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José de San Martín

leader in winning independence for Argentina, Peru, and Chile

José Francisco de San Martín was born in Yapeyu in the Province of Corrientes, Argentina, on February 25, 1778, the youngest son of Lieutenant Juan de San Martín, the Provincial Governor. In 1785, his father was recalled to Spain, where he received his education.

Jose San Martin

Early Military Career

San Martín joined the Spanish Army as a cadet at the age of 11. He subsequently took part in several Spanish campaigns in Africa, fighting in Melilla and in Oran against the Moors in 1791, among others, and was made a Sub-Lieutenant in 1793. He served with the Spanish Navy during the War of the Second Coalition, when Spain was allied with France against Great Britain. He took part in battles in Portugal and served in the blockade of Gibraltar, and was for a time a prisoner of the British. After returning to Spain in a prisoner exchange, San Martín fought in southern Spain as a Second Captain of light infantry. He continued to fight on the side of Spain in the War of the Oranges in 1801, and was promoted to Captain in 1804.

At the outbreak of the Peninsular War in 1808, San Martín was named adjutant of Francisco María Solano Ortiz de Rosas. After Rosas was killed by a popular uprising which overran the barracks, San Martín was appointed to the armies of Andalucía, and led a battalion of volunteers. In June 1808 his unit was incorporated into a guerrilla force led by Juan de la Cruz Mourgeón. He was nearly killed during the Battle of Arjonilla, and played a major role in the Battle of Bailén, a Spanish victory that allowed the Army of Andalusia to attack and seize Madrid. For his actions during this battle, San Martín was awarded a gold medal, and his rank was raised to Lieutenant Colonel. He subsequently fought in the Battle of Albuera under the command of General William Carr Beresford.

Service in South America

In 1811, San Martín left the Spanish Army to join the Argentinian independence movement, making him the highest ranking Spanish officer to join a Latin American independence movement. After spending some time in England, he sailed to Buenos Aires aboard the frigate George Canning, arriving there on March 9, 1812. A few days after his arrival, San Martín was appointed as Lieutenant Colonel of cavalry and charged with organizing a regiment of mounted grenadiers in Buenos Aires. In September 1812, San Martín married Maria de los Remedios de Escalada, with whom he had one daughter, Mercedes (born in 1816).

Battle of San Lorenzo

San Martín's first military action in South America was fought near Montevideo on February 3, 1813. A small Spanish force had been harassing settlements along the Parana River and San Martín was sent with his new regiment to stop it. San Martín's horse was killed during the battle, and his leg was trapped under the corpse of the animal after the fall. A royalist attempted to kill San Martín while he was trapped under his dead horse; he suffered a saber injury to his face and a bullet wound to his arm before two of his men intervened. The battle ultimately had little influence on the war, nor did it prevent future Spanish harassments along the Parana River.

San Martin trapped under his dead horse at San Lorenzo
San Martin trapped under his dead horse

Army of the North

Meanwhile, Argentina's "Army of the North," under the command of General Manuel Belgrano, had been fighting royalist forces from Lower Peru (now Bolivia) to a stalemate. In October 1813, Belgrano was defeated at the Battle of Ayahuma and San Martín was sent to relieve him. He took command in January of 1814 and subsequently drilled the recruits into a formidable fighting force. In spite of initial success he determined that the Royalist strongholds in Lower Peru could not be taken by assault because of their mountainous surroundings, so he set about planning a military expedition to cross the Andes and liberate Peru from the south. To advance this plan, he requested the governorship of the Cuyo province, which was granted; he took office on September 6, 1814.

San Martin meeting Manuel Belgrano
San Martin meeting Manuel Belgrano

Governor of Cuyo

As soon as he took office in Mendoza, Cuyo, San Martín began organizing the Army of the Andes. He also drafted all the citizens who could bear arms and all the slaves from ages 16 to 30, requested reinforcements to Buenos Aires, and reorganized the economy for war production. By the end of 1816 he had an army of some 5,000 men, including a healthy mix of infantry, cavalry, artillerymen and support forces. He recruited officers and accepted tough gauchos into his army, usually as horsemen. There was even a regiment of British soldiers who would fight bravely in Chile. San Martín was obsessed with details, and the army was as well equipped and trained as he could make it. The horses all had shoes, blankets, boots and weapons were procured, food was ordered and preserved, etc. No detail was too trivial for San Martín and the Army of the Andes, and his planning would pay off when the army crossed the Andes.

training the Army of the Andes
training the Army of the Andes

Crossing the Andes

In January of 1817, the army set off. The Spanish forces in Chile were expecting him and he knew it. Should the Spanish decide to defend the pass he chose, he could face a hard battle with weary troops. But he fooled the Spanish by mentioning an incorrect route "in confidence" to some Indian allies. As he had suspected, the Indians were playing both sides and sold the information to the Spanish. Therefore, the royalist armies were far to the south of where San Martín actually crossed.

The army was divided in six columns, each taking a different path. The crossing was arduous, as flatland soldiers and gauchos struggled with the freezing cold and high altitudes, but San Martín's meticulous planning paid off and he lost relatively few men and animals. In February of 1817, the Army of the Andes entered Chile unopposed.

crossing the Andes
crossing the Andes

The Battle of Chacabuco

The Spanish soon realized they had been duped and scrambled to keep the Army of the Andes out of Santiago. The Governor, Casimiro Marcó del Pont, sent all available forces out under the command of General Rafael Maroto with the purpose of delaying San Martín until reinforcements could arrive. They met at the Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, 1817. The battle ended with 600 royalists dead and 500 prisoners, with only 12 deaths and 120 injuries in the Army of the Andes. Governor Francisco Marcó del Pont attempted to escape to Valparaíso and sail to Peru, but he was captured on February 22 and returned to Santiago. Several other officials were captured as well and sent as prisoners to San Luis, Argentina. San Martín sent Marcó del Pont prisoner to Mendoza.

Battle of Chacabuco
Battle of Chacabuco

The Battle of Maipu

San Martín still believed that for Argentina and Chile to be truly free, the Spanish needed to be removed from their stronghold in Peru. Still covered in glory from his triumph at Chacabuco, he returned to Buenos Aires to get funds and reinforcements.

News from Chile soon brought him hurrying back across the Andes. Royalist and Spanish forces in southern Chile had joined with reinforcements and were threatening Santiago. San Martín took charge of the patriot forces once more and met the Spanish at the Battle of Maipu on April 5, 1818. The patriots crushed the Spanish army, killing some 2,000, capturing around 2,200 and seizing all of the Spanish artillery.

On to Peru

With Chile finally secure, San Martin began building or acquiring a navy for Chile. It was difficult to make Chileans and Argentines see the benefits of liberating Peru, but San Martín had great prestige by then and he was able to convince them. In August of 1820 he departed from Valparaiso with a modest army of some 4,700 soldiers and 25 cannons, well supplied with horses, weapons and food. It was a smaller force than what San Martín believed he would need.

San Martín believed that the best way to liberate Peru was to get the Peruvian people to accept independence voluntarily. He had liberated Chile and Argentina to the south, and Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre had freed Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela to the north, leaving only Peru and present-day Bolivia under Spanish rule. San Martín had brought a printing press with him on the expedition, and he began bombarding citizens of Peru with pro-independence propaganda. He maintained a steady correspondence with Viceroys Joaquín de la Pezuela and José de la Serna in which he urged them to accept the inevitability of independence and surrender willingly in order to avoid bloodshed.

Meanwhile, San Martín's army was closing in on Lima. He captured Pisco on September 7 and Huacho on November 12. Viceroy La Serna responded by moving the royalist army from Lima to the defensible port of Collao in July of 1821, basically abandoning the city of Lima to San Martín. The people of Lima, who feared an uprising by slaves and Indians more than they feared the army of Argentines and Chileans at their doorstep, invited San Martin into the city. On July 12, 1821, he entered Lima to the cheers of the populace.

Protector of Peru

On July 28, 1821, Peru officially declared independence, and on August 3, San Martín was named "Protector of Peru" and set about setting up a government. His brief rule was marked by stabilizing the economy, freeing slaves, giving freedom to the Peruvian Indians, and abolishing censorship and the Inquisition.

San Martin announcing Peru's independence
San Martin announcing Peru's independence

The Spanish still had armies at the port of Collao and high in the mountains, however. San Martín starved out the garrison at Collao and waited for the Spanish army to attack him along the narrow, easily defended coastline leading to Lima; they wisely declined, leaving a sort of stalemate. San Martín would later be accused of cowardice for failing to seek out the Spanish army, but to do so would have been foolish and unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre were sweeping down out of the north, chasing the Spanish out of northern South America. San Martín and Bolívar met in Guayaquil in July of 1822 to decide how to proceed. Although both men came away with a negative impression of the other, San Martín decided to step down and allow Bolívar the glory of crushing the final Spanish resistance in the mountains.

San Martin and Bolivar meeting in Guayaquil
San Martin and Bolivar meeting in Guayaquil

Later Life

After leaving Guayaquil, San Martín initially returned to Peru, where he had become a controversial figure. Some adored him and wanted him to become King of Peru, while others detested him and wanted him out of the nation completely. He soon tired of the endless bickering and backstabbing of government life and abruptly retired from all public service. By September of 1822 he was back in Chile. When he heard that his wife was ill, he hastened back to Argentina, but she died before he reached her side. Deciding that he would be better off elsewhere, he took his daughter Mercedes to Europe; they settled in France.

In 1829, Argentina called him back to help settle a dispute with Brazil, which eventually would lead to the establishment of the nation of Uruguay. He returned, but by the time he reached Argentina the government had once again changed and he was not welcome. He spent two months in Montevideo before returning once again to France. He died at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, on August 17, 1850, and was buried at the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires.

See Also

Simón Bolívar

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This page was last updated on December 21, 2018.