Feliz Novedad! It’s a brand-new holiday!
Today we salute Martín Miguel de Güemes, a bookish hemophiliac whose rag-tag army of gaucho guerrillas defended the northwest borderlands against repeated Spanish invasions from royalist Peru during the critical early years of Argentina’s war for independence.
His victories preserved the fledgling revolutionary government in Buenos Aires when it was most vulnerable, and bought General José de San Martín the time he needed to raise, train and equip his fabled Army of the Andes, which he famously marched over the mountains to win decisive victories in Chile and the Spanish stronghold of Peru.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly for a professional soldier with a chronic bleeding disorder, Güemes did not live to see the end of the war. His duty done, the “Hero of the Gauchos” finally died — hard — on June 17th, 1821, after hanging on for 10 days with a musket ball in his back.
Youth and Early Military Service
Martín Miguel de Güemes was born in Salta on February 8, 1785. His mother was from Jujuy and his father was a well-heeled and well-connected member of the peninsular (Spanish-born) elite, who spared no expense to give his son the best education available at top schools and at home with private tutors.
Few could have predicted that the sheltered, studious trust-fund kid would grow up to cover himself in martial glory — let alone have his own holiday feature in The Bubble. His folks would be proud.
At age 14, little Martín joined the army. At 21, Güemes saw action during the defense of Buenos Aires against the English invasion, and won fame by capturing a British gunboat — with a cavalry charge. The gunboat had been stranded high and dry near the riverbank by an unexpected drop in the water level, but still — he defeated the British Navy on horseback!
At 23, he suffered a throat infection that never healed properly, due to complications from hemophilia. For the rest of his life, Güemes spoke with difficulty and was mocked for his strained, nasally voice.
After the 1810 May Revolution, Güemes was given command of a guerrilla force of gauchos, known to history as “Los Gauchos de Güemes,” as part of the Army of the North charged with fending off incursions by royalist counterrevolutionaries. He soon played an important role in the Battle of Suipacha, famous as the first military victory for Argentine patriots in the war of independence.
Everybody Hates Güemes
Shit really started to go downhill for Güemes when he got dragged into politics. In 1815, he was appointed Governor of Salta Province. It was a thankless, dirty and dangerous job that ultimately cost him his life. In addition to his civil administrative duties, he was also responsible for organizing — and somehow financing — the armed forces charged with Salta’s defense. Salta was still on the front lines of the war against the Spanish, who were constantly raiding and invading from royalist-held Peru.
That should have been enough to keep anyone busy, but Güemes soon had other enemies to worry about:
Many wealthy and influential landowners in his province were sympathetic to the Spanish cause of restoring royal rule — and that was before Güemes started squeezing them for money to support his army. (If there’s one thing rich folks hate, it’s paying taxes.)
On top of that, the revolution was beginning to devour its children as Argentina’s war for independence begot a bitter factional conflict between Unitarians (who favored a centralized government ruled from Buenos Aires) and Federalists (who favored greater local autonomy for the provinces).
The tipping point finally came in 1820, when Güemes’s rowdy next-door neighbor, Governor Bernabé Aráoz of Tucumán (with whom Güemes had pre-existing beef), took the “provincial autonomy” idea and ran with it, declaring the independent Republic of Tucumán. Just like that, Güemes and his gauchos were caught between the Spanish on one front, and the warlord Aráoz on the other — and all the while, Salta’s disgruntled one-percenters were plotting to overthrow him.
Güemes Must Die
They got their chance in early April of 1821, when Güemes and his army, having just fended off yet another Spanish attack, left town again to fight Aráoz — and lost. The city’s ruling council, or cabildo, made up of wealthy conservatives (some of whom were actively collaborating with the Spanish, or with Aráoz — or with both) swiftly “voted” to depose Güemes in absentia from the governorship.
But Güemes couldn’t take a hint. He and his gauchos retook Salta the next month, but, knowing they couldn’t hold it (pursued as they were by two hostile armies, and he despised by Salta’s leading citizens) withdrew to the countryside to regroup and fight another day.
That’s when Güemes—a marked man in the middle of a war zone, mind you — thought it would be a good idea to drop in and visit his sister back in the city of Salta. On the 7th of June, 1821, a Spanish battalion entered the city under cover of darkness, to kill him. One of Güemes’s aides encountered the soldiers on a plaza and was shot. Güemes, behaving rather like an expendable protagonist in a horror movie who should know better, went to see what all the commotion was about.
Guess what? They shot him, too. But he escaped back to his camp, where he continued to bleed (as one does when one lacks platelets), handed over command to Jorge Enrique Vidt, and died on June 17.
The next month, Los Gauchos de Güemes took back Salta, and kept it.
Additional “Fun” Facts:
- Shortly after becoming governor, Güemes married Carmen de Puch, daughter of a wealthy landowner who contributed money and materials to the patriot cause. They were married in Salta Cathedral, which still stands today. Six years later, upon learning of her husband’s death, Carmen is said to have locked herself inside her home and — so the story goes — starved herself to death.
- On top of having a goofy voice, Güemes endured accusations of cowardice because he rarely put himself into harm’s way. This prudence was likely due to the fact that he was a hemophiliac: even shaving your own face — or anywhere else — becomes a dance with death when your body can’t stop bleeding. (Hence the luxuriant beard?)
- Güemes wanted to establish a new monarchy — with a king of Incan descent on the throne. So did San Martín. And Belgrano.