The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Latin America | Boyacá

9: Boyacá

<< 8: Pantano de Vargas || 10: Carabobo >>

The Battle of Boyacá, brilliantly won by the Liberator Simón Bolívar on August 7, 1819, ended forever the Spanish domination in Nueva Granada (Colombia). It was the most important event, militarily as well as politically, in the epic struggle for Colombian liberation. At Boyacá the Spanish Army was not merely defeated—it was totally annihilated, it ceased to exist.

An analysis of this overwhelming victory as well as of the movements of the contending armies during the two weeks prior to the battle-from the defeat of Barreiro's Army by Bolívar at Pantano de Vargas on July 25th-makes the following conclusions evident:

The Liberator employed superb strategy not only in the conduct of the battle, but also in moving his army to Tunja ahead of the Spaniards, effectively cutting off their communications with the Viceroy at Bogotá by this swift and daring maneuver.

At Boyacá the Spanish Army was in poor condition to engage in combat because during the forty-eight hours preceding the battle, it had been on the march day and night under constant rain, with little rest; to avoid Bolívar, it had marched over a rough detour for nine hours prior to their arrival at Boyacá at noon; and, in addition to their greatly impaired physical condition, both command and ranks of the Spaniards had been demoralized by their unexpected defeat at Pantano de Vargas.

/latin/ad6 (47K)

We shall describe briefly the movements of both armies during the two weeks prior to Boyacá.

The Spanish Army

After being defeated at Pantano de Vargas (July 25, 1819), the remnants of the Spanish Army, commanded by General José María Barreiro, fled under cover of the darkness of night and a heavy rain. That evening about 8:00 PM, they succeeded in escaping the patriots by crossing the only bridge over the Chicamocha River, a short distance from Vargas, on the outskirts of Paipa. Barreiro, being in no position to again face the patriots, was compelled to stay at Paipa almost ten days, reorganizing his force and trying to increase its depleted numbers with troops from the Spanish contingents garrisoned in nearby provinces. Reinforcements began to arrive about a week later, when he was joined by an artillery squadron with two "#4" guns and one "#6."(1)

Because of an unexpected attack by patriot commander Juan Mellao with a squadron of llaneros on one of his vanguard forces, Barreiro feared that his position inside the town was unsafe, and on August 3rd decided to evacuate it. He then proceeded to entrench his troops on a nearby hill, "Loma Bonita", about half a mile north of Paipa. However, upon being informed, shortly before dawn on August 5th, of the patriots' sudden sweep toward Tunja,(2) he swiftly moved his own forces at daybreak, with the expectation of arriving in Tunja before Bolívar.(3) Barreiro's decision came too late, and was to prove fatal at Boyacá. At eleven o'clock the same morning Bolívar had already arrived at Tunja.

After a march of several hours, Barreiro's Army was joined about noon by the Spanish Tunja garrison at a place called "La Venta del Mico" (18 miles northwest of Tunja). This garrison, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Loño, Governor of the Province, consisted of a platoon of the Tambo battalion and three platoons of the Third of Numancia, and was equipped with two light cannons or howitzers, 12,000 cartridges and a #4 gun.

While proceeding along the Royal Highway in the region of "Llano de Paja" (about 12 to 15 miles north of Tunja) a royalist reconnaissance troop was suddenly attacked by a llanero squadron under Commander Mellao, whom Bolívar had sent north toward Paipa to harass the enemy.

When General Barreiro saw his vanguard unexpectedly attacked by Major Mellao, he realised that his adversary had already occupied Tunja, and decided to bypass that city. Leaving the highway to his left, he had his troops climb over the hills leading toward "Páramo de Cómbita"(4) in the direction of Motavita. Under this new plan, Barreiro was confident that, by detouring around Tunja (on his left) he could reach Bogotá ahead of Bolívar, where, with the resources and troops of the Viceroy, he could easily defeat the patriot army.

On this march, along a deeply rutted mountain trail and under constant rain, the Spanish Army arrived at the hamlet of Cómbita at one o'clock in the morning on August 6th. Here they rested two hours and then continued their march despite the rain, arriving at Motavita (a village 4%2 miles northwest of Tunja) at 11:30 in the morning. At this point the troops had been on the march day and night for almost thirty hours.

After resting for about sixteen hours, the royalist army left Motavita at 3:30 in the morning of August 7th, the day of the battle. Detouring toward the east to avoid Tunja, they arrived at Boyacá, a little over 13 miles to the south, around noon, and at about two o'clock they were surprised there by the Bolívar Army.

The Patriot Army

Some contemporary historians have unjustly criticized as unnecessary Bolívar's nine- or ten-day delay at Corrales de Bonza after his victory at Pantano de Vargas, believing that he should instead have taken advantage of that triumph to march south immediately and capture Tunja and Bogotá. Nonetheless, in spite of his victory, Bolívar was in a disadvantageous position, more or less similar to that of General Barreiro.

General Florencio O'Leary, who participated in the battle at Vargas in a subordinate capacity, being only a Captain and Aide-de-Camp to General Anzóategui, wrote in his Memoirs that: "After Vargas the condition of the army was truly pitiful.... All battalions were reduced to a skeleton force and had almost exhausted their ammunition."

Under those conditions it would have been hazardous to try to march toward Tunja, especially as the Royal Highway leading to that city was on the other side of the river, and the only bridge was on the outskirts of Paipa, where the enemy was entrenched. On the other hand, by re-crossing the Chicamocha in rafts and returning to his former positions at Corrales de Bonza (about 31/2 miles from Paipa), Bolívar would have excellent pasture lands for his horses and cattle. Being on the same side of the river, moreover, he could, while reorganizing his own forces, closely watch the movements of the enemy, and if necessary attack them. Further, he expected, and received, reinforcements brought by General Soublette (his Chief of Staff), comprising the balance of the troops and the sick left behind in crossing the Andes, together with the equipment and ammunition which had been temporarily abandoned for lack of horses and mules to transport such impedimenta.

During Bolívar's short stay at Corrales de Bonza there were frequent skirmishes among reconnoitering platoons of both armies. It was after one of these, in which the patriot commander Mellao successfully attacked a Spanish contingent, that General Barreiro decided his position at Paipa was too difficult to defend, and evacuated the town, entrenching his army in the heights of "Loma Bonita", half a mile to the north.

When Bolívar, who had completed the reorganization of his army, became aware of the enemy's evacuation of Paipa, he executed the audacious strategic maneuver which a few days later, was to produce his victory at Boyacá: that of marching swiftly ahead of the enemy and hiding his advance by night, and reaching and occupying Tunja before Barreiro.

On August 3rd, Bolívar moved his army toward Paipa and, without stopping there, crossed the river by the Chicamocha bridge, camping that night at "El Salitre" (about 1½ miles south of Paipa). The next day, in order to deceive the enemy, he re-crossed the river in the direction of Bonza at four in the afternoon, and arrived at "La Toma del Molino" (of Bonza) around eight in the evening. He then retraced his route, ordering his troops to march in absolute silence, again crossing the bridge over the river, and moving his army toward Tunja, not by the Royal Highway on the other side of the river, but using a detour via Tuta and Chivata, covering a distance of about 21 miles.

The patriot army marched all night, with only short rest intervals, arriving at Tunja at two in the afternoon of August 5th. Bolívar had sent in advance of his main force a squadron of llaneros under the command of Mellao, which had entered Tunja at nine that morning; two hours later Bolívar himself arrived with an escort of cavalry, preceding the main body of his army by three hours. The occupation of Tunja by the patriots was easy because that same morning the Spanish troops garrisoning the city had gone north to reinforce General Barreiro's Army.

At Tunja, Bolívar captured a large booty in arms, ammunition, foodstuffs, medicines and clothing for his troops. Here the troops had the opportunity for a well-deserved rest of about forty hours, from the afternoon of August 5th to the early hours of the morning of August 7th. At dawn that morning buglers sounded the alert in all barracks, and the army, according to an eye-witness account, began to assemble in the main square, with both officers and soldiers eating breakfast while falling into line.

Meanwhile, Bolívar and his staff climbed the San Lazaro Hill (about 1½ miles from the city) to observe the movements of the enemy, and detected Barreiro's Army at Mata Redonda (a point slightly less than two miles away), marching toward the Boyacá bridge in order to elude him at Tunja. He immediately ordered his troops to pursue the enemy and engage them in battle. The patriots left Tunja around 10:00 A.M., negotiating the nine miles between Tunja and the Boyacá bridge in approximately four hours. Arriving at the Tobal Heights overlooking Boyacá around two o'clock in the afternoon, they began descending to the valley.

The Battle

At Boyacá the Spanish Army numbered 3,000 men, and the patriot force 3,000 to 3,200, of which only about 2,000 were veterans. The balance was made up of volunteers from the region who, because of their lack of adequate training, were kept in reserve by Bolívar and did not participate in the battle.

When the vanguard of Barreiro's Army, after taking an hour for food and rest, began to arrive at the Boyacá bridge, they were surprised by a squadron of patriot cavalry. Believing this to be only a reconnaissance contingent, Barreiro ordered his vanguard to keep the platoon of patriots away from the Royal Highway while the rest of his army, located about three-quarters of a mile away, readied itself to proceed toward the capital.

Barreiro's surprise must have been even greater when the entire patriot army suddenly appeared before him. The topography of the terrain was partly responsible for this surprise because coming down from the Tobal Heights, the troops had descended to the valley by the Royal Highway, concealed from the Spanish Army by a buttress that hid from view the road coming from Tunja.

The battle lasted scarcely two hours. The Liberator with his customary energy and superb strategy destroyed the left and center of the enemy forces by flinging against them the llanero cavalry squadrons, the British Legion, and the infantry battalions of the rearguard division under the command of General José Antonio Anzóategui, while across the Boyacá bridge the Spaniards' right flank was annihilated by the vanguard battalions, ably led by General Francisco de Paula Santander. The daring and bravery of these two young generals under the superb leadership of Bolívar were responsible for the overwhelming victory.(5)

As a result of Boyacá, The Spanish Army was finished as a fighting force. The patriots captured not only the Commanding General of the Army of Nueva Granada, José María Barreiro, but also his second in command, Colonel Francisco Jiménez, most of the officers, and 1,600 soldiers and their equipment.


When the Spanish Viceroy, Sámano, at Bogotá received news of the defeat of his army, he fled to Cartagena, taking with him the principal members of his Government and a detachment of troops.

Three days after Boyacá, at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon of August 10th, the Liberator and a few officers ahead of the patriot army made his triumphal entry into Bogotá, where he was welcomed by cheering inhabitants, delirious with joy at their sudden liberation from the shackles of oppression.

On August 13, 1819, Bolívar wrote Vice-President Zea at Angostura (Venezuela) a personal letter in which he said:

My friend: Victory has turned its face to us, having tired of frustrating our efforts. We have finally compelled her to grant us her favors—we could say that we have violated her, because she has surrendered only to the thrust of our bayonets.

And on August 19, 1819, he issued a proclamation to the soldiers of the Liberating Army which ended as follows:

Soldiers! You were not 200 in numbers when you started this amazing campaign; now that you are many thousands, all America is too small a theatre for your valor. Yes, Soldiers, from the north to the south of this half of the world you will spread the Gospel of Liberty!

Soon the capital of Venezuela will receive us for the third time, and its tyrant will not dare to wait for us. And at the same time wealthy Peru will be covered with the standards of Venezuela, Nueva Granada, Argentina and Chile. "Soldiers! Thousands of glorious battles give you the right to expect other thousands of victories, carrying on your standards as an emblem—Boyacá!

1. In the military parlance of two centuries ago, these guns were classified according to the number of cannonballs of a diameter to that of the gun which could be lodged in its barrel. The barrel of gun #6 was therefore two cannonballs longer than that of gun #4.

2. The city of Tunja, according to an 1819 census, had 13,000 inhabitants; today it has a population of about 77,000.

3. Bolívar had left for Tunja by using a detour through the village of Tuta. Barreiro, on the other hand, went over the Royal Highway, a much shorter route.

4. Páramo de Cómbita": A bleak and exceedingly cold region situated about 10,000 feet above sea level, and about 2,000 feet above the level of the Royal Highway.

5. Bolívar was then thirty-six years of age, Anzóategui thirty, and Santander twenty-seven.

<< 8: Pantano de Vargas || 10: Carabobo >>