Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kentucky Filibusterers

The 1850s are such a fascinating time in American history. The decade was filled with so much conflict and change. On the one hand it only seems natural that this ten year span, sandwiched between the previousl decade, which brought the Mexican War and the following decade, which brought the Civil War, would be chocked full of controversy and contingency. Of the 1850s' many events, filibustering adventures made for some of the most intriguing of that decade.

I found the above article in the May 28, 1856, issue of the Lebanon, Kentucky, Post, a Democratic Party newspaper, while searching for news on how the beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in the U.S. Senate was received by Kentuckians. The article obviously originated with the Louisville Times, another Democratic Party sheet, but the wording in the last paragraph makes it clear that these papers fully endorsed these largely privately funded, led, and overwhelmingly unsuccessful ventures in empire building. The fact that the papers supported these efforts is made clear by the closing sentence: "May they safely reach their destination, and win the glory and renown which their daring and enterprise so rich entitles them to."

The Walker the article mentions is William Walker (pictured below), a Tennessean, who got fully caught up in the idea of Manifest Destiny and led several missions to stake out an empire for himself. In 1853, he made an ill-fated invasion of Mexico, which of course had been defeated by the United States only five short years before. Walker must have ignored the fact that the United States used a significant military force to win its conflict.

Two years later Walker invaded Nicaragua. Initially successful, he set up a government, made English the formal language there and reinstated the institution of slavery. However, Walker eventually surrendered himself to the U.S. Navy in the spring of 1857. Walker was not convicted for his efforts and was hailed by many like-minded Manifest Destiny mania-driven Americans intent of seeing America spread her rule and example to others whether it was wanted or not. Walker tried another invasion in the fall of 1857, but was forced to surrender to U.S. forces. He tried yet again in 1860. This would be Walker's final campaign as he was captured by the Royal Navy and was handed over to Honduran authorities who executed him by firing squad.

The article also mentions the Kentucky contingent being led by Colonel John Allen of Shelby County. Doing a little research in the book Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, I found that Allen had a long history of mercenary missions. 

Col. "Jack" Allen had participated in the Texas Revolution, the failed 1850 invasion of Cuba, an 1851 invasion of Mexico and, of course, in Nicaragua under William Walker. It appears that Allen's filibustering career was ended in the summer of 1856, when he returned to Kentucky after contracting "tropical fever." Filibustering had a intriguing hold on a number of other notable Kentuckians, too, including Theodore O'Hara and William Crittenden, nephew of John J. Crittenden.

The potential prizes of glory and gain were seemingly too much for many 1850s men to ignore and enthralling enough for them to take numerous yet recognized risks. 

Image of Walker courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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