Simon Bolivar

The military exploits of Simon Bolivar demonstrate that persistence, cunning, and familiarity with terrain have a significant impact on the success of war campaigns. Bolivar, having very little military experience at the outset of his revolutionary career, proved himself capable of leading a revolution against the more experienced Spanish generals because of these qualities, which appear to be intrinsic to his personality and general education. As a Venezuelan, he spent his childhood in South America, learned its terrain and became accustomed to the caprices of its weather. In his studies on the European continent, he was able to learn military strategies used in those European countries—and this knowledge presented him with the opportunity intelligently to adapt those strategies to his own home in South America. His persistence, learned in a variety of areas through his life, became the cornerstone of his campaign, as his soldiers were often few and his position compromised. Yet unity among these three aspects of his character made him in the end a military victor over Spain.[1]

One of the major battles lost by Bolivar saw the recruitment by the Spanish of llaneros or men of the plains who were familiar with the terrain of South America in a way that the Spanish soldiers themselves were not. The loss was further cemented during a period of recklessness when the rebels (Bolivar’s men) became confused by an erroneous alarm telling them to retreat.[2] Learning from this loss, Bolivar came to recognize the strength and advantage he possessed in fighting these battles on his home turf. He also came to recognize the power of his wit and the effectiveness of propaganda in mentally fortifying his own or intimidating enemy soldiers.

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The battle following this one demonstrated the ideas that Bolivar learned. Although he had only 3,000 men at Araure, he launched an attack against the men of Spanish General Monteverde. Though he suffered initial losses, Bolivar was persistent and used tactics to flank the enemy army during a time of vulnerability (while the troops were busy making plans for reinforcements). This strategic move allowed Bolivar’s 3,000 to triumph in a battle in which they were at a disadvantage.[3]

Despite this one victory, Bolivar’s forces continued to be under a large amount of stress because of the many fronts on which they were fighting battles. Many times the rebels were brought to almost their knees because of the number of men and the amount of strength they lost. For example, at one point during the rainy season while at Aragua when Bolivar’s forces were almost naked, 4,000 men died in a battle, of which most were Bolivar’s men.[4] Yet their strength of mind continued, and in their persistence they proved themselves able to continue the struggle. Though May 1815 saw Spanish reinforcements of 11,000 men to Bolivar’s 3 or 4 thousand, he is reported to have sent a letter to the South American citizens declaring, “I have been chosen by fate to break your chains…Fight and you shall win. For God grants victory to perseverance.”[5] This perseverance was to show its necessity in the next stage of the revolution, as Bolivar’s men were cut down in this battle to the point where Bolivar himself had to flee to Jamaica in order to escape capture and/or execution.

At this time of disappointment, Bolivar is again seen to call on his store of perseverance in a letter that he is well-known for writing from Jamaica. In it he says, “A people that love freedom will in the end be free.”[6] Though his pleas for help to the nations surrounding him were answered only by Haiti, Bolivar regrouped by forming an army, which he named “The Liberating Group.” He landed in Venezuela and with only 500 men he faced an enemy of 1500 at a fort near his location, and of 16,000 soldiers of the government stationed in Caracas.[7]

It is here that Bolivar’s cunning begins to turn the tables, as he recalls the lesson of propaganda learned earlier from his first great loss. He begins to spread word about numerous fictitious battles between himself and the Spanish royalists and in which the royalists suffered severe losses.  These battles were supposedly staged all across Venezuela, though he remained all the time around the Orinoco River.[8]

Another of Bolivar’s tactics found him partnering with other rebels who were better able than he was to plan strategic attacks. When his own best tactician had to be executed because of mutinous tendencies, Bolivar wasted no time in re-strengthening his military intelligence group by partnering with Antonio Jose Paez who was a master of tropical guerrilla cavalry warfare. It was at this time that Bolivar’s campaign began winning victories, as Paez orchestrated lightning wars and utilized the knowledge that the South Americans had of the terrain to outwit the Spanish foreigners. Paez’s competence was so great that it even regained the respect and allegiance of many llaneros, who realigned themselves with Bolivar and his cause.[9]

Using surprise attacks, Bolivar expressed his strengthened military intelligence in his ability now to use ingenious and effective tactics against the loyalists. In January of 1818, these surprise attacks were enough to cause the retreat of Pablo Morilla, who held the office of commanding all the Venezuelan forces that were stationed in New Granada.[10] This victory occurred in part as a result of the men’s familiarity with the swampy lands, and this again shows the importance of Bolivar and his men’s knowledge of the South American landscape.

The sheer numbers in the Spanish army, however, still proved to be a major and daunting aspect of Bolivar’s weak position. To combat this, he used two strategies that further demonstrate his maturing leadership as a military general. First, he recruited youths from a nearby convalescing center. Yet, realizing that these boys could not by themselves take on the strong royalist forces, he hired mercenaries in the form of British soldiers to supplement his own South American forces. Knowing that the British and the Spanish shared colonial rivalry, this move was calculated to make it easier to retain the loyalty of these men even in difficult times. In this way, Bolivar was able to gain approximately 6,000 more men for his cause.[11]

When an aligned force near the Andes gave word to Bolivar that the Spanish had temporarily withdrawn, Bolivar uses his knowledge of landscape to effect a fruitful attack against them. He was aware that the impassability of the Andes during the winter would cause the Spanish to guard only lightly the side of their camp facing that direction. The experience of his forces with the inhospitable South American winters gave them an edge. “First […] they had to cross 10 swollen rivers, as well as move through flooded plains with water often waist-deep, with the torrential rain constant. Half the cattle brought along for food drowned. Bolivar continually moved up and down his lines to exhort his men forward.”[12] The winter was so harsh that about 1,000 men died, but their perseverance allowed them to achieve their important strategic goal. The battle at Pantango de Vargas was difficult, but in the end the Spanish gave report of the persistence and strategic challenge that Bolivar’s army presented. The viceroy was informed that though “The annihilation of the republicans appeared inevitable […] despair gave them courage. Our infantry could not resist them.[13] The three-fold strengths of strategic planning, perseverance, and the knowledge of Venezuelan terrain can be clearly seen in this particular stage of the revolution as instrumental in the outcome of the battle.

Further campaigns like this one (in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and other Latin American territories have proven) that Bolivar employed strategies necessarily involving his own perseverance as well as that of his troops. He appeared to possess the strength of mind and will that allowed him to have courage and continue fighting even in the face of despair. The war to liberate these nations consisted in close 698 battles[14]—and this in itself ascribes to Bolivar a very significant and superior amount of perseverance. The ability to plan for so many battles certainly denotes Bolivar’s acquired ability to strategize. However, more important than this is the fact that he did lose a very large proportion of these battles, yet kept on fighting. The ones he won occurred near the end when he began to incorporate his knowledge of the terrain within his strategies. It also demonstrated his cunning and humility in his ability to glean knowledge from his subordinates and to delegate battles to allies of supreme military intelligence (like Paez).