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Long after the British navy captured William Walker in the wilds of Honduras, and longer still after he led private armies to invade Mexico and Nicaragua, people wondered what motivated such an unimposing man to undertake such audacious acts — what, indeed, had earned him a reputation as "the gray-eyed man of destiny." The answer likely lies in Nashville, where on May 8, 1824, Walker became the first of six children born to James S. Walker, a Scottish immigrant, and Mary Norvell Walker, a Kentucky native. There, amid a large and enterprising family in a community built around ambition, his dreams and his view of the world first took root.
Nashville at the time was just a few years removed from its frontier-town roots, but if it had an upper crust, Walker was born to it. In 1820 his father had arrived from Glasgow at age twenty-two to join his uncle Robert T. Walker in a general merchandise business. Shortly thereafter, the two men partnered with three others to buy a riverfront warehouse and a small fleet of steamboats — placing them at the center of commerce in the region. Situated on the Cumberland River, Nashville served as a crucial nexus between north-central Tennessee farmers and markets in both the North and the South. Most of the region's farms and plantations produced tobacco, corn, and cotton, and relied heavily on slave labor, as did the townspeople of Nashville. The city relied on steamboats to transport their goods down the Cumberland to the Ohio River, then up the Ohio to Pittsburgh and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. There was money to be made, and young James Walker and his partners found their success. James soon left, though, to cofound the Nashville Commercial Insurance Company, which brought him into intimate contact with Nashville's expanding business community.
It's unclear how and when James met his future wife, though it's easy to guess: Mary Norvell was the sister of two of his partners in the shipping business. Born in 1802, Mary had moved to Nashville to join three of her nine brothers, the first of whom had arrived around 1807. In 1820, when her future husband arrived, she was living with her brother Moses (eventually one of Walker's partners), along with seven other "free white" people and six slaves. A letter Mary wrote in October 1822 to another brother, William, then living in Lexington, Kentucky, doesn't mention Walker or the prospects of romance but evidences the Norvell family's closeness. "We shall in the course of two or three weeks begin to look for father," apparently coming for a visit from his Kentucky home, "and it is not impossible but that some of us may return with him, however as it is yet uncertain, I shall say little about it, but Moses talks of [his wife] Hannah's spending the winter in Lexington, and if she goes I shall accompany her, and shall do myself the happiness of spending the greater part of my time with you."
While the details of James and Mary's courtship are lost, it must have been a bit of a whirlwind. They married on August 7, 1823, and nine months later almost to the day she gave birth to William, known in his youth as Billy. Another son, Lipscomb (who later went by his middle name, Norvell), followed in 1826; a third son named James, after his father, in 1828; a daughter, Alice, in 1831, who died nine months later; followed by another daughter, also named Alice, in 1833; and their last child, Joseph, who died seven months after his 1836 birth.
The year after Billy was born, the Walkers bought their first home, on High Street a few blocks from the public square, and then in 1840 moved two blocks south to a two-story redbrick house on Cherry Street, where their neighbors included some of Nashville's wealthier and more powerful citizens. Their new home was grand by Nashville standards, fronted by a narrow grass strip and a large stone block to help people alight from carriages. Three stone steps led to the door, where just inside was "a graceful staircase leading to the upper floor." A kitchen and porch stretched across the rear of the house, and at the far end of the backyard stood a small building for servants. Census records from 1830, when Nashville's population was just under fifty-six hundred people, had indicated that James Walker owned no slaves, unusual for the time and for his place in the community. But the 1840 Census recorded Walker owning four adult slaves, two men and two women.
Religion played a significant role in the Walker family. Mary had been raised Baptist; some of her relatives were lay leaders in their congregations, and her brothers opened one of their warehouses for regular church meetings. Her husband, on the other hand, was a member of the Disciples of Christ — he donated $150 in 1842 for a church-supported college in Kentucky. John M. Bass, writing for the American Historical Magazine in 1938, said that William Walker's "parents are described as of strong and somewhat stern character." He didn't specify exactly who had described them that way, but that bearing would mesh with the expectations of their fellow churchgoers.
The family followed political developments quite closely. Mary counted among her acquaintances Sarah Polk, wife of future US president James K. Polk, who was a member of Congress, was named Speaker of the House while Billy was growing up, and was elected governor of Tennessee in 1839. Polk was a Jacksonian Democrat; Mary's brothers owned the Nashville Whig newspaper and stridently opposed him. In a letter to her husband in June 1841, Sarah Polk detailed political maneuverings and the gossip from Nashville on who would be running in legislative races: "The Whigs are not in good spirits here; they I am told, think or fear that they will loose [sic] the Legislature." She admitted she had been too busy with unspecified distractions to keep up with the Nashville papers but that she had picked up some tidbits about the Whigs from "Mrs. Walker (from whom you know that I get a good deal of news)." For her part, Mary Walker felt deep embarrassment over her brother Caleb's editorial attacks and once told Sarah Polk, "I haven't opened my brother's paper to-day, for I dislike so much to read what he says against your husband."
Mary's health weakened over time, and young Billy became her devoted companion. "He spent every morning with her in her room reading to her," a family friend recalled years later. "He was very intelligent and as refined in his feelings as a girl. I used to go often to see his mother, and always found him entertaining her in some way." Billy was precociously bright, but also quiet and aloof. "He is described by his contemporaries, many of whom yet live, as cold, quiet, studious, painfully modest; slight, effeminate, almost insignificant in appearance," Bass wrote. "One says of him that he was uncompanionable, and another speaks of him as a boy who remained long in apron strings."
Billy attended the Nashville English and Commercial School, a small private establishment run by Irish immigrant Alexander Litton. There his physical appearance and demeanor stood out. "A freckled face, almost flaxen hair, and eyes that reminded one of blue only — for they are gray — make up the appearance of his head and face," classmate J. W. Bradford wrote years later. "He was always of a grave turn, never talkative, and when spoken to, answering in a drawling, nasal tone." He came across as preternaturally melancholy with a "voice that made me think of sadness without becoming so." Despite his reserved nature, Billy was friendly, "and none in school was more ready to oblige his fellow with" a little money or extra help with a difficult lesson. He prided himself on his own intelligence and his prowess with lessons, to the point of tearing up if he volunteered a wrong answer, as though mortified at fallibility. "I never saw him lively in my life," Bradford added, "that is, I never heard him laugh out loud, as boys do at play."
* * *
How much of young Billy's personality was the result of his parents' influence is unknown. Early biographers tried to link the trajectory of his later life to the stern character of his father, but other childhood role models were likely more influential — including his mother's family, about which more is known than the Walker side.
In 1827, Billy's seventy-year-old grandfather, Lipscomb Norvell, moved to Nashville from Kentucky following the death of his wife, and eventually moved in with Billy's family. Norvell was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who fought in the battles at Brandywine Creek and Trenton and Monmouth, New Jersey, and survived the infamously dreadful winter at Valley Forge. In February 1780, he arrived as part of a brigade of reinforcements for the port of Charleston just in time for a six-week siege that ended with the revolutionaries' surrender — the colonists' worst defeat of the war. As an officer, Norvell likely was imprisoned at Haddrell's Point at Mount Pleasant, just outside the city, where records suggest he stayed for a year before being paroled.
With his late wife, Mary Hendrick, Lipscomb Norvell had a dozen children, four of whom forged careers in newspapers. Their son John founded the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1829 and later became a US senator, representing Michigan when it was admitted to the union in 1837. All three of their sons in Nashville — Moses, Joseph, and Caleb — were involved with the Nashville Whig. Moses and Joseph founded it in 1812 at the outset of the war with Great Britain, then sold to the Nashville Banner in 1816. Caleb resurrected the paper in 1838 and continued to edit an array of local newspapers before eventually leaving for the East Coast. There, in 1851, he became the founding "commercial," or business, editor of the New York Daily Times, which dropped the Daily from its title in 1857. Moses and Joseph, who remained in Nashville, branched out from their newspaper and shipping businesses to serve in public positions, including city treasurer, justice of the peace, and trustee of the University of Nashville.
Ultimately, seven of Billy's uncles became involved in politics or journalism, while five served in the military, most in the War of 1812. Scores of Nashvillians, including Billy's uncle Lipscomb Norvell Jr., joined expeditions to Texas, the first rumblings of what would become known as filibustering — private groups of armed Americans seeking to wrest control of non-US territory. Robert T. Walker, the uncle whose business Billy's father joined when he first arrived in Nashville, went as an agent for a land company, only to fall ill and die. (His three minor daughters then moved in with Billy's family.) The Texas Revolution broke out when Billy was eleven years old, sparking a fresh recruiting drive for American volunteers willing to fight for the region's independence from Mexico. A regiment formed in Nashville consisting of seventy-five men, including Billy's cousin William Norvell, and headed west, but it was captured within days of arriving in Texas. Most were summarily executed by Mexican troops, but Billy's cousin was among a handful who escaped death. James Robertson, a neighbor, died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836. All of this occurred during the last years of Andrew Jackson's presidency, and when that ended in March 1837, Jackson retired to his Hermitage plantation about ten miles outside Nashville — which means that Billy's neighbors included one former and one future president, the latter of whose wife was a close friend of Billy's mother.
With these sorts of role models — presidents, war veterans, newspapermen, and Texas fighters and settlers — it's easy to imagine how Billy's childhood could have shaped the path the adult William Walker would ultimately follow.
* * *
Billy Walker ended his studies at Litton's school around the time of his thirteenth birthday in May 1837, and within days enrolled at the University of Nashville. While that may seem inordinately young, it was not uncommon at the time; his friend John Berrien Lindsley enrolled a year later at age fourteen. Nevertheless, the university's curriculum was rigorous and its admissions standards were high. Entering students were "expected to be accurately acquainted with the grammar, including prosody, of the Greek and Latin tongues" as well as with English grammar, math, and geography. Once admitted, students pursued trigonometry, principals of constitutional and international law, philosophy, natural history, and religious studies. Discipline was strict: Students attended chapel twice a day and stood for a communal prayer before each meal. "Quiet hours were enforced, and activities like horse racing, dancing, or going to the theater were strictly prohibited."
Walker developed a handful of deep friendships there, including with fellow student Robert James Farquharson. He, Walker, and Lindsley shared a devotion to one of their instructors, Dr. Gerard Troost, a Dutch-born teacher of natural history, geology, and mineralogy. Walker also embraced religion much more firmly than before. According to his old acquaintance J. W. Bradford, "He became a Christian youth, and pursued this high calling with all of a 'zeal according to knowledge,' and soon became ... proficient in the Christian law, and honest in its walk." There was talk of a career in the ministry. Yet even while focused on his studies, Walker maintained a keen interest in world politics. He became active in the Agatheridan Society, a literary debate organization for which he served as secretary and eventually president. One of his responsibilities was proposing debate topics, and he came up with several that were both political and military. "Was it politic for the French to assist the U.S. in the American Revolution?" "Was it preferable [sic] a monarchical or Republican form of government?" "Has the career of Napoleon Bonaparte been of benefit or injury to the world?" His team won seven of eleven debates during the sixteen months it took him to earn his degree. Walker graduated summa cum laude on October 3, 1838, just five months after his fourteenth birthday. His demeanor had not changed much. He could be open and loquacious with friends, and proved to be a persuasive public speaker during Agatheridan Society events, but otherwise maintained a mien of reserve.
Somewhere in the course of his studies, Walker had turned from religion toward science, and he decided to become a doctor. To ready himself for medical school, Walker spent two years under apprenticeship with Nashville physicians, primarily Dr. William G. Dickinson. That gave him sufficient grounding to win admission to the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, where Farquharson and Lindsley would eventually pursue medical degrees as well.
Walker saw himself as something of an advance guard for his Nashville friends looking at futures in medicine. In November 1841, he sent a report "according to promise" to Lindsley and three others with his first impressions of the personalities and calibers of various professors in Philadelphia. He found the "anatomical theater" to be "well-arrayed, being lighted from above; the professor standing in the center of a circle of benches rising one above the other, and immediately under the skylight." He described instructors in detail — one "is very precise and oratorical; speaks indistinctly (from syphilis, it is said)." He sought in return reports from his friends on the caliber of the programs in Louisville, where several of them were studying, and promised to send along his notes from the lectures he attended, asking his friends to reciprocate.
Walker wrote his thesis on "The Structure and Function of the Iris" and graduated, along with Lindsley, in 1843, with Farquharson finishing a year later. Lindsley would soon return to Tennessee to pursue both medicine and the ministry. Farquharson decamped for New Orleans and set up a medical practice in 1845.
Walker, though, had more distant horizons: to study medicine in Europe. Shortly after receiving their medical degrees on March 31, Walker and Lindsley "proceeded to the foot of Walnut St., which is the point of departure for New York," and took a ferry across the Delaware River to "take the cars at Camden on the opposite side." They spent the better part of a week wandering New York and attending medical lectures while presumably continuing their regular discussions of religion, science, and the world. On April 7, Lindsley accompanied Walker to the docks — "he is comfortably fixed, and in good health and spirits" — and saw him aboard the Emerald packet ship, which set sail that morning for Le Havre, France, a gateway to Europe.
Walker arrived in Paris in late April or early May 1843, just before his nineteenth birthday, eventually settling into rooms at 11 Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank near La Pitié hospital and the Jardin des Plantes park, up the Seine River "at some distance from fashionable Paris." While in Europe, as he had in Philadelphia, Walker wrote regularly to his parents (who were supporting him with a monthly $100 allowance), and they presumably wrote to him, but those letters are lost. He also stayed in regular contact with Lindsley, and those surviving letters show that life in Philadelphia did little to prepare him for the more libertine Paris, where he found much to offend a moral view framed by his small-town conservative Protestant upbringing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "William Walker's Wars"
Copyright © 2019 Scott Martelle.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Prologue - Trujillo, Honduras, August 21, 1860,
1 - Nashville,
2 - New Orleans, and Ellen,
3 - A Journalism Career Begins,
4 - San Francisco,
5 - The Republic of Sonora Rises,
6 - The Republic of Sonora Falls,
7 - Why Nicaragua Mattered,
8 - Walker Returns to San Francisco,
9 - On to San Juan del Sur,
10 - The War for Nicaragua,
11 - President Walker,
12 - The Opposition Forms,
13 - Race, Slavery, and Walker's Empire,
14 - Walker Returns to New Orleans,
15 - Ruatan, Trujillo, and the End of a Dark Dream,
A Note About Sources, And Acknowledgments,