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San Martín, José de: Liberator of Argentina

by Jason A. Vandiver

José Francisco de San Martín was born February 25, 1778. He was born at Yapey, in the province of Corrientes, Argentina. Yapey is on the banks of the Uruguay River and it is a very plentiful area. San Martín was born to Don Juan de San Martín, a professional soldier and government administrator and Doña Gregoria Matorras. San Martín's mother was the niece of one of the conquerors of the Chaco's wild forest. In 1784 San Martín and his family returned to Spain. He was only six years old and his parents enrolled him in the "Seminario de Noble." It was a very well respected school and he remained there from 1785 until 1789. San Martín, like his father before him, started his military career at an early age. He first joined the Murcia infantry regiment, a well respected regiment located in South Eastern Spain. This would be the beginning of a very illustrious and important military career.

San Martín was an extremely loyal servant of his mother country, Spain. San Martín fought against Napoleon and his French forces as a Spanish officer from 1808 until 1811. Even though he was true to his country, he did not particularly like the idea of an absolute monarchy and the colonial system in its current state. In 1811, San Martín decided to resign his commission in the Spanish Army. Shortly after leaving the military, San Martín set sail for London, England. It was there that he met several Spanish Americans who were very important in San Martín's quest for a revolution. He immediately left England for Buenos Aires, Argentina. When San Martín arrived in Argentina he was brought into service by the revolutionary regime. The members of the revolutionary regime realized that his experience as a soldier would be very beneficial to their cause.

In March of 1812, San Martín was given the assignment of forming a make-shift army. This force would be used to fight against the Spanish royalists in and around Peru. The royalists in Peru posed a threat to the opposition movement in Argentina and other South American countries. It was around this time that San Martín met his wife, María de los Remedios Escalada. María was member of an upper-class Argentine family of pure Spanish blood. Shortly after San Martín married his wife he became increasingly more involved with politics. San Martín always felt that he had a strong connection to the country of his birth. In September, 1812, he was a founding member of the "Lautaro Lodge", a secret revolutionary movement which was closely associated with the opposition to the government. There was another organization that worked with the "Lautaro Lodge", the "First Triumvirate", which was headed by Bernardino Rivadavia. Even though, the two groups were closely aligned they had two very different goals. Rivadavia was mainly interested in protecting the interests of Buenos Aires on a smaller scale. However, San Martín's main mission was to liberate Spanish America as a whole. The two opposing view points came to boil in December, 1812 and the two groups split.

On February 3, 1813, San Martín got his first taste of battle since he had returned to South America. A large royalist force made their way up the Paraná River. San Martín and his forces held their ground and managed to defeat the advancing forces. Later that year the government transferred San Martín to the northern Providences of Argentina. The hope of the government was that his presence there would strengthen the opposition movement in the north of the country. However, San Martín's efforts to strengthen opposition in the north were cut short to due his poor health. Although San Martín's physical abilities were momentarily put on hold his mind was sharp as ever. He used the time off to formulate a strategic plan against the royalists in Peru. It was during this time that he came up with one of the most outlandish military strategies of all time. San Martín knew that the best way to enter and ultimately attack Peru would be through the mountains of upper Peru.

This trip across the Andes would be one of the most difficult tasks that any army in history would have to endure. San Martín also prepared an alternate plan that would come by sea and would culminate off the Peruvian coast. Shortly after that San Martín began to finalize his plans. First he asked to be reassigned to the governor ship of Cuyo. The ship was located at the foot of the Andes Mountains in western Argentina. It was here that San Martín could continue to work on his plans of taking Peru.

In 1816, representatives from all of the Argentine provinces met for a monumental occasion. They met at the Congress of Tucumán to discuss the future plans for Argentina and her people. San Martín was on the side of declaring outright independence from Spain. On July 9th the Congress of Tucumán declared independence from Spain. San Martín along with many others at the conference believed that the best form of government for the newly liberated South American nations would be some form of a liberal-constitutional monarchy. San Martín believed that this would instill an element of stability in the new nations.

By this time in San Martín's life he was a well respected and highly decorated general. He was the sole founder of the "Regimiento de Granaderos a Caballo" (Mounted Grenadier Regiment of the Argentine Army) (Maurois, 1). It served as a school which produced some of the best cavalry officers in the history of South American warfare. All of the members of this school were well disciplined, well mannered, and were superior in training to any force before it. The significance of these soldiers would soon be realized when it came time for San Martín to begin assembling the force that would lead the march towards Peru. The force was made up predominantly of Argentineans (Maurois, 1). Less than one tenth of the men were Chileans and even those men were led by Argentine officers (Maurois1). It was this group of men that would later be referred to as "The Army of the Andes." Their name would be fitting when they embarked on one of the most daunting task in history.

In January 1817, San Martín began his march across the Andes. His army was made up of approximately 4000 men of infantry, cavalry, and artillery (Pachami, 3). The army split into two divisions, the first would head through the passage of Los Platos and the other would embark through the Uspallata Pass. Both groups would be advancing through the Andes at heights that often exceeded 15,000 feet. San Martín organizational skills had to be precise in order for the mission to be successful. He had only brought enough food and supplies for a month. It would be crucial that they reach their destination before these provisions ran out. The plan was that both columns of troops were to meet in Santa Rosa in the Andes (Pachami, 3). Shortly after the trip began the troops got their first taste of victory in the battle of Chacabuco. A few days after their victory San Martín and his men marched un-opposed into Santiago. The town hall met that day and would declare San Martín, Supreme Director. San Martín graciously refused the offer, in favor of his good friend General Bernardo O'Higgins. Now with the United Argentine-Chilean army constructed, San Martín's plans are falling into place. However, on March 19, 1818 a Spanish army defeated San Martín's forces in a night attack at the battle of Cancharrayada. In this struggle General O'Higgins is wounded. The United Argentine-Chilean army, "Ejercito Unido" as they were called, regrouped and defeat the Spanish forces at the battle of Maipú. That battle ended the Spanish efforts to dominate Chile (Pachami, 3).

It was at this time in San Martín's crusade that he had grown tired of using military force. San Martín tried to negotiate with the royalists, and hoped that they would accept a peaceful settlement (Maurois, 1). San Martín's proposal was short and concise. He proposed that Peru become a separate entity and have its own independent monarchy. Unfortunately, the negotiations were unsuccessful. The use of military force against Peru's Spanish leaders was now inevitable. With the battle plans laid out years in advance, San Martín played his final move in the chess game that was this war. Instead of attacking Peru from the land, San Martín would use his previous plan of sea supremacy. The only problem with his plan was that he did not have an adequate navy. However, this was not something that was going to stop San Martín.

The Chilean navy was comprised of ships that had been captured from the Spanish and vessels that they purchased from the United States and England. The two admirals of this navy were first admiral Blanco Encalada and the English admiral, Lord Cochrane (Pachami, 4). On August 20, 1820 the newly formed navy sailed from the port of Valparaiso towards Peru. With control of the seas, his army easily conquered Peru. San Martín's forces entered the capital of Lima in July, 1821. It was on this day that independence in Peru was proclaimed. On July 28, 1821 San Martín was declared "Protector of Peru." San Martín was offered a position of power just as he had been in Chile. Again San Martín refused the power and met with another man of great importance in South America at the time. In 1822, he met with Simon Bolivar in the city of Guayaquil. It has been said that they talked in private for nearly four hours, however, they could not reach an agreement on the form of government that they wanted to see come to power in Peru. This was not the first time the two men had talked. In late July 1821 Simon Bolivar's forces in the north were meeting heavy opposition from the remaining Spanish forces. San Martín dispatched several thousand men to aid his counterpart in the north. Those reinforcements would prove to be crucial in several key battles.

On September of that same year the first Congress of Peru met in Lima (Pachami, 5). It was at this time that San Martín left Peru. After resigning his military commission in Peru he returned to Argentina. On August 3, 1823 his wife, Gregoria, died in the city of Buenos Aires. A year later, displeased with the civil wars in the Provincias Unidas del Rio de la Plata, he embarked for France with his little daughter, Mercedes (Pachami5). In 1828, San Martín would make his final trip to the Americas. He left Europe to see if he could contribute anything to the progress of the newly formed nations. He returned the following year with the realization that he did not having anything to contribute to their internal peace. San Martín lent "moral support to the defenders of American sovereignty" after leaving South America (Olson550). Jose de San Martín died in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France on August 17, 1850.

San Martín accomplishments as a general are only overshadowed by his achievements as a patriot. He was the architect for one of the single greatest revolutions of all time. San Martín is still held in the highest regards in his homeland. What he accomplished nearly two centuries ago are still ringing in the hearts of every South American whose lives are better for what he achieved. San Martín was a living legend during his life and his status in the countries that he liberated is a strong as ever. What made San Martín great was the fact that he was the exact opposite of every other man that was in a position of power at that time. Not only did San Martín not seek power, but when it was handed to him he refused it. This is an extremely difficult task for even the most humble man. He was a great general and a liberator of people, but first and foremost he was just a humble man looking for his freedom.


1. Maurois, Dr. Andre Louis. "General José Francisco de San Martín. The Biography of José San Martín. June 20th 2003. Martín.htm
2. Olson, James S. Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Empire, 1402-1974. New York, Greenwood Press, 1992, 550.
3. "San Martín, Short history of the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru." Biography of San Martín (summary). June 20th 2003.