Awesome People in History: Henri Dunant

One of the main reasons I came up with the “Awesome People in History” series was to highlight those individuals that aren’t well-known yet made significant contributions in shaping the world we live in today. Thus, when I recently learned the story of Swiss entrepreneur Henri Dunant, I quickly realized that he would be perfect for this series, and you will soon understand why recent events going on around the world inspired me to tell his story now.

Dunant was born into a wealthy family; his father was a very successful businessman in Geneva, Switzerland who saw to it that young Henri would be apprenticed as a banker. His family were very religious, and raised Henri with the belief that God commanded him to put the wealth he had inherited to good use helping those who were less well-off. Both of his parents donated their time and money helping people in poverty, orphans, recently-paroled criminals seeking to turn their lives around, and those suffering from illness. Young Henri followed his parents’ example, starting a club in college called the “Thursday Association” that helped the poor in their community.

Dunant worked as a banker for several years, but in 1853 he took advantage of an opportunity to join a new business venture that sought to take advantage of the recent French conquest of Algeria for profit. He traveled extensively through North Africa on behalf of this new trading company, and wrote a book about his experiences. He eventually started his own Algerian business venture, a wheat milling business. He had the land he needed to grow the crops and build the mills, but there was one problem. Much of North Africa is, well, desert.

Pictured: Algeria

So, he needed water rights in order to get his operation moving. Can’t grow wheat without water! Dunant had difficulty securing those water rights, though, so he decided to take his case right to the very top – to Emperor Napoleon III of France himself!

Now, at the time, the French emperor was trying to emulate his more famous namesake uncle with some military campaigns of his own, specifically fighting a war in northern Italy against Austria. To meet with the Emperor, Dunant had to go where the French army was marching. In this case, that meant the Italian town of Solferino.

The businessman who was just there to discuss water rights for his farms arrived in June 1859 to witness a bloody, brutal battle between massive armies of hundreds of thousands of men. When the cannons and the guns finally fell silent, 6,000 had died and 40,000 were wounded. What truly horrified Dunant, though, was that the wounded were just left on the battlefield where they fell, bleeding, dying, and crying for help, with nobody coming to aid them. The French army had a handful of medics to treat their wounded, but they were overwhelmed. There weren’t enough medics or medical supplies to treat everyone.

Dunant couldn’t take it. He went through the town, asking for volunteers to help him care for the wounded. Since he was rich, he just up and bought all the medical supplies he could get his hands on. Dunant insisted on treating the wounded from both sides, encouraging the locals to do the same. Dunant wrote a second book detailing this horrifying experience. That was only the beginning for him, however.

The Battle of Solferino inspired Dunant to begin campaigning for the creation of an international, neutral, humanitarian organization that would care for those wounded in battle. He knew, though, that for such an organization to function in wartime, countries around the world would have to agree to permit its volunteers onto the battlefield, and further agree not to shoot those medics caring for the enemy’s wounded. This was a huge ask of national governments that would not be inclined to agree to such a scheme. Luckily, Dunant’s wealth and influence once again came to the rescue.

In 1863, diplomats from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland gathered in Geneva and signed the first of the Geneva Conventions, agreeing to recognize the International Committee of the Red Cross. This was the beginning of the modern Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, working around the world to provide aid not just to war casualties, but also to victims of natural disasters as well. Today, there are Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations in countries around the world, including the American Red Cross here in the United States. All because of the right man being at the right place at the right time to get the right inspiration to make such a humanitarian effort possible.

Ironically, though, Dunant would soon be forced out of the very organization he founded. See, in 1867, his business in Algeria failed and he went bankrupt. This caused a large scandal, and he resigned from the ICRC that year. He moved to Paris, where he was now living in abject poverty, homeless and sleeping in public parks. Luckily for him, Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III’s wife, learned of his plight and helped support him, asking him to help negotiate a naval version of the Geneva Convention. By the time the Franco-Prussian War was fought in 1870-71, Dunant was back on the battlefield, tending to the wounded once again. In 1874, he attended the negotiations that led to the Brussels Declaration that set a series of internationally-agreed rules for military occupation of territory seized in war and the treatment of prisoners of war.

This was to be the last time Dunant was able to use what influence he had left to fulfill his vision for a better world. He soon fell back into poverty, wandering the countryside and growing increasingly ill. In 1887, he moved into a hospice in the Swiss village of Heiden. It was here that he gave an interview in 1895 with a news reporter, whose article shot Dunant back into the spotlight. Soon, he was a celebrity, honored by numerous organizations that awarded him prizes, including the 1901 Nobel Peace Prize. At last, he was able to see his life’s work recognized around the world for the last few years of his life. He passed away in the hospice in 1910.

Sometimes it boggles my mind which historical figures we remember and which ones get left out of the history books. Dunant was clearly a very important figure in shaping the world we live in today: a world where we have formal laws of war and punishments for war criminals, where an internationally-recognized humanitarian organization carries out its mission to help the wounded and sick around the world every day, and where a red cross on a white background is the universal symbol of emergency medical aid. I feel he deserves recognition for his truly remarkable achievements.

All the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and other health care workers who have been working to combat the current global pandemic also deserve recognition for the challenges they have been facing. This post is dedicated to them and their efforts.

Awesome People in History: Saint Nicholas of Myra

St Nicholas icon from Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is approaching, and we all know that means the elves at the North Pole are working overtime to get all the presents on the lists of the nice children of the world ready. In just a few days, Santa Claus is going to fly across the sky in his magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, delivering the gifts all around the world. One has to wonder, how exactly did Santa end up with just such an unusual job?

Well, as many of you are already aware, Santa Claus is actually a nickname. His real name, of course, is Saint Nicholas; the nickname derives from the Dutch name for him, Sinterklaas.

Interestingly, he seems to treat the Netherlands differently than in other countries, arriving on December 5 in a steamboat that sailed from Spain and delivering presents on horseback, stuffing them into children’s shoes with the help of dark-skinned helpers called Zwarte Pieten (“Black Peters”). While most naughty children will get coal from St. Nick, the naughty children of the Netherlands will be stuffed in a sack and brought back to Spain!

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet image by Tenorio81

I wonder if the Zwarte Piets are the ones who dig the coal?

As you can see from the picture above, the outfit he wears in the Netherlands is also different than the red fur suit with white lining and black boots we are used to seeing him wear. Instead, when visiting the Netherlands, he wears his bishop’s outfit. After all, he is the bishop of Myra.

See, Saint Nicholas was born during the third century AD in Patara, a city that today lies in Turkey, though at the time it was a predominantly Greek city within the Roman Empire. His parents were Christians who happened to be quite wealthy, a fact that softened the blow for him when they died of a plague when he was a boy. After they passed away, Saint Nicholas promised to use the fortune he inherited to help the poor.

One of the earliest stories we have of him fulfilling his promise comes from a 9th-century biography written about him. His neighbor, who had fallen on hard times and was struggling financially, had three daughters that he could no longer afford to support. This neighbor was about to sell these daughters into sexual slavery in a brothel, spurring the young Nicholas to act. One night, he threw a bag through the man’s window, filled with enough gold to serve as a dowry to have the oldest daughter find a husband. Once she had married, the saint threw another bag of gold through the window for the second daughter, and he repeated his generous deed for the third daughter as well. This third time, the father actually caught Nicholas in the act, and threw himself at the saint’s feet to thank him profusely. Nicholas asked the man to keep this all a secret, so as to keep him from feeling ashamed of depending on the saint’s charity.

Later, Saint Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by sea. During his voyage, a terrible storm threatened to sink the ship, but Nicholas stayed calm and prayed as the waves rocked the boat. Soon, the storm cleared, and he made it safely back to his hometown.

It was after this that Saint Nicholas was chosen as bishop of Myra. In the early years of his service in the church, Christianity was banned by the Roman authorities and Christians suffered religious persecution. Nicholas himself endured imprisonment and torture for his faith.

However, when Constantine became Emperor of Rome, he not only legalized Christianity, he took the first steps toward making it the official faith of the empire. One of these steps was to summon the Council of Nicaea, a grand council of all the bishops across Christendom to meet and decide important matters of Christian doctrine and practice.

Council of Nicaea image from Wikimedia Commons

The biggest debate at this council concerned the very nature of God. One camp, the Trinitarians, argued that there is only one God, but He exists in three equal, eternal forms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This belief was challenged by the priest Arius, whose followers, the Arians, argued that the Son (Jesus Christ) was a separate creation of God the Father. To Trinitarians, this claim was nothing short of heresy and an insult to God.

Even so, the council allowed Arius to present his case and his argument. As Arius spoke, Nicholas grew more and more agitated by the man’s speech. At last, Nicholas got up and straight-up slapped Arius right across the face!

This wasn’t the only time Saint Nicholas got angry and lost his cool. When he heard that three innocent men were condemned to death by a Roman governor who had been bribed to convict them, the saint showed up at the execution, snatched the executioner’s sword and knocked it to the ground, using it to free the wrongly-convicted trio. He then chewed out the Roman officials for accepting such a bribe, and shamed them into letting the men go.

One of the most famous stories about the saint, though, is widely believed to be false by modern historians. The story goes that when three lost children were kidnapped and murdered by an evil innkeeper, St. Nicholas appeared and brought them back from the dead, returning them safely to their parents. The letter I mailed to the North Pole asking if this story has any truth to it has received no reply as of this writing.

Regardless, the question remains, how did Saint Nicholas, ancient bishop and church leader, become the Santa Claus figure we know and love today?

This is where we have to talk about Father Christmas. Tracing his origins to pagan winter traditions from ancient Britain and Scandinavia, Father Christmas appeared in medieval England as a symbol of the joy and festivities that Christmas brings. Wearing a long, green fur robe and a crown of holly, Father Christmas was frequently referenced in seasonal poems, plays, and writings. Today, you might recognize him as the Ghost of Christmas Present who haunted Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Ghost of Christmas Present image by John Leech

Pictured: Recreation by the historian Charles Dickens of the events in question.

After English and Dutch colonists arrived in North America, Santa Claus started to take on his modern form in the melting pot that is the United States. He took on the name and gift-giving-to-children habit of Sinterklaas and the fur robes, jolly demeanor, and deep, belly laugh of Father Christmas. The first written account of Saint Nicholas riding his famous reindeer sleigh across the sky and climbing down a chimney to deliver presents comes from the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. You may remember this poem from its opening lines:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The color of Santa’s fur outfit initially varied between these early accounts, but by the early 20th century he appears to have settled on red as his preferred color scheme. While most of his reindeer team has been consistent since that first poem, Rudolph appears to have been brought on as the team leader in 1939, ostensibly because of his bright red nose that was useful for navigation. It isn’t known when Santa got married, but the first references to Mrs. Claus were recorded in 1851, so we can presume it was around that time.

Today, Saint Nicholas of Myra is celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as a patron saint of children, of sailors, and the falsely accused. His feast day is held on December 6, which is probably why he is so closely associated with Christmas, a holiday held just 19 days later. As Santa Claus, he brings joy to millions of children around the world every Christmas Eve, and I’m sure he is quite proud of this generous legacy.

Santa Claus image by Randy Landicho

It’s my pleasure! Ho ho ho!

MERRY CHRISTMAS, CAT FLAGGERS, AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL!

The Most Important Army from World War II You’ve Never Heard of

Chadian soldier in the First Free French Army from World War II. Image colorized by Cassowary Colorations.

Recently, I was reading over some of my old blog posts, and a very unfortunate and startling realization hit me. I have never actually talked about African history on Cat Flag before! Yikes! That is changing today, as I return to a topic that I covered last year and promised more of: What were the less-famous countries of the world doing during World War II? Today, I will be looking at how the war affected Africa, specifically those countries that were under the colonial rule of France at the time.

First some background…

In the 19th century, the major European powers engaged in the “Scramble for Africa”, claiming and conquering as much of the continent as they possibly could and incorporating it into their empires. Portugal, Germany, and even Belgium colonized parts of Africa, but most of it got swallowed up by the British and French.

France’s attitude toward its own imperialism was colored by the ideals of the French Revolution and the national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Conquering and subjugating peoples and lands across the globe to gain resources for one’s industrialization kind of clashes with the ideals of freedom, democracy, human rights, and equality for all. The way the French resolved this contradiction was to assimilate the natives of the lands they colonized. To the French, their ideal was for all the people living under the tricolor to be one, big, happy empire where all were equal French citizens regardless of skin color, and everyone had equal rights, including the right to vote. Or, at least, that was the theory. In practice, French citizenship was not given automatically, it was instead reserved for the small handful of natives who had “evolved” (yes, that was the term they used) into proper Frenchmen by completely abandoning their native culture and ways and fully assimilating into French culture.

This was the world into which Félix Éboué was born. A black man from French Guiana, he rose through the ranks to be a key colonial administrator in French Equatorial Africa, named governor of Chad in 1938.

In 1940, Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg overran northern France and captured Paris. An emergency government meeting in the town of Vichy granted Marshal Philippe Pétain emergency dictatorial powers, as he negotiated a surrender and armistice with Adolf Hitler. In the aftermath, northern France would be under German military occupation, with Pétain in Vichy leading a Nazi collaborationist puppet regime. French general Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped to London, refused to accept this turn of events and called on the French people to resist their occupiers and fight for their liberty.

This turn of events was quite sudden, and France’s global colonial empire wasn’t entirely sure how to react. They were now colonies of a country that was under foreign occupation. Should they keep taking orders from France as if nothing had happened? Declare their loyalty to Pétain?

They weren’t the only colonies in this predicament. Germany had occupied the Netherlands and Belgium as well. However, both of those countries still had semi-intact governments in place that just happened to be operating from exile in London. The colonial administrations in both the Dutch East Indes and the Belgian Congo pledged their loyalty to these governments-in-exile and supported the British. France, however, did have a government that was still based in France. At first, basically all colonial administrations in France’s overseas empire recognized the Vichy regime as the legitimate government of France. When the British went to force the issue by attacking the port of Dakar in French-ruled Senegal, the result was a humiliating defeat.

The foundation of the Free French Army

However, all of this started to change when Éboué declared that Chad would side with de Gaulle. After all, as oppressive as French colonial rule could be, at least the French opened avenues, however limited, for their subjects to advance themselves. Compared to the racist and genocidal Nazis, a free France was clearly the less-bad option for non-white French subjects.

Félix Éboué and Charles de Gaulle

Before long, French Cameroon joined Chad, and the two invaded Gabon, a colony that had declared for Vichy. Éboué’s forces, organized as part of the Free French Army, won. Before long, the Free French Army had captured Madagascar as well. These “Free French” forces included many of the French soldiers who had escaped to England with de Gaulle, but it also included many thousands of African soldiers who were recruited from these French colonies.

However, some colonies still professed their loyalty to Pétain, most notably those in northern and western Africa that were vital to the Vichy regime as a breadbasket. Located just across the Mediterranean from France, Spain, and Italy, the agricultural sector in these colonies supplied Axis-occupied Europe with food and had numerous ports that were useful as naval bases. This made it imperative that the Axis powers maintained control of them, and also made them one of the first major targets of the Allied plans to liberate Europe.

American and British forces invaded North Africa in a campaign dubbed “Operation Torch”. While this invasion was happening in northwestern Africa, British forces operating in Egypt in the northeastern corner of the continent were joined by the Free French Army invading Libya, an Italian colony, forcing the Axis armies to divide their attention and their forces across multiple fronts. By the end of 1942, the Allies had squeezed the Axis powers’ forces off the African continent entirely.

While the Free French Army was fighting on the battlefields of Africa, some important political maneuvers were happening behind the scenes in the conference rooms of the Allied commanders. In a stunning turn of events, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (yes, that one) convinced the Vichy French forces they were fighting in North Africa to switch sides, merging with the Free French Army. As a result, de Gaulle’s forces expanded immensely, with about 60% of the new Free French soldiers being native North Africans and West Africans. This multiracial, pan-African army participated in the Allied invasion of Italy, with about 130,000 fighting in the Italian countryside, of whom 6,331 were wounded in battle and 1,726 gave their lives.

When the D-Day landings took place in Normandy on June 6, 1944, one of the units participating in the landings at Utah Beach was the 2nd Armored Division, a Free French unit formed from the African and French veterans of the aforementioned invasion of Libya. For the rest of 1944, the Free French Army played a major role in the Allied liberation of France.

So, why haven’t I heard of this army before?

While the Free French Army was chasing the Axis forces out of Africa and fighting in Italy, there were people back home in France who were actively resisting the Nazi occupation of their homeland with a campaign of sabotage and hit-and-run guerrilla ambushes. Many were former soldiers who refused to accept their nation’s surrender. However, there were also Communists fighting to establish a Marxist state, Jews trying to escape the Holocaust, and ordinary citizens trying to escape forced labor in Germany. Those who were caught by the Germans would be killed, and in some cases their families and villages would suffer retribution as a result. The sacrifices made by these brave fighters and their importance in the war shouldn’t be downplayed. Their fight for liberty is nothing short of heroic.

However, there was a consensus among the Allied leaders that the French people should feel that they liberated their own country, and the fact that so many of those that had fought to defeat Vichy and its Nazi puppet-masters were Africans from places like Chad, Cameroon, or Morocco didn’t fit that narrative. In fact, as the Allied forces grew closer to Paris, it was agreed by the top generals that the first unit to enter the city on the day of its liberation would be the 2nd Armored Division – but only those among its ranks who were “100% white“. Ironically, de Gaulle was never consulted about this, it was a decision made by the American and British top brass.

In the months that followed, the French Resistance was officially merged with the Free French, forming a provisional government and a new French Army, both of which tended to put figures from the Resistance in their uppermost ranks. Once the war was over, many overseas French colonies began to advocate for their independence, and France initially repressed these movements with brutal force. It was only after de Gaulle took over as President of France in 1958 that the French colonial empire was finally broken up and its colonies were allowed to become independent nations.

Today, when we look at the history of World War II, we generally tend to ignore how it affected Africa and the many battles and struggles that were fought there. When we think of the role France had in World War II, we mostly think of the country’s quick surrender early in the war, with the more generous also mentioning the French Resistance as a side-note. Yet in many ways the war could have gone quite differently if it weren’t for the brave men of Africa who recognized that they would be better off fighting for the freedom of the France they knew, racist and flawed as it was, than potentially living under the thumb of the Nazis. I think it is truly a shame that this sacrifice has gone forgotten and ignored because they don’t fit neatly into the story we tell about World War II. Personally, I think that it may be time for that story to change.

Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in Let's Live a Little (1948) image from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when learning about history, you find things that surprise you.

Those of you who have heard of Hedy Lamarr almost certainly know her as one of the most glamorous and popular Hollywood actresses of the Golden Age, appearing in 32 movies between 1930 and 1958. Yet acting was far from her true passion; she once said of it, “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” No, her real passion was science. She was an inventor, and one of her most important inventions is probably in the very device you are using to read this blog right now.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, her parents both came from Jewish families, though her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism. Growing up, she was always fascinated by science. Yet she was undeniably beautiful, and that was almost certainly why film producer Max Reinhardt, upon discovering her, decided to hire and train her. Her first runaway hit was the 1933 film Ecstasy, a film that was highly controversial for its explicit (for the time) sexual content. Her first husband, businessman Friedrich Mandl, was so upset he prevented her from leaving his private castle for four years. She would later say that she only escaped by disguising herself as a maid.

She arrived in Paris in 1937, where she met Louis B. Mayer (who we’ve met on this blog before). Mayer brought her to Hollywood, advertising her in his pictures as “The most beautiful woman in the world!” She soon was appearing in movie after movie, appearing alongside other Hollywood greats of the time such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Soon, she was able to use her famous status to help her parents escape the Nazis.

Lamarr was almost always cast in roles that played up her physical appearance. She was a part of the Hollywood social scene, of course, but she didn’t like it. She wasn’t a drinker, and she didn’t like large parties. Deeply unsatisfied with the celebrity lifestyle, she turned to science as her escape in her spare time.

She developed a stoplight that was far more efficient than the ones that hung over America’s streets at the time, and then tried to use chemistry to develop a tablet that would turn ordinary drinking water into soda. The latter invention wasn’t nearly as successful, largely because it tasted terrible, by her own admission. Her most important invention, however, was a response to the outbreak of World War II.

Lamarr was fascinated by remote-control technology, and believed remote-controlled torpedoes could help the U.S. Navy in its fight against the German U-boats, making it easier for the torpedoes to hit their targets. The problem was that it would be fairly easy for the Germans to jam the radio signals. She wanted to figure out a way to overcome this problem, and so she talked about her ideas with pianist and composer George Antheil, one of the people in her social circle. In their conversations, Lamarr was inspired by piano rolls, the devices that allow novelty player pianos to play themselves. She and Antheil worked together on developing a similar device that would quickly switch between random radio frequencies, making it impossible for the Germans to jam. By the time they had figured out which frequency the Americans were using, the thought was, the American device would already have switched frequencies.

She patented her invention in 1942, and presented her idea to the U.S. Navy. The Navy said “Thanks, but no thanks.” They put the idea in their files and forgot about it. However, as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the need for a way to send radio signals securely became urgent, and the Navy pulled the designs out of storage and gave it another look. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the technology was being used on U.S. Navy ships to send messages that would be incredibly difficult for enemies to intercept.

Lamarr called her invention “The Secret Communication System”, but today it is known as spread-spectrum technology, and it is the basis for both WiFi and Bluetooth systems. Still, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Lamarr would finally be publicly recognized for inventing the thing. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997. She died just three years later in Casselberry, Florida. Today, she is the only person who is memorialized both on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It just goes to show that looks aren’t everything.

Awesome Villain in History: William Walker

William Walker image from Wikipedia

Well, Cat Flaggers, it’s high time I talked about another Awesome Villain in History. Our man today was an imperialist conqueror, much as Caesar or Hernan Cortez or Cecil Rhodes. Except each of those conquerors were acting in the name and with the armies and resources of some great empire. No, our man today is William Walker, an American who conquered and ruled Nicaragua by himself, for himself.

I suppose you might need a little context. In the early 19th century, the United States had caught Manifest Destiny fever. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to believe that destiny had given them the mission to spread across the continent, possibly even the world. While this idea was far from universally accepted, many Americans truly bought into the idea and acted upon it. American settlers in Texas helped that region break away from Mexico and then got it annexed to the United States, and then the United States conquered the northern half of Mexico and made it into the American Southwest. Millions of Americans pushed west into the heart of North America, pushing out the Indian tribes who lived there.

Even still, some Americans felt America wasn’t expanding fast enough. In particular, there were white southerners who wanted to annex as much land as possible south of the Mason-Dixon line and bring as many new slave states into the Union as possible, to outnumber the northern free states. Naturally, this idea was flatly rejected by northerners, and the official United States policy shifted to one of consolidating existing gains and not antagonizing our nation’s southern nations.

This didn’t stop some people from organizing, funding, supplying, and launching their own military expeditions into Latin America all by themselves. These “filibusters”, as they were called, were declared to be criminals by the U.S. government, yet they were popular in the press and celebrated as heroes by many Americans. As you might imagine, the people in these Latin American countries that found themselves under attack from these renegades weren’t nearly so supportive.

Who doesn't love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

Who doesn’t love violent people bursting into their hometown without warning?

The most successful of these filibusters was Nashville-born William Walker, a highly intelligent young man who got a doctorate before his 20th birthday, and who became a journalist in New Orleans. In 1853, he asked for Mexico’s permission to start an American colony in Guaymas, a city on the Sea of Cortez known for its pearls. Having just lost most of its territory to Americans just five years earlier, Mexico gave Walker an emphatic “NO!” Undeterred, Walker began recruiting people for a military expedition to take over northwestern Mexico and create an independent “Republic of Sonora”, with the eventual goal of getting annexed to the United States, Texas-style. Walker got 45 takers.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 45 people is enough to successfully conquer much of anything. Nevertheless, Walker tried, and managed to gain control of the city of La Paz, capital of Baja California. After boldly declaring Baja California’s independence (with himself as president, of course), he wound up moving his base of operations twice to stay ahead of the Mexican forces that were quickly dispatched to stop him. After three months, he lay claim to the entire region around the Sea of Cortez, but this was nothing but a hollow boast as by then he had retreated almost to the U.S. border. Eventually thrown out of Mexico, he was arrested upon his return to the United States for conducting an illegal war.

In spite of the fact that Walker was clearly guilty, he was regarded as a hero by many Americans, and the jury that tried his case found him not guilty after a mere eight minutes. Now a free man, Walker began dreaming of even bigger exploits, certain that with better planning his next campaign would be more successful.

In 1854, Walker got his chance. Nicaragua was in the middle of a civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and the Liberals invited Walker to lead an army of mercenaries to help them out.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1855, Walker arrived with 60 Americans, ans was soon joined by 270 more men who were willing to join this, um, “adventure”. After a few battles, Walker’s forces successfully captured the Conservative capital. Nominally, the Nicaraguan Liberal leader Patricio Rivas was president of the country, but Walker quickly made sure that he was the actual man in charge.

Now in control of his own country, Walker surely did the responsible thing and worked hard to help the Nicaraguan people with his policies, right? Of course not. Instead, he made backroom deals with some American businessmen to seize control of the company that transported people and goods across Nicaragua to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and turn it over to them. He also boasted to anyone who would listen that he planned to conquer all of Central America.

These decisions made him some powerful enemies. One of those enemies was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous cutthroat businessman and robber baron who happened to be the owner of that transportation company Walker had seized. Vanderbilt allied with Costa Rica, a country that quite reasonably feared it would be next on Walker’s list; from 1856 to 1857 Costa Rica and Nicaragua fought a war against each other, with Vanderbilt supplying the Costa Rican forces while also preventing Nicaragua from getting any supplies for its army. Before long, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador also decided to join in the fight against Walker, invading from the north.

The fact that all of the countries around him and one of America’s most powerful businessmen had all ganged up against him didn’t deter Walker in the slightest. Shoving Rivas aside, Walker rigged an election to have himself proclaimed Nicaragua’s president. He legalized slavery, declared English an official language of the country, and launched a policy of trying to encourage Americans to settle there.

Soon, though, Walker woke up to the fact that his forces were losing badly (in large part because of a cholera outbreak among his ranks). With Granada, his capital city, surrounded by 4,000 enemy troops, Walker and his men decided to flee for their lives. After burning the city to the ground first.

Was that really necessary, guys?

Was that really necessary, guys?

Eventually, Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy, who took him back to the United States. Once again, Walker was greeted as a hero by many Americans, so after writing his memoirs of his conquest and loss of Nicaragua, he decided to try again. This time, his goal was Honduras, but this time, he was captured before he got there by the British Royal Navy, who happily turned him over to the Honduran authorities. Walker was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

Today, Central American countries celebrate the war to stop Walker as one of their greatest triumphs of history, and celebrate heroes of that struggle in the same way Americans celebrate heroes of our Revolutionary War. Here in the United States, though, he is largely forgotten, as shortly after his death the Civil War broke out and quickly overshadowed all of the exploits of the filibusters. Plus, the whole “trying to expand slavery” thing was far less popular after the war was over.

Cat Flag would like to take a moment to thank the veterans who served in the United States military and honor their countless contributions and sacrifices for our nation.