General José Francisco de San Martín

by Dr. André Louis Maurois

SanMartinCrossesTheAndes.jpg (40750 bytes)

General José Francisco de San Martín, born 25 February 1778 at Yapeyú, in the Province of Corrientes, Argentina. Died 17 August 1850 at Boulougne-sur Mer, France.

Founder of the " Regimiento de Granaderos a Caballo" (Mounted Grenadier Regiment of the Argentine Army, a model combat unit which served as an Academy for Officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers. From its ranks would emerge a plethora of brilliantly aggressive cavalry commanders the likes of which South America had not seen before or since. Creator of "The Army of the Andes" a force of 4000 men superior in training, discipline, moral and equipment to any hitherto seen in the South American content. Its composition was preponderantly Argentine; less than one tenth were Chileans, and even those fought under Argentine officers. (1)

In the late 19th century, the Prussian War College considered General San Martín's passage of the Andes so significant that they used as an example of meticulous staff planning. Even today, an analysis of the Argentine general's outstanding executive ability is invaluable in the interpretation of command and staff functions. (2)

On 8 February 1817, after mastering the formidable Andes, a series of uncharted snowcapped ranges which rose to a height of 21,000 feet, "The Army of the Andes" clashed with the Royalist forces at the field of Chacabuco, defeating them and thus liberating Chile from Spanish domination. Laconically, San Martín sends an official dispatch to Buenos Aires which stated: "In the space of twenty-four hours the have crossed the highest mountain range in the world; overthrown the tyrants and given liberty to Chile". Upon entering the Chilean capital on February 17, its leading citizens unanimously elected him as their new head of state. By his own resolve, as well as from instructions received from Buenos Aires, the general declines. Under Argentine officers, the Chilean army is resurrected. San Martín now commands the " Ejército Unido",a united Argentine-Chilean force which by early 1818 totals 6600 men. In response, the royalist dispatched an expeditionary force of 3400 under one General Osorio, one of their most competent commanders. Most of these men are Spanish-born veterans of the Napoleonic wars, and the rest Peruvians. Osorio lands at the royalist stronghold at Talcahuano; and at the head of 5000 men begins his march northwards, to avenge the defeat at Chacabuco. On 16 March, the United Army under San Martín reaches the Lontuée River, and sets up camp at Querechaguas. Fearing he has committed a major blunder, Osorio withdraws. San Martín sent forth his cavalry to cut off the retreat route, and when on the 19th the vanguards clash, the royalist cavalry is put to flight the United Army camps down for the night at a placed called Cancharayada, a rolling, traversed perpendicularly by hills, swamps and ditches. At 1930hrs, the royalists launch a surprise attack. Taken by surprise, the soldiers of the United Army disperse, but rallied bravely. The patriots suffer the loss of 120 dead and wounded, 23 pieces of artillery. Although they hold the field, the royalists have suffered over 200 casualties. After the battle, Osorio sets up camp at Querechaguas to give the remnants of his force a rest and await reinforcements. In the meantime, he detaches 200 cavalry on patrol. A detachment of 60 Mounted Grenadiers, under Captain Miguel Cajaraville, a brilliant Argentine cavalry officer considered one of the best swords in army leads a headlong charge. The royalists retreat at a gallop leaving thirty dead behind. With the arrival of the awaited reinforcements from Talcahuano Osorio now commands a force of 5500 men. On 2 April, he reaches Maipú, a plain in the province of Santiago, where on the 5th, both armies clash. Although the Spanish infantry proves a formidable opponent, as in Chacabuco a charge by the Argentine Mounted Grenadiers wins the day. The engagement at Maipú was a classical battle of annihilation. Royalist losses included 1500 killed, 3357 prisoners, 5000 rifles and carbines, 12 cannon and four battle flags. In 1820, San Martin led an allied army, borne by ships of the Chilean navy to the Bay of Paracas, South of Lima. In July 1821, San Martin entered Lima; the City of Kings and the independence of Peru was proclaimed. At this time, the offensive in the Ecuadorian Andes led by Simón Bolivar, the liberator of Northern South America, meeting fierce opposition has stalled. At Bolivar's request San Martín sent a mixed Argentine-Chilean division, led by Argentine officers which proves decisive in the victories at Riobamba and Junín, which in turn break the impasse and turn the tide for Boliviar. The Royalists in Peru, however, are not defeated yet. They can still field 20-23,000 men. San Martin has less 5000, (about 1200 Argentines, 100 Chileans, the rest Peruvians), but the Peruvians do not rally to cause of independence as enthusiastically as the Argentines, Chileans or Venezuelans; in fact most Peruvians remained loyal to the Spanish Crown. The United provinces of the Rio de la Plata , torn asunder by civil wars is unable to assist. Chile, financially exhausted cannot send any help. In 1822 San Martin meets with Bolivar at Guayaquil. It is now his turn to request military asistance Bolivar evades the issue by replying that such an act would require the consent of the Grand Colombian Congress. Much of what occurred at the meeting between the two liberators is still clouded in mystery. San Martín nobly offers to serve under Bolivar, but this offer is rejected. The reason is evident: the ambitious Venezuelan could not tolerate a figure of San Martín's stature in the South American scenario. For the sake of the cause of independence, San Martín steps down. By now a widower, he returns to Buenos Aires and sails for Europe. In this self-imposed exile he would share his latter years with his daughter and her children in a cruel but proud poverty. At his death in 1850, he leaves very few material possessions, but a rich heritage of Christian renunciation. He counsels his granddaughters to respect their fellow men as they would respect themselves, and above all to despise luxury. San Martín was not only the most brilliant of the generals of the Spanish American wars of Independence, but an antithesis of the ambitious, self-seeking military "caudillo" which dominated most of the Ibero American World well into the 20th century. (3)

(1) Mitre, Bartolomé, Historia de San Martín y de la Emancipación Sudamericana,( El Ateneo, Buenos Aires, 1950 vols. 1-3) I:267-273. Clissold, Stephen, Bernardo O'Higgins and the Independence of Chile ( Frederick A. Prager, New York, Washington 1968) pp. 140-145.
(2),Bosch, Bryan, Captain United States Army, "Intelligence in the Army of the Andes". Military Review, Professional Journal of the US Army (Fort Leavenworth Kansas, Vol. XVLVII No. 2, February 1967) pp.9-14, Mitre, Historia de San Martín; I:274-275.
(3) Mitre, op cir, I: 345-360, Clissold, op cit, 183-191.