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Military Aspects of Latin American Independence

©    2001 Donald J. Mabry

    There is a lot we don't know about the military aspects. Have to understand the military aspects to understand the independence movements as well as the early national histories of the Spanish American republics. The wars on the whole and in comparison to the United States independence movement (1) lasted longer and (2) were more brutal.  The military side affected social conditions more than in the United States.

    Fighting falls into two periods: (1) 1810-1816. In some places it appeared that the Spanish were winning at the end, and (2) 1817-1824 when the Americans were winning.

    General Pablo Morillo headed Spanish army sent to New Granda (Venezuela-Colombia-Panama-Ecuador). He defeated patriot armies.

    Military struggle to become independent  of Spain not important in Río de la Plata, Mexico, Central America, Caribbean islands. Not prolonged fighting against royal forces. There were fights among the criollos in these non-military areas. Patriots versus Royalists.

    Northern South America was Bolívar's area of operations. Southern South America was San Martín area of operations.  Outcome of these struggles important to other areas. San Martin was aware that the fighting outside the La Plata region would save the La Plata from fighting.  This was true elsewhere.

Bolívar Area

  1. Bolívar fought in more areas than San Martín.
  2. Bolívar had a political career.

    Situation in the North begins in 1810 with the ousting of the Captain General and the organization of a junta in Caracas. The junta made a declaration of loyalty to Ferdinand V11. This was a creole action. Centralized power in the capital. Political affairs moved to the left as time passed. Issued a Declaration of Independence in 1811. In 1810,  Bolívar went to England; met Francisco de Miranda in the United Kingdom. Bolívar and Miranda returned to Venezuela together. Commander in chief.

    Influence of the March,  1812 Caracas earthquake which the royalists declared was the wrath of God because of the rebellion. Venezuela was one of the places where the common man could be persuaded to fight on either side.

    Capitulation by Miranda. Dispute within patriot forces. Bolívar handed over Miranda as one of the conditions of his escape.

    Bolívar was an upper-class criollo (creole). Became interested in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Imperial Crisis in Spain was seen as an opportunity for these young men. Desired to run their own affairs. Recognized the difficulties involved in military career.

    Bolívar was in and out of Curaçao and New Granada a number of times. Found Antonio Nariño in Colombia. In 1813, his army invaded Venezuela.  The fighting got  worse and worse and became a war to the death. Bolívar finally decided to proclaim the "Guerra al muerte" to get people off the fence. There were atrocities on both sides in the wars. Social developments from the military sides of the Wars of Independence more revolutionary in the American Revolution.

    Bolívar had a tendency towards dictatorship. The Prophetic Letter contains a lot of  his political ideas;  written in Jamaica when he was in exile.

    Haitian president supplied him with money and supplies. He returned to Venezuela and declared the slaves free. Didn't rally anyone. Left. In 1817, he returned and went into the interior to Angostura. He joined forces with the llanero, José Antonio Páez.  Bolívar's forces and this cowboy's forces hit from the rear. Spent time in the organization of the forces and planning. took at least two years to plan and organize.

    In 1819, they scaled the Colombian Andes in a surprise move and beat a Spanish army at Boyacá. In 1820, the Spanish revolt at Cádiz caused a division within the royal forces. The liberal government in Spain ordered an armistice. In 1821, Bolívar broke the armistice and beat the Spanish army at Carabobo.

    Bolívar now switched his attention westward. Stopped  when he had to. Sent an army under Antonio José de Sucre by sea from the west coast of New Granada to Guayaquil [Ecuador].  In the meantime, Bolívar marched south by land. It took a long time. Sucre took care of the problem of Cuzco. Battle of Pichinchi (May 1822). In 1822, Bolívar and San Martín (who was proceeding from the south) met in Guayaquil, no one knows what transpired during this interview  for they were alone and kept no notes. [There have been a lot of forged documents of this meeting.] San Martín withdrew his forces and eventually went to Europe. Peru was to Bolívar but he had to persuade the Bogotá government to allow him to take the army to Peru. He was convinced that he was needed there. At the battle of Ayacucho, December 1824, he defeated a royalist army, thus breaking the power if the royalists in the highlands.

San Martín

    The first military action of the porteños (people who lived in the city of Buenos Aires) was their driving British armies out in 1806 and 1807. By May, 1810, there were actually independent. The porteños then tried to incorporate Paraguay into their orbit but the Paraguayans successfully resisted. Belgrano's army, sent by Buenos Aires, was defeated in 1810 by Paraguayan and peninsular forces. Under the leadership of Dr. Gaspar Rodríguez Francia, the criollos of Paraguay beat Spanish armies, Portuguese-Brazilian armies, and Buenos Aires armies. The Paraguayans were fiercely independent and would remain so. For decades,  Francia would govern the new nation.

    The criollos of the Banda Oriental (Uruguay) wanted to run their own affairs. Independence led by in José Artigas, they managed to stay out of both Brazil and the newly emerging Argentine nation. However, it took the British intervention years later in 1828 before it was truly independent.

    José de San Martín, born in 1778 in Argentina, spent time in Spain where he served in the Spanish army from 1791 until 1811. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1812 and joined the independence movement. Defeated the Spaniards in 1813, then succeeded Belgrano as commander in chief the next year. He moved to Cuyo province to organize an army to invade Chile and defeat the Spanish. San Martín believed that Spanish armies had to be driven off the continent if the former colonies were to remain independent. He didn't get much help from Buenos Aires, however; the porteños underestimated the threat from Spain. Chilean exiles joined his army. In 1817, San Martín led his army across the Andes, scaling the incredible heights, and defeated the Spanish at Chacabuco and captured Santiago. He defeated another Spanish army at Maipú in 1818, thus guaranteeing Chilean independence.

    Spanish armies were still in Peru, so he took the fight there. He hired the British ex-naval commander Lord Thomas Cochrane to fight the Spanish off the Chilean and Peruvian coast in 1819. Then, in 1820, Cochrane ferried San Martín's army to Peru. By 1821, he was able to declare Peru independent of Spain. He declared himself "Protector of Peru," a dictator but he resigned in 1822 to give control to Peru. He went back to Buenos Aires, then sailed for Europe in 1824.  When he returned in 1829, he met such a cold reception that he went back to Europe, having never left the ship. He died in France in 1850.

    Very little work done on fighting in general. There is a tremendous amount of individual work on individual battles.  Things that need to be known include:

  1.     casualties
  2.     financing
  3.     strength and distribution of forces
  4.     personnel--recruitment system
  5.     organization and administration of command
  6.     training
  7.     strategy
  8.     tactics
  9.     fortifications--there are some individual studies
  10.     intelligence
  11.     procurement of materials, uniforms, etc.
  12.     logistical system,  mail for example. Control of thievery
  13.     communications
  14.     caring for the sick and wounded.


  1. Latin America didn't get as much help as US forebears did.
  2. The wars of independence were more of a civil war than the American revolution was.
  3. The Spanish had an impossible problem.
  4. Spanish American patriots were favored by the technology of the times
  5. The casualties were higher than in the American Revolution. At the battle of Maipú, Chile, there were 5,000 on each side with about 2,500 killed. Royalists were drastically defeated and pursued. At the Battle of Carabobo about 6,000 patriots and 5,000 royalists fought;  two hundred patriots killed. Among the royalists, 40% were killed, wounded or captured.
  6. Financing was a problem. Bolívar's problems were greater than Washington's. Had to chase money and resort to expropriation. Bolívar corresponded a lot about the desperate money situation.

Military command

  1. Learning from experience.
  2. Lack of staff officers. Good staff officers anticipate.
  3. Jealousy among  top officers, personal jealousies and regional jealousies. These were complicated  by the presence of foreign officers. The  class structure problem wasn't great because there weren't many lower-class officers.

Pay and Recruitment

José Antonio Páez, leader of llaneros, had a bodyguard, El Negro Primo, who had fought with the royalists first, was asked why, he answered "greed." He had nothing when he joined the first army he saw. Most soldiers never got  paid in money. Páez and many other commanders let them loot. There were a fair number of blacks serving in the armed forces as well as mestizos and Indians. There were probably 5,000 foreign soldiers altogether but never more than 1,200 at any one time. Foreign troops were better disciplined than militia.


In connection with brutality,  it was settled policy a good part of time to slaughter the defeated and even non-combatants at times.

In regards intelligence, it was amazing the effect of not knowing what was going on. Made execution of tactics more difficult.

Is present military role a product of the independence period? No. Would have had military interference in politics today without the wars of  independence because of Spanish society. The Spanish American colonies inherited from the colonial period the sort of society in which force was used or threatened and accepted by all parts of the population. The temptation to use force was irresistible because it  was so obvious that it might (or probably would) succeed. All of this was exaggerated by what happened during the wars of independence.

The wars did give some opportunities to lower-class people who had the right glandular balance. Promises had to be made to get support for the war effort. Some support came from the lower class. Some were able to rise in status because of their role in the wars. Once they rose, they adopted upper class views.

Effect of experience on ideas:

  1. Many military men came to despise civilians.
  2. Some people became excited about running things through a military command system or the desire to organize society on military lines.
  3. Plunder, power, respect, excitements were desires or tastes developed among the military.
  4. The brutality of the wars caused the brutality of the period afterwards.

You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

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