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18: A Pilgrimage to Ayacucho

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The Battle of Ayacucho, which completed the liberation of the Spanish colonies of South America, took place on December 9, 1824, high in the Peruvian Andes, at an altitude of 10,600 feet. On the occasion of its centennial in 1924, the great historian of Bolívar, Dr. Vicente Lecuna, and I paid a visit to that hallowed battlefield, to reconstruct on its site the military epic responsible for the independence of a continent.

We proceeded by rail from Lima to La Oroya, crossing the Andes at an altitude of over 16,000 feet on the highest standard gauge railroad in the world. From La Oroya, the railroad's terminal, we continued to our destination by automobile through the cities of Jauja and Huancayo.

Ayacucho was then a sleepy town of about 10,000 people, perched high in the Andes, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. The highway connecting Huancayo with Ayacucho had just been completed, but not yet inaugurated, and up to that time the only means of communication between Ayacucho and the outside world had been by mule back over the precarious Andes trails. The highway over the mountains had been built by the Peruvian Government for the centennial, and led not only to the town of Ayacucho but also to the battlefield itself, some seven miles away.

From a vantage point in the town we could, by using binoculars, see the battlefield on the far-off chain of mountains, a small sloping plain slightly above us, gently skirting the foot of the "Cerro Condorcunca", which rose about 700 feet above the plain. It was the only piece of flat terrain within a radius of about 50 miles, and we marvelled how it had been possible, with the primitive means of communication then existing, to muster forces on this handkerchief-size terrace amid the clouds and fight the most glorious battle of the century. The battlefield is convex and gently sloping, about 700 yards wide at the foot of the mountain and about 850 yards wide at the other end, with a length of about 1,400 yards. It must have been a gigantic task to transport food, supplies and ordnance for 15,000 troops over the high mountain passes.(1)

Dr. Lecuna and I carried with us on our expedition the eight or nine different descriptions of the battle (including the official communique) written on the spot by combatants from both sides. Upon reaching the little battlefield, we realized how fortunate we were to tread its sacred ground, almost inaccessible for one hundred years, and like two pilgrims to the Holy Land, we bowed our uncovered heads in silent reverence.

Dr. Lecuna lost no time in reconstructing the various phases of the battle, pointing out the locations of the different troop contingents and their generals.(2) We easily located on the tiny savannah, divided at the base of the mountain by a small undulation of the terrain,, the place where the Córdoba Division charged the Spanish Infantry coming down the hill, led by Field Marshal Alejandro González Villalobos. And, standing almost at the spot where patriot General José María Córdoba exhorted his troops, we could not help remembering his immortal words "Armas a Discreción, de Frente, Paso de Vencedores!" (Rifles at the Ready!, On to Victory-Forward March!).

It was here also that the "Husares de Colombia" (Colombian Hussars), patriot cavalry squadrons, under the command of Colonel Laurencio Silva, cut to pieces the Spanish cavalry charging down in the plain like a whirlwind. These cowboys of the Venezuelan and Colombian plains were superb horsemen and excellent fighters, and had as their only weapon a lance about eight to ten feet long.

An anecdote concerning this phase of the battle tells how Silva, charging the enemy at the head of his Hussars, was wounded several times. After hurriedly bandaging him, the field surgeon suggested that he be carried to the rear with thee other casualties, but Silva refused. Rising to the occasion, he is said to have replied: "Doctor, if I am going to die, I had better enjoy myself on the way!"; and, jumping on his horse, he headed straight back into the thick of the battle. Silva survived, and was promoted to Brigadier-General on the battlefield.

The combat lasted only about an hour and a half. At its finish the entire Spanish Army had been routed and forced to capitulate, and the Viceroy La Serna, all of his Generals, 500 officers and most of the surviving troops were taken prisoner.

Facing Condorcunca Mountain, Lecuna and I went on foot down a gentle gully on the left of the savannah, through which Spanish General Gerónimo Valdés, at the head of 3,000 Spanish troops, tried unsuccessfully to surprise the patriot battalions. At the bottom of this gully, where the defeated Valdés soldiers, fleeing in all directions, had discarded their heavy impedimenta, we found a treasure of mementoes of the battle, which had lain hidden in the heavy underbrush for one hundred years. Among other things we found pieces of rifle stocks and coarse round bullets made of lead, about half an inch in diameter and weighing about an ounce, of the type used in muzzleloading rifles. These mementoes Dr. Lecuna took back with him to the Bolívar Museum in Caracas. I kept, and still have in my possession, two of these precious bullets.

Upon bidding adieu to the battlefield, we recalled that on this very same ground, six hundred years before, the armies of the Inca Viracocha had fought a major battle with the Pocras Indians, which resulted in the consolidation of the Inca Empire.

1. The patriots camped on the plain numbered 5,700 men, and the Spaniards camped on the slopes of the mountain amounted to about 9,000 men.

2. For a description of the battle, see Campañas de Junín y Ayacucho by Vicente Lecuna, Caracas, 1941.

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