Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf

The Passage of the Andes

In November, 1815, the Royalist star was in ascendancy throughout the country and despair filled every patriot's heart. The Argentine army under Rondeau had been practically annihilated at Sipe-Sipe in upper Peru. Consternation reigned. The Royalists celebrated their victory as a definite one. It was then that San Martin, seeing the road to Lima about to be closed forever, rose to his greatest heights.

At the moment when all things seemed darkest San Martin invited his officers to a banquet. Towards the end of the dinner he arose, and as one inspired he said in a voice vibrating with emotion:

"To the first shot fired across the Andes against the oppressors of Chile!" His confidence and magnetism rekindled the fire of enthusiasm. The passage of the Andes and the reconquest of Chile ceased to be a vague dream of the future, it crystallized into a brilliant plan of an impending campaign.

In Mendoza the forces blazed day and night, cartridges were turned out by the hundred thousand, and the good friar Beltran was fashioning special carriages for the artillery necessary on the passes.

The guns were to be carried on the back of mules, except where the grades were too steep for them to pass, then sledges of rawhide were contrived to haul them up by man-power.

San Martin, silent and reserved, provided for every contingency. Stores of charquicain, a food composed of beef dried in the sun, roasted, ground to powder, and then mixed with fat and Chilean pepper, was prepared in quantities. The soldiers carried an eight-day ration of this food in their knapsacks. Mixed with hot water and ground meal, it makes a nutritious and appetizing meal.

The soldiers made for themselves closed sandals of rawhide called tamangos. These were lined with fragments of old clothes collected from all the provinces. Horns of animals were used as water-bottles, slings to carry them were made from the rough edges of the uniform material. The cavalry sabers were razor-like. Thirty thousand horseshoes were prepared, a great innovation, as the Argentines did not shoe their horses, but the stony passes necessitated this. Cuyo alone furnished 13,000 mules; four cables each 170 feet long, and two anchors formed a portable bridge. But the promises of the government to replenish the exhausted treasury were not fulfilled. This splendid and imperishable army had only three trumpets till the government sent them two more. It was owing largely to the fact that the Argentine was at that time governed by Pueyrredon, a man with brains and vision, that San Martin's dream became a reality.



Don Juan San Martin de Pueyrredon was born in Buenos Aires. He was not thirty years of age when an English army invaded that city. Young and wealthy, he was the first to refuse the oath of submission to the invaders. Gathering the populace, he aroused them to rebellion, an act which the government appeared afraid of. In the wars that followed his heart and soul were ever in the service of the patriots. After having held various offices which he always administered with courage and intelligence, he was in 1817 made Governor General.

Pueyrredon aided San Martin in every way within his power—clothes, saddles, tents and arms. But he wrote him: "Don't ask for anything more unless you wish to hear that I have hung myself to a beam in the fort. You say that we have never had an army so well equipped, but neither has there been a Director who has so great a confidence in a General, and I may add, never a General who so well merited that confidence. But my mind would be easier if you had another thousand soldiers with you."

That no detail should be lacking to prevent the enemy knowing his real movements San Martin resorted to the ruse of inviting, in September, 1816, the Pehenches Indians, who occupied the eastern slopes of the Andes commanding the entrances of the passes of Planchon and Portillo, to a conference at the fort of San Carlos, south of Mendoza. With the invitations he sent mules, laden with wine, meal, cloth, horse-gear, glass beads for the women and clothes for the men.

The warriors, followed by their women, came in full war costumes, and began furiously riding their horses around the fort, giving Indian yells. San Martin confided in the chiefs that the Spaniards intended to rob them of their goods, land, cattle, women and children, and he asked their permission to go by their country with his army and through their pass to destroy the Spaniards on the other side. The chiefs listened gravely and granted his request, after which the whole tribe gave themselves up to an eight-day orgy.

San Martin returned to Mendoza, knowing that, true to form, they would inform the Spaniards of his project. Even his closest friends believed he had arranged with the Indians for supplies of cattle and horses to aid his expedition. The ruse of San Martin was successful. The Captain General of Chile attempted to defend the entire frontier, unable to decide where to expect the real attack.

Andes passage


San Martin's real difficulties were approaching. It was necessary to transport his entire army, baggage and equipment, over passes so narrow as to give only room for one mounted man at a time. The two passes available were: Uspallata and Los Patos, each over 12,000 feet high, snow-covered in winter and passable only in the mid-summer.

"The great Cordillera is composed of sharp conical peaks rising to a height of 21,000 feet, crowned with perpetual snow. Condors wheeling in airy circles at dizzy heights are the only living things seen. Below roar the mountain streams, carrying great rocks, tossing them about as they would toss straws. Here only stunted cacti, mosses and thorny plants exist. The world is seen as it emerged from chaos in the process of creation." It was vitally necessary to reach the other side in a force sufficient to overcome a watchful enemy, or perish ingloriously, and what was even more difficult, as Guido puts it: "To concentrate the different columns upon the enemy's weak points. If we can gain the plain, victory is assured. Otherwise we are lost, and the devil will take everything."

One of the manifold obstacles to this great coup was that no maps existed of the passes of the Andes. General San Martin sent to the Governor of Chile his aide-de-camp Condarco, a skillful engineer, as the bearer of a copy of the Declaration of Independence. But in giving him his instructions he said, "Your real errand is to reconnoiter the roads by the Los Patos and Uspallata passes. Without making a note you must bring back in your head a perfect plan of them both. I shall send you by Los Patos which is the longest road, and as they are certain to send you back at once (if they don't hang you), you will return by Uspallata, which is the nearest way."

The copy of the Declaration which Condarco presented to Marco del Pent was burned by the public hangman of Santiago and the messenger sent back with scant courtesy, but in his receptive brain were the plans of both roads which he put on paper at his leisure. These became the charts of the first operations of the Army of the Andes.

Early in the Spring San Martin brought the various corps of his army from their canton-mots, and encamped them on an open plain a league to the north of Mendoza. There the recruits were thoroughly drilled, and the whole force taught to act in concert. Every hour of the day had its allotted work, and in the evening the officers attended classes for instruction in tactics. To complete its organization a printing-press was added to the stores. It would teach the liberated people the principles of the Argentine revolution. On the 17th of January, 1817, there was high holiday in Mendoza. The streets and plaza were decorated with flags and banners. The whole army marched out to salute the Virgin del Carmen, its patron saint, and to receive a special army flag embroidered by the ladies of the city.

The formalities over, San Martin ascended the platform, the flag of his Grenadiers in his hand. He threw it out, the breeze caught it, and it waved above his head. In a ringing voice, audible to all, he said: "Soldiers, this is the first independent flag of South America. Swear to sustain it, to die to defend it as I do." "We swear," came spontaneously from four thousand throats. Sixty-four years later it served as a funeral pall to the hero who had given it into the care of the immortal Army of the Andes.

Each general of division was given by San Martin himself, the night before they marched, a pen and ink plan of the route he was to follow, with minute written instructions.

San Martin went by Los Patos but had arranged a system of flag signals by which Las Heras could communicate with him across the intervening valleys. His last instructions from the government were:

"The consolidation of the independence of America from the Kings of Spain and the glory of the United Provinces of the South, are the sole motives of this campaign. This you will make public in your proclamation by your agents in the cities, and by all possible means. The army must be impressed with this principle. We shall have no thought of pillage, oppression, or of conquest, or that there is any idea of holding the country of those we help."

The plan of campaign was to cross the Cordillera by the passes of Uspallata and Los Patos, to reunite his forces on the plain beyond, there to beat the principal force of the enemy and to seize the capital. Groups of workmen and sappers cleared the way ahead of the columns, and the liberators walked along the narrow paths between abysses and granite walls to the uniform step of the mules, climbing one height after another. Behind them the artillery and the rest advanced with indescribable difficulty. The horses to be used in battle were led unmounted, their backs covered with sheep-skins.

When one of the divisions ascended one of the high peaks of the mountain a horrible hail-storm burst forth, detaining their march under a temperature of six degrees centigrade. On starting the march once more the brass band of the battalions played the Argentine National Anthem. The soldiers with rare good spirits said: "The Cordillera is indignant at seeing itself for the first time trodden on by the warriors." The march was so well planned and conducted, that this was the greatest mishap they had to undergo. Thanks to the onions and garlic given each soldier neither the intense cold nor the rarefaction of the atmosphere, which produces puna sickness, caused much suffering.

The division of Las Heras traversed 337 kilometers before arriving at Santa Rosa, and those of the vanguard and reserve outlined in their march to San Antonio de Putaendo a curve of 545 kilometers. Should General Las Heras and Soler arrive the same day in the valleys of Aconcagua and Putaendo, success was certain. "The thing is assured if we get a footing on the plain," San Martin said to Guido. To keep secret the point of attack was absolutely vital. One military incident nearly compromised the result of the entire campaign, in spite of the fact that everything had been minutely thought out. By chance at the same time that Las Heras started out, the Royalist, Colonel Alero, had sent a detachment by way of Supallata to study the territory. They met and fought with Las Heras' vanguard, and, being defeated, the dispersed Royalists carried news of the invasion to a column of 1,000 men under Marco.

This unforeseen accident might have changed the whole aspect of the campaign. The enemy could occupy one of the other of the narrow passes before the bulk of the Argentine army could rout them, and with one battalion upset their scheduled march. It was a question of hours. If the patriots did not appear in the valley and reunite on the day fixed, the enemy would come in force, concentrating their efforts on the points occupied, and all calculations would be spoiled. General San Martin receiving the news of what had happened modified his plans on the spot and ordered the army to continue its march, and the Chief Engineer Arcos, to advance double-quick with 200 men to occupy and strengthen the gorge of Achupallas, fighting any enemy they might encounter. This would give time for the columns to arrive at the plain.

"It was a strategic combination of movements over a frontage of 1300 kilometers and the operation being executed rapidly and efficiently was completely successful. This victory definitely assured the execution of the strategical plan of San Martin, and the day fixed by him in Mendoza, the 8th of February, the Army of the Andes reunited in the long wished for valley of the Cordillera."

The transit of these mountains was a triumph. Moving the army and their provisions for nearly a month, with armaments, munitions, etc., over a road of one hundred leagues of sharp peaks, gorges, passes and deep precipices was more than a victory. It was a prodigy unique in military history. San Martin had reason to be proud of this exploit, but with his accustomed modesty he was never heard to boast of it.

San Martin learned through his spies the movements and number of the enemy, even obtaining a copy of the secret orders of the Spanish General Marco. With this knowledge in hand he at once gave battle at Chacabuco.

Sitting on his horse he witnessed the fight from the heights above. This is the incident in his life which is commemorated in the equestrian statue in the Plaza San Martin in Buenos Aires.

The Royalists in this battle paid heavily in men, guns and flags, while the patriots' loss was comparatively insignificant. But the moral effects of the victory were still greater; the disaster of Chacabuco spread panic among the adherents of the Royal cause throughout Chile.

Two days later the Army of the Andes entered Santiago amid the enthusiastic plaudits of the inhabitants. The Assembly met under the presidency of Don Francisco Ruiz Tagle, the provisional Governor, and declared that: "They were unanimous in naming Don Jose de San Martin Governor of Chile with full powers."

San Martin refused, and then the Assembly, by proclamation, named General O'Higgins Governor, which was what San Martin desired.