The Thousand Days' War

Black and white photo showing soldiers during the Battle of Palonegro.

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Thousand Days’ War was a Civil War fought in Colombia between the years of 1899 and 1902. The basic conflict behind the war was the conflict between liberals and conservatives, so it was an ideological war as opposed to a regional one, and it divided families and was fought all over the nation. After about 100,000 Colombians had died, both sides called a halt to the fighting.


By 1899, Colombia had a long tradition of conflict between liberals and conservatives. The fundamental issues were these: the conservatives favored a strong central government, limited voting rights and strong links between church and state. The liberals, on the other hand, favored stronger regional governments, universal voting rights and a division between church and state. The two factions had been at odds since the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1831.

Attack of the Liberals

In 1898, conservative Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected president of Colombia. The liberals were outraged because they believed that significant election fraud had taken place. Sanclemente, who was well into his eighties, had participated in a conservative overthrow of the government in 1861 and was extremely unpopular among liberals. Because of health problems, Sanclemente’s grip on power was not very firm, and liberal generals plotted a rebellion for October 1899.

War Breaks Out

The liberal revolt began in Santander Province. The first clash took place when liberal forces tried to take Bucaramanga in November 1899 but was repulsed. A month later, the liberals scored their largest victory of the war when General Rafael Uribe Uribe routed a larger conservative force at the battle of Peralonso. The victory at Peralonso gave the liberals the hope and strength to drag out the conflict for two more years against superior numbers.

The Battle of Palonegro

Foolishly refusing to press his advantage, liberal General Vargas Santos stalled long enough for the conservatives to recover and send an army after him. They clashed in May 1900 at Palonegro, in Santander Department. The battle was brutal. It lasted approximately two weeks, which meant that by the end decomposing bodies became a factor on both sides. Oppressive heat and lack of medical care made the battleground a living hell as the two armies fought time and again over the same stretch of trenches. When the smoke cleared, there were close to 4,000 dead and the liberal army had broken.


Up until this point, the liberals had been getting aid from neighboring Venezuela. The government of Venezuelan President Cipriano Castro had been sending men and weapons to fight on the liberal side. The devastating loss at Palonegro made him halt all support for a time, although a visit from liberal General Rafael Uribe Uribe convinced him to resume sending aid.

The End of the War

After the rout at Palonegro, the defeat of the liberals was only a question of time. Their armies in tatters, they would rely on the rest of the war on guerrilla tactics. They did manage to secure some victories in present-day Panama, including a small-scale naval battle that saw the gunboat Padilla sink the Chilean ship (“borrowed” by the conservatives) Lautaro in the harbor of Panama City. These small victories notwithstanding, even reinforcements from Venezuela could not save the liberal cause. After the butchery at Peralonso and Palonegro, the people of Colombia had lost any desire to continue the fighting.

Two Treaties

Moderate liberals had been trying to bring about a peaceful end to the war for some time. Although their cause was lost, they refused to consider an unconditional surrender: they wanted liberal representation in government as a minimum price for ending hostilities. The conservatives knew how weak the liberal position was and remained firm in their demands. The Treaty of Neerlandia, signed on October 24, 1902, was basically a cease-fire agreement that included the disarming of all liberal forces. The war was formally ended on November 21, 1902, when a second treaty was signed on the deck of the US warship Wisconsin.

Results of the War

The Thousand Days’ War did nothing to alleviate the long-standing differences between the Liberals and Conservatives, who would again go to war in the 1940s in the conflict known as La Violencia. Although nominally a conservative victory, there were no real winners, only losers. The losers were the people of Colombia, as thousands of lives were lost and the country was ravaged. As an extra insult, the chaos caused by the war allowed the United States to bring about the independence of Panama, and Colombia lost this valuable territory forever.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

The Thousand Days’ War is well-known inside of Colombia as an important historical event, but it has been brought to international attention due to an extraordinary novel. Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel García Márquez’ 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude covers a century in the life of a fictional Colombian family. One of the most famous characters of this novel is Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who leaves the tiny town of Macondo to fight for years in the Thousand Days’ War (for the record, he fought for the liberals and is thought to have been loosely based on Rafael Uribe Uribe).

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Minster, Christopher. "The Thousand Days' War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 28). The Thousand Days' War. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Thousand Days' War." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).