Revolutions of 1851 and 1859

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Revolutions of 1851 and 1859

Two political upheavals during the Manuel Montt regime both cost Chile dearly in treasure and blood. Each had its roots in deep-seated economic causes and, in some cases, conflicting ideologies. Fundamentally, a loathing of Montt and the system he represented drove two politically and geographically disparate elements into rebellion.


Manuel Montt, best described as the law personified, came to power in 1851, threatening to perpetuate a highly centralized government that would limit the opposition parties' access to the political system. As a result, even before Montt took office a rebellion erupted in two areas: La Serena, in the nation's north, and Concepción, Chile's third most important city.

The northern rebellion was spearheaded by mainly middle-class liberal intellectuals, many of whom were members of the Society of Equality (a reform group influenced by European liberalism), but it was supported by various lower-class elements as well. The 1851 insurgency, which began on 7 September, was organized by José Miguel Carrera's son, José Miguel Carrera Fontecilla, who became the provincial intendant. Carrera organized a militia, which eventually numbered about 1,000 men to defend the fledgling revolution.

While successfully occupying various cities, the northerners committed a crucial mistake in seizing a British ship, the Fire Fly, which was anchored in Coquimbo. The administration in the Moneda requested and received naval assistance from the British, who blockaded the port. Meanwhile, Montt ordered his troops to attack the insurgents, who were advancing toward the Central Valley and Santiago, where they hoped to link up with southern rebels. These elements, however, proved unequal to the regular troops, who destroyed the insurgent army of approximately 2,000 men at the battle of Petorca in October 1851.

Suffering heavy casualties, the rebels withdrew to La Serena, where, reinforced by the arrival of numerous miners, they prepared for a siege. The government troops first had to quash an abortive uprising in Coquimbo, but having wiped out this pocket of insurgents, they joined the units that had vanquished the rebels at Petorca to attack La Serena.

Surprisingly, the inexperienced rebels repelled three infantry assaults. When it became clear that the insurgents could not survive, their leaders offered to capitulate, but the popular elements refused. Unfortunately, discipline among the rebels collapsed, leading to widespread looting and allowing the regular army to capture the city. The last rebel units, led by Bernardino Barahona, a miner from Huasco, held out until routed by the troops of Victorino Garrido at the battle of Linderos on 8 January 1852.

The southern rebels, who began their uprising on 13 September, seemed the ideological opposites of their northern brethren. This insurgency was fundamentally rooted in a colonial-era rivalry between Concepción and Santiago. The old landholding elites rallied to the cause of General José María de la Cruz, a dissatisfied officer who had been relieved of both his command and the post of intendant of Concepción. After raising an army of 4,000, de la Cruz planned to attack the loyalist army under General Manuel Bulnes. Unfortunately for him, however, various units which had promised to support the rebellion either could not join his troops or changed their minds about siding with the insurgents.

Bulnes created a 3,000-man army composed of militia and regular units. Outnumbered and running low on ammunition, he had to retreat. On 8 December 1851, he decided to make his stand near the banks of the Loncomilla River. De la Cruz, who early in the battle had foolishly lost his cavalry, could not repel Bulnes's infantry, which, after outflanking the rebel commander, attacked his rear. Under deadly fire, de la Cruz had to withdraw while Bulnes kindly ceased fire in order to spare the lives of his opponents. De la Cruz managed to escape but was cornered by Bulnes on the banks of the Purapel River, where, on 14 December 1851, he capitulated.

While the extreme north and the south constituted the main thrusts of the 1851 rebellion, an uprising also occurred in Valparaíso. The fall of this city could have proven fatal for the central government, since it would have prevented the Bulnes administration from reinforcing its garrisons. Fortunately for President Montt, the local intendant, Admiral Manuel Blanco Encalada, drove the rebels from their positions.

Inspired by the activities in the central part of Chile, some officers under the leadership of José Miguel Cambiazo rebelled on 21 November, supporting de la Cruz's candidacy for the presidency. Cambiazo evacuated the city and set sail for Europe, using a captured merchant vessel. The crew managed to seize the rebel ship, turning the leaders over to the authorities, who tried and executed them.


The agreements ending the 1851 Revolution should be seen as more an armistice than a definitive solution. Many of the forces that precipitated the earlier upheaval caused the second: a political system that purported to represent if not the will of the people then at least that of the oligarchy, but which existed merely so that Manuel Montt could continue to rule. Thus, many of the same Liberals who had rebelled in 1851 did so again eight years later. Curiously, the Conservatives also joined the anti-Montt forces. Since they no longer controlled the government, they refused to allow the secular National Party to enjoy the same unlimited power it had once wielded. The Conservative Senate tried to hamstring Montt by refusing to ratify his budget unless he would shuffle his cabinet. Although he agreed to do so, thus opening the door to an incipient parliamentary system, the Liberals demanded more. These elements published a journal called La asamblea constituyente, which sought to revamp the 1833 Constitution. When the supporters of this drive met, government forces arrested them and later exiled them, declaring a state of siege. Aware that the opposition could not legally obtain power, the anti-Montt forces rebelled.

As before, the focus of the revolt was the mining north, Copiapó. Pedro León Gallo, who had become rich mining silver in Chañarcillo, organized a coup and seized the city on 5 January 1859. The rebel chieftain formed a 1,500-man army with which he hoped to capture Santiago.

The rebels had planned for uprisings to follow in Valparaíso, Concepción, Talca, and San Felipe. Unfortunately for their cause, those outbreaks that did erupt lacked the intensity of those of the northern insurgents. Most of the rebel groups consisted of small bands, some under the protection of local landed barons who disliked the Montt government for a variety of reasons. These units sought to harass the central government and to cut its lines of communication with the Concepción region. Rebel bands also captured the towns of Talca and San Felipe, while their compatriots organized guerrilla bands in the south.

In the 1859 Revolution the army, unlike that of 1851, remained loyal to the central government. De la Cruz, who had been asked to lead the rebellion, refused. First blood went to the rebels, who, on 14 March 1859, defeated the regular troops at Los Loros. An outraged Montt then raised another army under Juan Vidaurre, the same general who had put down the 1851 rebellion.

Vidaurre, at the head of a substantial expeditionary force, sailed north from Valparaíso, landed at Tongoy, and marched overland, with the cavalry in tow, to Cerro Grande, where Gallo's forces had taken up positions defending La Serena. Vidaurre's troops, enjoying naval support from the Esmeralda, attacked Gallo's men, half of whom had no weapons. On 29 April the regular troops easily vanquished the rebels, who took flight, occupying La Serena the next day.

While Vidaurre was mounting his northern campaign, the rest of the regular army was eradicating pockets of rebel resistance, including Valparaíso, in the Central Valley. Most of these cities surrendered, although it took twenty-two days before Talca capitulated. Various rebel leaders, including José Miguel Carrera, organized guerrilla bands in the south. One of these units, composed in part of Araucanians and numbering more than 2,000 men, attacked Chillán. Although Montt's army vanquished the rebels, peace was not restored to the south until mid-April. The rebels' final stand occurred on 18 September 1859, when an armed band attacked Valparaíso. Vidaurre, who had been appointed intendant of the province, successfully organized a bayonet charge, which ended the rebellion. Ironically, Vidaurre died in this skirmish, shot during this afterthought of the 1859 Revolution.

See alsoBulnes Prieto, Manuel; Chile, Political Parties: National Party; Montt Torres, Manuel.


Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, Historia de la jornada del 20 de abril de 1851 (1878).

Pedro Pablo Figueroa, Historia de la Revolución Constituyente (1889).

Luis Galdames, A History of Chile (1941), pp. 288, 298-299.

Daniel Riquelme, La revolución de 20 de abril de 1851 (1966).

Luis Vitale, Interpretación marxista de la historia de Chile (1969), pp. 223-287, and Las guerras civiles de 1851 y 1859 en Chile (1971); Historia del ejército de Chile (1981), vol. 4, pp. 67-158.

Maurice Zeitlin, The Civil Wars in Chile (1984).

Additional Bibliography

Collier, Simon and William F. Sater. A History of Chile, 1808–1994. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hudson, Rex A. Chile: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, 1994.

Scully, Timothy. Rethinking the Center: Party Politics in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chile. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Valenzuela, J. Samuel. Building Aspects of Democracy before Democracy: Electoral Practices in Nineteenth-century Chile. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1996.

                                    William F. Sater

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Revolutions of 1851 and 1859

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