Monday, April 04, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2016, April 4: Wiiliam Walker and the proslavery filibuster movement

I wish I could think of some Panama Papers link to Confederate "Heritage" Month. Because I'm fascinated by the money-laundering and tax-evasion and shady real-estate deals being described in the far-flung coverage of it.

Maybe for next year I can at least dig into some of the Latin American connections to slavery and the Confederacy.

And there were connections. Like the white Southerners who emigrated to Brazil after the Civil War, when slavery was still legal in Brazil.

Then there are the cowboy stories of the filibusterers. Not the Congressional kind, the raisig private armies to take over another country kind. The ever-trusty Encyclopædia Britannica's online article on Filibustering as of today says:

Spurred by land hunger and by the desire of proslavery Southerners to add future slave states to the Union, filibusterers were active during the decade prior to the American Civil War. Starting in 1849, Narcisco López led three unsuccessful expeditions against Cuba. He convinced many prominent Southerners that the island was ripe for revolt against Spain. In his last attempt (1851), López landed in Havana with a contingent of Southern volunteers. The expected popular uprising against Spain failed to materialize, and López, along with about 50 Southerners, was executed by Spanish military authorities.

The high point of American filibustering was reached under William Walker, a Californian who first tried to take Mexican Baja (Lower) California and then turned his attention to Nicaragua. In 1855 Walker took advantage of a civil war in Nicaragua to take control of the country and set himself up as dictator. In May 1856 President Franklin Pierce recognized the Walker regime.
Pierce was crassly proslavery.

William Walker is not an admirable character in that he was willing to do things like that. But he was a fascinating character as an adventurer, though an adventurer on behalf of slavery.

William Walker (1824–1860)

And since I'm fond of looking into older history books, I dug out this description of the episode from A Concise History of the American Republic (1977) by Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steel Commager and William Leuchtenburg, pp. 253-5, which shows that Walker was as fond of the Money Power as he was the Slave Power:

In the meantime, a curious episode occurred in Nicaragua. Cornelius Vanderbilt, 'commodore' of the Hudson river steamboat fleet, organized a company to compete with the Panama railway . It ran steamers up the San Juan river and across Lake Nicaragua, whence freight was forwarded to the Pacific by muleback. Wanting political stability in that region, this company financed William Walker, a professional filibuster, to overthrow the existing government of Nicaragua. Walker, 'the gray-eyed man of destiny,' in 1856 succeeded in making himself President of Nicaragua. He planned (with the approval of Pierce's Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis) to introduce Negro slavery and to conquer the rest of Central America. But he had the bad judgment to quarrel with Vanderbilt and seize his ships. The 'commodore' then supported a Central American coalition that invaded Nicaragua, and Walker surrendered. Twice more this prince of filibusters tried; on his last attempt, in 1860, he was seized and executed by a Honduran firing squad. [my emphasis]
The reckless of these activities carried a risk of war with Great Britain, when Pierce sent an American ship in 1954 to bombard the Nicaraguan city of Greytown.

It was neither the first nor the last time that the Slave Power and their supporters did reckless things.

William Freehling gives a flavor of Walker's proslavery agitation and goals in The Road to Disuntion. Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (2007). He talks about Walker and other filibusters like Narcisco López and their problems with the US Neutrality Laws, which made filibustering illegal (p. 161):

William Walker, briefly president of Nicaragua in the mid-1850s, can be more easily seen as a planters' partisan and the Neutrality Laws' victim. This native Nashvillian and (sometimes) resident of New Orleans articulated (on occasion) a brilliant slaveholder case for Caribbean expansion. Sounding just like a western Missouri slaveholder, worried that free soil Kansas would imprison the state on a third side, Walker told Georgia planters that the Nicaraguan question involves "whether you will permit yourselves to be hemmed in on the south, as you are already on the north and west." The South must not remain "quiet and idle, while impassable barriers" closed up "the only side left open."
But Freehling also notes that Walker didn't seem personally that dedicated to the proslavery cause that he nevertheless served:

William Walker preferred free soil California, his most common American residence in the 1850s, to enslaved New Orleans, where he restively spent the late 1840s. The "Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny" never held slaves, never farmed, never married, never owned land, never settled in any profession, never stayed in any community. ...

The shy dreamer, always wrapped (even on the battlefield) in an enormous preacher's frock coat, never preached a proslavery syllable in his conquered land or legalized Nicaraguan slavery until his hold on the country had slipped, a year after he seized power. His speeches down south on proslavery Caribbean adventuring came only after his support in New York and San Francisco capitalistic circles had dried up. He first based his filibustering operations in San Francisco, not New Orleans. His first soldiers were failed gold dusters, not enterprising slaveholders. His Nicaraguan army ultimately enrolled as many foreign-born as southern-born troops and more northern-born soldiers. His men were scarcely ever slaveholders, rarely farmers, usually the poor young sports in the cities where capitalistic merchants financed his flings in Nicaragua. When this strange general swore at his enemies, he could sound as fanatical as John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. But as fanatical on slavery as was John Brown and equally the victim of U.S. capture?! No way, answered most Southerners, who generally considered this curiosity some species from another civilization.
The KQED series History Detectives Special Investigations sketches "The Filibuster Movement" in this undated article.

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