Tycoon's War How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer

Review :

The ugly (only) side of manifest destiny

I consider myself pretty well read and at least passably knowledgeable in American history, which is why I was surprised that I knew so little about William Walker. I first came across him in an odd little book called "Legendary Outlaws of the West" (Williams). A chapter discussed his early attempts to invade and claim Baja, Mexico. He was rebuffed by a notorious outlaw/rancher named Melendrez, who later was commissioned as a general in the army for helping defeat Walker and his men.

You'd think Walker would return to the U.S. humbled, but instead - driven by a unwavering commitment to manifest destiny (translation: it's our right to do whatever we want) he set his sights on Nicaragua, ultimately leading a successful invasion with a handful of filibusteros (based on the Dutch word for freebooter - pirate - and source of today's "filibuster"). His dreams of empire were in direct opposition, ultimately, with shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt who wanted to control access across the country via Lake Nicaragua to profit from trips to the west coast of America (at the time, pre-railroad, boats were much faster than going overland and the profits were obscene.)

It was hard to know who to pull for in this war: a tough as nails mercenary who, after a series of victories, was elected president of Nicaragua, or the epitome of a capitalist successes, Vanderbilt, literally a self-made man able to devote millions to destabilizing Walker's regime in order to make more millions.
This is a great book, thoroughly researched - in fact, I started to lose track of the many battles and the many players strutting across the stage only to be executed against an adobe wall - and I highly recommend it. My favorite passage, near the end, was an inspired bit of sabotage that ultimately sealed Walker's defeat.

It really puts in stark light the mind set that possibly still shapes American idealism - that we have some moral obligation to reshape the world in our image. Sadly, the only force greater than manifest destiny appears to be capitalism and the desire to concentrate vast amounts of wealth by hook or by hook or, in this case, by arming soldiers and mercenaries and tempting them to invade other countries.

In Walker's own words, to his troops after his defeat, "You have written a page of American history which is impossible to forget or erase." Sadly, he appears all but forgotten in his own country though his dark legacy lives on in Central America.


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