José de San Martín is one of the most important historical figures in South America. He is known as the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Perú, and thus is often referred to as El Libertador, or The Liberator. This man and the forces he controlled were instrumental in forcing the Spanish Imperialists out of these countries during the 19th century, and ensuring the subsequent independence of South America.
José de San Martín was born in Yapeyu, Argentina, in the province of Corrientes, on 25 February 1778. At the age of 8, he was sent to Spain for education, where would meet and befriend Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins. O’Higgins would later become a fellow Libertador in the revolution of South America against Spanish rule. San Martín joined the Spanish army in 1791. Following a brief service in the Spanish resistance against Napoleon and the French invasion, he returned to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1812.
His military status was recognized by the independent government of Buenos Aires, known as the Primer Triunvirato, and he was given the title of Chief Colonel. Ironically, under the charge of the Primer Triunvirato, he would draw upon his military training in Spain to organize a cavalry regiment with the aim of liberating South America from Spanish rule. This cavalry would come to be known as the Grenaderos a Caballo, or Mounted Grenadiers.
On 3 February 1813, the Mounted Grenadiers fought and won their first battle against the Spanish in San Lorenzo. San Martín and his victorious troops traveled north, intending to cross the high Andes into Lima, Perú, which was the stronghold of Spanish forces. However, he realized that he would be unable to safely reach Perú by way of the Peruvian high Andes. He decided to head south to Mendoza, Argentina, where he would cross the Andes into Chile. This way, he could liberate Chile along the way, and reach Perú by sea.
In Mendoza, he and his troops amassed a supply of provisions through the contributions of nearby townspeople. With his newly dubbed Army of the Andes, he began the crossing of the Andes into Chile on 5 January 1817. On 12 February 1817, only days after crossing the Andes, the Army of the Andes fought and won the battle of Chacabuco. It was at this time that he would be given the title, Knight of the Andes.
After the battle of Chacabuco, San Martín triumphantly entered Santiago, Chile, where the town council named him governor of Chile. He declined this honor, and his long time Chilean friend Bernardo O’Higgins took over political power in his stead. Subsequent battles ensued between the Spanish and the now united Chilean-Argentine forces. On 5 April 1818, in the battle of Maipú, the Spanish were defeated and Chile was no longer under Spanish rule.
With confiscated Spanish ships, and others bought from the United States and England, the Chilean Navy was created and overtook the remaining Spanish ships blocking Valparaíso. Chile soon dominated the Pacific, annihilating the last Spanish expedition ship toward the end of 1818. Once Chile had control of the Pacific, preparations began for the journey to Perú. San Martín sailed for Perú from Valparaíso, Chile on 20 August 1820.
Shortly after reaching Perú, he besieged Lima, and liberated it from Spanish control. Subsequent victories occurred in the north of Perú, and in Trujillo, the red and white flag of Perú was raised. The Spanish viceroy in Lima was overthrown and a new Peruvian government began to establish itself. From Lima, San Martín wrote to his friend Bernardo O’Higgins, saying that with the liberation of Perú, he foresaw the end of his public life. On 28 July 1821, he addressed the Peruvians from the main plaza in Lima, declaring Perú free and independent, and gaining the title of Protector del Perú.
In 1822 he met with Simón Bolivar for a private discussion about the future of the now free South America. Following this meeting, his military career slowed and came to an end, just as he had predicted. He returned to Argentina, but after the death of his wife, moved to Europe with his young daughter. There he spent the rest of his life, returning only once to South America before his death. José de San Martín died in France, on 17 August 1850, at the age of 72.