Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf


The story of San Martin's achievement at Cuyo is one of the most romantic episodes in history. Against every sort of obstacle and discouragement he struggled with that determination which is impervious to discouragement. For every impossibility he found an expedient. It was less a kind of dogged resolution than a temperamental imperturbability which was deaf to denial. This period of his life is curiously characteristic of the man. He retired from a situation which his presence would have complicated, but he retired not in disgruntlement but because he was inspired with a vision of greater service. He accepted a provincial appointment and then gave away half of his pay to the cause. He eliminated himself quietly from an atmosphere of intrigue and used the time to devise a strategic scheme for which not one of his jealous confreres had the genius. He retired to regain his health, and he spent the time in the most supreme expenditure of the spirit. And he succeeded! He knew his capacity, and did not balk at the price of success which fortune dealt him.

It is necessary to understand the terrain and the kind of people the Cuyans were at this time in order to comprehend how in this one poor province there could have been raised an invincible army, sustained for three years by the province itself, which liberated two republics and spread the principles of Argentine freedom over an entire continent. The Cuyo district, on the Chilean frontier, is composed of the three provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis and it allows a certain amalgamation of the peoples of the East and West. Here the Andean formation slopes away into the vast plain of the Argentine Pampas, a fertile country where a network of rivers spreads through sandy soil. Cuyo in 1810 had some forty thousand inhabitants, a thrifty, tractable population. Mendoza, the capital of the province of that name, was a busy trading center. Merchants with their pack mules were constantly crossing the Andes with the products of Buenos Aires' industries, and returning with their caravans of wine, dried fruits and flour. San Juan was an agricultural district, and San Luis had its great ranches where cattle and horses and mules were bred. The frustration of the last Chilean rebellion by the Royalists had created fresh perils for Argentina on its Andean frontiers. This contingency offered no depression to San Martin; rather, it exactly served his purpose, for he was able to contend that the danger of invasion must be met by the organization of an army of defense. This was his first and immediately practical step towards his quietly formulated campaign.

In order to be free of criticism and unhampered by official obligation, in accepting the Governorship of Cuyo San Martin had declined the offer of the house provided him by the Cabildo, and also, as has been said, refused to accept more than half of the salary attached to the appointment. He donated of this sum of three hundred pesos a month "one half to the needs of the country so long as the wars with Spain shall last," the balance he divided between his wife and himself.



San Martin's conviction that the conquest of Chile was the imperative preparatory step towards the liberation of Peru met with no sympathy in official circles. All Peru was a sore subject; too much money had been poured into that hopeless cause, too many disasters had already befallen the Argentinian armies in that country. In vain were San Martin's enthusiasm, the logic of his contentions, the entire feasibility of the gigantic attempt, to his mind—providing the Government would support him in his huge proposed preparatory measures. However, there happened to be published at this time a book which effectually influenced public opinion and gradually turned the tide in San Martin's favor. This book, entitled Memoria, written by Tomas Guido, was published in 1816. It consisted partly of confidential and official reports on the subject of the projected Campaign of the Andes, and partly of a hearty plea for their support in light of the conclusions the author drew of their practical advisability. Guido was a popular figure in both Argentina and Chile and was regarded as a man of weight and authority. What had hitherto appeared to the public mind a fantastically impracticable thing now won an, at least, amiable complaisance. San Martin, as soon as he perceived an attitude of even half-hearted approval on the part of the Government, notwithstanding an empty treasury, a complete lack of guns and ammunition, and a mere handful of recruits who had no uniforms, set to work on his great plan in the most buoyant possible elation of spirits.

At this point one may regard the series of ensuing events as Fate, or as the expression of that sort of genius which can make everything serve a purpose, can fuse the casual and incidental into something providential and divinely opportune, and can wrest success from the most baffling impediment. The way San Martin aroused the people to contribute money to finance his scheme, the tact with which he cajoled the disaffected or enhanced the ardor of adherents, his perspicuity of judgment in choosing his staff or in detaching from the situation those whose loyalty he mistrusted, his ingenuity in creating supplies of guns and ammunition, and rations for man and beast, "where nothing was before,"—it has the glamour of romance.

Almost at once there came to him a band of Chilean soldiers, fleeing their country after inglorious defeat. They were under the leadership of Carrera and O'Higgins. San Martin gave hospitable welcome to these dispirited refugees, who were presently joined by other bands of fleeing compatriots, and formed them all into companies along with the Cuyan volunteers who presented themselves for enlistment in daily growing numbers. "Carrera, actually an exile in a foreign country, arrogated to himself the prerogatives of a commander-in-chief and threatened to become a nuisance. This delicate situation San Martin settled diplomatically by bringing about his retirement to Buenos Aires. Here Carrera was cordially received by Alvear, now Supreme Director of the United Provinces, and they were for a time mutually sympathetic, for, besides their jealousy of San Martin, they thought each might be useful to the other." In the case of O'Higgins San Martin instinctively recognized a man of integrity and capacity, and attached him to his service by securing for him a commission as General in the army of the United Provinces, and placed him in charge of the Chilean refugee troops. Another addition to San Martin's entourage was Don Juan Gregores Las Heras who brought with him a much needed battalion. Before the expiration of the year 1816 the Argentine Government formally recognized the variously assembled troops as the Army of the Andes with San Martin as Commander and Soler as Chief-of-Staff. The army was maintained partly by the voluntary subscriptions of patriots and partly by a petty tax which was levied for the purpose. Every inhabitant of Cuyo was expected to contribute something either in money or kind.

A mendicant friar, Luis Beltran, a native of Mendoza, who had served as an artilleryman in the Chilean army, had just returned to his native country, coming forlornly on foot with a bag of tools of his own making on his shoulder. A blacksmith and cobbler by trade, he was also a self-taught mathematician, draftsman, architect, and chemist and physician as well! Deciding that the man was something of a genius, San Martin intrusted him with the establishing of an arsenal. From this crude and improvised affair flowed a stream of cannon, shot and shell. The good friar made cannons from the metal of church bells when other sources failed. His versatility was inexhaustible. He made limbers for guns, saddles for the cavalry, knapsacks and shoes for the infantry. He forged horseshoes and bayonets; he repaired damaged muskets; and he designed wagons and carts especially adapted for carrying war material over the rough and narrow trails and passes of the Andes. In 1816 this amazing and multipotent friar assumed the uniform of a Lieutenant of Artillery and was awarded the sum of twenty-five pesos a month.

This incredible Luis Beltran is only a single example of how San Martin discovered capacity at every hand and knew how to utilize it; it reads like the Swiss Family Robinson! He discovered that a Major Condarco knew chemistry; accordingly Major Condarco conducted a laboratory where gun-powder and saltpeter were turned out. A Dr. Paroissen, a naturalized English physician, was found and under him an efficient medical staff was trained and a system of tents and wagons for the wounded was organized. And last, but far from the least, the women of the province were fired to emulation, and they wove all the cloth for the uniforms, dyed it blue, and made the thousands of uniforms. For the purpose of some of these activities San Martin had contrived the use of water power.



The Army of the Andes after two years of planning and preparation consisted of three thousand infantry, twelve hundred militia, one thousand cavalry, and a comparatively small but well equipped artillery. For the transportation of the ammunition train and the commissariat across the mountains an army of nine thousand mules was assembled.

At a critical moment for San Martin, jealous counter-influences operating at Buenos Aires, his position was rendered triumphant by his being unanimously elected Governor by the people of the province. He had forced them to do his will and his popularity instead of being impaired had grown with his exactions. He had now raised an army to war strength, but the difficult task of replenishing the empty treasury without exhausting the country had yet to be accomplished. To this end he inspired each man in his own station to work towards the great achievement. The whole province was divided into two classes: the workers and the fighters: with one sole ambition, the conquest of Chile. Even children were formed into military service and carrying their own flags. The people lent mules, horses and harness, knowing they would receive them back when the emergency was over. Land owners pastured army horses free of charge. Foreign residents were invited to enlist, and the English colony raised and equipped a troop of light infantry at its own expense.

The Cuyans sweat money at every pore to redeem South America. The ladies of Mendoza, following the example of San Martin's wife, gave their jewels to replenish the public chest. But, however occupied with these feverish enterprises towards preparation, San Martin did not neglect the welfare of the province. Under his brief administration educational reforms were introduced and the benefits of vaccination were taught to the communities. Irrigation systems were begun. He was not only a general, he was a wise governor. He was accessible in matters of counsel or complaint, but he cultivated no confidants and there was a mysterious aloofness about him. His habits were austerely simple. He always wore the plain uniform of the Mounted Grenadiers, his only insignia the cockade on the familiar cocked hat, but he carried himself with military pride. He rose early and spent the first part of the day at his desk. At noon he ate a simple meal, drinking with it two glasses of native wine, followed by coffee which he invariably made himself. In winter after lunch he took a short walk, smoking steadily a cigarette of black tobacco. In summer after the midday meal he slept for an hour stretched on a favorite sheepskin on the cool veranda. Another hour was spent at his desk, and the rest of the afternoon was given to the various duties of the camp.

The account books in the General Archives show with what economy he lived himself and what reductions he inaugurated in administrative departments during these two years of his incumbency. In 1815 he sent his wife back to Buenos Aires in further pursuance of this policy of retrenchment. In January of the same year he was made a Brigadier-General. It was the last promotion he ever accepted.

In the evening his house was open to visitors but they were forbidden to talk politics. Sometimes he played chess, a game at which he excelled. At ten o'clock he said "good-night" and after a light supper retired.

Many are the stories told about him at this time, showing the varied angles of his mind.

The wife of a sergeant asked a pardon for some neglect of duty by her husband.

"I have nothing to do with the women, only with soldiers subject to military discipline."

A prisoner, having narrowly escaped death, applied for his release in the name of the patron saint of the army.

"He did enough for you in saving your life."

A farmer, being accused of speaking against "La Patria," had his sentence annulled on condition that he should send ten dozen pumpkins for the supply of the troops.

With regard to the hundreds of reports circulated about him he wrote one day to a friend.

"You will say that I was vexed. Yes, my friend, somewhat; but, after reflection, I followed the example of Diogenes, I dived into a butt of philosophy. A public man must suffer anything in order that the vessel may reach her port."

Great service was rendered the cause by certain Chilean refugees acting as spies; studying the territory, promoting insurrections, deceiving the enemy, and discovering their projects. It was called the guerra de zapa, and its object was to lift the national Chilean spirit and undermine the Royalist power. For this secret service he chose men and women of acknowledged position and intelligence who also possessed other special qualifications. These "spys" he had arrested and charged with treason. In due time they "escaped" and fled to Chile "far from San Martin's tyranny." The Spanish rulers were so entirely deceived that often these same "ex-prisoners" were employed in the Spanish Secret Service. In this way San Martin not infrequently learned the complete plans and preparations of the enemy. He was particularly good at this game, and played as he wished with the royalists, to the degree of having been served by the great General Osorio, himself, as well as by President Marco.

About this time Michael Brown, the gallant Irishman, who had driven Spain's Naval forces across the Plate, again offered his services with his flagship the Herculese  and other craft to the Argentine Government. They were duly accepted and San Martin was advised to plan his operations with a view to cooperation with this fleet.

In October Brown sailed for the Western coast with his squadron, consisting of five ships, each carrying fifteen to twenty cannons.

In the fighting which took place there were no spectacular victories, luck favoring first one side and then the other. But at Guayaquil a squall drove his boat the "Trinidad" ashore, and Brown was forced to haul down the flag to prevent the massacre of his men by the Spanish infantry. He himself threw off his clothes and jumped overboard to swim to a nearby schooner, but realizing that the Spanish were killing their prisoners, he sprang back on board, and snatching a light, ran to the magazine and told them that unless the laws of war were respected he would blow up the ship and all on board. The Spaniards knew he would do what he said. The slaughter was stopped, and Brown, naked save for the Argentine flag wound around him, was taken ashore a prisoner. Later in an exchange of prisoners he was allowed to rejoin his squadron. The Argentine Government had anticipated much from the cooperation of army and ships, and had ordered San Martin to take advantage of the fleet's assistance. San Martin replied respectfully, "A naval force to be effective, must consist of ships of war, not of privateers, and must be under the commanding General's orders."