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Battle of Maipú: Its Causes, Events, and Effects Upon South America

By Matt Morgan

The Battle of Maipú in 1817 is an extremely significant in South American history, for it was one of the most important battles of the Latin American struggle for independence. The feats that rebels achieved in the battle signified their dogged determination to remain free. The removal of a powerful, royalist army in Chile secured that country's sovereignty. The opening of a new land route to liberate Lima and destroy the Viceroyalty of Peru was achieved. The battle of Maipú was the culmination of southern South American independence, and also secured the sovereignty of Argentina, as well.

The battle was conducted on very dangerous terrain, and it is demonstrable of the bravery and cunning of San Martín and his rebel army. To understand the battle of Maipú, a basic understanding of San Martín and the "Porteño" political climate of what would become Argentina are necessary. Because material describing the conditions and tactics employed at Maipú are scarce, this paper will be primarily concerned with discussing the causes and ramifications of Maipú, which was perhaps the most significant battle of San Martín's distinguished career.

The city of Buenos Aires, in what is now Argentina, had declared their outright independence from Spain in 1810. The reality was, however, that the Spanish crown had lost control over the port city much earlier. The "kingdom" of "Rio de la Plata was declared, which in theory made the city of Buenos Aires and the territory surrounding it a kingdom equal to the Spanish homeland, under the crown. The British had attacked Buenos Aires in 1806 and in 1807, and it was the Porteños (as the inhabitants of the city were called) who drove them out, not the royal forces. This was significant because it showed the people of Argentina and southern South America that the Spanish crown could not successfully defend their interests. The Spanish crown also prohibited international free trade, which would benefit the porteños.

In 1816, the porteños declared independence from the Spanish crown. This is crucial to understanding the significance of the Battle of Maipú. General Jose de San Martín, the hero of Maipú, believed that war outside of Argentina's borders would secure Argentina's stability. He also believed that the Spanish must be wholly driven out of South America if independence was to be achieved.

In order to understand the causes, events, and historical implications of the battle of Maipú, it is necessary to understand the man who led the rebel forces, José de San Martín. San Martín was born in the Rio de la Plata region of what is now Argentina. He was born in the small town of Yapeyu, in 1778. San Martín was the son of a government official and a wealthy mother of the noble Mattoras family. San Martín spent much of his time in Spain, receiving a military education, which he would later put to good use. San Martín became a Spanish officer and fought in Spain's wars against Napoleon in 1808. San Martín became disillusioned with the Spanish monarchy in 1811 and resigned his commission. He traveled to Great Britain and then returned to the land of his birth, brimming with Enlightenment era ideas about liberty and independence. The porteño-led government of Buenos Aires eagerly accepted the young San Martín, who had distinguished himself militarily against Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe. San Martín created the "Lautaro Lodge," which was a secret society whose purpose was to overthrew royalist governments throughout all of South America. San Martín then defeated a royalist army in 1813. This victory caused him to take command of the independent Argentine forces. Though an illness temporarily thwarted his strategies of liberation, in 1816, he sent delegates to a colonial congress with orders to draft a declaration of independence. The Porteño government declared independence in that same year.

In 1817, San Martín crossed the Andes, defeated the Spanish garrison at the battle of Chacabuco, and occupied the city of Santiago in Chile. Loyalists defeated San Martín at the battle of Cancharrayada in 1818, but his resolve for independence was not destroyed. San Martín attacked the Spanish at the battle of Maipú and defeated them, which secured Chilean independence, opening up a land route for the conquest of royalist-dominated Peru.

In 1821, San Martín conquered Peru, and proclaimed its sovereignty. He declined to accept political office, unlike his northern counterpart, Simon Bolívar. Political unrest and factionalism later caused San Martín to become disillusioned, and he emigrated to France with his family in 1824.

The Irish/Chilean hero Bernardo O'Higgins was also a great hero of the Battle of Maipú. He became the dictator of Chile when San Martín declined the honor. O'Higgins had fought against the Spanish years before and been defeated by the royalist Reconquista. He was wounded at the battle Cancharrayada and is second only to San Martín as a hero of independence.

The battle of Maipú was fought in harrowing conditions in the winter of 1817. The rebel forces under San Martín scaled the lofty Andes mountains, climbing over 13,000 feet above sea level. This daring move caught the royalists off-guard, and the rebels thoroughly defeated the Spanish, securing the permanent independence of Chile.

The resolve of the rebels to ascend the dangerous Andes is indicative of the resolve of the independence movement of southern South America. San Martín effectively defeated the Spanish in Chile, for good. Chile had extreme strategic value because it gave San Martín access to the sea, which could facilitate the conquest of Peru. San Martín had divided his army into two columns, and the difficult terrain prevented maneuver by the better-equipped Spanish forces, particularly the cavalry. Both armies contained around 5,000 men each, and the total amount of casualties resulted in about 2,500. Almost a quarter of the combatants died, which is evidence that the methods and rules of Spanish warfare were particularly brutal.

Modern weaponry had developed to the point to where relatively untrained forces could defeat trained armies, if the conditions were right. Colonial militias and "rag-tag" bands could match up with and defeat Spanish armies if the terrain and the devotion of the troops was sufficient. Spain was across the Atlantic. Peru and Chile lie on the Pacific coast. This made the Spanish grip on these regions extremely delicate. Though there was a large number of royalist sympathizers, the demoralizing and pragmatic effects of the removal of a powerful Spanish army were tremendous. Reinforcements could not come quickly, neither could new armies land rapidly to meet new threats in politically-unstable areas. Distance was one of the advantages that the colonials had. Determination was another.

The ferocity of the rebels' attacks and their determination to die were crucial to success in this military venture. The rebels had nowhere to run if the day turned against them, as they had scaled the Andes to reach the battlefield. The fact that the rebels were willing to follow San Martín up the slopes is an indication that San Martín was extremely charismatic and possessed broad leadership skills. The victory at Maipú stunned the crown, after witnessing the lengths that rebels would go to achieve independence.

The after-effects of the Battle of Maipú were extremely significant. This battle made San Martín the hero of southern South American independence. It also created a psychological surge of nationalism and hope for the future. The rebels had defeated the Spanish army decisively, and against harrowing odds. The Spanish royalists in Chile had become totally demoralized after Maipú, and all flickering of hope for the restoration of the Spanish monarchy faded with the royalists' defeat.

Strategically, the battle opened up a new land route for the conquest of Lima, Peru, which was the royal capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. With the San Martín's decisive victory at Maipú, morale amongst the royalists dropped so low that San Martín easily swept through Peru and conquered Lima. At Lima he was able to declare Peruvian independence, which was the main royalist stronghold in southern South America. The rebellion now seemed invincible. The hopes of the Spanish crown to regain control over the rebellious countries were now lost.

Maipú became a rallying cry for Chilean nationalists up to the present, and it was a fine example of how a determined and uncompromising local force could vanquish a better-equipped, better trained professional army. San Martín had been granted control of the Chilean Pacific after Maipú, and this allowed him to effectively use British vessels, under Admiral Thomas Cochrane, to supply and transport his forces during the conquest of Peru. With Maipú and the subsequent victory at Lima, San Martín had secured his the destruction of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which had existed for over 200 years.

It is important to examine the conditions that arose in the newly independent states that the Battle of Maipú had secured. After Peruvian independence was achieved, South Americans had a grim task of rebuilding their nations. Unlike the American Revolution, an extremely large portion of colonial South American society was royalist. This caused the wars of independence to be horrible civil wars which cut through all aspects of society. The wars were brutal, with high casualties. At least twenty percent casualty levels were common in these conflicts. The wars were a huge strain on society, financially and politically. Unlike the American patriots, San Martín and O'Higgins did not have a steady stream of funds coming their way. San Martín's army at Maipú consisted mostly of Chilean exiles, and the cause had to be sufficient to motivate the soldiers. The pay they received was scarce. It was Spanish tradition to show no mercy to surrendered soldiers, and many times prisoners were starved or executed. The rebellions created resentment amongst military leaders for civilian government. Colonial governments had often sided with the crown, and were huge stumbling blocks for the revolutionary movements. This caused the leaders of South America to adopt military dictatorships at the end of the rebellions, despite San Martín's insistence on freedom of the press and other Enlightenment-era values. Also, many colonials did not know what to do after the Battle of Maipú had taken its tool. Many wanted to establish monarchies in the new states, while others wanted to establish republics, similar to the "American" model. Many politicians also desired a more confederated form of government, which conflicted with commercial interests in many port cities.

A true belief in democratic government did not immediately develop in South America. The criollos, who were instrumental in leading the revolutions, desired to keep the highly stratified, hierarchical systems that had been developed early on in colonial society. Indians and mestizos, who had bled and died fighting against peninsulares and the Spanish crown, did not have a share in the new "freedoms" that revolutionary movements were supposed to bring. In the eyes of many of the downtrodden, they had just traded foreign oppressors for local ones. There were sectional differences in many countries. In Argentina, for example, the commercial interests of the city of Buenos Aires conflicted with the commercial interests of the hinterland, much in the same way northern-imposed tariffs affected the Pre-Civil War South in the United States. After independence, these issues came to a head and governments frequently began and ended. There were frequent civil wars, and a disgusted San Martín chose to live a life of exile in Europe. He liberated three countries in southern South America. He was at least partially responsible for the existence of Argentina, Peru and Chile as politically sovereign entities.

In conclusion, the political climate of southern South America was totally altered forever after San Martín's victory at Maipú. The rebels had demonstrated their ability to defeat the Spanish wholesale. A new land route was available for the conquest of Lima, which would signify the end of Spanish rule in the former Viceroyalty of Peru. San Martín was also able to employ naval vessels to secure Peru after Maipú, because the narrow, Chilean coast was a valuable naval asset. San Martín had secured his place as a hero of Latin American independence, and Bernardo O'Higgins became the first leader of a truly independent Chile. Maipú ruined all Spanish hopes of completing another Reconquista, as they had done earlier.