Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
November 11, 1827, on a nondescript little hill twenty miles south of Tegucigalpa. A small group, maybe 150 men, lay behind whatever cover they could find or make, and waited. Some chatted quietly with their companions, a few chewed a piece of dried meat or tortilla, remnants of a hasty breakfast, and all checked and rechecked the locks on their muskets and their scant stores of powder and ball. Not one of them had any real inkling they would soon take part in the single most crucial battle in their country’s history.
Politics and Servitude in 1827
A lot had led up to this day. The gaggle of little countries had achieved nominal independence when Spain left, but Mexico had visions of empire, and knowing there wasn’t much hope to expand her borders northward, she cast her eyes on Central America.
After Spain's abdication the five Central American proto-nations formed a loose alliance of allied but independent states. These were the present nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Mexican self-proclaimed “Emperor”, Agustín de Iturbide, claimed annexation of the whole of Central America, making it part of his First Mexican Empire. Iturbíde sent General Vicente Filísola to Guatemala to set up a puppet political state loyal to Mexico, but with political rule over the other four Central American nations. Manuel José Arce became Federal Presidente in charge of Central America, in Mexico’s name. That did not go over well with the other states, especially El Salvador and Honduras.
Agustín de Iturbide, First "Emperor" of the Mexican Empire
Each Central American nation elected its own head of state; Honduras chose Dionisio de Herrera. De Herrera, with the backing of the vast majority of Hondurans, openly defied Arce and Guatemalan suzerainty.
Iturbide abdicated his “throne” in 1823, and Mexico became a Republic, giving certain rights of self government to the annexed nations. Meanwhile, Arce had grown to like his position of power and had no desire to give it up to a bunch of upstart peones. Since Honduras was becoming more and more the crux of the problem, Arce decided de Herrera must go. He found someone to do his bidding in the form of a native Honduran military man, Coronel José Justo Milla y Peneda. Though Honduran by birth, Milla had definite loyalties to Guatemala and Mexico. He also had a desire to advance his military and political career at the expense of José Francisco Morazán Quesada, of whose meteoric rise to power Milla was very envious.
Arce found an excuse to invade Honduras by sending Milla and the 2nd Federal Battalion across the border ostensibly to protect from bandit raids the tobacco growers at Santa Rosa de Copán. Not stopping in Santa Rosa, the army went to the Honduran capital, Comayagua, captured the city and forcibly removed de Herrera from power. Honduras was now in the hands of Coronel Justo Milla, and to reward him for his efforts Arce made him the new Honduran head of state. This enraged the Honduran people, particularly Morazán, to no end.
After the capture of Comayagua and removal of de Herrera the states of Honduras and El Salvador declared open rebellion. Nicaragua was neutral but leaning toward the allies (rebels). Costa Rica stayed out of the whole affair. Honduras’ army was practically non-existent, a handful of trained professional officers with no one to lead. The most qualified military officer available to put into the field was Coronel Ramiro Diaz, an officer without an army. Francisco Morazán had risen to great political power but had no military training nor experience. Because of his political stature he became part of the inner circle of the opposition, and was given officer status.
Battle of Sabana Grande
Milla entrenched himself in Comayagua, stationing a large contingent of Guatemalan troops there and another military garrison in Tegucigalpa. Diaz knew he had to move fast or Milla would soon be irremovable. He sent spies to Comayagua to learn the strength of Milla’s forces, and put a small group of armed Salvadorans under Coronel Zepeda on the Heights of Sabana Grande to observe and report any Federal movements south of Tegucigalpa. Milla learned of the men in Sabana Grande, and sent a battalion to remove them. The battle for the Heights of Sabana Grande was more a massacre than a battle. Zepeda and a few men escaped but most were killed. Milla’s troops did not bother to hold Sabana Grande, instead they just returned to Tegucigalpa. This would prove a grave mistake later.
Defeat at La Maradiaga
Increasingly desperate, Diaz decided he must attack Comayagua and put an end to this affair. While rounding up a band of armed men, spies had already given away the plan to Milla. Pulling in all his troops from Tegucigalpa to defend the capital, Milla was ready for any attempt to take the city. In April 1827, Diaz, Morazán and José Antonio Marquez set out with their little band to liberate Honduras from Guatemalan rule, but fate and luck was not in their favor. They never reached Comayagua. Approaching the town, near the Hacienda de La Maradiaga a much stronger Federal force attacked them. In frantic desperation, Diaz sent Morazán to ride like the wind to Tegucigalpa for reinforcements. Unfortunately, before Morazán could even start back the battle was over with a crushing defeat for the Hondurans. Diaz and a few others escaped and met Morazán in Tegucigalpa. The only safe place for them now was in the deep south of the country, so they set out for Choluteca.
Search for Reinforcements
Diaz now realized that if they were to have any success they needed more men, a LOT more men. Diaz found Zepeda and a few Sabana Grande survivors in Choluteca. Zepeda went to El Salvador to find help for their cause. Morazán went to León, Nicaragua, hoping for help from Coronel Cleto Ordoñez. Ordoñez offered 130 trained military men and arms. After a few months preparation, with Zepeda’s Salvadorans, Morazán’s Nicaraguans, and a sizable number of volunteers from Choluteca Diaz and his improvised army moved north. Word spread of Diaz’ movement so many more men joined the little band, some from southern Honduras, some from Sabana Grande, Tegucigalpa and even as far as Cantarranas. The army was still small and untrained, but much better than anything they had had before.
If everybody knew of their movements, so did Milla. He saw this as an opportunity to destroy Diaz and Morazán in one blow, and merge the country under his power. And he wanted to do it personally. Milla moved his entire army, with himself at its head, to Tegucigalpa to await Diaz. He knew that if Diaz tried to attack him there, he could deal a fatal blow to the despicable little army. Going to Tegucigalpa was Diaz’ plan, but it was about to change.
On November 10, 1827, Diaz’ army reached the little pueblo of Sabana Grande, and stopped. News traveled fast over the twenty miles to inform Milla, who was not happy that his trap had failed. Furious, Milla ordered his entire army on a forced march south to meet Diaz where he was sitting. Twenty miles would be a fast march for infantry, but they were slowed by pulling two or three cannon and at least two wagons full of Milla’s personal items.
A Change of Plans
Diaz’ original plan for this battle has not been recorded, but during the evening of November 10 Morazán presented his own plan to Diaz. Diaz was stunned, and realized the plan of Morazán appeared to be much more practical than his own. He was so impressed that he turned the whole command over to Francisco Morazán, and proclaimed him a General. Morazán’s first act of command was to move about a third of his army to occupy the heights of a hill known as La Trinidad. He put a few more atop an adjacent hill called El Guapinol. He sent a small contingent to hide out of sight to send up an alarm if Milla tried to come down the road from Ojojona. He held a larger part of his forces in reserve farther south toward Sabana Grande, including mounted troops with infantry support. Morazán was ready. The men slept if they could, rested, ate breakfast in the morning light, and waited.
Milla’s army trudged all night toward Sabana Grande. They got no sleep, and arrived on the battle scene tired, sleepy and hungry, for Milla would not allow them to cook in sight of the enemy. Selecting a hill most of a mile away, the Federals set up their cannon and prepared for a fight. About 8:00am Milla gave the order to advance. In his arrogance and disdain for his enemies, he committed his entire army in the first assault. He assumed the battle would be over in less than an hour.
The Assault on Cerro de La Trinidad
Around 9:00am Milla opened fire with his cannon with little effect at that range, firing for intimidation and show of power. Morazan’s men lay awaiting the first assault. They could see the Federals coming, a mass that showed at least twice their numbers, maybe more. The situation didn’t look good for the defenders on the hill. Milla’s exhausted and hungry army started up the hill, and when within range were met with a hail of gunfire from above. They didn’t expect such resistance, and retreated leaving several dead and wounded. Milla ordered a second assault and a third, both leaving more carnage on the slope. Milla’s army tried again and again, into mid afternoon. Around 2:00pm Morazán realized Milla would not quit and go away, so he must spring his trap now or never. Most importantly he realized Milla had no reserves.
The Trap is Closed
Morazán sent messengers to his south reserves to attack Milla’s left flank, and messengers to his contingent hiding at the Ojojona road to attack the right flank when the other reserves are engaged. Milla’s exhausted army found themselves fighting on three sides. They knew they had no reserves for help, and they had had enough. They broke and ran. Those who could fight their way out ran for the Ojojona road, others tried to run to the Tegucigalpa road where Milla was watching in shock. When it was obvious the battle was lost, Milla abandoned his cannon and personal wagons and raced for Tegucigalpa with his aides close behind, abandoning his army to their own fate.
Morazán’s men charged Milla’s former position on the hill to the north, but found no resistance. They did find all of the cannon, ammunition, spare arms and wagons with Milla’s personal effects, fancy uniforms, clothing and correspondence between himself and Arce. They took anything of value, the rest burned. The cannon would come in handy later.
The Hondurans chased remnants of Milla’s fleeing army as far as the quebrada on the Ojojona road, ending in a final small skirmish. There Federals abandoned their muskets, parts of uniforms and anything that would hinder quick flight, and headed for Ojojona, eventually making their way back to Tegucigalpa.
Francisco Morazán, now a general, remained in command of the army, with Diaz as his second in command. After a short rest to bury the dead and care for the wounded, reported at the time to be around 40, they started a cautious march northward. On reaching Tegucigalpa a couple days later, Morazán and Diaz encountered no resistance. Milla’s entire garrison had fled to Comayagua upon learning of their approach.
In Tegucigalpa the Hondurans picked up many new recruits, encouraged by the erstwhile victory. Wasting no more time than necessary, Morazán set out with a greatly strengthened army westward toward Comayagua. On the Hondurans’ approach to the city, Milla fled in terror to Guatemala. Arce did not give him a warm welcome, so he continued on to Mexico where he remained the rest of his life.
Morazán the Conqueror!
Morazán took Comayagua with little resistance, taking the capital and the country out of Guatemala’s control. There was a grand celebration, they again rang the “Liberty Bell”, and Morazán became the new head of state. He was also now officially a general, and the rag-tag band with him were no longer “rebels” but the Honduran Army. As head of the army he followed Milla to Guatemala though he was already long gone. He captured Guatemala City, removed Arce from power, and broke the imperial bonds with Mexico forever.
Let Freedom Ring - Honduras' Liberty Bell
It is said the US Battle of Yorktown cemented America’s freedom from Britain forever. We can say the same about Honduras and the Battle of La Trinidad. There are many similarities. It would be several long years before the Central American conflicts would end, but Honduras was now a free and independent nation, and remains so to this day.
Today a large monument stands above the battle site. A larger than life statue of Francisco Morazán stands guard on its top with sword upraised, forever leading the spirits of the men who died here. Men who gave their lives that a young country may survive and grow in peace and freedom. There is no tourist center nor are there guides here. The site is very tranquil, for there are few visitors. Few people know this place exists, and fewer know where it is or what happened here. This is written in hope that someone may come to better appreciate the cost of the freedoms they take for granted.
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on March 22, 2019:
Such an interesting article! I had never heard of him before. Thank you so much for sharing!