Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf

The Wars of Independence

The Wars of Independence in South America covered altogether a period of fifteen years (1809 to 1824). The causes of discontent which culminated in this struggle for liberty have been already loosely summarized. Although there was no final, climacteric, concerted action of the disaffected provinces in 1809 to fix this date, it was in this year that the determination to shake off Spain's oppression and be independent became definite. From this date there occurred a series of outbreaks of nationalism throughout the length of South America, attaining at times an encouraging degree of success, at others suffering signal defeat. In 1815 when Ferdinand VII was restored to his throne he endeavored to wage an exterminating war on these revolutions, and with some success.

The struggle between Spain and her colonies had been watched with absorbing interest by both Europe and North America. At its outbreak certain students of world politics prophesied that South America would become English or French, when the revolution triumphed they argued it would revert to barbarism.

That none of these prophecies, obtained, is due to the will and work of the Creoles en masse. But that the emancipation was hastened a decade by the genius of San Martin is nowhere denied.

San Martin was thirty-two years old when he returned to Argentina. Despite the severity, perhaps coldness, of his personality, he possessed the essential qualifications for leadership; force, self-confidence and authority, plus enthusiasm. To these were added a devotion to the cause he came to serve, which was sincere, as his eventual sacrifice and abnegation proved. In the end he withdrew and left the glory to others, showing that he believed the cause to be greater than himself.

San Martin came back to his native land, "tempered in the struggle of life, tutored in the arts of war," bringing not only a knowledge of tactics and military discipline, but he brought also a preconceived plan for a continental campaign which should embrace half a world and set its people free. It has been well said that "San Martin was not a man but a mission."

Historians seem to agree that the contradictions of his character leave him rather an enigma. His soul was impassioned for liberty, but his temperament was cold. He was intolerant and autocratic as a commander, but modest and yielding in political relations. He appears to have had no ambitions towards dictatorship; his one desire was to set the people free, the government he left to others.

Of his personal appearance this account is given: "He was of stalwart frame; his fine head he carried erect, his thick black hair, always cut short, was brushed back from a high, straight forehead; he had an olive skin, large dark eyes fringed by long black lashes. His eyes were the characteristic feature of his face, disclosing the latent intensity of his nature. His nose was aquiline; his chin and jaw showed strength of will and absence of animal passion; his whole bearing dignified and military. In Chile to this day one hears the expression a 'San Martin's look.' "He preferred to give verbal orders and did it with trained precision, but the records show that when he chose he could write tersely and well. An ability to judge the worth of men enabled him to make few mistakes in his aides. He had also the saving sense of humor which aided him in disregarding personal injuries and slights. If, with the qualities of his personality which do not seem sympathetic or attractive, San Martin had been self-seeking and ambitious, his story might still be brilliant but it would lack the elements of true greatness. San Martin was a born leader, a hero and a liberator, but the thing that makes him truly great as a man is his unexampled unselfish renouncement of the glory, the power, that might have been his when the cause was won.

In Buenos Aires San Martin was little known, but through the influence of his friend Major Alvear, who belonged to a distinguished and influential family, he was given a commission as Lieutenant Colonel in the army. Within eight days of his arrival he was organizing a squadron of cavalry. Recognizing the necessity of a military school where the Argentine youths should receive technical knowledge, he immediately set about founding one. These first squadrons San Martin used as models for a generation, and Cromwell's motto, "Discipline but not repression," became his. The companions of his voyage home, fellow-members of the Lodge, he made officers, the cadets were chosen from the good families of Argentina. The latter were put to trying tests before they were accepted. "We shall have only lions in these regiments." In this school French methods of cavalry training were introduced. The first regiment of horse which was to become the famous "Mounted Grenadiers" (armed with the long saber of Napoleon's cuirassiers, "which could split like a melon the enemy's head"), fought gloriously in every battle of the wars of Independence, leaving their bones on a battle line which stretched from La Plata to Pichinacha (Ecuador). When after thirteen years of service a remnant of the original regiment returned, commanded by a colonel who had risen to that rank from a common trooper, they proudly bore the old battle-flag that they had christened in blood at San Lorenzo.

This deathless regiment gave to the Army of the United Provinces nineteen generals and over two thousand officers.

San Martin, without any predilection for statecraft or politics, had a convincing understanding of human nature which at once impressed the native leaders. They appreciated his acumen when he told them: "Until now you have fought for no one knows what. You have fought even without a flag! You have not avowed the principles which explain the origin, the necessity of the revolution. We must declare ourselves independent if we wish to be respected." Within seven months the government had been consolidated, its policy defined, and the national flag had been publicly flown. Moreover, the people, unanimously aroused, stood behind the Government. On the 31st of January, 1813, the General Constituent Assembly met in Buenos Aires and it was decreed that the sovereignty of the King of Spain be disavowed and his escutcheons disappear forever. Sentiment had finally crystallized into a Declaration of Independence. All titles of nobility, the Inquisition and judicial torture were abolished. Seals and the new coinage bore, instead of the heads of Spanish sovereigns, "a sun with its rays, surmounted by a Phrygian cap of liberty, encircled within a wreath of laurel." Spanish flags were replaced by those of Argentina. Reform extended to all things, even to the prayers of the priests and the psalms of the people.

Meanwhile, Spain with her fleet still dominated the coast from north to south, both on the Atlantic and the Pacific. One day her warships were bombarding Buenos Aires, the next they were terrorizing the towns along the banks of the River Uruguay. A counsel of war was held and San Martin urged an attack on the fortress of Montevideo. Montevideo was the center of reaction and was defended by three hundred and thirty-five guns, a garrison of three thousand men and fourteen warships, while the United Provinces had not a single gunboat. Undaunted by this fact and under the spell of San Martin's confidence the campaign began with the battle of San Lorenzo.

San Lorenzo is situated seventeen miles up the River Parana. The Spanish flotilla, operating in these waters, had anchored off the high bluffs, sending, in the early hours of dawn, a foraging party up a hidden trail to the lonely Monastery of San Carlos, breaking in upon the peaceful monks. Suddenly, they saw a cloud of dust and heard the thud of galloping horses; realizing instantly that it was the enemy, they fled for their boats, firing as they went.

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Escalada, a young captain of cavalry, had, with fifty picked men been detailed to locate the enemy. This he easily did, and further learned from a Paraguayan prisoner, who had, by swimming miles on a bundle of sticks, escaped from the flotilla, that the Spanish had only three hundred and fifty men all told, and that the plan was to loot and destroy the Monastery, then proceeding up river, they would close the Rosario road to trade with Paraguay. Escalada's report reached San Martin in time for him to arrive and give battle with his Grenadiers.

The story is told by William Parish Robertson, a renowned British traveler of the day. He says:

"In front of the post-house stood an old carriage without horses; two troopers rode up to it and asked, 'Who is here?'

"'A traveler,' answered a sleepy voice.

"Another horseman came up, saying sharply:

"'Be careful. This is not an enemy, but an Englishman on his way to Paraguay.'

"The traveler, amazed at the speaker's accurate knowledge, put his head hastily out of the window, and recognizing the figure and voice, said quickly:

"'Surely you are Colonel San Martin?'

"'If so, you have a friend, Mr. Robertson.'"

San Martin among other things said, "The enemy have double our number, but I doubt if they get the better of us."

"So say I," replied Robertson enthusiastically. He offered the soldiers wine and heartily drank their success.

"I was permitted to join the expedition," the narrative continues, "San Martin telling me,

"'I will give you a horse, but if the day goes against us you must run for it—you are not expected to fight.'"

About midnight San Martin and Robertson, at the head of the silent troops, reached the Monastery.

There was not a sound in the cloisters; the good friars had fled. The troopers, obeying orders, dismounted silently in the large courtyard.

"It brought to mind," says the English traveler, "the Greek host hidden in the bowels of the wooden horse, so fatal to Troy."

San Martin ascended the belfry; the dim lanterns of the enemy boats showed they were yet there. At dawn boats laden with armed men pulled off from the flotilla, and at half past five two columns of infantry marched up the path.

San Martin coming down from his post of observation said:

"In two minutes more we shall be upon them."

Outside his orderly held his horse, a splendid cream-colored charger, fully caparisoned. Drawing his curved saber he galloped off to his Grenadiers, directing Captain Jose Bermudez to attack the flank and cut off their retreat:

"We will meet in the centre of the enemy's columns, there I will give further orders."

"The enemy came on quickly to the sound of drums and fifes with two four-pound guns between their columns. Suddenly they were electrified by the clarion notes of the Grenadiers.

"Saber in hand, San Martin fell upon them on the left, Bermudez and his men on the right. San Martin was first to begin the fight. The fire of the two guns failed to check the onset; the Spanish column was thrown into disorder, fell back, but opened a heavy fire of musketry. San Martin with his battalion encountered the column led by Zabala, who commanded the flotilla. San Martin's horse was killed almost instantly, pinioning him to the ground as it fell. Round him raged a fierce hand-to-hand fight in which he received a slight wound on the face. A Spanish soldier suddenly sprang forward to bayonet him, but a quicker man ran the Spaniard through with his saber. This was a Grenadier called Baigorria. Another trooper, Juan Bautista Cabral, sprang from the saddle and released his leader from the fallen horse, but fell himself, pierced by two mortal wounds. With his last breath he shouted:

"'I die content! They are beaten.'"

"At the same moment Cornet Bouchard bayoneted the Spanish ensign-bearer and captured the flag.

"Bermudez, fighting recklessly, drove back the other column. The Spaniards, abandoning their guns, retreated to the bluff where they attempted to form a square under the protection of the guns of the flotilla. Bermudez, leading a second charge, was mortally wounded, but the Spaniards were driven headlong to the beach, leaving behind them their flag, their guns and fifty muskets, forty dead, and fourteen prisoners, Zabala, their commander, being badly wounded."

San Martin, assisted by Robertson, generously furnished the flotilla with fresh supplies for their wounded, and arranged for an exchange of prisoners. One of these released prisoners, a Paraguayan named Jose Felix Bogado, enlisted in the regiment, and during thirteen years' service with it—from San Lorenzo to Ayacucho—won his way up to the rank of Colonel, and returned to Buenos Aires with his deathless regiment, accompanied by seven of its original troopers.

Still covered with the blood and dust of the fight, San Martin, under the shade of an old pine tree which stands to this day in the garden of San Lorenzo, signed the despatch announcing the victory of San Lorenzo.

The battle was of little military importance, a sudden, sharp, brilliant cavalry charge, but it stimulated the cause of Independence, assured the safety of the towns on the banks of the Parana and Uruguay rivers, and made possible uninterrupted trade with Paraguay. Its real value was in giving fresh morale  to the troops, and in making the country aware that in San Martin they had at last found a general.

Returning to Buenos Aires San Martin received a flattering reception. But what concerned him much more was the discovery of bitter animosity and jealousy, which by undermining the confidence of the people in the government and destroying the prestige of their leaders, greatly weakened the cause. The city, too, he found was ruled by a vicious circle of personal intrigue. Politics, always confusing and obnoxious to him, had become doubly so.

In June, 1813, the Army of the North, commanded by General Belgrano, invaded Upper Peru a second time. Operations there had not only been unsuccessful but, worse, had ended in a debacle. Belgrano had in consequence asked to be relieved of his command.

The United Provinces were now without generals of a proper caliber. Belgrano, the best of them, lacked technical knowledge and military intuition, while the enemy possessed clever and experienced officers, and its rank and file were seasoned troops.

San Martin, the man of the hour, was deemed the officer best able to cope with the difficulties of an alarming situation.

"Alvear, dreaming of military glory, had applied for this command. San Martin characteristically gave way to him. Besides, he preferred going on with the operations of taking Montevideo which he felt was of vastly more strategic importance. At length Alvear, loath to leave the field of politics, after much vacillation, recommended San Martin for the post in the North."

San Martin, weary of the political intrigue about him, was relieved to join the Army.

Arriving at headquarters, he presented himself to Belgrano as a subordinate, but Belgrano, with splendid patriotism, realizing his own deficiency, insisted that the more capable man take command. Only upon orders to that effect from Buenos Aires, however, did San Martin assume the position as Commander-in-Chief. His first act as such was to pay the destitute troops with money intended for the treasury. This was done in direct opposition to the Government policy at Buenos Aires. Reluctantly recognizing the wisdom of his act no adverse criticism followed. San Martin found at once that he had no officers capable of executing a military plan, and also that the inhabitants of the territory, their customs, even the topography of the land were totally unknown to him, a knowledge he deemed absolutely indispensable in war. And the Royalists were advancing on the northern provinces with a victorious army of 5000 veterans! His intelligence provided for everything. He re-organized the army, subjecting it to modern tactics, "which up to then we did not know," says General Paz. He directed also the military operations of irregular war—defensive and offensive, such as had not yet been seen in America nor of which anything had been written.