José Francisco de San Martín (1778-1850) was an Argentine General, governor and patriot who led his nation during the wars of Independence from Spain. He was a lifelong soldier who fought for the Spanish in Europe before returning to Argentina to lead the struggle for Independence. Today, he is revered in Argentina, where he is considered among the founding fathers of the nation. He also led the liberation of Chile and Peru.
Early Life of José de San Martín
José Francisco was born in Yapeyu in the Province of Corrientes, Argentina, the youngest son of Lieutenant Juan de San Martín, the Spanish governor. Yapeyu was a beautiful town on the Uruguay River, and young José lived a privileged life there as the governor's son. His dark complexion caused many whispers about his parentage while he was young, although it would serve him well later in life. When José was seven years old, his father was recalled to Spain. José attended good schools, where he showed skill in math, and joined the army as a cadet at the young age of eleven. By seventeen he was a lieutenant and had seen action in North Africa and France.
Military Career with the Spanish
At the age of nineteen he was serving with the Spanish navy, fighting the British on several occasions. At one point, his ship was captured, but he returned to Spain in a prisoner exchange. He fought in Portugal and at the blockade of Gibraltar, and rose swiftly in rank as he proved to be a skilled, loyal soldier. When France invaded Spain in 1806 he fought against them on several occasions, eventually rising to the rank of Adjutant-General. He commanded a regiment of dragoons, very skilled light cavalry. This accomplished career soldier and war hero seemed the most unlikely of candidates to defect and join the insurgents in South America, but that's exactly what he did.
San Martín Joins the Rebels
In September of 1811, San Martin boarded a British ship in Cadiz with the intention of returning to Argentina - where he had not been since the age of seven - and joining the Independence movement there. His motives remain unclear, but may have had to do with San Martín's ties to the Masons, many of whom were pro-Independence. He was the highest ranking Spanish officer to defect to the patriot side in all of Latin America. He arrived in Argentina in March of 1812 and at first he was greeted with suspicion by Argentine leaders, but he soon proved his loyalty and ability.
San Martín's Influence Grows
San Martín accepted a modest command, but made the most of it, ruthlessly drilling his recruits into a coherent fighting force. In January of 1813, he defeated a small Spanish force that had been harassing settlements on the Parana River. This victory - one of the first for Argentines against the Spanish - captured the imagination of the patriots, and before long San Martín was head of all of the armed forces in Buenos Aires.
The Lautaro Lodge
San Martín was one of the leaders of the Lautaro Lodge, a secretive, Mason-like group dedicated to complete liberty for all of Latin America. The Lautaro Lodge members were sworn to secrecy and so little is known about their rituals or even their membership, but they formed the heart of the Patriotic Society, a more public institution which consistently applied political pressure for greater freedom and independence. The presence of similar lodges in Chile and Peru aided the independence effort in those nations as well. Lodge members often held high government posts.
San Martín and the Army of the North
Argentina's "Army of the North," under the command of General Manuel Belgrano, had been fighting royalist forces from Upper Peru (now Bolivia) to a stalemate. In October 1813, Belgrano was defeated at the Battle of Ayahuma and San Martín was sent to relieve him. He took command in January of 1814 and soon mercilessly drilled the recruits into a formidable fighting force. He decided it would be foolish to attack uphill into fortified Upper Peru. He felt that a far better plan of attack would be to cross the Andes in the south, liberate Chile, and attack Peru from the south and by sea. He would never forget his plan, even though it would take him years to fulfill.
Preparations for the Invasion of Chile
San Martín accepted the governorship of the Province of Cuyo in 1814 and set up shop in the city of Mendoza, which at that time was receiving numerous Chilean patriots going into exile after the crushing patriot defeat at the Battle of Rancagua. The Chileans were divided even amongst themselves, and San Martín made the fateful decision to support Bernardo O'Higgins over Jose Miguel Carrera and his brothers.
Meanwhile, in northern Argentina, the Army of the north had been defeated by the Spanish, clearly proving once and for all that the route to Peru through Upper Peru (Bolivia) would be too difficult. In July of 1816 San Martín finally got approval for his plan to cross into Chile and attack Peru from the south from President Juan Martín de Pueyrredón.