José sat straight and solemn in his seat as he looked around at his classmates. He was lonely and homesick for the beloved land of his heart—South America. It seemed to him he could almost smell the fragrant air and see the colors of the dazzling tropical flowers around the Jesuit mission (now part of Argentina) where he had been born. He longed again for the sunny days of play with his brothers and sister and their Guarani Indian friends in the rich fruit orchards that bordered the banks of the great Uruguay River.
He remembered the friendliness of the boys in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had gone to school briefly. But now his father had been transferred to Madrid, Spain, and he had been enrolled in a school attended by boys from rich and influential families. Every day he felt more an outsider, more the disliked Creole son of a poor family.
None of his classmates, nor José himself, could have known that this shy, silent boy from South America would one day become one of its greatest leaders! Even though he was only seven years old, José vowed that someday he would return to the land of his birth. Twenty-six years later he did. Between that promise he made to himself and its fulfillment, José prepared well for all he had to do.
When he was only eleven he was accepted into the Spanish army, where his three older brothers were already serving. Three years later he was sent with an infantry battalion to Africa to defend a fort against the Moors. There he fought in bloody battles, the heat was exhausting, and an earthquake shook the town to pieces.
Records show that José was cited often for heroism, that he was an unusually capable young officer, and that he soon became a respected and honored colonel in the Spanish army. Then, after more than twenty years of service, José learned that the South American colonies had broken with Spain. The year was 1811.
José resigned from the army, and with a group of eager young men he set sail for the land of his birth. Soon after their arrival in Buenos Aires, they became friendly with other young men who were anxious to fight for freedom. José de San Martín became their leader; they were glad to be his followers. He was a soldier of worldwide experience, young enough to be on equal terms with his men, and one who was firm but always fair.
He once gave an order that no one could enter the munition lab wearing military boots or spurs, for fear that a spark struck by the iron might cause an explosion. A guard was stationed at the door to enforce the order.
One day José appeared wearing both boots and spurs. The guard stopped him. “You cannot pass, my general,” he said.
“I was the one who gave the order,” answered José, “so I can change it.”
“True,” replied the guard, “but up to now the order stands. You cannot go in.”
The next day José came back but again the guard refused to let him enter the lab wearing his boots and spurs. José left and later returned wearing a pair of sandals.
In a few minutes the guard was summoned to the general’s office. José de San Martín put out his hand in greeting and said, “I have brought you here to congratulate you. It is always good to know a man who obeys orders.”
Even more amazing than José’s dependable fairness was his total unconcern for personal glory. He had the officers and men under him agree on rules of conduct and then enforce these rules themselves. On the first Sunday of each month José called a meeting to urge them to keep high standards and to rededicate themselves to liberate South America.
This group was successful in winning battles in Argentina, and then José began to plan to free Chile. In order to do so, it was necessary to take his army of 3,500 men across the rugged snow-topped mountain ranges of the Andes. The Andes have an average width of 150 miles and an average height of 12,000 feet. The only roads were narrow, steep, and dangerous paths that wound around deep gorges and over jagged peaks.
Even the women and children in and around Mendoza, Argentina, where the march began, participated in the final preparations. The women brought their precious jewels to José to be exchanged for food and equipment. The children went from door to door collecting blankets, clean rags, and whatever could be used for bandages or for protection against the intense below-zero cold of the Andes.
One man had room in his saddlebags for nothing but the medical supplies for José, who was almost always ill with asthma, rheumatism, stomach ulcers, and various other ailments. But neither impassable mountains, severe illness, lack of money, lonely separation from his young wife and little daughter, nor other obstacles could stop this man whose dream was to free the people of South America from what he believed was the unfair government of Spain.
Finally all was in readiness. The night before the army left Mendoza, mule packs and oxcarts went through streets that had been strewn with flowers, as everyone gathered to hold special prayers and to pledge again their dedication to freedom.
The army made an unbelievable crossing of the Andes despite storm, cold, illness, and other hardships. This march prepared the way for the establishment of independence for both Chile and Peru.
In the meantime another great general, Simon Bolivar, was successfully leading an army that was fighting for the freedom of Spanish colonies in the north. José felt that the armies should join together and arranged a meeting of the two leaders. He offered to give up his command and serve under Bolivar. Both men were sincere patriots, but they had very different ideas. San Martín’s only desire was to free the people; Bolivar had ambitions to rule after the military victories were won. José decided he must avoid any possible conflict that might hurt the cause of freedom. During a party given in honor of the two generals, he slipped quietly away. As soon as he could, he resigned from all command and invited Bolivar to carry on his work.
José’s lovely young wife had died while he was away. José took their little daughter, Mercedes, and went with her into exile in Europe. She became the joy of his life. He planned what he must teach her, just as he had always planned his battles. On a chart he wrote his ideals for her:
To make her kind and gentle.
To make her love truth and hate lies.
To inspire her with a feeling of confidence and friendship.
To arouse in her a charity toward the poor and unfortunate.
To arouse in her respect for other people’s property.
To accustom her to keep a secret.
To inspire in her a respect toward all religions.
To teach her to speak little and to speak accurately.
Her father was Mercedes’ great example.
During his lifetime José de San Martín refused salaries, promotions, prizes, and honors. The government of Chile once gave him money that he immediately returned for a public library. A farm he was given was used as a hospital for women. He died in Boulogne, France, a poor and almost unknown man. He knew that others with whom he had fought were enjoying fame and fortune, but he cared only for the freedom of the people of South America.
In the past few years the world has come to know José de San Martín and to honor him as one of the great men of all time. Statues have been raised to his memory and many public buildings have been named for him. With special love and gratitude the people of the countries of South America that he helped to free refer to him as the “Saint of the Sword.”