When one mentions Nashville, Tennessee, country music stars might first come to mind as I am sure one’s first thought isn’t of a U.S. filibuster, Nicaraguan president, or an important character in Costa Rican history. However, on May 8, 1824, the future self-appointed president of Nicaragua was born in this legendary city.
At a young age, William Walker proved to stand out from the others starting post-secondary at 12 and graduating from the University of Nashville at only 14 years. While watching his mother suffer from sickness, he decided to go on to study medicine next finishing out his medical studies by the age of 19.
The Early Conquest
With a prodigy-like mind, he took on my talents from studying and practicing law while already being medically trained. His path led him to the newspaper field where he was not one to shy away from criticizing others in this public forum. As a result of his unfiltered opinions, one disagreement was taken from inside the office to the realities of outside, where it was addressed through a duel. He was shot twice in the battle, wounding him but providing more publicity, attention and supporters.
William Walker was a man of much self-confidence that at one point he decided he would create a colony and thus approached the Mexican government, only to be denied. However, he didn’t accept the response, recruiting slavery supporters to pursue his mission.
With fewer than 50 men, he conquered La Paz, Baja California, which at that time had a significantly decreased population, playing a role in the result. In turn he named himself president of the Republic of Lower California, altering the laws to that similar to Louisiana which would allow for the legality of slavery. His confidence was so strong in his conquest that he even went forth to create his own flag of the Republic of Sonora.
Unfortunately for Walker, confidence and belief don’t prevent you from facing trial. Faced with the repercussions of his actions once again, his destiny would not lead him to jail or death, in fact, he was acquitted in only a mere eight minutes of jury deliberation.
After a brief return to practicing law, William Walker saw a new potential opportunity and his next challenge, the lucrative potential in Nicaragua’s trade route. During this time Atlantic to Pacific trade crossed through Lake Nicaragua. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company was doing quite well financially with the monopoly he possessed over this route.
However, there was a lot more than just trade routes evolving in Nicaragua. A civil war was happening in 1854, as the Legitimists centered in Grenada and the Democrats in Leon battled for power. With William Walker’s invested interest in the country and his well-known reputation, the Democrats reached out to him for support. William Walker was off to his next mission accompanied by a small group of volunteers, adding on a number of U.S. citizens and Nicaraguans once arriving at his destination.
William Walker had brought on much attention as well as enemies, especially with tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt whose business relied on transportation through Nicaragua. So, when William Walker decided to retract this privilege a new joining of forces occurred between America and some of Central America, one being that of Costa Rica.
As a neighboring country, President Juan Rafael Mora Porras was well aware of the situation and the potential effects for his country and people, especially if William Walker had his eyes set on overtaking Costa Rica next.
Coming to Costa Rica
Under his direction, William Walker’s filibusters headed into Costa Rica, resting in Santa Rosa after the long, exhausting journey. However, the country anticipated this, calling their country to arms as they had declared war on William Walker and his followers. On March 20, 1856, Costa Rica surrounded them while they had their guards down resting at Hacienda Santa Rosa. Taking them by surprise, the Costa Ricans were able to win this historic battle in only 14 minutes.
Costa Rica continued with their success as they traveled on to what is known as the legendary Second Battle of Rivas taking on William Walker’s mercenaries on April 11, 1856. But the filibuster and his men had abandoned the important city of Rivas under the impression they would be forming their attack from the North allowing luck to be on the side of the Costa Rica army.
With numbers low, Costa Rica was able to penetrate the city conquering Rivas but there was no time to celebrate as it was well known William Walker did not give up on his conquests. He returned with his men a few days later to take back control, and the attacks ensued.
At one point they had gained leverage in their position in a home and boarding house giving them a wide range of view overseeing the streets. This allowed his men to be on the offensive, easily defending themselves with coverage of the area. But the Costa Ricans had a plan to disarm that, to set the building aflame and burn them all down, and forcing their evacuation. Several attempts were made all being shot at, wounded, or killed.
It was one young man, who to this day is honored in Costa Rica every April 11th, Juan Santamaria, that would be the roadblock to William Walker’s dictatorship. Well aware of the consequences of his decision he volunteered to take on this mission after confirming the care of his mother in the event of his almost certain death.
The drummer boy bravely went forth toward the snipers. He was shot at along the way, but he and his flame made it to the home, sending the building up in flames forcing its inhabitants out of their shelter. Juan Santamaria would later become a national hero for Costa Rica for this act of valor and sacrifice.
William Walker was not one to take lightly to defeat and filled the water wells of Rivas with the corpses. In turn, a cholera epidemic killed thousands. Costa Rica would continue to halt William Walker’s dreams by continuing to help his nemesis Cornelius Vanderbilt, who originally had his privileges revoked on the San Juan River. Together they took back the boats and once again Vanderbilt had his transit route back cutting off William Walker’s control.
After several battles with his force of men, he made his way to Granada gaining control and this Nashville-born man ended up declaring himself as the leader and president of Nicaragua which in 1856 was recognized by U.S President Franklin Pierce. He continued his agenda overturning the country’s anti-enslavement laws and was clear with his motto and manifesto of Five or None, the five Central American countries at that time.
The attacks on him and his exhausted men did not cease as other Central American countries came together joining Costa Rica. In December 1856, they stormed Granada, where he was residing, forcing him from the city.
It was in May 1857 when the day finally came that William Walker surrendered due to the ongoing efforts of Costa Rica and the allied Central American forces. After 36 years he would take on the last battle that he would not survive, sentenced to death by firing squad.