SANTA ROSA NATIONAL PARK, Guanacaste – On March 20, 1856, some 400 mercenaries from the U.S., Germany and France arrived at Hacienda Santa Rosa in northwest Guanacaste after a long day’s march, having invaded Costa Rica unopposed four days before.
Little did they know they were about to face a lightning battle and a shocking defeat that would give Costa Rica its proudest war story on its own soil — and leave 26 of the invaders dead and 19 captured.
Walker’s men, known as “filibusters” (derived from a Dutch word for “freebooter,” a pirate) did not choose Santa Rosa as a place of battle but as a place of rest, according to park ranger Johan Martínez of Santa Rosa National Park. So they didn’t even bother to post a sentry.
Led by an inexperienced commander from Hungary, Louis Schlessinger, these soldiers of fortune from Germany, France, New York and New Orleans had invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua on the orders of William Walker, the power-mad U.S. doctor and lawyer who already controlled Nicaragua and now aspired to capture each of its neighbors and turn them into slave states in a Central American empire under his personal control.
On March 1, Costa Rica declared war on the new regime in Nicaragua, now run by a thin 32-year-old born in Nashville. Walker had a flag with a five-pointed star that said, “Five or None” — meaning Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Where would Walker go next? Obvio: Invade Guanacaste, the province that used to be Nicaraguan until it was annexed by Costa Rica 30 years before, in 1824. Its northern end jutted into the mini-isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua, the very place where Walker hoped to build a canal to enable ships to sail from New York to San Francisco.
On March 20, Walker’s 400-man invasion force relaxed and kicked back at the nice Casona (“big house,” or large country estate), little knowing that 700 Costa Rican soldiers were creeping up on them right now with horses, cannon, rifles, revolvers, sabers and bayonets.
The Costa Rican battle plan was simple, ancient and ruthless: Surround the enemy and attack from the front, left and right, with men lying in wait in the rear to kill or capture those who fled.
The battle lasted 14 minutes.
The Costa Rican attack was so swift that the filibusters barely had time to put down their bottles and find their rifles.
The men inside the house might have been counting on the elements of strength, firepower, unity, audacity, white power, Manifest Destiny or God’s will.
What they weren’t counting on was the element of surprise.
Col. Lorenzo Salazar, with 280 men from San José, led the three-pronged charge on the Casona, supported by Capt. Mateo Marín and two small cannons.
Figuring the doors would be locked, the Costa Ricans made their own doors with cannonballs, and they poured inside. The filibusters who hadn’t escaped yet endured some unpleasant wet work when they were finished off with sabers and bayonets.
Yet in Costa Rica’s most stunning victory, the numbers tell a surprising story. Martínez said only 26 filibusters were killed and 19 captured, out of a force of 400. Yet 20 Costa Ricans were killed and many wounded, out of a force of 700.
It was a lightning victory for the Ticos and a humiliating defeat for the foreigners, yet the death toll on both sides was roughly the same.
Even stranger, why were 350 filibusters allowed to escape this fiasco? Didn’t the Costa Ricans chase them?
According to Martínez, 27, who can recite the history like it was yesterday and he was there: “Part of the reason there weren’t more people killed is that our troops, according to the same commander, made a mistake. The troop that was assigned to the rear of the house did not carry out its orders according to the plan, because there they made a wrong move. They advanced at a time when they shouldn’t have. So they allowed the enemy troops to find an escape route.”
The troops waiting behind the Casona, he said, were supposed to do just that — wait, until the frontal attack forced the men inside to flee from the back of the house.
“The order of attack was from the front,” Martínez said. “At the moment when the troops had the filibusters entrenched here inside, those in back were supposed to wait in case they tried to escape.
“But when they [the Costa Ricans] attacked the stone corral, the men in back saw that the situation was a little difficult, and they tried to attack the rear part of the house also. So they moved before their orders.”
In so doing, they handed the enemy a priceless gift — an escape route through the very place they were supposed to be guarding.
The filibusters ran for their lives.
“Didn’t the Costa Ricans chase them?” I asked Martínez. They had the upper hand, they had superior numbers, and after 14 minutes of battle they surely weren’t tired.
“The Costa Ricans followed them for a certain distance,” Martínez allowed, “but then turned back. The report says that many of the captains managed to capture enemies in flight, a total of 19, and after that they found rifles, revolvers, sabers and other weapons that the enemy left behind, including trunks with information about the filibusters, with drawings of their plans.”
But why didn’t the Costa Ricans chase them down and kill every one of them? This was my biggest question after an hour and a half of reading every word on every exhibit in this museum.
“The orders the army had was to advance from San José and attack Nicaragua,” Martínez said. “On the way there, fighting in Costa Rica was not an option. It could happen, but the idea was to attack them before they entered Costa Rican territory.
“So when they entered, when they crossed the border, the Costa Ricans were barely in Liberia. When they heard the news, they sent just one group of soldiers, a battalion, to this place. So when they won Santa Rosa, they asked for the rest to advance to continue on to Nicaragua. Because they knew that Nicaragua is where all the filibusters were, so to enter with a small group — they needed reinforcements.”
It’s easy to judge old battles from the safety of an armchair, but it seems that both the filibusters and the Costa Ricans committed major mistakes here — the filibusters for being totally unprepared and the Costa Ricans for having no endgame, for letting the vast majority of the invasion force escape unharmed.
This timidity would force the Costa Ricans to fight again, and not on their own soil but in Rivas, Nicaragua. In the Second Battle of Rivas on April 11, 1856, the Costa Ricans would once again put the filibusters to flight — and once again, not pursue them.
Long story short, Walker licked his wounds by staging an election that made him president of Nicaragua. (Imagine an 1850s Nicaraguan who had captured Virginia, got his butt kicked in North Carolina and then staged a vote in Washington that declared him president of the United States.)
Soon the armies of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras joined the fight against Walker, who surrendered on May 1, 1857. But after being returned to the United States and freed, Walker published a book about his adventures and then returned to stir up more trouble in Honduras.
The grand adventure ended as it should have, with Walker executed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860.
The museum in La Casona today does a superb job of telling this story, with elaborate exhibits in English and Spanish to set the context, establish the chronology and narrate the events.
I admit I was disappointed to visit the Museo de Rivas in Nicaragua and find that it contained no exhibit explaining anything about the two battles that Nicaraguan and Costa Rican troops waged against Walker in this city, even though one of the crucial battles happened at that very spot.
But La Casona was virtually perfect in recounting every detail of the strategic importance of this place and everything memorable that ever happened here, with timelines, chronologies, artifacts, monuments, plaques and a graphic with dotted arrows and color-coded positions to tell the story of the crucial battle.
I have not been to Ground Zero in New York since the new memorial opened, but this is the greatest museum I’ve ever seen dedicated to one historical event.
Outside La Casona is a long stretch of winding stairs leading up a steep hill, with old plaques at every landing commemorating battles that happened here not only in 1856 but also in 1919 and 1955.
At the top is a huge monument dominated by Roman numerals that spell out 1856 and 1955, two happy bookends in the history of this proud place.
This being Costa Rica, you can see three volcanoes from this lookout — Orosi, Cacao and Rincón de la Vieja.
This being Costa Rica, you might also see a troop of white-faced monkeys hanging out on the road between the Casona and the highway.
Today foreigners by the thousands invade Costa Rica every year, armed not with rifles and bayonets but with credit cards, dollars, euros, sunscreen, bug spray and funny-looking hats.
And let’s keep it that way.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: From Liberia, drive north on the Inter-American Highway 37 km (23 miles) to the brown sign pointing left to Santa Rosa National Park. The road all the way to the Casona is delightfully paved — you could drive here in a Ferrari, but slow down and watch for animals. You can also take a bus from Liberia to La Cruz and ask the driver to drop you off at the park turnoff, then take a taxi, catch a ride with someone or hike to the park entrance, a few kilometers to the southwest.
Hours: Currently 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, and in the high season until 5 p.m.
Admission: $20 for foreigners, ₡1,100 for nationals and residents.
For more info: http://www.acguanacaste.ac.cr/images/documentos/documentos-casona/guia.compressed.pdf
Contact Karl Kahler at firstname.lastname@example.org.