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11: José María Córdoba

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Among the brilliant generals who served under the standards of Simón Bolívar in his crusade to liberate the Spanish Colonies in South America, two are pre-eminent: the Venezuelan Antonio José de Sucre and the Neogranadian(1) José María Córdoba, the hero of Pichincha and Ayacucho. This chronicle is about Córdoba, who at the age of twenty-five was the youngest of Bolívar's generals, being promoted to Major-General at the Battle of Ayacucho. Córdoba was of medium build, with blonde hair, a fair complexion and well-modeled features; his bearing was so impressive that he was considered by far the handsomest of Bolívar's generals. He was the only Neogranadian general to accompany Bolívar on his campaign of liberation from the torrid sands of the Orinoco River on the Atlantic(2) to the snow-capped Andes on the Pacific, and of the four most important battles of that campaign—Boyacá (Colombia), Carabobo (Venezuela), Pichincha (Ecuador) and Ayacucho(Perú)—Córdoba fought in three, the exception being Carabobo (June 24, 182 1).(3)

José María Córdoba was born in Concepcion, Municipality of Ríonegro, Antioquia, on September 8, 1799. He considered Ríonegro his native city, because he had spent his early years there. Greatly impressed from the age of twelve by the revolutionary movement in Antioquia, Córdoba enlisted at sixteen in the ranks of General Serviez, a former officer of Napoleon who at the time was fighting under the banners of the new republic. A year later, when Spanish General Morillo succeeded in re-conquering Nueva Granada, the young officer was compelled, along with General Serviez, to emigrate to the Venezuelan plains, where he joined the troops of General Páez as second lieutenant in the battalion "Primeros de Páez."

Promotions came rapidly. At the end of 1817, Córdoba was promoted by Bolívar at Guyana to cavalry Captain, and fifteen months later to Lieutenant-Colonel. As such, he was a member of the expedition that crossed the Venezuelan plains and the mighty Andes to liberate Colombia. When Bolívar's army arrived in the village of Tame at the foot of the mountains, Córdoba was appointed Chief of Staff of the Rearguard Division commanded by General José Antonio Anzóategui. In this position he participated in the battle of Pantano de Vargas, as well as in the glorious victory at Boyacá on August 7, 1819.

Bolívar had become aware of the outstanding executive ability of this young man, scarcely twenty years old, and as a reward after Boyacá he sent Córdoba to liberate Antioquia, at the, head of a small contingent of troops. The young officer accomplished this mission with such sound judgment and military skill that Bolívar decided to entrust him with a more important and highly difficult task-that of re-establishing communications along the lower Magellan River, which had been severed by the Spanish forces entrenched in the river towns of Mompox and Tenerife. Córdoba performed this feat with great boldness and daring, leading his small group of soldiers to victory. For this he was promoted to Colonel, on July 21, 1820.

Having cleared the Magdalena River of enemy troops, Bolívar's next goal was the re-conquest of the fortified city of Cartagena, where Spanish Viceroy Juan Sámano had taken refuge with a small contingent of troops. Patriot General Maríano Montilla was at the head of the republican forces attempting to recapture the city, and Córdoba was sent to assist him. Because of Cartagena's almost impregnable fortifications, the patriot army was limited to cutting the land and sea communications, in order to force the enemy to surrender as a result of the privations caused by a protracted siege.

To this end Córdoba spent thirteen months in one of the most inhospitable regions of the country, where the deadly tropical climate decimated his troops. The young officer was compelled to organize makeshift hospitals and to train contingents of recruits drafted from the surrounding towns. Appointed Chief of Staff over the 1,200 patriot soldiers by General Montilla, Córdoba utilized the long months of inaction during the siege to strengthen the discipline of his small army.(4) On October 10, 1821, General Montilla and Colonel Córdoba finally made their triumphal entry into Cartagena.

As the liberation of Colombia was now complete, except for a few isolated spots in the provinces, Córdoba was eager to participate in the great campaigns planned by the Liberator in the southern provinces (Ecuador) and Peru. He persuaded Bolívar to send him to the Pacific coast. Three months after Cartagena the young Colonel, not yet twenty-two, embarked with a detachment of troops, and arrived in Guayaquil, via Panama, toward the end of March, 1822. Of 685 soldiers who disembarked there, only 200 were with Córdoba when he joined General Sucre's army(5) at La Tacunga(6) in May. The others had been left behind, scattered along the way, victims of the lethal equatorial climate and the sufferings of the long sea trip.

Scarcely a week and a half later, on May 24, 1822, the battle of Pichincha took place on the slopes of that imposing giant of the Andes, the volcano Pichincha, which faces the city of Quito. Córdoba was in command of the "Alto Magdalena" battalion. An incident which took place three days before the battle was later related by Colonel Miguel Antonio López,(7) one of the participants. "Córdoba, leading a reconnaissance platoon on horseback, had stopped at about 500 feet from where the Spaniards were entrenched, in order to observe their positions with his spyglass. As soon as the enemy spied him, they aimed a battery of five (No. 4) guns in his direction from a nearby hill. When his adjutant Botero called this danger to his attention, Córdoba is said to have replied, "Let them fire!" Upon which, the artillery did fire, and a cannonball struck the Captain of the platoon, Felipe Perez, who fell mortally wounded at the feet of the Colonel's horse." Although the Spaniards believed victory within their grasp, the courage and boldness of Córdoba and his battalion, decided the battle in the patriots' favor.

Following Pichincha, Córdoba was a member of the Liberator's entourage at the famous meeting between Bolívar and the Argentine General José de San Martín in Guayaquil at the end of July, 1822. From there Bolívar sent Córdoba with the "Bogotá" battalion to the aid of General Sucre, who had been repulsed while fighting a new insurrection in Pasto. Sucre and Córdoba put down the revolt and inflicted a bloody defeat on the Pastos. When Bolívar arrived in Pasto, he rewarded this action by promoting Córdoba, then twenty-three, to Brigadier-General on January 2, 1823. Toward the end of that year he was at Popayán, as second in command of an expeditionary force under General José Hilario López (afterward President of Colombia), when he quelled a new insurrection of the Pastos, again with his customary boldness and courage.

A few months later, near the end of March, 1824, Córdoba was summoned to Peru by Bolívar, and placed in command of the Second Colombian Division, with orders to cross the Andes toward Cerro de Pasco. This was an heroic feat because the troops had to climb to heights of over 16,000 feet, over primitive mule trails traversing the most forbidding mountain terrain in the world. At Pasco the Liberator appointed Córdoba to command the Colombian Vanguard of the army. On August 6, 1824, the battle of Junín won by Bolívar, took place. Córdoba did not participate in the fighting because, when he arrived with the infantry shortly after sundown, the outcome had already been decided by the patriots' cavalry squadrons. Junín was the most important battle in the South American wars of independence, fought only with lances and sabers, where not a single shot was fired.

Just four months later (December 9, 1824), the Battle of Ayacucho was won by the patriot army under the superb leadership of General Antonio José de Sucre. In spite of the patriots' inferior forces (outnumbered about two to one), Sucre's brilliant strategy, masterfully executed by his lieutenants, resulted in an overwhelming victory. Córdoba was the hero of Ayacucho. All Spanish Americans still remember, a century and a half later, the immortal words he addressed to his troops: "Arms at the ready! Forward! Step of conquerors!" As a reward for his splendid performance, Sucre promoted Córdoba on the battlefield to Major-General. Only twenty-five, he was the youngest Major-General in the patriot army. Ayacucho was the last major battle that liberated not only Peru but was instrumental in consolidating the independence of the entire South American continent.

A few months later, when Bolívar was received in triumph at the city of La Paz (Bolivia), the municipal authorities presented him with a gold laurel wreath, which he gave to General Córdoba, then a member of his entourage, as a reward for his glorious action at Ayacucho.(8)

For two years Córdoba remained in Bolivia, working with General Sucre, who had been appointed President of the country. He then returned to Colombia, and was in Bogotá during the attempt to assassinate Bolívar on September 25, 1828. On that occasion, as Minister of War, Córdoba obtained from the Liberator and the Council of Ministers a commutation of the death sentence to that of exile abroad for his friend and former chief, General Francisco de Paula Santander, who had been involved in the plot.

One year later, Córdoba was greatly disappointed because Bolívar, instead of returning him to active service and sending him to Quito as second in command under General Sucre to fight the Peruvian Army (which had invaded that territory(9)), had relegated him to an inferior position by appointing him Commander General of Cauca. As this command, far away from the center of the Government, did not please Córdoba, he was appointed, a month later, to Minister of the Navy at Bogotá, an honorary but inactive office, because at the time there was almost no navy in the recently created nation.

Profoundly discouraged because he considered this appointment somewhat humiliating, and greatly concerned over the near chaotic financial and political situation of the country, Córdoba decided not to accept the appointment, but instead returned to his beloved Antioquia to raise there the banners of rebellion against the Government. At El Santuario, on October 18, 1829, Córdoba died, fighting valiantly rather than surrender to superior government forces. His remains are interred in the cemetery of the City of Rionegro, about 22 to 25 miles from Medellin, the capital of Antioquia. Córdoba's rebellion against the central authorities of the Republic, followed by his unexpected death, abruptly ended the military career of this young Apollo. His superior intelligence and outstanding qualifications as disciplinarian, organizer and leader of troops had made him one of Bolívar's most brilliant generals, and would undoubtedly have carried him to even greater heights of renown and glory.

1. Neogranadian: a native of Nueva Granada (today Colombia).

2. It is most probable, although we have no confirmation, that four months before Bolívar's expedition to Nueva Granada Córdoba may have been sent with General Santander from Guyana (Angostura) to Casanare, to organize a division, and that he may have joined the liberating army with Santander's division at the village of Tame, in the Venezuelan foothills of the Andes.

3. At that time Córdoba, as Chief of Staff to General Maríano Montilla, was leading 1,200 troops in the siege of Cartagena, and three and one-half months after Carabobo, he entered the city in triumph.

4. During this period a six-months' armistice took place (signed by Bolívar with the Spaniards in Venezuela, which also included Cartagena). There is an anecdote that Córdoba was parading the patriot troops in maneuvers before the Spanish military governor of Cartagena, and when the Spaniard expressed admiration for their discipline, Córdoba is said to have answered: "They know only the bayonet charge and in that they are unsurpassed!" (Vida Heróica del General Córdoba by Rafael Gómez Hoyos, 1969)

5. General Sucre had been sent several months before by Bolívar to free the Southern Provinces. Córdoba went later with reinforcements to help him.

6. La Tacunga, a town located about 60 miles from Quito, and about 275-300 miles from Guayaquil.

7. Memoirs, Caracas, 1843.

8. Córdoba presented this gold laurel crown to the city of Ríonegro, where, it is kept today, a prized possession of the municipality, in the vaults of the branch of Banco Comercial Antioqueno (formerly Banco de Oriente), one of the oldest banking institutions in Antioquia.

9. The Battle of Tarqui, won by Sucre against the Peruvian Army, took place on February 26, 1829.

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