Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt fought war over route through Central America

Photo by Neil Brake

Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose $1 million gift founded the University, established a business venture to carry would-be 49ers through Nicaragua to the California gold rush.

 

by Bill Carey

Of all the episodes in the fascinating life of "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, none are as strange as his battle against the Central American adventurer William Walker over the fate of Nicaragua. Vanderbilt's fight with Walker was so bitter that it is ironic that the shipping and rail magnate eventually funded the development of a university in Walker's hometown.

One of the most important events in the history of the American West was the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Within a few months, thousands of Americans migrated west, hoping to strike it rich. California was not yet linked with the rest of the country by rail, so early immigrants had two choices: take a stagecoach across the mainland (and run the risk of attack along the way by Native Americans), or board a ship that circumnavigated South America.

Since people were desperate to get to California as quickly as possible, a few entrepreneurs came up with alternative routes. One was George Law, who founded a shipping company that ran passengers from New York to Panama where they were transferred to stagecoaches for a trip across the Panamanian Peninsula to vessels waiting on the Pacific Ocean.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had no intention of being outdone by his business rival, and decided he would find a way to take passengers to California quicker by crossing Nicaragua instead of Panama. First, the Commodore tried to build a canal across Nicaragua. That effort was squashed by British banking interests, which had a major influence in Central America. Vanderbilt eventually settled on another plan that called for passengers to cross Nicaragua by riverboat and stagecoach.

Vanderbilt called his venture the Accessory Transit Co., and in 1851 the Nicaraguan government granted his business an exclusive charter to transport passengers across its territory. After Accessory Transit went into business, it cut $200 off the cost and two days off the time it took to get from New York to San Francisco. For about two years, the business made money and carried about 2,000 passengers a month, although it suffered two shipwrecks in the process.

In 1853, Vanderbilt went on an extended vacation to Europe, leaving two men, Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison, in charge of Accessory Transit. Since intercontinental communication was difficult at that time, Vanderbilt had almost no means of keeping up with Accessory Transit's affairs while he was gone.

Meanwhile, there was another prominent American venturing into Nicaragua. William Walker was a native of Tennessee whose childhood home is now marked with a plaque in downtown Nashville. After attending the University of Nashville, Walker worked as a doctor in Philadelphia and a lawyer and journalist in New Orleans. When gold was discovered in California, Walker took the overland route to California and later became one of the editors of San Francisco's Daily Herald newspaper.

In order to understand just how Walker got involved in Nicaragua, one must understand a little about how Americans viewed the world during the mid-19th century. At that time, the United States was a young nation that was growing fast with the idea that the country had a "manifest destiny" to grow west. Americans had no way of knowing that their country would eventually settle on its 20th century boundaries with Canada and Mexico. Many Americans believed their nation might one day include parts of what we now know as Central America.

"Whenever Americans think about their history of expansion, they think about the places America was successful, such as Texas or Florida," said Marshall Eakin, an associate professor of history and chair of the department. "But there were other chapters in that expansion that were unsuccessful, such as Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua."

In this environment, there arose a group of men in the 1840s and 1850s known as "filibusters," people who would invade or aid in a revolution in another country in order to gain money and power. The American government did little to stop these people, partially because they were regarded as heroes by the general public and partially because the country was on the verge of Civil War and had enough problems at home.

Walker was not the first filibuster in American history, but he was the most famous. In 1854, he and a handful of followers invaded the Sonora area of northern Mexico, hoping to start a new colony that might eventually be admitted as a state. The Mexican army ran Walker's small army out of the country. But the small invasion helped lead to Mexico's sale of a part of Sonora to the United States, a transaction known as the Gadsden Purchase.

The next year, Walker conceived a plot to take over Nicaragua with the aid of Vanderbilt's trustees Morgan and Garrison. Walker promised the two men that if they gave him $20,000 and supported his overthrow of the Nicaraguan government of President Fruto Chamorro, he would revoke the Accessory Transit Co.'s charter and issue a new charter for a transit company that they -- not Vanderbilt -- would own.

Morgan and Garrison decided to betray Vanderbilt. In October 1855, 58 Americans led by Walker invaded Nicaragua and, with the help of Morgan and Garrison, took over the government there. Once in power, Walker revoked the Accessory Transit Co.'s license and issued an exclusive license to operate to a new business owned by Morgan and Garrison.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was so angry when he learned that he had been betrayed by Morgan and Garrison that he wrote them one of the shortest, and surely most ominous, letters of all time. "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt."

Vanderbilt followed through by forming another transit company through Panama and cutting fares drastically, bringing Morgan and Garrison to bankruptcy and the restoration of control of the Accessory Transit Co. back to himself.

During the next few months, Vanderbilt took several steps to regain control of the Nicaraguan steam route. He refused to allow his ships to take passengers to and from Nicaragua, effectively creating a blockade of that Central American country. He convinced Honduras, Guatemala, San Salvador and Costa Rica to refuse to recognize Walker's government. He battled Morgan and Garrison in the courts and in the New York newspapers, a public relations contest called "The War of the Commodores" which delighted the editors of every publication there.

Finally, Vanderbilt sent two soldiers of fortune to overthrow the new government of Nicaragua. With the help of about 100 Costa Ricans, they did just that. In May 1857, Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy.

To Vanderbilt's disgust, many Americans greeted Walker as a hero, and he was not prosecuted for his actions in Nicaragua. In fact, Walker returned to Nicaragua for a second attempt to overtake the government. At this point, the Commodore demanded U.S. government intervention. A detachment of marines was deployed to locate, disarm and remove him from Nicaragua.

Having regained control of Accessory Transit, Vanderbilt shortly thereafter shut it down because the mad rush to California had slowed down. The Commodore then turned his attention to keeping his main business in operation during the American Civil War.

The Nicaraguan debacle didn't end Walker's career. In 1860, he led an invasion of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. The Honduran army attacked his army and captured Walker. On Sept. 12, Walker was executed by firing squad.

A few weeks later, a group of Nashville citizens asked Honduras to return the body to Tennessee, so that Walker could be given a hero's funeral. The Honduran government refused.

Today, few Americans have heard of Walker. But in Central America, virtually every child is told the story of how an American named William Walker invaded Nicaragua and was kicked out. "To many Central Americans, Walker is the epitome of American imperialism," Eakin said.


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