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The Battle of Lircay: A Fight for Chile’s Future

Battle of Lircay

On Apr. 17, 1830, two factions of the Chilean Army clashed at the Lircay River. They fought over the best way to organize the newly-created republic; on one side stood the conservatives who wished for a more centralized country, while on the other, the liberals, who wanted to wrest power away from Santiago. The winner ended up shaping the young nation into what it is today.

In Dec. 17, 1829, the newly created Republic of Chile became embroiled in a Civil War. The war came to an end on Apr. 17 1830, during the Battle of Lircay, when the conservative forces overwhelmed the liberals forcing them to flee.

The conservatives’ victory meant that they would have free rein to shape the country as they saw fit, resulting in the 1833 Constitution. The document ensured that Chile would maintain the same centralized structure that had been placed by the Spanish empire, with Santiago as the economic and political center of the country.

Organizing the New Nation

In 1818, Chile formally declared its independence from the Spanish Empire. What followed was a brief power struggle among military leaders, which resulted in Bernardo O’Higgins being proclaimed Supreme Director of the Republic of Chile.

His first priority was to organize the country according to his ideals, which meant restricting the Catholic Church’s influence and abolishing the aristocratic class that ruled the country. O’Higgins did this by abolishing noble titles and the privileges that came with them. This alienated his followers.

The final straw came in 1823, when he presented a new constitution that allowed him to remain in power for 10 more years. This was affront to his second in command, General Ramón Freire Serrano, who abruptly marched his troops from Concepción to Santiago calling for the Supreme Director’s resignation.

O’Higgins quickly left office and exiled to Peru. Meanwhile. General Freire was named the new Supreme Director, but he was unable to spend time in Santiago because he was busy defeating the Spanish stronghold in Chiloé. Freire therefore handed the task of drafting a new constitution to Congress. The resulting document created the role of president but was ultimately ill-received because it also included a moral code for citizens.

In 1826, Freire resigned, and Manuel Blanco Encalada was elected as the first President of Chile. His main focus was to make Chile a Federal Republic with a new constitution, but a push-back from conservatives proved too great and so he resigned. Nevertheless, the idea of a Federal Republic stuck in the minds of the liberal party, nicknamed the “Pipiolos.”

The idea resurfaced in 1828, when President Francisco Antonio Pinto created a Constitutional Convention wherein the Pipiolos had an absolute majority, which allowed them to draft a progressive constitution. In response, the Conservative party, nicknamed the Pelucones (because they fancied powdered wigs), formed an alliance with the remaining supporters of O’Higgins and prominent merchants.

The Battle of Lircay

Tensions between the two sides reached their peak after the presidential elections of 1829. According to the constitution, whoever received the second most votes was elected vice-president, and, although liberal Pinto was reelected as president, Congress appointed another liberal as vice-president, even though conservative candidate, Francisco Ruiz-Tagle, came in second place.

The conservatives refused to acknowledge the election and demanded that Pinto resign. Meanwhile, General José Joaquín Prieto led his men from the south of Chile to Santiago where they met with tobacco merchant Diego Portales, who aided the conservative rebellion both financially and logistically.

Pinto resigned from the presidency in an attempt to calm the conflict, but it was too late. The conservative forces had arrived and the liberal army found itself without a leader. The ensuing struggle ended with no winner or loser. Liberal leaders fled to Coquimbo as the conservatives established themselves in the capital and named Francisco Ruiz-Tagle as the interim president.

Witnessing these events was Freire, who came out of retirement and joined the liberals in Coquimbo and led the army south towards the River Maule. From there, they planned to attack Santiago from the south, but the Pelucones anticipated the attack, and Prieto led his own army south.

On the morning of Apr. 17, 1830, General Freire and the Pipiolo forces arrived in Talca where they set up defenses to withstand a possible attack. Then, when Freire saw the Pelucones army approaching, he decided to meet them head on, unaware that the enemy forces far outnumbered his own.

Both armies clashed on the shores of the River Lircay for over three hours, with the Pelucones winning an overwhelming victory while Freire was forced to flee the country along with many liberal leaders.

The Conservative Government

The Pipiolos’ defeat in Lircay meant that the conservatives had no resistance in shaping the country anyway they saw fit. General Prieto was named president in 1831, and Diego Portales was his Minister of Interior.

Together they spearheaded the creation of a new constitution which framed Chile as a Republic governed exclusively by Santiago, squashing any hopes of federal rule. It also reinforced the oligarch system that was put in place during the colonial period, with the Catholic Church holding significant power. It was also strictly authoritarian, giving the president a 10-year term and power over Congress.

Lastly, it imposed strict voting laws. Single citizens gained the right to vote after reaching the age of 25, while married citizens could vote once they turned 21. The right to vote was also conditional on the ability to read and write and own land or invest in industries, which excluded most citizens from the political process.

The liberal’s were systematically hunted down and incarcerated or simply unable to obtain any political office due to the new voting system, forcing many to turn to more radical approaches. Ultimately, however, most were unsuccessful and the Pipiolos faded away into obscurity. Meanwhile, the conservatives remained in power some 30 years, until 1861.

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