Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf

Warfare in Peru

Peru with its mines and treasure had always been the cockpit of the armies. It was the stronghold of Royalty and its social organization remained "a perpetuation of the system of the Incas complicated by the antagonism of races." In 1809 its first rebellion had flared up, had flickered, had almost but never quite died. Twice Argentine armies had marched North to succor these rebellions and twice had met disaster. Always there had been a lack of money, of men, and a complete lack of morale. But the paramount reason for these defeats was the excellence of the Royalist troops, the backbone of which were the native half-breeds, immune to hardships, tireless on the march, and servilely obedient to their officers. They were immuned to the climate and brought up to mountain warfare.

Belgrano after the failure of his campaign had left at Cochabamba in command of the remnants of his Patriots' army Don Juan de Arenales. Arenales proved himself a genius at keeping alive the spirit of liberty in those evil times. He was a Spaniard, educated at Buenos Aires, and as a leader he had foresight and audacity combined with a rare simplicity and sense of justice. It was his custom to go about attended by only one orderly and one baggage-mule. On the march he carried his own provisions which consisted of cheese and dry beef. San Martin always called him "My pal" and treated him as a familiar.

Standard of Pizarro


In those days warfare in Peru was a relentless affair. A Spanish officer on trial before San Martin confessed to having put to death fifty-four prisoners of war, cutting off their heads and arms afterwards nailing them to posts along the road. Arenales had fought against tremendous odds, keeping his disorganized little army together for fourteen months with practically no pay, almost no officers, and shabbily clothed and equipped. Jujuy and Salta, important sections of this country, were in the hands of the Royalists. Such were the conditions when San Martin arrived and took over the command. At once he established an entrenched camp at Tucuman and initiated a course of military instruction. San Martin's name was beginning to be known and respected, and he caused the word to go forth that European methods of military training would be taught at this camp embracing French cavalry tactics, then the most famous in the world. He exhibited his "one-battle veterans," the Mounted Grenadiers, as a model squadron. It was a clever coup and the youth of the country rushed in to enlist. Almost spontaneously there sprang up a corps of cavalry who rode "with the fearlessness of Cossacks and the skill of Mamelukes." All they needed was discipline and esprit de corps  which was taught them by that inspired martinet and tactician, San Martin. They were captained by a native chieftain, Martin Guemes, whose name was to become famous throughout South America. These guachos  could go up or come down the mountain trails at full speed; they could gallop unscathed through thorny underbrush where there was no trail; and every man of them was a sharp-shooter. Such men San Martin knew he could trust to keep the Royalists at bay while he was getting the regular army in shape at Tucuman.

Meanwhile, Salta had been made a desolate waste; the gate to the Argentine from Peru, a strategic point, the Royalists seized and ravaged. The populace, anticipating the assault, had bravely deserted their homes, leaving nothing for the enemy. Even the church bells were taken; no bells should ring for a Royalist victory! Later Guemes and his fiery guachos  were to take a sweet revenge, but the time was not yet.

And this San Martin realized: that the Army of the United Provinces was attempting the impossible.

On measuring distances, estimating obstacles, determining the final objectives, and proving the temper of the war instruments in hand, he understood that while conditions and bases continued unchanged, the fight would be indefinitely prolonged. Actuated by this conviction he wrote confidentially to Rodriguez Pena on the 22nd of April, 1814: "Do not congratulate yourself in anticipation of what I may do here: I shall be able to do nothing, nor do I hope anything from it. Our country will not advance from this side of the North; there may be some defensive  fighting but nothing more; for this the brave guachos  of Salta with two battalions of seasoned veterans would be quite sufficient. To think of anything else is to insist on throwing money and men down a well.

"I have already told you in strict confidence my plan. My conviction remains unchanged. A small and well disciplined army in Mendoza, the passage over the Andes to Chile, and there finish with the Goths. This would stamp out the anarchy which reigns there. Then the Chilians in establishing a stable government would become a reliable friend. Allying our forces we would sail over the sea and take Lima. Until then the war will not be finished."

This conception in 1814, a zealously guarded secret, which had it been divulged would have made its author appear nothing short of mad, was the exact plan which has assigned to San Martin his place in the history of the world, and definitely changed the destiny of South America.

At length it was gradually borne in upon both Government and troops that five thousand men could never conquer Upper Peru. On the sea things were going better for Argentine. Michael Brown, an Irishman, with an improvised naval force, had on May 16th all but destroyed the Spanish squadron at Montevideo. That city, besieged by Alvear, had surrendered to the Argentine Army. But San Martin was not deceived by these superficial successes. He knew real victory in war was impossible without a solid military organization. He foresaw that Spain once free from European conflict would send against the colonies her best troops and officers. The war was just commencing. With a knowledge born of experience, he was all too plainly aware that the revolution had no consistence, no concrete plan of operations, and above all no preparation for future emergencies. "What profits it," he repeatedly asked, "to dislodge the Spaniards in isolated places only to have them reorganize anew and remain a menace?" Such had been the experience of the United Provinces in all the campaigns in Peru.

The attempts of the United Provinces at helping Peru to obtain its freedom necessitated the maintenance of an army separated from its base of supplies by a thousand miles of impassable roads. This alone constituted an unthinkable handicap. San Martin's idea was, and had always been, to carry the war to the West;  to pass the Andes, occupy Chile, and secure the dominion of the Pacific. Then to attack lower Peru on the flank, leaving always a friendly country upon which to rely. Knowing he would find scant sympathy in Buenos Aires, he had wisely kept his plans to himself.

Just then Alvear, fresh from his victory at Montevideo and wishing to follow it up, decided upon taking command of the Army of the North. Nothing could have pleased San Martin better. It offered him an opportunity for a much needed rest and sojourn in the dry air of the Cordoba Mountains in order to heal an infected lung. And as a post he asked for the very unpretentious one of the Governorship of Mendoza on the Chilean frontier.

With rare vision he reckoned on aid of another sort. Peru had two regenerating influences which he believed would further greatly the realization of his plans: one was the sentiment of liberty latent in the hearts of Peruvian patriots, the other was the Spanish liberalism brought over by the officers ultimately sent out from Spain. These forces gradually were undermining the power of absolutism and automatically preparing the ground for his ideas. They were not exactly harmonic forces, but they concurred opportunely.

Accordingly, San Martin retired from the field in 1814 and became the Governor of Cuyo. His friends and, better still, his enemies were both content. He had now leisure to work out his Great Plan. He needed an interval in which to dream dreams and see visions. It was during this period at Cuyo that he matured the design of the Campaign of the Deathless Army of the Andes.