The Battle of Boyaca

Bolivar Stuns the Spanish Army

The Battle of Boyaca by Martin Tovar y Tovar.

On August 7, 1819, Simón Bolívar engaged Spanish General José María Barreiro in battle near the Boyaca River in present-day Colombia. The Spanish force was spread out and divided, and Bolívar was able to kill or capture almost all of the enemy combatants. It was the decisive battle for the liberation of New Granada (now Colombia).

Bolivar and the Independence Stalemate in Venezuela

In early 1819, Venezuela was at war: Spanish and Patriot generals and warlords were fighting each other all over the region.

New Granada was a different story: there was an uneasy peace, as the populace was ruled with an iron fist by Spanish Viceroy Juan José de Sámano from Bogota. Simon Bolivar, greatest of the rebel generals, was in Venezuela, dueling with Spanish General Pablo Morillo, but he knew that if he could just get to New Granada, Bogota was practically undefended.

Bolivar Crosses the Andes

Venezuela and Colombia are divided by a high arm of the Andes Mountains: parts of it are practically impassible. From May to July of 1819, however, Bolivar led his army over the pass of Páramo de Pisba. At 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), the pass was extremely treacherous: deadly winds chilled the bones, snow and ice made footing difficult, and ravines claimed pack animals and men to falls. Bolivar lost a third of his army in the crossing, but made it to the western side of the Andes in early July, 1819: the Spanish at first had no idea he was there.

Battle of Vargas Swamp

Bolivar quickly regrouped and recruited more soldiers from the eager population of New Granada. His men engaged the forces of young Spanish general José María Barreiro at the battle of Vargas Swamp on July 25: it ended in a draw, but showed the Spanish that Bolívar had arrived in force and was headed for Bogota.

Bolivar moved quickly to the town of Tunja, finding supplies and weapons meant for Barreiro.

Royalist Forces at the Battle of Boyaca

Barreiro was a skilled general who had a trained, veteran army. Many of the soldiers, however, had been conscripted from New Granada and doubtless there were some whose sympathies were with the rebels. Barreiro moved to intercept Bolivar before he could reach Bogota. In the vanguard he had some 850 men in the elite Numancia battalion and 160 skilled cavalry known as dragoons. In the main body of the army, he had about 1,800 soldiers and three cannons.

The Battle of Boyaca Begins

On August 7, Barreiro was moving his army, trying to get into position to keep Bolivar out of Bogota long enough for reinforcements to arrive. By the afternoon, the vanguard had gone ahead and crossed the river at a bridge. There they rested, waiting for the main army to catch up. Bolívar, who was much closer than Barreiro suspected, struck. He ordered General Francisco de Paula Santander to keep the elite vanguard forces occupied while he hammered away at the main force.

A Stunning Victory:

It worked out even better than Bolivar had planned. Santander kept the Numancia Battalion and Dragoons pinned down, while Bolivar and General Anzoátegui attacked the shocked, spread-out main Spanish army.

Bolívar quickly surrounded the Spanish host. Surrounded and cut off from the best soldiers in his army, Barreiro quickly surrendered. All told, the royalists lost more than 200 killed and 1,600 captured. The patriot forces lost 13 killed and about 50 wounded. It was a total victory for Bolívar.

On to Bogotá

With Barreiro’s army crushed, Bolívar quickly made for the city of Santa fé de Bogotá, where Viceroy Juan José de Sámano was the ranking Spanish official in Northern South America. The Spanish and royalists in the capital panicked and fled in the night, carrying all they could and leaving their homes and in some cases family members behind. Viceroy Sámano himself was a cruel man who feared the retribution of the patriots, so he, too quickly departed, dressed as a peasant. Newly-converted “patriots” looted the homes of their former neighbors until Bolívar took the city unopposed on August 10, 1819 and restored order.

Legacy of the Battle of Boyaca

The Battle of Boyacá and capture of Bogotá resulted in a stunning checkmate for Bolívar against his enemies. In fact, the Viceroy had left in such haste that he even left money in the treasury. Back in Venezuela, the ranking royalist officer was General Pablo Morillo. When he learned of the battle and the fall of Bogotá, he knew the royalist cause was lost. Bolívar, with the funds from the royal treasury, thousands of possible recruits in New Granada and undeniable momentum, would soon sweep back into Venezuela and crush any royalists still there.

Morillo wrote to the King, desperately begging for more troops. 20,000 soldiers were recruited and were to be sent, but events in Spain prevented the force from ever departing. Instead, King Ferdinand sent Morillo a letter authorizing him to negotiate with the rebels, offering them some minor concessions in a new, more liberal constitution. Morillo knew the rebels had the upper hand and would never agree, but tried anyway. Bolívar, sensing the royalist desperation, agreed to a temporary armistice but pressed the attack.

Less than two years later, the royalists would once again be defeated by Bolívar, this time at the Battle of Carabobo. This battle marked the last gasp of organized Spanish resistance in northern South America.

The Battle of Boyacá has gone down in history as one of the greatest of Bolívar's many triumphs. The stunning, complete victory broke the stalemate and gave Bolívar an advantage he never lost.