“Wait, who’s our president? What?”
~Residents of Nicaragua in the 1850s
Not all Americans were heroes, and not all Americans who did things that initially come off as badass were actually badass. What we’re trying to say is, there’s a lot of Manifest Destiny stuff that went down in the 1800s that doesn’t exactly sit well with history that many of us might not be aware of, but it is possible to at least talk about the impressive brazenness behind certain actions without condoning them.
For example—did you know that an American was briefly president of Nicaragua for about a year in the 1850s? That’s pretty interesting, isn’t it? Oh, what’s that? Uh, why did that happen? Oh, well….heeeeeee sort of wanted to take over most of Central America and turn it into a slave state affiliated with the American South. So. Yeah. Not the greatest reason. But still, interesting! Let’s talk about it!
William Walker: Not THAT Kind of Filibuster
When you hear the word “Filibuster” you think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (or you might recognize it’s working title “white man won’t let anyone else talk in order to make sure the government isn’t able to do anything”), but there is a second definition that largely was used in the 1850s. At that time, a filibuster was a soldier who acted without permission or blessing from their own government. They usually would focus on financial gain, the furthering of a political agenda or, sometimes, just the pure thrill of fighting in a foreign country with no government to report to. The term primarily applies to Americans who tried to start insurrections in Latin America during the 19th century—it technically can refer to anyone going off on their own at any point in history, but the word gets very little use currently in this form.
The term was derived from the Spanish word, filibustero, which itself was based on the Dutch word for “privateer” or “pirate.” Its use in English peaked in the mid-19th century to describe the actions of the handful of Americans who decided to partake in a little unofficial warmongering, one of the most well-known of which was William Walker, the tiny man with some big ideas (most of which were racist) whose lasting legacy rests in being in the fact that his defeat is largely considered the most successful military campaign ever waged by Costa Rica, which you might recognize as a country that doesn’t currently have a standing military.
You might as well make your slogan “We Probably Trust Our Neighbors Too Much.”
William Walker was born on May 8th, 1824 in Nashville, Tennessee. His family was moderately well connected, but not overly so—his most famous family member was his uncle John Norvell, a Michigan Senator who also founded The Philadelphia Inquirer. He graduated from the University of Nashville summa cum laude at the age of 14, in case you want to be reminded that higher education used to be a lot different, and managed to get a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 19, at which point he decided to study law in New Orleans, where he became a lawyer and then the co-owner and editor of the New Orleans Crescent.
He continued his career as a journalist, moving to San Francisco in 1849 at the age of 25, where he fought in three duels, two of which he was wounded in. If you might have the impression that he managed to piss people off while not being particularly good at fighting, well, you’d probably be right. Hell, considering how impossibly inaccurate dueling pistols were at the time, and that he was only five feet and two inches tall, his duel-to-getting-shot ratio makes it seem like some divine being itself loved watching him get shot. This would not be the last time that would happen.
To be fair, he had a pretty punchable face.
Soon, Walker came up with an idea—he should conquer vast regions of Latin America to create slave states to join with the southern states of the United States. This wasn’t an idea tied to Confederate Civil War effort—spoilers, he would not live to see the beginning of what he’d no doubt have referred to as the War Between The States—but rather, a general desire to, we don’t know, have more slave states in America, because he really liked slavery and we’re not here to try to claim this guy was a good person since he clearly wasn’t?
His first attempt involved traveling to Mexico, where he wanted to create a colony centered in Guaymas (part of the state Sonora in northwestern Mexico) with the stated goal to protect US soil from Indian raids. Mexico not surprisingly responded to the request with a resounding, “Um, no, you can’t just show up in our country and ask us to give you some land to create a colony, why did you even think that would work?” Figuring, if at first you don’t succeed, recruit a bunch of people and take shit by force, he gathered 45 men (mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee) with the goal of setting up a buffer colony called the Republic of Sonora which hopefully would follow in the footsteps of the Republic of Texas and join the American Union.
With his small band of men, on October 15th, 1853, he captured La Paz, the capital of the, at the time, very sparsely populated Baja California. He declared La Paz the capital of the “Republic of Lower California” with himself as the president, setting up the area under the laws of Louisiana (because Louisiana allowed slavery). He moved his headquarters two times over the next three months because he was rightly worried that Mexico, which was a real country with an actual army, might not appreciate what he was doing so much and could respond by “sending a bunch of troops to kill him.” He was able to stay in his “Republic of Sonara” for about three months before the resistance of the Mexican government and a lack of supplies forced him to retreat, which is a fancy way of saying “He just picked up his stuff and went home, having accomplished a whole lot of nothing except for making a lot of noise for no reason.”
Huh, weird that someone who invades foreign countries demanding they call him President would look and act like a doucher.
Once he returned to California he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war, which he 100% was guilty of, in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794. The fucked up part, however, is that people were so gung ho about Manifest Destiny at this point that his plan was widely popular in the South and the West, leading to his jury acquitting him after just eight minutes of deliberation. He went back to his legal practice for all of, oh, a year and a half before he saw another opportunity to get his jingoism on.
In 1854, before the digging of the Panama Canal, Nicaragua was hugely important trade route, even if it was a bit inconvenient—since the transcontinental railway wasn’t yet finished, the main trade route between New York and San Francisco involved sailing into the San Juan River from the Atlantic ocean, sailing across Lake Nicaragua, unloading onto stagecoaches and covering a small strip of land to get to the Pacific, and then shipping off to San Francisco from there. Yes, it was a pain in the ass, which, you know, is a large reason why we A—established a railroad to do that instead and B—eventually decided to dig out huge chunks of the Earth in Panama in order to skip all that nonsense.
The trade importance of Nicaragua was the only reason why we gave a shit about it, because US foreign interests were very gross for a while back then. That’s why, when a Civil War broke out between the Legitimist (or Conservative) Party based in Granada and the Democratic (or Liberal) Party in Leon, William Walker’s Manifest Destiny sense was tingling. The Democratic Party, who was losing at the time, actually reached out to Walker for military support, and actually contracted the filibuster to bring as many as three hundred “colonists” to Nicaragua, somewhat circumventing that pesky neutrality law.
Hint- this would prove to be a bad idea.
Walker landed in Nicaragua with 60 armed men, leading us to wonder where the fuck does he find these people who are willing to ship off to some random Civil War in Central America? Is this just because we get bored easily and TV hadn’t been invented yet? But we digress. Upon arriving, he was reinforced with another 100 American filibusters and about 200 Nicaraguans (This was not a very heavily fought Civil War). With permission of the Democratic president Francisco Castellón (who really wasn’t thinking shit through at this point, but then again he wouldn’t live to see how big of a mistake he made, considering that he died of cholera about two months before Walker took everything over) Walker began attacking the Legitimists, first in the town of Rivas where he was driven off after inflicting heavy casualties, and then winning the Battle of La Virgen in September. He rode this momentum, pushing through and winning skirmishes until, on October 13th, he conquered Granada and took control of the country.
Walker took the title of the Supreme General of the Army, and while he was technically working through the provisional president, Patricio Rivas, Walker was really the one running the shots, and shortly thereafter he declared himself President, which, like, sure, anyone can say they’re president, but the fucked up thing is that in May 1856, Franklin Pierce (like, the American President) actually officially recognized it as legitimate! So William Walker, at this point, was the actual President of Nicaragua in the only way that truly matters—according to a bunch of out of touch Americans from thousands of miles away.
Just like when we sent an American filibuster into China.
Walker made some powerful enemies during this time, primarily by pissing off Cornelius Vanderbilt by seizing property from the Accessory Transit Company, which Vanderbilt owned, and giving them to two of the businessman’s subordinates. Vanderbilt, as a result, sent Costa Rican government agents to help regain control of the Accessory Transit Company’s steamboats that had been commandeered by Walker and become an important part of his army. At the same time, his talk of “let’s turn this whole area into a slave state, all of Central America will be mine” (he wrote a manifesto about conquering the five Central American provinces called “Five or None”) surprisingly led to neighboring countries saying, “Weeee should probably do something about this motherfucker.” So when Walker reached out diplomatically to Juan Rafael Mora, the president of Costa Rica, Mora responded with a polite “fuck off” and instead declared war on Walker’s Nicaraguan regime. The war would be known as the Campaign of 1856-1857, or the Filibuster War, and Walker fairly handily got his ass kicked by the Allied Central American Army, a coalition of soldiers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, the Mosquito Coast (the Eastern coast of present-day Nicaragua and Honduras), Guatamala, El Salvador, and, eventually, the United States and the United Kingdom on the naval side of things. Not helping things was the fact that this coalition was largely financed and trained by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who apparently was someone you would not want to piss off.
The war did not start well for Walker, who tried to preemptively invade Costa Rica in March of 1856, leading to the Battle of Santa Rosa, which he lost quite badly, losing 59 soldiers to Costa Rica’s 20. The battle lasted all of 14 minutes. Costa Rica (and some Vanderbilt supplied American mercenaries) then invaded Nicaragua, leading to the Second Battle of Rivas. The battle was a bit strange—Walker, who was never a particularly brilliant tactician, assumed that Mora’s Costa Rican force would invade from the north, so he evacuated the city of Rivas, allowing 3,000 of Mora’s men to slip into the city before he decided, four days later, that he was going to try to re-invade the damn thing.
Walker’s men did have some success in street fighting, eventually establishing a stronghold in a hostel, which we find sort of strangely hilarious. Juan Santamaria, a militiaman who would go on to become a National Hero in the late 1800s when Costa Rica was trying to brag about its military history for nationalistic purposes, is credited for being responsible for driving the filibusters out of their stronghold, eventually helping them win the battle—he volunteered to throw a torch onto the thatched roof of the hostel. He was able to complete the mission, though in the process he was killed by sniper fire. With his “stronghold” on fire, and probably overrun with recent college graduates who are “finding themselves” and are just insufferable, Walker had to flee the city for Granada. Several months later, on December 14th, Granada was surrounded by Central American forces and Walker again was forced to flee, having one of generals order his men to set the city on fire as they escaped, which honestly is a bit of a douche move. This was pretty much the end of Walker’s reign, and he surrendered to the United States Navy on May 1st, 1857, after which he was sent to New York to be greeted as a hero, because gross. Again, since Walker was kind of a dick, he failed to capitalize on this popularity since he made a point to blame his defeat on the U.S. Navy which isn’t really a good look for a warmonger.
He wrote a book about his campaign, published in 1860 under the title War in Nicaragua, but also couldn’t learn to take a fucking hint, so that year after a few false starts he sailed down to Honduras, hoping to try his whole “build up some slave states” things up a level. This led to the origin of the common phrase which we just made up now—if you try to take over Central America and turn it into a slave state, you will end up getting killed by firing squad during your third unsuccessful effort. Pretty much the moment he landed in Trujillo, Honduras, he was captured by the British Royal Navy—you see, the Brits had a few Central American colonies, and didn’t really want to see some American asshole stirring up rebellions, so they made a point to nip that in the bud real quick.
Now, the commanding officer, Nowell Salmon (who would eventually become a knighted Admiral) could have extradited Walker to America, but he probably realized that this cagey motherfucker was going to keep trying to stir up shit so long as he had the opportunity, so he instead handed Walker over to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, who absolutely killed the living shit out of him. On September 12th, 1860, Walker was walked out in front of a firing squad at the age of 36 years old.
And so ended the “political” career of William Walker, the American-born filibuster who owned the titles of the First President of the Republic of Lower California (November 3, 1853-January 21, 1854), the First President of the Republic of Sonora (January 21st, 1854-May 8th, 1854) and the President of the Republic of Nicaragua from July 12, 1856-May 1st, 1857. He wasn’t a particularly beloved leader, or even a good one, but hey, apparently in the 1850s in Central America anything goes. Sure, he’s just a footnote of history now, and one that we’d not exactly try to brag about, but hey, now you know one more thing about American Manifest Destiny…which okay, maybe isn’t something we should be trying to get out in the open as much.
History is kind of weird, isn’t it?