This is the first in a short series of blog posts on Talcahuano, the port fortress near the city of Conception in Chile. Talcahuano was the focus of some military activity during the Wars of South American Liberation. The first of these incidents was the Royalist seizure of Talcahuano on 27 March 1813. The purpose of the series is to figure out how to make an interesting scenario from an assault on the fortress.
My main, and only, source on this combat is Marco Octavio Benavente Ormeño’s brilliant book “Cronica Militar de la Patria Vieja” (Benavente Ormeño, 2013). I have translated fairly extensive from his book to write this post.
26 March 1813
At 12:00 hours on 26 March 1813 ships of a Royalist expedition under Brigadier Parejo sighted the bay of San Vicente near Talcahuano. At 16:00 hours the Royalists began to land the vanguard, under Sergeant Major Ballesteros, at the mouth of Lenga River about 7 km from Talcahuano. The Royalists had about 12 launches for the purpose, three of which were armed with cannon in the prow.
Sergeant Major Ballesteros, the commander of the vanguard, organised the men as they came ashore, the position of the guns, the deployment of the battle line and led the advance.
The Patriot Governor of Talcahuano, Colonel Rafael De la Sotta, received the news of the Royalist expedition at 20:00 hours. He immeddiately took two dragoons to reconnoitre the situation. In the dark of the night De la Sotta only saw the Royalists when they were at point blank range. The Royalists captured his escort however De la Sotta escaped. He made his way to the esplanade of San Vicente where 30 Patriot militiamen manned two 24-pound cannon.
At 21:30 hours Santiago Fernández, the secretary to the governor of Concepción, appeared at esplanade of San Vicente. De la Sotta briefed Fernández who then ran to tell the governor, José Pedro Benavente. The cannon in Talcahuano were ordered to fire to raise the alarm.
De la Sotta ordered his militiamen to dismount and bury the guns then use the carriages to retreat. However, 50 grenadiers of the Royalist Castro Volunteers, under Lieutenant Pablo Vargas, interrupted De la Sotta and following some shots captured a dismounted cannon and burned gun carriage. In the confusion, Lieutenant Vargas defected to the Patriots and made his way to Concepción where he informed the authorities of the nature of the expedition.
Brigadier Pareja sent officers to demand the unconditional surrender of the city and therefore the province from the governor of Concepción, the city council and the ecclesiastical council. De la Sotta met one of these Royalist officers in Talcahuano plaza.
De la Sotta sent Lieutenant Ramon Freire and an escort of Dragoons to Concepción to ask mayor Vergara for instructions. Freire returned with four 4pounder cannons, a veteran company and the promise of 700-800 reinforcements to arrive the next morning. De la Sotta fortified the heights between San Vicente and Talcahuano with his 180 infantry and 4 guns. Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Serrano, the owner of the location, and his son Gregory both helped organised the defence. Lt. Freire and his 25 dragoons formed a picket.
Patriot Order of Battle
- Commander: Colonel Rafael De la Sotta
- 2nd-in-Command: Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Serrano
- 180 infantry
- including a company of veterans, presumably from the Veterans of Concepción
- 4 guns [4lb]1
- 25 dragoons (Lieutenant Ramon Freire)
(1) De la Sotta had already lost the two 24lb guns at San Vincente. They would have helped. However, I assume the 30 militia crew of those guns were manning the four pounders at Talcahuano.
27 March 1813
By 14:00 hours on 27 March the Royalists had landed about 1,100 Royalists with 10 guns (4 pounder and 6 pounder). However sea conditions had worsened and four of the Royalist launches had crashed against the rocks. So Brigadier Pareja decided to occupy the port of Talcahuano to complete his disembarkation and landing of the 8 pounder cannons.
Royalist Order of Battle
- Commander of the vanguard: Sergeant Major Ballesteros
- 950 infantry1 including:
- 50 grenadiers of the Royalist Castro Volunteers
- 10 guns2 [6 x 4lb and 4 x 6lb]
(1) 1,100 men were disembarked, at least 150 of them would man the guns (given 30 militiamen manned two Patriot guns at San Vincente), and I assume the rest were infantry.
(2) A mix of 4lb and 6lb guns were disembarked. Six four pounder guns are mentioned in the narrative and I assume the other four guns were 6lb.
At 14:00 hours the disembarked Royalists marched towards Talcahuano. At 15:00 hours the Royalist force contacted Freire’s dragoon picket. The fire from the Royalist artillery – six 4 pounders – forced Freire to retreat. The Patriot guns then opened up on the Royalist force causing some hesitation from the men who had been promised there would be no resistance. The Royalist officers encouraged the men on by saying that the best way to avoid being hurt by the cannonballs was to charge them, and charge they did, three times. However the small number of Patriot defenders managed to repulse each disorderly Royalist charge.
Ramón Jiménez Navia, the commander of the garrison of Concepción and also of the Veterans of Concepción Battalion, marched his men out to the lakes near Talcahuano to observe the fighting. They were less than 4 km away but did nothing. [Given subsequent events I assume Jiménez had his battalion, the dragoons, and some of the artillery]. Captain Barrenechea remained in Concepción with his militia battalion and the remainder of the guns.
A final Royalist charge with drums beating reached the exhausted garrison of Talcahuano who could not resist odds of 6:1. The defenders spiked the guns and retired leaving six dead. De la Sotta escaped through the Royalist bayonets and reached the Patriot lines. Colonel De la Sotta rebuked Jiménez severely for not supporting his men. The resolute Governor of Talcahuano managed to convince some officers and soldiers to follow him against the Royalists, however Jimenez intervened, accused De la Sotta of subversion, and ordered the men back to the city.
Jiménez alleged that orders from the Governor Benavente justified his passive attitude, but his rationale was unconvincingly. He had a considerable force in and around Concepción: 870 men of his own Veterans of Concepción Battalion, 485 men of the militia battalion (Captain Pedro Barrenechea), some dragoons, and 10-12 guns. So the Patriots outnumbered the Royalists from the beginning and could also expect to be reinforced by the 6,000 militiamen of the province in a couple of days. However, Jiménez instigated no major opposition to the Royalists and De la Sotta, who the governor had appointed as Jiménez’s second in command, began to suspect the commander’s loyalty.
Patriot Order of Battle
- Commander: Ramón Jiménez Navia
- 2nd-in-command: Colonel Rafael De la Sotta
- Veterans of Concepción Battalion (Ramón Jiménez Navia) [870 men]
- Militia infantry battalion (Captain Pedro Barrenechea) [485 men]
- 2 x Militia cavalry squadrons 1
- 10-12 guns
(1) In 1813 Concepción had two squadrons of cavalry, nominally 300 men. This is presumably the source of the Patriot dragoons mentioned at Talcahuano and Concepción.
Meanwhile, at 18:00 hours on 27 March the Royalists occupied the port of Talcahuano. The Royalist soldiers, excited by the day’s fighting, looted the town and shot anybody they found in town and the surrounding woods. By dawn they had killed 31 of the garrison and population of Talcahuano. The Royalists lost 2 dead and nine wounded.
In Concepción Governor Benavente called a meeting of the people and the representative councils of the city. The members of the ecclesiastical council did not attend as the members were all Royalist sympathisers. In a lively discussion the general assembly decided to abandon the city, strip the city and withdraw the troops.
Jiménez chose this moment to reveal his Royalist sympathies and his men of the Veterans of Concepción followed suit. A sergeant with his battalion trampled the Patriot tricolor and proclaimed for the King. The dragoons and artillery gunners also changed their blue-white-yellow rosettes for the red rosette of the soldiers of the King. Jiménez’s men subdued Captain Juan José Benavente and other officers who attempted resistance however De la Sotta managed to flee yet again.
Captain Barrenechea proposed to defend the fort of Concepción with his militia battalion and guns. [The term used is “Plaza” which can mean the city square or a fortress. Marco’s map suggests the “fort” is the outpost on Gavilan Hill]. However Governor José Pedro Benavente, and others, convinced Barrenechea that resistance was useless. Released by the governor, Barrenechea and other Patriot officers made their own way to Santiago. Governor Benavente stayed in the city to avoid excesses and deliver the royalist army (although he was no Royalist and resigned on 30 March).
28 March 1813
The Royalists marched into Concepción on 28 March 1813. Pareja spent the next few days reorganising his army and establishing Royalist control of the city and province. Recruitment was constrained because the terms of surrender stipulated that Pareja could not force Patriot soldiers to join the royal army; he could, however, recruit from the militia and volunteers from the province. On 8 April Pareja marched north towards Santiago.
Benavente Ormeño, M. O. (2013). “Cronica Militar de la Patria Vieja”. Author.