Martín Güemes (1785-1821) was one of the major figures in the Argentine struggle for independence against Spain. His particular contribution was as leader of the crucial Gaucho War in northwestern Argentina from 1814 to 1821.
Martín Güemes was born in Salta. There he attended school until the age of 20, when he was transferred as a military cadet to Buenos Aires. Until 1814 his military career, while successful, was somewhat commonplace. In that year he was assigned by Gen. José de San Martín to take charge of the irregular resistance to the Spanish in Upper Peru (modern Bolivia). The base of his subsequent career was again the city of Salta. It was from this command that Güemes acquired real historical importance.
Prior to the arrival of Güemes in 1814, resistance to Spanish invasions had become a part of the existence of the ordinary citizen of the province and city of Salta. When Güemes arrived, he took general command of the groups of gauchos. Güemes's first task was to organize these groups and to coordinate their efforts. His next was to defeat the royalist army of Joaquin Pezuela, which was currently occupying the city of Salta with over 3, 000 Spanish troops. If this force had been permitted to push on, there would have been no effective force of patriots between Salta and Buenos Aires. Thus began the Gaucho War.
The basic stratagem of Güemes and his gaucho followers was to cut the Spanish forces off from any supply of cattle and horses. All herds were driven south of the city into territory controlled by the gauchos, and any Spanish attempt to obtain them was greeted with wild cavalry charges by the gauchos, repeated as often as 12 times an hour. The inevitable result was the return of the Spanish empty-handed to an army already short of supplies. So successful were these tactics that Pezuela evacuated the city in June 1814 and retreated to Upper Peru. After a short interlude with an Argentine invasion of Upper Peru, Güemes returned to Salta. He was elected governor of the province and assumed political as well as military responsibility.
Between 1815 and 1821 Güemes and the people of Salta defeated four more Spanish invasions. Their courage gained them the title "Bulwark of the North" and made Argentina's fragile independence secure from the Spanish in Peru. On June 7, 1821, however, a royalist column penetrated the city, and Güemes was killed, but his death did not prevent the Salteños from again repelling the invader.
Güemes and the people of Salta had accomplished a great deal against the Spanish. They had provided a shield behind which San Martín could build and train the Army of the Andes, eventual conquerors of the Spanish in Peru. They had closed to the Spanish the vital gateway into the Argentine heartland, making all Spanish attempts to reconquer the Platine region dependent on a maritime power that Spain did not possess.
The standard works on Güemes are in Spanish. In English see Roger M. Haigh, Martín Güemes:Tyrant or Tool? (1968). □