Today’s holiday marks the decisive Battle of Rivas

Statue of Juan Santmaría in Alajuela.

Today is a legal holiday, the 156th anniversary of the Battle of Rivas, Nicaragua, in which the Costa Rican army defeated and routed the contingent of filibusters led by U.S. citizen William Walker.

The day will be marked with a ceremony and a parade beginning at 9 a.m. in Parque Juan Santamaría, Alajuela. Santamaría is the drummer boy who became the hero of the battle by throwing a torch on the thatched roof of a Walker stronghold. He died for his efforts.

An irony in Costa Rica is that the country without an army reserves its highest praise for battles and war heroes. The Battle of Rivas did not even take place inside Costa Rica, although the smaller
and earlier Battle of Santa Rosa did.

Juan Rafael Mora, the president at the time, rallied Costa Ricans and led an army to confront Walker, the U.S. adventurer who had made himself president of Nicaragua. The troops were led by Mora’s brother and José María Cañas Escamilla, his brother-in-law.

Although victorious, the battle had an extraordinary cost for Costa Rica. Cholera broke out in Rivas, and the Costa Rican troops brought the disease back with them when they returned home. Estimates say that a tenth of the population died.

Mora received a lot of blame for the resulting economic situation, and he had to flee. In 1860 when he returned to seek power, he and Cañas were captured and shot.

What is not stressed in Costa Rica is that the Nicaraguan war pitted two U.S. industrial giants because Rivas was a key transportation center before the Panamá Canal was constructed. Boats would come from the Caribbean through the Río San Juan to Lake Nicaragua and to Rivas where they would be unloaded and the goods taken a short distance to the Pacific.

Historians say that Cornelius Vanderbilt lost his shipping operation to a rival firm backed by Walker. That was the incentive to finance much of the Costa Rican military expedition.

Walker also had opposition in the United States because he had plans to bring Nicaragua into the Union as a slave state, thereby disrupting the delicate balance that dominated U.S. national politics until the Civil War.

School children, except those in various parades around the country, are off today. The public schools spent time discussing the Battle of Rivas Tuesday during class.

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