In my perpetual quest for the marginalized and forgotten aspects of military history, I came across a name I had never heard before, but one that turned out to be rather interesting: William Walker, a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Nashville, a sometime doctor, lawyer, journalist, duelist, newspaper editor and owner, one of the most pro-active proponents of the policy of Manifest Destiny and (briefly) President of Nicaragua. In this era of Manifest Destiny, many men seized the opportunity to pursue private wars of conquest in the quest for fortune and glory. Some were motivated purely by greed, eyeing the states of South and Central America and the Caribbean and their natural resources. Others sought the fame and adventure that a foreign military expedition might bring. Yet more worked purely as mercenaries, following a principle of loyalty to the highest bidder, or, as Steve Earle puts it:
And we\'re bound for the border
We\'re soldiers of fortune
And we\'ll fight for no country but we\'ll die for good pay
Under the flag of the greenback dollar
Or the peso down Mexico way.
Some, however, believed in principles and ideals, primarily the establishment of new states under the rule of white Anglophones, and the eventual annexation of these new states into the growing United States of America. The old saying that there is nothing new under the sun is proved entirely true in this case, as these filibusters had been around (in name as well as deed) for centuries, first coming to prominence in the 16th century to describe those individuals who raided the West Indian possessions of the King of Spain, most famously, Francis Drake, that vaunted ancestor of the Royal Navy. As the golden age of Caribbean piracy declined, so too did the use of the term. Walker believed strongly in the idea of the private conquest of vast swathes of Latin America and the establishment of new states under Anglo governance. Walker\'s first filibustering venture came in 1853 when, with only 45 men, he commenced his campaign to take the Mexican territories of Baja California and Sonora, capturing the Baja Californian capital of La Paz and declaring first the Republic of Lower California and then, three months later, and despite it still being held by Mexican forces, the Republic of Sonora. Forced back to California by Mexican resistance, Walker was acquitted by the jury at his trial for conducting an illegal war in just eight minutes. This (not so) near escape did not change Walker\'s policies one jot, and, in 1855, he signed on as a mercenary in the civil war in Nicaragua. One month later, he\'d defeated the federalist army and controlled the government of the country through a puppet president. However, the success was not to last - a coalition of neighbouring states, worried by Walker\'s expansionist plans, and funded by American businessmen concerned by Walker\'s attitudes towards their interests in the region, went to war on the filibuster and his freebooting army. Despite a sham election to make himself president and appeals to southern US states to support him as a fellow exponent of slavery, Walker was trounced and forced to surrender to the US navy. Repatriated, he continued to attempt his expeditions, being caught and brought back by the navy every so often, before being arrested by the Royal Navy in Honduras, turned over to the Honduran authorities and sent to the firing squad.
William Walker was not a particularly nice man, nor is he someone to idolize. However, he is a fascinating individual, a true product of his time, and one I intend to research more fully. For those who are interested, globalsecurity.org has a good article on the man, and The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco also offers a good analysis. Anyone with a more audiovisual tendency should also check out Ed Harris\' portrayal of the filibuster in Walker.