Story of William Walker
The first twenty years of William Walker's life would leave most people with the impression that he was a brilliant young man on the road to success. At age 14, he graduated from the University of Nashville, and by 19, he had obtained degrees in both law and medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. Following this, he took up postgraduate studies in Paris and Heidelberg.
Despite his apparent intellectual prowess, Walker failed at pursuing a career as a doctor, lawyer and journalist. After a failed relationship with a deaf-mute socialite from New Orleans, Walker pursued an ill-fated career as a gold miner in California. Penniless, he became a disreputable writer to make ends meet.
Perhaps it was his myriad failures, his diminutive stature, or his general lack of purpose that eventually caused Walker to take up the role of soldier of fortune. At the beginning of the 1850's, Walker set out to sea with hundreds of men on an expedition financed by the Knights of the Golden Circle, an organization promoting the "benefits" of slavery. Walker and his army spent the next year in Mexico, after which time he became the self-proclaimed colonel of his own army and "President of Sonora and Baja California". On his return to the United States, he was arrested for breaking the Neutrality Act of 1818. Acquitted of the charge, Walker garnered much fame and support from those who favored the institution of slavery and an American conquest of Latin America.
Fueled by his supporters and backed by U.S. President James Buchanan, Walker headed for Nicaragua with two objectives in mind: to convert Central America into slave territory, and to construct an 18-mile canal from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific Ocean after conquering Nicaragua. Walker and his powerful North American contacts were determined that the proposed transisthmic canal would provide a more efficient and profitable means of transport between the eastern sea board and the new western frontier.
Once an invitation from Nicaragua's Liberal Party was arranged, Walker entered Nicaragua with 58 men. After a skirmish with the Conservatives, Walker and his small army were forced to retreat, calling upon reinforcements from California. With a new army consisting of hundreds of men equipped with the latest armaments, the Conservatives were quickly defeated, and Walker soon became the "President of the Republic of Nicaragua".
At this time, much of the Central American community took up arms and attempted to defend their land. In February of 1856, Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora declared war on Walker. In just a few days, he raised an army of 9000, composed of a cross-section of the tiny nation's population. From bureaucrats to peasant farmers, denizens from throughout the country, armed with only their farm tools, machetes and old rifles, rose to fight Walker. They marched for two weeks to Guanacaste, but by that time their army had dwindled to just 2500 men. They found Walker's mercenaries at La Casona (located in today's Parque Nacional Santa Rosa) readying themselves for their invasion of San José. Mora and his army attacked and sent the them fleeing back to Nicaragua. The battle took only 14 minutes.
Mora and his troops followed Walker's army into Nicaragua, fighting them to a standstill in the town of Rivas, and forcing them to retreat into a large wooden building from which they could not be extricated. What followed is the stuff that great legends are made of. A Costa Rican drummer boy named Juan Santamaría agreed, out of his own volition, to set fire to the building, flushing out Walker and his men. His actions cost Santamaría his life, and he posthumously became one of Costa Rica's greatest national hero.
Walker's career met its end when his failure to covert Central America into slave territory angered his supporters. In addition, after construction of transisthmus transportation concession had already started by U.S. financier Cornelius Vanderbilt, Walker seized the project. In order put a stop to the rumpus, an angry Vanderbilt began to finance some of Walker's enemies.
In another entanglement on Lake Nicaragua in 1856, the Costa Rican army once again squashed Walker's attempts to gain control of the area. Walker surrendered to a US warship on May 1, 1857.
The tenacious William Walker traveled to Nicaragua again in late 1857, and was promptly taken prisoner before he could do any harm. Upon his release in 1860, he sailed to Honduras where he seized the custom house. A British warship arrived and Walker was quick to board, as he was being pursued by Hondurans. The British commander offered to harbor Walker safely back to the US, however Walker, with typical arrogance and obstinacy, maintained that he was the rightful president of Honduras. Upon his release from the ship, the Hondurans promptly captured him and executed him.
Approximately 20,000 men died in the wake of Walker's exploits. Voicing the collective opinion of all Central Americans toward Walker and an imperialistic US that backed him, his tombstone reads, "Glory to the patriots who freed Central America of such a bloody pirate! Curses to those who brought him and to those who helped him."