The First Civil War, 1830-1842 

Francisco Morazán

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What They Called "Civil War"  
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Outcomes, and Vision 
Francisco Morazán's military career threw a practical light on the abstractions of liberal philosophy.  It was not that he had no ideas in his head..  After all, his family connections took him early into working for a commercial house that had its own family connection to the politician Dionisio Herrera, the first governor of the State of Honduras.  This was a circle in which young men could read about the French Revolution and the exploits of Napoleon.  But in the first years of Central American independence, high ideology was only one of the questions that divided Honduran politicians.  The more practical included:  
  • the inter-city rivalry between Comayagua and Tegucigalpa
  • the dispute over whether Honduras should attach itself to Mexico or to the Central American Federation
  • and of course the struggle between liberal and conservative, on religious questions. 
Central America, newly independent, was nominally a single republic, comprising the five states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.  Manuel José Arce, the first president of the Republic under the constitution of 1824, was nominally a liberal, but tried to accommodate conservative interests in his regime.  In the face of this moderation,  there rose two kinds of armed action. 
  • One came from conservatives, who kept up a continuing defense of church interests, against liberal measures.  In some parts of Guatemala, they mobilized the populace as "mob," not just as soldiers.  When the liberal vice-governor Cirilio Flores, pressed hard by Arce in 1826, tried to organize a rival state government in the western city of Quetzaltenango, he was set on there and killed, by a crowd crying against this "heretic." 
  • The other came from liberals in Honduras and El Salvador, who objected to domination by Guatemala, which already had the federation capital, more than half the population and commercial resources of Central America, and almost half the representation in Congress.  It also had greater military power, which looked to be decisive. 
As if to punish the liberal states for their presumption, Guatemalan forces undertook two offensives. 
  • The first, under General Manuel Arzú, invaded El Salvador, laying siege to San Salvador, the capital of that state.  The siege proved to be, not a neat static operation, but a dragging series of raids inward and outward, by either side, bleeding both down by attrition. 
  • The second struck directly into the center of Honduras, taking both Comayagua and Tegucigalpa, capturing and imprisoning Herrera, and for a time Morazán.
Escaping, Morazán organized a new military force based south and east of Tegucigalpa, in an area where his family had interests. He aimed to link up with liberal elements in El Salvador, attack the besiegers of the capital, and regain control of both that country and Honduras. 

This is the point where one military decision revealed what the liberal project could mean. 

Up to a point, Morazán might have been just another opportunistic captain in the desultory fighting that local factions carried on amongst themselves, after independence.  These little liberal or conservative bands, of maybe a few hundred men each, might bring "Indians and tools" with them, to help in their operations. They might even draft indigenous men to serve as foot-soldiers; but they paid little ideological attention to the interests of Indian communities.  For many of these soldiers, war made sense only if it could be an extension of personal action by other means.  Some soldiers would be following an employer or political boss. Some might join if a campaign offered the promise of booty from captured towns.

It was such a collection that Morazán was leading into El Salvador in 1828:  some Salvadorans, some Hondurans, but also a group of soldiers from León, in Nicaragua.  This was a force based on local resources, and on customary ways of recruiting workers and military retainers.  But Morazan had more more "modern" ideas.  These now came into conflict.

Arzú, fearing that Morazán would arrive to relieve the forces besieged in San Salvador, detached troops eastward, to block Morazán's way at the town of San Miguel. Morazán took that town.

The troops from León wanted to sack San Miguel, for their own profit.  That Morazán would not allow (he said), and they deserted.  It was not that he wanted to spare civilians any loss.  Rather, he imposed heavy requisitions, threatening to conscript merchants as common soldiers if they did not cough up.  Much of what he collected he then distributed to his reliable troops, as formal pay -- so that their income would depend on continuing subordination to the group.  Morazán's personal pocket-book may not have profited by the change.  The people of San Miguel may even have found requisitions less terrifying than unbridled loot.  Whatever his interest in plunder or ideology, he was attempting to break from popular, customary ways of fighting. The working core of his liberalism lay not in some free market ideal, but in his choice to adopt a rational, modern way of organizing force, making his army a venture with a supposedly non-corrupt cash flow and a pay system controlled by management.   In military organization for Central Amerioca, he was pushing the same kind of "monetary" innovation that Bravo and Alamán backed for financing the cotton trade in southern Mexico.

As it turned out, Morazán did not actually need to reach San Salvador with his "relief" force.  He kept fighting little battles in the eastern part of the state, winning those that were critical for his survival, losing some others.  When he had to, he would withdraw into Honduras for a time, to reorganize.  He returned, and kept up his pressure on the region around San Miguel.  Eventually Arzú himself led a small force to the area to try to deal with him.  From time to time the Guatemalan commanders who were besieging the capital sent urgent messages, insisting that the detached units should return, to give the siege the concentration of force that it needed in order to succeed.  But the property-owners around San Miguel insisted that they needed the protection of the Guatemalan units, right there.  The commanders of the detached forces, sympathizing with the fears of the landholders, stayed where they were.  The underlying conflict was not that between Guatemala and El Salvador, nor even between conservatives and liberals, but between an older landed society and a drive to organize newer kinds of power.

The dispersion of Guatemalan forces made it finally impossible for them to sustain their siege of San Salvador.  Some were laid under counter-siege there, and surrendered.  Morazán blocked the retreat of others.  When he defeated a final group, he took their arms, but paroled them to go home -- and scored a propaganda point when (he said) they sacked towns on the way.  His opponents, it would seem, represented older, merely brutal ways of organizing political power.

Morazán then asked Salvadoran authorities to give him 4,000 men for a campaign into Guatemala.  While he did not get that many -- which would have been an unusually large force for that time and place -- he did take some 2,000 in the search for complete victory.

In Guatemala, Morazan moved quickly to take advantage of the support offered him from a variety of dissidents:  from criollo factions in outlying cities, and from some indigenous groups hostile to the criollo government in Guatemala City.  He laid siege to that capital, suffered a temporary defeat when defenders sallied to attack one of his units, then regrouped to tighten the siege.  Leaking false intelligence about his movements, he broke through the outer defense lines, but still faced a dangerous fight around the central plaza. At that point, an outbreak of smallpox threatened to disorganize all these little armies, his own included.  Soldiers recruited from the small towns of Central America had never developed immunity.  To avoid disaster, Morazán accepted a capitulation by the conservative leaders in the city of Guatemala.  They thought they were making some kind of honorable compromise.  He, as soon as he got his forces inside the capital, treated the arrangement as an unconditional surrender, and proceeded to impose his will.  He exiled much of the conservative opposition,  and got himself elected president of the Republic in 1830.  He then kept liberal governors in office, in individual states of the union.  It was under Morazán's protection that Mariano Gálvez began his liberal program as governor of Guatemala state, in 1831.

Gálvez, to protect his program, made some efforts to pacify local conservatives.  Morazán, left without any clear policy function at the center, then pushed to transfer the seat of the federal government to El Salvador, where he fought the state government.  There he was defeated in a first round, in the spring of 1833, at about the same time the state government defeated the indigenous Nonualcos.  Returning from Honduras in 1834, Morazán finally defeated the state forces.  The climactic battle took place near Santiago Nonualco, where Morazán had little difficulty persuading the Indians to help him chase down the fleeing state soldiers.

While Gálvez pursued the liberal program as a civilian agenda, Morazán acted it out as military convocatoria -- the ability to gather people into organized action, in which charisma and movement counted for as much as laws.  It was the Gálvez program that, within three years more, led to peasant and conservative rebellion in Guatemala, under Rafael Carrera.  Morazán tried at first to mediate among the commanders in this civil war.  When Carrera defeated Gálvez, Morazán took up the leadership of the liberal military campaigns. He lost.  There followed the 30-year dictatorship of Carrera.

Morazán, forced to flee, attempted a comeback in Costa Rica in 1842, only to be defeated again, captured, and executed.  As in the earliest stages of his career, the rhetoric he addressed to the Costa Ricans was that of a war on tyranny and corruption.  To the end, he never freed that rhetoric from his own adventurism.




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