José Miguel Carrera Verdugo (1785-1821) was a Chilean general and dictator who fought for the patriot side in Chile's War for Independence from Spain (1810-1826). Together with his two brothers, Luís and Juan José, José Miguel fought the Spanish up and down Chile for years and served as head of government when breaks in the chaos and fighting allowed. He was a charismatic leader but a shortsighted administrator and a military leader of average skills. He was often at odds with Chile's liberator, Bernardo O'Higgins. He was executed in 1821 for conspiring against O'Higgins and Argentine liberator José de San Martín.
José Miguel Carrera was born on October 15, 1785 into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in all of Chile: they could trace their lineage all the way to the conquest. He and his brothers Juan José and Luís (and sister Javiera) had the best education available in Chile. After his schooling, he was sent to Spain, where he soon became swept up in the chaos of Napoleon's 1808 invasion. Fighting against the Napoleonic forces, he was promoted to Sergeant Major. When he heard that Chile had proclaimed a provisional independence he returned to his homeland.
José Miguel Takes Control
In 1811, José Miguel returned to Chile to find it ruled by a junta of leading citizens (including his father Ignacio) who were nominally loyal to the still-imprisoned King Ferdinand VII of Spain. The junta was taking baby steps towards real independence, but not quickly enough for the hot-tempered José Miguel. With the support of the powerful Larrain family, José Miguel and his brothers staged a coup on November 15, 1811. When the Larrains tried to sideline the Carrera brothers afterwards, José Manuel initiated a second coup in December, setting himself up as dictator.
A Nation Divided
Although the people of Santiago grudgingly accepted the dictatorship of Carrera, the people of the southern city of Concepción did not, preferring the more benign rule of Juan Martínez de Rozas. Neither city recognized the authority of the other and civil war seemed certain to break out. Carrera, with the unwitting aid of Bernardo O'Higgins, was able to stall until his army was too strong to resist: in March of 1812, Carrera attacked and captured the city of Valdivia, which had supported Rozas. After this show of force, the leaders of the Concepción military overthrew the ruling junta and pledged support to Carrera.
The Spanish Counterattack
While rebel forces and leaders had been divided among themselves, Spain was preparing a counterattack. The Viceroy of Peru sent Marine Brigadier Antonio Pareja to Chile with only 50 men and 50,000 pesos and told him to do away with the rebels: by March, Pareja's army had swollen to some 2,000 men and he was able to capture Concepción. Rebel leaders formerly at odds with Carrera, such as O'Higgins, united to fight off the common threat.
The Siege of Chillán
Carrera cleverly cut off Pareja from his supply lines and trapped him in the city of Chillán in July of 1813. The city is well-fortified, and Spanish commander Juan Francisco Sánchez (who replaced Pareja after his death in May 1813) had some 4,000 troops there. Carrera laid an ill-advised siege during the harsh Chilean winter: desertions and death were high among his troops. O'Higgins distinguished himself during the siege, driving back an attempt by the royalists to break through patriot lines. When the patriots managed to capture a part of the city, the soldiers looted and raped, driving more Chileans to support the royalists. Carrera had to break off the siege, his army in tatters and decimated.
The Surprise of "El Roble"
On October 17, 1813, Carrera was making plans for a second assault on the city of Chillán when a sneak attack by Spanish troops caught him unawares. As the rebels slept, royalists crept in, knifing the sentries. One dying sentry, Miguel Bravo, fired his rifle, alerting the patriots to the threat. As the two sides joined in battle, Carrera, thinking all was lost, drove his horse into the river to save himself. O'Higgins, meanwhile, rallied the men and drove off the Spanish despite a bullet wound in his leg. Not only had a disaster been averted, but O'Higgins had turned a probable rout into a well-needed victory.
Replaced by O'Higgins
While Carrera has disgraced himself with the disastrous siege of Chillán and cowardice at El Roble, O'Higgins had shone at both engagements. The ruling junta in Santiago replaced Carrera with O'Higgins as commander-in-chief of the army. The modest O'Higgins scored further points by supporting Carrera, but the junta was adamant. Carrera was named ambassador to Argentina. He may or may not have intended to go there: he and his brother Luís were captured by a Spanish patrol on March 4, 1814. When a temporary truce was signed later that month, the Carrera brothers were freed: the royalists cleverly told them that O'Higgins intended to capture and execute them. Carrera did not trust O'Higgins and refused to join him in his defense of Santiago from advancing royalist forces.