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Mexican War of Independence: The Battle of Calderon Bridge

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Mexican War of Independence: The Battle of Calderon Bridge

Ignacio Allende leads his troops into battle

Painting by Ramon Perez

Mexico’s War of Independence: The Battle of Calderon Bridge:

In early 1811, Mexican independence fighters Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende were in a stalemate with Spanish and royalist authorities. The insurgent army had won victories at Guanajuato and Monte de las Cruces, but was being chased around Mexico by the better trained and equipped royalist army of General Félix Calleja. A full-scale clash was inevitable. Hidalgo and Allende, occupying the city of Guadalajara, got to pick the battlefield: they would make a stand at the Calderón Bridge, which led into the city.

Father Hidalgo's Insurgent Army:

Since Hidalgo’s famous exhortation of the people of the town of Dolores to join him in insurrection (known as the Grito de Dolores or Cry of Dolores), the rebel army had swelled to some 80,000. Although some Creole-led garrisons and regiments had defected, most of the independence fighters were poor peasants and Indians armed only with machetes, axes, knives and clubs. Many spoke different native languages and could not communicate with one another. Still, the rebel army had stormed the fortified royal granary at Guanajuato and had defeated a smaller but better trained royalist army at Monte de las Cruces.

Hidalgo and Allende:

Hidalgo and Allende led the army, along with fellow conspirators Juan Aldama, Mariano Jiménez and Mariano Abasolo. The scholarly, charismatic Hidalgo and the trained officer Allende made a good team, although the two men despised one another. Allende even tried to poison Hidalgo at one point. After Monte de las Cruces, the two men had split the army and gone their separate ways: it was not until Calleja drove Allende and his men out of Guanajuato that the two rebel leaders realized they needed one another and rejoined forces in Guadalajara.

General Felix Calleja and the Royalist Army:

General Felix Calleja led the best trained and equipped army in the New World at the time of the insurrection. He had 6,000 troops supported by cavalry and artillery and able officers including Brigadier General José de la Cruz and General Manuel Flon, Count of Cadena. The royalists knew they were facing overwhelming odds but were confident enough to bicker over which general would have the honor of leading the first attack.

The Battlefield:

Allende set the rebel defenses. He deployed around the bridge, with some reserves left behind. He put his cavalry under the command of Mariano Abasolo. Other then numbers, Allende’s big advantage was in his artillery: he had some 95 cannons which he deployed on the hillside behind the defenders. During their wait in Guadalajara, the rebels had even fashioned rockets with sharp metal tips to use in the battle.

The Battle of Calderon Bridge:

Calleja attacked the fortified rebels on January 17, 1811, without waiting for reinforcements as he had agreed to in his meetings with his fellow officers. He divided up his force into three main elements: cavalry which would attack the insurgent left, a mixed force of cavalry and infantry to attack the insurgent right flank, and the main infantry which would attack the rebel center. For most of the day, the two armies fought to a stalemate: the royalists were well trained and armed but outnumbered as many as fifteen to one. Among the Spanish casualties was Count Flon, shot down as he led an attack.

A Lucky Shot:

Finally, after about six hours of fighting, a Spanish cannonball hit the rebel munitions dump. In the ensuing chaos, the rebel army broke. Calleja immediately pressed his advantage, committing all of his reserves to breaking what tiny bit of discipline the rebels had. The peasants and Indians who made up the rebel army immediately scattered, while the enraged royal army hunted them down and killed them as they ran. Hidalgo, Allende and the other leaders escaped to the north with about 1,000 men.

Aftermath of the Battle of Calderon Bridge:

Their army scattered, Hidalgo and Allende were forced to flee to the north, hoping to make it to the USA where they could safely regroup and perhaps find more soldiers for their cause. Along the way, however, they were betrayed and captured and Hidalgo, Allende and the others were executed between June and July of 1811.

The Battle of Calderon Bridge and the subsequent execution of the rebel leadership mark a decisive end to the first phase of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain. With Hidalgo and Allende gone, leadership of the budding revolution would fall to José María Morelos, a former student and lieutenant of Hidalgo.

The battle held many lessons for those who would challenge Spanish rule in Mexico. Although Hidalgo's army vastly outnumbered the Spanish, it was poorly disciplined and broke as soon as it became apparent that Calleja's force would not be easily driven away. It was a lesson taken to heart by Morelos, who preferred smaller, more mobile forces of trained soldiers to Hidalgo's angry hordes of peasants. Morelos understood what Hidalgo did not: that the future of Mexican liberation lay not with the lower classes but the creoles who made up the bulk of the professional soldier class.

Calderon Bridge was named a national historical monument in 1932. Today, it is part of a larger eco-park and is popular with local families as a place to go on the weekends.

Sources:

Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.

Villalpando, José Manuel. Miguel Hidalgo. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 2002.

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