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Balmacedist Chilean Civil War 1891

When the Chilean republic was formed it was decided to have a president elected for five years, who could choose a council of fifteen, removable at his pleasure. The senators were elected for six years and the members of the chamber of deputies for three years. As the electors were members of the national guard the government usually controlled the elections. In spite of this defect in the system the government had been more stable than that of any of the South American republics.

All the presidents except Jose Balmaceda respected constitutional rights, and for a time after his elevation to office in 1886 his administration was a liberal and far-sighted one. But he craved a second term, and this, under Chilean law, was impossible ; then he tried to satisfy his ambition by controlling the election of his successor. The congress rebelled, and forced him to change his cabinet. Balmaceda formed another cabinet servile to his purposes, and, the congress having refused to vote the budget, the president decreed it without their assent.

Then the congress, who controlled the navy and part of the army, in January, 1891, began a revolution. On the 6th, at Valparaiso, the political leaders of the Congressional party went on board the ironclad "Blanco Encalada," and Captain Jorje Monti of that vessel hoisted a broad pennant as commodore of the Congressional fleet. Preparations had long been made for the naval pronunciamento, and in the end but few vessels of the Chilean navy adhered to the cause of the "dictator" Balmaceda. But among these were two new and fast torpedo gunboats, "Almirante Condell" and "Almirante Lynch," and in European dockyards (incomplete) lay the most powerful vessel of the navy, the "Arturo Prat," and two fast cruisers. If these were secured by the Balmacedists the naval supremacy of the congress would be seriously challenged. For the present, and without prejudice to the future, command of the sea was held by Monti's squadron (January).

All the principal harbors were blockaded, and Arica and Coronel bombarded; also Iquique and Pisagua. In the mean time the congressional party having sent the steamer Itata to the United States for a cargo of arms and ammunition, she was captured (because to allow her to carry arms from this country would have been a violation of the neutrality law), but escaped from San Diego harbor. She was chased by the United States cruiser Charleston and surrendered at the port of Iquique.

The rank and file of the army remained faithful to the executive, and thus in the early part of the war the "Gobemistas," speaking broadly, possessed an army without a fleet, the congress a fleet without an army. Balmaceda hoped to create a navy; the congress took steps to recruit an army by taking its sympathizers on board the fleet. The first shot was fired, on the 16th of January, by the "Blanco" at the Valparaiso batteries, and landing parties from the warships engaged small parties of government troops at various places during January and February. The dictator's principal forces were stationed in and about Iquique, Coquimbo, Valparaiso, Santiago and Concepci6n. The troops at Iquique and Coquimbo were necessarily isolated from the rest and from each other, and military operations began, as in the campaign of 1879 in this quarter, with a naval descent upon Pisagua followed by an advance inland to Dolores.

The Congressional forces failed at first to make good their footing (i6th-23rd of January), but, though defeated in two or three actions, they brought many recruits and a quantity of munitions of war. On the 26th they retook Pisagua, and on the 15th of February the Balmacedist commander, Eulojio Robles, who offered battle in the expectation of receiving reinforcements from Tacna, was completely defeated on the old battlefield of San Francisco. Robles fell back along the railway, called up troops from Iquique, and beat the invaders at Haura on the 17th, but Iquique in the meanwhile fell to the Congressional fleet on the 16th. The Pisagua line of operations was at once abandoned, and the military forces of the congress were moved by sea to Iquique, whence, under the command of Colonel Estanislao Del Canto, they started inland.

The battle of Pozo Almonte, fought on the 7th of March, was desperately contested, but Del Canto was superior in numbers, and Robles was himself killed and his army dispersed. After this the other Balmacedist troops in the north gave up the struggle. Some were driven into Peru, others into Bolivia, and one column made a laborious retreat from Calama to Santiago, in the course of which it twice crossed the main chain of the Andes.

The Congressional Junta de Gobierno now established in Iquique prosecuted the war vigorously, and by the end of April the whole country was in the hands of the "rebels" from the Peruvian border to the outposts of the Balmacedists at Coquimbo and La Serena. The Junta now began the formation of a properly organized army for the next campaign, which, it was believed universally on both sides, would be directed against Coquimbo. But in a few months the arrival of the new ships from Europe would reopen the struggle for command of the sea; the torpederas "Condell" and "Lynch" had already weakened the Congressional squadron severely by sinking the "Blanco Encalada" in Caldera Bay (23rd of April), and the Congressional party could no longer aim at a methodical conquest of successive provinces, but was compelled to attempt to crush the dictator at a blow.

Where this blow was to fall was not decided up to the last moment, but the instrument which was to deliver it was prepared with all the care possible under the circumstances. Del Canto was made commander-in-chief, and an ex-Prussian officer, Emil Korner, chief of staff. The army was organized in three brigades of all arms, at Iquique, Caldera and Vallenar. Korner superintended the training of the men, gave instruction in tactics to the officers, caused maps to be prepared, and in general took every precaution that his experience could suggest to ensure success. Del Canto was himself no mere figurehead, but a thoroughly capable leader who had distinguished himself at Tacna (1880) and Miraflores (1881), as well as in the present war. The men were enthusiastic, and the officers unusually numerous. The artillery was fair, the cavalry good, and the train and auxiliary services well organized. About one-third of the infantry were armed with the (Mannlicher) magazine rifle, which now made its first appearance in war, the remainder had the Gras and other breech-loaders, which were also the armament of the dictator's infantry.

Balmaceda could only wait upon events, but he prepared his forces as best he was able, and his torpederas constantly harried the Congressional navy. By the end of July Del Canto and Komer had done their work as well as time permitted, and early in August the troops prepared to embark, not for Coquimbo, but for Valparaiso itself.

On 28 Augusts 1891, when the victors occupied Valparaiso, many excesses were perpetrated in the town, and it became necessary for the various foreign warships which lay in harbour to land parties as well to protect the consulates and property of the various nationalities as to endeavour to exercise some general restraining influence upon the desperate Balmacedists. Men were put ashore, therefore, under British, American, German and French officers. A body of about 150 British, from the cruiser Champion, Captain Frederick St. Clair, and the sloop Daphne, Commander Charles Bobert Wood, under Lieutenant Beginald Blayney Colmore, of the Champion, undertook the guard of the Consulate; and another body, in conjunction with a German force, assumed the duties of police, and rendered very valuable services.

The expedition by sea was admirably managed, and Quinteros, N. of Valparaiso and not many miles out of range of its batteries, was occupied on the 30th of August 1891. Balmaceda was surprised, but acted promptly. The first battle was fought on the Aconcagua at Concon on the 21st. The eager infantry of the Congressional army forced the passage of the river and stormed the heights held by the Gobemistas, capturing 36 guns. The killed and wounded of the Balmacedists numbered 1600, and nearly all the prisoners, about 1500 men, enrolled themselves in the rebel army, which thus more than made good its loss of 1000 killed and wounded.

The victors pressed on towards Valparaiso, but were soon brought up by the strong fortified position of the Balmacedist general Barbosa at Vina del Mar, whither Balmaceda hurried up all available troops from Valparaiso and Santiago, and even from Concept itin. Del Canto and Komer now resolved on a daring step. Supplies of all kinds were brought up from Quinteros to the front, and on the 24th of August the army abandoned its line of communications and marched inland. The flank march was conducted with great skill, little opposition was encountered, and the rebels finally appeared to the southcast of Valparaiso. Here, on the 28th, took place the decisive battle of La Placilla.

Concon had been perhaps little more than the destruction of an isolated corps; the second battle was a fair trial of strength, for Barbosa was well prepared, and had under his command the greater part of the existing forces of the dictator. But the splendid fighting qualities of the Congressional troops and the superior generalship of their leaders prevailed in the end over every obstacle. The government army was practically annihilated, 941 men were killed, including Barbosa and his second in command, and 2402 wounded. The Congressional army lost over 1800 men. Valparaiso was occupied the same evening and Santiago soon afterwards. There was no further fighting, for so great was the effect of the battles of Concon and La Placella that even the Coquimbo troops surrendered without firing a shot.

Balmaceda tried to escape from the country, but, failing to get away, shot himself.

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Page last modified: 07-12-2016 13:14:33 ZULU