The Hannibal of the Andes and the Freedom of Chili
At the end of 1816 the cause of liberty in Chili was at its lowest ebb. After four years of struggle the patriots had met with a crushing defeat in 1814, and had been scattered to the four winds. Since then the viceroy of Spain had ruled the land with an iron hand, many of the leading citizens being banished to the desolate island of Juan Fernandez, the imaginary scene of Robinson Crusoe's career, while many others were severely punished and all the people were oppressed.
In this depressed state of Chilian affairs a hero came across the mountains to strike a new blow for liberty. Don Jose de San Martin had fought valiantly for the independence of Buenos Ayres at the battle of San Lorenzo. Now the Argentine patriots sent him to the aid of their fellow-patriots in Chili and Peru. Such was the state of the conflict in the latter part of 1816, when San Martin, collecting the scattered bands of Chilian troops and adding them to men of his own command, got together a formidable array five thousand strong. The "Liberating Army of the Andes" these were called.
An able organizer was San Martin, and he put his men through a thorough course of discipline. Those he most depended on were the cavalry, a force made up of the Gauchos, or cattlemen of the Pampas, whose life was passed in the saddle, and who were genuine centaurs of the plains.
San Martin had the Andes to cross with his army, and this was a task like that which Hannibal and Bonaparte had accomplished in the Alps. He set out himself at the head of his cavalry on the 17th of January, 1817, the infantry and artillery advancing by a different route. The men of the army carried their own food, consisting of dried meat and parched corn, and depots of food were established at intervals along the route, the difficulty of transporting provision-trains being thus avoided. The field-pieces were slung between mules or dragged on sledges made of tough hide, and were hoisted or lowered by derricks, when steep places were reached. Some two thousand cattle were driven along to add to their food supply.
Thus equipped, San Martin's army set out on its difficult passage of the snow-topped Andes. He had previously sent over guerilla bands whose active movements thoroughly deceived the royalist generals as to his intended place of crossing. Onward went the cavalry, spurred to extraordinary exertion by the fact that provisions began to run short. The passes to be traversed, thirteen thousand feet high and white with perpetual snow, formed a frightful route for the horsemen of the plains, yet they pushed on over the rugged mountains, with their yawning precipices, so rapidly as to cover three hundred miles in thirteen days. The infantry advanced with equal fortitude and energy, and early in February the combined forces descended the mountains and struck the royalist army at the foot with such energy that it was soon fleeing in a total rout. So utterly defeated and demoralized were the royalists that Santiago, the capital, was abandoned and was entered by San Martin at the head of his wild gauchos and host of refugees on the 15th of February. His funds at this time consisted of the two doubloons remaining in his pocket, while he had no military chest, no surgeons nor medicines for his wounded, and a very small supply of the indispensable requisites of an army. About all he had to depend on was the patriotism of his men and their enthusiasm over their brilliant crossing of the Andes and their easy victory over their foes.
For the time being Chili was free. The royalists had vanished and the patriots were in full possession. Thirty or more years before, a bold Irishman, bearing the name of O'Higgins, had come to Chili, where he quickly rose in position until he was given the title of Don Ambrosio, and attained successively the ranks of field-marshal of the royal army, baron, marquis, and finally viceroy of Peru. His son, Don Bernardo, was a man of his own type, able in peace and brilliant in war, and he was now made supreme dictator of Chili, an office which San Martin had refused. The banished patriots were brought home from their desert island, the royalists severely punished, and a new army was organized to dislodge the fragment of the Spanish army which still held out in the south.
On the 15th of February, 1818, the anniversary of the decisive victory of the "Liberating Army of the Andes," O'Higgins declared the absolute independence of Chili. A vote of the people was taken in a peculiar manner. Two blank books were opened for signatures in every city, the first for independence, the second for those who preferred the rule of Spain. For fifteen days these remained, and then it was found that the first books were filled with names, while the second had not a single name. This vote O'Higgins declared settled the question of Chilian freedom.
The Spaniards did not think so, for Abascal, the energetic viceroy of Peru, was taking vigorous steps to win Chili back for the crown. Three months before he had received a reinforcement of three thousand five hundred veterans from Spain, and these he sent to southern Chili to join the forces still in arms. United, they formed an army of about six thousand, under General Osorio, the able commander who had subdued Chili in 1814. It was evident that the newly declared independence of Chili was to be severely tried.
In fact, on the first meeting of the armies it seemed overthrown. On the 19th of March San Martin's army, while in camp near Talca, was unexpectedly and violently attacked by the royalist troops, the onslaught being so sudden and furious, and the storm of cannon and musket shot so rapid and heavy, that the patriot troops were stricken with panic, their divisions firing at each other as well as at the enemy. Within fifteen minutes the whole army was in full flight. The leaders bravely sought to stop the demoralized troops, but in vain, O'Higgins, though severely wounded, throwing himself before them without effect. Nothing could check them, and the defeat became in large measure a total rout.
When news of this disaster reached Santiago utter consternation prevailed. Patriots hastily gathered their valuables for flight; carriages of those seeking to leave the country thronged the streets; women wrung their hands in wild despair; the funds of the treasury were got ready to load on mules; the whole city was in a state of terrible anxiety.
Several days passed before it was known what had become of San Martin. Then news arrived that he was at San Fernando at the head of the right wing, three thousand strong. These had escaped the panic on account of two divisions of Osorio's army mistaking each other for the enemy and firing into their own ranks. In the confusion that ensued the right wing was led unbroken from the field. Also a dashing young cavalry officer named Rodriguez had done good work in checking the flight of the fugitives, and in a brief time had organized a regiment which he named the "Hussars of Death."
Six days after the defeat General O'Higgins made his appearance in Santiago. He was badly wounded, but was at once named dictator of the republic. The next day San Martin, with a few of his officers, entered the city. Wearied and dusty with travel as he was, his cheery cry of "La patria triunfa" gave new heart to the people. For several days fragments of the routed army came pouring in, and ten days after the battle Colonel Las Heras arrived with the three thousand of the right wing. The patriot cause seemed far less hopeless than had been the case a week before.
Yet it was evident that liberty could come only from strenuous exertion, and the people of wealth freely subscribed of their money, plate, and jewels for the cause. It was not long before a new army five thousand five hundred strong, freshly clothed and in fair fighting condition, was gathered in a camp near the city. The artillery lost in the flight could not be replaced, but a few field-pieces were secured. San Martin and O'Higgins, with other able officers, were in command, and hope once more began to dawn upon despair.
The enemy was known to be approaching, and the army was moved to a point about nine miles from the capital, occupying a location known as the farm of Espejo, where the coming enemy was awaited. On the afternoon of April 3, Osorio crossed the Maypo, the patriot cavalry harassing his flank and rear as he advanced. On the 5th his army took up a position on the brow of a hill opposite that occupied by the patriot forces.
Passing out from Santiago there is a succession of white hills, known as the Lorna Blanca, on one crest of which, commanding the roads to the fords of the Maypo and to Santiago, the patriot army was encamped. The royalists occupied the crest and slope of an opposite ridge. Below them ran the Maypo with its forests and hills.
As the sun rose on the morning of the 5th San Martin saw with satisfaction the royalist force beginning to occupy the high ground in his front. With hopeful tone, he said, "I take the sun to witness that the day is ours." As he spoke, the golden rays spread like a banner of light from crest to crest. At ten o'clock when the movement of the armies began, he said, with assurance, "A half-hour will decide the fate of Chili."
A few words will serve to describe the positions of the armies. Each was more than five thousand strong, the patriot army somewhat the smaller. It had been greatly reduced by its recent defeat, the memory of which also hung about it like a cloud, while the royalists were filled with enthusiasm from their late victory. The royalist lines were about a mile in length, four squadrons of dragoons flanking their right wing and a body of lancers their left, while a battery occupied a hill on the extreme left. Confronting them were the patriots, the left commanded by General Alverado, the centre by Balcaree, the right by Las Heras, while Quintana headed the reserves.
The battle opened with a brisk fire from the patriot artillery, and in about an hour the infantry forces joined in full action. As the royalists moved down the hill they were swept with the fire of the patriot battery, while shortly afterwards the royal battery on the left was captured by a dashing cavalry charge and the guns were turned against their own line.
The centre of the battle was a farm-house on the Espejo estate, which was charged furiously by both sides, being taken and retaken several times during the day. Yet as the day went on the advantage seemed to be on the side of Osorio, who held the field with the centre and one wing of his army. Defeat seemed the approaching fate of the patriots. It came nearer when the regiment of negroes which had for some time withstood the Burgos regiment—the flower of Osorio's force—gave way and retreated, leaving four hundred of its number stretched upon the field.
The critical moment of the battle was now at hand. The Burgos regiment attempted to follow up its success by forming itself into a square for a decisive charge. In doing so the Spanish lines were broken and thrown into temporary disorder. Colonel O'Brien, a gallant cavalry officer of Irish blood, took quick advantage of this. Joining his troops with Quintana's reserves, he broke in a fierce charge upon the Burgos regiment while in the act of reforming and drove it back in complete confusion.
This defeat of the choice corps of Osorio's army changed the whole aspect of affairs. The patriots, inspired with hope, boldly advanced and pressed their foes at all points. The Burgos troops sought refuge in the farm-house, and were followed by the left, which was similarly broken and dispersed. The centre kept up the action for a time, but with both wings in retreat it also was soon forced back, and the whole royalist army was demoralized.
The patriots did not fail to press their advantage to the utmost. On all sides the royalists were cut down or captured, until nearly half their force were killed and wounded and most of the remainder taken prisoners. A stand was made by those at the farm house, but they were soon driven out, and about five hundred of them killed and wounded in the court and vineyard adjoining. Of the total army less than three hundred escaped, General Osorio and some other officers among them. These fled to Concepcion, and embarked from there to Peru. Of the patriots more than a thousand had fallen in the hot engagement.
This brilliant and decisive victory, known as the battle of the Maypo, gave San Martin immense renown, and justly so, for it established the independence of Chili. Nor was that all, for it broke the power which Abascal had long sustained in Peru, and opened the way for the freeing of that land from the rule of Spain.
This feat also was the work of San Martin, who soon after invaded Peru, and, aided by a Chilian fleet, conquered that land from Spain, proclaiming its independence to the people of Cuzco on the 28th of July, 1821. Later on, indeed, its freedom was seriously threatened, and it was not until 1824 that General Bolivar finally won independence for Peru, in the victory of Ayacucho. Yet, famous as Bolivar became as the Liberator of South America, some generous portion of thine should rightly be accorded to San Martin, the Liberator of Chili.