South American Wars of Independence (Nineteenth Century)

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South American Wars of Independence (Nineteenth Century)

Major Figures

Simón Bolívar

Starting with his native Venezuela, Bolívar (1783–1830) was a key figure in the revolutionary movement throughout South America. While most consider him a great liberator, others denounce him for transforming into a dictator after independence was achieved.

Early Upbringing and Tragedies

Simón José Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolívar was born on July 24, 1783, into an aristocratic family in Caracas, Venezuela. In spite of his landed and presumably traditional status in the aristocracy, this scion of Venezuelan bluebloods imbibed the teachings of the philosophers that guided the hands of the American revolution: Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau.

Bolívar came by this education through the loss of his father at a very young age and his mother when he was nine. His uncle, Esteban Palacios, became his guardian, providing for him a tutor named Simón Rodríguez, who ensured that his young charge shared his appreciation for the teachings of the Enlightenment and the power of human reason.

As a child, Bolívar had already shown a tremendous precocity, and during his formative years he proved no less of an avid, intellectually curious learner. He enjoyed the classics and polished off his educational sojourn with the requisite travels in Europe (including Spain), beginning when he was only sixteen.

While in Europe, Bolívar married María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro in Madrid, herself the daughter of a high-profile family. Sadly, she died during an outbreak of yellow fever only six months after their return to Caracas. After this tragedy, Bolívar swore never to marry again, and he remained unmarried and childless for the rest of his life.

A New World Resolution Made in the Old World

The bereaved young man returned to Europe, traveling and becoming fluent in several languages and filling his mind with information about current affairs. His traveling companion was his tutor, Rodríguez, and in his company, Bolívar became convinced of the corruption of monarchy and the necessity for republicanism.

Spain had oppressed the conquered peoples of Central and South America with the intention of laying and keeping claim to its gold and its souls. To maintain the oppression, the Spanish monarchs refused to allow leaders of South American municipalities to visit or confer with one other. They did this in the hope of repressing any republican instincts that might find the hand of friendship in another viceroy or governor in the vicinity.

He swore that he would spend his life striving to free South America from the clutches of the corrupt Spanish monarchy. In keeping with his newfound understanding of the importance of freedom for the human spirit, when he returned to Caracas, he immediately freed all of the slaves working his lands.

Serving as a Diplomat in Europe

Indeed, the movement of South America’s independence from Spain took root in Caracas, where colonists revolted against the idea of Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain. The fall of the corrupt Spanish monarchy to Napoleon Bonaparte had provided restive colonists with the opportunity they needed. The colonial governor was deposed in April 1810 and a junta installed in his place; Venezuela had taken the first steps to declaring independence.

Bolívar became one of its first diplomats, dispatched to London to request succor and to buy arms. He returned, weapons in tow, to Venezuela and was a key player in the events leading up to the formal declaration of Venezuela’s independence from Spain on July 5, 1811.

Bolívar the Military Man

Along with munitions, Bolívar had returned from London with General Francisco de Miranda, an expatriate Venezuelan. The two men engaged in battle in patriot uniform, but Miranda angered Bolívar by giving in to the Spanish troops. Bolívar took refuge in what was then called New Granada (today’s Colombia), hoping to muster up enough men to invade Caracas.

Bolívar decided that an eye for an eye was the order of the day for battling the royalist troops, who had gained a reputation for cruelty against their foes. In response, Bolívar stated on January 13, 1813, that this guerra a muerte (“war to the death”) would involve execution of any Spaniard not openly supporting the patriots.

The fighting was brief but horrific. The royalists earned their grim reputation—executing a horrific campaign of raping and pillaging across the countryside as well as killing all prisoners of war and hundreds of innocents—even as the patriots fought their way to victory. Bolívar brought his army into Caracas on August 6, 1813, defeating various royalist forces while taking back western Venezuela, and doing it all in the astonishingly brief period of ninety days. His victory earned him the moniker El Liberador, or “The Liberator.”

Falling into the Caesar Trap

The Liberator’s response to his victory was to name himself military dictator, an odd move for a man so passionate about republican values, and one reminiscent of another famous dictator of a republic, Julius Caesar. The new dictator still had the royalist army to deal with, however, and Bolívar ended up once again losing his country in 1814 and fleeing to New Granada.

Again, he raised an army, this time marching to Cundinamarca (today’s Bogatá) and freeing the city. Bolívar stood his ground until spring 1815, when a Spanish armada combined with a new Spanish army movement in the interior to defeat the patriots yet again and send Bolívar seeking shelter, this time in Jamaica.

These defeats might have pounded a lesser man into submission, but Bolívar was extraordinarily stubborn. In Jamaica, he failed to muster the support he needed for yet another rebellion, so Bolívar turned to Haiti, whose president (Alexandre Sabes Petion) supplied him with men and necessities for an attack.

Even in the face of two successive failed attacks, Bolívar pressed on, mounting attacks from Angostura at the lower Orinoco River against Spanish forces located to the north. He also recruited some new forces (from Venezuelan plainsmen to British and Irish volunteers) in preparation for his big event: an attack across the Andes in New Granada, moving in on the Spanish forces from the rear. This plan, executed in August 1819, was a huge success, and Bolívar’s troops destroyed the royalist forces at Boyacá. He then was president of Greater Colombia (today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador).

El Liberador Lives Up To His Name

Bolívar continued his quest to drive the Spanish from South America, liberating most of Venezuela and New Granada in 1821 and 1822. He then moved against the royalist forces in Gran Colombia and onward to Peru, which he liberated in 1824. His last-liberated territory was Upper Peru, liberated in April 1825 and renamed “Bolivia” in his honor. Bolívar was now president of three liberated territories: Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.

Bolívar’s hope as a leader was to see a united South America, much as the thirteen colonies of the United States had formed a semi cohesive unit. His vision failed, however, in part because of the tremendous cultural disparities among the newly liberated South American territories. Revolts cropped up throughout his career as president, and finally, Gran Colombia—always essentially just a dream and a piece of paper—itself was dissolved, taking with it Bolívar’s vision of a confederation of republics.

Et Tu, Bogatá?

In 1828, assassins made an attempt on Bolívar’s life. Events snowballed; the Congress of Venezuela refused to negotiate with Gran Colombia if Bolívar was even in the country, and Ecuador declared independence from the confederation. At the time of his death in 1830, Bolívar, the great believer in republican values who had become a dictator, found himself in an independent, but politically fracturing, South America.

José de San Martín

A national hero in his homeland of Argentina, San Martín (1778–1850) was a leading figure in the South American independence movement. San Martín put the military knowledge he gained fighting for Spain in Europe to good purpose, leading republican troops to numerous victories in Argentina, Chile, and Peru.

Future Republican Begins as a Servant of Spain

José Francisco de San Martín was the youngest son and fifth child of Juan de San Martín, a Spanish aristocrat and militia captain, and his wife, Gregoria Mattoras. He entered the world in what would become Argentina, but ended up moving with his family to Spain when he was seven years old.

While in Spain, San Martín attended a school for the children of elite families. He did well in drawing and math, although he is also described as possessing a complete inability to write well. San Martín’s military pursuits started early; when he was only eleven, he signed up as a cadet in the Spanish army. San Martín fought his first battle when he was only thirteen, in North Africa, as part of a defense of a fort on the coast. During this battle, his entire regiment was captured, thanks to an unfortunate combination of earthquake, fire, and enemy troops.

San Martín returned to Spain after his release only to find himself again involved in battle as part of King Charles IV’s invasion of France. He was captured again, and this second tenure in prison lasted two years. On his release following the Peace of Basel in 1795, San Martín engaged in a naval campaign against Spain’s longtime enemy, England, only to be captured—again—and held prisoner. He spent this third sojourn in prison drawing and painting until freed as a result of a prisoner exchange. Following this, his third and last release, San Martín fought against England’s ally Portugal and against France when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain in 1808 and forced Ferdinand VII from the throne. The destabilization of the Spanish monarchy led to takeovers at the local level by juntas, both in Spain and back in South America.

A Shift in Allegiance

In spite of his long and dedicated service to Spain, San Martín found himself drawn to fight Spain when revolution broke out in his home country of Argentina. Still only in his mid-thirties after having fought for Spain for more than twenty years, San Martín returned to South America in 1812. This journey was made under the guise of engaging in family business, but he soon became a commander of republican troops fighting for continent-wide independence.

No one knows exactly what drove this change of allegiance. Perhaps San Martín imbibed some of the philosophies of democracy during his military exploits and engagements with republicans. As a South-American born Creole, he may have experienced Spanish hostility toward Creoles. Whatever his rationale, his conversion was so complete that he referred to the Spanish as the “Goths.”

His intent was to liberate all of the South American Spanish provinces, not just Argentina, a goal very similar to that of another South-American born scion of an aristocratic family and San Martín’s contemporary, Simón Bolívar. Their paths would eventually cross, not with auspicious results.

To Peru By Way of Chile: The Army of the Andes

To realize his plan of independence for South America, San Martín hoped to unseat the Spanish from Peru by first ensuring the independence of Peru’s neighbor, Chile. For several years, he secretly trained the ragtag, pitifully treated and maintained army he inherited while publicly working to improve conditions in the province that he had taken over as governor.

San Martín’s appointment to the governorship was simply another facet of his secret plan: he had feigned illness and resigned his army commission, resurfacing four months later to request the governorship in Mendoza, his headquarters for recasting the downtrodden troops into the Army of the Andes. His civil endeavors extended to suppression of the spread of smallpox through a vaccination program targeting civilians and soldiers. As he completed these and other infrastructure projects, San Martín gradually built and trained his Army of the Andes, which included volunteers, Chilean refugees, and 1,500 slaves whose service would be exchanged for their freedom. With so many involved, he still managed to maintain the secrecy of his plan through an elaborate and deliberate misinformation campaign.

Finally ready, he took his army across the Andes Mountains in January 1817, reaching altitudes of 12,500 feet with his force of about five thousand men, ten thousand mules, and 1,600 hundred horses. Many of the men and animals died from the cold or the altitude or both, but nevertheless, San Martín’s army managed to surprise and defeat an unsuspecting Spanish army at Chacabuco, Chile, on February 12, 1817.

Unlike his counterpart Bolívar, San Martín declined to accept the governorship of Chile, preferring instead to ready his troops for further engagement with royalist forces that had escaped to the south. He met with these forces and defeated them in April 1818 at the bloody but decisive Battle of Maipú. San Martín had demonstrated his two key talents: creating a disciplined army by earning the respect of his men, and organizing and planning on a large scale.

Protector of Peru

Peru was now in his sights, but monetary problems prevented San Martín from attacking the Spanish troops in Peru for two years. Chile finally provided the means, and he headed to Lima by sea in August 1820. His trek was for naught, however; when he and his troops arrived, they found a city emptied of royalist forces. The people named him “Protector of Peru,” and Peru claimed its independence.

This claim was challenged when Spanish forces returned, and San Martín’s inability to fend them off led to charges that he held onto power because of a tyrannical bent, rather than a desire to completely liberate Peru. (These assaults on his character wearied him and led to his eventual resignation.)

Two Liberators Meet

In 1822, San Martín finally met his revolutionary counterpart, Simón Bolívar, in Ecuador. San Martín traveled there for the meeting, but no one was quite clear on what the purpose of the event was, and Bolívar treated him with an obvious and intended high handedness. Angered, San Martín ultimately departed the continent altogether, saying that there wasn’t enough room for both himself and Bolívar in Peru.

San Martín returned to Europe, working from there for causes that favored Argentina. Over time, this swung the pendulum of popularity his way again. He spent his final days living in France with his daughter and son-in-law, where he died on August 17, 1850.

Bernardo O’Higgins

The illegitimate son of an Irish-born engineer, Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842) would play a pivotal role in the independence movement of Chile, his native land, and Peru. While O’Higgins was leader of Chile at one point, a divisive rule eventually forced him to resign from this post.

An Inauspicious Beginning

Bernardo O’Higgins was born out of wedlock to Isabel Riquelme, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful family in Chile. His father was Ambrosio O’Higgins, a high-ranking government official and engineer for the Spanish monarchy. Born in Ireland and educated in Spain, Ambrosio was forty years older than Isabel, and policy prevented marriage between a government official and a Creole without special permission.

Although he never officially recognized his son as being his, Ambrosio O’Higgins provided generous financial support for the boy, whom he finally met in person when Bernardo was ten. The senior O’Higgins also oversaw his son’s education, ensuring its excellence by sending him from his rural, Chilean home to Peru and Europe. While in Europe, Ambrosio O’Higgins sent Bernardo to London when the younger man was only sixteen. He lived there completely unchaperoned, paying far more attention to the revolutionary talk of his friends than to his ostensible reason for being there, his studies.

Sowing the Seeds of Radical Action

World events fueled the fire of revolution in these young London radicals, who imbibed the tenets that sparked the American Revolution that had just ended in 1783, and avidly watched as the French Revolution unfolded beginning in 1789. The French revolutionary cry of “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” inspired them, as did the rebellion of Haiti against the French. Bernardo and his compatriots felt that if small, insignificant Haiti could break the chains, then so could the larger, more wealthy Spanish South American colonies.

Although Bernardo enjoyed these irresistible discussions about revolution in his homeland, he apparently was unhappy and often penniless, in spite of his generous allowance. He ended up moving to Spain, where he formed a friendship with a future ally in war, José de San Martín.

While Bernardo felt that his philosophical pursuits were important, his father expressed different feelings. He wrote to his son, angry and disappointed that the young man was not pursuing his studies and establishing a career. Stung, Bernardo wrote his father a response, but the older O’Higgins died before the letter reached him. At his death, Ambrosio left his son a modest but well-to-do estate, or hacienda, in Chile. Bernardo returned to South America to live there, using his father’s surname for the first time.

Revolution, Chilean Style

Bernardo lived comfortably and peacefully for a time, entering local politics and spreading his message of revolution among those whom he believed receptive. While in London, O’Higgins had joined a secret society of South American revolutionaries headed by the Venezuelan revolutionary hero Francisco de Miranda. The society, called Logia Laurarina, had its members swear never to tell its secrets, even under threat of death. Its mission was to overthrow Spain, with cooperation among the colonies. O’Higgins’ membership in this secret society would later come back to haunt him, but at the time, it gave him revolutionary entrée.

The revolutionaries had their big chance when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, forced Carlos IV to take his throne back from his son Ferdinand, and then removed Carlos IV and imprisoned him. In his place, Napoleon set up his brother Joseph as a puppet king.

The Spanish colonies saw the opportunity to rebel under the guise of loyalty to Carlos IV. They overthrew local governments and established juntas in their place. Yet in no colony was the unity necessary for a successful revolution more difficult to achieve than in Chile. The long (almost a thousand miles) and narrow (a hundred miles across) land lay sandwiched between the coast and the mountains, and its people lived like the feuding barons of medieval Europe, each with their own fiefdom, warring and engaging in prolonged and bitter rivalries. With this entrenched civil strife, the unification needed for independence from Spain would be hard to achieve.

Nevertheless, the Chileans all managed to meet in 1810 to rid themselves of the Spanish governor and establish a junta. The junta leadership consisted of José Miguel Carrera and his two brothers, and they elected not to declare independence outright but instead to create a Congress that would decide Chile’s future. Since the Congress consisted of representatives from the feuding Chilean elites, its members did not accomplish much. O’Higgins was a member of this Chilean Congress and also of one of the two juntas the Carrera brothers established in efforts to spur the Congress into action.

Finally, Carrera, sick of waiting for action, dissolved the Congress and declared himself dictator. O’Higgins did not like or trust Carrera and did not want to support him, but events necessitated his cooperation with the dictator: Spanish troops began pouring across the border from Peru, and O’Higgins, relatively inexperienced and unprepared, found himself in command of an unprepared and untried army.

Fighting Internal and External Foes

Yet even as the army experienced some successes, Chilean factional infighting undermined any forward movement towards independence; the country found itself more focused on civil strife than on revolution. In the midst of this frustrating chaos, the British brokered a treaty in 1814 between the Chileans and the Spanish, placing Chile back under Spanish rule on the agreement that all Spanish forces would withdraw from Chile. O’Higgins, however, now governor of a southern province, felt that independence was the only course to pursue.

In spite of the treaty, the Spanish forces did return to Chile, and O’Higgins led his troops in a valiant defense at the Battle of Rancagua in October 1814, which the Chileans lost when Carerra failed to show up with reinforcements. The Chilean leaders and revolutionaries fled to Argentina, leaving Chile again in Spanish hands.

The Spanish abused the Chilean people with the full force of victorious revenge, which had the unanticipated result of fueling a stronger revolutionary fire. Thousands fled the country to the Argentinean province of Mendoza, where the Argentinean hero José de San Martín was raising and training his Army of the Andes. The force eventually crossed the Andes into Chile in the winter of 1817 to meet the Spanish forces at Chacabuco in February. The unexpected arrival of a revolutionary army caught the Spanish completely by surprise, and thanks to a reckless but brave cavalry charge, O’Higgins was instrumental in cracking the Spanish front and handing the revolutionaries a major victory.

O’Higgins Takes Charge

After San Martín refused to become Chile’s leader, O’Higgins accepted the position of Supreme Director. He had plenty of work to do, including ridding Chile of lingering Spanish forces. His armies accomplished this at the Battle of Maipú in April 1818, which left two thousand Spanish dead and three thousand captured.

Yet O’Higgins the war hero made some divisive political moves. Some of his draconian policies, such as having citizens swear a loyalty oath to be able to obtain government employment, angered many groups. He earned a reputation for being anticlerical with his secularization of the schools and acceptance of Protestants, and O’Higgins annoyed the elites by abolishing noble titles and the entail (the practice of leaving estates in their entirety to the next male heir of the family). The Supreme Director really set off the citizenry with his ban of bullfighting, and he frightened and enraged many with his arbitrary and capricious manner of ruling.

The factionalism typical of Chile at the time fired up again, and when O’Higgins’ old nemesis Carrera was executed in Argentina in 1821 (following the executions of his two brothers), events reached a boiling point. Many people believed that O’Higgins ordered the executions, and his membership in the Logia Laurarina secret society led to rampant gossip that he served the society, not the people.

O’Higgins perceived hand-in-glove relationship with foreign merchants to the detriment of local dealers, along with his other ostensibly “anti-Chilean” policies, sealed his fate. When famine and earthquake hit the country hard in 1822, his five-person, hand-chosen Senate resigned in protest. Rather than force a civil war, O’Higgins ultimately resigned his position.

Death in Exile

O’Higgins took refuge in Peru, where he helped Simón Bolívar in his quest to rid the country of royalist forces. O’Higgins himself had an illegitimate son, Pedro, whom he acknowledged as his and with whom he lived. On October 24, 1842, O’Higgins died, never seeing his homeland again, although his remains were transferred there in 1866 and buried with honors. He died not knowing that history would classify him as a great independence fighter, revered throughout his native land.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Rosas (1793–1877) helped unify Argentina during a time of great internal crisis for the fledgling nation, but he did so as a brutal, self-absorbed dictator. Of all the men involved in South American independence from Spain, Juan Manuel de Rosas earned a reputation as the most cruel and harsh.

Mom’s in Charge

Like his historical counterparts, Rosas was born to the aristocracy. He experienced his strongest psychological influence through his mother, Doña Agustina López de Orsornio, an imperious and autocratic woman who inherited great wealth. She also was a prolific reproducer, giving birth to twenty children, only ten of whom survived.

Doña Agustina dealt with her unlucky sons as the future dictator would deal with the people of Argentina: harshly and without mercy, whipping them ruthlessly, even in their teens. She was a personality of such power and ruthlessness that when a commander of the Argentine army sought to take the family horses, Doña Agustina first locked the stable doors, and then, when that failed, she had all of the animals killed rather than see them fall into the army’s hands.

Lessons Learned

Unlike his revolutionary counterparts (such as Bolívar and San Martín), Rosas did not receive a high-class, intellectual, European education. Aside from a brief stint in a school where the headmaster actively discouraged him from worrying too much about book learning, Rosas acquired only the basics of reading and writing, actually picking up more of it from a tutor in adulthood.

Rosas was sent home from school at some point for disobeying rules. This infuriated his mother, who locked him in his room and put him on bread and water rations until he promised to be more amenable. Like his mother, Rosas proved intrepid in his resistance, and after a day, his mother found a note reading, “I leave all that which is not mine.” He had disrobed entirely and walked naked to a cousin’s home. Rosas’ rift with his family was lasting, even leading him to change his name from its original spelling of Rozas.

His primary education was in learning to be a gaucho (Argentinean ranch hand or plainsman). At this, he excelled. Rosas was only seventeen when Argentina declared independence from Spain, in May 1810, an event which apparently had little effect on this inherently conservative man. He rode out this titanic change for his country on his estate, overseeing its administration and taking a wife, Encarnación Ezcurra y Arguibel, from an upper-class family, in 1813.

In addition to overseeing an estate, Rosas also became an entrepreneur, operating a successful beef jerky export business that grew so large, he turned to acquiring more land to continue it. He took the land from the native peoples, who not unnaturally protested. Rosas did not summarily dismiss them or advocate freewheeling armed combat, but he did gain fame as a ruthless Indian fighter, especially against natives who were from nearby Chile. It was at this time that his cruel streak became well known.

Rosas Seizes Control in Argentina

Rosas came to power as a dictator as a result of the inability of Argentineans to unify as a country. In 1820, the failure became manifest; Argentina teetered on the edge of total fracture, forcing rural militias to salvage the nation. The liberal government had failed to unite the country, and the shortcomings of the government’s leading urban political party, the Unitarios, left a leadership vacuum.

Utilizing his militia, Rosas had gained military power and land, and he just happened to be available to step into the vacuum. He provided an image of conservative and rural values that contrasted nicely with the failed liberal urbanites. (As he seized control, Rosas defeated the very army leader, Juan Lavalle, who had tried unsuccessfully years before to take the family horses.)

He seemed to have earned a reputation for skill in all things macho—from taming horses to lassoing animals—and for managing his estate expertly. Yet his reputation was that of a man with two natures. On the one hand, his loyal followers saw him as the ultimate man and gentleman, skilled and able; others knew him as a cruel tyrant who could be barbarically harsh to perceived enemies, or even simply to people whose behavior fell outside his moral compass.

It is possible that this duality arose from a central fact: Rosas did whatever benefited Rosas, above all else. Some people mistook that for genius and skill, and others saw it for what it was. Historians themselves are divided on Rosas. Some view his cruelty and viciousness as simply a product of his age, even as traits that finally pushed Argentina to unity. Others see his behaviors as the aberrant ruthlessness of a narcissistic autocrat.

Draconian Policies Terrorize the People

This dual nature driven by a single primary force led Rosas to serve ably as governor of Buenos Aires from 1829 to 1832, a position that he returned to in 1835, receiving what were essentially unlimited powers to rule the Argentinean Confederation. In the three-year interim, Rosas terrorized the Indians while his wife essentially ran the country.

The omnipotence conferred on this self-serving autocrat when he returned officially to power led to the obvious outcomes. He insisted on proof of loyalty to the regime, harshly punishing those who did not comply. He created international friction with Britain and France through his draconian trade policies, which confined legal trade to a closely circumscribed area. His continual warring to the south led to inflation and discontent even among his former supporters. Throughout, he cultivated a long list of enemies, people who called him the “Caligula of the River Plate” and the “Nero of South America.”

According to some, Rosas systematically terrorized his enemies, having hundreds of people assassinated and thousands more executed. One of his most infamous crimes was the execution of a woman eight months pregnant for marrying and living with a priest.

An End in Exile

The acquisitive Rosas sought to take Uruguay and Paraguay as part of Argentina, engaging in a long and arduous war that almost brought his country to its knees. Rosas’ rule finally ended with the Battle of Caseros, where Justo Jose Urquiza, a former Rosas loyalist, defeated the ruthless dictator and made peace with the Unitarios.

Rosas was forced to sneak in the guise of a sailor onto a British ship that transported him into permanent exile in Southampton, England. He died there of pneumonia on March 14, 1877.

Justo José de Urquiza

Urquiza (1801–1870) became famous in Argentina for defending his country—and his home province—from both internal and external enemies. A future president, Urquiza was instrumental in ending the despotic reign of the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas.

A Privileged Son of Argentina

Justo José de Urquiza was the son of prominent, wealthy rural landowners in the town of Arroyo de la China in the province of Entre Ríos. (Entre Ríos and other Argentine provinces often came second to the bustling and urban province of Buenos Aires, a factor that would influence Argentine and South American politics throughout Urquiza’s lifetime.) As a result of their wealth, his parents were able to send their son to study in Buenos Aires at the Jesuit Colegio de San Carlos.

Prior to this formal education, Urquiza learned all he knew from workers on his family estate, but his secondary education was as good as that of any other leaders of his time. After completing his formal schooling, he went on to become a rich and successful merchant in the European export business.

The Sword and the Pulpit

In 1821, Urquiza became a lieutenant in the militia, and he also served in his province’s Congress from 1826 to 1827. As he became increasingly involved in the military and in politics, he vocally espoused his ardent democratic and federalist beliefs. His fight for the cause of provincial rights led to his escape into Uruguay during a particularly dangerous period, but he returned to Entre Ríos in 1831 and took command of some troops.

Urquiza again served his provincial Congress in 1837, and in 1838, he led his forces against attacks from Uruguayan forces, successfully battling back the offenders. The conflicts were not just with other countries; interprovincial fighting was also rife, and Urquiza continued to distinguish himself and his forces.

In 1845, Urquiza became governor of his province. This made him a potential rival to the current dictator and governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was renowned for his cruelty and micromanaging. Urquiza had once fought for Rosas, possibly believing—as so many others did at the time—that Rosas sincerely held the federalist convictions he espoused.

Urquiza was a capable leader; with his mercantile gains, he pursued his heartfelt interest in public education, often financing the efforts himself. He was the founder of the Colegio del Uruguay.

Conflict with Rosas

In 1849, the people of Entre Ríos again elected Urquiza their governor, and by 1851, he had decided to mount a resistance against Rosas and the power of Buenos Aires. One event that drove his decision was Rosas’ refusal to establish a true constitutional federal government with congressional oversight. Rosas had made faint attempts to back up his federalist talk with action, but his real motives soon became apparent to most; Rosas consolidated political power around his office and held the strings of the legislature and judiciary.

To fortify his effort against his former leader, Urquiza formed an alliance with Brazil and Uruguay. Forces from these nations accompanied those of the Unitarios, the opposition party to Rosas.

Urquiza’s first act of offense was to come to the aid of a besieged Montevideo, Uruguay, home to many exiles. Manuel Oribe, the man in charge of the siege, found himself facing Urquiza’s troops with an ever-dwindling number of men, as heavy desertion took its toll on Oribe’s forces. The siege was soon lifted.

The Buenos Aires army met with the allied troops in the Battle of Caseros on February 3, 1852. There Rosas’ forces lost, primarily because of the excellence of Urquiza’s cavalry. Rosas decamped, fleeing to England with his daughter, but Urquiza is rumored to have sent him money for support. (The rumor also persists that Rosas hit up Urquiza’s wife for money after the Entre Ríos governor’s death.

A Democratic Director

With this success, Urquiza called a meeting of the provincial governors in May 1852, where all but Buenos Aires approved his appointment as temporary director of the Argentine Federation and the provisional government. Buenos Aires went so far as to secede from the newly born federation the following September, and again, it was the holdout when the provinces approved the Constitution in 1853. Urquiza was elected president and served from 1854 to 1860.

In contrast to the self-serving behavior of Rosas, Urquiza behaved like a true federalist, working to establish a federal constitution, open up the rivers to international traffic and trade, build railroads, promote public education, and encourage immigration.

Urquiza Steps Down

As the constitution forbade Urquiza to serve a consecutive term in office as president, Urquiza resigned his office and became governor of his home province of Entre Ríos. He himself tried to prevent the federation’s entry into war with Paraguay, attempting to arrange and enforce Argentine neutrality, but an unpermitted violation of neutral space by the psychotic Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López ended these attempts. In fact, López’s attack at Corrientes managed finally to bring together the warring Argentine factions, uniting Buenos Aires with the rest of the country in the War of the Triple Alliance—Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil—against Paraguay. Urquiza refused to take part in a rebellion that arose during this war, a decision that ultimately led to his death.

After a lifetime working for unification of his country on the national stage, Urquiza met his death at the hands of a small group sent by a local leader, Ricardo López Jordán. Jordán was angry that Urquiza declined to participate in the military action against Buenos Aires. Conspirators arrived at his large estate to assassinate him, which must have been quite a trek since Urquiza’s lands covered a territory the size of Belgium and supported a million head of livestock. The former president, hearing their approach, tried to get to his weapons to defend himself. He was too late, however, and the assassins brutally murdered him in front of his wife and several young children. At nearly the same time, two of his sons were assassinated in other parts of the province.

Urquiza was survived by his much-younger wife, with whom he had had eleven children. He also declared legitimate twelve other children he had sired with other women.

Francisco Solano López

In historical terms, one-time Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López (1826–1870) can be compared to the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, for during their rule both men showed themselves to be dangerously unbalanced. López was a man who fed wounded enemies to crocodiles and had his own, aged mother publicly flogged for saying he was illegitimate. His unstable rule eventually brought about the War of the Triple Alliance.

An Insular Childhood

López was born on July 24, 1826, in the hinterlands of Paraguay, far from any place considered “civilization” at that time. As Paraguay lies inland and was then accessible primarily by rivers only, Lopez’s birthplace was an isolated, rural backwater far from the modernity that had pervaded other South American nations. The people, as those living in rural backwaters can be, were insular and did not trust interlopers, and most of the country’s business relied on agriculture and ranching.

López himself was the son of a prominent lawyer, Carlos Antonio López, who spent his time away from the nation’s capital. This enabled him to keep a low profile away from the watchful eye of Jose Gaspar de Francia, Paraguay’s paranoid dictator.

However, the elder López’s education pulled him into the limelight when Francia died and Paraguayans cast about for anyone who could read and understand legal Spanish. Francia’s loyal military followers communicated mainly in Guaraní, an Indian language, and Paraguay needed a leader who was at least literate in European language and legalese. With this as one factor, Carlos Antonio López became president of Paraguay, an office he occupied for twenty-one years.

A Rotten “Prince”

Francisco, now son of the president, could not have handled the newfound prominence more badly. The family treated him as though he were heir to an empire, spoiling him shamelessly. Francisco was obsessively concerned about his appearance and had a love of decorated military uniforms that belied his complete lack of military training. As a scion of what was essentially yet another Paraguayan dictatorship, the younger López tore through the Paraguayan capital of Asunción with a band of soldiers, seducing women and doing whatever he pleased.

Rather than schooling his son in the finer arts of leadership or in much of anything else, Carlos López handed the younger man a government job and military rank instead, sending him (as a teenager) to lead an army intervention in the Argentine civil wars. Francisco López led his troops into a military fiasco that ended without a shot being fired, but he seemed to think he had performed brilliantly; thereafter, he considered himself something of a military genius.

A Mistress and a Mentor, of Sorts

In 1853, López was dispatched on a European mission to acquire armaments and hire engineers to work on the infrastructure of his native land. Although Queen Victoria of England wisely refused to give López an audience, Napoleon III saw fit to have him at court, as did Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.

Naturally, this attention ballooned López’s outsized ego even more, a perceived success only topped by his achievement in other matters: While in Europe, he took a mistress, Eliza Alicia Lynch, an Irishwoman married to a French army veterinarian. She left her husband, who apparently had tired of her affairs, and took up with López, and many have since seen her as the driving force behind some of his more grandiose schemes.

Lynch claimed lineage from an officer who had fought with the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, and she carried a passion for military prowess that she transmitted to López. By the time the pair returned to Paraguay, she was already pregnant with their first child, one of seven they had together (although he sired many other children with other women).

López at first managed to gain some fame as a diplomat, brokering a compromise between Argentina and the recalcitrant Buenos Aires in his post as war minister. He also managed some positive achievements with the engineers and armaments he brought back from Europe, building a railroad and new port facilities, and bolstering up the ragtag Paraguayan military. His buildup as war minister included a huge fortress, war steamers to patrol the rivers that crisscrossed the country, and creation of a large standing army to protect the frontiers.

Into the Presidency

In September 1862, Carlos Antonio López died, and his son immediately moved to take over, possibly competing with one brother for the top spot. Almost immediately, Francisco López began exhibiting the behaviors that would make him notorious, as he imprisoned anyone he viewed as a threat.

In the meantime, Brazil had decided to invade Uruguay; Argentina had, after much hand wringing, opted to maintain neutrality in the conflict. In contrast, López had been sending the Brazilian leadership notes protesting Brazil’s interference with Uruguay, and the Brazilian leadership had made the mistake of ignoring his messages. In revenge, López dispatched one of his war steamers up the Paraguay River to take a Brazilian mail steamer. A declaration of war immediately followed. López believed he finally had set the stage to earn the fame he desired as a military commander.

Believing he could sway Argentina away from neutrality, López requested permission from Argentine leader Bartolomé Mitre to cross through Argentina en route to Brazil. Mitre, not understanding the depths of egoism in the Paraguayan dictator, responded with an unwelcome “no,” and Argentina immediately joined Brazil on López’s hit list.

López made himself “Field Marshal López,” and moved to attack his neutral neighbor. His maneuver had an effect opposite his intent. Rather than firing up Argentine dissidents in support of his cause, López instead managed to do what no one else had done: Argentineans unified as a nation and then turned and accepted the offer of alliance from Brazil and Uruguay to fight the Paraguayan armies. What followed was the War of the Triple Alliance, known less colorfully as the Paraguayan War.

The Field Marshal Leads Troops to the Slaughter

This war was the bloodiest in South American history. López was brutal to his troops, pushing them to fight even when all hope was lost, forcing them into battle even when they were starving, and executing any who dared defy him. His madness didn’t stop there; López executed military officers who lost battles and then executed their families as well. His peasant warriors went where he sent them, even as the population of Paraguay fell dramatically. His motto, which he meant quite literally, was “Victory or Death,” and although there were a few victories, the primary outcome for Paraguay was death.

López did not himself engage in arms initially, expecting that his army—larger than those of the triple alliance combined—would prevail. When it became clear that his generals were failing him, he headed for the battlefield himself, leaving his mistress as regent.

As soon as he showed up, defeats became even more horrific. Under his leadership, his armies lost ten thousand men, generally because López absolutely refused ever to surrender.

The Atrocities Continue

López did experience some victories, undoubtedly successes that went straight to his head. One notable win was the Battle of Curupaity, in which only fifty Paraguayans died compared to the nine thousand soldiers from the alliance. Even this victory, however, came with an added, brutal taint: López had the dead and wounded enemy soldiers fed to the crocodiles.

With each loss, his psychosis deepened. His increasing paranoia also led to the formation of his own personal secret police within the army. On his behalf, these spies could shoot anyone who appeared mutinous, engendering fear and mistrust among the men.

The huge fort that López had built during his sole period of positive contributions fell under siege in 1870. There, a Paraguayan garrison of only four hundred soldiers held off the alliance’s thirty thousand troops while López refused to send reinforcements or approve a retreat. The colonel of the regiment finally surrendered and then went personally to tell López. López shot him and all of his men, and then had their families executed.

López’s descent into madness continued. As the alliance closed in and Paraguay’s ultimate loss was imminent, López retreated into the jungle. To keep the government treasure out of enemy hands, he had it thrown over a cliff, and then to keep its location a secret, he had all witnesses thrown over the cliff, too. He considered a mass suicide to avoid having any Paraguayans taken prisoner. López had himself declared a “Saint of the Christian Church” and executed the twenty-three bishops who refused to approve his sainthood. Just after becoming a saint, López flogged his seventy-year-old mother almost to death and had his brothers shot.

While the madman carried out his brutal acts, Brazilian troops made their way into the jungle, where López was conducting guerrilla assaults with the few old men and boys in false beards who still accompanied him. Just as López was preparing to administer the coup de grace to his own mother after whipping her, a Brazilian solider ran him through with a lance.

López could not move his bulk fast enough to escape his attacker. His son was also attacked and died at the same time. Eliza Lynch was allowed to take the bodies and bury them. Lynch ended up with a one-way ticket back to Europe, where she settled in Paris and died in obscurity.

An End

As López lay dying in the Paraguayan mud, he is reported to have said, “I die with my country.” His words were perhaps truer than he realized: his foolhardy stubbornness in the face of obvious defeat had almost annihilated his people. In truth, the people of Paraguay never did surrender to the alliance; they lost the war simply because they ran out of people who could fight, thanks to López’s intractability.

In spite of his brutality, insanity, and cruelty, however, some of his countrymen came to view him as a loyal Paraguayan who did what he did out of love, rather than out of self-aggrandizement, and so to some, López is seen as a champion of the country.

Ignacio Zaragoza

A hero of Mexico, Zaragoza’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, is still celebrated today as “Cinco de Mayo.” Zaragoza (1829–1862) played a valuable role in forming Mexico’s republican government and securing it from undue European influence.

North, then South, of the Rio Grande

Ignacio Zaragoza was born in a rock house provided for military officers on March 24, 1829, at Bahía del Espíritu Santo (near what is today Goliad, Texas). His birthplace stood just outside the Mexico presidio (fort) at Goliad, where his father, Miguel Zaragoza, had come in the 1820s as an infantry soldier in the Mexican army.

When Texas gained its independence from Mexico at the culmination of the Texas Revolution, the older Zaragoza moved the family to Matamoros along what is today the Texas-Mexico border. By then, Miguel Zaragoza had achieved the rank of sergeant and was transferred to Monterrey in 1844. While in Matamoros, the younger Zaragoza (who was the second son of the family) attended the Colegio of San Juan. In 1844, the family moved to Monterrey (in northern Mexico) when Miguel was transferred there. In Monterrey, Ignacio Zaragoza entered the seminary, but he decided that the priesthood was not for him and left.

When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 (the Mexican-American War), Zaragoza tried to join the Mexican army. They rejected him, so he focused on business instead. Zaragoza survived the U.S. invasion and occupation of Monterrey.

Finally, in 1853, he joined the local militia in Nuevo León as a sergeant and soon found himself part of the Mexican army after all. They apparently changed their minds about him because when his militia joined the army, Zaragoza received a promotion to captain.

Struggle to Rule

Mexico was in a state of flux at this time, with forces striving to form a democracy free from dictatorship. Zaragoza fought on the side of the democracy-promoting liberals, engaging in battles at both Saltillo and Monterrey against the well-known Mexican general and dictator, Antonio López de Santa Anna (who lost Texas to Mexico in the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto). The forces fighting Santa Anna favored establishing the Plan de Ayutla, which called for the deposition of Santa Anna and the gathering of an assembly to draft a democratic constitution.

During this time of upheaval, military matters consumed Zaragoza, who was so busy fighting his battles that he did not even have time to attend his own wedding; his wife, Rafaela Padilla, married him by proxy. In spite of this separation at marriage, the couple had four children, but three—all sons—died as infants. His only daughter survived.

As Mexico continued the civil war between Santa Anna’s conservative government and liberals under the leadership of Benito Juárez, Zaragoza distinguished himself as a military leader in several battles, including the one that ended the war, the Battle of Calpulalpan. As a result of his excellent service to the budding republic, Zaragoza became minister of war and navy in Juárez’s new ministry.

The fledgling nation made some provocative moves early on. In 1861, Juárez decided to ignore Mexico’s debts to European nations for two years because of his country’s bankruptcy. Spain, Britain, and France—unmollified by promises of payments beginning in two years time—responded with a show of military might. Spain’s response arrived in the form of a fleet that took Veracruz on the southeast coast. Acting with France and Britain to seize the customs houses, this force intended to use customs payments for the debts.

The eastern onslaught led to the establishment of Mexico’s Army of the East. Zaragoza resigned his ministerial post to lead the troops.

Ridding Mexico of European Troops

Rafaela died in a typhoid epidemic in Mexico City in January 1862, and Zaragoza devoted himself from February on to reinforcing Mexican defenses at Puebla, the capital of the Mexican state of Puebla lying just inland off the country’s southeast coast. Although Spain and Britain had backed out of the conflict, keeping their promise to limit their Mexican interests to debt repayment, France remained, attacking Puebla on May 5, 1862. Puebla, the French had learned, was on the direct route into the heart of Mexico, and the town lies only one hundred miles from Mexico City.

The date of this all-day battle would become known to history as “Cinco de Mayo,” thanks to the spirit of Zaragoza’s army. His troops, recruited from agricultural workers and armed with old rifles and machetes, drove the French out of Puebla, with losses to the French army reaching as high as one thousand men. The invading troops had already suffered fevered illnesses thanks to new microbes they encountered along the Mexican coast. They were no match for Zaragoza’s men or his guerrilla leadership, or for the muddy, uneven battlefield where they fought.

The French general, Charles Latrille Lorencez, in what must have been a fit of hubris born of decades of French successes, sent his men over adobe ruins, slogging through muddy ditches, and up a hill, targeting the Mexicans’ defensive center, which also was their strongest position. By the time the French cavalry reached the Mexican forces, Lorencez’s men were exhausted and scattered, easy targets for the guerrilla warfare that Zaragoza knew best. Zaragoza lost only eighty-six men in this historic battle, which may have stalled the French sufficiently to force their departure altogether from the country in spite of capturing Mexico City that summer.

The French had other plans, as they intended to head to Texas to support the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Their goal was to ensure that the United States split into two because France was concerned about the young nation’s rapid growth, which had it on track to be a threat to long-established world powers like France. As it turned out, Mexico kept France busy and away from the Confederacy long enough for Lincoln’s army to win the Civil War and send troops to help Mexico at the border.

A Boost for Mexico

As important as the victory at Puebla was, its effects on the psychology of the people of Mexico was just as profound. The French were considered a great military force during that period, which made their defeat at Puebla even more inspiring. Zaragoza was—and still is—celebrated as a hero, and his victory is hailed as the event that fired the spirit of independence and national pride among the people of his country.

A huge celebration in Mexico City honored the hero the August following his victory, but he did not have long to celebrate his triumph. On his return to Puebla, Zaragoza succumbed on September 8, 1862, to one of the afflictions of the coastal lowlands that had also killed his wife—typhoid fever. His body was returned to Mexico City, where it was interred after a state funeral. His status as hero has persisted through the centuries, with the day of his victory over the French celebrated not only in Mexico, but also in Texas, where he was born.

Major Battles

Chacabuco, February 12, 1817

Revolutionary forces led by José de San Martín made a dangerous crossing of the Andes in order to surprise Spanish royalist forces based in Chile. The defeat of the Spanish in the Battle of Chacabuco paved the way to Chilean independence.

Reaching Peru via Chile

Having finished his work in Argentina, famous revolutionary leader José de San Martín turned to his overarching goal of liberating all of South America from the Spanish grip. To achieve this aim, he intended to take Chile from the royalists. This would allow him to easily access Peru and reach the crucial coastal area of Lima to complete the removal of the Spanish from the continent. However, this first step of taking Chile into republican hands faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: The Andes mountain range, which separated Argentina from Chile.

San Martín also had to properly train his ragtag army of exiles, slaves, and untrained but eager Chileans, all mustered in Mendoza in Argentina. As he trained his Army of the Andes for the treacherous mountain crossing and battle that awaited them on the other side, he conducted guerrilla actions against the royalists to keep them on the defensive. In addition, San Martín managed to trick both the native South Americans and the royalists in a two-fold strategy to keep them both looking in the wrong direction. The Indians were in the pay of the royalists, but San Martín talked them around and then ostentatiously requested permission to pass through their territory, which lay to the south of his base at Mendoza.

The Spanish fell for this ruse, believing that if San Martín did try to bring an army from Argentina into Chile, he would do so via the much easier southern passage across the Andes. Any idea that San Martín would bring a sizeable force of men across the treacherous northern passages seemed laughable, especially given that in some areas, only one man or animal could pass at a time since the paths were so narrow.

Any trek across the Andes Mountains would have to be made during the summer months (December through February) in South America. Even at this time of year, at elevations of almost thirteen thousand feet, temperatures could drop well below freezing in the night, only to climb to uncomfortably warm levels during the day. This warmth was compounded by the extra exposure to ultraviolet light at the high altitude.

Crossing the Andes

San Martín did not waver from his goal, however, and eventually put together a force of about five thousand men ready to make the crossing. Along with the men, he had about 1,600 horses and over ten thousand mules, the latter for transporting supplies along the dangerous passes. As it moved through the high-altitude byways, the army relied primarily on rations of dried meat and corn cakes, and when these provisions ran short early in the march, they moved even faster.

In spite of the approximately forty tons of provisions, the men traveled light, with no tents, and many died from the cold and other dangers of a mountain crossing. By the time San Martín and his army reached the goal of Chacabuco (near Santiago, Chile), they had lost about two thousand men.

The Spanish had some warning of the approaching patriot army, but not much, and they had no concept of the actual size of the force. No one believed that any army of decent size would have been able to make the Andes crossing successfully—these were, after all, the highest mountains in the Americas. Even though the crossing took the Army of the Andes 21 days, beginning in January 1817, this was still viewed as a miraculously rapid passage through the range, which bore a crown of snow year round.

The Benefit of Surprise

Achieving what was considered impossible guaranteed San Martín the benefit of surprise both with his arrival and with the size of his force. After the crossing, the army reconvened to attack the royalist forces at Chacabuco. Bernardo O’Higgins was in charge of a group that consisted primarily of slaves who fought in exchange for their freedom should they survive the conflict.

Things kicked off with a quick skirmish on February 7, 1817, with the Spanish forces, who found themselves pushed back. The Spanish had finally discovered that a patriot army was descending on them over the mountains, yet they still did not move to cut them off or even to get a clear estimate of the size of the force. In their minds, it remained impossible to bring, for example, cavalry across those formidable peaks, especially in the time that had passed since San Martín had departed Mendoza. Thus, when the time for the big battle came, they still did not know how numerous the enemy really was.

Fighting in a Fog

The Spanish army formed a square in preparation for the encounter as the fog of that morning closed in around them. O’Higgins, whose force was intended to face the royalist front while the other column handled the left flank, found himself and his men taking on most of the royalist army themselves, battling it out across a stream. In the face of orders to the contrary, O’Higgins instructed his men to advance into the royalist front line, and the fierceness of the onslaught and unexpectedly large numbers of the patriot forces caught the Spanish troops completely off guard. As the patriot cavalry scattered the ranks, the royalists fell into utter confusion and retreated in disarray. Chacabuco became a total rout.

Even though their men had outnumbered the royalist forces considerably—there were only about 1,500 Spanish troops to San Martín’s four thousand—the leaders of the Army of the Andes were wary about their sudden success. They felt sure that lurking on the road to Santiago, were remnants of the enemy army, waiting in ambush. Yet no such attacks occurred, and they entered the Chilean capital in triumph.

San Martín would go on to complete the Spanish defeat at the Battle of Maipú, near Santiago, achieving his aim of access to Peru. He had declined an offer to become Supreme Director of Chile, and the post went to O’Higgins. A year after Chacabuco, Chile officially declared independence from Spain.

Boyacá, August 7, 1819

The Battle at Boyacá is considered one of Simón Bolívar’s greatest victories. On the side of the patriots were troops from the Colombian and Venezuelan armies, along with a few British troops (primarily from Ireland). Colombia, at the time of the battle, was known as New Granada, and the patriot victory at Boyacá gave New Granada its finally confirmed independence from Spanish colonial oppression.

A Significant Pause

Two brigadier generals led the battle on the patriot side: Francisco de Paula Santander and José Antonio Anzoátegui. The republican army had just emerged from their fresh and narrowly won victory at Pantano de Vargas. Following this battle, both the Spanish and the patriot troops were exhausted, and the difference between who won at Boyacá can be traced to the fact that Bolívar’s troops had a chance to rest up. In addition, because of Bolívar’s careful strategizing, his rest stops turned into opportunities for reinforcing his army, both with munitions and supplies and in the form of fresh troops. By the time the two armies—both of whose leaders were aware of the other’s movements—met at Boyacá, Bolívar had significantly fortified his troops in arms and number.

Bolívar’s route following the Battle at Pantano de Vargas was purposefully circuitous. He first took his men across the Chicamocha River and on to Corrales de Bonza, where they spent ten days, recruiting, gaining energy, and watching enemy movements. Reinforcements also arrived, and Bolívar recovered some equipment and supplies he had previously been forced to abandon at this post.

When his army was sufficiently rested, Bolívar took them back across the Chicamocha river, toward Paipa. After a series of circuitous maneuvers, Bolívar and his men made their way to Tunja. Bolívar knew that the Spanish army would also be heading in that direction, for the target of both armies was Bogatá—whoever won the race to the Colombian city would win this round of the war.

After the patriot troops arrived in Tunja on August 5, Bolívar and his troops rested for a full forty hours. The morning of August 7, 1819, the republican army awoke to the news that the Spanish armies were approaching, due to arrive around noon. They mustered in the town square in response to the bugle call, some of them still eating their breakfasts.

Exhausted Troops

The Spanish troops had not had the restful interlude that Bolívar’s men had enjoyed. Their leaders had them running the race through the rain across some of South America’s most rugged terrain. The army had to slog their way for forty-eight hours, spending nine of those hours stumbling over rocks and along muddy, rutted trails, trying to make Bogatá before Bolívar.

Their general, José María Barreiro, had been convinced that his men would make Tunja before Bolívar’s force. He drove them on to Bogatá via a detour over the rugged hills, only to find that he was too late. Bolívar was already ahead of him and cut off all communications between Barreiro and his viceroy in Bogatá.

When the Spanish arrived on the morning of August 7, thanks to Bolívar’s reinforcements, the two armies were about even in terms of manpower. The Spanish had a force of three thousand, all of whom were fighting veterans. The patriots also had about the same number, but only two thousand were veterans. The remainder were barely trained volunteers whom Bolívar did not even deploy in the battle.

Royalist Forces Are Shattered

Made aware of the approach of the beleaguered Spanish troops, Bolívar immediately made a plan to slice the royalist army into two. He and his staff climbed a hill about 1.5 miles outside the city to watch the enemy movements and saw them marching toward the bridge near the city. At about 10:00 a.m. , Bolívar sent Santander with his men to cut the approaching royalists off at the bridge, today known as El Puente de Boyacá.

Santander engaged with this part of the Spanish army at around 2:00 p.m. , much to the surprise of the royalist force. Meanwhile, Bolívar led the rest of his troops toward the remainder of the royalist fighters a half mile away, taking Barreiro completely off guard; the Spanish general had made the mistake of assuming that the force at the bridge was simply a reconnaissance troop. When confronted by the entire remainder of the patriot army (who were able to sneak up on him via a concealed valley), the Spanish troops crumpled.

The battle lasted only two hours, probably in part because the royalist fighters were so weary and demoralized. Bolívar sent his cavalry, the British divisions, and the rear infantry under the command of Anzoátegui to destroy the left and center of the Spanish contingent while Santander took care of the right flank at the bridge. The republicans emerged victorious, capturing General Barreiro and about 1,800 prisoners.

At this point, the Spanish army in New Granada was no more, and the future Colombia was now an independent nation. Five days after the victory at Boyacá, Bolívar and his officers led the patriot army in triumph into the city of Bogatá, welcomed by its newly liberated people.

Carabobo, June 24, 1821

Using superior local knowledge of roads and the terrain, a republican force led by Simón Bolívar routed royalist troops in the Battle of Carabobo. This defeat played a key role in securing independence for Venezuela.

Plans During the Ceasefire

Simón Bolívar had reached an uneasy armistice with the royalist government, but even as he made the agreement and kept it, he planned to complete his goal of independence for Venezuela. Fresh from his victory at Boyacá on August 7, 1819, Bolívar now had money and men from New Granada (today’s Colombia) that he could use to build an army powerful enough to take on the royalists. As he told one of his generals (General José Antonio Páez), he would not engage in any battle with the royalist forces unless he knew they had fewer men and could be destroyed without heavy losses to his own army.

The armistice was intended to last until May 1821, but Bolívar made his move and broke the peace on April 28, 1821. At this point, the Spanish forces controlled most of the northern coast of Venezuela and had easily opened lines of communication outside. In addition, they had control of the northern and central parts of the country, and with their strategically advantageous positioning, they could collect together a large force and supply it with relative ease.

Bolívar was not as well-positioned strategically. His headquarters were at Barinas, and this was threatened once the Spanish General Miguel de la Torre moved his base of operations from Valencia to San Carlos, only 155 miles from Bolívar. La Torre also created two strong divisions that essentially lined the roads from Valencia, effectively cutting off Bolívar from the rest of his forces under the command of General Páez.

The patriot forces, unlike those of the Spanish general, were scattered in groups of a few thousand in various parts of the country. Even though they added up to as many as eleven thousand men, La Torre had been effective in his efforts to cut off communication among them.

After the Armistice

While the armistice was still in effect, Bolívar laid plans to attack the enemy to the rear and on the flanks, a plan he put into action in breaking the truce. These maneuvers forced La Torre to fracture his concentrated military might and send battalions to deal with these offensives. Bolívar had succeeded in breaking up the powerful royalist force, exposing its weak spots.

Bolívar made his way north, eventually making his headquarters at San Carlos; this placed him closer to an important division and in a better position to attack enemy forces, if it became necessary. A consolidation of patriot troops began at San Carlos, as General Páez arrived with his forces in May, bringing with him four thousand head of cattle to feed the troops and two thousand extra horses. With the arrival of this and other divisions, Bolívar consolidated his force to about 7,500 men, now a number greater than that of the royalists. He began moving his growing army toward Carabobo, in the process dislodging La Torre from control of the route to Carabobo and pushing him back north into the hills.

Bolívar had actually hoped to muster a force of ten thousand at San Carlos, but desertions, illness, and exhaustion reduced his numbers ultimately to about 6,500 men, which were placed in three divisions. Even lacking the hoped-for numbers, Bolívar’s maneuvers had achieved important goals in his plan to rout the Spanish forces and achieve Venezuelan independence. For instance, he hadn’t waited around for La Torre to attack him; instead, he had gone after the royalist army. This forced La Torre to spread his troops thin and provided another distraction just before the battle at Carabobo. In addition, Bolívar had cleared the way for his own scattered forces to concentrate in San Carlos, building up a force superior in numbers to the royalist army, just as he had said would be required.

A Fatal Spanish Mistake Regarding Terrain

Carabobo lies seven miles southwest of Valencia, on a flat plain where two crossroads meet at the center. To the east is the Paito River, and to the west lies a plateau crisscrossed with deep, brushy ravines and gorges, making access to the plains via this route almost impossible. Hills overlook the spreading savannah, and it was on the hills that La Torre placed several contingents and his artillery. He felt that this position was unassailable, but this complacency arose from a fatal ignorance about the surrounding terrain.

As he felt that their position provided complete protection to his right flank, La Torre failed to defend it. Bolívar, climbing around to vantage points several miles from La Torre’s location, observed the royalist placement and the vulnerable right flank. He then decided to take advantage of his knowledge of a hidden path—La Pica de la Mona, or “the Monkey’s Trail”—to attack La Torre.

At 9:00 a.m. on the day of the battle, Bolívar’s first division made its way down this trail in a rapid flanking movement that La Torre became aware of only too late. He sent some battalions to cover the flank, but he could not stop the patriot assault. The republican army broke through the ostensibly impregnable position and flooded onto the plain.

Another Royalist Retreat

As the first division flooded onto the Carabobo plain, the second division quickly followed in their wake, with one of the second division battalions launching an attack on the left flank while the first division re-energized and forced back the royalists. The arrival of the llaneros, horsemen of the Venezuelan plains, increased the confusion of the royalist retreat. Soon, La Torre’s forces were in complete disarray.

In response, La Torre turned to his cavalry, sending in one thousand of his own llaneros who—having won multiple successive battles with their frightening accuracy with the lance—were exhausted from almost continuous fighting. Their attack was not the boost that La Torre had hoped for, and this, their final battle, was their first loss. With a counterattack by the patriot second division and the patriot llaneros, the Spanish cavalry fled, while the royalist infantry battalions began to surrender in droves.

Venezuela Liberated

The battle, so long in the planning, lasted only two hours. As it drew to a close and most of the royalist troops either fled or surrendered, one battalion (along with La Torre and other officers) managed to flee to Valencia in a disciplined, orderly retreat and escape to a port city the next day.

In spite of this straggling group, however, Bolívar had managed to rout the strongest Spanish force in the Americas, and entered Caracas in triumph on June 28, welcomed with great enthusiasm by the newly liberated people of his country. Although he still had to track down a few straggling royalist remnants, the liberation of Venezuela was essentially complete.

Ayacucho, December 9, 1824

The Battle of Ayacucho is considered the decisive conflict in Peru’s war of independence and a turning point for independence for the rest of South America. Antonio José de Sucre, a close friend of Simón Bolívar and his lieutenant, led the republican troops to victory in this battle on the plains of Quinua, outside of Ayacucho.

Antonio José de Sucre, Hero of Peru

Sucre was—like many men who rose to prominence during the South American wars of independence—born into privilege. Venezuelan by birth, Sucre rose rapidly through the ranks as he fought for independence from Spain; he achieved the status of brigadier general in 1819, when he was only twenty-four.

Sucre became Bolívar’s chief of staff and led the patriot troops to victory at the Battle of Pichincha, liberating Quito. After this success, Bolívar named his friend and general president of the Quito Province, an appointment that did not please Sucre; unlike many other high-profile men of his time, he did not seek this form of self aggrandizement. His eyes were on the battlefield.

Remote Terrain

The Ayacucho battlefield lies high in the Peruvian Andes at an altitude of around eleven thousand feet. The nearby town of Quinua had a population of about ten thousand people, and the only way for them to reach the outside world or the world to reach them was via mule over dangerous trails through the mountains.

The battlefield made for an odd arena for the decisive engagement of Peruvian independence: it consisted of a small plain, the only flat terrain within fifty miles, and only about 800 by 1,400 yards. The plain rises and falls slightly, running into the base of the mountains on one side. To the south lay an almost perpendicular drop-off into a ravine, and to the north ran a gully thick with underbrush and carved by a small stream. Where the gully and the Cundurcunca (“condor’s neck”) Range meet forms a corner, called Ayacucho, which means “Corner of Death.” Before the Europeans arrived, this corner was the site of another famous battle between the Pocras Indians and the Incans.

Sucre Walks a Difficult Road

Carting an entire army and all the supplies they would need over dangerous mountain passes into remote mountain areas was a huge undertaking. Sucre, however, was closely familiar with the routes, having covered them three times as he examined the paths that his army would march during the war. This feat alone was one for the record books; according to some historians, Sucre often forged his way into territories where no human had stepped before. As he inspected the trails, Sucre also ensured repairs to any difficult crossings and made sure that the necessary supplies (bridges, shelters, food, and fodder for the troops and animals) would be available.

Thanks to this meticulous attention to the needs of his men, Sucre brought his army of 8,700 safely to Cerro de Pasco in August 1824, where they first had their success on the plains of Junín, engaging in a battle with no shots fired, just hand-to-hand combat throughout.

After this victory, the Spanish viceroy José de La Serna decided that once reinforcements arrived, it would be time to teach the patriots a lesson. His army was twice the size of the republican force, and he felt confident that he would succeed. His men began making their way from the Cuzco base to Guamanga, cutting off Sucre from the republican base at Lambrama and leaving the republican general no choice but to follow the Spanish army.

Sucre Versus the Viceroy

Sucre began moving his troops single file over the gorges, rivers, peaks, and valleys of the Andes, often marching in parallel to La Serna’s forces, which had turned from Guamanga to face off with the patriot army. They engaged in brief skirmishes, including one near a rope bridge that spanned a dizzyingly deep drop to the Pampas River. The Spanish had the worst of this encounter, retreating and cutting the bridge.

Fortunes changed on December 3, 1824, when Sucre’s vanguard met with a Spanish ambush during the crossing of a treacherous ravine. The vanguard experienced between 300 and 350 casualties and lost some precious equipment during this attack. The viceroy, seeing this minor victory as a sign of things to come, decided that the moment had arrived for the final blow against the republican cause.

Sucre’s forces had made it to Quinua on December 6, where they managed to grab three days of rest. Meanwhile, La Serna placed his army at the peak of Cundurcunca Hill on December 8, overlooking Quinua and the Ayacucho plain. His plan was to make the attack from this vantage point, but his inability to see that a hill could be both an advantage and a fatal disadvantage would prove decisive in the outcome of the engagement.

The republican army set up its base in a ruined chapel called San Cristoval, which stood on the Ayacucho plain. In spite of Sucre’s care in preparing routes, the army had run low on supplies and ammunition, and a war council decided the evening before the battle to fight the next day, before supplies ran out. Their hunger was so on their minds that their sign and countersign for that evening were pan y queso (“bread and cheese”).

La Serna could boast a force of over nine thousand men, along with eleven pieces of field artillery. In contrast, Sucre’s men numbered under six thousand, and they had a single field piece. The viceroy had the field pieces lined along the edge of the ravine along the southern edge of the plain, and he planned to attack with his men from the height of Cundurcunca. At 9:00 a.m. on December 9, the viceroy led his troops down the hill, leaving behind a reserve force. On the plain, his army formed a column, ready to meet the republican forces.

The Battle Begins

Part of Sucre’s army consisted of 4,500 Colombians, including the Colombian “hussars” cavalry under the command of Colonel Laurencio Silva. Silva led his riders into the charge at the same time that the patriot infantry commander, Colonel José María Córdova, sent his Colombians forward in four parallel columns, crying, “Onward with the tread of conquerors!” They drove back the royalist foot soldiers, taking the viceroy himself prisoner as the other commanders struggled to lead their men in retreat back up Cundurcunca Hill. Not surprisingly, the attempted uphill retreat ended in fatal confusion and disarray.

As the viceroy’s infantry fell into disorder and retreat, the royalist general Jeronimo Valdez had taken his vanguard around the left patriot flank, following the stream that ran along the northern edge of the battlefield. With heavy fire, he managed to drive the republicans back, even as another republican division arrived. Yet as the royalist division pressed across the stream, a patriot cavalry charge halted them and pushed them into a confused retreat. The momentary disarray and sight of the retreating royalists energized the Peruvian troops, and they rallied and surged across the stream, finally breaking the royalist division and forcing the viceroy’s army into another disordered retreat.

Victory belonged to the patriots, after only an hour of battle against a larger, better-equipped force. The royalists experienced 2,100 casualties, including 1,400 dead, but Sucre lost only 307 men. In addition, he had captured the viceroy and most of the royalist generals, along with several thousand other prisoners of war. The war for Peruvian independence was over.

Caseros, February 3, 1852

When General José Justo Urquiza had finally had enough of the brutality and fascism of his leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas, the two former allies and their armies clashed. These forces met on the future site of a military academy in the province of Buenos Aires in a fateful battle that would end Rosas’ reign. The battle itself took place between two train stations, one named Caseros and the other Palomar, but the final name passed to history is the Battle of Caseros.

Prelude to the Conflict

Events had built to this military climax between Rosas’ Army of Buenos Aires and the united Grand Army of Urquiza. Efforts to bring Buenos Aires into the fold of the Argentinean confederation had failed, and Rosas kept an iron grip on the people and ports of Buenos Aires, creating a dominant province that held colonial-like power over the rest of Argentina. (As Rosas’ rule was reminiscent of conditions under Spanish colonial rule, many people consider this final victory over Rosas to be the final true victory in Argentina’s fight for independence and even in the South American wars of independence.)

This battle also happened to be the largest military engagement ever to take place in the Americas at that time. Rosas had a force of about 23,000 men, while Urquiza’s army, consisting of troops from his province of Entre Ríos and from Brazil and Uruguay, had 24,000 fighters. Thus, almost fifty thousand men met in a clash that lasted only a few hours.

Rosas: Advantages and Disadvantages

Going into battle, Rosas may have been at a deficit because of discontent among his troops and rumors of desertions by troops and even a general. Yet Urquiza’s Grand Army also had suffered from desertions, and only about 3,500 of its troops—all Brazilian—actually had any genuine military training; most were Argentine gauchos with little discipline. Even Urquiza himself would prove to be more of a cavalry commander during the battle, rather than a commander-in-chief of his enormous army.

To his advantage, Rosas had excellent generals including Martiniano Chilavert, who would distinguish himself throughout the brief rout, even though his forces ended up losing. Chilavert argued for a strategy that Rosas ultimately dismissed but that could have ended in a much different outcome for the dictator’s forces.

Troubles at Caseros

The Caseros battlefield lies about ten miles northwest of the city of Buenos Aires; the two huge armies met on February 3, 1852. The battle itself suffered from a deficit of brilliant military strategy, thanks to Rosas’ refusal to listen to Chilavert’s ideas.

In addition, it was an awkward engagement, with many companies using smoothbore flintlock muskets without sights that required fourteen separate movements for loading—a significant burden compared to, for example, the five movements required for the musketeers of Frederick the Great to load in battle a century before.

The cavalry consisted primarily of lancers, wielding lances both fine and makeshift. Troops had become convinced of the lance’s efficacy after finding out that most casualties during a major previous engagement resulted from the thrust of a lance. Thus, “cavalryman” and “lancer” became interchangeable. Other arms used in the battle included bayonets, knives, and for the officers, pistols. Most troops also carried lassos.

Both sides wore red, the color of the Argentine confederacy, so to distinguish his troops, Urquiza had his men attach white linen breastpieces. Even so, there must have been some confusion about who was who, which may possibly have resulted in the deaths of twelve of Rosas’ officers at the hands of their own men during a panic in the midst of battle.

Rosas Refuses Good Advice

The night before the armies met, Chilavert argued that Rosas should decline to engage in a battle at that time, opting instead to withdraw and wait while the Buenos Aires cavalry maneuvered around to the enemy’s rear flank. Chilavert’s plan was to pincer the allied army while keeping open the southern roads to allow any reinforcements through. It was a good plan, but Rosas and some of the other officers decided to go ahead and accept the offer of battle on the spot. Fairly paranoid, Rosas may have been driven by a sense of mistrust of Chilavert.

Rosas also ignored another valuable bit of advice from Chilavert. The dictator rode out to preview the battlefield the evening before the engagement to decide on troop placement. Chilavert had argued for placement of the army on a ridge overlooking the brook that ran north-south along the battlefield. This position might have at least stymied allied efforts to attack the flanks and blocked their taking of strategic buildings, but again, Rosas decided on a different tack. He ultimately placed his troops on a line running perpendicular to the brook. The allied army took up position in a line directly opposite.

Among the strategic buildings were the well-fortified “House of Caseros,” where three hundred of Rosas’ men were garrisoned, and the Palomar, or “pigeon loft,” a three-tiered circular building housing nine hundred troops. The loss of these buildings would signal the beginning of the end for Rosas.

Urquiza Leads a Charge

The battle itself began between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. on February 3, 1852. Chilavert, in charge of the field ammunition, began firing on Rosas’ orders and didn’t stop firing until the battle ended. His initial volleys did not have much effect on the enemy.

Urquiza, forgetting his role as commander of the allied forces, led a cavalry charge with his own cavalry and a Brazilian regiment at about 10:00 a.m. , targeting Rosas’ left wing near the brook. His intention was apparently to outflank the enemy, but his men and horses kicked up an enormous amount of dust. The air was so thick that a division to their right completely bypassed the enemy and marched right along for five miles, only to be turned back by a furious Brazilian commander after the battle had already ended.

In spite of the lack of professionalism on Urquiza’s part, the cavalry charge was ultimately successful, breaking through the enemy lines and sending two supporting enemy columns into retreat. Rosas made an effort to send in supporting divisions, but they had little effect. The upshot of Urquiza’s amateurish move was the almost complete disappearance of all cavalry from the field of battle, leaving the remainder of the day to the infantry.

An Aide-de-Camp Takes Charge

Urquiza’s forgetfulness about his duties as a commander-in-chief left the remainder of his army without commands to obey, and as he and his cavalry vanished in the dust, the foot soldiers waited vainly for the order to advance. The original plan was for the entire allied line to advance on the enemy, but Urquiza failed to execute the command.

While there was some hesitancy, the Uruguayans did not wait, and neither did the Argentine troops, all of which moved forward in an effort to take the Buenos Aires right flank. Finally, Urquiza’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Indalecio Chenault, ordered more divisions forward. They came to the aid of the Uruguayans (who were attacking the Caseros house) and to the troops who were in the process of taking the Palomar. The militia defending the buildings went into full retreat as these reinforcements arrived.

As the left and right flanks of Rosas’ army tried to withstand these allied assaults, the remaining allied brigades moved forward against the remaining enemy front. The soldiers of the Buenos Aires army in these battalions were inexperienced and seeing battle for the first time. The sight of lines and lines of crack Brazilian troops moving inexorably toward them sent the young men into a panic, fleeing into nearby cornfields. (It was at this time that twelve officers in the Buenos Aires army were killed by friendly fire.)

Chilavert’s Heroics for Naught

Chilavert was still firing, even as the allied forces closed in all around and Rosas’ troops fled in all directions. Even when he had very little ammunition left and with a force of only three hundred men, Chilavert had his troops gather up stray shot that lay on the ground, determined to fire on the enemy until there was literally nothing left to fire. When the artillery finally ran out, he and his men went to hand-to-hand combat with their sabers, but finally they were all taken prisoner. Chilavert was the only commander in the Buenos Aires army to stay at the scene of the battle until it ended.

Rosas himself watched from Caseros house until it became clear that he was going to lose. He beat a quick retreat to Buenos Aires and took refuge on a British frigate that transported him into permanent exile in Southampton. In a mere few hours, by 3:00 p.m. , his former ally and follower, Urquiza, sat in triumph in Rosas’ home.

In the final tally, the allies took about seven thousand prisoners, in addition to a large number of muskets and other useful supplies. No one knows exactly how many men died during the brief battle, but estimates are that about two thousand men died that day, six hundred in the allied armies.

The Paraguayan War (1864–1870)

The life of Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López is inextricably entangled with the beginning, middle, and end of the War of the Triple Alliance, or Paraguayan War, which lasted essentially from 1864 until 1868, although López himself was not finally killed until 1870. The war sprang from the uneasiness of South American intra- and international relations and the feeling that the ideals of the republicans who had won the wars of independence had not survived political realities.

Hidden Plans

Brazil and Argentina are the giants of the South American countries, and in the nineteenth century, Brazil held tremendous power. These two nations performed a delicate balancing act to hide their real expansionist agendas from one another, and they each had their eyes turned to the much smaller countries of Paraguay and Uruguay.

The two smaller nations felt the threat but reacted in very different ways. López, the brutal dictator who ruled Paraguay, postured and threatened, while Uruguay focused inward, subject to internecine conflicts spurred by the giants that surrounded them. Two warring factions within Uruguay, the ruling Blanco government and the Colorado party, fought for supremacy in Uruguay. Brazil secretly supported the upstart Colorado faction, and oddly enough, its unspoken antagonist Argentina did, too. In contrast, López threw his support behind the Blanco government, wary about Brazil’s intentions regarding his own nation.

A Madman Makes a Mad Move

Brazil actually invaded Uruguay in 1864. López, in response, decided to take on the enormous, powerful nation and declared war on Brazil when the Brazilian government, under the leadership of Dom Pedro II, refused to leave. López’s method of declaring war involved an attack on a Brazilian mail steamer, followed by a genuine declaration of war.

López wanted Argentina involved, although Argentine leader Bartolomé Mitre had, up to this time, remained outwardly and carefully neutral. When the Paraguayan dictator entered Argentina without permission and attacked at Corrientes, Mitre had no choice but to form an alliance with Brazil against the upstart López.

López himself made the fatal error of not moving immediately south in December 1864 from Paraguay to support the Blanco cause. He had a surprisingly large and well-trained force of eight thousand men, but his next move was foolhardy in the extreme; he attacked Brazil in the province of Mato Grosso, an area larger than England, France, and Germany combined. López, in his hubris, had just pitted his tiny nation against an alliance of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.

The Paraguayan dictator’s failure to move to support the Uruguayan government left it vulnerable and when Argentina and Brazil agreed to an alliance on May 1, 1865, Uruguay was there, too. The Triple Alliance, a strange group of bedfellows, was now official. López had even managed to calm the infighting that had plagued Brazil, uniting its people to the cause of fighting the foolhardy Paraguayan leader.

Dark Times in South America

Thus began one of the bloodiest wars in South American history. Thousands of men died from disease alone, but in a single battle, a total of eighteen thousand soldiers from both sides lost their lives. This battle, at Tuyutí on May 24, 1866, was the deadliest in South American history and rivaled Gettysburg for the number of casualties.

It seemed as if both sides were determined to waste as many lives as possible during the conflict, with Argentina losing a third of its army in a failed attempt on Curupaity in September 1866, and López’s bitter insistence that his troops fight literally to the last man. Rumors abounded that the Paraguayan army, even when the troops were starving and disease ridden, would rip off their bandages and continue fighting, rather than be taken prisoner in battle.

As the war dragged on, it fell out of favor in the alliance countries, especially in Uruguay and Argentina, which had home problems distracting them. Brazil took up the bulk of the work, continuing to fight the gritty but ever-diminishing Paraguayan forces. Progress at all times was slow, with the allies advancing only fifteen miles in an eighteen-month period.

When the Brazilian marshal Luís Alves de Lima took over in September 1866 after Argentina and Uruguay essentially withdrew, he spent eight months planning. In May 1868, he had surrounded Humaita, López’s well-protected fortress, but López got away with most of his army. At this point, under Lima, the allies had moved only fifteen more miles and both sides had lost a total of 100,000 men.

Last Gasp for Paraguay

By December 1868, the Paraguayan army had essentially been defeated, reduced to twenty thousand teenagers, disabled, and elderly soldiers. The Triple Alliance, which was mostly Brazil at this point, occupied Asunción, Paraguay’s capitol, on January 1, 1869 and established a puppet government. They declared the war at an end, although they had to chase López and his 13,000-person army of boys wearing false beards for many more months.

Finally, the allied forces tracked the beleaguered dictator down in the forests of Cerro Cora on March 2, 1870, where López died in the mud, lanced through the heart. His insistence that his troops fight to the last man had utterly depleted the Paraguayan population, leaving only 28,000 men in a country of 221,000 people, where once well over one million had lived.

In the aftermath of this prolonged conflict, Argentina and Uruguay remained focused on internal problems, but Brazil found itself promoted to a position of tremendous continental influence. As a result of the victories of this terrible, bloody war, the army leaders who won it overthrew the emperor in favor of a president who had been a junior officer in the war. Argentina and Brazil both remained a presence in Paraguay well into the 1870s.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Colt Revolver

The wars of independence in South America did not see much in the way of new weaponry debuts. The gauchos and llaneros relied on the lance, as did the British fighters who joined them in battle. Other weapons included the standard sword, musket, and bayonet, and both sides were usually fairly equally equipped. The ironclads that Brazil was using by the time of the War of the Triple Alliance had already debuted in conflicts in other parts of the globe, as had the military observation balloon, a handy way to catch sight of enemy formations while staying out of reach of enemy fire.

The Life of Samuel Colt, Inventor

One weapon did, however, come into popular use during a Latin American war in the nineteenth century, and that is the Colt revolver. Its inventor, Samuel Colt, was the son of a silk and wool manufacturer. The future firearm inventor, who failed at school, took work on an East India company boat to Calcutta at age thirteen. While aboard ship, he conceived his idea of the revolver, which transcended previous ballistic weaponry with its innovative cocking device and revolving cylinder that could hold five or six bullets. Colt carved his first model out of wood.

When he returned from his voyage, Colt began learning chemistry at his father’s factory, absorbing information about bleaching and dyeing that he would later use in a sort of chemical traveling road show. With his show, in which he would amuse his audiences by having volunteers huff nitrous oxide and then engage in goofy antics, Colt earned enough money to make real models of his new firearm. He invented it in 1831 and had it patented on February 25, 1836, just in time for Texas’s battle against Mexico for independence and just a few years after the birth of Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of Puebla, at Goliad in Texas.

Colt’s new firearm initially proved promising. Texans readily took to it, approving of its effectiveness in their battles against American Indians and ordering 180 of the .36-caliber Holster model for its navy in 1839. Yet the U.S. army remained skeptical about the piece, believing that it would be prone to failure in an emergency and suspicious of its percussion cap. After an initial period of production, Colt was forced to shut down his manufacturing plant and declare bankruptcy in 1842, unable to convince the United States that his gun was good.

The Colt Debuts in a Latin-American War

Even with this setback, the reputation of Colt’s firearm continued to grow in Texas, especially getting a boost from a former Texas Ranger, Samuel H. Walker, who talked Zachary Taylor into ordering one thousand of the revolvers in 1846 for U.S. soldiers fighting the Mexican War. At that point, Colt actually had no revolvers left, having sold his last one to a Texas Ranger, but he and Walker worked together on an improved design that included a fixed trigger with a guard and a loading lever underneath a barrel nine inches long, creating a gun totaling almost sixteen inches in length.

This behemoth of a handgun, the Walker Colt pistol, sported a six-shot cylinder that held .44-caliber bullets, and weighed in at over 4.5 pounds. The Texas Rangers were so pleased with its performance that they claimed it was as good as a U.S. 1841 Mississippi rifle. In modern times, its power has been compared to that of the .357 Magnum. (Walker, however, died in battle only a year after his namesake handgun was invented, his new weapon unable to save him.)

Superior Weaponry Prevails Over Manpower

The Colt had, however, proved itself in battle even before orders started pouring in for the Mexican War. In 1844, a Texas Ranger contingent of only fifteen men had taken on and defeated a group of eighty Comanche fighters near the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country, following up with victories in battles similarly out of balance in numbers of men, with the Colts giving the advantage. Colt was so pleased with these victories that he approved a series of models that sported a scene from the Pedernales conflict.

By the time Colt died in 1862 at age 48, he left behind a flourishing arms factory that had already produced 468,000 units. This factory, located in Hartford, Conn., grew to be one of the largest and best-known arms factories in the world.

Impact of the South American Wars of Independence

The wars of South American independence illustrated how the world had become a global, interconnected place. People living on far-flung continents were not only aware of one another, but also they were aware of how their victories and defeats could influence affairs an ocean away.

This power found expression in the early nineteenth century when Napoleon Bonaparte destabilized the Spanish government by deposing its old, corrupt monarch and placing his own brother, Joseph, on the throne. The globalization of republican thought through the revolutions of the United States and France fed a fire in the South American colonies that coincided with Napoleon’s effort to control the Spanish throne.

There was widespread knowledge of, and appreciation for, liberal and anti-monarchist ideals in the colonies. These concepts were brought back by Creoles—American-born but of European descent—returning from European tours. With the destabilization of the Spanish government providing the opportunity, the revolutionaries in the Spanish South American colonies took their chance and began open rebellions.

Although Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne in 1814 and many rebellions had been suppressed, the air of revolution remained. Spanish efforts to punish the rebels only intensified the fever for freedom. In addition, back in Europe, other nations were watching Spain’s conduct, worried that Spanish oppression would increase the revolutionary fervor in Europe and give people on that continent ideas disadvantageous to European monarchies.

Britain, especially, encouraged a lighter governing hand, and across the seas, the United States encouraged Spain to make economic concessions to its colonies. Both Great Britain and the United States had more than philosophical agendas in mind: they were interested in mining commercial opportunities that might arise based on South America’s vast, untapped resources, and they didn’t want messy rebellions getting in the way.

Spain’s loosening of colonial control on the heels of the destabilization of its monarchy only encouraged the rebels, however, and soon, many republicans leaders were loudly calling for independence from Spain. Britain and the United States came down on the side of independence, possibly seeing a better path to their commercial aspirations with Spain out of the way. The two countries were also in competition with another, which led to the development of the famous Monroe Doctrine in which the United States warned Great Britain and the rest of Europe to keep away from Latin America.

Well into the 1830s, Spain continued to try to reconquer its former colonies, but failed. Other European nations, in their efforts to control South American resources, imposed blockades or sent in the military to ensure their protection and guard the ports on their behalf. It seemed that to other nations, South America was nothing more than resource-rich acreage to be manipulated for as much output as possible. In general, not until the twentieth century would South America begin to enjoy a predictable return on exports.

The divisions between the United States and Britain over Latin American policy led to differences in their responses to country-specific bids for independence. Brazil, for example, moved for independence from Portugal not by trying to establish a republican government, but instead through installing its own monarchy with the exiled son of a Portuguese king. Such a move, in keeping with Britain’s continued belief in a monarchical government, earned the support of the British government, but the United States was far less eager to assist.

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South American Wars of Independence (Nineteenth Century)

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South American Wars of Independence (Nineteenth Century)