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The Anniversary of the Battle of Rivas, or Juan Santamaría Day: A Lesson in Costa Rican History

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In Costa Rican history, April 11th is the anniversary of the Battle of Rivas. More popularly known as Juan Santamaría Day, this day is named after the memory of this integral battle for Costa Rica, and for the 19-year old, barefooted soldier who fought valiantly against Nicaragua’s filibuster army and sacrificed his life.

The Battle of Rivas took place on April 11, 1856 in the city of Rivas in Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, the battle is mainly remembered for the episode of the burning of the opposing army’s stronghold by Juan Santamaría. It is considered the most important of a series of battles, holding deep significance in Costa Rican national identity.

Background to the battle

During the early 1850s, William Walker and his army planned to conquer the Central American states. Walker was an American physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America, with the intention of establishing English-speaking colonies under his personal control, an enterprise then known as “filibustering.” Walker planned to claim this land as a new Federation of Southern States to be included in the territory of the United States.

At the time, a major trade route between New York City and San Francisco ran through southern Nicaragua. Since there was no inter-oceanic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the time, and the transcontinental railway did not yet exist, a major trade route between New York City and San Francisco ran through southern Nicaragua. Ships from New York would enter the San Juan River from the Atlantic and sail across Lake Nicaragua. People and goods were being transported by stagecoach over a narrow strip of land near the city of Rivas, before reaching the Pacific and being shipped to San Francisco.

The commercial exploitation of this route had been granted by the Nicaraguan government to the Accessory Transit Company, owned by Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the value of this trade route soon caught the eye of other tycoons, too.

In July 1856, William Walker set himself up as president of Nicaragua after conducting a farcical election. As ruler of Nicaragua, Walker granted control of this trade route to Charles Morgan, and American railroad and shipping magnate, and his partner Cornelius Garrison, a steamboat captain, shipping agent, shipbuilder, capitalist, and the fifth Mayor of San Francisco. 

Costa Rica’s role

Costa Rica’s president at the time, Juan Rafael Mora, watched with concern as Walker consolidated his forces and power in Nicaragua. Fearing that Walker would become unbeatable and at the urging and backing of Vanderbilt’s business empire, Mora declared war on March 1, 1865. He did not declare war on Nicaragua, but on Walker and his filibusters. Mora made the declaration in a famous speech that begins with the words, “Countrymen, take your weapons. The time that I’ve been warning you about has arrived”

Walker responded by ordering the invasion of Costa Rica and his filibuster force crossed the border into Guanacaste. Meanwhile, the Costa Rican army moved down from the Central Valley in the same direction. Although President Mora traveled with the army, command was in the hands of his brother, Jose Joaquin Mora, and his brother-in-law, General Cañas. Walker’s men were under the command of Colonel Louis Schlessinger, an inexperienced officer.

On the 20th of March, with no sentries posted, Mora’s army surprised and attacked the small group. The filibuster commander, Schlessinger, ran away, leaving his troops vulnerable, disorganized, and without leadership. Shocked by the defeat, Walker listened to unfounded rumors that Mora’s army was going to attack from the North. He wrongly decided to abandon Rivas, the key city of Nicaragua at that time, to meet the army from the north. Mora quickly slipped into Rivas and captured the city with 3,000 men.

Only four days after giving up the city, Walker marched his men back into Rivas to try to take it back. His small force was able to score a number of victories until April 11th, when Juan Santamaría, a drummer boy from the town of Alajuela, volunteered to set fire to the filibusters’ stronghold. He approached the inn named El Mesón de Guerra and tossed his torch onto the thatched roof. This caused the filibusters to flee, although Santamaria was cut down by sniper fire in the process. Walker and his surviving soldiers fled to Granada during the night. 

After the Battle

Although Costa Rica was victorious in the Battle of Rivas, the army could not enjoy the victory. Bodies from the fighting were dumped in the wells of the city causing a huge outbreak of cholera. Thinking the cholera was brought by the hot weather of the Nicaraguan lowlands, the troops wanted to go back home. The Costa Rican troops subsequently brought the disease home to Costa Rica with them. It ravaged the entire country, killing one tenth of the population. Mora was blamed for the cholera outbreak, the severe losses inflicted to the army, and for the economic damage to the country because of the war debts. A coup was planned for his return to the capital but this was aborted.

The war against Walker would continue, joined now by the armies of other Central American countries under the overall command of General Mora. Vanderbilt successfully pressured the U.S. government to withdraw its recognition of Walker’s regime. Walker had sufficiently scared American and European investors in neighboring Central American nations with his talk of further military conquests. Vanderbilt financed and trained Mora’s military coalition and worked to prevent men and supplies from reaching Walker. He also provided defectors from Walker’s army with payments and free passage back to the U.S.

After the war, Mora was removed from power in 1859 and executed in 1860 when he tried to come back to power alongside General Cañas.

Traditions, customs and activities

Since the Battle of Rivas, Juan Santamaría was declared as one of the country’s heroes. He is honored during this day because of his heroic act which led to the sovereignty of the Costa Ricans. As a way of remembering Santamaría, a statue was put up in a park in Alajuela and a museum was established in memory of him. Also, the primary international airport of Costa Rica bears Santamaría’s name.

During the celebration of Battle of Rivas of Juan Santamaría Day, several parades, national activities, parades and concerts are being held nationwide most especially in his city of birth, Alajuela. Many towns and villages recreate the burning of the inn by lighting a small structure made of palms. Children go to school dressed like filibusters and peasant farmers to reenact the Battle of Rivas in school performances.

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