Review of William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private American Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras, by Scott Martelle

29 Nov

America’s antebellum era was a transformative and tumultuous one which ended in a cataclysm of civil war after decades of political animosity and no small amount of physical violence. In what are remembered as among the more provocative initiatives initiated by advocates of the rights of slaveholders in the era, rogue expansionists called filibusters attempted to find new areas where human bondage could thrive by either negotiating for the acquisition of foreign lands for the United States or literally taking them over by force. Political maneuvering and military campaigning of various types swirled around the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom into Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America as soon as it became clear its future in America might be imperiled. In William Walker’s Wars, author Scott Martelle chronicles the activities of one of the more outrageous and persistent filibusters.

I listened to an audiobook version of the book by Martelle, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and author of several books on dramatic episodes in American history. Like many readers of this blog, I had heard of Walker but knew very little about him. A diminutive, seemingly unassuming student of medicine and newspaper editor with no apparent fixation on slavery for most of his life, Walker seemed an unlikely person to attempt to install himself as president of Nicaragua and extend Southern cotton culture into Central America. Yet over the course of a career in journalism which took the Nashville native to locations such as New Orleans and San Francisco, he became obsessed with the idea of American expansion into the region as a part of its destiny. With a blatant disregard for federal policy and an arrogant assumption than a few dozen armed militiamen could take over a country, he recruited troops for multiple extralegal forays into independent foreign nations.

His poorly organized, inadequately planned expeditions read as Quixotic drama in Martelle’s book. Yet Walker was a determined man, convinced of the rightness of his cause and the adequacy of his own abilities. He seemed to enjoy initial success on multiple occasions, yet could never solidify what he temporarily gained. His most well-known—and final—drama concerned his attempt to set up an independent state in Nicaragua and Honduras and is the primary focus of the book. Running afoul of both American law, the British Royal Navy, and, of all people, wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was investing in the area at the time, Walker’s last campaign was a desperate and forlorn attempt to claim leadership of a politically-divided country which ended with his death by firing squad in the city of Trujillo at the age of only thirty-six.

William Walker’s Wars is a story of the remarkable life of a man once a lightning rod for controversy throughout the western hemisphere but today largely forgotten. If you have an interest in understanding the international dimensions of the controversy over slavery in the United States as it inched towards war in the 1850s, you will be interested in this book.

JMB

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