1819: Simon Bolivar Crosses the Andes:
In 1819, the War of Independence in Northern South America was locked in a stalemate. Venezuela was exhausted from a decade of war, and patriot and royalist warlords had fought each other to a standstill. Simón Bolívar
, the dashing Liberator, conceived of a brilliant yet seemingly suicidal plan: he would take his 2,000 man army, cross the mighty Andes, and hit the Spanish where they were least expecting it: in neighboring New Granada (Colombia), where a small Spanish army held the region unopposed. His epic crossing of the frozen Andes would prove to be the most genius of his many daring actions during the war.
Venezuela in 1819:
Venezuela had borne the brunt of the War of Independence. Home of the failed First
Venezuelan Republics, the nation had suffered greatly from Spanish reprisals. By 1819 Venezuela was in ruins from the constant warring. Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator, had an army of some 2,000 men, and other patriots like José Antonio Páez also had small armies, but they were scattered and even together lacked the strength to deliver a knockout blow to Spanish General Morillo and his royalist armies. In May, Bolívar's army was camped near the llanos
or great plains, and he decided to do what the royalists least expected.
New Granada (Colombia) in 1819:
Unlike war-weary Venezuela, New Granada was ready for revolution. The Spanish were in control but deeply resented by the people. For years, they had been forcing the men into armies, extracting “loans” from the wealthy and oppressing the Creoles, afraid they might revolt. Most of the royalist forces were in Venezuela under the command of General Morillo: in New Granada there were some 10,000, but they were spread out from the Caribbean to Ecuador. The largest single force was an army of some 3,000 commanded by General José María Barreiro. If Bolívar could get his army there, he could deal the Spanish a mortal blow.
The Council of Setenta:
On May 23, Bolívar called his officers to meet in a ruined hut in the abandoned village of Setenta. Many of his most trusted captains were there, including James Rooke, Carlos Soublette and José Antonio Anzoátegui. There were no seats: the men sat on the bleached skulls of dead cattle. At this meeting, Bolívar told them of his daring plan to attack New Granada, but he lied to them about the route he would take, fearing they would not follow if they knew the truth. Bolívar intended to cross the flooded plains and then cross the Andes at the Páramo de Pisba pass: the highest of three possible entries into New Granada.
Crossing the Flooded Plains:
Bolívar’s army then numbered some 2,400 men, with less than one thousand women and followers. The first obstacle was the Arauca River, upon which they traveled for eight days by raft and canoe, mostly in the pouring rain. Then they reached the plains of Casanare, which were flooded by the rains. Men waded in water up to their waists, as thick fog obscured their vision: torrential rains drenched them daily. Where there was no water there was mud: the men were plagued by parasites and leeches. The only highlight during this time was meeting up with a patriot army of some 1,200 men led by Francisco de Paula Santander
Crossing the Andes:
As the plains gave way to hilly jungle, Bolívar’s intentions became clear: the army, drenched, battered and hungry, would have to cross the frigid Andes Mountains. Bolívar had selected the pass at Páramo de Pisba for the simple reason that the Spanish did not have defenders or scouts there: no one thought an army could possibly cross it. The pass peaks at 13,000 feet (almost 4,000 meters). Some deserted: José Antonio Páez, one of Bolívar's top commanders, tried to mutiny and eventually left with most of the cavalry. Bolívar's leadership held, however, because many of his captains swore they would follow him anywhere.
The crossing was brutal. Some of Bolívar’s soldiers were barely-dressed Indians who quickly succumbed to exposure. The Albion Legion, a unit of foreign (mostly British and Irish) mercenaries, suffered greatly from altitude sickness and many even died from it. There was no wood in the barren highlands: they were fed raw meat. Before long, all of the horses and pack animals had been slaughtered for food. The wind whipped them, and hail and snow was frequent. By the time they crossed the pass and descended into New Granada, some 2,000 men and women had perished.
Arrival in New Granada:
On July 6, 1819, the withered survivors of the march entered the village of Socha, many of them half-naked and barefoot. They begged food and clothing from the locals. There was no time to waste: Bolívar had paid a high cost for the element of surprise and had no intention of wasting it. He swiftly refitted the army, recruited hundreds of new soldiers and made plans for an invasion of Bogota. His greatest obstacle was General Barreiro, stationed with his 3,000 men at Tunja, between Bolívar and Bogota. On July 25, the forces met at the Battle of Vargas Swamp, which resulted in an indecisive victory for Bolívar.
The Battle of Boyacá:
Bolívar knew that he had to destroy Barreiro's army before it reached Bogota, where reinforcements could reach it. On August 7, the royalist army was divided as it crossed the Boyaca River: the advance guard was in front, across the bridge, and the artillery was far to the rear. Bolivar swiftly ordered an attack. Santander's cavalry cut off the advance guard (which were the best soldiers in the royalist army), trapping them on the other side of the river, while Bolívar and Anzoátegui decimated the main body of the Spanish force.
Legacy of Bolívar’s Crossing of the Andes:
The battle lasted only two hours: at least two hundred royalists were killed and another 1,600 were captured, including Barreiro and his senior officers. On the patriot side, there were only 13 killed and 53 wounded. The Battle of Boyacá was a tremendous, one-sided victory for Bolívar who marched unopposed into Bogota: the Viceroy had fled so swiftly that he left money in the treasury. New Granada was free, and with money, weapons, and recruits, Venezuela soon followed, allowing Bolívar to eventually move south and attack Spanish forces in Ecuador and Peru.
The epic crossing of the Andes is Simón Bolívar in a nutshell: he was a brilliant, dedicated, ruthless man who would do whatever it took to free his homeland. Crossing flooded plains and rivers before going over a frigid mountain pass over some of the bleakest terrain on earth was absolute madness. No one thought Bolívar could pull off such a thing, which made it all the more unexpected. Still, it cost him 2,000 loyal lives: many commanders would not have paid that price for victory.
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Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.