During the National Campaign of 1856-1857, the Costa Rican people who were under the unquestionable leadership of the former President of the Republic, hero, and national liberator, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, decided to confront injustice, inequality, tyranny, and slavery brought by the invading group of filibusters led by William Walker, trying to conquer Central American countries.
Much has been said about the heroes and leaders who participated in these conflicts, and much of the heroism that the people of Costa Rica showed remains to be recognized. We know that history is written by the victorious; however, the way in which the people accept history defines them.
I will share one of those many stories of Costa Ricans who at that time, and given the circumstances were of a great relevance, committing themselves to a heroic cause. Three brothers with last names Castro Rodríguez decided to pay the price of what the heroic endeavor of 1856 demanded, as well as what that represented regarding the heroic attitude of an entire nation for defending freedom, democracy, equality, and justice in their country and throughout Central America. These three brothers simultaneously attended the call to arms that our dear “Don Juanito Mora” made and had previously warned.
The youngest of the brothers, Zenón, was dismissed and sent back from La Garita, Alajuela, for being too young to fight. In this war (as in so many others in universal history), the desire to fulfill the patriotic duty exceeds the ability of many to participate in it. The families had to separate and some of their sons, usually the oldest, married, or the minors had to stay to look after the family’s interests. The parents and grandparents in general maintained the country's economic activity since that was necessary to win the battle. In times of war, there are always many fronts that need to be covered and battles of a different nature that will be faced. Honor to all the anonymous heroes of the people of Costa Rica; elderly, women, youth, and children who stayed in the national territory struggling day by day during the Patriotic War of 1856.
The second brother, Agustín, a second sergeant of the Costa Rican Army, died in the Battle of Santa Rosa on 20th March 1856, according to historian Rafael Obregón Loria. He was one of the 20 national heroes who gave his life in that Battle defending our national territory. As a tribute to his heroic dedication members of his family, including his brothers and sisters who were conceiving boys, named at least one of their sons after him, and the tradition was passed down generation after generation. There are still countless members of the great Castro family in Costa Rica who combine his last name with the name Agustín, without knowing the origin of such an honorable tradition. That gesture was repeated by other families who had heroic relatives. This is a clear example of the simple but highly significant tribute that some Costa Rican families paid to the heroes of the National Campaign of 1856.
The third brother was named Francisco. He was a sergeant in the Costa Rican Army who fought in the aforementioned Battle of Santa Rosa, which took place in the province of Guanacaste. He also fought in the Battle of Rivas, in Nicaragua on 11th April 1856, where he was seriously injured, as detailed in the report given by Dr. Karl Hoffmann Brehmer (1823-1859). Dr. Hoffmann was a German doctor who served as Costa Rica’s Army Chief Physician. He described Francisco’s wounds textually as “two bullets in the arm and a very serious one in the ribs.” He was a hero who survived the battles and cholera that plagued the region in the postwar period.
Francisco Castro Rodríguez was infected with the cholera bacillus while he was being treated for his war wounds at the military field hospital in Rivas. He suffered from sores and blisters on his chest caused by burns from spilling hot soup on himself. He was having serious difficulties trying to feed himself because of the injuries he had on his limbs. He would be fed later on by nuns. Back then it was already known by the people that consuming well-cooked and very warm food would reduce the chances of getting infected by vibrio cholerae. The number of wounded soldiers waiting to be treated was enormous and exceeded the military sanatorium’s capacity. The cholera epidemic was so lethal at that time, that it was estimated to have caused the death of approximately 10% of Costa Rica’s population.
The victorious army that immediately returned to Costa Rica was very well received. But the hubbub did not last long. Surprisingly, the national heroes who returned to Costa Rica after having recovered from their injuries in Rivas, months later, were no longer so well received. Many of them were still ill with cholera and were not well received by Don Juanito's political opponents. In this context, a short time later Francisco would be forced to live in exile in Nicaragua. This was due to the political conflicts caused by those who opposed the military adventures and were influenced by adversaries.
In 1895, almost 40 years after this heroic endeavor, the veterans of the 1856 war who were still alive received the commemorative medal from the hands of the then President, Rafael Yglesias Castro. In this ceremony he inaugurated the National Monument of Costa Rica in memory of the 'National Campaign' of 1856-1857. Francisco refused to attend the event since he believed that he was not worthy to receive the honor without being joined by the veterans who had already passed away. A short time later, on his deathbed he received an unexpected visit from President Yglesias himself, who handed him the medal before he died. Francisco Castro Rodríguez received a state funeral at the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José, Costa Rica, in 1898.
The National Monument of Costa Rica is a group of sculptures, representing the War of 1856-57, made by the French artist, Mr. Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse. There are seven human figures on it: five women warriors, representing the five Central American countries; Guatemala with an axe, El Salvador with a sword, Honduras with arrows, Nicaragua with a broken sword, and Costa Rica with our flag, leading the way and trying to help Nicaragua who is recovering. The two men, represent a filibuster running away and the unknown soldier lying dead on the ground, the real hero of the story.
These three brothers represented with their lives the level of dedication and commitment that the Costa Rican people show when facing such a challenge. The National Campaign of 1856 unwittingly turned into a defeat that contributed to a favorable solution to the War of Secession or American Civil War 1861, in which the Southern States or Confederate States of America (1861-1865) confronted the Northern States that remained loyal to the United States of America and to President Abraham Lincoln himself.
To understand this, it is important to remember that before his infamous run as a filibuster, William Walker was a lawyer, physician, journalist, and politician. He was from one of the Southern States, which later would be part of the Confederacy. His interpretation of the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny tolerated slavery, which later on would materialize in his intervention in Nicaragua. With his proclamation “five or none,” he evidenced his intentions to conquer the five Central American nations. Thanks to the defeat that Walker suffered several times in Central America, this region (that was strategic because it included the route of the Accessory Transit Company), was prevented from being annexed to the tyrannical and slave-owning Southern Confederation. With this victory Costa Rica defined its destiny, to fight forever for Democracy, Equality, Justice and Freedom.