Chilean Civil War
The Chilean Civil War of 1891 was an armed conflict
War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

 between forces supporting Congress and forces supporting the sitting President
President of Chile
The President of the Republic of Chile is both the head of state and the head of government of the Republic of Chile. The President is responsible of the government and state administration...

, José Manuel Balmaceda
José Manuel Balmaceda
José Manuel Emiliano Balmaceda Fernández was the 11th President of Chile from September 18, 1886 to August 29, 1891. Balmaceda was part of the Castilian-Basque aristocracy in Chile...

. The war saw a confrontation between the Chilean Army
Chilean Army
The Chilean Army is the land arm of the Military of Chile. This 45,000-person army is organized into seven divisions, a special operations brigade and an air brigade....

 and the Chilean Navy
Chilean Navy
-Independence Wars of Chile and Peru :The Chilean Navy dates back to 1817. A year before, following the Battle of Chacabuco, General Bernardo O'Higgins prophetically declared "this victory and another hundred shall be of no significance if we do not gain control of the sea".This led to the...

, which had sided with the president and the congress, respectively. This conflict ended with the defeat of the Chilean Army and the presidential forces and President Balmaceda committing suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

 as a consequence.


The Chilean civil war grew out of political disagreements between the president of Chile, José Manuel Balmaceda
José Manuel Balmaceda
José Manuel Emiliano Balmaceda Fernández was the 11th President of Chile from September 18, 1886 to August 29, 1891. Balmaceda was part of the Castilian-Basque aristocracy in Chile...

, and the Chilean congress. In 1889 congress became distinctly hostile to the administration of President Balmaceda, and the political situation became serious, at times threatened to involve the country in civil war. According to usage and custom in Chile at the time, a minister could not remain in office unless supported by a majority in the chambers. Balmaceda found himself in the difficult position of being unable to appoint any ministers that could control a majority in the senate and chamber of deputies and at the same time be in accordance with his own views of the administration of public affairs. At this juncture the president assumed that the constitution gave him the power of nominating and maintaining in office any ministers of his choosing, and that congress had no power to interfere.

Congress was now only waiting for a suitable opportunity to assert its authority. In 1890 it came to light that President Balmaceda had decided to nominate a close personal friend as his successor. This brought matters to a head, and congress refused to approve a budget for supplies to run the government. Balmaceda compromised with congress, agreeing to nominate a cabinet to their liking on condition that the budget would be approved. This cabinet, however, resigned when the ministers understood the full scope of the conflict between the president and congress. Balmaceda then nominated a cabinet not in accord with the views of congress under Claudio Vicuña, whom it was no secret that Balmaceda intended to be his successor, and to avoid opposition to his actions, refrained from summoning an extraordinary session of the legislature for the discussion of the estimates of revenue and expenditure for 1891.


On January 1, 1891, president Balmaceda published a Manifest to the Nation in various newspapers to the effect that the budget of 1890 would be considered the official budget for 1891. This act was interpreted by the opposition as illegal and beyond the attributes of the executive power. As protest against the action of President Balmaceda, the vice-president of the senate, Waldo Silva, and the president of the chamber of deputies, Ramón Barros Luco
Ramón Barros Luco
Ramón Barros Luco was President of Chile between 1910 and 1915.Barros Luco was born in 1835 in Santiago, Barros Luco was son of Ramón Luis Barros Fernández and Dolores Luco Fernández de Leiva. He graduated from Law School in 1858...

, issued a proclamation appointing Captain Jorge Montt
Jorge Montt
Jorge Montt Álvarez was vice-admiral of the Chilean Navy and president of Chile from 1891 to 1896.-Early life:...

 commander of the navy, and stating that the navy could not recognize the authority of Balmaceda so long as he did not administer public affairs in accordance with the constitutional law of Chile. The majority of the members of congress sided with this movement, and signed an Act of Deposition of President Balmaceda

Rebellion of the navy

On January 6, 1891, the political leaders of the Congressional party embarked on board the armored frigate Blanco Encalada
Chilean frigate Blanco Encalada (1875)
Blanco Encalada was an armored frigate built by Earle's Shipbuilding Co. in England for the Chilean Navy in 1875. She was nicknamed El Blanco...

, at Valparaíso, and Captain Jorge Montt
Jorge Montt
Jorge Montt Álvarez was vice-admiral of the Chilean Navy and president of Chile from 1891 to 1896.-Early life:...

 of that vessel hoisted a broad pennant as commodore of the Congressional fleet. On the 7th of January the Blanco Encalada, accompanied by the Esmeralda and O'Higgins and other vessels, sailed out of Valparaiso harbour and proceeded northwards to Tarapacá
Tarapacá may refer to:*Tarapacá Province, Chile, a former province, now divided into**Tarapacá Region**Arica-Parinacota Region*Tarapacá Department , a former department of Peru...

 to organize armed resistance against the president.

For the present, and without prejudice to the future, command of the sea was held by Montt's squadron (January). The rank and file of the army remained faithful to the executive, and thus in the early part of the war the Gobiernistas, 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.

Immediately on the outbreak of the revolution President Balmaceda published a decree declaring Montt and his companions to be traitors, and without delay organized an army of some 40,000 men for the suppression of the insurrectionary movement. While both sides were preparing for extremities, Balmaceda administered the government under dictatorial powers with a congress of his own nomination. In June 1891 he ordered the presidential election to be held, and Claudio Vicuña was duly declared chosen as president of the republic for the term commencing in September 1891.

Preparations had long been made for the naval pronunciamento, and in the end few vessels of the Chilean navy adhered to the cause of Balmaceda. But amongst these were two new and fast torpedo gunboats, Almirante Condell and Almirante Lynch
Chilean ship Almirante Lynch (1891)
The gun torpedo vessels Almirante Lynch and her sister ship Almirante Condell, were purchased in England and launched in 1890.-Design:...

, 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. The resources of Balmaceda were running short on account of the heavy military expenses, and he determined to dispose of the reserve of silver bullion accumulated in the vaults of the Casa de Moneda in accordance with the terms of the law for the conversion of the note issue. The silver was conveyed abroad in a British man-of-war, and disposed of partly for the purchase of a fast steamer to be fitted as an auxiliary cruiser and partly in payment for other kinds of war material.

Itata incident

The organization of the revolutionary forces went on slowly. They were experiencing difficulty in obtaining the necessary arms and ammunition. A supply of rifles was bought in the United States, and embarked on board the Itata, a Chilean vessel in the service of the rebels. The United States authorities refused to allow this steamer to leave San Diego, and a guard was stationed on the ship. The Itata, however, slipped away and made for the Chilean coast, carrying with her the representatives of the United States. A fast cruiser was immediately sent in pursuit, but only succeeded in overhauling the rebel ship after she was at her destination. The Itata was then forced to return to San Diego without landing her cargo for the insurgents.


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. Balmaceda's principal forces were stationed in and about Iquique
Iquique is a port city and commune in northern Chile, capital of both the Iquique Province and Tarapacá Region. It lies on the Pacific coast, west of the Atacama Desert and the Pampa del Tamarugal. It had a population of 216,419 as of the 2002 census...

, Coquimbo
Coquimbo is a port city, commune and capital of the Elqui Province, located on the Pan-American Highway, in the Coquimbo Region of Chile. Coquimbo lies in a valley south of La Serena, with which it forms Greater La Serena with more than 400,000 inhabitants. The commune spans an area around the...

, Valparaíso, Santiago
Santiago, Chile
Santiago , also known as Santiago de Chile, is the capital and largest city of Chile, and the center of its largest conurbation . It is located in the country's central valley, at an elevation of above mean sea level...

 and Concepción
Concepción, Chile
Concepción is a city in Chile, capital of Concepción Province and of the Biobío Region or Region VIII. Greater Concepción is the second-largest conurbation in the country, with 889,725 inhabitants...

. 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 (16th–23rd of January), but, though defeated in two or three actions, they brought off many recruits and a quantity of munitions of war. On the 26th they retook Pisagua, and on the 15th of February the Balmacedist commander, Eulogio 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 Huara on the 17th, but Iquique in the meanwhile fell to the Congressional fleet on the 16th.

Battle of Pozo Almonte

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.

Sinking of the Blanco Encalada

Early in April a portion of the revolutionary squadron, comprising the armoured frigate Blanco Encalada
Chilean frigate Blanco Encalada (1875)
Blanco Encalada was an armored frigate built by Earle's Shipbuilding Co. in England for the Chilean Navy in 1875. She was nicknamed El Blanco...

and other ships, was sent southward for reconnoitring purposes and put into the port of Caldera
Caldera, Chile
Caldera is a port city in the Copiapó Province of the Atacama Region in northern Chile. It has an excellent harbor, protected by breakwaters, being the port city for the productive mining district centering on Copiapó to which it is connected by the first railroad constructed in Chile.-Geography...

. During the night of April 23, and whilst the Blanco Encalada was lying quietly at anchor in Caldera Bay
Caldera, Chile
Caldera is a port city in the Copiapó Province of the Atacama Region in northern Chile. It has an excellent harbor, protected by breakwaters, being the port city for the productive mining district centering on Copiapó to which it is connected by the first railroad constructed in Chile.-Geography...

, the Almirante Lynch
Chilean ship Almirante Lynch (1891)
The gun torpedo vessels Almirante Lynch and her sister ship Almirante Condell, were purchased in England and launched in 1890.-Design:...

torpedo gunboat
A gunboat is a naval watercraft designed for the express purpose of carrying one or more guns to bombard coastal targets, as opposed to those military craft designed for naval warfare, or for ferrying troops or supplies.-History:...

, belonging to the Balmaceda faction, steamed into the bay of Caldera and discharged a torpedo at the rebel ship. The "Blanco Encalada " sank in a few minutes and 300 of her crew perished. This coup severely weakened the Congressional squadron.

Congressional offensive

The Revolutionary Junta
Government Junta of Chile (1891)
Revolutionary Junta of Iquique , was the political structure established to challenge the power of Chilean President José Manuel Balmaceda following the insurrection of the navy that started the Chilean Civil War...

, created on April 13, now firmly established in Iquique prosecuted the war vigorously, and by the end of April the whole area 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. The necessary arms and ammunition were arranged for in Europe; they were shipped in a British vessel, and transferred to a Chilean steamer at Fortune Bay, in Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, across the Strait of Magellan. The archipelago consists of a main island Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego divided between Chile and Argentina with an area of , and a group of smaller islands including Cape...

, close to the Straits of Magellan and the Falkland Islands
Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, located about from the coast of mainland South America. The archipelago consists of East Falkland, West Falkland and 776 lesser islands. The capital, Stanley, is on East Falkland...

, and thence carried to Iquique, where they were safely disembarked early in July 1891. A force of 10,000 men was now raised by the junta, and preparations were rapidly pushed forward for a move to the south with the object of attacking Valparaiso and Santiago, because in a few months the arrival of the new ships from Europe would reopen the struggle for command of the sea so the Congressional party could no longer aim at a methodical conquest of successive provinces, but was compelled to attempt to crush the Presidentialist forces 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 Körner
Emil Körner
Emil Körner Henze was a scion of Prussian military tradition brought to Chile and Commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army with the rank of Inspector General from 1900 to 1910.-Army modernization plans in Chile:...

, chief of staff. The army was organized in three brigades of all arms, at Iquique, Caldera and Vallenar
Vallenar is a city and commune in Atacama Region, Chile. It is the capital of the Huasco Province and is located in the valley of the Huasco River. Vallenar has 47,000 inhabitants. Its main activities are farming and mining...

. 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 Italian Mannlicher Carcano
Carcano is the frequently used name for a series of Italian bolt-action military rifles and carbines. Introduced in 1891, this rifle was chambered for the rimless 6.5x52mm Mannlicher-Carcano Cartuccia Modello 1895 cartridge. It was developed by the chief technician Salvatore Carcano at the Turin...

 magazine rifle, which now made its first appearance in war, the remainder had the French Gras
Fusil Gras mle 1874
The Fusil Gras Modèle 1874 M80 was a French rifle of the 19th century. The Gras used by the French Army was an adaptation to metallic cartridge of the Chassepot breech-loading rifle by colonel Basile Gras. This rifle was an 11 mm caliber and used black powder centerfire cartridges that weighed...

 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 Korner 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.

Battle of Concón

In the middle of August 1891 the rebel forces were embarked at Iquique, numbering in all about 9,000 men, and sailed for the south. The expedition by sea was admirably managed, and on the 10th of August the congressist army was disembarked at Quinteros, about 20 km. north of Valparaiso and not many miles out of range of its batteries, and marched to Concón, where the Balmacedists were entrenched.

Balmaceda was surprised, but acted promptly. The first battle was fought on the Aconcagua river at Concón on the 21st. The eager infantry of the Congressional army forced the passage of the river and stormed the heights held by the Gobiernistas. A severe fight ensued, in which the troops of President Balmaceda were defeated with heavy loss. The killed and wounded of the Balmacedists numbered 1,600, and nearly all the prisoners, about 1,500 men, enrolled themselves in the rebel army, which thus more than made good its loss of 1,000 killed and wounded.

Lo Cañas massacre

This reverse roused the worst passions of the president, and he ordered the arrest and imprisonment of all persons suspected of sympathy with the revolutionary cause. The population generally were, however, distinctly antagonistic to Balmaceda; and this feeling had become accentuated since August 17, on which date he had ordered the execution of a number of youths belonging to the military college at Lo Cañas on a charge of seditious practices. The shooting of these boys created a feeling of horror throughout the country, and a sensation of uncertainty as to what measures of severity might not be practised in the future if Balmaceda won the day.

Battle of La Placilla

After the victory at Concon the insurgent army, under command of General Campos,pressed on towards Valparaiso, but were soon brought up by the strong fortified position of the Balmacedist general Orozimbo Barbosa at Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar , is a city and commune on central Chile's Pacific coast. Its long stretches of white sandy beaches are a major attraction for national and international tourists. The city is Chile's main tourist attraction. Known as "La Ciudad Jardín" , Viña del Mar is a Chilean Municipality located...

, whither Balmaceda hurried up all available troops from Valparaiso and Santiago, and even from Concepcion. Del Canto and Korner 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 southeast of Valparaiso.

There, on August 28, the final struggle in the conflict 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 Balmaceda's generals Barbosa and Alcerreca were well prepared, had massed their troops in a strong position and had under their 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 and resulted in victory for the rebels. The government army was practically annihilated, 941 men were killed, including Barbosa and his second in command, and 2,402 wounded. The Congressional army lost over 1,800 men.

Valparaiso was occupied the same evening and three days later the victorious insurgents entered Santiago and assumed the government of the republic soon afterwards. There was no further fighting, for so great was the effect of the battles of Concon and La Placilla that even the Coquimbo troops surrendered without firing a shot.


After the battle of Placilla it was clear to President Balmaceda that he could no longer hope to find a sufficient strength amongst his adherents to maintain himself in power, and in view of the rapid approach of the rebel army he abandoned his official duties to seek an asylum in the Argentine legation. On August 29, he officially handed power to General Manuel Baquedano
Manuel Baquedano
Manuel Jesús Baquedano González was a Chilean soldier and Chief of Government, who served as Commander-in-chief of the Army during the War of the Pacific. Manuel Baquedano was of Basque descent.-Early life:...

, who maintained order in Santiago until the arrival of the congressional leaders on the 30th.

The president remained concealed in the Argentine legation until September 18. On the morning of that date, when the term for which he had been elected president of the republic terminated, he committed suicide by shooting himself. The excuse for this act, put forward in letters written shortly before his end, was that he did not believe the conquerors would give him an impartial trial. The death of Balmaceda finished all cause of contention in Chile, and was the closing act of the most severe and bloodiest struggle that the country had ever witnessed. In the various engagements throughout the conflict more than 10,000 lives were lost, and the joint expenditure of the two governments on military preparations and the purchase of war material exceeded £10,000,000 sterling.

The defeat of the presidential forces opened a so-called "pseudo-parliamentary" period in Chile's history, which lasted from 1891 to 1925. As opposed to a "true parliamentary" system
Parliamentary system
A parliamentary system is a system of government in which the ministers of the executive branch get their democratic legitimacy from the legislature and are accountable to that body, such that the executive and legislative branches are intertwined....

, the executive was subject to the legislative but checks and balances of executive over legislative were weakened. The position of President remained as head of state but its powers and control of the government were reduced.


  • The Chilian Revolution of 1891; LieUt. Sears and Ensign Wells, U.S.N., (Office of Naval Intelligence, Washington, 1893)
  • The Capture of Valparaiso, 1891 (Intelligence Department, War Office, London, 1892)
  • Taktische Beispiele aus den Kriegen der neuesten Zeit; der Biirgerkrieg in Chile; Hermann Kunz (Berlin, 1901)
  • Revista militar de Chile (February–March 1892)
  • Der Biirgerkrieg in Chile; Hugo Kunz (Vienna, 1892)
  • Militar Wochenblatt (5th supplement, 1892)
  • Four Modern Naval Campaigns; Sir W. Laird Clowes (London, 1902)
  • Proceedings of U. S. Naval Institute (1894) (for La Placilla)
  • Military and naval periodicals of 1892
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