Simon Bolivar’s Secret Weapon in South America: British Veterans
Simón Bolívar, the vaunted “Libertador” of South America, was in serious trouble. Outflanked on the left by Spanish royalists at Vargas Swamp in New Granada (present-day Colombia), his troops had withdrawn in disorder, threatening Bolívar’s patriot army with collapse. The situation called for immediate action.
Without hesitation James Rooke led his battalion of 2nd Rifles in a desperate bayonet charge to drive the menacing enemy from the heights. Fighting the royalists uphill toe to toe, the patriots suffered horrendous losses before additional reserves turned the tide. By the time the firing stopped, Rooke and his second-in-command, Arthur Sandes, were seriously wounded. Losing his shattered left arm to amputation, Rooke died a few days later.
British Volunteers In South America
Rooke was no ordinary commander, and his 2nd Rifles no ordinary battalion. They were an element of the British Legions, recruited by Bolívar amid the 1808–33 South American wars of independence to provide the combat experience many of his native troops lacked. The battalion was a hodgepodge of primarily British and Irish veterans of the Napoléonic and North American wars. In time they were joined by Germans and even a scattering of Bengalis, West Indians and Americans.
The volunteers ranged from adventurers and mercenaries, to criminals, deserters and scallywags. Many simply absconded with Bolívar’s money. Those who did show up to fight, however, played a key role in the various fights for independence. Some remained in South America to become leaders and heroes in the new republics.
IN Need of Veteran fighters
Resolved to freeing northern South America from Spanish rule, Bolívar nevertheless realized his revolutionary army lacked experienced, professional soldiers. Thus in 1817 he made a concerted effort through agents in London to recruit those officers and noncommissioned officers who had found themselves suddenly unemployed in the wake of Napoléon Bonaparte’s 1815 final defeat in the Netherlands at Waterloo. The European nations that had aligned against the “Little Corporal” were awash with vast numbers of trained soldiers and no war to fight. By one estimate Great Britain alone had a half million unemployed fighting men.
Among them Bolívar found the veterans he needed. Ignoring the protests of its late Napoléonic wars ally Spain, the British government tacitly approved Bolívar’s recruitment of its idle soldiers. There is speculation the Duke of Wellington himself encouraged the scheme.
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Bolívar’s recruitment efforts were extraordinarily successful, and the British regiments filled out rapidly. Among them were the 1st and 2nd Venezuelan Hussars and the 1st Venezuelan Lancers, although some European officers — including William Miller, Thomas Cochrane and the notorious Gregor MacGregor—served apart from the legions with high distinction as staff and field officers. Competition for commissions was fierce, given that many captains and lieutenants in the British army were then serving at half pay, while many veteran NCOs had been summarily discharged.
Although the volunteer units were collectively known as the British Legions, some 1,700 Irishmen recruited by adventurer John Devereux formed what was dubbed the Irish Legion. In 1818 British Legion commander James Towers English recruited a 1,000-man Second British Legion that included 110 Hanoverians who had seen action at Waterloo with the King’s German Legion of the British army. Bolívar reorganized and reconstituted his army several times during the wars of independence.
DIe or CONQUER
The Second British Legion’s motto was “Die or Conquer,” recognizing their certain fate should they fail. In his two-volume 1828 biography of William Miller, the general’s brother John described the possible consequences: “The patriot soldier might indeed expect to escape with life, reduced to the condition of a slave; but with the patriot generals and officers it was only a choice between victory and death. They knew full well what would be the cruel policy of the Spaniards if they proved victorious.”
The battle in which Rooke was mortally wounded took place on July 25, 1819, near Paipa, in the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, 100 miles northeast of the capital at Santa Fé de Bogotá. In June Bolívar led a joint expedition of Venezuelans and New Granadans west to liberate Bogotá from the Spanish. An army of 1,700 royalists under Col. José Maria Barreiro set out to intercept them.
Rooke To The Rescue
Having endured a forced march across the Andes in damp, icy conditions, Bolívar’s troops arrived in New Granada exhausted. His cavalry had no horses, a lack of pack mules had forced the column to abandon supplies, and the moisture had corroded muskets and saturated cartridges. After collecting supplies, arms, ammunition, horses, mules and recruits from among the local populace, Bolívar resumed his march with some 2,700 men.
Bolívar initially found Spanish dug in near Topagá. While a patriot holding force confronted the royalists, the general maneuvered to attack from the rear only to find himself hemmed in by the nearly impassible terrain of the Vargas Swamp. Learning of Bolívar’s maneuver, Barreiro pivoted to attack. Bolívar held his cavalry and the British Legion in reserve while his main effort contested the Spanish attack inch by inch. Barreiro responded by committing his reserves each time the patriots appeared to withdraw. Anticipating a rout, he ultimately committed all his reserves.
Despite holding a numerical advantage over the Spanish, Bolívar suddenly found his left outflanked and his troops withdrawing in panic. It was then he committed his reserves, including Rooke’s 2nd Rifles.
As one writer observed, “The bayonet in the hands of an angry British soldier is a fearful weapon,” and Rooke’s ferocious charge indeed saved the day, but at a high cost to the British Legion.
WIns and more wins
The narrow victory was a preview of the decisive Battle of Boyacá scarcely two weeks later. Marching his troops southwest from Vargas Swamp, Bolívar raced to attack lightly defended Bogotá. If the royalists won the race, Bolívar’s campaign would grind to a halt, and any strategic advantage would pass to the Spanish. If Bolívar won, the patriot army would be in a position to eject the Spaniards and secure independence for New Granada.
The opposing generals met again on Aug. 7. Bolívar’s patriot army had grown to more than 2,800 soldiers, while
Barreiro had also secured reinforcements and fielded just under 2,700 men. Catching the Spanish on the march, patriot Gens. Francisco de Paula Santander and José Antonio Anzoátegui moved to split the royalist forces, forcing their small vanguard to take defensive positions at a narrow bridge across the Rio Teatinos. Unable to withstand Santander’s attack, the Spanish van fled across the bridge to a low hill overlooking the river.
Bolívar then ordered a pincer attack. Anzoátegui led the Barcelona and Bravos de Paez battalions against the Spanish main body on the right, while the British Legion and the 1st Rifles under Sandes pressed the attack on the vanguard. Anzoátegui soon drove off the Spanish cavalry and captured the royalist artillery. Meanwhile, advancing uphill in the face of musket and cannon fire, Sandes’ Rifles routed the van, collapsing Spanish resistance. The patriots captured 1,600 of the enemy, including Barreiro, at a loss of only 13 killed.
hail the COnquering hero
When Bolívar entered Bogotá, city officials proffered him a laurel wreath. The patriot commander humbly declined, deeming the men of Sandes’ Rifles more deserving of the honor. He then conferred on each British soldier the Order of Liberators.
The victory resulted in the expulsion of the Spaniards and a weakening of the Spanish efforts farther south. So profound were the changes that present-day Colombians still celebrate August 7 as a national holiday. The victory also set the stage for campaigns culminating in the independence of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
While the British Legion and Sandes’ Rifles sustained only light casualties at Boyacá, they were to suffer mightily at Carabobo two years later.
Of all the Latin American countries Caracas-born Bolívar sought to liberate, perhaps the most difficult to set free was his native Venezuela.
Two successive campaigns — the first in 1810 by Gen. Francisco de Miranda, the second in 1813 by Bolívar — had established the First and Second Republics of Venezuela. Neither lasted long, having been retaken by the Spanish in 1812 and ’14, respectively. When the royalists regained control the second time, Bolívar signed an armistice with the Spanish even while moving to regroup and reorganize his army. He launched the third campaign for independence in 1821, engaging a royalist army under Gen. Miguel de la Torre near the Rio Carabobo in northern Venezuela on June 24.
Although Bolívar again enjoyed numerical superiority, a patriot victory was far from assured. The Spaniards occupied a strong defensive position on low hills overlooking the main road. A frontal attack would require the patriots to attack uphill in the open. Instead, Bolívar reverted to form and split his forces to attack the Spanish flanks.
Sons of Albion
Among his veteran forces was the British Legion’s Albion Battalion, comprising some 350 infantry, including 100 Germans. Leading the battalion was Col. Thomas Ilderton Ferrier, an Irishman who had been instrumental in its formation. Bolívar ordered the Albion and a patriot regiment called the Bravos de Apure to attack the Spanish right. While maneuvering into position, the attackers came under point-blank musket fire from three Spanish battalions, and the “bravos” broke and fled. Though under fire, exhausted, low on ammunition and facing overwhelming odds, the men of the Albion fixed bayonets and advanced in line.
One account describes the action as “a task that required not only heroic courage, but Herculean endurance and bulldog determination to keep on while the last spark of life and strength was left.” It was a charge of epic proportions, 200 yards uphill in the face of musket and cannon fire. Despite horrific casualties — exacerbated by uncharacteristic hesitancy on Bolívar’s part — the legion seized the Spanish positions, forcing the enemy troops to break. Ferrier and a third of his men were killed in the attempt. Only then did Bolívar commit his reserves. The Spanish retreat soon turned into a rout, leaving more than half of the royalists dead, wounded or captured.
Bolívar’s victory at Carabobo secured both Venezuelan independence and the establishment of Gran Colombia, encompassing present-day Venezuela, Colombia, mainland Ecuador, Panama and parts of Peru and Brazil — Bolívar’s vision of a United States of South America. El Libertador singled out the men of the Albion as the “saviors of my country.”
While Bolívar tended to matters in the north, he entrusted his friend and most able commander, Antonio José de Sucre, with command of the southern army, a force of Colombians, Peruvians, Argentines and the British Legions. In 1822 Sucre resolved to drive the Spanish from their administrative capital at Quito (in the highlands of present-day Ecuador).
Bypassing hostile territory, Sucre first led his army south to take Cuenca before turning back north toward Quito. On May 24, his nearly 3,000-man army confronted some 1,900 royalists under Gen. Melchior Aymerich on the slopes of 15,696-foot Pichincha volcano, overlooking Quito.
Sucre’s intent was to lure Spanish forces from behind the city walls and engage them on the plains below Pichincha. Troops he sent up its steep, rocky slopes would then emerge from concealment to flank the royalist army. Unfortunately, the patriots on Pichincha’s heights suffered altitude sickness and faced bitter cold and slick trails muddied by rain and snow. Worse yet, Aymerich anticipated Sucre’s strategy and ordered his veteran Aragón Battalion to climb higher than Sucre’s Peruvian Cazadores del Paya and attack from the rear. The furious Spanish assault caught the Peruvians by surprise, prompting their disorderly withdrawal.
Taking the High Ground
The 400-plus men of the Albion Battalion had been in the rear of Sucre’s army, guarding the supply and ammunition train. Seeing his Peruvian battalion falter, Sucre ordered the Albions to climb even higher than the Spanish troops and rout them out with bayonets. Sandes and his men had been itching for a fight, and their unanticipated charge stopped the far larger enemy battalion dead in its tracks. Finding themselves trapped between the Albions, the regrouped Peruvians and Colombian reinforcements of the Alto Magdalena Battalion, the Aragons fled downhill for the safety of Quito’s stout walls, soon followed by the entire royalist army.
The Spanish left 590 dead and wounded on the field along with 14 precious cannons, while the patriots suffered 340 killed and wounded. Hemmed in, Aymerich had no alternative but to surrender his remaining 1,260 troops and the city.
The significance of the Battle of Pichincha is hard to overstate. The victory added Quito (the capital of present-day Ecuador) to Bolívar’s Gran Colombia. It also marked the beginning of the end of Spanish rule in South America. But for the heroic charge of the Albion Battalion that day, the battle may have gone very differently, and a reinvigorated royalist army might have thwarted Bolívar’s revolution.
As important as the British Legions were in the fight to end Spanish rule in South America, many British, Irish and other European soldiers also served the cause of independence from outside the legions.
Foremost among them was British army veteran William Miller, who rose to command Bolívar’s cavalry during the Peruvian War of Independence. His renowned battlefield awareness was especially evident at the Dec. 9, 1824, Battle of Ayacucho, the decisive encounter the war. Recognizing Sucre’s army was collapsing under a Spanish assault, Miller, without orders, led a charge that stopped the attack. In the wake of the conflict the independent Peruvian government promoted Miller to grand marshal, its highest military rank.
Jack AUbrey and Horatio Hornblower
Thomas Cochrane, a successful Royal Navy captain, left Britain in 1818 to command, in turn, Chile’s and Brazil’s navies. Lord Cochrane was successful in virtually every naval engagement in which he participated. After his service in South America, Cochrane returned to the Royal Navy and was ultimately appointed honorary rear admiral of the United Kingdom. He is honored as a hero in both Chile and Brazil, and his legendary exploits inspired novelists C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian to create their respective fictional Royal Navy heroes Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.
Arthur Sandes survived his wounds and the wars, settled in Cuenca and served Ecuador as a general and governor of the Azuay Department.
Gregor MacGregor’s Ignominious end
Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor participated in the Venezuelan revolution almost from its outset. A British army veteran of the Peninsular War, he fought for both Venezuela and New Grenada, rising to the rank of general. Though initially successful, controversy tainted his otherwise distinguished service after he abandoned contingents of British volunteers in two 1819 campaigns in New Granada.
His postwar reputation plummeted still further. In peacetime he cheated investors and would-be settlers out of large sums of cash by selling bogus bonds and land in the fictitious colony of Poyais, actually a worthless tract he’d been granted in trade by the king of a Honduran indigenous tribe on the Mosquito Coast. Though his was among history’s most brazen schemes, and dozens of settlers died making the trip, a court never convicted him. MacGregor later returned to Venezuela, where he died in 1845. Considered a national hero, he was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral, the resting place of Bolívar’s wife and parents.
While Bolívar held the officers and men of the British Legions in high regard, the success of his wars of independence ultimately rests with El Libertador. After all, Bolívar was a brilliant and charismatic commander whose ability and leadership ensured the inevitable end of royalist rule. Yet the endurance, daring and courage of his veteran foreign volunteers undoubtedly hastened the day when the Spanish crown no longer reigned over South America.
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