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6: Las Queseras del Medio

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Of the "thousand and one" hand-to-hand combats fought between Spaniards and patriots during the fifteen years of the Wars of Independence in South America, perhaps the most heroic of these exploits took place at "Las Queseras del Medio". where a mere 150 llaneros (cowboys of the Venezuelan plains) armed only with primitive lances, under General José Antonio Páez,(1) attacked the entire Spanish Army of General Morillo, 6,000 men strong.

These llaneros, superb horsemen, of whom General Páez was the greatest, had strong muscular bodies, were magnificent swimmers, and showed fierce and daring bravery in combat.

Their native land, the Venezuelan Apure plains, had an area approximately half the size of the state of Florida. Because of its proximity to the Equator (7 or 8 degrees north), there were only two seasons: a wet season of torrential rains, and a dry season of scorching sun. About one million head of wild cattle, and perhaps half as many wild horses, roamed through these plains, which were crossed by mighty rivers and abounded in bayous and swamps teeming with alligators, electric eels and piranhas. Because of their remoteness from the large towns, the inhabitants led a precarious existence. They were barefoot and scantily clad, and their only daily food consisted of roasted meat from steers slaughtered on the spot, eaten without benefit of salt or bread.

It was 1819, and Bolívar, having installed the Congress of Angostura, a remote city on the banks of the Orinoco, gathered together a small contingent of troops and proceeded up the river, with the purpose of liberating Nueva Granada (Colombia). Upon reaching the Arauca River, a tributary of the Orinoco south of the Apure plains, Bolívar met the llanero cavalry division of General Páez encamped on the southern bank of that mighty river, some 300 miles south of Caracas.

With the Páez troops, Bolívar's small army numbered about 3,000 men. The army of Spanish General Pablo Morillo, which was stationed across the river at "Las Queseras del Medio" about a mile from its banks, was 6,000 strong.

To harass the enemy, which had been reluctant to engage in a major battle with Bolívar, General Páez selected 150 of his llaneros and crossed the river at a point some two miles above Morillo's encampment. This small group, carrying their crude saddles on their heads and their lances between their teeth, swam against the strong current, leading their horses at the same time.

Upon reaching the protection of the steep river bank on the opposite side, Páez formed his men into six or seven platoons and advanced into the open savannah, coming into full view of Morillo's army. Immediately upon detecting the approach of Páez and his small group, Morillo organized his forces; the vanguard consisted of 800 cavalry armed with lances, which he used to protect his flanks, and 200 cavalry armed with carbines, which he placed in the center with his infantry and artillery.

The Spanish cavalry, moving more rapidly, soon left the foot soldiers behind, and advancing at full gallop, tried to surround Páez's riders. To cut off the Spanish cavalry from the rest of the army, the Páez llaneros, feigning defeat, turned back into the open plain with the Spaniards in full pursuit. At this point Morillo ordered the advance of the 200 carabineers in the center, who, by riding in front of the infantry, prevented the latter from effectively using their rifles.

It was at this juncture that Páez executed a brilliant maneuver. Seeing himself in danger of being surrounded by the two columns of enemy cavalry closing in on his men in a pincers movement that would crush them like a giant nutcracker, Páez ordered one of his platoons under Colonel Rondón. to attack the carabineers in the center. The purpose of this action was to force the two flanking cavalry columns to come together, at which moment Rondón would pull back his men to avoid being enveloped.

Rondón executed this extraordinary feat with lightening speed, creating pandemonium in the enemy ranks, and withdrawing successfully before the two wings of the Spanish cavalry closed ranks into a solid mass. This was the opportune moment awaited by Páez, who had already moved two small columns to the enemy riders' right flank, while the rest were well-placed in the center.

It was at this point, with the Spanish cavalry in full pursuit, that Páez gave his famous order, "Turn About." " " (Vuelvan Caras!), which command was executed with admirable speed by all of the llanero columns, who fell upon the disconcerted enemy like a tornado.

The Spanish cavalry futilely tried to resist this sudden onslaught with their lances, but being furiously attacked simultaneously from the flank and front, they turned in panic and fled in complete rout, leaving a trail of casualties in their wake.

General Morillo, seeing the routed cavalry running him in terror, hastily withdrew his infantry and other contingents into the shelter of the woods at the nearby river bank, in order to save them from being trampled under the hooves of his own cavalry.

Spanish casualties were 500 dead, while the patriots counted only two dead and six wounded. Upon their victorious return to the patriot camp, General Bolívar awarded them the "Cross of the Liberators", and issued the following proclamation:

Soldiers! You have just achieved the most extraordinary exploit ever recorded in the military history of the world. One hundred fifty men, or better, one hundred fifty heroes, led by the great general Páez, with deliberate intent (de proposito deliverado), have frontally attacked the entire Spanish army of General Morillo.

The Artillery, the Infantry, the Cavalry, have been powerless to defend the enemy from the one hundred fifty followers of the fearless General Páez. The cavalry columns have succumbed to the thrust of our lances; the infantry has sought refuge in the woods; the fire of its guns has stopped before the breasts of our horses. Only the darkness of the night saved that army of vile tyrants from the most complete and absolute destruction. "Soldiers! What you have done is only the beginning of what you can do. Be prepared for combat, and victory will be yours, achieved through the points of your lances and bayonets.

April 3, 1819 - Bolívar

The great feat of "Las Queseras del Medio" will be regarded by posterity as equal to that order epic of heroism, the Pass of Thermopylae, nearly 2,500 years ago, where 300 Spartans gave their lives in stopping for several days the powerful armies of King Xerxes.

1. Páez, 5 feet 9 inches tall, was at that time twenty-eight years of age. In 1831 he was elected President of Venezuela, and again in 1838. When visiting New York in 1850, he was received with full military honors. He died on his last visit here in 1873, and was honored with a military funeral attended by a contingent of troops from Governor's Island. There is a large oil portrait of him in the City Hall in New York.

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