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James Coleman: Destiny in a white bean



William Walker
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To what could James Coleman attribute his life of 72 years?

The answer: a white bean.

That’s an unusual answer, but even more so is the story that tells about it. Coleman was born in Kentucky in 1834 and moved to Vicksburg in 1837 with his parents, Nicholas and Anna Marshall Coleman. He was a nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court and a cousin of Col. Alex McClung, the famed duelist·who also moved to Vicksburg. His father was postmaster here for 13 years. He was also an attorney, a planter — a man of many talents, all of which had the Midas touch.

James was one of five Coleman sons. He was a student at Princeton University in New Jersey when he was caught up in the excitement of filibustering (that was a term used when one tried to overthrow an existing government and establish himself as president).

The man behind the move in which James played a part was William Walker, born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. He earned medical degrees from the University of Nashville and the University of Pennsylvania and also studied in Europe. Unhappy as a physician, he moved to New Orleans in 1840 and practiced law but still dissatisfied, he helped start a newspaper, The Crescent.

Perhaps it was a tragic love affair that changed Walker from a quiet, unpretentious man into a would-be despot. In New Orleans he fell in love with Ellen Marthion, a deaf mute, but when she died of cholera, he moved to California in 1849 where he ran a newspaper, fought a duel and got interested in politics.

Walker certainly didn’t have the physical appearance of a leader. He was 5-feet-6-inches tall, weighed about 100 pounds, was pale, freckled, oversensitive and shy, and seldom took his hands out of his pockets when talking.

The only commanding feature he had was his eyes — a cold, steady, steel gray. “The gray-eyed man of destiny,” people called him.

Perhaps he had charisma, for he easily persuaded men to follow him. John Wheeler, who knew him well, wrote that Walker “looked upon men as mere titulary pawns of the chessboard, to be moved and sacrificed to advance the ambitious plans of others” — mainly himself.

Walkers’ eyes were on Mexico and Central America. In 1853 he had a plan to colonize the Mexican state of Sonora, but failed, so he decided to invade Baja California, install himself as president and annex Sonora. He started off with only 45 men, including Cromwell Barslay from Vicksburg. Soon, about 100 more men joined him, and more were to come with supplies.

His plans were thwarted by another man from Warren County. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War, and he issued orders for Walker’s arrest. Walker told a sympathetic jury he was just trying to protect American interests, and he was acquitted.

It may have been about this time that he came back South, making speeches in many cities, hoping to create a following. In Vicksburg, Walker spoke three times at the Apollo Theater, which was on the northeast corner of Crawford and Washington streets. It was at one of these appearances that young Coleman, home from college, was in the audience. Intrigued by the notions of adventure, he dropped out of school, and when Walker sailed from Mobile in 1858, Coleman was one of the 120 men with him.

Their destination was Nicaragua, a country in the throes of Civil War. One of the factions, the Constitutionalists, invited Americans to join them, promising generous land grants. They made an alliance with Walker, naming him colonel. Soon, hundreds of men followed and joined Walker’s army.

Walker described his army as one composed of men who were “tired of the humdrum of common life, and ready for a career which might bring them the sweets of adventure or the rewards of fame.”

Others were not so complimentary. One man felt that Walker had drawn off the dregs of society, and they could leave with most people “not shedding a tear.” That may be partially true, but Walker also attracted well-educated men from famous families.

When Walker landed in Nicaragua, his forces were defeated in their first battle, but they won the next two and controlled an important part of the country — the route that connected the two oceans. A Nicaraguan general proposed a coalition government that included Walker as commander in chief.

By the end of 1855, more than 1,200 Americans had followed him. He was so popular and honored in the United States that his actions were endorsed at the Democratic National Convention in 1856.

He wasn’t so well loved in Nicaragua. The countries that surrounded it — Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica — joined in the efforts to defeat him. When the Nicaraguan president defected, Walker staged an election in which he easily won the presidency. When Civil War again erupted, he came home to the United States claiming he was still the president. He sailed back to Nicaragua from Mobile once more in 1858.

After a series of skirmishes, all defeats for Walker, he turned himself and his army over to Capt. Norvell Salmon of the British Navy who promised protection. Instead, Salmon turned the Americans over to the Nicaraguans and Hondurans.

There wasn’t a trial. Instead, the men were arraigned in the jungles along the Honduran border. The tired, sick and exhausted rag­ tag Americans were individually instructed to reach into a container without looking and draw out a bean. Those who picked black beans were later executed by firing squad. If you drew a white bean you were freed.

William Walker drew a black bean. Later in the day he. stood before a firing squad in a field near the beach. Priests buried him in a shallow grave near the ocean, and his grave was soon obliterated by the waves from the sea.

Only the sound of the muskets silenced the claim of the “gray-eyed man of destiny” that he was the president of Nicaragua. He was a victim of greed and a lust for power.

James Coleman was lucky. He drew out a white bead. It saved his life.

James Coleman died in 1906. He is buried in the family plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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