William Walker, Nashville's native son, might well have become the emperor of Central America in the years prior to the Civil War if he had not made a critical mistake: Pissing off "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, the immensely wealthy business magnate who was one of Nashville's great benefactors. It's one of those odd little ironies of history that the city where Walker was born commemorates him with nothing more than an obscure plaque downtown, while his nemesis—who never set foot in Nashville—has his name attached to its most prestigious institution. In Tycoon's War, Stephen Dando-Collins details the story of Walker's rise to power, and Vanderbilt's crucial role in his fall.
Walker is sometimes referred to as the king of the "filibusters"—mercenaries who freebooted their way through Latin America and the Caribbean during the 19th century. A brilliant man who had dabbled in medicine, law and the newspaper business, Walker was a particularly ambitious specimen of the breed. Far more interested in power than wealth, and possessing the blinkered sense of cultural supremacy that remains our national curse, he dreamed of establishing an empire of Central American states with himself as ruler. As Dando-Collins puts it, Walker wanted "to introduce American values and democracy, to replace a worn-out Old World social and political order." To that end, he inserted himself and his small army into a civil war in Nicaragua in 1855, ultimately becoming that country's president a year later.
Shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt had his own interest in Nicaragua. The California gold rush had created an urgent demand for transportation between the east and west coasts of the United States. The transcontinental railroad did not yet exist, and overland routes were dangerous and slow. The quickest sea route, which forced travelers to cross the isthmus of Panama on horseback, was unpleasant and expensive, and already controlled by a competing shipping line. Vanderbilt overcame daunting technical challenges to create yet another route through Nicaragua, which was faster, cheaper and highly profitable.
The saga of how Walker and Vanderbilt came to be enemies is filled with complex twists and turns, but it boils down to Walker's misguided decision to give control of the Nicaraguan transit route to Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison, a pair of Vanderbilt's former associates who had conspired to betray him, and whom he had pledged to ruin. Dando-Collins describes Vanderbilt as a man "only interested in two things—making money and winning." Walker's deal with Morgan and Garrison stood in the way of both. With typical ruthlessness, Vanderbilt resolved to destroy Walker by arming an alliance of Central American countries to invade Nicaragua and drive the Americans out.
In order to follow the combined narratives of Vanderbilt's maneuvering and Walker's power grab, Dando-Collins has to juggle a huge cast of characters, all of whom seem to be prone to conspiracy and personal betrayal, and he also must make the intricacies of the 19th century shipping business understandable. Tycoon's War has to explain the difficulties of river navigation as well as the short-selling of stock. It's a tall order for any writer, but Dando-Collins conveys the fine points of the history with impressive clarity. He also does a remarkable job of keeping the story moving, in large part by using a jump-cut structure that switches frequently from offices and boardrooms to the battlefields of Nicaragua.
Some readers will tire of the literal blow-by-blow accounts of fighting between Walker's men and their various opponents, but one of the strengths of Tycoon's War is its effective depiction of the cruelty of war. Summary executions, dead child soldiers and the suffering of the wounded are all described with a flat reporter's style that is oddly moving.
In one poignant scene, the retreating Americans choose to leave behind their wounded, knowing the Nicaraguans will shoot them, because trying to evacuate them will likely mean death for everyone. The fate of the captured men turns out to be worse than anyone expected, as Dando-Collins coolly describes it: "The Spanish colonel then ordered that Hughes and the four other wounded Americans also be placed on the woodpile and chained in place. On Bosque's order, the log pile was set alight. With leering Legitimista troops and thousands of Rivas residents silently filling the plaza to watch, the Yankee wounded were burned to death on the pyre."
There is a plenty of such rich historical detail in this exhaustively researched book, but what most readers will carry away is a powerful impression of the clash between its two central characters. Tycoon's War is the story of two cunning, supremely arrogant men—one a grandiose, monomaniacal visionary who ultimately could not bend the world to his will; the other a crude brawler who boasted that he cared for nothing but making money all his life, and used that money to accomplish what the visionary could not.
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