The best books on U.S. filibustering

Who am I?

I discovered the “filibusters” during my very first weeks in graduate school and have been learning and writing books and articles about them ever since. I think that what initially intrigued me was that they had outsized importance in U.S. politics and diplomacy, and were often front-page news before the Civil War, and yet I had never heard about them growing up. I was also intrigued because these men were so unlike myself. I can’t in my wildest moments even imagine joining a tiny bunch of armed men in an illegal expedition to a foreign land, risking death in the field or jail if I ever made it back home!


I wrote...

Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

By Robert E. May,

Book cover of Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America

What is my book about?

Manifest Destiny’s Underworld tells the colorful and unexpected story of adventuring Americans (mostly young males) known as “filibusters,” who before the Civil War joined private military companies to invade Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Central American countries, and other foreign lands. These expeditions were illegal under U.S. and international law and often had horrific outcomes, though one filibuster, William Walker, did conquer and rule Nicaragua for a year. The filibuster expeditions disrupted American diplomacy with foreign countries, helped stir up the slavery controversy and bring on the American Civil War, and left a legacy of anti-Americanism throughout Latin America.

The books I picked & why

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Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America

By Michel Gobat,

Book cover of Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America

Why this book?

Though he’s hardly a household name, William Walker, the most significant of the American filibusters, has been the subject of a surprising number of biographies. What is special about Michel Gobat’s book is his in-depth look at the actual government Walker set up to rule Nicaragua in the mid-1850s, the people he enlisted to run it, and his government’s ambitions and programs. Gobat suggests, importantly, that prior historians have underestimated Walker’s popular support in Nicaragua and overstated his ties to White southerners’ plans to expand U.S. slavery. 

Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America

By Michel Gobat,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empire by Invitation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Michel Gobat traces the untold story of the rise and fall of the first U.S. overseas empire to William Walker, a believer in the nation's manifest destiny to spread its blessings not only westward but abroad as well.

In the 1850s Walker and a small group of U.S. expansionists migrated to Nicaragua determined to forge a tropical "empire of liberty." His quest to free Central American masses from allegedly despotic elites initially enjoyed strong local support from liberal Nicaraguans who hoped U.S.-style democracy and progress would spread across the land. As Walker's group of "filibusters" proceeded to help Nicaraguans battle…


The War in Nicaragua

By William Walker,

Book cover of The War in Nicaragua

Why this book?

What could be better, if you wish to learn about the U.S. filibustering adventurers who invaded Latin America in the 1850s, than to read an account by the most famous of them—William Walker, who left Gold Rush California in 1855 to participate in a Nicaraguan Civil War and rose to the presidency there? The War in Nicaragua is Walker’s own autobiographical account of his campaigns and experiences in Nicaragua. Pay attention, particularly, to what he says about slavery and White supremacy towards the end of the book. And remember that Walker conquered Nicaragua over a half-century before the Panama Canal was built. Did his intervention there have anything to do with how Americans got from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean during the Gold Rush?

The War in Nicaragua

By William Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The War in Nicaragua as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…


Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire

By Amy S. Greenberg,

Book cover of Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire

Why this book?

Better than any other study on filibustering, Amy Greenberg treats it through the lens of gender, and she is particularly interested in public opinion about filibustering. Mass rallies in support of filibuster invasions of Cuba and Central America occurred in U.S. cities in the 1850s, providing funds, recruits, and moral support for criminal enterprises. What did gender have to do with who approved of filibustering, and who didn’t? What did filibustering have to do with ideas about what constituted proper masculinity? Did women participate in filibustering in any way, and did images of exoticized women in other parts of the world affect the attitudes of male filibusters?

Greenberg uses a fascinating variety of sources, including cartoons, poetry, travel accounts, and artwork, to convey the ambience of the filibustering world. Intriguingly, she both links and differentiates what she found about U.S. expansionist initiatives in Latin America before the Civil War to U.S. interest in Hawaii, the Philippines, and other distant Pacific domains before and after the Civil War.

Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire

By Amy S. Greenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The US-Mexico War (1846-8) brought two centuries of dramatic territorial expansionism to a close, seemingly fulfilling America's Manifest destiny. Or did it? As politicians schemed to annex new lands in Latin America and the Pacific, some Americans took expansionism into their own hands. From 1848-60, an epidemic of unsanctioned attacks by American mercenaries (filibusters) took place. This book documents the potency of Manifest destiny in the antebellum era, and situates imperial lust in the context of social and economic transformations that were changing the meaning of manhood and womanhood in the US. Easy victory over Mexico in 1848 led many…

Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters

By Charles H. Brown,

Book cover of Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters

Why this book?

I found Brown’s book extremely helpful in writing my own book on filibustering, because it spins out its story chronologically, starting with plots against Venezuela and Spanish territory on the U.S.’s southwestern frontier in 1806 (the latter headed by the infamous Aaron Burr) and winding up with the execution of William Walker by a Honduran firing squad in 1860, shortly before the American Civil War. There would be later filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and other places, but Brown’s narrative provides a perfect starting point for anyone wanting an overall panorama of filibustering during its “golden age,” when it most influenced the American public and was most closely linked to the American expansion philosophy of Manifest Destiny. Brown enriches his book with ample photographs, maps, and a thirteen-page bibliography. 

Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters

By Charles H. Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Agents of Manifest Destiny as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the 1850s the doctrine of Manifest Destiny sanctioned a popular movement in which adventurers sought to enlarge the nation's boundaries by military incursions into Latin American countries. Brown portrays the leaders of the expeditions and describes the filibuster movement as a part of larger affairs--the slavery issue, the Monroe Doctrine, the rivalry for commercial supremacy in the Caribbean, and the assertion by the United States of its claim to national greatness.

Originally published in 1980.

A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished…

Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba

By Tom Chaffin,

Book cover of Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba

Why this book?

Tom Chaffin is a great writer of narrative history, and this, his exciting first book, covers the daring filibuster attempts between 1849 and 1851 by a native Venezuelan to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. López and many of his recruits died in two futile invasions of Cuba in 1850 and 1851, as his landings on Cuba’s shores were brutally repressed by Spanish military authorities. Lopez’s story fascinates on many levels, one of them being his contacts and intersections with key southern politicians of the time like John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Mississippi’s radical secessionist governor John A. Quitman, as well as New Yorker John L. O’Sullivan, the newsman often credited with coining the famous term “manifest destiny.” The book is great on the nuts and bolts of mounting filibuster expeditions and how filibuster leaders managed to launch their expeditions from U.S. soil despite attempts by U.S. legal officers and American naval commanders to arrest them and get them jailed.

Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba

By Tom Chaffin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fatal Glory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1848 and 1851, Lopez tried five times to dislodge Cuba's Spanish government. This text recounts Lopez's daring invasions of Cuba and reveals how he was assisted by New York steam ship magnates, penny press editors, Cuban industrialists and northern democratic urban bosses.

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