Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
William Walker (soldier)
William Walker (May 8, 1824 - September 12, 1860) was a U.S. physician, lawyer, journalist, adventurer, and soldier of fortune who attempted to conquer several Latin American countries in the mid-19th century. He held the presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua from 1856 to 1857 and was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.
Of Scottish descent, Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1824 and graduated summa cum laude from the local university at the early age of fourteen. He then traveled throughout Europe, studying medicine at the universities of Edinburgh and Heidelberg. At the age of 19 he received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study law.
After a short stint as a lawyer, Walker became editor of the New Orleans Crescent, a local newspaper. In 1849 he moved to San Francisco, California where he worked as a journalist and fought three duels, in two of which he was wounded. Around that time Walker conceived the project of privately conquering vast regions of Latin America, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers. Such campaigns were then known as filibustering.
Expedition to Baja California and Sonora
On October 15, 1853 with just 45 men, Walker set out on his first filibustering expedition: the conquest of the Mexican territories of Baja California and Sonora. He succeeded in capturing La Paz, the capital of the sparsely populated Baja California, which he declared the capital of a new Republic of Lower California, with himself as president. Although he never gained control of Sonora, less than three months later he pronounced Baja California part of the larger Republic of Sonora. Lack of supplies and an unexpectedly strong resistance by the Mexican government quickly forced Walker to retreat. Back in California, he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war. In the era of Manifest Destiny, his filibustering project was popular in the southern and western United States and the jury took eight minutes to acquit him.
Ruler of Nicaragua
A civil war was then raging in the Central American republic of Nicaragua, and the rebel faction hired Walker as a mercenary. Evading the federal U.S. authorities charged with preventing his departure, Walker sailed from San Francisco on May 4, 1855 with only 57 men and promptly took control of Nicaragua. As commander of the army, Walker controlled Nicaragua through puppet president Patricio Rivas . Despite the obvious illegality of his expedition, U.S. President Franklin Pierce recognized Walker's regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856. Walker's agents recruited American and European men to sail to the region and fight for the conquest of the other four Central American nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
At the time, the major trade route between New York City and San Francisco ran through southern Nicaragua (see Nicaragua Canal). Ships from New York would enter the San Juan River from the Atlantic and sail across Lake Nicaragua. People and goods would then be transported by stagecoach over a narrow strip of land near the city of Rivas, before reaching the Pacific and being shipped to San Francisco. The commercial exploitation of this route had been granted by a previous Nicaraguan administration to the Accessory Transit Company, which was controlled by Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had initially supported Walker in the hopes that he would stabilize Nicaragua. But as ruler of that country, Walker alleged violations of the Transit Company's charter and voided the agreement. He then granted use of the route to Vanderbilt's rivals in the Accessory Transit Company, Cornelius K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, who had offered Walker a large sum of money and support for his military campaign in exchange for control of the inter-oceanic corridor.
Outraged, Vanderbilt successfully pressured the U.S. government to withdraw its recognition of Walker's regime. He also helped to finance and train a military coalition of the Central American states, led by Costa Rica, and worked to prevent men or supplies from reaching Walker.
In July of 1856, Walker set himself up as president of Nicaragua, after conducting an uncontested election. Realizing that his position was becoming precarious, he sought support from the southerners in the U.S. by recasting his campaign as a fight to spread the institution of black slavery, which many American Southerners saw as the basis of their traditional agrarian way of life and as an institution that was unlikely to endure for long within the U.S. With this in mind, Walker revoked Nicaragua's emancipation edict of 1824, which had made slavery illegal. This move did increase Walker's popularity in the U.S. South, but Walker's army, thinned by an epidemic of cholera and massive defections, was no match for the Central American coalition and Vanderbilt's agents. On May 1, 1857 Walker surrendered to Commander Charles H. Davis of the United States Navy and was repatriated. Upon disembarking in New Orleans he was greeted as a hero, but he alienated public opinion when he blamed his defeat on the U.S. Navy. Within six months he had set off on another expedition, but he was arrested by the U.S. Navy Home Squadron under the command of Commodore Paulding and once again returned to the U.S. amid considerable public controversy over the legality of the Navy's actions.
Death in Honduras
After writing an account of his Central American campaign (published in 1860 as War in Nicaragua), Walker returned to the region yet again. He disembarked in the port city of Trujillo, in the Republic of Honduras, and soon fell into the custody of Captain Salmon of the British Navy. The British government controlled the neighboring regions of British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast (now part of Nicaragua) and had considerable strategic and economic interest in the construction of a inter-oceanic canal through Central America. It therefore regarded Walker as a menace to its own affairs in the region.
Rather than return him to the U.S., Capt. Salmon delivered Walker to the Honduran authorities, who executed him by firing squad on September 12, 1860. Walker was 36 years old. He is buried in Trujillo.
Influence and reputation
William Walker convinced many Southerners of the desirability of creating a slave-holding empire in tropical Latin America. In 1861, when U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed that the 36°30' North parallel be declared as a line of demarcation between free and slave territories, Abraham Lincoln, of the anti-slavery Republican Party, denounced such an arrangement, saying that it "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and State owing a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego."
Before the end of the U.S. Civil War, Walker enjoyed great popularity in the southern and western United States, where he was known as "General Walker" and as the "grey-eyed man of destiny." Northerners, on the other hand, generally regarded him as a pirate. Despite his intelligence and personal charm, Walker consistently proved to be a poor military and political leader, as well as a man given to impractical, grandiose scheming.
In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856-1857 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced. April 11 is a Costa Rican national holiday in memory of Walker's defeat at Rivas. Juan Santamarķa, who played a key role in that battle, is honored as the Costa Rican national hero.
Although Walker is far better known today in Central America than he is the United States, he does have a number of interesting ties to the city of his birth: Nashville, Tennessee. He was a close friend of Dr. John Berrien Lindsley , who had been his classmate at both the University of Nashville and at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Both Walker and Lindsley were Southern Presbyterians who believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and in its civilizing mission in the world. Lindsley succeeded his father, Phillip Lindsley, as head of the University of Nashville in 1855, and later founded Montgomery Bell Academy, a secondary school tied to the university. The University of Nashville failed to recover from the U.S. Civil War and closed its doors after Lindsley resigned as its chancellor in 1870. In 1873 it was succeeded by Vanderbilt University, an institution funded by a gift from Walker's nemesis, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Locally, Walker is remembered as the only born Nashvillian ever to become a head of state, and a historical marker commemorates his birthplace, downtown not far from Second Avenue.
Walker's campaign has inspired two films, both of which take considerable liberties with his story: Burn! (1969) starring Marlon Brando, and Walker (1987) starring Ed Harris. Walker's name is used for the main character in Burn!, though the character is not meant to represent the historical William Walker.
- The War in Nicaragua, 1860
- James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 1988
- Robert E. May, Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, 2002
- "Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt fought war over route through Central America" from the Vanderbilt Register
- "Walker's expeditions" from GlobalSecurity.org'
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