Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker While Creating a National Identity.

This discussion topic submitted by Lisa Tirmenstein ( at 12:00 am on 5/17/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Lisa Tirmenstein
Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker While Creating a National Identity.

Costa Rica stands out in Latin America for its emphasis on education, conservation and social welfare instead of war or revolution. The country quietly gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and the Costa Ricans didn’t even know about the declaration until a month after Spain announced it. After gaining independence they briefly joined as part of Mexico until 1826, then became part of the Central American Federation, and in 1848 the country declared itself independent. While there were some internal problems, like a short civil war over the country’s annexation to Mexico, changing the forms of government, and moving the capital city, the history of Costa Rica has been relatively quiet in comparison to the other countries of Central America. “Without the ambitions and class conflicts of the other colonies, living at subsistence, Costa Rica required only minimal government”(Glassman 36). It took a national effort against American filibuster William Walker to change Costa Rica’s view of their own nationality and their relationship with the rest of the world.

American filibuster William Walker enjoyed immense popularity and was considered a visionary, although today he would be seen as racist, egocentric, and destructive. Filibusters were “…soldiers of fortune who engaged in fitting out expeditions to and conducting unauthorized warfare against countries with which the United States was at peace—usually with the aim of enriching themselves”(Rosengarten 11). William Walker had already invaded Sonora and Lower California, declaring the areas free and independent, in expectation of their future annexation into the United States. Mexican forces, though, had little trouble expelling his three hundred men from the country, especially as supplies ran out and the weakened men began to desert until they were reduced to only 34 men. Back in the United States, Walker was tried for breaking neutrality laws. Public sentiment, however, was so strongly supportive of him for pursuing the Manifest Destiny of the United States, that he was found not guilty.

The Manifest Destiny of the United States included far more land than our present day country spans. At the time, it “…meant territorial expansion into ill-defined areas in North America and the Western Hemisphere”(Rosengarten 10). After Walker’s unsuccessful invasion of Mexico, he focused on Central America. Believing that the inhabitants were innately inferior to those of the Anglo-Saxon race, and incapable of self-government, “If Walker had been successful he would have instituted a revived form of African slavery as the cornerstone of his imperialistic system, under which not only African Negroes ( to be imported in due course ), but also local Central American laborers were to be the slaves or serfs”(Rosengarten 89). Walker believed that his superior ancestry justified wiping out entire cultures and enslaving their people for the eventual land and economic gain of the United States.

In 1855, Walker saw his opportunity in Nicaragua while the country was undergoing extreme internal political turmoil. The two political parties, the Liberal party (Democratic) and the Legitimist party (Aristocratic), were constantly warring with one another as they continually tried to gain political control through violent means. “During a period of six years Nicaragua had had no fewer than fifteen presidents”(Scroggs 83). The Liberal party offered to pay for three hundred men who would come to Nicaragua and fight to retain the power that they had just recently again lost. Breaking neutrality laws once again, Walker gathered the men, sailed to Nicaragua, and quickly took the Legitimist stronghold city of Granada. The fighting continued in Nicaragua as Walker’s army grew stronger and Walker declared himself first Commander in Chief, and eventually President, of Nicaragua, creating a temporary, uneasy peace within the country. He then legalized slavery and continued to build up his army. While he initially wanted to achieve a peace with the neighboring countries, especially Costa Rica, he still planned to conquer them as his power grew.

Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora had been watching Walker’s progress and disapproved of it for many reasons. Mora knew of Walker’s plan to enslave all the peoples of Central America and eventually turn the land into part of the Southern Confederacy. Although Walker was trying to create peace with Mora, Mora saw that this would only facilitate Walker’s plan, leaving his country open to invasion and enslavement. Mora declared war, not on Nicaragua, but on Walker and his filibusters, on March 1, 1856, to ensure his people’s freedom.
Mora also feared Walker because of the American influence he brought to the area of Guanacaste. Costa Rica and Nicaragua had been disputing ownership of this borderland that contained the San Juan River. The San Juan River flows from the Atlantic into Lake Nicaragua, and then the distance from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific is only 12 miles over land. This land was being strongly considered by France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States as the site for a possible canal. Great Britain strongly supported taking Guanacaste away from Walker’s American influence and provided Costa Rica with guns and ammunition to take the land.

Mora saw this as an enormous opportunity to invade the area of Guanacaste, where the San Juan River flowed. Costa Rica had never mobilized together in a war before, so Mora did not use a plea for nationalism in order to gain troops. Instead, he focused on the human side of Walker’s conquest, the family members of his countrymen who will be forcibly enslaved if Walker’s plan succeeded. “We do not go to contend for a piece of land, or to acquire ephemeral power; not to achieve miserable conquest or much less for sacrilegious purposes. No! We go to struggle for the redemption of our brethren from the most iniquitous tyranny”(Greene 170)”. His plea worked, and he quickly organized 9,000 volunteers.

Mora led three thousand of his men to the town of Santa Rosa, Costa Rica, which bordered Guanacaste. Walker’s 240 troops were already encamped there under the command of the unqualified Colonel Louis Schlessinger. Schlessinger’s troops were not prepared for battle. On March 20, with no sentries posted, Mora’s Costa Ricans surprised and attacked the small group and Schlessinger himself ran away in terror, leaving his troops vulnerable, disorganized, and without leadership. Walker’s men were not any more qualified than their colonel. "Vigilante fugitives from San Francisco, wharf rats from New Orleans, and villains from half the countries of the world—had only the mob spirit. In victory they were tough and brave; in defeat they were craven and drunk”(Greene 175). Mora’s men easily took Santa Rosa and forced Walker’s men to flee to Rivas and join the rest of the filibusters.

After such a crushing defeat, Walker’s men were in an almost constant state of drunkenness. Walker, after hearing some unfounded rumors, feared attack by northern governments and so he foolishly decided to withdraw from Rivas. “And he left open to Mora’s advancing three thousand the key city of the Nicaragua of that day—Rivas, commanding the Transit”(Greene 179). This unjustified movement achieved nothing and ended up to be a huge mistake. “It was, in bitter truth, a sickening display of military ignorance, reminiscent of the Sonora tactics”(Greene 179). Mora quickly slipped into Rivas with 3,000 men. Walker then, just four days after giving up the city, marched his men back into Rivas to try to take it back.

On April 11, the Costa Ricans fired on Walker and his men as they entered Rivas. Walker managed to drive the Costa Ricans out and into the street. After fighting all afternoon in the streets, there were severe losses for both sides. During this, Walker and many of his men were holding out in a thatched roof building. In a heroic act of bravery, young Costa Rican drummer Juan Santamaria volunteered to torch the building. Santamaria had to run out into the open street with his torch, leaving himself totally exposed to Walker’s gunfire. Santamaria managed to make it to the building and throw the torch on it before he fell from the shower of bullets. Walker and his men fled to safety in another building and then withdrew from the city during the night. Walker gained absolutely nothing and his force was severely weakened.

Although Costa Rica was victorious in the Battle of Rivas, the country was not back to normal. Because the bodies of the dead were not buried in Rivas but were just thrown into the wells, the city experienced a huge outbreak of cholera from the contamination. The troops brought the disease home to Costa Rica with them where it ravaged the entire country, killing a one tenth of the population. Mora was blamed for the outbreak and for the other economic problems, and was taken out of power in 1859.

The Battle of Rivas marked the beginning of the end for Walker. With militant opposition from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and even from within Nicaragua, Walker abandoned Central America and left behind most of his weak army in May 1857. He returned to the United States as a hero, giving speeches to masses of people, had poetry and songs written abut his exploits in Nicaragua. Walker returned to Nicaragua briefly, but was captured and brought home by the United States. Once again he was tried and found not guilty of filibustering and, three years later, tried again in Central America. He was quickly captured, this time it was by the British, who turned him over to the authorities of Honduras. The Hondurans quickly executed him.

The effects of the battle of Rivas on Costa Rica did not stop with the cholera epidemic and the removal from office of Mora. For a country with little previous national identity, Juan Santamaria, or at least the idea of him, acted to bring pride to the Costa Rican people. His heroism was not celebrated until 1865, when Costa Rica was being threatened by Guatemala. The new Costa Rican President, reminded, or told, the people of Santamaria’s bravery in Rivas in order to incite them to enlist and fight for the protection of Costa Rica once again. “Just as Juan Santamaria protected our families form the filibusteros, the President said, we must now protect our land against those who would take it from us”(Smith 2). Santamaria helped strengthen Costa Rica’s national identity helped unify the country. It is important to note that Santamaria was only a poor young farmer, “…and as such, he inspired them with a sense of belonging to a nation that was starting to emerge”(“Juan Santamaria” 2). In 1891 a statue of him was put up in Alajuela. April 11 is a national holiday, Juan Santamaria Day. Still today Costa Rican children learn about Santamaria and act out his famous torching of the filibusters in school. Although Santamaria’s act did not kill any of Walker’s men and Walker lived to twice return to attack Central America, Santamaria’s memory has provided an important legend and war hero for Costa Rica.


“A Crazy Man’s War.” INFO Costa Rica S.A. 1999. 2 pages. Online. Internet.9 May 2000. Available

Bird, Leonard. Costa Rica The Unarmed Democracy. London: Sheppard Press, 1984.

Glassman, Paul. Costa Rica Guide. 7th ed. Open Road Publishing, 1998.

Greene, Laurence. The Filibuster. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1937.

“Juan Santamaria (National Hero).” INFO Costa Rica S.A. 1999. 2 pages. Online. Internet.9 May 2000. Available

Keller, Nancy, Rob Rachowieckim, Barbara Reioux. Central America on a Shoestring. Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1997.

Rosengarten, Frederic Jr. Freebooters Must Die! Wayne, PA: Haverford House Publishers, 1976.

Scroggs, William O. Filibusters and Financiers: The story of William Walker and his Associates. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916.

Smith, Michael L. “The Torch of Freedom.” COCORI Complete Costa Rica. 1996. 3pages. Online. Internet. 9 May 2000. Available

“The Battle of Rivas.”, Inc. 2000. 2 pages. Online. Internet. 9 May 2000. Available

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