From Across Tennessee, 2010
Ask most Tennesseans about the name William Walker and you may get a blank stare. But some argue in the 1850’s he was the most famous – or infamous- men in the United States.
There are no parks with his name. No towns named in his honor. You won’t find a statue in his home town of Nashville. He is responsible for a national holiday, but not in the way he would have wanted.
Walker was born in Nashville May 8, 1824. He grew up in a religious home with a family that did not believe in slavery which was an established institution in Tennessee at the time.
He was nothing short of a child prodigy graduating at the University of Nashville at fourteen – Summa Cum Laude. Then it was then off to Pennsylvania for medical school.
Clearly he was a man with promise.
In 1843, the nineteen-year-old became a doctor and returned to Nashville two years later. The medical profession he found was not to his liking, so he became an attorney.
As an attorney in New Orleans he met Ellen Martin, a young deaf woman, with whom he fell in love. He fell out of love with the legal profession and helped start a newspaper, The Crescent. He was not yet twenty five years old and had already had three careers that would mark most men as successful. But Walker always seemed to always be craving something new.
The Crescent took some stances that were ahead of its time. It advocated for women’s suffrage more than fifty years before it was granted. It was not opposed to but took a very conservative approach to the concept of manifest destiny. It was not an abolitionist paper as in a place like New Orleans such a stance would probably get the staff killed. But Albert H. Z. Carr, who wrote the biography The World and William Walker said neither did it take a very pro slavery stance.
The wedding between Walker and Martin was not to be. She died in 1849 during a cholera outbreak. Walker would never marry.
It was off to California where the gold rush was bringing in new people by the thousands and to another newspaper, The San Francisco Daily Herald in 1850.
What happed later was the beginning of a strange turn in the life of Walker. He became a pirate, but rather than taking over ships, he took over foreign lands.
In the northern part of Mexico Walker, having no military experience, led a small band of mercenaries to take over the Sonora area in what in now includes Northern Mexico, Southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona. The armed militia met little resistance due to the fact the people of the lands were unarmed. The Mexican army however was armed and defeated the militia. They returned to the US where the survivors went on trial of violating US neutrality. Walker was acquitted by a very pro manifest destiny jury who agreed Americans had the right to occupy the area; however it is important to remember this was not an operation ordered or approved by the United States government.
His gumption was noticed by a couple of former employees of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who at the time was the wealthiest man in the US. Vanderbilt controlled the land and water transportation route across Nicaragua which involved using overland transportation and boats in Lake Nicaragua to ferry travelers from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Certainly a powerful route considering that before the Panama Canal the next way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific was going south of Argentina.
They wished for a piece of the action and Walker who some called “the grey-eyed man of destiny,” was ready and willing.
The voyage almost did not happen. The ship’s sails were seized by the Sherriff when a creditor decided he wanted his money before the ship set sail. It was eventually resolved. Walker set sail and landed in Nicaragua.
He arrived in 1855. During this time Nicaragua was in conflict and in the US South wanted more slave territory which could become slave states and give more power as states like Tennessee could vote along states like Cuba and Honduras in blocking abolitionist legislation.
Walker declared himself President of the nation. He attempted to seize Vanderbilt’s route and this was not acceptable. “Vanderbilt took an ad in a New York newspaper said something to his rivals to the effect of ‘the law is too slow I’m not going to bother with it. I’m just going to ruin you,” says Dr. Marshall Eakin, history professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and The Teaching Company.
“He’s been forgotten here but not I Central America. Any educated person there knows who he is. He is the symbol of American imperialism,” says Eakin.
He says in the US at the time Walker was popular. “He represented the notion that the US would keep expanding,” Eakin says. Once in Nicaragua he demanded his men treat the Nicaraguans with respect and started and newspaper. His penalties for drunkenness by his own men was more harsh than that of the United States Army and the crime of insulting a woman, theft and “entering a church save as a Christian should” could be punishable by death. But on the other hand he also made English the official language and instituted slavery.
“I don’t think he cared about democracy. I think he believed the US represented progress and civilization and people like him would bring them into the civilized world,” Eakin says.
He had ambition for the rest of the Central America. In March, 1856, Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora declared war on him and his mercenaries. Vanderbilt hated him. And the United States was not fond of inflaming the slavery issue, which is what his actions were doing. This is where the national holiday begins. In a battle April 11, 1856 Juan Santamaria, a nineteen-year-old drummer boy, ran open to gunfire to toss a torch into a building where Walker’s men were holed up fighting, setting it on fire. Santamaria succeeded but was killed immediately after his daring act and every April 11 is Juan Santamaria day in Costa Rica.
Walker was escorted out by US Marines in 1857 and returned to the US. But before he left, he burned the town of Granada. “In Central America he is viewed as the epitome of evil and American expansionism,” says Eakin.
When in the United States, he wrote a book on his adventure. In 1860 he returned to Central America with militias.
When Walker returned Central American had not forgotten him. The British were on their side and this attack on the nations failed even more so. The British army captured him that year. A Honduran firing squad executed him in Trujillo September 12, 1860.
A true irony took place in the 1870’s when in Walker’s home town became the home of Vanderbilt University. Coincidence? “I’ve always wondered about that,” Eakin says. “In the early 1870’s he must have known Walker hometown was Nashville,” Eakin says. “I’ve never seen anybody cite any document about the founding of Vanderbilt that mentions Walker,” he says. “But he must have known about it.”
He is far from a household world but he has been the subject of several books. “The World and William Walker” by Andrew Z Carr is perhaps the most noted. “The Tycoon’s War…” by Stephen Dando-Collins was released in 2008.
In the 1980’s Nicaragua was on the front burner of geopolitics after the Somosa regime was ousted in 1979 and the Sandanista party took over with Daniel Ortega as the nation’s president. The Reagan administration, fearing a Soviet ally in the America’s, supported US assistance for the anti- Sandanista fighters known as the “contras.” Though it is far from the scope of this article to say whether the policy was good or bad, it was clearly one of the most controversial stances of the Reagan administration.
Film director Alex Cox was known best for the punk movies “Repo-Man” and “Sid and Nancy,” heard about Walker and, as this writer can attest, once one hears about him the instinct was to read everything one can to find about this strange Tennessean.
As a supporter of the Ortega government, he decided a film would be a way to connect the events of the 1850’s to the 1980’s. He released “Walker” December 4, 1987 in selected cities. Ed Harris played William Walker, Marlee Matlin was Ellen Martin and Cornelius Vanderbilt was played by Peter Boyle.
Audiences were treated to a surreal black comedy in the vein of that mini-genre called "acid-Western." The story of one hundred thirty years earlier was mixed with modern technology that would show up unexpectedly. In one scene his confidant, Yrena Ohoran ( Blanca Guerra), entered his headquarters. He said to her “Did you see this?” and raises a full-color Time Magazine. Another unworldly moment was the opening of Walker’s army being attacked by the Mexican army at Sonora as salsa music played on the soundtrack.
His memory is now is mostly forgotten. One landmark at Forth and Commerce in front of One Nashville Place, a historic marker tells a small part of his story the refer to as the "Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny."
The only reference this writer could find in Nashville to the 150th anniversary of his death was the website hispanicnashville.com. His 1860 death could be a reason he faded into obscurity. Think about the timing. His execution was less than a year after John Brown’s botched raid on Harper’s Ferry which put slave states on edge. Less than two months later was the election of Abraham Lincoln, which was followed by states seceding, followed by Civil War. Perhaps he was overshadowed by a nation wrapped up in domestic rather than international concerns.
“Now that has a negative taint to it- the US bullying Central America. It’s the sort of thing you would not glorify. He’s not very politically correct,” Eakin says. But President Andrew Jackson and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest are also surrounded in controversy but still are mentioned in most Tennessee history books.
But perhaps the movie version of Cornelius Vanderbilt might have been on to something when on a slobering tirade against Walker he shouted “I will see to it everyone forgets Walker. No one remembers a looser!”
“The World and William Walker” by Andrew Z Carr
“Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker while creating a national identity” by Lisa Trimenstein