Feats of brilliance and finesse have distinguished military history’s finest commanders and inspired many of their decisive victories. Often, however, it is the fundamental qualities of endurance and strength that matter most. In warfare’s most trying moments, when warriors draw on their final reserves of energy and determination, great leaders come to the fore.
Few military campaigns were as grueling as the South American wars of independence that shattered the Spanish Empire’s New World in the early decades of the 19th century. Combatants fought and campaigned across every imaginable type of terrain —including jungles, plains, swamps, hills and frozen mountain passes—and in all extremes of weather. These were wars of endurance in their simplest form, in which the will to victory made all the difference between triumph and catastrophe.
One of the most notable commanders in these wars was José Francisco de San Martín (1778–1850), a native Argentine who had served in the Spanish army during the Peninsular War against Napoléon Bonaparte and returned to Buenos Aires fired with dreams of independence for his native land. Beginning in 1814 he assembled a force he dubbed the Army of the Andes, and after Argentina declared independence on July 9, 1816, he campaigned against the Spanish. On Jan. 19, 1817, San Martín led his 4,000-man army from Mendoza, Argentina, toward the snow-choked passes of the Andes, planning to surprise the Spanish forces in Chile. No army had ever attempted the crossing, and a midwinter passage seemed inconceivable. San Martín’s inspirational leadership nevertheless brought his force across the mountains in less than three weeks. Debouching into the plains on February 8, the Army of the Andes rested for just a few days before marching on Santiago. The subsequent Battle of Chacabuco on February 12 crushed Spanish power in southwestern South America and led directly to Chilean independence.
San Martín’s crossing of the Andes was the first but not the most notable conquest of that forbidding mountain chain during the South American wars of independence. Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), a native Venezuelan who had been fighting the Spaniards from the time his country declared independence on July 5, 1811, suffered repeated defeats during his early military career and spent time in exile. His apparently final humiliation came at the second Battle of La Puerta on June 15, 1814, in which his forces were soundly thrashed. Fleeing into exile, Bolívar barely escaped assassination by a Spanish hit squad.
Much like George Washington after the loss of New York City to the British in the summer of 1776, however, Bolívar defied the odds to engineer a seemingly miraculous reversal in his military fortunes. Scraping together a pitiful remnant of some 2,500 men, including several hundred British mercenaries, he decided to carry the war westward out of Venezuela and into New Granada (now Colombia), the heart of Spanish power in South America.
Bolívar’s change of course led some subordinates to suspect him of insanity, but no one could doubt his determination. In March 1819 he led his army west along the Orinoco and Apure rivers in Venezuela, crossing hundreds of miles of swampy wasteland under often torrential rains while fighting a ceaseless guerrilla war against the Spanish. By June his ragged and starving soldiers had reached the western edge of Venezuela, buoyed by hopes they would soon turn northward over dry, higher ground to attack the Spanish army of Venezuela from behind.
Instead, Bolívar declared he would lead his men westward across the heights of the Andes to attack the reputedly impregnable Spanish bastion at Bogotá in New Granada. This apparently mad decision brought Bolívar’s army to the verge of mutiny; but his British mercenaries remained loyal, and it was in any case too late to turn back. Grumbling all the way, but realizing their only hope now lay in victory, Bolívar’s men followed their general. Slogging through snow, tortured by freezing rain and suffering from altitude sickness, they tackled the 13,000-foot mountain pass of Páramo de Pisba before emerging from the mountains, seemingly more dead than alive, on July 5. One month later, on August 7, Bolívar’s force attacked a Spanish army of similar strength defending the approaches to Bogotá and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Boyacá. Bolívar entered Bogotá on August 10 and declared the Republic of Colombia. By year’s end he was appointed president.
It would take five more years, ending with the Dec. 9, 1824, Battle of Ayacucho, in the south-central Peruvian Andes, to end Spanish dominion in South America. Ultimately, however, it was the bravery of a few thousand men in the Andes in 1817 and 1819 that decided the fate of the continent.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.