The Battle of Rancagua:
In early October of 1814, royalist and Spanish troops under the command of Spanish General Mariano Osorio drove the Chilean patriot army, led by Bernardo O'Higgins
, Luís Carrera and Juan José Carrera, back into the town of Rancagua. Although the patriots made a valiant stand in the center of the town, superior royalist numbers and arms led to a resounding victory for the Spanish. The defeat at Rancagua led to the fall of Santiago and three more years of Spanish rule in Chile. Chileans refer to the battle as "the Disaster of Rancagua."
Prelude to Battle:
Chile had declared a provisional independence from Spain on October 18, 1810
. Led by Creole patriots like the Carrera brothers and Bernardo O'Higgins, Chile established a new government and fought off attempts by Spain to reclaim the rich colony. In late 1814, patriot leaders were squabbling amongst themselves but hurried to unite when it was learned that the Spanish Viceroy in Lima had sent a large force under General Mariano Osorio to subdue the Chilean rebellion. Osorio was marching on Santiago from the south: rebel leaders quickly put aside their differences, uniting to defend the city. José Miguel Carrera
, nominal head of the patriot army, chose to remain in Santiago, while Bernardo O'Higgins rode to reinforce Luis and Juan José Carrera in the south.
Spanish and Patriot Forces:
The Spanish army consisted of some 5,000 soldiers, many of them Chilean royalists. They were relatively well armed and trained. The army included the Talavera Regiment, an elite force of battle-trained soldiers brought from Spain. The patriots only had some 1,700 soldiers, poorly trained and fed, with not enough guns and ammunition to go around. Both sides had a few cannons each.
Approach to Rancagua:
On September 30, 1814, Osorio led his men across the Cachapola River and headed towards Rancagua. They did not cross where the patriots had expected them to: they had gone around a force led by Luis Carrera which was waiting to defend the crossing. A detachment led by Carrera’s brother Juan José was guarding the entrance to the city: at the sight of the massive royalist army, they fled into the town to make their stand there. O’Higgins therefore had to choose which Carrera brother to join up with: Luís, running back to Santiago, or Juan José, in dire straits in Rancagua. Fatefully, the brave O’Higgins chose to reinforce Juan José in the city.
Defense of the City:
O’Higgins took control of the city defenses even though Juan José technically outranked him. He set his best marksmen on rooftops, barricaded the streets, aimed his cannons down the avenues of approach most likely to be chosen by the Spanish commanders and put lookouts in the church steeple. He hung the Chilean flag from rooftops and draped it in black, indicating that the defenders would fight to the death.
On the morning of October first, the Spanish attacked. The fighting was fierce, with the patriots driving the feared Talavera Regiment back three times. At times, the men fought with bayonets and hand weapons. The defenses held until darkness fell and Osorio pulled his men back.
The Battle of Rancagua Continues:
O’Higgins knew his situation was desperate. He was out of water and low on ammunition. He sent runners out with desperate pleas for help. His hope was that the remaining patriot army under Luís Carrera would turn around and reinforce them. His prayers seemed to be answered on the morning of Octoer second: the church lookout reported that Carrera’s army was approaching, potentially trapping the larger Spanish force between two enemies. Inexplicably, however, Carrera’s column retreated once again. The Spanish attacked the center of town with renewed vigor and by midday it was clear to O’Higgins that the battle was lost. With no water, no ammunition, no reinforcements and surrounded by the enemy, O’Higgins ordered his men to fight their way out as best they could and disperse into the countryside to avoid Spanish retribution.
Fighting Their Way Out:
Desperate patriots tried to escape the carnage. O’Higgins led some 500 men down a corpse-strewn street. Attacked on all sides, fewer than half of those 500 men made it out. O’Higgins lost the horse under him, but killed a Spanish officer, took his horse, and rode away. Juan José Carrera also escaped.
Aftermath of the Battle of Rancagua:
The Spanish and royalist soldiers went on a rampage in Rancagua, massacring prisoners, slaughtering children who had taken refuge inside the church, raping the women and burning down the hospital. It took Osorio and other Spanish officers hours to get the enraged men under control. The royalists had lost more men than the patriots - about 1,000 as opposed to 600 – but the battle was clearly a royalist victory.
O’Higgins rode to Santiago, where he discovered that it had been José Miguel Carrera himself who had called off the reinforcements. O’Higgins angrily demanded to know why. Carrera said that an attack would have been easily driven off, as Luís Carrera’s men had been mostly unskilled and poorly armed militia. O’Higgins didn’t buy it, and the long-standing feud between the two men got even worse.
With the patriot army in tatters and a royalist army within reach of Santiago, rebel leaders knew it was time to flee. O’Higgins and other rebels crossed the Andes into Argentina, where they found their way to the town of Mendoza. The Carrera brothers announced their intention of fighting on, but soon they, too, were on their way to Mendoza.
In Argentina, the Chilean exiles waited and regrouped. In 1817 they would return to Chile, under the leadership of O’Higgins and José de San Martín. The so-called “Army of the Andes” would liberate Chile once and for all.
Today, Chileans see Rancagua as a devastating military loss, but also as proof of Chilean bravery and nobility. O’Higgins, the father of the nation and the great hero of Independence, rode to the aid of Juan José Carrera, the brother of his greatest rival, in spite of overwhelming odds and only the slightest chance of victory.
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Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.