The only outlet of Lake Cocibolca (known as Lake Nicaragua in the USA) is the Rio San Juan which flows 120 miles east to the Caribbean and in the course of its journey, drops 120 feet over three sets of rapids. At the entrance to the river sits the town of San Carlos and thirty miles downstream, El Castillo, a riverside hamlet consisting of a few streets paralleling the river and a hill perhaps three hundred feet high atop which sits the stone fortress of El Castillo, built by the Spanish in 1720 to prevent pirates from ascending the river to sack Granada. The fortress commands the river in the same way that West Point commands the Hudson River. Anyone ascending or descending exposed themselves to potentially withering cannon fire.
William Walker understood this, so in 1856, he seized control of the fortress. This gave him the ability to acquire arms and volunteers from New Orleans and allowed him to make havoc in Nicaragua for the next year. Most North Americans and Europeans have never heard of William Walker. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, he is infamously called “the Filibustero”. The airport in San Jose, Costa Rica is named after a Costa Rican lad, Juan Santamaria, who died in Nicaragua fighting to expel Walker. In Nicaragua, the day on which 25 Nicas surrounded in a ranch house drove off 40 of Walker’s men is celebrated each year as a national holiday and the site is preserved for all to see. It is located about 25 miles from Tipitapa on the way to Matagalpa.
Willie didn’t begin life as a warrior. Born in 1824 in Nashville, Tennessee, he was considered a child prodigy. He graduated “summa cum laude” from the University of Nashville at age 14 and then studied Medicine at Universities in Edinburgh and Heidelburg before graduating with a degree in Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania at age 19. But practicing Medicine was too boring. He cast his eyes south to New Orleans where he went to study Law. That was too boring as well. He became the editor of a New Orleans newspaper, employed Nathaniel Hawthorn, and became a devotee of slavery and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that dictated that the Anglo-Saxon Americans were destined by the hand of God to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific and to rule over the black and brown fellows who happened to be living in between those two oceans. New Orleans also was too boring so he left for the gold fields of California and became editor of the San Francisco Herald. There he developed a taste for gunfire and battle, the roar of a rifle and the acrid tang of spent gunpowder, fighting in three duels and getting wounded twice. Now this he concluded, was the proper destiny for a dashing, risk-taking, charismatic fellow who wanted to make his mark in the world: Action filled manly deeds that made history. His first attempt at taking over the Baja Peninsula of Mexico ended in ignominious failure so he drew the obvious conclusion: Think BIG,take over a Central American country and make it a slave state.
Luck was on his side. The Liberals in Leon were chronically feuding with the Conservatives in Granada and the capitol of Nicaragua wandered between those two cities depending on who currently had the most military muscle. In 1854, the owner of the San Francisco Herald was returning from the East coast of the USA to San Francisco amidst a civil war between those two parties, he traversed Nicaragua, pausing in Leon to be feted by the local Liberals who explained their plight: They lacked the military force needed to fend off the Conservatives and retain control of the government in Leon and wondered whether he knew anyone who could provide such assistance. Indeed he replied, he had just the man for the job, William Walker. The Liberal president hired Walker and up to 300 “colonists” to emigrate to Nicaragua with their arms and ammunition. Little did they realize that they had invited the fox into the chicken coop.
In May, 1855, he left San Francisco with sixty men, landed on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua and was joined by 100 locals. Among is party was Charles Frederick Henningsen, a well know English adventurer who had fought as a soldier of fortune in several European wars. Remarkably, one of his direct descendents who bears his name is an owner of villas at ApoyoResort. They marched south to Rivas where they trashed the Conservative army and defeated them again a few days later at La Virgen on the shore of Lake Cocibolca where nowadays, one departs from the Pan American Highway to head west to San Juan del Sur, ten miles away. So easy were these victories that he decided that for the good of the Nicaraguan people, he’d take over the entire country and make it a slave state. He then took Granada, made himself President and was recognized as such by Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the USA in 1856.To facilitate that bold vision of empire, he needed control of the Rio San Juan to bring like minded adventurers from the United States to join him. The promise of huge tracts of land and all the slaves they could snatch from the local population or import from the USA brought him thousands of volunteers. He seized El Castillo which was guarded by a half dozen sleepy Nicaraguans, and seized control of the three steamboats that carried traffic up and down the Rio from the Caribbean to San Carlos. In so doing, he sowed the seeds of his downfall because those steamboats were owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt who had initiated travel via the Rio to bring folks to and from the gold fields of California in 1849. While Willie went on to take over the country, Cornelius Vanderbilt, sorely irritated by the theft of his steamboats and the termination of the lucrative business of shuttling gold seekers to and from San Francisco, hired a Costa Rican army to march through the jungle and take El Castillo from behind. They did so when they arrived unexpectedly and found the garrison of twelve drunk men indulging in a siesta. Once cut off from re-supply, Walker’s fortunes rapidly dwindled until finally, his bedraggled starving army was surrounded at La Virgen. Unfortunately for Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras which had supplied troops for a coalition army to oust Walker, more than 10,000 died in the process and he had devastated the city of Masaya during a protracted gun battle in the city center; when driven out of Granada which has been the Presidential capitol, Walker’s second in command, Henningsenhe burned the city to the ground in a fit of pique and retreated to the Guadalupe church in Granada with 400 others where they were besieged for 18 days by a Central American coalition army of 4,000. Walker in Rivas sent a steamboat with 150 troops to Granada where in a surprise attack at night, they relieved the siege and removed all survivors out of Granada to Rivas. For good measure, he dumped his dead bodies into the wells of Granada, provoking a cholera epidemic. On the wall of the lobby of the Alhambra Hotel on the Central Square in Granada, there hang four prints of drawings made in 1856 of Walker and his army in Granada. They are worth a visit. Sitting in the bay of San Juan del Sur while Walker was surrounded at La Virgen was Walker’s savior, a US Navy warship whose Captain Davis negotiated a surrender for Walker and his officers and 300 soldiers who were taken aboard the vessel and returned to the United States. Walker was considered a hero in the South where his exploits had been closely followed. The rest of his army of thousands had all died, mainly of disease.
Walker wrote a book, his version of the war, to raise funds for another attempt, this time invading through Honduras and boarded a ship for that purpose in 1860.The British, whose Navy at that time controlled the Caribbean, took a dim view of such shenanigans, seized Walker from the ship and handed him over to the Honduran authorities who promptly stood him up in front of a wall and shot him. A proper end for Willie the Warrior.