History without Heroes: A Case in Point


Mr. Dando-Collins is an Australian-born historian and novelist who writes about American, Roman, British, Australian and French history. He is the author of 21 books, the latest being Tycoon’s War. His previous American history was Standing Bear is a Person. He is currently completing his next Roman history, about the death of Julius Caesar, and researching a book about nineteenth century US expansion in the Pacific. He lives on the island of Tasmania.

If history teaches us one thing, it is that most so-called heroes are flawed. Take the central figures of my latest book on American history, Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer.

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was America’s richest man, with more money than the US Treasury. Vanderbilt amassed his fortune via sea and railroad transport, and on Wall Street, in an era before income taxes.

In the 1850s Vanderbilt’s most profitable shipping route was from New York to San Francisco via Nicaragua, when tens of thousands were travelling to and from California in quest of gold.

Vanderbilt’s side-wheel steamers took you down to Nicaragua. His river and lake steamers and stagecoaches used the Transit Route to carry you across to the Pacific. Waiting Vanderbilt ocean steamers completed the journey to San Francisco.

Vanderbilt, or the Commodore as he was known, was raking in a profit of a million dollars a year, in 1850s money, from just this one operation. Shares in Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company were the most traded on Wall Street.

Then along came thirty-two-year-old William Walker, from Nashville, Tennessee. College graduate at fourteen, M.D. at eighteen, Walker also took a law degree, before becoming a crusading newspaper editor. Rare qualifications indeed for the man who became America’s most notorious filibuster, or soldier of fortune.

After failing to set up a republic in Mexico, in 1855, with fifty-seven American mercenaries, Walker headed for Nicaragua, then locked in a bitter civil war. After helping one side win the civil war, Walker had himself elected President of Nicaragua.

Walker, aware that Vanderbilt had been cheating the Nicaraguan Government out of Transit royalties, transferred the Transit contract to Vanderbilt rivals Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison.

Vanderbilt responded by paying Central American governments to go to war with Walker. Simultaneously, Vanderbilt took half-million-dollar-a year bribes from his competitors to keep his ships tied up. His crews were unemployed, his shareholders lost fortunes as the share price crashed, but Vanderbilt was still making money.

With Central American armies invading Nicaragua to throw out los Yanquis, as many as ten thousand young American adventure-seekers flooded down to Nicaragua to fight for Walker, inspired by a US press which largely glorified Walker’s exploits and extolled the Americanization of Nicaragua.  

After Walker’s troops and cholera stopped the Central American armies in their tracks the Commodore sent money, arms, and his own mercenary officers to the Costa Rican Government.

Walker, warring on a shoestring, turned to rich backers in the American South. They promised to invest if Walker reintroduced slavery, banned in Central America since the 1820s, to give them cheap labor for Nicaraguan plantations. Although he’d previously advocated phasing out slavery in the US, Walker sold his soul to retain power, changing Nicaraguan law so that slavery could be reintroduced.

But Walker’s fate was sealed. Led by Vanderbilt’s men, the Costa Rican army cut Walker’s supply lines. Half of Walker’s troops died in bloody fighting or from disease. Ultimately, surrounded and out of supplies, Walker had to surrender.

Vanderbilt won back his Transit rights in Nicaragua. But he never again used the Nicaraguan Transit. His war had been driven by a determination to beat Walker, Morgan and Garrison. That goal achieved, he moved on. 

To create national heroes, Nicaragua and Costa Rica immortalized citizens who fought Walker’s foreign army. National days in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica today celebrate the defeat of Walker’s troops.

My portrayal of Vanderbilt as a man obsessed with money and power has not pleased some. His acquisition of massive wealth, it would seem, has made him a hero in some quarters. Yet, in Vanderbilt’s own day, the press was quick to censure him, and his reputation for selfishness even led Mark Twain to urge him to ‘give four dollars to some great public charity. It will break your heart, no doubt; but no matter.’

Vanderbilt subsequently stunned the world by giving a million dollars to found Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But, Nashville was William Walker’s home town, and Vanderbilt’s munificence, I contend, had much to do with settling a score with Walker.

 As I point out in my book, Walker was maniacal, and his autobiography, a best-seller in the US just prior or his death, was blatantly self-serving. He trampled on Nicaraguan rights, misled his followers, and indefensibly set the stage for the reintroduction of slavery to Nicaragua.

I  tell the story of this war in Nicaragua through the eyes of Walker, some of his men, one of Vanderbilt’s men, and through the eyes of Central American participants, as well as via the press coverage of the day, pointing out that Walker is today equated with Hitler and Stalin in Central America. Ironically, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man behind Walker’s defeat, is virtually unknown in Latin America

My sympathies lie not with either Vanderbilt or Walker but with the peoples of Central America, who endured decades of civil war and foreign intervention. And with the misguided young men who died in Nicaragua believing, as both press and pulpit were telling them back home, that they were pursuing America’s Manifest Destiny and taking American values to ignorant Latinos. Even the great Irish-American patriot Thomas Meagher made a plea for Americans to support Walker.

In many respects, the wars in Nicaragua in the 1850s and in Iraq in the 2000s are analogous.  US media initially reported both with breathless enthusiasm, and it is long-suffering civilians and grunts on the ground who are the heroes. 

To my mind, the best service historians can render is to serve up the often unpalatable truth and prick idolatrous bubbles surrounding some historical figures. I address that task with as much gritty detail as my research permits, to make history and historical figures come alive. As noted British historian Sir Ronald Syme once said, if history is to be written at all it must be written with the violent and complex reality of serious fiction. And the tussle between Vanderbilt and Walker for control of Nicaragua certainly was both violent and complex.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/31/2008

I don't think anyone ever suggested William Walker or Cornelius Vanderbuilt were heros without flaws... There used to be grudging admiration for the Commodore in this country, because he was an "empire builder" who organized and executed a great deal of industrial progress. Current writers generally loathe him, however, because he made a great deal of money in his life, which ipso facto makes him bad if you see the world through rose-colored glasses.