South American Revolutions

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter XX. | Contents | Chapter XXII. »

Chapter XXI.

South American Revolutions—Co-operation of the United States—Irish Staff of Simon Bolivar—The O'Higginses—MacKenna—O'Connor—O'Carroll—Captain Esmonde—O'Reilly—The O'Briens—Issue of the South American Struggle

DURING the generation, of whose good and evil actions we have been discoursing, a series of events transpired in South America, which exercised a material influence over the Irish settlers at the north, and deserves to be mentioned in detail, in this place:

The revolution in South America dates from the year 1808, and its independence from the year 1823, when the last of the Spanish forces evacuated Caraccas. That struggle of fifteen years was marked by events worthy of the pen of the greatest of historians.

The contest might be said to have three divisions,—Bolivar's in Columbia, O'Higgins' in Chili, and that of the Argentine Republic on the Rio de la Plata.

Of the life and actions of Simon Bolivar, this is not the place to speak. We introduce his name here, as bringing with it that of many distinguished Irish soldiers, who were constantly by his side. Ireland felt a deep interest in his cause, and, in 1817, sent out her Irish brigade, under the command of General Devereux, a native of Wexford.[1] Bolivar seems to have reciprocated the partiality of that nation, his staff being in great part composed of Irish officers.

"The doctor who constantly attended him," says the English General Miller, "was Dr. Moore, an Irishman, who had followed the Liberator from Venezuela to Peru. He is a man of great skill in his profession, and devotedly attached to the person of the Liberator. Bolivar's first aide-de-camp, Colonel O'Leary, is a nephew of the celebrated Father O'Leary. In 1818, he embarked, at the age of seventeen, in the cause of South American independence, in which he has served with high distinction, having been present at almost every general action fought in Colombia, and has received several wounds. He has been often employed on diplomatic missions, and in charges of great responsibility, in which he has always acquitted himself with great ability.

"Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson, already mentioned as a distinguished officer of rifles, was also an aide-de-camp. He too was an Irishman by birth. When a mere youth, he quitted a counting-house at Demerara, and joined the patriot standard. During the war of extermination, he was taken by the Spaniards. He was led, with several others, from a dungeon at La Guayra, for the purpose of being shot on the sea-shore. Having only a pair of trousers on, his fair skin was conspicuous amongst his unfortunate swarthy companions, and attracted the attention of the boat's crew of an English man-of-war, casually on the strand. One of the sailors ran up to him, and asked if he was an Englishman. Ferguson was too much absorbed by the horror of his situation to give an answer; but, on the question being repeated, he replied, ' I am an Irishman.' 'I too am an Irishman,' said the sailor, 'and, by Jesus, no Spanish rascals shall murder a countryman of mine in daylight if I can help it!' Upon which, he ran off to his officer, who interceded with the Spanish governor, and the life of Ferguson was saved. He related this incident to Miller, who has forgotten the name of the English man-of-war, and also that of the generous preserver of the gallant Ferguson. This unfortunate officer fell a sacrifice in the defence of Bolivar, on the night of the conspiracy at Bogota, in September, 1828. It is a matter of regret that we do not possess sufficient data to give that full biographical account of the above-named officers to which their merits and services so fully entitle them."[2]

In Chili, the Irish had been still more distinguished. Don Ambrosio O'Higgins, the last captain-general, had planted new trades and towns, opened canals, deepened rivers and harbors, and, in a thousand other ways, promoted the interest of that province. His son, Don Bernardo, a native of Chili, inherited all his enterprise, and more than his patriotism, and, under him as supreme director, Chili successfully struggled for its independence of Spain. The first four years of his command, assailed by force without and faction within, were the years of his trial and his glory. A fellow-soldier has recorded them in the vivid language of a witness:

"Colonel Don Bernardo O'Higgins, who, on the 24th of November, 1813, succeeded Carrera in the command of the army, had distinguished himself for personal courage and rectitude of conduct; whilst the prudence and talents of Mackenna made up in some measure for the deficiency of discipline and want of organization in the patriot forces.

"The independents were formed into two brigades; one under O'Higgins, in Concepcion, the other under Mackenna, at Membrillar, near Chillan.

"About this time the royalist cause was strengthened by a reinforcement from Lima, under the command of General Gainza, whose personal and professional qualities rendered him a formidable enemy; but, in spite of these changes, almost a year passed without producing any important occurrence.

"On the 19th of March, 1814, Mackenna repulsed, at Membrillar, a sharp attack of General Gainza, who, on the following day, was again worsted by the corps of O'Higgins, hastening from Concepcion to the support of Mackenna.[3] Discouraged by these rencontres, Gainza left the patriot brigades behind him, and marched towards the capital, an open city without a garrison. The movement was made under the supposition that O'Higgins would be unable to follow for want of horses.—

Gainza crossed the river Maule eighty leagues south of Santiago, and took the city of Talca, but not without an heroic, though unavailing, opposition from a party of the inhabitants, who, unprovided with means of defence, perished in the vain attempt to preserve the town.

"The people of Santiago ascribed the loss of Talca to the negligence of the executive. It was therefore considered opportune to dissolve the governing junta of three persons, and to nominate a supreme director. Don Francisco Lastra was the first invested with that dignity. He hastily collected a small division, and sent it, under Don Manuel Blanco Ciceron, against the enemy; but that officer was totally defeated at Cancharayada by the vanguard of the royalists.

"In the mean while, O'Higgins prepared to follow Gainza; and, by forced marches, made under great difficulties, arrived on the left bank of the river. He immediately bivouacked, as if it had been his intention to remain there for the purpose of watching the enemy's motions; but as soon as it became dark, he crossed the rapid Maule at several points, a few miles above the Spanish posts, and, when morning broke, the astonished enemy beheld the patriot army in a strong position, which commanded the road to Santiago, as well as that to Chilian, the centre of the royalist resources. The masterly passage of the Maule may be considered as equivalent to a victory. General Gainza, cut off from retreating either way, was compelled to shut himself up in Talca.

"Don José Miguel and Don Luis Carrera had been set at liberty by the royalists, in virtue of the treaty of Talca. Don Juan José had been banished across the Andes, but had returned. In May, 1814, a court martial was ordered to assemble, for the purpose of exhibiting (as was stated to the public) the bad conduct of the three brothers. Don Luis was arrested, but Don José Miguel and Don Juan José succeeded in concealing themselves. The present juncture was considered by them to be favorable to a new usurpation of the reins of government. They secretly organized in the capital a party with which they had never ceased to correspond, and which now assisted in carrying into execution their criminal designs. A part of the garrison having been gained over, the Carreras showed themselves on the 23d of August, 1814, and deposed the supreme director, Lastra.

"A junta was formed, and the elder Carrera placed himself at the head of it, as in the first usurpation. The indignant citizens, although much dissatisfied with Lastra, immediately assembled, and signified their extreme displeasure to the Carreras; but finding the latter deaf to remonstrances, unsupported by the bayonet, they appealed for protection to O'Higgins, who lost no time in obeying the call. He marched from Talca, and a partial rencontre took place in the vicinity of Santiago. The rival parties were on the eve of a general action, when a messenger appeared from the royalist general, and a suspension of arms was agreed upon, to receive his despatches.

"The messenger was the bearer of an official letter, intimating that the viceroy had refused to ratify the treaty of Talca; that the only measure left for the insurgent authorities to secure the royal clemency was by surrendering at discretion. The despatch concluded by the assurance that the sword was unsheathed, in order not to leave one stone upon another in case of resistance.

"It also appeared that Gainza had been recalled to Peru, although he had some claims upon the consideration of a viceroy remarkable for his disregard of public faith towards the patriots, but who in other respects bore an honorable character. Gainza had violated the treaty by remaining, under various pretexts, in Concepcion, until General Osorio arrived with fresh troops, and a supply of military stores of every kind; and events ultimately proved that he had signed the treaty for no other purpose than that time might be gained for these reinforcements to arrive. The plan of the Spaniards was so well formed, that 4000 troops were already within fifty leagues of the capital when the summons for unconditional submission was received.

"Agitated by conflicting feelings, O'Higgins magnanimously sacrificed his just resentments, to save his country. He acceded to the demands of his rival, and nobly turned his arms against the common enemy. Carrera followed O'Higgins with a strong division; but discipline no longer gave efficiency to soldiers who had often fought gloriously: desertion to an alarming extent prevailed. To consolidate his ill-acquired power, Carrera had weakened the army by removing some deserving officers, and had banished from the capital many distinguished citizens, for no other reason than their discountenance of his arbitrary proceedings.

"O'Higgins encountered the royalist force on the bank of the river Cachapoal; but, having only 900 men, was defeated, and he took shelter in the town of Rancagua, twenty-three leagues from Santiago. He caused the entrances of the streets to be blocked up, and made the place as difficult of access as his very slender means permitted.

"On the 1st of October, 1814, the royalists commenced an attack, which lasted for thirty-six hours, during which time the fire on both sides was kept up with unremitting vigor. Each party hoisted the black flag, and no quarter was given. In the hottest of the action, the magazine of the patriots exploded, and produced the most destructive effects; but, undismayed by the heavy misfortune, their efforts seemed to redouble, and the Spanish general determined to abandon the enterprise. He had actually given orders to retreat, under the impression that Carrera, who had remained an unmoved spectator, would cut off his retreat, and that his exhausted royalists would be attacked in a disadvantageous position by that chief with fresh troops. But General Ordonez, the second in command, perceiving the inaction of Carrera, who evidently exhibited no intention to effect a diversion, or to send to O'Higgins the smallest succor, determined upon making another grand effort. By means of the hatchet and the flames, the royalist penetrated through the walls of the houses, and at length fought their way, inch by inch, to the square in the centre of the town. Here O'Higgins made his last stand with two hundred survivors, worn out with fatigue, tormented with raging thirst, and surrounded by heaps of slain; till observing all was lost, he, although wounded in the leg, headed the brave relics of his party, and gallantly cut his way through the royalists. Such was the impression produced by this desperate act of valor, that none ventured to pursue the patriots, who continued their retreat without further molestation to the capital. The royalists remained in Rancagua to despatch the wounded, to butcher the few remaining inhabitants, and to destroy what had escaped the flames.

"The Carreras had still under their command one thousand five hundred men; but they abandoned the capital without a struggle. The depredations committed by the troops of the Carreras irritated the citizens to such a degree, that a deputation was sent to Osorio, to request him to enter Santiago and reestablish order. Six hundred troops crossed the Andes with Carrera. General O'Higgins emigrated with about one thousand four hundred persons, many of whom were ladies of rank, who passed the snowy ridges of the Andes on foot. All were received at Mendoza with generous hospitality by General San Martin, and few returned home until after the battle of Chacabuco, in 1817."[4]

Colonel O'Connor, son of Roger, and nephew of Arthur O'Connor, chief of the staff to San Martin, had raised a fine regiment at Panama, and embarked in the first attempt at Peruvian independence. He fought throughout the war, until the final battle of Ayachuco ended the struggle, by establishing the liberties of the colony. In that engagement he acted as adjutant general, and contributed materially to the "crowning victory."

Colonel O'Carroll, another officer in the same service, after a distinguished career, perished at the hands of the guerilla, Benavides, who cut out the tongue of his captive before putting him to death.

Captain Esmonde, a native of Wexford, and an early adherent of the South American cause, captured and imprisoned in 1811, by the royalists, underwent various singular adventures.

"One of the authorities at Pisco, to whose charge the patriot prisoners had been consigned, was Don Francisco Algorte, who, in addition to the brutal tyranny which he exercised over the unfortunate prisoners, descended frequently to the cowardly violence of striking Esmonde upon the head with a cane. From this situation, more horrible than death to the mind of a gentlemanly and high-spirited officer, Esmonde was removed to the casemates of Callao, whence he was liberated by the kind interposition of Captain Shirreff, with whom, in compliance with the terms of his release, he returned to England.

"On the capture of Pisco, in 1821, by the patriots, under the command of Miller, an estate of Algorte was, as belonging to a violent and uncompromising Spaniard, taken possession of, and subsequently confiscated.

"Algorte repaired to Lima, and, in the course of a few months, by well-directed presents, secured the support of some powerful friends, whose influence had nearly obtained from the protector the restoration of his estate. Nothing was wanting to complete his success but the report of Miller, upon a reference made to him, and , which was necessary to legalize the restoration. To ensure his acquiescence, Algorte had recourse to a mutual friend, a rich Spanish merchant of the highest character. This gentleman, without venturing to enter into particulars, intimated that he was authorized to subscribe to any terms. An intimate friend of Miller's, an English merchant, was also employed, and who, in a jocose manner, hinted that, in the event of a favorable report, five or six thousand dollars might be accidentally found at the door of the colonel's apartments.

"Esmonde, who had fulfilled the conditions of his release, and returned to Peru, happened at this moment to be in Lima. To him, therefore, Miller, who had heard some reports of Algorte's treatment of the prisoners, referred for their correctness, without mentioning, either then or afterwards, the motive for his inquiries. Esmonde simply recounted the conduct of Algorte towards himself and his fellow-prisoners. The result may be anticipated. Miller's report was immediately forwarded, and Algorte's estate irrecoverably lost.

"Captain Esmonde was afterwards employed by the Peruvian government to examine and report upon the possibility of making canals near Tarapaca. The vessel, on board of which he embarked, having never been heard of, is supposed to have foundered at sea."[5]

On the royalist side, the only Irishman of note was General O'Reilly, taken prisoner by Saurey, on his march from Canta to Pisco, in 1820. He was allowed to return to Spain, but so afflicted by his defeat, that he is "supposed to have thrown himself overboard, as he was drowned at sea."

In the service of Buenos Ayres, beside Colonel Mackenna already mentioned, Captain O'Brien, of the first Argentine ship-of-war, and Colonel, now General, O'Brien, of the army, were early distinguished. The former lost his life early in the contest, but the latter survived to prove himself worthy of almost every civil and military trust, in the gift of his adopted country. After rising from rank to rank, during the war, he was successively minister of Venezuela at London, and chief of the Venezuelan republic. He still survives.

Such, were some of the services to liberty which made the Irish name illustrious in South America, and revived the passion for military glory in the hearts of the Irish settlers of the northern confederation.

« Chapter XX. | Contents | Chapter XXII. »


[1] See Charles Phillips' Speech at the Farewell Dinner given to Devereux;—Phillips' Speeches, passim. General Devereux, we believe, recently died, old and blind, near Nashville, Tenessee.

[2] Memoirs of Gen. Miller, vol. ii., pp. 333—234.

[3] This officer, a native of Ireland, was killed by one of the Carreras, in a duel fought at Buenos Ayres, in 1814.

[4] Memoirs of Gen. Miller, vol. i., pp. 117-119, 120-124.

[5] Memoirs of General Miller, vol. i., pp. 224, 225.