Paez, the Llanero Chief, and the War for Freedom
On the 3rd of June, 1819, General Morillo, the commander of the Spanish forces in Venezuela, found himself threatened in his camp by a party of one hundred and fifty daring horsemen, who had swum the Orinoco and galloped like centaurs upon his line. Eight hundred of the Spanish cavalry, with two small field-pieces, sallied out to meet their assailants, who slowly retired before their superior numbers. In this way the royalists were drawn on to a place called Las Queseras del Medio, where a battalion of infantry had been placed in ambush near the river. Here, suddenly ceasing their retreat, and dividing up into groups of twenty, the patriot horsemen turned on the Spaniards and assailed them on all sides, driving them back under the fire of the infantry, by whom they were fearfully cut down. Then they recrossed the river with two killed and a few wounded, while the plain was strewn with the bodies of their foes.
This anecdote may serve to introduce to our readers Joseph Antonio Paez, the leader of the band of patriot horsemen, and one of the most daring and striking figures among the liberators of South America. Born of Indian parents of low extraction, and quite illiterate, Paez proved himself so daring as a soldier that he became in time general-in-chief of the armies of Venezuela and the neighboring republics, and was Bolivar's most trusted lieutenant during the war for independence.
Brought up amid the herds of half-wild cattle belonging to his father, who was a landholder in the Venezuelan plains, he became thoroughly skilled in the care of cattle and horses, and an adept at curing their disorders. He was accustomed to mount and subdue the wildest horses, and was noted for strength and agility and for power of enduring fatigue.
A llanero, or native of the elevated plains of Venezuela, he rose naturally to great influence among his fellow-herdsmen, and when the revolution began, in 1810, and he declared in favor of the cause of freedom, his reputation for courage was so great that they were very ready to enlist under him. He chose front among them one hundred and fifty picked horsemen, and this band, under the title of "Guides of the Apure," soon made itself the terror of the Spaniards.
The following story well shows his intrepid character. After the death of his mother young Paez inherited her property in Barinas, and divided it with his sisters who were living in that town. The Spanish forces, which had been driven out of it, occupied it again in 1811, and proclaimed a general amnesty for the inhabitants, inviting all property-holders to return and promising to reinstate them in their fortunes. Paez, hearing of this, rode boldly into Barinas and presented himself before the Spanish commandant, saying that he had come to avail himself of the amnesty and take possession of his property.
He was soon recognized by the inhabitants, who gathered in hundreds to welcome and shake hands with him, and the news quickly spread among the Spanish soldiers that this was the famous Captain Paez, who had done them so much mischief. Seizing their arms, they called loudly on their commander to arrest and shoot the insolent newcomer as a rebel and traitor. But this officer, who was well aware of the valor of Paez, and perceived his great influence over the people of Barinas, deemed it very imprudent to take a step that might lead to a general outbreak, and concluded to let his perilous visitor alone. He therefore appeased his soldiers, and Paez was left unmolested in the house of his sisters.
The governor, however, only bided his time. Spies were set to watch the daring llanero, and after some days they informed their leaders that Paez had gone out unarmed, and that there was a good opportunity to seize his weapons as a preliminary to his arrest. When Paez returned home after his outing, he was told that armed men had visited the house and taken away his sword and pistols.
Incensed by this act of ill-faith, he boldly sought the governor's house and angrily charged him with breaking his word. He had come to Barinas, he said, trusting in the offer of amnesty, and vigorously demanded that his arms should be restored—not for use against the Spaniards, but for his personal security. His tone was so firm and indignant, and his request so reasonable under the circumstances, that the governor repented of his questionable act, and gave orders that the arms should be returned.
On hearing this, the whole garrison of Barinas assailed the governor with reproaches, impetuously demanding that the guerilla chief should be arrested and confined in irons. The versatile governor again gave way, and that night the Paez mansion was entered and he taken from his bed, put in irons, and locked up in prison. It was no more than he might have expected, if he had known as much of the Spanish character then as he was afterwards to learn.
But Paez was not an easy captive to hold. In the prison he found about one hundred and fifty of his fellow rebels, among them his friend Garcia, an officer noted for strength and courage. On Garcia complaining to him of the weight of his irons and the miserable condition of the prisoners, Paez accused him of cowardice, and offered to exchange fetters with him. To keep his word he broke his own chains by main strength and handed them to his astonished friend.
Paez now spoke to the other prisoners and won their consent to a concerted break for liberty. Freed from his own fetters, he was able to give efficient service to the others, and before morning nearly the whole of them were free. When the jailor opened the door in the morning he was promptly knocked down by Paez and threatened with instant death if he made a sound. Breaking into the guard-room, they seized the arms of the guard, set free those whose irons were not yet broken, and marched from the prison, with Paez at their head, upon the Spanish garrison, two hundred in number. Many of these were killed and the rest put to rout, and Barinas was once more in patriot hands.
This anecdote will serve to show, better than pages of description, the kind of man that Paez, was. When the act became known to the llaneros they proclaimed Paez their general, and were ready to follow him to the death. These cowboys of the Orinoco, if we may give them this title, were, like their leader, of Indian blood. Neither they nor their general knew anything about military art, and felt lost when taken from their native plains, a fact which was shown when they were called upon to follow Bolivar in his mountain expedition against New Granada. Neither persuasion nor force could induce them to leave the plains for the mountains. Bolivar and Paez entreated them in vain, and they declared that rather than go to the hill-country they would desert and return to their native plains, where alone they were willing to fight. This was their only act of insubordination under their favorite leader, who usually had complete control over them. He made himself one with his men, would divide his last cent with them, and was called by them uncle and father. His staff-officers were all llaneros and formed his regular society, they being alike destitute of education and ignorant of tactics, but bold and dashing and ready to follow their leader to the cannon's mouth.
The British Legion, about, six hundred strong, was in the last year of the war attached to the llaneros corps, its members being highly esteemed by Paez, who called them "my friends, the English." The soldiers of the legion, however, were bitterly opposed to their commander, Colonel Bossuet, whom they held responsible for the miserable state of their rations and clothes and their want of pay. At the end of one day, which was so scorchingly hot that the soldiers were excused from their usual five o'clock parade, the legion rushed from their quarters at this hour and placed themselves in order of battle, crying that they would rather have a creole to lead them than their colonel.
Their officers attempted to pacify them, but in vain, and the lieutenant-colonel, against whom they had taken offence, was attacked and mortally wounded with bayonet thrusts. When Colonel Bossuet appeared and sought to speak to them they rushed upon him with their bayonets, and it needed the active efforts of the other officers to save him from their revengeful hands. Tidings of the mutiny were brought to General Paez in his quarters and threw him into a paroxysm of rage. Seizing his sword, he rushed upon the mutineers, killed three of them instantly, and would have continued this bloody work but that his sword broke on the body of a fourth. Flinging down the useless weapon, he seized some of the most rebellious, dragged them from the ranks by main strength, and ordered them to be taken to prison. The others, dismayed by his spirited conduct, hastily dispersed and sought their quarters. The next day three of the most seditious of the soldiers, and a young lieutenant who was accused of aiding in the mutiny,—though probably innocent of it,—were arrested and shot without trial.
Paroxysms of fury were not uncommon with Paez. After the battle of Ortiz, in which his daring charges alone saved the infantry from destruction, he was seized with a fit, and lay on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Colonel English went to his aid, but his men warned him to let their general alone, saying, "He is often so, and will soon be all right. None of us dare touch him when he is in one of these spells."
But Colonel English persisted, sprinkling his face with water and forcing some down his throat. The general soon recovered and thanked him for his aid, saying that he was a little overcome with fatigue, as he had killed thirty-nine of the enemy with his own hand. As he was running the fortieth through the body he felt his illness coming on. By way of reward he presented Colonel English with the lance which had done this bloody work and gave him three fine horses from his own stud.
These anecdotes of the dashing leader of the llaneros, who, like all Indians, viewed the Spaniards with an abiding hatred, are likely to be of more interest than the details of his services in the years of campaigning. In the field, it may be said, he was an invaluable aid to General Bolivar. In the campaigns against Morillo, the Spanish commander-in-chief, his daring activity and success were striking, and to him was largely due the winning the last great battle of the war, that of Carabobo.
In this battle, fought on the 26th of June, 1821, Bolivar had about sixteen hundred infantry, a thousand or more of them being British, and three thousand of llanero cavalry under Paez. The Spaniards, under La Torre, had fewer men, but occupied a very strong defensive position. This was a plain, interspersed with rocky and wooded hills, and giving abundant space for military movements, while if driven back they could retire to one strong point after another, holding the enemy at disadvantage throughout. In front there was only one defile, and their wings were well protected, the left resting upon a deep morass. A squadron of cavalry protected their right wing, and on a hill opposite the defile—through which ran the road to Valencia—was posted a small battery.
This position seemed to give the royalists a decisive superiority over their patriot antagonists, and for twenty days they waited an attack, in full confidence of success. Bolivar hesitated to risk an attack, fearing that the destiny of his country might rest upon the result. He proposed an armistice, but this was unanimously rejected by his council of war. Then it was suggested to seek to turn the position of the enemy, but this was also rejected, and it was finally decided to take every risk and assail the enemy in his stronghold, trusting to courage and the fortune of war for success.
While the subject was being discussed by Bolivar and his staff, one of the guides of the army, who was thoroughly familiar with the country they occupied, stood near and overheard the conversation. At its end he drew near Bolivar, and in a whisper told him that he knew a difficult footpath by which the right wing of the Spaniards might be turned.
This news was highly welcome, and, after a consultation with his informant, Bolivar secretly detached three battalions of his best troops, including the British legion and a strong column of cavalry under General Paez, directing them to follow the guide and preserve as much silence and secrecy as possible.
The path proved to be narrow and very difficult. They were obliged to traverse it in single file, and it was paved with sharp stones that cut their shoes to pieces and deeply wounded their feet. Many of them tore their shirts and made bandages for their feet to enable them to go on. Fortunately for the success of the movement, it was masked by the forest, and the expedition was able to concentrate in a position on the flank of the enemy without discovery.
When at length the Spaniards found this unwelcome force on their flank they hastily despatched against it the royal battalion of Bengos, driving back the nearest troops and unmasking the British legion. This they fired upon and then charged with the bayonet. The British returned the fire and charged in their turn, and with such dash and vigor that the Spaniards soon gave way. In their retreat Paez marched upon them with a squadron called the Sacred Legion, and few of them got back to their ranks. In return a squadron of the Spaniards charged the British, but with less success, being dispersed by a hot musketry fire.
While the Spanish right wing was being thus dealt with, a fierce attack had been made upon the front. The unexpected flank and rear attack was so disconcerting that La Torre lost all presence of mind, and on every side his men were driven back and thrown into confusion. In front and on flank they were .hotly pressed. The opportunity of retreating to the succession of defensive points in the rear was quite lost sight of in the panic that invaded their ranks, and soon they were in precipitate retreat, their cavalry dispersed without making a charge, their infantry in the utmost disorder, their cannon and baggage-trains deserted and left. to the enemy.
In this state of affairs Paez showed his customary dash and activity He pursued the Spaniards at the head of the cavalry, cutting them down vigorously, and few of them would have escaped but for the fatigued and weak condition of his horses, which rendered them unable to break the files of the Spanish infantry. In one of their unsuccessful charges General Sedeno, Colonel Plaza, and a black man called, from his courage, El Primero (the first), finding that they could not break the infantry lines, rushed madly into the midst of the bayonets and were killed.
The news of this defeat spread consternation among the Spaniards. Thousands of the royalists in the cities hastened to leave the country, fearing the vengeance of the patriots, the Spanish commanders lost all spirit, and three months later the strong fortress of Carthagena surrendered to the Colombians. Maracaibo was held till 1823, when it surrendered, and in July, 1824, Porto Cabello capitulated and the long contest was at an end.
This final surrender was due in great measure to General Paez, who thus sustained his military service to the end. Though not gaining the renown of Bolivar, and doubtless incapable of heading an army and conducting a campaign, as a cavalry leader he was indispensable, and to him and his gallant llaneros was largely due the winning of liberty.