April 5, 1818. In the shadows of the Andes, a confrontation is about to take place. The ragtag Army of the Andes, led by Jose de San Martin, prepares to confront the Spanish army that stands between them and the independence of South America. On the plains of Maipu, near Santiago, Chile, the fate of the Spanish Empire is about to be decided.
The Spanish had controlled a vast Empire in the Americas since the original conquest of the 1500s. Mexico, Central America, and almost all of western and southern South America still flew the Spanish flag after the American Revolution. For most of their history, they had been ruled loosely, and a complex racial caste system had sprung up in these colonies. The “Peninsulares” – that is, native Spaniards – were at the top of this food chain. “Criollos” (Creoles), people of Spanish descent born in the colonies, were decidedly second-rank. The mixed-race “Mestizos,” were next, followed by the lower rungs of the Indios and the Negros, which are what they sound like. Racial categorization is a Kafkaesque nightmare in the best of cases, and Latin America was not the best of cases.
In the 1770s, the Bourbon Kings of Spain instituted a series of reforms meant to bring the colonies closer under Spanish control, but that instead ruptured societal norms and increased local resentment against Spanish rule. The increased role of Peninsulares pushed the Criollos out of their old social positions and fostered a sense of inferiority that Latin American macho culture found hard to bear.
While the local issues were not fatal to Spanish Imperial pretensions, they were exacerbated in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte, eager to expand his power within Europe, imprisoned the King of Spain and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne instead. The resultant chaos in Spain caused a number of competing political factions to emerge, all fighting the French but each fighting the others for the future of Spain. As a result, the Spanish colonies found themselves increasingly unable to call on support from the mother country, and had to survive on their own.
Most Spanish-Americans, especially the proud Criollos, found no reason to listen to a temporary government without a King and in danger of coming under French domination. Instead, they sought to form local “juntas” – an administration of local notables formed to govern the areas in the King’s absence and resist French domination. The Juntas took power in both the Rio de La Plata – modern Argentina – and Chile, among other key locations across the New World. This provoked a hostile response from the agents of the Spanish Crown, who wanted to maintain their power within the colonies. What had started as a dispute over who was to govern in the King’s absence became a racial caste war by the Criollos against the Peninsulares.
Most Latin American countries did not want independence, but the Creoles at first fought for recognition as equal Spanish subjects to their Peninsulare overlords. When it became clear that this would never be granted by any Spanish government, only then did it become an independence struggle. Even amongst all this, there was a third group – the oppressed Mestizos, Indios, and Negros, who often sided with whichever faction promised them the most liberation from their degraded condition. The Royalists and Peninsulares often found them to be willing recruits, because there was no question that Criollo domination would be a much more direct and racially based form of oppression than the relatively benign and distant rule of King Ferdinand VII. The Latin American Wars of Independence were as much a racial caste war as they were an independence war.
Let’s narrow our focus to the arena of combat. In May 1810, the Primera Junta in Buenos Aires had overthrown their Spanish governors. Fighting went on across Paraguay, Uruguay and with multiple Spanish assaults on Buenos Aires for the next six years against multiple Royalist attempts to reassert authority over the land. It took until 1816 for the Junta, having finally vanquished the remnants of the Spanish armies in their region, to declare the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata – aka Argentina – independent. They still faced a major threat to the west and north, however, thanks to Spanish successes in Peru and Chile.
Across the Andes, Chile had in 1811 declared a junta of its own. The leader of this junta was the charismatic dictator Jose Miguel Carrera, and his right-hand man was Bernardo O’Higgins, the descendant of Irish officers who had fought against Britain for the Spanish and settled in Chile. The Spanish Governor of Peru, however, crushed the first rebellion in his own province in 1812, and started looking in alarm at the rebellions to the south. The next year, he sent a force under the Royalist General Mariano Osorio down to Chile to end the junta. Osorio cleverly exploited a personal dispute between Carrera and O’Higgins to crush O’Higgins’ force in 1814 in a stunning defeat. A few days later, Osorio conquered Santiago, ending Chile’s defiance to Spain.
Carrera and O’Higgins, along with many supporters, fled east across the Andes and found himself in Argentina, in the Province of Cuyo, commanded by Argentine General Jose de San Martin. San Martin, a Spanish officer of Argentine birth and with Mestizo blood, had already won great victories against the Royalists but had grown disenchanted with the infighting within the government in Buenos Aires. He also observed that Argentina would never be safe until the Spanish were completely driven from the continent, and that Argentina could not just defend; it had to go on the attack. He requested the Province of Cuyo, an Andean province bordering Chile, to prepare for a campaign to expel the Spanish from the whole of South America.
San Martin welcomed the Chilean exiles, but Carrera proved himself a nuisance, trying to give orders to San Martin and disobeying local laws. San Martin clapped the erstwhile dictator in irons and sent him to Buenos Aires, taking on O’Higgins as his new deputy. The two men got on famously, and began preparing for a daring campaign. They would have to cross the Andes, one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, and be prepared to fight a battle when they got to the other side.
San Martin organized the entire Province of Cuyo for war. A combination of economic incentives and confiscations transformed the entire province into one big supply base for the Army of the Andes. Gunpowder, artillery, food, clothing, horses – all were produced locally. Catholic priests headed military factories that made rifles and horseshoes. Mining was increased and used to provide the raw materials for this production. Conscription brought in hundreds of young men, not exactly eager but soon transformed under San Martin’s leadership. San Martin kept the operation clear of disputes in Argentinian politics, refusing to ally with either leading faction. He organized military intelligence and disinformation to mislead the Spanish and promoted propaganda to inspire his troops.
In January 1817, San Martin was finally ready. 5,000 men, 10,000 mules and 1,500 horses ascended the Andes in the winter, a hazardous choice but one that was necessary for the element of surprise. They carried dry beef, raw onion, and boiled water as their rations, with a great herd of cattle to feed them on their journey. The wastage was fierce; San Martin lost a third of his men crossing the mountains. It was a more difficult passage than Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, as the Andes are much higher and tougher, but San Martin’s planning and preparation kept his force intact. The Crossing of the Andes was one of the great exploits of leadership in human history.
The Spanish were taken completely by surprise when San Martin appeared like an avenging angel, descending from the Andes to take Santiago by storm. Fleeing in disarray, the Spanish attempted a stand at Chacabuco, but were completely routed. It seemed like Chile was once again free, and O’Higgins took charge of the government.
But it was not over. General Osorio, who had conquered Chile once, came south to do so again, and ambushed the Army of the Andes in March 1818. San Martin and O’Higgins barely escaped with their lives, but San Martin’s leadership was able to save the army and pull it back together. Many of his troops had fled, but he had enough for one more throw. Without a major victory now, Chile would be lost, and Argentina soon after. It was time to toss the dice.
San Martin confronted Osorio on the plain of Maipu, south of Santiago. Both sides had 5,000 men; the Spanish were better trained and equipped, but San Martin’s Andeans were motivated and prepared to win.
The battle opened on April 5, 1818 with a fierce artillery duel. San Martin directed his infantry to attack in two large columns, and the battle swirled into a combined melee. Furious cavalry countercharges on either flank surged back and forth, and the rolling musket fire and slow boom of the cannon echoed off the great mountains around them. San Martin saw the right of his line start to buckle and collapse under a Royalist charge, and realized that the critical moment of the battle had arrived. As the Spanish charged down the hill, San Martin led his infantry reserve into their suddenly exposed flank, sending them fleeing. As the Spanish right crumbled, the left closed in on itself to try and hold its ground, only beginning to break when Osorio himself fled.
The Spanish retreat, however, proved even worse for them than the battle. As they tried to fall back, they were suddenly surrounded by local militia stirred up none other than Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s first national hero. As the scale of the victory became clear, San Martin and O’Higgins met on the field and embraced. The Spanish army, all of it, had been vanquished: 2,000 dead and 3,000 captured. Chile was free, and Argentina was safe.
Spain would never again attempt to invade Chile. They were struggling to hold onto what they had as rebellions continued to flare up – including the particularly troublesome Venezuela rebellion under Simon Bolivar. The victory at Maipu opened the gates for San Martin and his Army of the Andes – now the Army of Liberation – to fight its way up to Peru and the freedom of South America.
Maipu was one of those great forgotten (in the West) hinges of history, and the beginning of the end of the great Spanish Empire. To this day, the victory is marked every April 5 by a joint civil-military parade in Maipu, now a suburb of Santiago. A reenactment marks the end of each April following a month of independence festivities.
In 2010, to celebrate the 200 years since the Latin American Wars of Independence began, Argentinian and Chilean army forces recreated the Crossing of the Andes.
Book Recommendation: There is a shortage of good books on the Latin American Wars for Independence in English. Try John Charles Chasteen, Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).