4: Civil War
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After the War of the Pacific Chilean naval power was maintained. It was finally clear
that a modern and efficient squadron was needed in order to keep peace. President José
Manuel Balmaceda who had come to power in 1886 ordered the modernization of the ironclads
and the Huascar, and the arrival of the new Esmeralda
gave Chile the fastest cruiser in the world. Contracts were signed in Europe for the
construction of two light cruisers, two torpedo chasers and a modern ironclad. Latorre,
now promoted to Admiral, was placed in charge of the construction project. As a veteran of
the only successful battle between ironclads, Latorre enjoyed tremendous prestige in
Europe. Armed with the revenues provided by the nitrate exports, Latorre was able to buy
for Chile the Whitehead torpedo. Thus the Chilean Navy became the leader of the small
powers with the acquisition of this new and powerful weapon. New fortifications went up in
Valparaíso and Talcahuano was transformed into a modern naval base with a large dry dock,
shops, smelters, ammunition and fuel depots, and housing facilities for the sailors who
made it their home base.
President Balmaceda, however, was losing his popularity and when the gravest
disagreement arose between the legislature and the President, the squadron under Jorge
Montt accepted the Congressional Deposition Resolution, which in fact, impeached
Balmaceda, and took, from the very first moment, the leadership of the armed opposition to
Out of the War of the Pacific, several leaders had emerged but the Navy had not been
given a chance at politics. Besides Latorre, who had been sent to Europe, Riveros had
retired and stayed away from the Navy and politics. Uribe, Prat's second in command at
Iquique, was still in the Navy. Lynch and Condell, had died. This left the two captains
who had commanded the corvettes during the war: Viel and Montt. Montt emerged as the
strongest leader. During the war he was honest to an absurd degree: drank his coffee or
tea without sugar because the only sugar available in the Navy was war booty; but he also
showed himself to be a capable leader who, more than once, had corrected the flagship when
maneuvers went wrong. He had also been an outspoken critic of Commodore Riveros, blaming
him for the almost fatal maneuver of the Blanco Encalada at Angamos.
It must also be remembered that the cream of the Valparaíso aristocracy served in the
Navy. When Congressional leaders attempted to attract the leading Army officers to their
side, they found that most of them sided with Balmaceda. It is easy to see why they found
stronger support in the Navy. Most of its officers were trained in England and had a great
admiration for the parliamentary system. Still, Uribe, Viel and others refused flatly to
join them. In a way, the Navy precipitated the crisis. Naval officers in Chile enjoyed a
good reputation and a long tradition of service and loyalty to the Republic and the
Constitution. They requested, therefore, that the President be legally deposed before they
joined a movement to oust Balmaceda. This was the main reason for an "Act of
Deposition" which removed Balmaceda "in the name of the people we
represent". In its second article, it declared: "We hereby designate Don Jorge
Montt to assist and direct the action of Congress to establish constitutional rule."
The Congressional authorities boarded the ships which were anchored in Valparaíso .
The squadron steamed before Valparaíso flying all flags and calling, without success, to
their comrades on shore to join the revolt. At Talcahuano, the new cruiser Esmeralda,
pride of the Navy, was not only unsuccessful but was even fired upon by the new shore
batteries. It was a tragedy that Army and Navy took different sides, for civil war became
inevitable; there were now armed troops on both sides of the dispute and it would be just
a matter of time before they clashed.
For a while the squadron remained in Valparaíso without any hostile or peaceful
exchange with the forces on shore, but in a few days the soldiers guarding the piers
against a possible landing started taking pot shots at the boats that carried orders from
ship to ship and one morning Montt was awakened to the sound of gunfire being directed at
his flagship. Damage was minor because of the extreme range and the heavy armor of the Blanco
Encalada , but it was apparent that the Presidential forces had decided to take
the initiative. Montt decided to sail rather than answer the fire. The ships were sent to
different ports to raise troops and to insure support for their cause, while the Cochrane
and the Magallanes sailed to Iquique. This town was to be occupied and
become the capital of the "Congressional" forces as the revolutionaries now
Despite the fact that the Congressional side consisted only of floating elements, it
became clear to all that the northern provinces could be easily dominated from the sea.
This area was also the main source of Chilean revenue so that the President would be
deprived of foreign exchange as well. The miners and nitrate workers were more independent
than the rural workers of the central valley, and as a result of the repressive measures
taken by the government during strikes they were more disposed to join the Congressional
forces. Finally, most administrators were English or of English origin and believers in
the Parliamentary system promised by the Congressionalists.
Montt landed his meager forces at Pisagua and occupied the town. There, the
Congressional Army was formed by a few volunteers who had been brought with the squadron,
the militia of Taltal province, and barely one hundred men of the Pisagua garrison which
joined the revolt. The few sailors who could be spared were also landed to join the land
forces. All told they were 1200 men, poorly armed, with mismatched uniforms, lacking
discipline and officers experienced in land warfare.
Balmaceda had no Navy so the steamship Imperial was armed as well as
the limited resources of the Army allowed. But she was a fast ship and managed to land
troop reinforcements in Iquique with the ultimate plan of attacking Pisagua by land. The
two land forces met at Huara where 900 Army veterans inflicted a major defeat on the
attacking force. The Congressionalist left 250 dead in the field, before taking the train
back to Pisagua to await evacuation by the Navy. This battle could have spelled the end of
the revolt if follow up operation had been properly carried out by the Balmacedistas.
Iquique had been left practically unguarded when the troops left to fight at Huara and
the squadron landed whatever sailors could be spared and occupied it. Their presence there
was more to maintain order than to defend it against attacking forces. On February 18,
1891 this small garrison came under attack by vastly superior forces. They were an advance
party commanded by Colonel José M. Soto which was to be joined by the victorious forces
from Huara. Commander Merino Jarpa and his sailors took refuge in the customs building and
displayed heroic resistance in refusing to surrender. The squadron's armament supported
them as best as it could but it the end, both sides agreed to a cease fire while the
opposing commanders decided what to do. Merino had been saved just in time but the courage
displayed during the defense, the resolute action of the squadron and the fact that
Iquique was really blockaded by sea and surrounded by deserts, convinced Colonel Soto of
the Balmacedist Army to change sides with his men.
A blockade of the whole northern coast was declared and maintained with relative
efficiency, but the Imperial was a fast steamer and was able to land
troops and supplies in remote inlets without coming under the guns of the Congressional
squadron. The regular Army still had 1300 men in the area. They were well armed, well fed,
but short of ammunition. The Congressional Army was reinforced with all the landing
cannons from the ships, the machine guns from tops and decks were removed and placed in
railroad cars and the Congressional Army was sent north along the railroad, ready to
strike at the enemy before they could be further reinforced. The forces met at Pozo
Almonte and fought for four hours until the Balmacedistas ran out of ammunition. Victory
was achieved at a high cost for the Congressionalists: 45% of the men who participated
fell in battle at Pozo Almonte.
A Junta was formed at Iquique with Montt at its head and efforts were made to get
recognition as the legitimate government of Chile. They were unsuccessful but they did
manage to block the delivery of the cruisers Pinto, and Errazuriz
and the armored gunboat Prat. It was also possible for them to purchase
European and American ammunition and weapons for the Congressional Army.
Balmaceda was not about to give up. He understood that the principles of sea control
were as valid for internal warfare as for external conflicts and set out to dispute the
control of the sea with the Iquique Junta. It was not an easy task. Balmaceda had to deal
with among the most experienced sailors in the world at the time. They had very up-to-
date equipment, disciplined crews and ample supplies of ammunition and fuel.
In March, 1891 the new torpedo chasers Lynch and Condell
arrived at Valparaíso. After a quick overhaul they sailed in convoy with the Imperial
to attack the Congressional squadron; and on April 22nd they arrived at Caldera where they
expected to find the squadron at anchor. In the dark of the night they entered the bay
ready to attack with Whitehead torpedos.
They could not identify the ships but they distinguished dark shadows that looked like
the Huascar and one of the ironclads.The Condell, under
the command of Lieutenant Commander Carlos Moraga, attacked first but the torpedos missed.
The crew of the Blanco Encalada was alerted, let go mooring lines,
started turning toward the torpedo chaser, and opened fire. But they were unaware that the
Lynch, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Alberto Fuentes, was
approaching on her other side at full speed. At 200 yards range Fuentes fired two torpedos
and one struck the Blanco midships, opening a gaping hole on her
starboard side, enough to sink the ironclad with the loss of 182 men. This was the first
time a warship had been sunk by a self propelled torpedo.
On leaving Caldera the two ships met the steamer Aconcagua and shot
the Hotchkiss rapid fire guns; they did not fire their machineguns because the transport
was loaded with troops. Both captains were sure that they would capture the Aconcagua
until a cruiser loomed over the horizon. Thinking it might be the Esmeralda
they gave up the attack and retreated south. But the cruiser was HMS Warspite
which was coming into Caldera to obtain news of the war. Her captain later wrote a lengthy
report to the Admiralty on the use of the new torpedo.
The loss of the Blanco was a serious blow to the Congressionalists.
The new weapon had proven itself and the President was sure that a second attack would
sink the Cochrane or Esmeralda. The arrival of the
armored gunboat Prat and the two cruisers would give President Balmaceda
a chance to control the sea and put down the revolt. But the Cochrane
evaded the torpedo boats and Balmaceda was prevented from obtaining the release of the new
ships from the European builders. A final raid by the Imperial was a
failure and further naval operations produced no results. The Congressionalists on the
other hand managed to sail the steamer Maipo to Iquique with a load of
weapons and soon after, the Itata arrived with a similar load from
The Congressionalists attempted to mine or sabotage both the Imperial
and the torpedo boats, but the conspiracy was discovered and the saboteurs were tried and
shot. The crew of a torpedo launch was successfully bribed to change sides and the boat
put to sea, but the Lynch captured them and brought them back to be tried
and shot as traitors. Captain Fuentes of the Lynch, was the victim of
poisoning, though he later recovered.
The revolution had little chance of success unless it could control central Chile, from
which it could be resupplied with food and ammunition but where the Army, mostly in favor
of Balmaceda, awaited for them. In an attempt to obtain weapons to arm the northern miners
and nitrate workers, the steamer Itata was sent to California. This ship,
openly violating American neutrality, sailed to Chile with an American Federal inspector
on board. Although the customs officer was properly sent to San Diego in a schooner, the
incident provoked tension between the Chilean and American squadrons in the Pacific. The
cruiser Charleston was ordered to chase and detain the Itata
but could not find her. In Chilean waters the Itata, escorted by the Esmeralda,
reported to the cruiser Baltimore, but by then the US courts had already
ruled in favor of the Congressionalists.
The Congressionalist Army was being reorganized, trained, and armed with the latest
weapons, which included 5000 rifles and ammunition brought by the Maipo.
A German military advisor was added but the veterans that had fought in the Peruvian
campaign needed little advice from European tacticians.
On August 20th, 1891, the Congressionalist squadron appeared off Concon, just north of
Valparaíso, landed the troops it was carrying at Quintero, and assisted with naval fire
in the battle that followed. Two days later Balmaceda's forces were totally defeated at
The same afternoon Valparaíso was occupied and the squadron, led by the Cochrane,
entered the bay. Captain Moraga, with the Condell and Imperial
sailed off to Callao where he asked for political asylum. A mob attacked the Lynch
which was docked at the pier. The sailors tried to defend themselves with small arms fire
but they were massacred. Only two men survived by hiding themselves in the coal bunkers.
With the suicide of President Balmaceda this sad episode came to an end. No other war
had proven more convincingly the vulnerability of Chile to a naval squadron. Control of
the sea had given the smaller Congressional force freedom of movement so they even could
chose the site of the final battle. Whoever controlled the sea, dominated Chile.
An unfortunate incident, only a month after the end of the Civil War, brought Chile
again to the edge of hostilities. The incident of the Itata and the
participation of the American cruisers will be recalled. The USS Baltimore
was at anchor in Valparaíso when her captain, perhaps unwisely, gave the crew liberty.
The American sailors were involved in several street fighting incidents and had to be
protected by the police. Two Americans were killed and eighteen wounded. Chilean
authorities showed little interest in investigating the incident. Captain Schley of the Baltimore
insisted his men were sober at the time of the attack, which could not be proven to the
satisfaction of the Chileans. Tension between Chile and the United States rose to such a
degree that in December of 1891 the United States might go to war with Chile. The United
States replaced Captain Schley of the Baltimore with Captain Robley D.
Evans and the Yorktown. Evans showed great diplomatic skill and was able
to convince the Chileans to the need to compensate the victims' relatives. This was done
and the incident was closed.
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