HP003: Filibuster Movement

HP003: Filibuster Movement

As many of you, I know the term filibuster to mean a long speech that a senator makes when trying to stall for time. Also, like many of you I associate this term with the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. However, there is another meaning of this term: “An adventurer who engages in unauthorized warfare against a country with which his own country is at peace.”

Works Cited:
American History Illustrated, El presidente gringo, Feb 1989, Vol. 24 Issue 10, p.14


As many of you, I know the term filibuster to mean a long speech that a senator makes when trying to stall for time. Also, like many of you I associate this term with the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. However, there is another meaning of this term: “An adventurer who engages in unauthorized warfare against a country with which his own country is at peace.”

This is a little known part of history, just before the civil war in America. This is exciting history to me. There is very little written about it. It was mentioned on a PBS program called The History Detectives. Yes, I am a total nerd I watch PBS. I managed to dig some things up regarding this Filibuster period.

Filibusterers were active in the decade preceding the American Civil War. They started in 1849 with Narciso Lopez who led three unsuccessful campaigns against Cuba. On his last attempt he was murdered with 50 southern volunteers by Spanish military authorities.

The most well known filibuster was William Walker a Californian. Walker had heard legends from Central American Indians about a gray-eyed man of destiny. This man was supposed to bring peace and liberate the Indians. They would lay fruit before this man and hail him as a messiah. Walker had gray eyes and is quoted as saying, “I am not ashamed to say that I am favored by the Gods.” According to the History Illustrated article Walker believed that the pure white race would triumph. He said, “World history was abounding with examples of superior races overwhelming the inferior.” The article touts him as an American Caesar. However, to the people of Nicaragua Walker embodies all that is unholy. There is a statue of a boy who killed one of Walker’s soldiers in the small town of San Jacinto.

Walker was an odd-looking fellow, and unlikely explorer. He was scarcely 120 pounds. He had a sharp shaky voice and flimsy blonde hair. He often wore un-matching comical clothing. His only desire was fame and recognition.

He was born in 1824 of a Scotch father. His father was a Nashville dry-goods merchant who had made his riches in the insurance business. Both of Walker’s parents were members of the fundamentalist sect, Disciples of Christ. The wanted Walker to study religion and become a minister, but Walker instead turned his attention to medicine. He was a very gifted student and graduated from the University of Nashville at the age of 14. At the University of Pennsylvania he obtained his Medical degree at the age of 19. Unable to stand the gross conditions of the sickly and perhaps more importantly his inability to cure his mother’s acute rheumatism he moved away from medicine.

His next interest was law and then Journalism. His restlessness had now lead him to Ellen Martin a deaf and mute woman that he fell in love with. Martin soon contracted cholera and died suddenly. After her death he escaped to San Francisco. Where he began work as a writer for a local paper. There he was fascinated by the hot topic of the time, slavery. Here he also heard of other’s attempts to take over Latin countries and turn them in to slave states.

On October 15, 1853, he sailed from San Francisco with a small force, of about 45 men. Their mission, he stated was to protect women and children living along the Mexican border from attacks by the Apache Indians and to bring democracy and stability to the troubled land. After landing in La Paz, he proclaimed Lower California and Sonora an independent republic. The new republic would bring a flag, a cabinet and constitution all developed by Walker. As the enterprise began to fall apart Walker executed two of his troops for trying to flee. Nevertheless, more and more troops began to leave him. Lack of supplies and Mexican resistance forced him back to the US on May 8, 1854, his 30th birthday. Walker stumbled back to the states wearing one boot and a makeshift sandal. Most of his men had been lost in the attacks. In November 1854 he was tried for violating neutrality laws and was acquitted of all charges in 8 minutes.

After the unsuccessful attempt at Baja California turned his attention to Nicaragua. He left the US exactly a year after being forced back on May 1855. A revolutionary faction invited him during a civil war there. Walker and 58 men arrive in June 1855. The faction gives him 150 more men, which he uses to battle his way through the country. After many of his battles he ordered his men not to kill those who surrendered but to mend their wounds. These were his first steps in showing the people of Nicaragua that he would be a great ruler. He also published a manifesto to the Nicaraguan’s glorifying his hope to create a true democracy.

When some of the Nicaraguan people asked Walker to accept the presidency Walker declined. This so impressed the US minister to Nicaragua Wheeler, that he began work on Walker’s behalf without asking the US government first. Walker became president of Nicaragua on June 29, 1856. He ignored the fact that the Nicaraguan constitution excluded non-native born people from taking office.

In the US Walker became something of a folk hero. Another man hungry for American adventure has made good in abroad. The newspapers followed his exploits.

On September 22, 1856 Walker canceled legislation that had abolished slavery several decades earlier. This move opened up Nicaragua for the American’s Southern slaveholders, who now had a place to go where they would not be in jeopardy of losing their free labor. Wheeler, the American Ambassador to Nicaragua thought this to be pure brilliance as he was a slaveholder himself from North Carolina. The Richmond Inquirer stated, “This [is a] a magnificent country that General Walker has taken possession of in the name of the white race.”

At this time Nicaragua was a key transport link between Atlantic and Pacific Ocean shipping.

Two officers of the Accessory Transit Company gave financial assistance slash bribery to Walker so that he would turn it over to them. He seized the company on the pretext of a charter violation and turned it over to the two officers.

When Walker seized control of the Accessory Transit Company, Cornelius Vanderbuilt, the steamship and railroad financer and owner, he ran into some serious opposition. Vanderbuilt formed a coalition of Central American States against Walker. Walker surrendered to the US Navy on May 1, 1857 in order to evade capture by the coalition.

Once back in the states Walker received a hero’s welcome. Many Southern supports were willing to finance more ventures into Central America. The US Government issued vague warnings stating the Filibusterism was a violation of neutrality laws. They added that any individuals involved in military expeditions against foreign nations must be detained. However, later in June 1857 Walker met with President Buchanan and said that the President had encouraged him to return to Nicaragua.

On an attempt to reach Nicaragua again Walker and his crew of 50 men was arrested by the USS Saratoga and brought back to the US. Southerners were outraged and wanted the captain of the Saratoga court-martialed. Walker was tried in New Orleans and acquitted by 10 of the 12 jurors, another fine example of American justice. Walker lost no time and was soon off on another try at Nicaragua. This time his ship was stopped by a reef and sunk. Again the Navy rescued him and again he returned to much fan fair from his Southern supporters.

On his last attempt, he was taken into custody by the British Navy on the coast of Honduras. The British Navy was there because Walker had taken the port of Truxillo where the revenue from customs had originally been going to the British government. Walker had surrendered under the impression that the British Navy would surely return him to the States where he could once again depart for Nicaragua . Instead captain Norvell Salmon turned him over to Honduras authorities. They in turn put him to death by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

With the American Civil war and Abolition southern support for land conquest died out.