William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras

Scott Martelle. Chicago Review, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61373-729-3
As Martelle (The Madman and the Assassin) recounts in this fascinating history, thousands of men down on their luck toward the end of the Gold Rush opted to chase another possible path to riches: follow 19th-century American adventurer William Walker through an unlikely series of exploits and intrigue that culminated in a despotic state. Restless and ambitious, Walker studied medicine in Europe, law in New Orleans, and journalism in San Francisco, but the pinnacle of his success came as he declared himself president first of his own republic and then of Nicaragua, with no military or governing experience to guide him. Martelle depicts the desperation of Walker and his men to create their own nation, attacking Baja California, Costa Rica, and Central American communities and confounding the United States as to how to deal with such blatant disregard for the Monroe Doctrine and the Neutrality Act. Followers, meanwhile, starved and deserted in great numbers amid brutality and several poorly strategized battles. Martelle’s account of the curiously uncharismatic leader’s early nomadic years is lively, and though the book gets bogged down in minutiae regarding Walker’s attempts to hold onto power, it springs back to life as Walker’s acts become increasingly desperate, as when he rescinded slavery in Nicaragua (despite originally creating a haven for slaveowners) or ordered the wholesale destruction of Grenada upon his departure. This mesmerizing cautionary tale is sure to fascinate armchair historians. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 12/03/2018
Release date: 11/01/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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