The Battle of Peralonso (Spanish: Batalla de Peralonso), also known as the Battle of La Amarilla or the Battle of La Laja, was a major battle in the Santander Campaign of the Thousand Days' War in Colombia. It took place between 15 and 16 December 1899, ending in an important Liberal victory. Although the Liberal rebels had suffered a series of major defeats culminating in the failed attack on Bucaramanga on November 13, the Conservative forces failed to pursue the defeated Liberals. The Liberal forces splintered into three autonomous forces, led by Rafael Uribe Uribe, Benjamín Herrera, and Justo L. Durán, but they first regrouped in Cúcuta, which Herrera had occupied on November 1. Herrera abandoned the city, however, and the autonomous rebel armies shifted to new positions on and around the heights of Cerro Tasajero, north of Cúcuta and close to the border with Venezuela.
|Battle of Peralonso|
|Part of the Santander Campaign of the Thousand Days' War|
Sketch of La Laja Bridge, across which Rafael Uribe Uribe charged, by rebel colonel Peregrino Rivera Arce, 1900
|Conservative Government||Liberal Rebels|
|Commanders and leaders|
Ramón González Valencia
Rafael Uribe Uribe (WIA)|
Benjamín Herrera (WIA)
Justo L. Durán
Gabriel Vargas Santos
Autonomous Revolutionary Army of Rafael Uribe Uribe
Autonomous Revolutionary Army of Benjamín Herrera
Autonomous Revolutionary Army of Justo L. Durán
|Casualties and losses|
700 killed and wounded|
|750 killed and wounded|
Cerro Tasajero offered a strong defensive position for the rebels, protected to the east by the Venezuelan border and protected to the west by a rail line that went north to La Arenosa. Uribe's forces occupied the heights, while Herrera positioned his army to the west on the Aguablanca rail line that connected Cúcuta to Puerto Villamizar to the north. Durán's forces occupied San Faustino (Colombia), a corregimiento bordering Venezuela, on the Táchira River. The Conservative forces delayed in pressuing the Liberals, partially due to controversy when Minister of War José Santos appointed Vicente Villamizar supreme commander of the Conservative army instead of the more popular Manuel Casabianca.
On December 9, the Conservatives offered the entrenched Liberals amnesty in exchange for a surrender. The belligerents agreed upon a five-day ceasefire to negotiate, but the Liberals forces secretly decamped from Cerro Tasajero on December 13. They successfully took the rail line north to La Arenosa and attempted a circuitous march west, across the Zulia River, with the objective of evading the Conservative forces and probing deeper into Santander (modern-day Norte de Santander). Late on the night of the 13th, Villamizar ordered Ramón González Valencia, commander of III Division, to detain the fleeing rebels, promising that V Division under Jesús Zuluaga would reinforce shortly thereafter.
After a daylong march, troops of III Division encountered Liberal forces at the Peralonso River, a tributary of the Zulia, early the morning of December 15. González Valencia was outnumbered and III Division was exhausted and undersupplied. Zuluaga and V Division did not arrive in a timely fashion; meanwhile, intense skirmishing broke out over La Laja Bridge, a narrow structure that provided the only viable passageway across the Peralonso. Although III Division managed to hold off repeated rebel attempts to force a crossing, on December 16 the Conservative forces panicked and the entire army routed. There is debate over why the Conservatives fled, but most sources agree that Rafael Uribe Uribe personally led a charge across La Laja Bridge that triggered the rout.
The Liberal triumph at the Battle of Peralonso gave the rebellion much-needed momentum, improving morale and logistics thanks to the large quantity of materiel captured from the fleeing Conservatives. The rebels also reclaimed Cúcuta after the government forces abandoned the city. In the aftermath of their triumph, Uribe and Herrera agreed to name Gabriel Vargas Santos the Supreme Director of the War for the Liberal side, as well as the Provisional President of Colombia, in a direct challenge to Manuel Antonio Sanclemente's Conservative administration. Vargas Santos, however, failed to capitalize on the momentum of the Liberal victory at Peralonso and mostly delayed any further action in the Santander Campaign until the Battle of Palonegro in May 1900.
After the Liberal defeat at the Battle of Bucaramanga, Rafael Uribe Uribe withdrew his forces, hoping to make it to Cúcuta. This city was held by Benjamín Herrera’s army and close to the Venezuelan border, where the rebels hoped to receive military and economic support from Cipriano Castro. The Conservative government’s response to the victory at Bucaramanga was sluggish; it delayed almost a month before it made any serious attempt to pressure the rebels. Conservative general Ramón González Valencia was initially authorized by his superior, Vicente Villamizar, to pursue Uribe Uribe’s forces and rout them before they could join up with Herrera’s forces. Villamizar countermanded this order shortly after November 27, however, ordering González Valencia to await the arrival of General Isaías Luján’s I and II Divisions.
This delay allowed Uribe to arrive safely in Cúcuta and link up not only with Herrera, but also General Justo L. Durán, who had raised his own autonomous rebel army. The Liberals were forced to withdraw from Cúcuta, however, when the Conservative army, numbering some 8,000 strong, advanced on the city. The Liberal retreat fragmented the rebel army, splitting it once again into the three autonomous armies commanded by Uribe, Herrera, and Durán. They converged around Cerro Tasajero, a strategic hill protected by the Táchira River and the Venezuelan border to the west, and the Aguablanca rail line linking Cúcuta to Puerto Villamizar. Herrera camped west of the Aguablanca line, Uribe camped on the heights, and Durán camped on the Venezuelan border, where they awaited the Conservatives’ next move.
Dispute over Conservative CommandEdit
The Conservative attack was delayed considerably by internal disputes over command of the army. President Sanclemente intended to promote General Manuel Casabianca to commander of the Northeastern Theater of Operations (Teatro de Operaciones Nordeste). Minister of War José Santos, a Historical Conservative and rival to Sanclemente’s Nationalist Conservative cabinet, instead appointed Vicente Villamizar to the post on November 22.
Several Conservative generals, including Ramón González Valencia, protested and sent Casabianca a telegram informing him that they awaited his arrival so that they could recognize him as commander of the Northeastern Theater.  Upon Casabianca’s arrival, however, he realized that Bogotá had not granted him the position and opted to return to his original posting on the Atlantic coast in order to avoid a potential revolt within the Conservative ranks. This left Villamizar in charge, per Santos’s decision, making him the Generalísimo of the Army of the Northeast.
While the Conservative leadership disputed command of the Northeastern Theater, the autonomous Liberal armies awaited their opponent’s move from their positions in and around Cerro Tasajero. Although those positions were defensible, the Liberals lacked the munitions to hold the heights against a concentrated assault. The two sides exchanged messages and attempted to initiate negotiations. These proved unfruitful, however, and on the night of December 13, the rebels secretly abandoned Cerro Tasajero, leaving behind a token force to continue burning campfires so that the government forces would not discover their movement until daybreak.
The Liberals hoped to cross the Zulia River west of Cúcuta and escape the Conservative forces. The rebels crossed the Zulia at a tributary, the Peralonso River. Although the Peralonso was shallow enough for the soldiers to wade across, rains had swollen the waters, forcing them to cross at La Laja Bridge, a small suspension bridge that spanned the river. The rain stopped on the night of December 14. Conservative advance forces under González Valencia caught up to the Liberals at the Peralonso on the morning of December 15, and both sides dug trenches on either side of the river. The Liberals occupied the western bank of the river, and the Conservatives occupied the eastern bank. The two lines of battle stretched from Amarilla to the north to Caimito in the south.
The two armies exchanged fire ineffectively over the course of the day, with Villamizar apparently unwilling to commit his reserves. González’s vanguard was undersupplied and exhausted. However, the Conservative positions were more favorable, since they could take shelter behind a stone fence and fire through slits across the river. As a result, the Liberals were unable to push the government forces back and sustained heavy losses trying to take La Laja Bridge. Conservative reinforcements arrived that night. However, these trickled in only periodically, since the Conservative line was stretched more than seven leagues, with Villamizar’s headquarters established at the far end of this line. Further complicating the Conservative situation, Villamizar was only issuing his orders verbally.
On the morning of December 16, the Conservative forces attempted to force a crossing south of La Laja Bridge, at another bridge at Caimito. This attack failed, and by 0900 the main force of the Conservative army had arrived to reinforce the advance forces. This gave the government forces a significant advantage and allowed them to slowly push the Liberals back, wounding Herrera in the leg in the process. At 1200, a government battalion waded across the Peralonso at Amarilla and managed to advance on the Liberal headquarters at La Zulita. However, Villamizar ordered this battalion to return to its position on the Conservative flank, abandoning the attack.
The decisive moment came at 1630, when Uribe and a small group of between 10 and 14 men charged across La Laja Bridge on foot. The Conservative defenders failed to inflict any losses on Uribe's party, only managing to wound Uribe himself in the leg, and when the Liberal party had crossed the bridge, the Conservatives abandoned their position. With the Conservative flank vulnerable, more rebels advanced across La Laja Bridge and started to push into the Conservative line.
In a moment of confusion, the Conservative command signaled a withdrawal on the bugles that transformed into a massive rout. Panic spread throughout the Conservative ranks as the government soldiers dropped their weapons and abandoned their positions on the battlefield. The Liberal forces drove their enemy from the field, ending the pursuit at nightfall, where they returned to recover the weapons, munitions, and other materials that the Conservatives had left where they fled. The battle had been won.
Controversy over Uribe's ChargeEdit
After the battle of Peralonso, both Liberal and Conservative commanders disputed the reason for the Conservative collapse in the face of Uribe’s charge across La Laja Bridge. For the Liberal commanders, at stake was personal reputation and credit for victory. Durán and Herrera disputed the claim that Uribe was responsible for victory at Peralonso. In his memoirs, Durán referenced a January 1900 publication by a group of Liberal officers, including three who claimed to have accompanied Uribe on his charge. The authors claimed that the Conservative army had already begun its withdrawal before Uribe’s charge. At least one historian has argued that Herrera’s tactical ability in directing the fighting before he was wounded created the conditions for Uribe’s charge to succeed.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, argued over who was responsible for the defeat at Peralonso. Most of the blame fell on Vicente Villamizar for his conduct as commander of the army. Some sources claimed that Uribe’s charge across La Laja Bridge succeeded only because the Minister of War, José Santos, had sent General Villamizar a telegram ordering him to cede the field to the rebels. The telegram allegedly read: “Discrete and urgent. –Generalissimo Villamizar. –El Salado or wherever you are. –Remain on the defensive. Retreat to Pamplona. Allow the revolution to advance. Government needs to prolong state of affairs. Circulate the message that our cause must be saved. Destroy this. Signed, José Santos.” However, there is no documentary evidence for the telegram’s existence outside of secondary literature written by historians. The earliest written source referencing this claim is Leonidas Flórez Álvarez’s 1938 book Campaña en Santander (Campaign in Santander).
Historians largely discredit the telegram as unfounded. Martínez argues that a contagious panic seized the Conservative soldiers at La Laja and this spread, uncontained, across the whole army. De la Pedraja explains the Conservative defeat as the result of the government soldiers at La Laja having “collapsed behind the walls because without food or reinforcements and with little water, they were exhausted by two days of nearly continuous fighting.” Pardo suggests that Valencia mistakenly believed Uribe’s charge to be much bigger than it really was, and consequently ordered the withdrawal because he thought the Liberal army had seized the initiative.
The Liberal victory at Peralonso gave the rebels much-needed ammunition that the Conservatives abandoned on the battlefield as they fled. It reversed a string of near-constant losses that they had suffered since the start of the war two months earlier, and it elevated Rafael Uribe Uribe to celebrity status within the Liberal ranks. Peralonso attained a mythical status in the Liberal imagination. The Liberals claimed afterwards that a lunar eclipse on December 16, visible from the battlefield, signaled their imminent victory.
However, the Liberals did not capitalize on the victory at Peralonso. After Uribe’s popularity increased as a result of his charge across La Laja Bridge, Herrera and other Liberal generals conspired to limit his influence. Herrera and Uribe, in particular, had long considered each other rivals and had mutual disdain for the other. In order to curb his rise to power, on December 25 they named Gabriel Vargas Santos to serve as the rebels’ provisional president of the Republic of Colombia. Vargas did not pursue the defeated Conservatives. Instead, he garrisoned his army in Bucaramanga for three weeks, before moving to Cúcuta. His inaction did nothing to help a pro-Liberal insurrection in Antioquia that revolted on January 1, 1900, inspired by the victory at Peralonso. The revolt in Antioquia was crushed within a matter of weeks.
Meanwhile, the Conservative leadership was thrown into disarray by its defeat at Peralonso. In January 1900, President Sanclemente replaced Villamizar with Manuel Casabianca, the general that the president had initially intended to serve as the commander of the Northeastern Theater. Casabianca organized the dispersed Conservative forces and positioned them on the Chicamocha River, south of Bucaramanga and north of Sogamoso. This was Casabianca’s intended defensive line should the Liberals advance on Bogotá.
In the weeks after Peralonso, the Liberal armies won victories at Gramalote and Terán in February 1900, but mostly remained inactive. They camped in and around Cúcuta until April. It would not be until May that they seriously attempted to push into the interior of Colombia and threaten Bogotá. The Conservative army, by now under the command of Próspero Pinzón (Casabianca had been promoted to Minister of War after Sanclemente fired Santos on May 2), intercepted the Liberals at Palonegro.
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