To begin discussing the Battle of Pantano de Vargas, let’s start with a military analysis of the terrain, crucial to understanding the outcome of the confrontations.
“We have the Sogamoso Valley, between the branches of the eastern mountain range, in the department of Boyacá, between the municipalities of Paipa and Gámeza. It is crossed by the Grande or Chicamocha River, which later takes the name Sogamoso and flows into the Magdalena.
Within this macro scenario, the battle of Pantano de Vargas will take place, specifically between the towns of Paipa and Duitama, a flat area where the Cerro de la Isla stands alone. This sector used to flood frequently, before the river was canalized, due to overflows in the winter months.”
“On the left bank of the Chicamocha, the Surba River pours its waters, which separates two well-known sites in the military history of independence: Los Molinos de Bonza to the west and the corrals of Bonza to the east.
But it is also important to note that to the west of Duitama is the hill of Corgua; it is on its slopes that the Hacienda de Bonza is located.”
“To the south of the Sogamoso Valley is the famous Pantano de Vargas sector. It is anchored to the east of Paipa; its dimensions can be about four kilometers long from south to north and a kilometer and a half from east to west; through the center runs the Vargas stream, ‘whose overflows formed small lagoons and deep marshes until not many years ago, from which the place got its name.'”
On July 25, 1819, during the Battle of Pantano de Vargas, this is what happened, from the perspective of Colonel Barreiro: It was a dark and rainy night; the Spanish soldiers scattered and had between 140 dead (including three officers) and wounded.
“As I have observed that Bolívar’s strategy is to corner his troops so that they fight desperately and covered in very good positions, it would be very useful to have a couple of mountain cannons from the ones in the arsenal and a small mortar that I think exists too; with these weapons, they would be forced to leave their entrenchment and fight in open field, where they are more easily defeated.”
Apparently, the Spanish reached the New Granada troops at that point of Pantano de Vargas. Presumably, the patriots had good positions on the heights; Colonel Nicolás López was commissioned by Barreiro to take these positions on the hills and attack Bolívar’s armies from the rear.
Having accomplished this mission by the Spanish, the strategic position of the Colombians was delicate, as they were also pushed into a ravine by the royalists. “Desperation inspired them with an unprecedented resolution; their infantry and cavalry, coming out of the abysses where they were, climbed those hills with fury; our infantry… could not resist their forces… I have observed that Bolívar, not satisfied with the goodwill of his troops, always chooses positions with no way out so that desperation produces the effects of courage.”
He says that the wounded among the Granadians reached 190, including the colonel of the English battalion, who lost an arm.
In 1819, there were no roads that militarily influenced the terrain. The Liberating Army was only trying to find the path that leads to Tunja through Toca, connecting with it at El Salitre.
Now, already knowing the general conditions of the terrain, it is worth reiterating that possible cover-up maneuvers only provide protection when hostile forces are completely unaware of the opponent’s positions. In this case, it would be advisable to make strategic movements at night since they would not be as visible to the enemy.
It was clear that whoever took control of the Picacho or Guerra and Cangrejo hills would have shelter against enemy fire. This type of terrain where the Pantano de Vargas confrontation took place can be classified as semi-covered (at the time of the events).
As obstacles, consider the Chicamocha River, the hills now known as Bolívar, Guerra, and Cangrejo, as well as the Pantano de Vargas itself.
What was the situation of the royalist forces?
First Battalion of the King commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Don Nicolás López, 500 men.
Second Battalion of the King, 200 men.
Second Battalion of Numancia, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Don Juan Tolrá, 500 men.
Third Battalion of Numancia, 100 men.
Total infantry forces: 1,300 men.
Granada Dragoons commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Víctor Sierra, seven companies, 500 men (cavalry).
Total royalist forces: 1,800 personnel.
Barreiro knew about the organization of the Liberating Army, but he knew something more. He had been informed about the political situation in Venezuela, where the campaign results had created discontent among those involved, who appointed a kind of “Senate” that removed that leader from the position of supreme chief, leaving him only with the decoration of general in chief of his army, which he had to maintain and foster…
Barreiro rightly assumed that Bolívar needed to gain supporters and resources to “counteract the power of the Senate and regain the Supreme that he used to exercise.” In this aspect, his strategic instinct worked wonders; but where he absolutely missed, was in assessing the combat effectiveness of the patriot army: he underestimated their possible combat efficiency, unity, morale, discipline, training, and the magnetic personality of the commander.
The author of the consulted source claims that in this undervaluation of the opponent lay the downfall of his troops in this confrontation and the subsequent Battle of Boyacá. But at the same time, the success factor for the winners of this independence struggle (the Granadian army) was their intelligence service.
What was the situation of the patriot army?
The figures presented below are only approximate, it is worth clarifying that beforehand.
Vanguard Division, Brigadier General Francisco de Paula Santander. Total: 1,100 personnel.
- Battalion of constant hunters of New Granada, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joaquín París, 400 men.
- Line Battalion of New Granada, 600 men, commanded by Colonel Antonio Obando.
- Vanguard Guides Squadron, commanded by Captain Antonio María Durán, 100 riders.
- Rear Guard Division, Brigadier General José Antonio Anzoátegui. Total: 1,270 personnel.
- Bravos de Páez Battalion, commanded by Colonel Justo Briceño, 300 men.
- Barcelona Battalion, commanded by Colonel Ambrosio Plaza, 300 personnel.
- Rifles Battalion, commanded by Major Arturo Sandes, 250 men.
- British Legion Battalion, commanded by Colonel Jaime Rooke, 120 men.
- Infantry Regiment. Dragoons Squadron, Captain Julián Mellao, 100 personnel.
- Lieutenant Colonel Leonardo Infante, Infantry Squadron, 100 men.
- Lancers Squadron, Lieutenant Colonel Juan José Rondón, 100 men.
- In total, approximately 2,000 infantry and 400 cavalry personnel.
Bolívar was in favor of quickly defining the campaign since surprise was the favored weapon of the Liberator against Barreiro’s armies.
On July 20, 1819, Bolívar set out in search of the royalist army in the Valle de Bonza. They spotted each other from 23:00 on that day and entrenched themselves, with some skirmishes taking place. Barreiro spent the night at the Boncita house, and Bolívar did so in the Bonza corrals.
On July 21, 1819, Barreiro remained on standby, considering the location of the patriot forces, difficult to access. Bolívar took advantage of the rival army’s passivity and moved the headquarters to the Bonza Pantry. During the night, he even tried to flank Barreiro on the left, but a torrential downpour (and the dense darkness itself) prevented him.
The failure of this movement brought him back to the Bonza corrals. There, he planned to flank the royalist army to reach Tunja and cut off their supply and communication line with Santa Fe. To do this, he had to cross the Chicamocha River, which was extremely swollen due to the heavy rains of the previous days. So, he ordered the construction of rafts, which were ready on July 25, at five in the morning.
The problem was that some of these rafts broke apart, and those who led them were not very practical in these matters… only by ten were they able to start the project, but the element of surprise had already been lost, and they were easily visible. Despite this, Bolívar decided to proceed, committing a couple of colossal mistakes:
- Cut off the retreat route for his own troops, which, if needed, would not have had a way to retreat and would have had to give their lives right there.
- Separate an infantry reconnaissance too much without any support when it would have been logical to use cavalry as backup.
Barreiro refueled, positioning himself in high places (Alto de Murcia or Cruz de Murcia) and counteracting the patriot onslaught. The liberating army had to march between the terrain dominated by the Spanish and the swamp, unable to adopt combat formations. “…Bolívar was necessarily forced to attack a position prepared for defense.”
As in any strategic game, it was Bolívar’s turn to move, deciding that Santander and his vanguard division would take the Picacho or Guerra hill as a dominant position in the sector. This movement would be key to sustain the weight of the battle by the Granadians. The Spanish forces, on their part, took the Cangrejo hill and decided to retake the Guerra hill, effectively dislodging them from the high position towards the Varguitas stream.
The Bravos de Páez and Rifles battalions, supported by the British Legion, counterattacked, but the reinforcements sent by the royalists made them retreat again. The Spanish also launched an attack. The situation for the patriot forces was dire.
According to tradition, Bolívar exclaimed, “The cavalry came upon us, and the battle was lost,” to which Lieutenant Colonel Rondón, who had his lancers at the Varguitas house, replied: “How can it be lost if neither I nor my riders have fought? Let us make an entrance.” Bolívar, bewildered, replied: “Do what you can; save the country, Colonel.”
Colonel Rondón incited his men to fight, and they galloped on their enemies, sowing confusion and astonishment in the Spanish ranks, highlighting:
- Juan José Rondón, Lieutenant Colonel, Venezuelan.
- Julián Mellao, Captain, Venezuelan.
- Valentín García, Captain.
- Miguel Lara, Captain, Granadian.
- Domingo Mirabal, Captain, Venezuelan.
- Caledonio Sánchez, Captain, Venezuelan.
- José de la Cruz Paredes, Lieutenant.
- Rozo Sánchez, Lieutenant.
- Pablo Matute, Lieutenant.
- Pedro Lancheros, Lieutenant.
- Bonifacio Gutiérrez, Sub-Lieutenant Granadian, from Piedecuesta.
- Miguel Segovia, Sub-Lieutenant.
- Pablo Segovia, Sub-Lieutenant (brother of the previous).
- Sergeant 2nd Inocencio Chincá, Granadian.
The results of the battle, a “technical tie,” with morale for the Granadian troops having “equalized the score,” using current sports jargon. “Due to a vigorous reaction that took place, the battle was engaged again with desperation: they seized the heights, and our army, almost surrounded, suffered a horrendous fire from all sides. Other troops that were not from the Republic would have let slip such a brilliant victory as the one they have obtained…”
According to the report provided by Bolivar’s army, they suffered 104 casualties, including dead and wounded. Among the officers were the following Dead:
- Vanguard Division, Lieutenant of Hunters Mateo Franco.
- Rearguard Division, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Jimenez, Captains Ramon Garcia and Ramon Orta.
- British Legion, Colonel Jaime Rooke, and Lieutenant Casely.
There are no exact figures for the realistic losses. Colonel Riano estimates that the real losses for both sides were close to 300 or 350 troops.
As a general assessment of the Battle of Pantano de Vargas, we can say that initially, the royalist army should have won, but the patriot tenacity balanced their lack of preparation with determination.
Neither of the two armies was in a condition to continue operations; therefore, they dedicated themselves to fervently seek reinforcements.
The great moral triumph of the Neogranadinos was being seen for the first time as soldiers rather than beggars by Barreiro and his high command.
The great defeat of the royalist armies stemmed from the lack of command because Barreiro definitely failed to take advantage of the favorable combat situation for him.
The Battle of Pantano de Vargas took place on July 25, 1819, when the patriots faced the Spanish and emerged victorious, thanks to the bravery of the llanera cavalry led by Venezuelan Colonel Rondon, who practically turned the tide of the battle when it seemed lost.
In this battle, the brave Colonel James Rook of the British Legion lost his life. Trying to reconstruct the scenario of this bloody battle, let’s outline the overall liberation campaign as it unfolded in the year 1819: On one side were the royalist armies of Venezuela led by Pablo Morillo, whose troops were stationed in the mountains, and whose internal structure predominated infantry. On the other side were the patriots on the plains, commanded by Jose Antonio Paez, whose troops were mainly composed of cavalry.
Neither of the conflicting forces sought direct confrontation; the royalists did not descend to the plains, and the patriots did not ascend to the mountains.
What was Simon Bolivar’s strategy?
Simon Bolivar’s strategy was designed between 1816 and 1817 when the Liberator “dreamed” of occupying Venezuela and liberating New Granada. He planned to cross the Andes in New Granada through the Pisba paramo and face the royalists in Boyaca to finalize the independence from Spain.
On May 23, 1819, in the Aldea de los Setenta, Simon Bolivar presented his military plan to Venezuelan officers: the intention was to invade New Granada first, then liberate Venezuela, extending the reach of the war to Quito, Peru, and Upper Peru.
According to the Liberator, it was necessary to occupy Casanare, unite Venezuelan troops with those of Francisco de Paula Santander in New Granada, cross the plains, traverse the Andes through the most difficult zone (perhaps to make the movement more surprising), fall into the province of Tunja to face a surprised royalist army. Meanwhile, Paez, leading the cavalry, would subdue Cucuta and its surroundings, diverting the enemies’ attention there, dividing their troops, and thereby weakening them.
Why invade New Granada first?
Because it was known for the enormous popular support for the liberation cause and the discontent with the reign of terror. It was not by chance that since then, the Granadan people defended themselves in effective guerrilla groups. Some of these groups joined the liberating army in the Andes, while others prevented the Spanish forces from gathering in a single army.
What was Morillo’s strategy?
Morillo’s strategic conception was to unite his forces, organizing the initial defense and subsequent counterattack against the patriot army. He firmly intended to send Field Marshal Miguel de la Torre, go to Cucuta, and enter the viceroyalty presenting a united and strong battlefront.
Once achieved, it is assumed that he would make Bolivar retreat again towards the eastern mountains to Venezuela, from where he planned to attack him from behind to eliminate him definitively. However, the peacemaker did not consider the rapid movements of Bolivar’s troops, the surprise as a winning element, or the stealth of his plans.
So much so that it had not occurred to him that the passage of the patriot army during the floods was possible, nor the rapid deployment to Socha in about 40 days when the calculations of the Spanish strategists assigned about 6 months for it.
The success in the Battle of Pantano de Vargas was possible thanks to the vitality and dedication of the Granadan fighters and the determined support of the peasant masses of the province of Tunja.