One of the guides mentioned that Costa Rica had no army. So I proposed a coup of the Costa Rica government. I would select a large stick or branch and approach the capital, demanding control of the country. My rule would be just but short, as I predicted I would be ousted by someone with a bigger stick within about 15 minutes. Mainly, the whole adventure would be so I could put “President of Costa Rica” on my resume. Then I learned that a guy from Nashville had tried a similar plan in 1856.
Tennessee's William Walker, despite being well educated, was unable to succeed in the world. He became a respected physician in Europe, but left medicine after the death of his mother. He practiced law in Louisiana, though the corrupt political structures drove him to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. His idealistic writing attacked the city’s government and rival newspapers. His stance on the eventual abolishment of slavery was challenged by pistol duels. In the wake of these duels, and the cholera death of his deaf-mute fiancee, New Orleans socialite Ellen Martin, Walker fled for the gold fields of California.
Penniless, he decided to embark on a new career and took the national sentiment of Manifest Destiny as a personal challenge. He led 45 mercenary soldiers into Baja California and declared himself president. He annexed the Mexican state of Sonora and renamed it the Republic of Sonora. Fearing Walker was the spearhead for a larger invasion force, the Mexican government signed the Gadsen Purchase, selling Tucson, Arizona and a potential transcontinental railroad route to the United States, ending the Spanish-American War. Since the two countries were now at peace, American troops forced Walker to surrender his holdings and put him on trial. He stirred the jury by casting his actions as patriotic American expansionism and was acquitted of violating the Neutrality Acts.
Hailed as a hero, he tried a similar maneuver in Nicaragua. With 57 men, he sailed into Granada and captured the city. He established a weak provisional government and set himself as commander of the military. Before the opening of the Panama Canal the riverboats of Nicaragua were a key transportation link between the coasts of the United States. Walker began to Americanize the country, declaring English the official language. To encourage his supporters in the American southern states, he lifted Nicaragua's prohibition on slavery. Walker then announced his intention to consolidate the remaining four Central American provinces into a private slaveholding empire.
In 1856, Walker ordered troops into northern Costa Rica to capture first the shipping routes in Guanacaste, then the capital of San Jose. Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora raised an army of peasant farmers to counterattack Walker’s mercenaries. After a 14 minute battle, Walker’s forces fled to Rivas, Nicaragua and rejoined the remainder of the Nicaraguan army, which had been chased from Grenada by an alliance from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This force was funded by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose profitable Nicaraguan riverboat charter (the foundation of the Vanderbilt family fortune) Walker had transferred to Vanderbilt’s business rivals. Costa Rican drummer boy Juan Santamaria rushed the army’s headquarters and though mortally wounded was able to set the building on fire, ensuring the defeat of Walker’s troops.
Walker surrendered to an American naval officer and was returned to the United States to the cheers of thousands who met him at the dock. He was initially encouraged by President Buchanan to return to Nicaragua and launched six more wildly unsuccessful expeditions to retake the country. Seeking an easier target, Walker invaded Honduras instead and overthrew the city of Truxillo. Honduran forces quickly forced Walker to surrender to the British Navy. The British sent his troops back to the United States, but returned Walker to the Honduran authorities, who executed him September 12, 1860.