Bernardo O'Higgins (August 20, 1778-October 24, 1842) was a Chilean landowner and one of the leaders of its struggle for Independence. Although he had no formal military training, O'Higgins took charge of the ragged rebel army and fought the Spanish from 1810 to 1818 when Chile finally achieved its Independence. Today, he is revered as the liberator of Chile and the father of the nation.
Early life of Bernardo O'Higgins
Bernardo was the illegitimate child of Ambrosio O'Higgins, an Irishman who immigrated to the New World and rose in the ranks of the Spanish bureaucracy, eventually reaching the high post of Viceroy of Peru. Bernardo only met his father once (and at that time he did not know who he was) and spent most of his early life with his mother and traveling. As a young man, he went to England, where he lived on a pittance that his father sent him. While there, Bernardo was tutored by legendary Venezuelan Revolutionary Francisco de Miranda.
Return to Chile
Ambrosio formally recognized his son in 1801 on his deathbed and Bernardo suddenly found himself the owner of a prosperous estate in Chile. He returned to Chile and took possession of his inheritance, and for a few years lived quietly in obscurity. He was appointed to the governing body as the representative of his region. Bernardo might well have lived his life as a farmer and local politician if it were not for the great tide of Independence that was building in South America.
O'Higgins and Independence
O'Higgins was an important supporter of the September 18 movement in Chile which began the nations' struggle for Independence. When it became apparent that the actions of Chile would lead to war, he raised two cavalry regiments and an infantry militia, mostly recruited from families who worked his lands. As he had no training, he learned how to use weapons from veteran soldiers. Juan Martinez de Rozas was President, and O'Higgins supported him, but Rozas was accused of corruption and criticized for sending valuable troops and resources to Argentina to help the independence movement there. In July of 1811 Rozas stepped down, replaced by a moderate junta.
O'Higgins and Carrera
The junta was soon overthrown by José Miguel Carrera, a charismatic young Chilean aristocrat who had distinguished himself in the Spanish army in Europe before deciding to join the rebel cause. O'Higgins and Carrera would have a tempestuous, complicated relationship for the duration of the struggle. Carrera was more dashing, outspoken and charismatic, while O'Higgins was more circumspect, brave and pragmatic. During the early years of the struggle, O'Higgins was generally subordinate to Carrera, and dutifully followed his orders as best he could. It would not last, however.
The Siege of Chillan
After a series of skirmishes and small battles against the Spanish and royalist forces from 1811-1813, O'Higgins, Carrera and other patriot generals chased the royalist army into the city of Chillán. They laid siege to the city in July of 1813: right in the middle of the harsh Chilean winter. It was a disaster. The patriots could not dislodge the royalists, and when they did manage to take part of the town, the rebel forces indulged in raping and looting which made the whole province sympathize with the royalist side. Many of Carrera's soldiers, suffering in the cold without food, deserted. Carrera was forced to lift the siege on August 10, admitting that he could not take the city. Meanwhile, O'Higgins had distinguished himself as a cavalry commander.
O'Higgins as Commander
Not long after Chillán, Carrera, O'Higgins and their men were ambushed at a site called El Roble. Carrera fled the battlefield but O'Higgins remained, despite a bullet wound in his leg. O'Higgins turned the tide of the battle and emerged a national hero. The ruling junta in Santiago had seen enough of Carrera after his fiasco at Chillán and his cowardice at El Roble and made O'Higgins commander of the army. O'Higgins, always modest, argued against the move, saying that a change of high command was a bad idea, but the junta had decided: O'Higgins would lead the army.