Biography of Jose Miguel Carrera

A Chilean Hero of Independence

Jose Miguel Carrera (1785-1821). Public Domain Image

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.

Early Life

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.

Civil War

On June 23, 1814, Carrera led a coup that put him back in command of Chile. Some members of the government fled to the city of Talca, where they begged O'Higgins to restore the constitutional government. O'Higgins obliged, and met Luís Carrera on the field at the Battle of Tres Acequias on August 24, 1814. O'Higgins was defeated and driven off. It appeared that more warring was imminent, but the rebels once again had to face a common enemy: thousands of new royalist troops sent from Peru under the command of Brigadier General Mariano Osorio.

Because of his loss at the battle of Tres Acequias, O'Higgins agreed to a position subordinate to that of José Miguel Carrera when their armies were united.

Exiled

After O'Higgins failed to stop the Spanish at the city of Rancagua (in large part because Carrera called off reinforcements), the decision was made by patriot leaders to abandon Santiago and head into exile in Argentina. O'Higgins and Carrera met again there: prestigious Argentine General José de San Martín supported O'Higgins over Carrera. When Luís Carrera killed O'Higgins' mentor Juan Mackenna in a duel, O'Higgins turned forever on the Carrera clan, his patience with them exhausted. Carrera went to the USA to seek ships and mercenaries.

Return to Argentina

In early 1817, O'Higgins was working with San Martín to secure the liberation of Chile. Carrera returned with a warship that he had managed to acquire in the USA, along with some volunteers.

When he heard of the plan to liberate Chile, he asked to be included, but O'Higgins refused. Javiera Carrera, José Miguel's sister, came up with a plot to liberate Chile and get rid of O'Higgins: brothers Juan José and Luís would sneak back into Chile in disguise, infiltrate the liberating army, arrest O'Higgins and San Martín, and then lead the liberation of Chile themselves.

José Manuel did not approve the plan, which ended in disaster when his brothers were arrested and sent to Mendoza, where they were executed on April 8, 1818.

Carrera and the Chilean Legion

José Miguel went mad with rage at the execution of his brothers. Seeking to raise his own army of liberation, he collected some 600 Chilean refugees and formed "the Chilean Legion" and headed to Patagonia. There, the legion rampaged through Argentine towns, sacking and plundering them in the name of gathering resources and recruits for a return to Chile. At the time, there was no central authority in Argentina, and the nation was ruled by a number of warlords similar to Carrera.

Imprisonment and Death

Carrera was eventually defeated and captured by the Argentine Governor of Cuyo. He was sent in chains to Mendoza, the same city where his brothers had been executed. On September 4, 1821, he too was executed there. His final words were "I die for the liberty of America." He was so despised by the Argentines that his body was quartered and put on show in iron cages. O'Higgins personally sent a letter to the Governor of Cuyo, thanking him for putting down Carrera.

Legacy of José Miguel Carrera

José Miguel Carrera is considered by Chileans to be one of the founding fathers of their nation, a great revolutionary hero who helped Bernardo O'Higgins win independence from Spain.

His name is a bit besmirched due to his constant bickering with O'Higgins, considered by Chileans to be the greatest leader of the independence era.

This somewhat qualified reverence on the part of modern Chileans seems a fair judgment of his legacy. Carrera was a towering figure in Chilean independence military and politics from 1812 to 1814, and he did much to secure Chile's independence. This good must be weighed against his errors and shortcomings, which were considerable.

On the positive side, Carrera stepped into an indecisive and fractured independence movement upon his return to Chile in late 1811. He took command, providing leadership when the young republic most needed it. The son of a wealthy family who had served in the Peninsular War, he commanded respect among the military and the wealthy Creole landowner class.

The support of both of these elements of society was key to maintaining the revolution.

During his limited reign as dictator, Chile adopted its first constitution, established its own media and founded a national university. The first Chilean flag was adopted during this time. Slaves were freed, and the aristocracy was abolished.

Carrera made many mistakes as well. He and his brothers could be very treacherous, and they used devious schemes to help them remain in power: at the Battle of Rancagua, Carrera refused to send reinforcements to O'Higgins (and his own brother Juan José, fighting alongside O'Higgins) partly in order to make O'Higgins lose and look incompetent. O'Higgins later got word that the brothers planned to assassinate him if he had won the battle.

Carrera was not nearly as skilled a general as he thought he was. His disastrous mismanagement of the Siege of Chillán led to the loss of a great portion of the rebel army when it was most needed, and his decision to recall the troops under the command of his brother Luís from the battle of Rancagua led to a disaster of epic proportions. After the patriots fled to Argentina, his constant bickering with San Martín, O'Higgins and others failed to allow the creation of a unified, coherent liberation force: only when he went to the USA in search of aid was such a force allowed to form in his absence.

Even today, Chileans cannot quite agree on his legacy. Many Chilean historians believe that Carrera deserves more credit for Chilean liberation than O'Higgins and the topic is openly debated in certain circles.

The Carrera family has remained prominent in Chile. General Carrera Lake is named after him.

Sources:

Concha Cruz, Alejandor and Maltés Cortés, Julio. Historia de Chile Santiago: Bibliográfica Internacional, 2008.

Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

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.

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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jose Miguel Carrera." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2015, thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-miguel-carrera-2136600. Minster, Christopher. (2015, October 31). Biography of Jose Miguel Carrera. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-miguel-carrera-2136600 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jose Miguel Carrera." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-miguel-carrera-2136600 (accessed November 25, 2017).