Walker Invades Nicaragua

Hired to support the liberal side of the civil war in Nicaragua, the American adventurer William Walker betrayed his employers, declared himself president, and was recognized as such by the U.S. government. He governed the country, legalizing slavery and declaring English the official language of Nicaragua, until he was defeated by the Allied Army of Central America.

Summary of Event

In 1855, Nicaragua was in the midst of a civil war that had begun in 1830. The United States, meanwhile, endorsed a policy of manifest destiny. Manifest destiny Manifest destiny;and Nicaragua[Nicaragua] was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 to support an ideology of American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere as a benevolent duty and divine right. Consequently, when Francisco Castellón sought William Walker’s aid for the Liberal Democratic faction in the Nicaraguan civil war, the U.S. government tacitly supported his activity. Ironically, Walker’s intervention would lead not only to his own death but also to a rise of nationalism in the formerly divided Central American republics. Walker, William
Castellón, Francisco
Vanderbilt, Cornelius
Central America;and William Walker[Walker]
[kw]Walker Invades Nicaragua (June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857)
[kw]Invades Nicaragua, Walker (June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857)
[kw]Nicaragua, Walker Invades (June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857)
Walker, William
Castellón, Francisco
Vanderbilt, Cornelius
Central America;and William Walker[Walker]
[g]Central America and the Caribbean;June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857: Walker Invades Nicaragua[3070]
[g]Nicaragua;June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857: Walker Invades Nicaragua[3070]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857: Walker Invades Nicaragua[3070]
[c]Government and politics;June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857: Walker Invades Nicaragua[3070]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 16, 1855-May 1, 1857: Walker Invades Nicaragua[3070]
Cole, Byron

Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua was the result of an invitation to support the Liberal Democrats against the conservative Legitimists, who were influenced by Great Britain and Europe. Bryon Cole Cole, Byron , the publisher and owner of the short-lived Commercial-Enterprise newspaper in San Francisco for which Walker worked, responded to this invitation. He went to Nicaragua to negotiate a contract with Castellón for Walker and his mercenaries. Cole ultimately negotiated two contracts with Castellón, as the first did not satisfy Walker, who was also trained as a lawyer. Walker insisted that the agreement appear to be for purposes of colonization rather than military intervention, because a military contract would have violated neutrality laws. The final contract, signed on December 28, 1854, authorized Cole to engage the services of three hundred men for military duty in Nicaragua. They were to receive a monthly salary and, at the end of the campaign, some land to colonize.

In February of 1855, Walker gave up his newspaper job in order to organize his second filibustering campaign. His first had been to Sonora, Mexico, Mexico;Walker invasion where he had attempted to install himself as the local president. Filibusters during the nineteenth century were soldiers of fortune, or mercenary adventurers. Walker collected a group of some fifty-eight such men, who became known as William Walker’s Immortals. They reached Realejo, Nicaragua, on June 16, 1855. The next day, they proceeded to the Liberal Democratic stronghold in León, where Walker met Castellón, a rather timid leader. Walker’s mercenaries, dubbed the American Phalanx, and some 110 Nicaraguans embarked for their first battle, in Rivas. The Nicaraguan soldiers deserted at the first shots, however, leaving the Immortals to defend themselves against Legitimist troops that outnumbered them eight to one. The Immortals retreated to recover.

In July, 1855, Byron Cole Cole, Byron joined Walker in Nicaragua and negotiated with Castellón yet another contract, which authorized the recruitment of an additional three hundred soldiers who would be paid one hundred dollars a month and be given five hundred acres of land at the end of the campaign. Perhaps more important, Castellón authorized Walker to handle any conflicts between Nicaragua and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which facilitated travel from the east to the west coast of the United States via Nicaragua, using Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This route through Nicaragua was the major trade route from New York to San Francisco in the 1850’s.

In early September, 1855, Walker and the Liberal Democrats won a solid victory against the Legitimist troops at Rivas. Unfortunately, Castellón died of cholera Cholera;in Nicaragua[Nicaragua] soon afterward, on September 8, 1855. Walker hoped for more Nicaraguan troops, but the new commander warned that the spread of cholera would dampen the volunteer spirit. On October 3, 1855, thirty volunteers arrived aboard the Accessory Transit Company’s steamer, along with representatives of the company who seemed willing to support American efforts to establish themselves in Nicaragua. Later that same month, Walker captured the conservative stronghold of Granada.

On October 23, 1855, Walker signed a treaty with the opposition, and Patricio Rivas Rivas, Patricio was installed as provisional president of an independent Nicaragua. Walker was named the new commander in chief of the Nicaraguan army and he effectively took control the country, ruling though its puppet president. Despite the illegal nature of Walker’s expedition, on May 20, 1856, U.S. president Franklin Pierce Pierce, Franklin
[p]Pierce, Franklin;and Nicaragua[Nicaragua] recognized the Rivas-Walker alliance as the legitimate government of Nicaragua. In July, Walker jettisoned his puppet: He conducted controlled direct elections and became president of Nicaragua. Although capable of speaking Spanish, he gave his inaugural speech in English. He alluded in this speech to the “cupidity” of other nations, whether “neighboring or distant,” suggesting an awareness of the ongoing British-American discussions on the disposition of the Central American republics.

Illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper showing American filibusterers resting in a Nicaraguan convent.

(Library of Congress)

Wary of his precarious situation, the former abolitionist sought support from the southern states by revoking Nicaragua’s 1824 emanicipation edict. This decision helped Walker gain the support of John H. Wheeler, the U.S. minister to Nicaragua and a southerner and slaveholder. Wheeler, however, was reprimanded by Washington for overt favoritism and forced to resign his post.

By the end of 1856, Walker’s situation was difficult indeed. Earlier in the year, he had revoked the Accessory Transit Company’s charter in exchange for support from its competitors, but he had gambled on the wrong men. Cornelius Vanderbilt was furious about the losses Walker had caused him. He not only withdrew his earlier support, but also worked to discredit Walker with the U.S. government. Meanwhile, a coalition of the young Central American nations of Nicaragua Nicaragua , Costa Rica Costa Rica , and Honduras Honduras organized a united campaign against Walker. Fearing the consequences if he was captured by Central American forces, Walker surrendered on May 1, 1857, to U.S. Navy captain Charles H. Davis Davis, Charles H. . Davis transported him safely back to the United States, where Walker was greeted as a hero on his arrival in New Orleans.

Walker returned to Central America in 1860, disembarking in Trujillo, Honduras, where he fell into the hands of Captain Norvell Salmon of the British Great Britain;and Central America[Central America] Royal Navy. Salmon turned him over to the Honduran authorities rather than deport him again. Walker was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860, at the age of thirty-six.


Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua threatened the very existence of Nicaragua and the other nascent Central American republics. His intentions were to “regenerate,” or Americanize, Nicaragua, giving it the blessings of its more “civilized” neighbor to the north, including English as an official language. His initiative, though certainly indicative of personal desires for self-aggrandizement, just as clearly reflected the politics of manifest destiny, the increasing U.S. interest in Nicaragua, and the competition between Great Britain and the United States for control of the Central American republics. Cornelius Vanderbilt perhaps best exemplified American business interests. Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company earned him a great deal of money, making passenger travel from one coast of the United States to the other cheaper and shorter than earlier routes around Cape Horn. Nicaragua was also considered the prime location for an interoceanic canal, to be constructed by connecting the two large and contiguous lakes, and was therefore of interest to Vanderbilt and other financiers.

Ultimately, however, Walker’s campaign damaged every interest he pursued. He revoked the Accessory Transit Company’s charter, costing Vanderbilt an estimated one million dollars and damaging American business interests. His campaign harmed the Nicaraguan economy and brought about the deaths of an estimated twelve thousand people. He created among Central Americans a suspicious distrust of the United States. Perhaps the single positive outcome of Walker’s invasion was the unity he provoked as Nicaraguans came together to defeat him and, symbolically, their powerful northern neighbor.

Further Reading

  • Harrison, Brady. Agent of Empire: William Walker and the Imperial Self in American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Examines Walker the man and the myth in the context of American imperialism and the mercenary romance, a subgenre of the historical romance. Examines exemplary works by Bret Harte and Richard Harding Davis and the sometimes dangerous American tendency to equate self with nation.
  • May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Detailed history of private military expeditions in Latin America and elsewhere, with extensive material on Walker. Illustrations and maps.
  • Rosengarten, Frederic Jr. Freebooters Must Die! The Life and Death of William Walker, the Most Notorious Filibuster of the Nineteenth Century. Wayne, Pa.: Haverford House, 1976. Excellent biography of Walker with excerpts of contemporaneous newspapers, generous illustrations, and bilbiography.
  • Scroggs, William O. Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates. 1916. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1969. Authoritative biography that situates Walker in the spirit of the times and details the negative consequences of his actions for Nicaragua.
  • Walker, William. The War in Nicaragua. 1860. Reprint. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985. Reproduction of Walker’s book on his invasion, written in late 1859 and early 1860, primarily from memory.

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