Today when Americans hear the term filibuster, they think of an attempt by senators to block legislation in the Senate by taking a bill to death. The term comes from filibustero meaning pirate or buccaneer in spanish. In the 19th century the term filibuster was applied to individuals who sought to take over various nations in Latin America through military force, usually involving a revolution or a coup. Usually the foreign filibusters would have the help of some native disgruntled faction within the target nation. The 1850’s were the heighday of filibustering in the United States, propelled by the strong desire of pro-slavery advocates in the South to conquer new territory to form new slave Republics that would eventually be annexed by the United States as states. Generally the filibusterers were hailed as heroes in the South and denounced as brigands in the South. The most famous, and successful, of the filibusterers was William Walker, who admirers referred to as the Grey Eyed Man of Destiny.
Born on May 8, 1824 in Nashville, Walker was something of a child prodigy, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of 14. He went on to study medicine at the Universities of Edinburgh, Paris, Heidelberg and Gottingen. The violence and romance of the revolutions of 1848 while he was studying in Europe had an immense impact on him as he witnessed how relatively small revolutionary movements could topple governments. Eventually he earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He practiced in Philadelphia briefly before moving to New Orleans to study law. From law he leaped to journalism, becoming part owner of the New Orleans Crescent. A restless spirit, he moved to San Francisco in 1849 where he worked as a journalist and fought three duels.
It was here that he decided his life’s work was to help carve out slave states in Latin America. In 1853 he seized with 45 men the sparsely populated capital of Baja California and proclaimed the Republic of Lower California, and promulgated the laws of the state of Louisiana for the new republic, legalizing slavery in the process. After attempts to conquer Sonora failed, Walker, running low on supplies retreated to California. He was put on trial under the Neutrality Act of 1794 for waging an illegal war. Walker was considered a hero in the South and the West, and the jury took all of eight minutes to acquit him.
An opportunity now dropped in Walker’s lap. A civil war was raging in Nicaragua between the Conservative party based in Granada and the Liberal party based in Leon. Democrat President Franciso Castellon worked out an agreement for Walker to brin 300 mercenaries to Nicaragua under the guise of being settlers. Walker landed in Nicaragua in May of 1855 with only 60 men, but 170 locals and 100 Americans quickly flocked to serve under him. On September 4, he and his small force defeated the Conservative army at the battle of La Virgen. On October 13, 1855 he conquered the Conservative capital of Granda and was in effective control of the country.
Walker initially ruled the country through a puppet president Patricio Rivas. President Franklin Pierce, ever eager to serve the demands of Southern fire brands, recognized the Walker regime on May 20, 1856.
Walker was riding high, but he made the fatal error of crossing Cornelius Vanderbilt. In cahoots with C.K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, agents of Vanderbilt, who supplied logistical and monetary support to his government, Walker seized the assets of Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company and turned them over to Garrison and Morgan. Outraged at this treachery, Vanderbilt dispatched two agents to Costa Rica to give the Costa Ricans assistance in ousting Walker. The Costa Ricans had become alarmed by Walker’s talk of conquering all of Central America and declared war on him.
With Honduras invading from the north and Costa Rica from the south, the days of Walker’s regime were numbered. Walker was defiant, proclaiming himself President of Nicaragua on July 20, 1856, establishing English along with Spanish as an official language, and reinstating slavery by rescinding the emancipation edict of 1824. All was for naught. El Salvador and Guatemala joined Honduras and Costa Rica, and by December Walker’s capital of Granada was surrounded by 4000 Central American troops. Walker responded by escaping with his men after burning down Granada.
On May 1, 1857 he surrendered to the United States Navy and was repatriated to New York City. Six months he attempted to launch another expedition to Nicaragua, but was intercepted and arrested by the United States Navy Home Squadron.
Walker could not overcome the lure that Central America had on his imagination. In 1860 he traveled to Honduras to help English settlers in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras establish a republic. Debarking at the port of Trujillo, Walker was arrested by the Royal Navy who promptly turned him over to the Honduran government. The Hondurans executed him by firing squad on September 12, 1860, bringing to an end his brief and adventurous life.
The defeat of Walker is still a source of pride in Central America and Costa Rica celebrates his defeat every April 11 as a national holiday.