Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-306-81607, $26. 384 pages.

Review by Daniel Gerling, University of Texas at Austin

Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer by Stephen Dando-Collins is a well-written and compelling story about an oft-overlooked chapter in U.S. history, but is perhaps titled inappropriately. First of all, the book is predominantly about the military exploits of the Tennessean filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua in the mid-1850s. Coverage of Vanderbilt during this time period takes a back seat to the vivid stories of Walker’s numerous battles. Second, Dando-Collins doesn’t convince the reader that Vanderbilt was the key—or even a necessary factor—in Walker’s defeat in 1857. Still, Tycoon’s War is a creative work, well worth the attention of those interested in the nineteenth century. As one might expect from an author of both fiction and history, including several sagas about the politics and warfare of the Roman Empire, the Australian author has here written a narrative history about a young man (Walker) inspired by his own reading of Caesar’s military strategy.
Walker, a man who would be nearly forgotten today in the U.S. if not for Alex Cox’s anachronistic 1987 film and a handful of historical works, certainly deserves a place alongside—or perhaps in front of—Vanderbilt in this work. A prodigious child growing up in Nashville, Walker (1824–1860) finished college at the age of fourteen, received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania by eighteen, and found time to travel through Europe, serving in the Medical Faculty at the University of Paris and honing his combat skills in fencing contests. During this time he also gained fluency (in addition to Greek and Latin) in French, German, and Spanish—the latter a language that would aid him tremendously during his exploits as an adventurer. After brief stints back in Nashville as a doctor and in New Orleans as a lawyer and abolitionist newspaper editor, Walker headed to San Francisco, from where he would launch his freebooting adventures.
At 29, he led an unsuccessful expedition to Baja California and Sonora. After several months, Walker and his men were chased back across the border and wasted no time preparing to participate in the civil war that had just broken out in Nicaragua. It was there that Walker cleverly maneuvered his way into a position to attack and win the Nicaraguan capital, Granada. From here he installed himself as commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Army, and supported a puppet president, Don Patricio Rivas.
Meanwhile, “Commodore” Vanderbilt was busy seeking revenge against his former business allies Cornelius Garrison and Charles Morgan, who hijacked the Accessory Transit Company, the steamship company taking passengers from one coast to another via Nicaragua, from Vanderbilt while he was on vacation. It was to these two men that Vanderbilt penned his famous line, “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 then turned his vengefulness toward Walker when he discovered that Walker had made a deal with Morgan and Garrison to cut Vanderbilt out of the profitable Nicaragua passage.
With the rest of Central America ready to mobilize against Walker out of fear that the Tennessean’s ambitions extended beyond the Nicaraguan borders, Vanderbilt was more than willing to supply the alliance with money and weapons. After less than two years in control of the country, as commander of the army and then as president, Walker was defeated in 1857 by the Central American alliance with the aid of Vanderbilt and the British. However, very little evidence is provided to support the claim in the subtitle that “Vanderbilt invaded a country to overthrow” Walker. Walker was allowed to return to the U.S., but led three more unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his leadership in Nicaragua. On the final attempt he was captured and shot by a firing squad. Dando-Collins makes the excellent point that although Walker is barely known in the U.S., he is a notorious and widely-reviled figure in Central America—though this fact didn’t stop President Reagan from appointing William G. Walker as ambassador to El Salvador.
Another note Dando-Collins makes, and perhaps the book’s most significant contribution to the historical record, is about Walker’s motivation for controlling Nicaragua in the first place—or rather, what wasn’t Walker’s motivation. Contrary to popular belief and several histories on the subject, Walker did not go down to Central America in order to create slave states. Only when Louisianan Pierre Soulé convinced Walker in 1856 that more support would arrive from the southern U.S. if slavery was allowed did Walker overturn Nicaragua’s 1838 law banning it. What, then, did motivate Walker? Dando-Collins writes that the answer is “empire-building,” and then leaves it at that. Unfortunately, as important a matter as this is, Walker’s motivation is unelaborated and relegated to a brief section after the Epilogue. The book would have benefitted from a fuller treatment of his motivation woven into the narrative
Tycoon’s War is very sparsely footnoted, which, in addition to its narrative style, will most certainly frustrate some readers seeking a well-documented, definitive history of Walker’s exploits. The book also misses the opportunity to surround the story with the rich contexts of adventuring, U.S. politics of the 1850s, U.S. foreign relations, and Nicaraguan history. Notably missing from the bibliography are the works of Robert May, particularly Manifest Destiny’s Underworld and The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854–1861.
Nevertheless, the combination of industrial capitalism, mercenaries, greed, excess, and genius—combined with Dando-Collins’ storytelling capabilities—make this a very absorbing story, and one worth retelling. The author also deserves credit for the unique storytelling structure. By placing Vanderbilt and Walker next to each other in this way, the reader is forced to contrast the two characters. This task is not a difficult one since the two men had so little in common. But in the end, the Vanderbilt-Walker conflict makes clear that imperialism is a matter for wealthy businessmen and the State Department, not individuals.

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