The Many (Failed) Revolutions Of William Walker

By Nolan Moore on Friday, March 13, 2015
WilliamWalkerBradyPhotoportrait
“It would have been just as cheap and easy to have annexed the whole of Mexico at once, and would have saved the trouble of making future proclamations.” —Alta California editorial on William Walker’s strategy

In A Nutshell

William Walker wasn’t much to look at. He stood 157 centimeters (5’2″) and weighed a mere 55 kilograms (120 lb). But despite his diminutive frame, Walker was a man with great ambition. This guy wanted to conquer a Latin American country and declare himself president.

The Whole Bushel

Everybody has dreams. Some want to become pro-athletes or famous novelists. Others want to become movie stars or renowned scientists. William Walker wanted to start his own country. Unlike most people, Walker actually achieved his goals . . . sort of.

Born in 1824, Walker was one of those cocky kids who graduate summa cum laude at 14. After earning his sheepskin, this teenager toured Europe, studying at some pretty prestigious universities before opening his own practice in Philadelphia.

Eventually, Walker grew bored, hung up his stethoscope, and earned a law degree. However, lawyer life didn’t really keep his attention and soon he founded his own newspaper in New Orleans. After hanging around “The Big Easy” for a while, he headed west in 1849 and set up shop in San Francisco.

Then in 1853, Walker finally realized what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to become a filibuster. Derived from the Spanish word for “pirate” or “plunderer,” 19th-century filibusters didn’t stand around and give long-winded speeches. Instead, they invaded other countries and overthrew foreign governments. Some wanted their own little kingdoms. Others hoped to join the US as a new slave state and screw up the Missouri Compromise.

Either way, filibusters were like 19th-century rockstars (Manifest Destiny, baby). So this short, slim, 29-year-old journalist with no military training rounded up a ragtag band of about 50 misfits and invaded Baja, California. Calling themselves the First Independent Battalion, Walker’s army conquered Baja’s capital city. Afterward, the pint-sized trespasser declared himself the newly appointed president of the pro-slavery “Republic of Lower California.”

When word of the revolution made it back to the States, excited Americans started trekking to Mexico, eager to join up with Walker’s outfit. Emboldened by his success and new troops, Walker decided it was time to expand his empire. After moving his capital to Ensenada, “el presidente” annexed the entire state of Sonora. Of course, talk is cheap, and Walker couldn’t really back up his bold play. Thanks to a rough climate, lack of supplies, deadly illness, and savage outlaws, Walker soon found himself without an army.

Beaten (but not yet broken), Walker returned to the US in 1854 where he was put on trial for attempting to conquer another country. But the jury was full of pro-slavery Walker groupies who were incredibly impressed with his blustery speech on the importance of expanding America’s borders. After eight minutes of deliberation, the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict.

The once-and-future president was back in business.

In 1855, Walker wrangled up another gang of weirdos and troublemakers. This time, he set his sights on Nicaragua. The country was in the middle of a civil war, so Walker allied with the losers and proceeded to take over. Along the way, he executed quite a few people and even leveled the city of Granada. Eventually, the miniature general declared himself president (again), legalized slavery (again), and decided English was Nicaragua’s new national language.

At first, things were going along just swimmingly. Even US President Franklin Pierce officially recognized Walker’s new government. But the Nicaraguan dictator made one big mistake. He ticked off Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America. Vanderbilt ran a prosperous shipping company in Nicaragua, and when Walker’s revolution threatened to jeopardize business, the millionaire convinced the president to withdraw support and supplied the Costa Rican army with enough cash and firepower to take Walker down.

Once again, the diminutive dictator was sent home with his tail between his legs. Once again, he was put on trial, and once again, he was acquitted. After all, Walker was a legend. People wrote songs about the man. There was even a play about the guy’s life. He was a national hero. What’s more, he was completely obsessed with going back to Nicaragua.

Over the next few years, Walker invaded that poor Central American country three more times, but he never came close to overthrowing the government. Each time, he was sent packing back to the US. Each time, he was tried and acquitted. Well, all except for that fourth and final invasion.

In 1860, Walker rounded up 91 numskulls and tried to sneak into Nicaragua by way of Honduras. Only the Hondurans weren’t exactly pleased to see the so-called “Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” wandering through their jungles. Walker and his motley crew soon found themselves outmatched by the Honduran military, and any hopes of reinforcements were crushed when the British navy blocked off the coast.

Walker was trapped. His men were dying of bullets and disease, and he had nowhere to run. Desperate, the runty rogue handed himself over to the British navy. They had other plans for William Walker, though. Instead of taking him back to the US, the Brits passed Walker along to the Hondurans, who decided to stop this filibuster once and for all. On September 12, 1860, 36-year-old President Walker was executed via firing squad, miles away from the country he’d once ruled.

Show Me The Proof

Photo via Wikimedia
The Memory Palace: Episode 15: Presidente Walker
William Walker: King of the 19th Century Filibusters