Absorbing tale of a conflict in 19th-century Central America sparked by two men with rather different ideas about Manifest Destiny.
Australian historian Dando-Collins (Blood of the Caesars: How the Murder of Germanicus Led to the Fall of Rome, 2008, etc.) has written what in some measure qualifies as a dual biography of William Walker and Cornelius Vanderbilt, focusing on the circumstances that made them enemies and ended in Walker’s violent death at age 36. When the book opens in 1849, Vanderbilt, who rose from poverty to become perhaps the wealthiest person in the United States, was 55 years old. He was determined to control shipping routes between America’s East and West coasts, which would include winning transit rights across such Central American nations as Nicaragua and Panama. An 1849 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John M. Clayton seemed to assure Vanderbilt the exclusive right to negotiate with the Nicaraguan government to build a canal there. None of the negotiators, however, foresaw the entrance of William Walker to rewrite their cozy scenario. Reared in Nashville, Tenn., Walker learned Greek and Latin by age 12, attended universities in the United States and Europe, earned degrees in medicine and law, then worked in New Orleans as a crusading journalist. Through a series of unlikely circumstances, the fearless Walker became an adventurer determined to spread North American influence throughout Central America. He arrived in Nicaragua in 1855 at the head of a group of mercenaries he had hired and trained; in 1856, he became the civil war–torn nation’s president. When he began interfering with Vanderbilt’s business plans, the tycoon decided to fight Walker with competing mercenaries. Four bloody years later, Vanderbilt had prevailed, and Walker died in front of a Honduran firing squad.
Dando-Collins juggles disparate elements to maintain cohesion in a convoluted history of military campaigns, changes in governments, complicated business transactions and bizarre backdoor diplomatic dealings.