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8: Pantano de Vargas

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In the valiant struggle for the Independence of Colombia, the bloodiest battle won by the Liberator Simón Bolívar was Pantano de Vargas. During seven hours of fighting, from late morning to sunset on July 25, 1819, about 800 men died, 500 of them royalists and the balance patriots.(1)

Bolívar had come with a small army from the Venezuelan plains to the high Colombian plateau, crossing the Andes at an altitude of more that 13,000 feet, a feat more amazing than the crossing of the Alps by Hannibal or Napoleon.

At the start of the climb his force had comprised 3,000 men. Of these only about 1,800, lacking adequate food, clothing and equipment, succeeded in crossing the range. Greatly weakened, but imbued with the patriotic fervor inspired by the Liberator, they were determined "To destroy the Spanish yoke in Nueva Granada (Colombia)."

The crossing of the Andes was completed on July 2, 1819. The patriots arrived at Socha, a small village on the rim of the high Colombian plateau, on the 5th, and the Battle of Pantano de Vargas took place twenty days later. In that short interim, through feverish activity and superb organization, the Liberator succeeded not only in augmenting his small force to almost 3,00 men with volunteers from the nearby Colombian provinces, but also in obtaining supplies of food and clothing, and sufficient horses to equip his llanero(2) cavalry squadrons.

During this three-week period there were a series of skirmishes and minor clashes with the enemy. Under the command of Brigadier-General José María Barreiro, the Spanish Army, together with the Spanish contingents garrisoned in the nearby provinces, had formed into a division of some 2,800 to 3,000 troops, which confronted Bolívar's army at Pantano de Vargas. The Liberator could send into battle only about 2,100 to 2,200 soldiers, as the rest were recent volunteers as yet without adequate training and equipment.

We shall not describe the battle in detail, because of the condensed nature of this chronicle. Our objective is to show how the superb strategy of the Liberator transformed virtual defeat at the hands of the Spaniards into a splendid victory for the patriots.

In the early dawn of July 25th, about six o'clock in the morning, Bolívar's small army had been compelled to cross the Chicamocha River on makeshift rafts as there were no bridges, since the river was swollen far beyond its normal size by the rainy season. The patriots were delayed several hours by this task, and found, upon arriving at Pantano de Vargas late that morning, that the Spanish Army had arrived before them and was strongly entrenched on the hills facing them. Accordingly, Bolívar's army had no alternative but to attack the enemy from a disadvantageous position which would become a trap in the event of defeat.

On their right flank the patriots had the Pantano (swamp) and on the hills facing them, the enemy; at their rear was the swollen Chicamocha River. Without bridges to cross this river, their only line of retreat was the Tibasosa trail which circled the hills, forming a narrow defile in which their army could easily be destroyed. On the other hand, Barreiro's army had its retreat protected by the Royal Highway on its left flank, which led directly to Paipa(3) and crossed the Chicamocha River over the only bridge in the region. This bridge, called "del Salitre", was about 800 feet from the outskirts of Paipa.

Fighting began about 11:00 AM. Six hours later, the patriots had been thrown back three times by the furious onslaught of the superior royalist forces, and it began to look as if they had lost the battle. Believing victory within his grasp, the Spanish General Barreiro commanded all of his reserves to proceed with the total destruction of the patriots. By now the sun had begun to set behind the hills, and there was at most another hour of daylight left in which to deliver the coup de grace to Bolívar's army. It was then that the superb strategy of the Liberator completely reversed the tide of the battle and gave him the victory.

Directing the battle from a small promontory, Bolívar perceived that the enemy had engaged all of its reserves, while he still had available not only the British Legion but also 300 llaneros equipped with fresh horses. He first dispatched Colonel Rooke and the British Legionnaires to dislodge the enemy from the hilltops. Attacking with tiger-like ferocity, Rooke and his battalion brilliantly accomplished their mission, but he was gravely wounded.(4)

Bolívar's master stroke, which sealed the defeat of the Spaniards, was to hurl the llanero cavalry squadrons against them when they least expected it. The Liberator had kept the llaneros in reserve, concealed from the enemy within the adobe fences of the corrals on the Vargas farm, where they awaited the opportune moment to sally forth.

As the patriot army had lost most of its horses crossing the Andes, one of Bolívar's main concerns in the few weeks prior to Vargas had been to secure sufficient horses for his llaneros. Among others, he obtained some two hundred horses which the Spaniards were pasturing at the cattle ranch "Los Canos", under the care of the Mayor of Tibasosa,(5) Don Javier Villate. The Mayor, as well as his brother Don Luis Villate, were exceedingly helpful, furnishing the patriot army with horses, cattle, blankets and some clothing. During the four days prior to the battle the horses of the llanero cavalry had been resting in the verdant pasture lands of Bonza, going from there to Vargas, a distance of slightly over three and one-half miles.

One of the many anecdotes about Vargas tells that Bolívar, to prevent his restless llaneros from prematurely taking part in the battle, had placed an officer to guard the door of each corral. We consider this most unlikely. It was undoubtedly due to this foresight on Bolívar's part that Barreiro dismounted his own grenadiers and dragoons, numbering about 500 (which he had kept in reserve), ordering them to proceed on foot to help the Spanish infantry complete the victory which seemed in the offing.

It was at this point that Bolívar, addressing Colonel Juan José Rondón (one of the heroes of "Las Quasars del Media") said: "Colonel, Save the Fatherland!" And, like a swollen river, flooding its banks, 300 eager llaneros brandishing enormous lances fell like a whirlwind on the disconcerted enemy, and changed the outcome of the battle. With Rondón were three other heroes whose names are remembered by Colombia with eternal gratitude: Commanders Lucas Carvajal, Leonardo Infante and Hermenegildo Mujica.

A certain similarity can be noted between Pantano de Vargas and Marengo. Both battles were apparently lost at five o'clock in the afternoon, by Bolívar at Vargas, by Napoleon at Marengo. But in the short hour of facing daylight remaining, their brilliant strategy achieved last-minute victory.

The patriots captured a large number of prisoners and an enormous booty consisting of 1,200 rifles, about 500 uniforms (removed from dead soldiers on the battlefield) and a large number of saddled horses, as well as ammunition and other equipment, including two standards of the Dragoons of the Granada Regiment. Only the darkness of night and a heavy rain saved the Spanish Army from total destruction. Bolívar decorated the victors with the Cross of the Liberators, particularly citing the British Legion for its bravery.

The day before the battle (July 24, 1819) had been Bolívar's thirty-sixth birthday. Within twenty-four hours he had achieved a triumphant and fruitful victory. Pantano de Vargas was the first of those glorious triumphs that during the next five and one-half years would emancipate not only Colombia, but also Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru; would create Bolivia; and would take the Liberator from the scorching sands of the Orinoco River on the Atlantic to the snow-covered peaks of the Los Andes on the Pacific.

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1. The Official Bulletin of the Liberating Army mentions only 104 casualties, both dead and wounded. This estimate is considered low, in view of the duration and severity of the battle. In reading various accounts of participants, one comes to the conclusion that the patriots' casualties were about three times greater.

2. Llanero: Cowboy from the Venezuelan plains.

3. Paipa was a town of about 6,500 inhabitants at that time (1819). Its present census is about 21,000.

4. Colonel Manuel Antonio López, who had no military rank at Vargas, narrates in his "Memoirs" (Caracas, 1843) that: "Rooke, attacking at the head of his battalion, was wounded in his left arm and his elbow splintered, necessitating amputation of the arm." Three days later Rooke died of Gangrene.

5. Tibasosa was a small village located about four miles from Vargas.

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