South America - A Popular History - H. Butterworth

Cuzco—The Banner of the Sun

The province of Cuzco lies under the high Andes. It is inhabited by brave and liberty-loving mountaineers. The way to Upper Peru lay through its hills. The region is "beautiful, glorious and sublime." The snows melt and flow down from the colossal mountain-wall, and form crystal lakes. To drink of their pure, clear water is to live. The hills roll like billows of land into the quiet sea of the plain. The condor wheels in the sky as on a motionless wing, a creature that typifies his own native wilds amid the peaks of the air. Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis were then parts of the province. There were some forty thousand inhabitants in the province. They were a hard-working, clear-thinking people, of large sympathies and of sterling moral worth.

Here was the road to Chili over the Cordilleras, and also that from Chili to Buenos Ayres over the pampas. Here bullock-carts lumbered along the unfenced roads. Here came and went pack-mules with fruits, flour and wine.

San Martin was named governor of Cuzco in 1814. He lived in republican simplicity. He refused to occupy the handsome house offered him by the cabildo  (town-meeting or folkmoot) of Mendoza, and he returned one half of his salary in the interests of public economy. He accepted the position of general in the army only on the condition that he should resign it when the service was no longer a necessity.

Chili had gained her liberties, but only to lose them again. To free Chili would be, in his opinion, to win the cause of liberty for South America. To that cause San Martin now gave his heart. To lead an army over the Andes was his ambition. Such an army must be one of no ordinary men. The virtuous laborers of Cuzco were men who possessed uncommon strength of body and soul. San Martin began to organize such an army, and to arouse the people to a sense of their opportunity. Unpaid volunteers responded to his call. The ladies of Mendoza, headed by his own wife, cast their jewels into the public treasury for the patriotic cause.

Banner of the sun


He was a stern disciplinarian, yet his heart was full of mercy. One day an officer came to him. "I have done wrong. I have lost, in a game, money that was intrusted to me for the regiment." San Martin saw that the soul of the man had worth, else he would not have made the confession. "How much have you lost? "The officer named the amount. San Martin handed to him the sum in gold coin. "Pay the money back with this," he said, "but keep the transaction secret. If I ever hear that you have told of it you shall be shot."

In 1815 the republicans met with disasters in Upper Peru and in Colombia. One day when San Martin was dining with his officers he offered a toast: "To the first shot fired beyond the Andes against the tyrants of Chili!" The toast expressed the one purpose of his soul, the re-conquest of Chili for the cause of universal liberty.

Over Chili Abascal was viceroy, and Osorio there led the Spanish army. Abascal ruled with an iron hand, without justice or mercy. The people cried in secret for deliverance. The leader of the Chilian patriots was Manuel Rodriguez. He secretly organized volunteers, who were to await an opportunity to rise.

In 1816 San Martin, under the sanction of the Tucuman Congress, began to form the Army of the Andes. The expenses of the army were in part sustained by patriotic subscriptions. Some who could not give money gave labor.

The Benjamin Franklin of this period of preparation, when the genius of effective organization was a most important factor, was Luis Beltran, a mendicant friar. He was one of those patriotic priests who, from the time of the reaction against the cruelty of Spain in Lima to the awakening of Mexico under Hidalgo, repudiated the orders of their superiors. This man, strange as it may seem, became the Vulcan of the new army, and was assigned to the charge of the forges and the mechanical works. He was a native of Mendoza. He had joined the patriots in Chili, and had served as an artilleryman there. After the defeat of the patriots he returned to Cuzco "with a bag of tools of his own making on his shoulders."

He became a chaplain in the new Army of the Andes. His nobility as a patriot and his genius as a mechanic were recognized by San Martin. The latter commanded him to establish an arsenal, an extraordinary assignment to a chaplain. Friar Beltran found himself at the head of a military school of three hundred workmen, whom he taught to cast cannon, shot and shell, and to melt down church bells for the new march of liberty. He unfrocked himself in 1816, and put on the uniform of an officer of the artillery. "He became," says Mitre, "the Archimedes of the Army of the Andes."

The new year, 1817, had come to Mendoza. A new light was kindling on the peaks. The 17th of January was a high holiday in the beautiful town. The Army of the Andes, before it was to begin its march over the Andes, was to pass in review before San Martin. The women of Mendoza were to present to the army a flag which they had made. The flag bore the emblem of the Sun. The town of Mendoza was filled with banners. The army marched in amid the firing of cannon and the rolling of drums. The flag of the Sun was committed by the patriotic ladies into the hands of San Martin. The general mounted a platform in the great square, and waving the flag, amid a thrill of enthusiasm, exclaimed: "Behold the first flag of independence which has been blessed in America!" A shout of "Vive la patvia!"  rent the air. "Soldiers, swear to maintain it, as I now do!" Twenty-five guns saluted the flag. Mitre says this flag was raised for "the redemption of the half of South America which passed the Cordilleras. It waved in triumph along the Pacific coast, floated over the foundations of two new republics, aided in the liberation of another, and after sixty years served as the funeral pall to the body of the hero who had delivered it to the care of the immortal Army of the Andes."

Martin Guemes, the Gaucho horseman of the plains, who had made for himself a name in the re-conquest of Buenos Ayres, had protected the first patriot army on the invasion of Alta Peru. He now became a power. His wild horsemen breathed the spirit of liberty. They had inhaled it from the air of the plains, under the gleaming peaks. They knew how to cover and shield and prepare the way for the vanguard of an army in the sierra.

Guemes found his field at Salta, a province of the patriots under the mountain-wall. Salta at this time was a part of Jujuy, among the spurs of the Andes which border the ranges of Upper Peru. Through it was the highway from the plains to the mountains, from the tropical to the temperate zone. It was an agricultural province. The people were a rugged race. They were brave, and lovers of freedom. The blow of these mountaineers was a hammer-stroke. They flew, as it were, on their trained horses, and, as they came and went with the speed of the wind, landed their shots with unerring aim.

Guemes and his Gauchos became a terror to the royalists. They guarded the mountain ways, and their swift movements were like thunderbolts from the mountain clouds.

Guemes, for his intrepid movements and daring adventures in the patriot cause, was assigned places of honor by San Martin, and became the Gaucho or cavalry hero of the spurs of the Andes. He was made governor of Salta, and held the office from May, 1815, to May, 1820. His death was tragic. In 1821, while he was absent from the city, Salta was surprised and captured by the royalists. He returned home at night, not knowing that the place was in the enemy's hands. He rode into the public square and was met with a volley of shot. He was severely wounded, but rode away bleeding and dying. He died some days after this last swift ride of death. His deeds were long celebrated by the Gaucho minstrels, as the wandering musicians of the plains were called.