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5: Antonio Ricaurte at San Mateo

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The annals of the wars of Independence between the Spanish South American Colonies and their mother country are filled with the heroic deeds of the group of young lieutenants who, inspired by the genius and incomparable leadership of the Great Liberator, Simón Bolívar; sought to outdo each other in feats of courage and daring.

The present story narrates the epic of Captain Antonio Ricaurte, the Colombian who sacrificed his life at the Battle of San Mateo by exploding single-handed the powder magazine under his care. This heroic act not only prevented the ammunition stores from falling into the enemy's hands but also turned the tide of battle in favor of the patriots.

During the so-called "Admirable Campaign" of 1813, the year before the events of this story, Bolívar had with a handful of followers liberated most of Venezuela. But in 1814 the Liberator was in somewhat precarious position, entrenched at his family's sugar plantation in San Mateo with a contingent of about 3,000 troops.

The Bolívar farm was located some forty miles southwest of Caracas in the narrow valley of the Aragua River, about half-way between Caracas and Valencia. The patriot forces were positioned on the north side of the river, where a road leading from the village of San Mateo ran parallel to the plantation's boundary. Bolívar had stored his reserve ammunition, in the custody of Captain Antonio Ricaurte and a platoon of fifty men, in the main dwelling of the farm, on a small promontory above the cane fields and the sugar mill.

The enemy force, three times as great as that of the patriots, consisted of about 9,000 men under the command of the most savage and merciless of the Spanish Generals, José Tomás Boves. This, force was encamped on the opposite side of the Aragua River, on the hills facing the plantation. The small size of the patriot contingent prevented Bolivar from assuming the offensive; however, he sought to make up for this great disadvantage by placing his troops in hastily built, but strong, fortified positions.

Two battles took place at San Mateo. The first, on the 28th of February, lasted over ten hours, resulting in a temporary repulse of the enemy, with about 2,000 casualties, including General Boves, who suffered a leg wound. The patriots' losses, both dead and wounded, were only 200.

The second battle occurred on March 25th, after Boves, fully recovered from his wound, had resumed command of his troops. On the night of March 24th, the Spanish General had detached a column of 800 men who, in great secrecy and undetected by the patriots, succeeded in crossing the Aragua River at a point severaj miles east of the farm. By scaling the rear of the hills on the patriot side, the Spanish column came down behind Bolivar's army on the following day. Their purpose was to make a surprise attack and capture the ammunition stored in the house on the promontory.

Boves' plan was to simultaneously attack the flanks and center of Bolivar's entrenched position with the balance of his forces, and this maneuver was carried out in a series of bloody hand-to-hand encounters. However, the ferocity of the Spanish onslaught was more than matched by the valor of the patriots, in their firm determination to fight to the end and die on the spot rather than surrender one inch of ground.

The exhausted Spanish soldiers, confronted by the stubborn resistance of the patriots, had begun to slacken their attack. Suddenly, amid the din of battle, there resounded through the valley a cry of joy from the enemy and of anguished terror from the patriots! This was caused by the sight of the Spanish column scaling the promontory to the rear of Bolívar's army in their attempt to capture the military stores, the loss of which would mean the loss of the battle. No one at that moment doubted the impending disaster for the patriots.

The dwelling on the promontory not only served as a magazine for the ammunition, but also sheltered a large number of wounded and a group of refugees, mostly old people, women and children, from the surrounding villages. The heroic Ricaurte, in charge of the small platoon guarding the building, seeing that he would be overwhelmed by the powerful enemy force, ordered his small contingent of soldiers along with the refugees and the wounded, to leave the house and join the other forces in the valley.

While Ricaurte waited—alone in his moment- of destiny—the Spaniards assaulted the building amid deafening shouts of joy. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion, followed by leaping flames and great clouds of smoke, which enveloped the surrounding hills and valley. When the smoke cleared, the ancestral home of the Bolívars had been reduced to a heap or rubble, bearing silent witness to the glorious self-immolation of our hero. Ricaurte had sacrificed his life for his country by igniting a keg of powder and destroying himself, the building and a large number of the enemy!

Three days later, Boves was still unable to dislodge Bolívar's army from its strongly entrenched positions. Having lost over 800 dead and 1,000 wounded in the second battle, he acknowledged defeat and quietly withdrew the remnants of his forces.

Posterity has not forgotten this noble sacrifice of Ricaurte. In the Colombian, National Anthem there is a beautiful stanza about his heroic deed. And, on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the battle, in 1914, the Colombian Government created in Ricaurte's honor the "Military Order of San Mateo", a medal to be awarded to members of the Armed Forces for outstanding acts of heroism in the service of their country.

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