Freebooters Must Die! The Life and Death of William Walker, the Most Notorious Soldier of Fortune of the Nineteenth Century.
By Frederic Rosengarten, Jr. Wayne, Pennsylvania: Haverford House, 1976. 226 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Randall O. Hudson, Wichita State University.
The story of William Walker is an oft-told tale, the subject of three major books and a multitude of volumes of lesser import, memoirs and articles. Still, Frederic Rosengarten has done an admirable job in once again bringing the “Grey-eyed Man of Destiny” to the attention of the American reader. Today, when the soldier of fortune is considered one of the lower forms of humanity, selling his services to the highest bidder with little thought to principle, Walker appears as a bright light from the past fighting for a cause which, although not necessarily acceptable to us, was a popular one at the time and supported by a large portion of his contemporaries.
Although not represented as an exhaustive biography of Walker, this book does trace the essentials of Walker’s life through his various pursuits as a doctor, journalist and finally filibuster in Mexico and Nicaragua, with some insight into his motivation. Concise, but cogent narratives of other contemporary filibusters such as Narciso Lopez in Cuba, and Count Raousset-Boulbon and Henry Crabb in Mexico are also included to enhance the spirit of the times. Noteworthy also are the fine thumbnail sketches of many of the leading figures from Europe and the United States who joined Walker during his brief career, and who are usually introduced and then largely dismissed, with the reader knowing little but their names and the brief roles they played under Walker. A good general background of the conditions and spirit of the times both in the United States and Central America presents the reader with a fine view of the historical stage upon which the life of this remarkable figure played out his role.
This relatively slim volume presents little, if anything, which is new to the historian, but is a fine readable synthesis of most previous work, redone on a popular level. It should be of great interest to the history buff and general reader. Although unfootnoted, reference to the acknowledgments and bibliography reveals that Rosengarten has consulted most of the pertinent sources and has delved deeply into archival materials. His text makes it abundantly evident that he has a firm grasp of his subject matter and a great love of the task which he undertook. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book is the vast number of illustrations which are used to illuminate the text. Obviously the author labored long and hard to gather the 136 portraits, sketches and documents which are produced therein to great effect.
From a scholarly point of view this volume has several serious shortcomings. Its very brevity, which makes it infinitely readable, causes it to neglect any real in-depth took at the variety of factors involved in Walker’s career, or his times. His early life is briefly sketched with only a cursory look at the formation of his character beyond the obvious influences upon him. The abortive expedition to Lower California and Sonora is quickly passed over in narrow terms of military insufficiency, and his whole California career boiled down to the rather simplistic view of journalist seeking adventure. What caused Walker to turn from Southern anti-slavery liberal into an advocate of Manifest Destiny and a slavery expansionist is not explored. Again, the entire Nicaraguan experience which marked a basic personality change in Walker is largely unexplained. What one ends up with is a well-written, but superficial biography. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism since Rosengarten proclaims that his purpose is not to make moral judgments, but merely to narrate a story; still, such an approach gives an overly simplistic view of the complex story of Walker and his fellow filibusters.
For those looking merely for a good story this is a fine volume, but for the reader wishing a well-rounded account, William 0. Scroggs’ Filibusters and Financiers (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916) or Laurence Greene’s The Filibuster (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1937) are still the best accounts.