Juan J. Estrada, Adolfo Díaz, and Emilianio Chamorro Vargas led a group of powerful and influential Nicaraguans in a revolt against President José Santos Zelaya beginning on October 10, 1909.At first localized near Bluefields, on Nicaragua’s eastern coast, the rebellion slowly spread west. The American government welcomed the rebellion, since relations with the Zelaya government had long been in decline. Not only was Zelaya a brutal dictator, he was also hostile toward U.S. business interests in his country and even to U.S. diplomats in the capital, Managua. Two American citizens, Leonard Croce and Leroy Canon, volunteered for service as officers in Chamorro’s revolutionary army and were captured by Zelaya’s troops. Despite the warnings of his own advisers, Zelaya ordered the execution of the two Americans. Their deaths prompted U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox to sever diplomatic relations with the Zelaya government on December 1, 1909. Simultaneously, the Navy Department was ordered to organize the Nicaraguan Expeditionary Brigade, of marines, which arrived at Cristóbal, Canal Zone, on December 12. The marines then boarded the USS Buffalo bound for Corinto, Nicaragua. Their arrival in Nicaragua persuaded Zelaya to resign office, on December 16, in favor of José Madriz and to flee to political asylum in Mexico. Immediately, relations with the United States improved, and the marines sailed back to Panama on March 22, 1910.
The departure of Zelaya by no means left Nicaragua peaceful, however. In the vicinity of Bluefields, where the revolt had started, fighting broke out between rebels loyal to Juan J. Estrada and forces loyal to President Madriz. Seeking to restore order, U.S. naval commander William W. Gilmer, skipper of the USS Paducah, riding off Bluefields, issued a proclamation to both sides forbidding fighting within the city of Bluefields. Gilmer requested a contingent of marines to enforce his proclamation. Two hundred marines under Major Smedley D. Butler arrived from the Canal Zone on May 30. The principal dispute at Bluefields was the disposition of the customs house there. Estrada’s rebels had seized it and used it as a source of finance. On May 27,Madriz’s army retook it, even though Estrada’s forces still occupied the city. Estrada demanded that customs duties be paid to his men in the city, whereas Madriz insisted they be paid at the customs house he now controlled. U.S. authorities, feeling that Madriz was becoming dictatorial and dangerous, ordered that customs duties be paid to Estrada. This provided the financial support he needed to continue his revolt against Madriz. While U.S. Marines maintained civil order in Bluefields—and oversaw the rebuilding of the local hospital, market, and sanitary facilities there—Estrada took Managua on August 23. He was inaugurated as president on August 30. On September 4, the marines pulled out of Bluefields and sailed back to Panama.
Yet again, however, Nicaragua was rocked by unrest. Zelaya’s followers were still active, and now many in Estrada’s own party became dissatisfied over the paltry shares of power and spoils they received. Some also objected to the imperialism of the United States, which received various trade considerations and monopolies. When fighting broke out in Managua, Elliott Northcott, U.S. minister to Nicaragua, persuaded Estrada to resign in favor of his vice president, Adolfo Díaz. This relieved tensions for a short time, but in 1912 General Luís Mena, who had been war minister under Estrada, took a portion of the army to Masaya and then instigated the seizure of American-owned steamships on Lake Managua. U.S. officials appealed to Díaz for assistance. He replied, in turn, with a request for U.S. military aid, and 100 sailors from the USS Annapolis arrived in Managua on August 4, 1912, while 353 marines, under Smedley Butler, set off from Panama for Corinto. On August 14 the marines and 80 more seamen left Corinto by train for Managua, arriving on August 15. Thus backed, George F. Weitzel, who had replaced Northcott as minister in Managua, demanded that Mena immediately return the vessels that had been appropriated. When Mena refused, more marines were called up. On September 6 the First and Second Marine Battalions of the 1st Provisional Regiment, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton commanding, arrived in Managua to join the small force already there. Assuming command of the combined forces, Pendleton loaded three marine companies onto a train bound for Granada, to confront Mena. At La Barranca, a hill near the town of Masaya, the forces of General Benjamin Zeledon, a supporter of Mena, blocked the train. Butler set up a conference between Pendleton (along with Admiral William H. H. Southerland) and Zeledon, who, at length, agreed to allow the marines to pass. On September 19, however, within the city limits of Masaya, revolutionary troops ambushed the train, which, putting on full speed, managed to get through the city without serious harm. At San Blas, on the outskirts of Granada, Butler informed General Mena’s representatives that he would attack Granada if Mena did not surrender. Ailing, Mena gave up in return for safe conduct to Panama, where he was guaranteed political asylum.
The marines had achieved control of the rail line, but still had to take Zeledon’s stronghold in the Barranca-Coyatepe hills and his rebel positions in Masaya and León. On October 2, marine and Nicaraguan government troops commenced artillery bombardment of the hills, then, on October 3, stormed Zeledon’s positions, readily taking them. Now the Nicaraguan troops descended on Masaya, which they ravaged and looted. Seeking to avoid Masaya’s fate, León quickly surrendered to the U.S. Marines. This ended the revolt against the Díaz regime. In November 1913, most of the marines returned to Panama, leaving behind a contingent of a hundred to guard the United States legation—and to supply a modicum of muscle to bolster the U.S.-friendly, conservative Díaz government.