Biography of José Francisco de San Martín, Latin American Liberator

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José Francisco de San Martín (February 25, 1778–August 17, 1850) was an Argentine general and governor who led his nation during the wars of Independence from Spain. He is counted among the founding fathers of Argentina and also led the liberations of Chile and Peru.

Fast Facts: José Francisco de San Martín

  • Known For: Leading or helping lead the liberations of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain
  • Born: February 25, 1778 in Yapeyu, Province of Corrientes, Argentina
  • Parents: Juan de San Martín and Gregoria Matorras
  • Died: August 17, 1850 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
  • Education: Seminary of Nobles, enrolled as cadet in the Murcia infantry regiment
  • Published Works: "Antología"
  • Spouse: María de los Remedios de Escalada de la Quintana
  • Children: María de las Mercedes Tomasa de San Martín y Escalada
  • Notable Quote: "The soldiers of our land know no luxury, but glory."

Early Life

José Francisco de San Martin was born on February 25, 1878, 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 7 years old, his father was recalled to Spain and returned with his family. In Spain, José attended good schools, including the Seminary of Nobles where he showed skill in math and joined the army as a cadet at the young age of 11. By 17, he was a lieutenant and had seen action in North Africa and France.

Military Career With the Spanish

At the age of 19, José was serving with the Spanish navy and fighting the British on several occasions. His ship was captured at one point, but he was 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 and loyal soldier.

When France invaded Spain in 1806, he fought against them on several occasions, eventually being promoted to 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.

Joining the Rebels

In September 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 7, 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 1812 and was at first greeted with suspicion by Argentine leaders, but he soon proved his loyalty and ability.

San Martín accepted a modest command but made the most of it, ruthlessly drilling his recruits into a coherent fighting force. In January 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 that 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.

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 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 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.

The Army of the Andes

San Martín immediately began recruiting, outfitting and drilling the Army of the Andes. By the end of 1816, he had an army of some 5,000 men, including a healthy mix of infantry, cavalry, artillerymen, and support forces. He recruited officers and accepted tough Gauchos into his army, usually as horsemen. Chilean exiles were welcome, and he appointed O'Higgins as his immediate subordinate. There was even a regiment of British soldiers who would fight bravely in Chile.

San Martín was obsessed with details, and the army was as well equipped and trained as he could make it. The horses all had shoes, blankets, boots, and weapons were procured, the food was ordered and preserved, etc. No detail was too trivial for San Martín and the Army of the Andes, and his planning would pay off when the army crossed the Andes.

Crossing the Andes

In January 1817, the army set off. The Spanish forces in Chile were expecting him and he knew it. Should the Spanish decide to defend the pass he chose, he could face a hard battle with weary troops. But he fooled the Spanish by mentioning an incorrect route "in confidence" to some Indian allies. As he had suspected, the Indians were playing both sides and sold the information to the Spanish. Therefore, the royalist armies were far to the south of where San Martín actually crossed.

The crossing was arduous, as flatland soldiers and Gauchos struggled with the freezing cold and high altitudes, but San Martín's meticulous planning paid off and he lost relatively few men and animals. In February 1817, the Army of the Andes entered Chile unopposed.

The Battle of Chacabuco

The Spanish soon realized they had been duped and scrambled to keep the Army of the Andes out of Santiago. Governor Casimiro Marcó del Pont sent all available forces out under the command of General Rafael Maroto with the purpose of delaying San Martín until reinforcements could arrive. They met at the Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, 1817. The result was a huge patriot victory: Maroto was completely routed, losing half his force, while the Patriot losses were negligible. The Spanish in Santiago fled, and San Martín rode triumphantly into the city at the head of his army.

The Battle of Maipu

San Martín still believed that for Argentina and Chile to be truly free, the Spanish needed to be removed from their stronghold in Peru. Still covered in glory from his triumph at Chacabuco, he returned to Buenos Aires to get funds and reinforcements.

News from Chile soon brought him hurrying back across the Andes. Royalist and Spanish forces in southern Chile had joined with reinforcements and were threatening Santiago. San Martín took charge of the patriot forces once more and met the Spanish at the Battle of Maipu on April 5, 1818. The Patriots crushed the Spanish army, killing some 2,000, capturing around 2,200, and seizing all of the Spanish artillery. The stunning victory at Maipu marked the definitive liberation of Chile: Spain would never again mount a serious threat to the area.

On to Peru

With Chile finally secure, San Martin could set his sights on Peru at last. He began building or acquiring a navy for Chile: a tricky task, given that the governments in Santiago and Buenos Aires were virtually bankrupt. It was difficult to make Chileans and Argentines see the benefits of liberating Peru, but San Martín had great prestige by then and he was able to convince them. In August 1820, he departed from Valparaiso with a modest army of some 4,700 soldiers and 25 cannons. They were well-supplied with horses, weapons, and food. It was a smaller force than what San Martín believed he would need.

March to Lima

San Martín believed that the best way to liberate Peru was to get the Peruvian people to accept independence voluntarily. By 1820, royalist Peru was an isolated outpost of Spanish influence. San Martín had liberated Chile and Argentina to the south, and Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre had freed Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela to the north, leaving only Peru and present-day Bolivia under Spanish rule.

San Martín had brought a printing press with him on the expedition, and he began bombarding the citizens of Peru with pro-independence propaganda. He maintained a steady correspondence with Viceroys Joaquín de la Pezuela and José de la Serna in which he urged them to accept the inevitability of independence and surrender willingly to avoid bloodshed.

Meanwhile, San Martín's army was closing in on Lima. He captured Pisco on September 7 and Huacho on November 12. Viceroy La Serna responded by moving the royalist army from Lima to the defensible port of Callao in July of 1821, basically abandoning the city of Lima to San Martín. The people of Lima, who feared an uprising by enslaved people and Indians more than they feared the army of Argentines and Chileans at their doorstep, invited San Martin into the city. On July 12, 1821, he triumphantly entered Lima to the cheers of the populace.

Protector of Peru

On July 28, 1821, Peru officially declared independence, and on August 3, San Martín was named "Protector of Peru" and began setting up a government. His brief rule was enlightened and marked by stabilizing the economy, freeing enslaved people, giving freedom to the Peruvian Indians, and abolishing such hateful institutions as censorship and the Inquisition.

The Spanish had armies at the port of Callao and high in the mountains. San Martín starved out the garrison at Callao and waited for the Spanish army to attack him along the narrow, easily defended coastline leading to Lima: they wisely declined, leaving a sort of stalemate. San Martín would later be accused of cowardice for failing to seek out the Spanish army, but to do so would have been foolish and unnecessary.

Meeting of the Liberators

Meanwhile, Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre were sweeping down out of the north, chasing the Spanish out of northern South America. San Martín and Bolívar met in Guayaquil in July 1822 to decide how to proceed. Both men came away with a negative impression of the other. San Martín decided to step down and allow Bolívar the glory of crushing the final Spanish resistance in the mountains. His decision was most likely made because he knew that they would not get along and one of them would have to step aside, which Bolívar would never do.

Retirement and Death

San Martín returned to Peru, where he had become a controversial figure. Some adored him and wanted him to become king of Peru, while others detested him and wanted him out of the nation completely. The staid soldier soon tired of the endless bickering and backstabbing of government life and abruptly retired.

By September 1822, he was out of Peru and back in Chile. When he heard that his beloved wife Remedios was ill, he hastened back to Argentina but she died before he reached her side. San Martín soon decided that he was better off elsewhere and took his young daughter Mercedes to Europe. They settled in France.

In 1829, Argentina called him back to help settle a dispute with Brazil that eventually would lead to the establishment of the nation of Uruguay. He returned, but by the time he reached Argentina the tumultuous government had once again changed and he was not welcome. He spent two months in Montevideo before returning once again to France. There he led a quiet life before passing away in 1850.

Personal Life

San Martín was a consummate military professional who lived a Spartan life. He had little tolerance for dances, festivals, and showy parades, even when they were in his honor (unlike Bolívar, who loved such pomp and pageantry). He was loyal to his beloved wife during most of his campaigns, only taking a clandestine lover at the end of his fighting in Lima.

His early wounds pained him greatly, and San Martin took a great deal of laudanum, a form of opium, to relieve his suffering. Although it occasionally clouded his mind, it did not keep him from winning great battles. He enjoyed cigars and an occasional glass of wine.

He refused almost all of the honors and rewards that grateful people of South America tried to give him, including rank, positions, land, and money.


San Martín had asked in his will that his heart be buried in Buenos Aires: in 1878 his remains were brought to the Buenos Aires Cathedral, where they still rest in a stately tomb.

San Martín is the greatest national hero of Argentina and he is considered a great hero by Chile and Peru as well. In Argentina, there are numerous statues, streets, parks, and schools named after him.

As a liberator, his glory is as great or nearly as great as that of Simón Bolívar. Like Bolívar, he was a visionary able to see beyond the confining borders of his own homeland and visualize a continent free of foreign rule. Also like Bolívar, he was constantly stymied by the petty ambitions of the lesser men who surrounded him.

He differs from Bolívar chiefly in his actions after independence: while Bolívar exhausted the last of his energies fighting to unite South America into one great nation, San Martín quickly tired of backstabbing politicians and retired to a quiet life in exile. The history of South America might have been very different had San Martín remained involved in politics. He believed that the people of Latin America needed a firm hand to lead them and was a proponent of establishing a monarchy, preferably led by some European prince, in the lands he liberated.

San Martín was criticized during his life for cowardice for failing to chase nearby Spanish armies or for waiting for days in order to meet them on a ground of his choosing. History has borne out his decisions and today his military choices are held up as examples of martial prudence rather than cowardice. His life was full of courageous decisions, from deserting the Spanish army to fight for Argentina to crossing the Andes to free Chile and Peru, which were not his homeland.


  • Gray, William H. “The Social Reforms of San Martin.” The Americas 7.1, 1950. 3–11.
  • Francisco San Martín, Jose. "Antología." Barcelona: Linkgua-Digital, 2019.
  • Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.
  • Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of José Francisco de San Martín, Latin American Liberator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Biography of José Francisco de San Martín, Latin American Liberator. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Biography of José Francisco de San Martín, Latin American Liberator." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).