illegally taken from the town’s customhouse. Not long after, the Honduran army arrived and surrounded the fort.
The possibility of surrender seemingly never occurred to Walker. 38Rather than acquiesce, Walker led a column of sixty-five survivors out from the fort in darkness and marched into the jungle in search of Cabanas. 39 The march was a desperate affair marred by disease and skirmishes with the Hondurans. Rather than finding Cabanas, Walker’s army found a British detachment to which a bedraggled Walker reluctantly surrendered. Walker had landed at Truxillo with 100 men, slipped out from under the Honduran siege with 65 soldiers, and surrendered following his desperate jungle march having only 31 men in his service—all of them wounded or sick with fever. The British troops escorted the meager remains of the army to the steamship Icarus. 40
The soldiery, having claimed their citizenship as Americans would be transported safely to their homeland. Walker, when asked to declare his citizenry to the British captain, responded as follows, “I am the William Walker, President of Nicaragua.” 41 Walker remained firm in his convictions and the British turned the “President” over to the Honduran forces, much to the dismay of Walker’s army. 42 William Walker’s ambitious plan for a Central American federation under American rule died along with him on September 12, 1860 in front of a Honduran firing squad. 43
Epilogue and Legacy
One might surmise that Walker’s legacy is that of an imperial agent who ingloriously left a bloody trail of destruction across Central America. However, prior to his capture and execution, Walker did enact measures of progress in overturning a corrupt Nicaraguan government backed by British Support. In its stead, Walker placed himself atop a precarious “empire,” and enacted minor reforms which ended oppressive measures (most important of which to the native populace was the abolition of compulsory military service).
Although some have tried to juxtapose Walker with U.S. involvement in Nicaragua in the early 20th century and again in the 1980s (Reagan’s Contras), such comparisons are inappropriate. 44 For one, Walker acted completely independently of the United States government—often the U.S. was a hindrance to his aims, not an aid. 45 Second, Walker’s exact goals have been clouded by his desperate search for support following his first expulsion from Nicaragua. Walker, an ardent abolitionist (as evidenced by the many anti-slavery editorials he wrote prior to his filibustering), had to reverse his position to attract support from those who still remained sympathetic to his cause after 1857. Unlike the United States’ later interventions in Nicaragua which were intended to control the country’s direction and vital interests, Walker’s invasion intended to foster a dramatic restructuring of the nation from within. Walker wished to direct the country as its government, not by influencing its government. 46
If anything, Walker’s attempt to “regenerate” Nicaragua is another prime example of how a revolution cannot be forced upon a country where the people do not actively desire it. Walker failed to recognize that the Nicaraguans’ indifference to their government remained only so long as the governance did not seek to drastically alter the average person’s everyday life. Essentially,Walker made the same mistake of inducing rapid change that Fruto Chumurro—the very man whose policy had fostered dissent great enough for the Nicaraguans to seek Walker’s aid in 1854—had made while he was in power.
Though Walker’s goal of a Central American Federation never materialized, Walker’s presence in Nicaragua brought one of the first unifying influences to a region devoid of national identity since the Spanish had conquered it centuries prior. Walker’s tiny army at one point threatened to conquer all of Central America, if allowed to act with impunity. 47 Without the threat Walker posed, Central American leaders may never have united and surely would have been susceptible to a stronger outside interest and succumbed to a more expedient force. Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua united to capture the “grey-eyed man of destiny.” The resulting cooperation and success established an identity that had gone missing. The “War with Walker,” became a point of national pride for the countries involved. Costa Rica went so far as to build a monument to their newly minted national hero, Juan Santamaria, a soldier whose musket failed him, but in an act of defiance picked up a rock and continued fighting to his death against Walker’s soldiers at the battle of Santa Rosa. 48
Walker is mostly forgotten in the United States, yet his name remains well-known in Central America. Following his war, Walker’s name became synonymous with the evils of foreign incursion and American imperialism. Not only did his attempt to conquer the isthmus foster national identities in the Central American countries, but it also created (perhaps rightfully so) serious suspicion of the United States. After the war and well into recent memory, Central America has remained a focus of foreign interests. As a result, U.S. intervention following Walker’s War has been met with increasing resentment. From outright occupation (1909-1934) in an attempt to build a canal, to quieter support for the Somoza dictatorship (and repressive conservativism), and subsequent support for the Contras of the 1980s, the U.S. has been unable to disentangle itself from Nicaragua ever since William Walker landed on the country’s shores at the head of a column of 58 Immortals.
Regardless of the presentist view of Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua and its legacy, what cannot be denied is that the group of men that served under him (perhaps because they served under him), were much more than pirates or mercenaries and that nearly every man believed in Walker’s vision whatever it may have been at a given moment (such was the force of his personality). To this end General Charles Henningsen, an English born military scientist, strategist, filibuster, and later, a Confederate officer would have this to say of the “Immortals”:
I have often seen them marching with a broken or compound-fractured arm in splints, and using the other to fire their rifle or revolver. Those with a fractured thigh, or wounds which rendered them incapable of removal, often (or, rather, in early times, always) shot themselves, sooner than fall into the hands of the enemy. Such men, do not turn up in the average of every-day life, nor do I ever expect to see their like again. I was on the Confederate side in many of the bloodiest battles of the late war; but I aver that if, at the end of that war, I had been allowed to pick five thousand of the bravest Confederate or Federal soldiers I ever saw, and could resurrect and pit against them one thousand of such men as lie beneath the orange trees of Nicaragua, I feel certain that the thousand would have scattered and utterly routed the five thousand within an hour. All military science failed, on a suddenly given field, before assailants who came on at a run, to close with their revolvers, and who thought little of charging a battery, pistol in hand. 49
- Rudy Wurlitzer, Walker. 1 ed.New York: Harper and Row, 1987, 147-148. ↩
- It is easy today to dismiss the romantic notions that many southerners held in the mid-19th century, but it is well-documented that William Walker grew up on the chivalric works of Malory and Sir Walter Scott, see Wurlitzer, 65-66.
This romantic notion of chivalry and valor should not be so readily dismissed when scholars examine the motivations of both Walker and his “Immortals”—so mythologically named by U.S. papers. Regardless of what the reality of their actions may have been, and how misguided their self-perceptions seem today, personal accounts testify to the fact that many of the men saw themselves as knights and liberators, see James Carson Jamison, With Walker in Nicaragua, or Reminiscences of an officer of the American phalanx, 1 ed. Columbia, MO: E.W. Stephens Publishing Co., 1909, 7, 11-13. Some of the men under Walker (even his trusted officers like Doubleday) were struck by such romantic notions of liberation that they deserted Walker once it became apparent that he sought to create an empire. Charles William Doubleday, Reminiscences of the War in Nicaragua,New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Co., 1886. ↩
- Nicaragua: a country study, 3 ed. Area Handbooks, Merrill. Washington D.C.: Headquarters of the Department of the Army, 1995, 10-12. Mexico, however, attempted to assert control over Central America until 1823, when the nations of Central America formally declared their independence from Mexico. Nicaragua, 12. ↩
- “Filibustering,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American literature, science and art, 9. 52 (1857), 426-427. ↩
- Luciano Baracco,Nicaragua – the Imagining of a Nation – from Nineteenth-century Liberals to Twentieth-century Sandinistas,New York: Algora Publishing, 2005, 31. ↩
- Baracco, 32-33. ↩
- Nicaragua, 14. ↩
- Frederic Rosengarten, Freebooters Must Die! Wayne, PA: Haverford House, 1976, 73-4. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 149-150. ↩
- William Walker, The War in Nicaragua, Tucson:University of Arizona Press, 1985, 22-24. ↩
- Though it was a contract for “colonization,” Castellon expected little more than a force of American mercenaries. The language of the document was to provide protection for Walker so as not to violate U.S. neutrality laws of the time. Rosengarten, 71, 75. ↩
- Jamison, 18. Wurlitzer, 65-66. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 66-7. ↩
- Rosengarten, 8-9. ↩
- Rosengarten, 37-56, 75. ↩
- Walker, 39-40. ↩
- Like other great leaders, Walker hungered for challenges so that he might earn greater glory. Walker’s ambition is less that of Caesar in The Commentarrii de Bello Gallico, wherein Caesar greatly exaggerates the size of enemy forces in return for greater esteem and respect in Rome’s political arena, whereas Walker’s hunger is religious—like that of a devotee must test his faith to prove. So it is with Walker, having failed before, he must prove it was not his deficiency—the best way to prove his leadership is to enter it into a crucible. It is keeping with what we know about Walker, that he should desire such trials, since from his youth too, one might conclude that Walker was attempting to match the legendary exploits of the iconic Arthurian tales from his youth. ↩
- Rosengarten, 80-83. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 149-150. ↩
- Prior to the Panama Canal’s construction, the Transit Road offered the fastest (and essentially main) means to cross the country. People traveling from the Caribbean to the Pacific (or vice-versa) would disembark and follow the “road,” at times traveling by carriage, riverboat, steamship (across Lake Nicaragua), and later railroad to reach the other coast and another ship. ↩
- Jamison, 28. ↩
- Rosengarten, 85-87. Jamison, 33-35. ↩
- Doubleday, 156-157. ↩
- Rosengarten, 90. ↩
- Doubleday, 160-162. ↩
- Walker, 96. ↩
- Rosengarten, 92. ↩
- Jamison, 42-43. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 166-167. ↩
- Rosengarten, 138. ↩
- Rosengarten, 139-140. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 167. ↩
- “The Filibustering Career of William Walker.” New York Daily Times (1851-1857), May 30, 1857, 4. ↩
- “The Piratical Tonson,” New York Times (1857-Current file), June 25, 1859, 4. ↩
- Rosengarten, 180-181. ↩
- Rosengarten, 196-199. ↩
- Jamison, 167-8. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 263-264. ↩
- Jamison, 169-172. ↩
- Wurlitzer, 266-7. ↩
- Jamison, 174. ↩
- Doubleday, 217-218; Jamison, 176-179. ↩
- Rosengarten, 208. ↩
- For one such infamous example of such an attempt at comparison, see 1987’s Walker, directed by Alex Cox and widely panned not only for its poor attempt at a political messaging, but also for being a terrible movie so rife with propaganda and arrogant inaccuracy that it is almost unwatchable. ↩
- “Filibustering,” 429. ↩
- “Filibustering.” The anti-slavery article was obviously written ignorant of the fact that Walker’s writing prior to his ventures into Nicaragua espoused abolition. ↩
- “The Central American Question–What Walker May Do,” New York Daily Times (1851- 1857), January 1, 1856, 4. ↩
- Rosengarten, 132-134. ↩
- Jeffrey James Roche, The story of the Filibusters: To which is added the life of Colonel David Crockett, London: T.F. Unwin Co., 1891, 153. ↩