William Walker (May 8, 1824 – September 12, 1860) was an American filibuster and adventurer who attempted to conquer several Latin American countries in the mid-19th century. He appointed himself president of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled from that year to 1857. He was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.
Of Scottish descent, Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. His mother was Mary Norvell, the daughter of Lt. Lipscomb Norvell, a Revolutionary War officer who could trace his lineage back to the founding of Williamsburg. Lipscomb was also the father of U.S. Senator John Norvell, one of the first senators of Michigan and founder of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
William Walker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the early age of fourteen. He then traveled throughout Europe for two years, studying medicine at the universities of Edinburgh, Heidelberg, Göttingen, and Paris. The revolutions of 1848 took place during Walker's stay in Europe; the political minds that dominated the time, which include Garibaldi, Marx, Massini, Feuerbach, and Blanc, undoubtedly influenced his filibustering aspirations (Juda). At the age of 19 he received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study law.
After a short stint as a lawyer, Walker became co-owner and editor of the newspaper New Orleans Crescent. In 1849, he moved to San Francisco, California, where he worked as a journalist and fought three duels, in two of which he was wounded. Around that time, Walker conceived the project of privately conquering vast regions of Latin America, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers. Such campaigns were then known as filibustering or freebooting.
William Walker convinced many Southerners of the desirability of creating a slave-holding empire in tropical Latin America. In 1861, when U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed that the 36°30' parallel north be declared as a line of demarcation between free and slave territories, some Republicans denounced such an arrangement, saying that it "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and State owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego."
Before the end of the American Civil War, Walker's memory enjoyed great popularity in the southern and western United States, where he was known as "General Walker" and as the "grey-eyed man of destiny." Northerners, on the other hand, generally regarded him as a pirate. Despite his intelligence and personal charm, Walker consistently proved to be a limited military and political leader. Unlike men of a similar vein such as Cecil Rhodes, Walker's grandiose scheming struggled and ultimately failed, thus affording less esteem and respect.
In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856-1857 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced. April 11 is a Costa Rican national holiday in memory of Walker's defeat at Rivas. Juan Santamaría, who played a key role in that battle, is honored as the Costa Rican national hero.
Although Walker is far better known today in Central America than he is the United States, he does have a number of interesting ties to Nashville, Tennessee, the city of his birth. He was a close friend of Dr. John Berrien Lindsley, who had been his classmate at both the University of Nashville and at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Lindsley succeeded his father, Phillip Lindsley, as head of the University of Nashville in 1855, and later founded Montgomery Bell Academy, a secondary school tied to the university. The medical program at the University of Nashville became part of Vanderbilt University in Vanderbilt University 1875, an institution funded by a gift from Walker's nemesis, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The literary arts program at the University of Nashville became Peabody College, which joined Vanderbilt University in 1979. Locally, Walker is remembered as the only native Nashvillian ever to become a head of state, and a historical marker commemorates his birthplace, downtown not far from Second Avenue.