At the start of 1856, William Walker had been ruling the republic of Nicaragua as its de facto president for a few months. The Kentucky-born mercenary had also been president of the short-lived Republic of Lower California in present-day Mexico three years earlier. As a Southerner and an ardent proponent of Manifest Destiny — the notion that the United States, as a white Christian nation, deserved to extend its borders as far as possible — Walker wanted to establish slave-owning republics in Latin America that would one day become slave states in the Union, just as Texas had.
Decades before construction on the Panama Canal would begin, Nicaragua’s waterways made it the fastest and easiest transcontinental route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Whereas travelers once had to sail all the way around the southern tip of the continent, they could now float up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua where, after a short overland trip by stagecoach, they arrived on the Pacific coast. A number of powerful American businessmen had greedily eyed Nicaragua and its route for years, hoping to secure it for the U.S. government (and themselves). In 1851 the shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt founded a transit company to carry people and supplies across Nicaragua and to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush.
Taking advantage of a civil war in Nicaragua, Walker had sailed from San Francisco in May 1855 as a filibuster, a soldier fighting in a foreign country in the interests of his government but without its official support. He landed in Nicaragua with close to 60 men and, after receiving reinforces, took control of the country in October. One of his first official acts was to reinstitute slavery.
Fearing a foothold in Nicaragua would allow Walker to conquer the rest of Central America one country at a time, a united force of Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and Costa Rican troops marched against Walker. At the head of the liberating army was Florencio Xatruch.
Born in rural Honduras in 1811, he had loyally served in the Honduran army for nearly 30 years by the time his friend José Santos Guardiola, the president of Honduras, promoted him to brigadier general and sent him to Nicaragua to defeat the filibusters. When the five countries decided to form the Allied Armies of Central America, Xatruch was named commander-in-chief.
Xatruch was nominally demoted to inspector general for political reasons while the Costa Rican president assumed the title of commander-in-chief. Nevertheless, after Xatruch led the forces which secured Walker’s decisive defeat at Rivas in April 1856, it was not the Costa Rican president’s name that the Salvadoran people cheered as the victorious army marched through the country. As Central American troops appeared on the horizon, the townspeople would announce their arrival by yelling “¡Ya vienen los catrachos!” unable to pronounce Xatruch’s Catalan name. (Hondurans are known as catrachos to this day.)
Walker eventually surrendered in 1857, but by 1860 he was at it again, this time attempting to conquer a part of Honduras (with the help of the British). His luck had run out, however, and he was captured by Honduran forces and executed by firing squad.
After his triumph Xatruch would mostly live in Nicaragua, the country he helped liberate, though he would be named a brigadier general in a number of Central American countries. He was also appointed Honduras’s minister of war and foreign relations, even becoming vice president and later president of the country in 1871.
Xatruch died in 1893 at the age of 81 in Managua, Nicaragua, where his remains were laid to rest. After a public funeral, an obituary appearing in a local newspaper read:
Así honraron el Gobierno y el vecindario de Nicaragua la memoria de ese distinguido militar, cuya muerte, Nicaragua considera como una pérdida nacional por gratitud a los grandes servicios que le prestó con su espada y porque aquí se consideran como hermanos los hijos de las demás secciones en que hoy está dividida la Patria Centroamericana.
Remembering Xatruch — and that our homeland is not defined by lines drawn on a map — is how we celebrate our heritage.