William Walker took Nicaragua and opened it to land-hungry Americans eager to find their fortunes along the path between the oceans. He owed his success in part to the good fortune of the two senior authorities on his side in the Nicaraguan civil war dying and in part to the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company. By May of 1856, Walker’s regime even had the diplomatic recognition of the United States, something his past adventure in Mexico never managed.
Walker’s support from the Accessory Transit Company initially came from the top. Vanderbilt paid passage for his expedition to Nicaragua. The nation owed the company a disputed amount of money and Vanderbilt wanted the dispute resolved in his favor. What better way to do so than to buy the government? But even in the nineteenth century, corporations often graduated to more than the private fiefdoms of one investor. Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison intrigued to remove Vanderbilt from the company and make it their own. To help them, they had an old friend of Walker’s from his New Orleans and California days, Edmund Randolph. (This Randolph had the revolutionary-era Virginian of the same name for a grandfather.)
Randolph helped Walker prepare his expedition and then helped to reinforce it later on top of his personal relationship to the gray-eyed man of destiny. When he bent Walker’s ear, Nicaragua’s new president soon decided that the Accessory Transit Company had violated its charter. So Walker revoked it, confiscated the company’s property, and prepared to draw up a new charter for Morgan and Garrison which would transfer all that property to them. In return, they promised help for his regime.
Walker needed the help. Vanderbilt did not take the seizure of his lucrative business lightly. He dispatched two men with a detailed plan for how to dispose of Walker’s regime to neighboring Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans needed little persuading to join up with Vanderbilt. Walker had openly talked about further Central American conquests and they had only a line on the map between them and Walker’s army. Catching wind of Vanderbilt’s and Costa Rica’s designs upon him, Walker declared war in February, 1856, and launched a preemptive invasion of Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans surrounded Walker’s army and defeated it in its camp at Santa Rosa on March 20, in all of fourteen minutes. In April, they followed up with an invasion of Nicaraguan territory.
The defeat at Santa Rosa, culminating with Walker’s commander in the field simply running away, shook the filibuster and he drew his forces up into the north of his stolen country, where he thought the Costa Ricans planned to get behind him. Instead they took the city of Rivas, site of Walker’s initial Nicaraguan defeat. Walker came back south to retake it but the Costa Ricans prevailed on April 11, 1856. Walker’s figurehead president promptly deserted him for the other side.
With his fortunes failing, Walker rigged a shame election to make himself president of Nicaragua and then adopted a sudden Americanization program, making English the official language and rearranging policy to induce more American investment and settlement. He also explicitly declared himself for slavery, revoking the laws that abolished it in Central America on September 22. He thus won greater popularity in the South in exchange for greater opprobrium from the North. No less an expansionist than Pierre Soulé declared for Walker, working to secure him loans from New Orleans banks in line with the French revolutionary’s personal beliefs and the lately adopted plank of the 1856 Democratic Party, which Soulé wrote, calling for American supremacy in the Gulf of Mexico.
Walker’s support came from more than just the Southern elite. Ships full of men arrived over the winter, signing on just in time to meet a cholera outbreak. With his army defeated and disease-ravaged, beset by Costa Ricans to the south and Hondurans to the north, Walker surrendered his army to a convenient Navy captain and sailed with him to New Orleans and a hero’s welcome.
Update: A previous version of this post erroneously had Walker’s final destination as New York.