The Weird Adventures of William Walker #2

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

The gray-eyed man of destiny, child prodigy turned doctor turned lawyer turned newspaper man turned adventurer found defeat in his first filibustering expedition. Desertion, starvation, lack of supplies, and approaching Mexican troops drove him from his Republic of Sonora, née the Republic of Lower California, in May of 1854. A San Francisco jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of violating the Neutrality Act, which outlawed things like taking a private army into a foreign country. In the jury’s defense, Walker had only done precisely that.

Thus chastened, Walker gave up on filibustering. He couldn’t depend on juries always thinking him a hero and celebrating the acts for which they acquitted him, so no more freelance invading of foreign countries. Instead, Walker would invade countries that invited him in. That left him with relatively few avenues for advance on the Mexican frontier, but Central America in the 1850s offered him other opportunities.

The Gold Rush heavily populated California, but did much less to grow the populations of the vast spaces of the Mexican Cession. Without so much as a railroad there, the trip to the West Coast proved long and arduous. Reaching California quickly usually meant sailing from an Eastern or Gulf coast port to Central America, crossing there by road or rail, and taking a second ship up the Pacific coast. That roundabout route proved sufficiently lucrative to draw Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the Accessory Transit Company to ply the trade through Nicaragua, which had the advantage of a closer location than Panama. The nation had a tropical climate where one could easily grow cotton, as well as crops more marginal in the chilly American South: coffee and sugar. Commerce, agriculture, and national interest all aligned on Nicaragua.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

The same facts might hold for other Central American nations, but Nicaragua had a civil war on top of it which paved the way for a man of destiny to meet his fate. The fact that the nation had gone through fifteen presidents in six years made the kind of rhetoric about spreading the benefits of American civilization all the more plausible. Walker contacted the current band of rebels via a friend and signed a contract with them to gather up an expedition and hire on for the cause. With that kind of invitation, he could hardly violate the Neutrality Act. Even if Washington would otherwise take issue with him, Walker went to support the anti-British rebel faction in a time of increasing Anglo-American tensions. He even had the backing of Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company. In those circumstances, why not allow a deniable expedition the benefit of official indifference?

In May, 1855, just a year after the collapse of his Republic of Sonora, Walker and fifty-seven men dubbed “the immortals” set sail from San Francisco. On arrival, Walker demanded and got an independent command that he initially bungled. But then in a stroke of luck, the rebels’ leader and chief general both died in short order. That left Walker the senior man on the ground. He commandeered an Accessory Transit steamboat and used it to outflank and seize the opposition’s capital, Granada. Walker than accepted their surrender and formed a coalition government with his defeated foes and a figurehead president, taking for himself control of Nicaragua’s military. Later he executed the opposition leaders in his government and made himself president. Pierce recognized the new president’s government in May, 1856.

Walker’s success drew thousands of Americans into the country, hundreds taking up land grants. A bilingual newspaper promoted Nicaraguan settlement and Walker recruited also among those passing through the nation on their way to California. Why wouldn’t they come? Nicaragua offered free or cheap land to stake out new plantations. If it had abolished slavery thirty years previous, who cared? That just left the land open to establish a new slave society free from local competition. Nicaragua offered everything Cuba did and more.

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