San Martín’s Military Campaigns

In stark contrast to Símon Bolívar’s fiery and explosive military campaigns in the northern Spanish colonies of South America, José de San Martín’s more measured initiatives and methodical approach secured the independence of Latin America’s Southern Cone region and, before he retired from the scene in favor of Bolívar, went far toward securing the liberation of Peru from colonial Spanish rule.

Summary of Event

A native of the country that was to become Argentina, José de San Martín was taken by his parents to Spain at an early age and acquired considerable military experience by the time he returned to Buenos Aires in 1812. Meanwhile, he entered the Spanish army in 1789 at the age of eleven and served in campaigns in Morocco, southern France, and Portugal. From 1808 to 1811, he saw action during the Peninsular War Peninsular War (1808-1815);and Spanish American liberators[Spanish American liberators] (1808-1815) against the French occupiers of Spain, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. San Martín grew disillusioned by politics and favoritism within the Spanish army, which he believed discriminated against soldiers who, like himself, were not born in Spain. He returned to South America and fell in with the liberal revolutionary movement in Argentina, Argentina;liberation of soon joining the revolutionary army at Buenos Aires as a lieutenant colonel. San Martín, José de
South America;liberation of
Argentina;liberation of
Chile;liberation of
[kw]San Martín’s Military Campaigns (Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821)
[kw]Military Campaigns, San Martín’s (Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821)
[kw]Campaigns, San Martín’s Military (Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821)
San Martín, José de
South America;liberation of
Argentina;liberation of
Chile;liberation of
[g]Argentina;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[g]Chile;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[g]Peru;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[g]South America;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[c]Colonization;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 18, 1817-July 28, 1821: San Martín’s Military Campaigns[0920]
Bolívar, Simón
O’Higgins, Bernardo
Encalada, Manuel Blanco
Cochrane, Thomas
Pueyrredón, Juan Martin de

Marcó del Pont, Casimiro
Maroto, Rafael

On May 25, 1810, an independent governing junta was named to supplant the viceregal government of Rio de La Plata at Buenos Aires Buenos Aires and to form a new state. From there, the forces of this new state of Argentina had fanned out in an attempt to clear Spanish troops from the region. The Army of the North was organized under the command of General Manuel Belgrano Belgrano, Manuel and tried to carry the fight into the Spanish stronghold of Upper Peru Peru;liberation of (present-day Bolivia). Belgrano was defeated in 1813, precipitating his replacement (1814) by San Martín, who had gained notice through his victory over royalist forces at San Lorenzo de Parana on February 3, 1813.

José de San Martín.

(Library of Congress)

Now a general, San Martín differed with leaders of the new Argentine government over their plans of direct attack on Upper Peru. Instead, he envisioned an indirect approach across the Andes Mountains and into the captaincy general of Chile. Rather than directly disobey orders, he played for time, perhaps feigning ill health. In 1814, the government acceded to the general’s request to be allowed to resign his command of the Army of the North and to be reassigned to command of Argentine forces in Cuyo Province, whose capital at Mendoza was located at the foot of the Andes. In 1816, San Martín benefited from a change in the political climate. On May 3 of that year, Juan Martín de Pueyrredón Pueyrredón, Juan Martin de was named supreme director of Argentina and, as he secretly agreed with San Martín’s plan, officially designated San Martín’s expeditionary force as the Army of the Andes, signing his regime’s approval to its commander’s plans.

San Martín embarked upon the lengthy, painstaking process of planning his audacious blow. His plan called for him to march his army across the mountains during the midst of the Andean summer after thoroughly reconnoitering the area and setting up a network of agents and fifth columnists. Relying on the elements of stealth and speed, he would surprise Spanish forces in Chile. Chile;liberation of Once Chile was secured, it could be used as a base from which to invade Peru. San Martín received invaluable assistance from exiled Chilean revolutionaries, who had been driven out in defeat at the hands of royalist General Mariano Osorio Osorio, Mariano at the Battle of Rancagua. First, San Martín had to resolve a feud between two factions among the Chileans, one led by Bernardo O’Higgins O’Higgins, Bernardo and the other by José Miguel Carrera and his brothers Juan and Luis. Deciding in favor of O’Higgins, he appointed the Chilean to command the left wing of the Army of the Andes.

On January 18, 1817, San Martín led three columns totaling 3,550 troops through separate mountain passes; they had accomplished the crossing by February 8. By February 12, San Martín had completely routed the army of Colonel Rafael Maroto Maroto, Rafael at the Battle of Chacabuco and had swept Governor-General Casimiro Marcó del Pont Marcó del Pont, Casimiro out of the capital of Santiago. Although Marcó del Pont retired, former Governor-General Mariano Osorio rallied the royalists and inflicted a humiliating defeat on San Martín at Cancha Rayada on March 19, 1818. However, San Martín was able to reorganize his army in an astonishingly short time, and his victorious attack against Osorio Osorio, Mariano at Maipu on April 5, 1818, secured Chile’s Chile;liberation of independence.

With his ally O’Higgins O’Higgins, Bernardo at the helm as Chile’s supreme director (a post that San Martín had declined for himself), the victorious liberator formulated his plans for a seaborne assault on the Viceroyalty of Peru. To accomplish this, Chile Chile;navy
Navy, Chilean had to build a navy from scratch, a task undertaken with dramatic success by the twenty-nine-year-old Manuel Blanco Encalada. Encalada, Manuel Blanco After little more than a year, a fleet was ready to sail. All that was lacking was a seasoned commander, but that gap was filled—for a price—by the British sailor-of-fortune Thomas Cochrane Cochrane, Thomas . Cochrane was immediately given command of the Chilean navy and proceeded to ravage the Peruvian Peru;liberation of coast and Spanish shipping, even seizing the important port of Valdivia in February, 1820.

On August 20, 1820, the Chilean expeditionary force sailed out of Valparaiso aboard Cochrane’s ships under the overall command of San Martín. On September 8, a landing was made at Pisco. Sporadic fighting was interrupted by two cease-fire periods, during which abortive attempts were made by the Spanish colonial regimes of two separate viceroys (Joaquín de Pezuela and José de la Serna Serna, José de la , respectively) to persuade San Martín to withdraw. The talks foundered over San Martín’s insistence on no less than total independence, and royal troops evacuated the viceregal capital at Lima Lima on July 6, 1821. San Martín marched into the city six days later. Complete independence was proclaimed on July 28, and San Martín was named protector of Peru.

By late 1821, Simón Bolívar Bolívar, Simón , San Martín’s counterpart in northern South America, had successfully liberated Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Meanwhile, San Martín’s power and prestige were on the wane after his triumphs in July. Admiral Cochrane Cochrane, Thomas had absconded with ships and treasury funds after a salary dispute with the protector, and royalist forces were still defiant, firmly entrenched in the interior of the country, twice outnumbering his own army. San Martín’s natural caution, which was aggravated by a debilitating disease—probably tuberculosis—and by the opium treatment he underwent for it, engendered criticism and a questioning of his ultimate resolve. His consistent support for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under a European prince also provoked growing opposition.

Reaching the conclusion that only cooperation with Bolívar afforded a chance for victory over the remaining royalists, San Martín, in November of 1821, proposed a meeting with the Liberator. This meeting with Bolívar marked the end of San Martín’s military activity, for when it occurred at Guayaquil on July 26-27, 1822, Bolívar did not hide his resentment of San Martín or his reluctance to share credit. San Martín, who was tired of the limelight and anxious to end the conflict, resigned from his political office and from military command and retired to private life, leaving Bolívar to secure independence for the rest of Peru.


Although low-key in his approach and far less remembered than the more theatrical Simón Bolívar Bolívar, Simón , José de San Martín and his southern campaigns of liberation were nonetheless just as crucial as those in the north. Without the efforts of this southern liberator, the achievement of total independence for South America would certainly have taken far longer to be realized. It may possibly not have been completed at all. San Martín spent the last decades of his life a reclusive exile in Europe, and he never attempted to shape the political destiny of the nations he helped create.

Further Reading

  • Graham, Richard. Independence in Latin America: A Comparative Approach. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. In terms of comparative leadership, the author rates San Martín well, but not as highly as he does Bolívar.
  • Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence, 1810-1830. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2000. Interestingly written, contains a reasonably thorough character analysis, and discusses the role of the United States in the South American independence struggles.
  • Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America from the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. Older generalist work whose insights have stood the test of time rather well. The author is more sympathetic to San Martín and sees Bolívar’s ego as having sabotaged any potential for unified action in Peru.
  • Robertson, William Spence. The Rise of the Spanish-American Republics as Told in the Lives of Their Liberators. New York: Free Press, 1965. Contains the most detailed analysis of San Martín’s complex character and strategy, and his controversial monarchical leanings.
  • Rodriguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. The author is more critical of San Martín than most and sees him as having lost his sense of direction after the liberation of Lima.

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