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Manuel Belgrano, among leaders of Latin American independence, enjoys little recognition outside his native Argentina, and his two notable military victories—the battles of Tucumán (September 1812) and Salta (February 1813)—served to staunch a disastrous retreat rather than crown an advance into newly liberated territory. Yet few matched the full range of his accomplishments, for he was not just another improvised military commander but a trained lawyer, enlightened economist, publicist, bureaucrat, diplomat, and even flag designer. Although his gifts as a correspondent do not equal those of, say, Simón Bolívar, this new and expanded edition of his Epistolario is a welcome addition to the historical literature on independence.
The bulk of the volume's contents are the same as in the Epistolario Belgraniano published by the Academia Nacional de la Historia in 1970. That volume's prologue by Ricardo R. Caillet-Bois (a brief recapitulation of Belgrano's career) is reproduced, along with its collection of 255 letters, each preceded by a brief summary and followed by an indication of source. The principal change in the revised edition is the addition of some 109 letters addressed to Martín de Güemes and 6 to Tomás Manuel de Anchorena, all previously published. These added letters do not have the same helpful summaries, nor does the volume contain additional notes or analytical [End Page 383] index or even an index of names, which somewhat lessens its usefulness for anyone lacking considerable prior knowledge or a good reference collection close at hand. The letters are mostly personal, rather than ex oficio, so they do not by any means include the entirety of Belgrano's correspondence. In addition, although they cover the period from 1790 (when Belgrano was completing law studies in Spain) to his death in 1820, the great majority are from the years of his military service in the independence struggle.
Belgrano is no doubt best known to foreign scholars as an advocate of useful works and economic liberalization in his prerevolutionary capacity as secretary of the Buenos Aires consulado, and the volume does offer a few letters written during that phase of his career to the like-minded Chilean Manuel de Salas. Scattered among subsequent letters are occasional references to the promotion of education and infrastructural improvements and even requests for plants. Belgrano's economic philosophy comes out clearly in a 1815 letter from Rio de Janeiro (where he had stopped on a diplomatic mission to Europe) extolling the greater commercial freedom and lesser governmental interference that had come about since the move of the Portuguese court to Brazil (p. 285). The liberal approach in that and certain other matters contrasts at first glance with the pietism evident in his repeated invocations of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, whom he terms "Mi Generala," and the curious recommendation that soldiers be made to wear scapulars even if they laugh at them (p. 275). In Upper Peru, he had seen at first hand the harm caused by popular perceptions of revolutionary irreligiosity, but he was concerned with more than just outward appearances.
As a military commander, Belgrano spent less time in the field leading troops than imparting orders from headquarters, scrounging for supplies, worrying about problems of discipline, and (to judge from the sheer number of letters in that vein) seeking to dispel any notion that he lacked confidence in his "compañero y amigo Querido," Güemes. If perhaps he protested too much in his assurances to the famed leader of Salta, his ultimate aim was obviously to keep Güemes and his gaucho fighters aligned with the Buenos Aires authorities whom Belgrano loyally served and thus safely apart from the "anarquistas" infesting other sections of the Río de la Plata. José Gervasio Artigas, whom Belgrano for a time accused of being a Spanish agent, was worst of all in Belgrano...