William Walker: The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny

156 years ago today in 1860, Southerner and famous filibusterer, William Walker is executed in Honduras.

A “filibuster” is the term given to irregular soldiers and mercenaries who act without official authority from their own government in a foreign country or territory to foment or support a revolution motivated by financial gain, political ideology, or the thrill of adventure.

Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of fourteen. He then received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 19 and practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study and practice law. He then became the editor and co-owner of the newspaper New Orleans Crescent and moved to San Francisco as a journalist, where he gained notoriety fighting in duels. Inspired by Manifest Destiny, he then set his sights on conquering and creating new states in Mexico and Latin America.

Walker’s first filibuster attempt was in 1853, when he traveled to northwestern Mexico to create a buffer colony known as the Republic Of Sonora. With around 45 men, he was successful in capturing the poorly guarded and sparsely populated capital of Baja California, La Paz. He then declared a new Republic of Baja California, appointing himself as president and putting the region under the law of Louisiana to make slavery legal. Outnumbered, poorly equipped and a stiff resistance by the Mexican government forced Walker to retreat back to California where he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war in violation of several laws and treaties. However, in the era of Manifest Destiny, his filibustering project was really popular amongst Americans and the jury took eight minutes to acquit him.

Walker’s next quest would be taking advantage of a civil war that occurred in Nicaragua in 1854. At the invite of the Nicaraguan president, he would land with an expeditionary force of 60 men. He was eventually able to take control of the rebel capital city Granada with a puppet regime and even got U.S. President Franklin Pierce to recognize Walker’s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856. The success of the filibusters in the region concerned wealthy businessmen invested in the area, as well as, neighboring Central American nations who were alarmed about the risk of foreign invaders. A movement would arise to expel Walker and his army with many men from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador invading Nicaragua and causing great damage to the people and infrastructure of the nation. The final battle took place in the spring of 1857 near the Costa Rican border and Walker was able to beat off the attack, but in a Pyrrhic fashion. Unfortunately, he would soon surrender himself to the United States Navy. On his return to the United States, he was greeted as a hero and celebrity. Less than six months later, he would attempt another expedition, but would be arrested by the U.S. Navy amid public controversy over the legality of his intentions. He would write an account of his Central American adventures which would be published in 1860 as The War in Nicaragua.

British colonists on the islands off the coast of Honduras feared that the government of Honduras would soon act to control them, in turn they approached Walker with an offer to help him in establishing a separate, English-speaking government over the islands. So, in 1860, Walker would once again return to the region, but would end up in the custody of the British Royal Navy. The British government controlled neighboring regions and had strategic and economic interests in the stability of Honduras and regarded Walker as a menace. For reasons that remain unclear, the British commander sailed to Trujillo and delivered Walker to the Honduran authorities rather than return him to the United States. Walker was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad, near the site of the present-day hospital, on September 12, 1860. He was 36 years old and is buried in the “Old Cemetery” in Trujillo.

Walker is a little-known figure in American history likely due to his story occurring around the outbreak of the War Between the States. While his benevolence and strategy can be a subject of debate, Walker was no doubt the embodiment of Southern manhood that Washington D.C. ultimately brought to heel.

[Online References]



(http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/walker.html )

(http://jrscience.wcp.muohio.edu/FieldCourses00/PapersCostaRicaArticles/CostaRicain1856.Defeating.html )

-Authored by R.E. Foy