The Hacienda may look small on the outside, but it is big on the inside, and looms bigger still in history, for here a giant was stopped.
In what is historians widely consider the turning point in Nicaragua’s wars for liberty, a small band won the day against a much larger force. They did it with the combination of grit, guts and guile, which is the stuff of every memorable battle.
On a September morning in 1856, three hundred well armed troops under William Walker marched on a small farmhouse known as Hacienda San Jacinto. Walker, a mercenary from California, had organized this private military expedition with the goal of establishing a private colony in Central America under his personal control. Colonel Jose Dolores Estrada was at the farm with his men, numbering about one hundred, to prevent Walker from seizing the livestock. The Matagalpa, a local indigenous tribe of Nicaragua, responded to Estrada’s call for help, and sent sixty archers to reinforce the position, bringing the total number of defenders to about one hundred and sixty.
Walker’s men, known as “filibusters” which was the name given to such mercenaries in those days, were armed with revolvers and repeating rifles. Estrada’s defenders were armed with bows and arrows and single shot flintlock muskets. Walker’s men were uniformed and booted. Estrada’s men were ragtag and sandaled. Walker’s men were cocky and fighting for wealth. Estrada’s men were desperate and fighting for their country.
A morning lookout spotted Walker’s army at 2000 yards and approaching from the South. Estrada divided his men into three defensive positions, a stone corral on his right, the house in the middle and a wooden corral on his left. Orders were given not to fire until fired upon, or until the enemy was within 50 to 75 yards, as that was the maximum effective range of their old muskets. Walker’s men divided into three columns of 100 men each and continued their march toward the defended positions. At 7 am the first shots rang out.
The invaders attempted to climb the barricades with impunity but they were met with war by the defenders. Furious battles erupted at each of the three defended positions. Arrows flew, gunshots rang and swords clanged. Then the attackers withdrew, reorganized, rearmed and reattacked. Three times over the first two hours they attacked, and three times the defended positions held. But the defense of the wood corral on the left was beginning to break. Frustrated by their inability to take the stone corral on their left or the house in the middle, they combined their forces into a single mass and renewed the attack on the wooden corral on their right.
At 9 am, the defense of the wooden corral broke. The fighting was furious, and hand to hand, and the defenders’ ammunition was running low, when Andres Castro stood up. His gun having failed, he leapt forward picking up two stones. The first, about the size of a billiard ball, he hurled mightily with his right. The filibuster took the stone on his head, stopped, stood for an instant, dropped his gun and then, leaning backward, staggered over the fence, fell and died on the spot. The defenders witnessing this sight, rallied with mighty enthusiasm; and screaming, and shouting “Viva Nicaragua!”, picked up stones and fired them on the filibusters like a hail of bullets.
But the attackers, having abundance of arms and ammunition, kept advancing until some of them were at the house and some were even on the porch. It was a terrible state. Estrada, seeing the situation was dire, shouted to the officers between the corral and the house, ordering them to defend to the death, “Firm to the last drop!”
Estrada next ordered others to attack the enemy’s flank. Then sprinted 17 men to a small forested hill 100 yards behind the house, and circling around unseen, faced the flank of the invaders. Fixing bayonets and shouting mightily “Viva Nicaragua”, they attacked with such ferocity that about 30 horses corralled nearby were startled and stampeded. The enemy facing such fury forward and now on their flank, and now hearing with alarm the sound of approaching hoofbeats, thought them to be mounted Nicaraguan reinforcements descending upon them. The filibusters, hesitated in alarm, began to retreat from the house and corral, and then fled the battle field for their lives.
Twelve miles they fled, all the way to Hacienda San Ildefonso, and for many of those miles they were chased by the victorious patriots.
So stunning was the defeat, that Walker soon left off his project and departed from Central America. The French sage, Elisee, upon hearing the tale of the battle, called it the Marathon of the Americas, after the battle in which the outnumbered Greeks turned back the Persians so many centuries before. The image of Castro hurling the stone has fixed the image of “David versus Goliath” into the national imagination. The painting below by Luis Vergara Ahumada immortalizes the battle and is found in very many public buildings and private homes throughout Nicaragua.