An American Napoleon In Nicaragua: The Little Generalisimo
Never heard of William Walker? Don’t be alarmed: we hadn’t either until we reached Granada. September 15th might be Independence Day in Nicaragua but September 14th is considered even more important to Nicaraguans as it celebrates the day that William Walker fled the country.
The United States in the first half of the 19th century was in the grip Manifest Destiny – the notion that we, as a nation, should spread across the continent and as far north and south as the flag was able to carry our young democracy. That these lands were occupied and governed by other sovereignties was of little importance. The prevailing thought was that it was, after all, the God-given destiny of the United States to control these lands and peoples.
Walker, a man of big dreams but small stature (5’2”), began his filibustering – the old definition meant unauthorized attempts to encourage foreign rebellions versus the new definition of legislative stalling – career in Mexico in 1853. After initial victories by his tiny volunteer army he was routed and skedaddled back to California. In San Francisco he was charged and tried for “conducting an illegal war” but a jury of his peers found him not guilty after a speedy deliberation of eight minutes. The country was ready for citizens with expansionistic ideas!
Nicaragua, like most of Latin America, won its independence from Spain in 1821. Freedom however brought its own strife. The country was divided by two power centers: Leon, the Liberal Party’s power base, and Granada, the Conservative Party’s bastion. A low-level and intermittent civil war between the two power centers continued throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1855, with the dispute escalating, Leon requested foreign assistance in its ongoing conflict with Granada and who should heed the call but our freebooter and filibuster, William Walker.
With a small force of American and foreign adventurers, Walker landed in Nicaragua and, with the aid of the Liberal’s military forces, advanced on Granada. The conflict ended with Walker’s victory. His next move astounded even his Conservative supporters. In 1856, following a rigged election which Walker orchestrated, he had himself declared President of Nicaragua and presided from 1856-7. He went so far as to call for Nicaragua to be annexed to the United States and recognized as a slave-holding state.
All this lethal tomfoolery had the unintended effect of unifying Leon and Granada, the once implacable foes. And Walker’s expansionistic language threatened Nicaragua’s neighbors; Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Counter attacks were launched, Walker’s forces were defeated and with Granada, his capital, under attack Walker struck his colors and retreated. His spleen was not yet empty. In the wake of the retreat an aide-de-camp ordered the burning of the city. At the outskirts a sign was posted “Here was Granada”.
Little remains of the original colonial city of Granada; the Catedral Merced, the Casa Gran Francia and a colonial home near the cathedral. The remainder was destroyed in the conflagration or subsequently lost to renovation and expansion.
And our old friend Walker? He survived and made his way back to the United States. However, not one to admit defeat, he regrouped, refortified and returned to Latin America in 1860 to aid a disgruntled faction of English colonists on the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan. He sailed from the island intent upon attack but was intercepted by the British navy, who deemed him hostile to their interests in the region. The Brits turned him over to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, Honduras and he was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860. An inglorious but fitting end for a freebooter, filibuster, and would be king.
By Richard and Anita, February, 2014