Mexico’s War For Independence: The Siege of Guanajuato:
On September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo
, parish priest of the town of Dolores, issued the famous “Grito de la Dolores” or “Shout of Dolores.”
Before long, he was at the head of a vast, unruly mob of peasants and Indians armed with machetes and clubs. Years of neglect and high taxes by Spanish authorities had made the people of Mexico ready for blood. Along with co-conspirator Ignacio Allende
, Hidalgo led his mob through the towns of San Miguel and Celaya before setting their sights on the largest city in the area: the mining town of Guanajuato.
Father Hidalgo's Rebel Army:
Hidalgo had allowed his soldiers to sack the homes of Spaniards in the town of San Miguel and the ranks of his army swelled with would-be looters. As they passed through Celaya, the local regiment, composed mostly of Creole officers and soldiers, switched sides and joined the rebels. Neither Allende, who had a military background, nor Hidalgo could completely control the angry mob that followed them. The rebel “army” that descended upon Guanajuato on September 28 was a seething mass of anger, vengeance and greed, numbering anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 according to eyewitness accounts.
The Granary of Granaditas:
The intendant of Guanajuato, Juan Antonio Riaño, was an old personal friend of Hidalgo. Hidalgo even sent his old friend a letter, offering to protect his family. Riaño and the royalist forces in Guanajuato decided to fight. They chose the large, fortress-like public granary (Alhóndiga de Granaditas)to make their stand: all of the Spaniards moved their families and wealth inside and fortified the building as best they could. Riaño was confident: he believed that the rabble marching on Guanajuato would be quickly dispersed by organized resistance.
The Siege of Guanajuato:
Hidalgo’s horde arrived on September 28 and was quickly joined by many miners and workers of Guanajuato. They laid siege to the granary, where royalist officers and Spaniards fought for their lives and those of their families. The attackers charged en masse, taking heavy casualties. Hidalgo ordered some of his men to nearby rooftops, where they threw stones at the defenders and onto the roof of the granary, which eventually collapsed under the weight. There were only some 400 defenders, and although they were dug in, they could not win against such odds.
Death of Riaño and the White Flag:
While directing some reinforcements, Riaño was shot and killed instantly. His second-in-command, the town assessor, ordered the men to run up a white flag of surrender. As the attackers moved in to take prisoners, the ranking military officer in the compound, Major Diego Berzábal, countermanded the order to surrender and the soldiers opened fire on the advancing attackers. The attackers thought the “surrender” a ruse and furiously redoubled their attacks.
Pipila, Unlikely Hero:
According to local legend, the battle had a most unlikely hero: a local miner nicknamed “Pípila,” which is a hen turkey. Pípila earned his name because of his gait: he was born deformed and the others thought he walked like a turkey. Often ridiculed for his deformity, Pípila became a hero when he strapped a large, flat stone onto his back and made his way to the large wooden door of the granary with tar and a torch. The stone protected him as he put the tar on the door and set it afire. Before long, the door burned through and the attackers were able to enter.
Massacre and Pillage:
The siege and assault of the fortified granary only took the massive attacking horde about five hours. After the episode of the white flag, no quarter was offered to the defenders within, who were all massacred. Wives and children were sometimes spared, but not always. Hidalgo’s army went on a pillaging rampage in Guanajuato, looting the homes of Spaniards and creoles alike. The plunder was horrible, as everything not nailed down was stolen. The final death toll was approximately 3,000 insurgents and all 400 defenders of the granary.
Aftermath and Legacy of the Siege of Guanajuato:
Hidalgo and his army spent some days in Guanajuato, organizing the combatants into regiments and issuing proclamations. They marched out on October 8, en route to Valladolid (now Morelia).
The siege of Guanajuato marked the beginning of serious differences between the two leaders of the insurgency, Allende and Hidalgo. Allende was aghast at the massacres, pillaging and looting he saw during and after the battle: he wanted to weed out the rabble, make a coherent army of the rest and fight an “honorable” war. Hidalgo, on the other hand, encouraged the looting, thinking of it as payback for years of injustice at the hands of Spaniards. Hidalgo also pointed out that without the prospect of looting, many combatants would disappear.
As for the battle itself, it was lost the minute Riaño locked away the Spaniards and richest creoles in the “safety” of the granary. The normal citizens of Guanajuato (quite justly) felt betrayed and abandoned and were quick to side with the attackers. In addition, most of the attacking peasants were only interested in two things: killing Spaniards and looting. By concentrating all of the Spaniards and all of the loot in one building, Riaño made it inevitable that the building would be attacked and all within massacred. As for Pípila, he survived the battle and today there is a stature of him in Guanajuato.
Word of the horrors of Guanajuato soon spread around Mexico. The authorities in Mexico City soon realized that they had a major uprising on their hands and began organizing its defense, which would clash with Hidalgo again on Monte de las Cruces.
Guanajuato was also significant in that it alienated many wealthy creoles to the rebellion: they would not join it until much later. Creole homes as well as Spanish ones were destroyed in the wanton looting, and many Creole families had sons or daughters married to Spaniards. These first battles of Mexican independence were viewed as a class war, not as a Creole alternative to Spanish governance.
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Villalpando, José Manuel. Miguel Hidalgo. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 2002.