In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Ghost of William Walker

The following article was published in the newsletter of the US Embassy in Nicaragua in May 2003. The news of US invasion of Iraq was in the headlines in Latin America and appeared biased against our efforts. Clearly, the Latin Americans saw the world through different eyes -- they remembered a past almost unknown to North Americans.
The Ghost of William Walker

“What matters at last is this: all over Central America, William Walker is remembered as the pattern and the paradigm for American intentions. There is not a school child who does not know his name … he has been the core with which national myths have been created: the heroic and successful struggle of the people of Central America against the arrogance and power of North Americans.” Robert Houston, “The Nation Thief”

Regional integration is not new to Central America. In the Spring of 1856, the region was probably more united than at any other time in its history. An allied army comprised of soldiers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador backed by British and US business interests fought a bloody war against William Walker and his followers. Disease, superior numbers and national spirit brought victory to the allies and influenced Central America’s relationship with the United States for generations to come.

During the recent war in Iraqi, I caught glimpses of Walker’s ghost in some of the Hispanic media stories. It seemed to me at times the US was portrayed as the arrogant bully; the subliminal message was … this had been done before, in a different place and a different time. That message was unfair but perception creates its own reality and how the world perceives our actions depends as much on the past as on the present. Faulkner wrote in “Requiem for a Nun” that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Understanding what William Walker did in Central America is important to understanding how Central Americans view the United States and our actions in the region. A historical perspective can help us understand the present and better deal with the future.

William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1824. By 19 he had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania to become one of the youngest physicians in US. He continued his studies at the Sorbonne then returned to America and began studying law. At 22 he was admitted to the bar and, after serving as a law clerk for a short period, he became the editor of The Crescent, a New Orleans newspaper. Later he traveled to California and became the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco. This was the era of Manifest Destiny, the relatively easy war with Mexico and the annexation of its territory in the West, the California gold rush and the need to spread the glory and civilizing power of American democracy and values. San Francisco became the jumping off point for expeditions to Mexico and Central America. Walker traded in the pen for a gun and at 5 foot 3 inches tall and 130 pounds became a filibuster (derived from the Dutch for freebooter or adventurer).

Walker’s first attempt at glory was in Baja California where, with 45 men, he declared the “Republic of Lower California.” After some initial success, he was defeated by the Mexicans and forced to flee back to the United States. Walker then focused on Nicaragua. He arrived on June 28, 1855, to fulfill a contract with Liberal leader Francisco Castellon calling for the delivery of 300 colonists available for military duty in exchange for land and cash (mercenaries) to aid in Nicaragua’s ongoing civil war. The Liberals were known as the Democrats and had Leon as their home base. The Conservatives were centered in Granada and were known as the Legitimists. Their name was based on their assertion that their claim to govern was legitimately derived from the 1854 constitution. Walker’s army consisted of 57 men and was christened the American Phalanx by Castellon. The first action of the Phalanx was a frontal assault on heavily fortified Conservative positions at Rivas. Walker’s troops gained the main plaza but were then surrounded and had to fight their way out sustaining 38 percent casualties. The Americans re-grouped after this defeat, received additional recruits from the US and planned an attack on Granada. Walker commandeered a boat from the Accessory Transit Company and landed his force near Granada in the early hours of October 13, 1855. The city fell with little resistance.

With Granada under his control (and the most prominent Conservative families as his hostages), Walker convinced the Conservatives to surrender. He then disbanded the Conservative and Liberal armies and declared an “all volunteer” force. In the meantime, new recruits arrived via the Transit Company. A loan of $20,000 was made to Walker by the Company and additional filibusters were brought in at a discounted $20 per passenger from the United States. Walker rigged an election and had himself declared President of Nicaragua. More than 11,000 “immigrants” including women and children from the US came to Nicaragua during two years that he was in power. While Walker’s total force was estimated by one of his officers to have been 2,500 men although he never mounted a single force in excess of 750 men for any one battle. There was a continuous flow of filibusters to replace the large number of casualties from battle and disease as the war intensified. Before the war ended, more than 1,000 North Americans died making the War in Nicaragua more costly than the Spanish American War fought four decades later. As the war turned against Walker and his forces, he took more drastic actions. At one point he burned Granada to the ground and posted a sign that stated, “Here was Granada.”

Central America unified and fought Walker. Volunteers came from all parts of Latin America for a war of liberation against the Americans in Nicaragua. Heroic efforts were made by the Allies. Juan Santamaria became Costa Rica’s national hero in the Second Battle of Rivas as he died torching a house held by the filibusters. An all-Nicaraguan force at San Jacinto defeated the filibusters and Andres Castro became a hero for killing a filibuster with a rock when his carbine misfired. As the battle casualties and losses from cholera mounted, Walker’s force became weaker. After a review of the Transit Company records, Walker claimed the company owed Nicaragua (that is, Walker) $400,000 in unpaid royalties. He revoked the company’s charter and Cornelius Vanderbilt. entered the fight against him. On May 1, 1857, Walker fled from Nicaragua. It is estimated that up to 10,000 Central Americans were killed or wounded during the war.

There is something in Walker’s story that is with us still. He personified cultural arrogance and the belief of his time that America’s duty was to take “civilization” to the world. In his book, “The War in Nicaragua”, Walker stated his views on achieving economic and social development --- his comments sound as if his mission were to build and develop Nicaragua.

“ … to destroy an old political organization is a comparatively easy task, and little besides force is required for its accomplishment; but to build up and re-constitute society --- to gather the materials from the four quarters, and construct them into a harmonious whole, fitted for the uses of a new civilization --- requires more than force, more than genius for the work, and agents with which to complete it. Time and patience, as well as skill and labor, are needed for success; and they who undertake it, must be willing to devote a lifetime to the work.”

Walker did little to strengthen Nicaragua (although he did set up a short-lived land registry and tried to develop a functioning land market) and he did much damage (the razing of Granada, summary executions, etc.). His was an age of almost religious fervor in the belief that America’s way of life was best for the world. Manifest Destiny was the battle cry and we had the duty to take our values to the world.

As Americans, we tend to fix things, to right wrongs and to build new social orders. The experience of William Walker and other events in our past point to a need to temper these traits with a greater attempt to understand why others are like they are and what can be done to influence change rather than force it.

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