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Costa Rica's "Epic" War of 1856

Richard Garrigues

In 1855, a brilliant, but somewhat megalomaniacal, North American named William Walker arrived in Nicaragua in time to bolster a flailing regime. As a result of his success, he set himself up as Commander-in-Chief of Nicaragua and soon launched a military campaign to conquer all of Central America.

This effort was undertaken with the support of a mercenary army of international origin and the financial backing of interests from the Confederate Union of the southern United States.

Walker's sights turned first towards Costa Rica. When word of the invasion reached San José, Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora organized a civilian militia to march to Guanacaste and confront the filibusteros, as the mercenaries were known.

When the Costa Rican forces reached northwestern Guanacaste's Hacienda Santa Rosa on March 20, 1856, the mercenaries were housed in the main farm building, La Casona. The ensuing battle lasted all of 14 minutes with the national militia victorious in ousting the invaders. (This being the "epic" battle of Costa Rican history gives an insight into just how peaceful the nation's history has been.)

The filibusteros were chased back across the border into Nicaragua, where the Costa Ricans clashed again with the mercenaries in a decisive battle in the town of Rivas on April 11, 1856. It was during this encounter that Costa Rica's only National War Hero (at least the only Costa Rican to have a national holiday declared in his honor), Juan Santamaria, gained his martyrdom.

A young man from the town of Alajuela, Juan was a drummer boy in the country's impromptu militia, but his moment of bravery came when the commanding officer asked for a volunteer to set fire to El Mesón de Guerra—the building the filibusteros had made their stronghold. Juan, torch in hand, fulfilled his patriotic duty, but it cost him his life.

To commemorate this heroic deed, April 11th is officially celebrated as Juan Santamaria Day, with most of the festivities centered in the city of Alajuela. The International Airport located just outside the city is also named after this favorite son.

William Walker himself was not present in either of the Battle of Santa Rosa or the Battle of Rivas. But after seeing his plans thwarted by the valiant defense of the Central American nations, he fled Nicaragua and returned to the United States where he practiced law for two years in San Francisco.

However, he was unable to completely abandon his notions of a Central American takeover and in 1860 he returned to the region, but was captured and put on trial for treason by the government of Honduras. His death in front of a firing squad put an end to this strange chapter in the region's history.

Years later, history proved that it does indeed repeat itself. Hacienda Santa Rosa was the site of both the 1919 and the 1955 battles between Costa Rican troops and invading forces from Nicaragua. The first was an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of General Federico Tinoco; the second a coup attempt against the government of José Figueres Ferrer.

For anyone visiting the Santa Rosa area nowadays, going beyond the old hacienda building, "La Casona," will bring you to a set of steps leading up to a monument commemorating the fallen heroes of the battles of 1856 and 1955. The view of Guanacaste National Park, Rincón de la Vieja National Park and much of Santa Rosa National Park from atop the monument is well worth the effort of climbing the stairs.

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