Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf

The Decisive Battle of Naipo

Certain historians maintain that San Martin at this point made a grave mistake, one which retarded by three years his splendid achievement, in not following up his victory at Chacabuco by wiping out the great Royalist military strength concentrated in the south of Chile with Concepcion as headquarters. There the people were warlike and for the most part loyal to Spain. San Martin himself says he could not afford to launch his army on the south without knowing Captain Freyre's operation. This Chilean officer and a body of men had been detailed for service in the south, and especially was he unwilling to begin action there on a vast scale without a stabilized government in Chile. But neither did San Martin altogether neglect Southern Chile, and in his operations there he encountered strong opposition in an officer of talent, Ordonez, a soldier who had won his colonelcy fighting with San Martin against Napoleon. In 1815 he had been sent to America as the Spanish Governor of Concepcion.

To meet San Martin, Ordonez organized the militia, got together the dispersed soldiers, and fortified Talkahuano. Unmolested for months, he was able to organize a division of three thousand men, half of whom were regulars. Talkahuano, naturally a strong position, was splendidly fortified with seventy heavy guns advantageously placed on the forts. Gunboats and a man-of-war protected its approaches. This fortress greatly aided Ordonez, the Spanish Commander in Chief, to hold in check the united forces of Chile, and the United Provinces for three years.

At Talkahuano in 1814 the first Alliance ever made in the New World between independent nations was sealed with the blood of the allied soldiers. The effects were felt from Cape Horn to the Equator. Without it the struggle for independence would have failed, or, at least been indefinitely retarded.

The battle of Cancha Rayada, March, 1818, proved a debacle for the Argentine troops. They lost heavily in men, guns and flags. It was a bloody and terrible fight. A veteran, favorably mentioned by Napoleon, recounted that for the first time in his life he felt fear. Only Las Heras with outstanding generalship preserved the nucleus of the army, and in doing so saved for years the independence of South America.

News of the terrible disaster reached Santiago on the 21st of March. Rumor had it that everything was lost, San Martin killed and O'Higgins mortally wounded. In the streets shouts of "Viva el Rey" were heard. A Royalist sympathizer even had a horse shod with silver shoes in readiness to present it to the Royalist conqueror. On the 23rd a dispatch from San Martin announced the safe retreat of Las Heras with four thousand men. But this by no means allayed the panic.

The next morning O'Higgins reached the city. He put an end to disorder, purchased horses and prepared supplies and ammunition. On the 25th of April San Martin himself arrived. He was exhausted by fatigue and lack of sleep, but he found strength as he drew reins at the door of the palace to make the one speech of his life. He assured the excited people that the cause of Chile would, still triumph and promised them a day of glory for America. Later he held a counsel of war, and it was unanimously decided to establish a camp on the plains of Maipo, seven miles south of Santiago, and there to await the enemy. Confidence revived and life again became normal. San Martin, working night and day prepared for the next battle. Ten days later his army was in readiness, but the Royalists' army, although "victorious," was in confusion, the country deserted, while the roads were inundated with water from the irrigation ditches cut by the patriots as they retired. The Royalists' General Osorio at a counsel of war, advised retirement to Valparaiso, but his generals strongly opposed the idea. It was decided that they should attack the next day. The decisive battle of Maipo was fought on the 5th of April, 1818.

Before the battle San Martin issued the most precise orders to all the troops. Each man was a general and knew the plan of attack. Both cavalry and infantry were to await the enemy's charge; when the opposing line was fifty paces distant they were to rush them with saber and bayonet. Uncertain as to the position of the enemy's artillery, General San Martin opened fire, the reply gave him the needed information. It was a furious encounter, the hardest fought in the War of the Independence. The Royalists lost twelve guns, four flags, a great quantity of small arms, ammunition and baggage, beside one general, four colonels, seven lieutenant-colonels, 150 under-officers and 2,200 privates. The Patriots lost more than 1,000 men and General O'Higgins was among the wounded. In this epoch-making battle all historians agree that San Martin displayed great tactical skill. The victory was won by the opportune attack of his reserves upon the weaker flank of the enemy. Its importance was only equaled by that of Boyaca and Ayacucho. Without Maipo neither one nor the other would have been fought. Maipo crushed the spirit of the Spanish Army in America, from Mexico to Peru. It had, further, the singular merit of being won by a beaten army fifteen days after its defeat.

Of the trophies of Maipo San Martin reserved for himself only the portfolio containing the secret correspondence of Osorio. This O'Brien (San Martin's favorite aide) found in his captured carriage. Under the shade of a tree in a secluded spot General San Martin read its contents—for the most part letters from well-known Chilean leaders to Osorio after the debacle of Cancha Rayada. They proved to be declarations of their undying loyalty to Spain. San Martin burned them on the spot.

He generously chose to consider them as a sort of negative treachery born of panic and best buried in oblivion. No one but himself ever knew definitely the names of those spineless, pitiable creatures.

The day following the battle he left for Buenos Aires, hoping there to hasten measures for the expedition to Peru. On the 11th of May, avoiding a triumphal entry, he quietly went to his own house. It was upon this visit that he again declined a commission as Brigadier-General decreed him by the Government. Congress insisted, however, upon giving him a vote of thanks, and Argentine poets celebrated his victory in verse. All of which was little to his taste.

The month of June he spent in consultation with the heads of the Government, arranging ways and means of fitting out a Pacific squadron. Concerning this he wrote to O'Higgins:

"We must not stop at what we have already achieved; it is necessary to take our arms to the heart of Peru. To do this we must arrive at terms, and prepare minutely the details of the enterprise. The first thing to be done is to move the army with surety. This cannot be done without a naval force able to dominate the Pacific. I consider five warships sufficient, but nothing less. These to be well equipped with modern artillery. But money is lacking. Therefore, ascertain if you can obtain from Chile the sum of three hundred thousand dollars. We have gauged that amount sufficient for armaments and crew.

"The expedition must be ready in Chilean ports not later than October or November. There is no time to lose. In case this project proves unfeasible, something else must be managed. I shall never expose the army to annihilation by the two or three warships that Lima might send to prevent our landing, for that is the worst thing the Royalists feel, can happen to them."

To dominate the Pacific by a squadron raised by the two States in order to advance on Peru, with an Allied Argentine and Chilean army, raised and maintained by the two countries, was the main point of the alliance which Argentina and Chile signed, San Martin being the brain and the arm on both sides of the Andes empowered to weigh the dangers and difficulties that continually cropped up, either for or against the alliance.

The Argentine Congress ended by authorizing that 500,000 pesos should be raised for the furtherance of the Pacific squadron. San Martin then set out for Chile. From Mendoza two attempts were made to cross the Cordillera, but snowstorms prevented. He remained in Mendoza all winter, happier in reality among the simple bluff-spoken Cuyanos than in the more polished, empty society of Santiago.

In July he received an amazing letter from Pueyrredon. It said: "Do not draw upon the treasury. The promised sum of 500,000 pesos cannot be raised even if the prisons were filled with capitalists." San Martin, crushed by this news, wrote back: "I pray you accept my resignation as Commander-in-Chief." Consternation in official circles prevailed at this act. The Argentine Government fulfilled its promise.

Andes was replenished with 200,000 pesos, and the situation was saved. During this enforced stay at Mendoza San Martin had spent every waking hour in making the most minute and elaborate calculations concerning the men, arms and equipment necessary for the Peruvian expedition. In Buenos Aires Pueyrredon and the diplomatic corps were occupied in the construction of a scheme which was to render the expedition unnecessary. It was promised by them that a conference of European powers should nominate a sovereign who should unite all the Spanish colonies south of the Equator under his sway. Of this monarchy San Martin and his army were to be the right arm. San Martin was fully informed of all this, and to it made no opposition. But knowing much of human nature and of European conditions, went on with his own calculations.

Spain in eight years of warfare had sent sixteen expeditions to South America with more than 40,000 veteran troops, had expended seventy-five millions of pesos, and seemed by no means inclined to relinquish the attempt to subdue her rebellious colonies. She had yet 100,000 soldiers and militia in America, and was preparing a fresh expedition of 20,000 to dispatch to the River Plate. Thus while diplomatists amused themselves and the world with visionary schemes for securing the independence of America, the practical San Martin realized that the problem must be settled by blood and sword.

On October the 29th, filled with enthusiasm, he dismounted at the gate of his palace in Santiago. Pueyrredon had dispatched two vessels of war for service in the Pacific, and his treasury was not empty. Soon after his return to Chile he found, however, that the successes of the Chilean fleet had greatly relaxed the eagerness of the Government for the projected expedition. Safe from invasion, and having command of the sea, the pay of her soldiers had become very irregular. The people, too, had begun to register their disapproval of a government which relied for support upon Argentine bayonets. Nevertheless, San Martin and O'Higgins, undaunted by this, issued new proclamations to the Peruvian people announcing the early expedition for the purpose of liberating Peru. They said: "We go that you may become a nation with a government established by yourselves in accordance with your own customs, situations and inclinations."

He now had an army of six thousand drilled soldiers and a supply of five hundred thousand pesos, two hundred thousand of which had been furnished by the Argentine Government. Influenced by the incontestable fact of its insecurity under impending conditions. Chile came to see that permanent security depended upon the liberation of Peru. San Martin was once again offered by Chile the rank of Brigadier-General. This time it was graciously accepted. He organized the Chilean Army, imitating that of the Andes, and with both he formed the United Army. Though animated by the same spirit and the same ideals, each army carried its national flag. But the concentration of command was in San Martin, and to the war machine he studiedly gave the character of a liberating, not a conquering army.

It was at this time that he separated for the last time from his beloved wife. She returned to Buenos Aires never to see him again. When he again saw his native country she was dead, leaving him an only daughter who was to become one of the most devoted of daughters, the sole joy of an empty old age, his only solace in the days they spent together in exile.